I was under a grand oak tree somewhere in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, taking shelter from snowfall. This was one of many stops I had had to make on a hike to Bedni and Ali bugyals (meadows) from a small village called Kuling, a distance of merely 9 km. My companions were an elderly, experienced guide, Jawahar Singh Bisht, and the constantly changing weather.
From forest inclines to barren hilltops with the peaks of Badri Chaukhamba and Har-ki-Dun, the trail we took was a visual treat. Sometimes, the sun lit our way, and at other times, we were interrupted by hailstorm or snowfall. A shower of hail greeted us as we crossed Ali’s ridge, making it impossible to see the beauty around. In a few hours, my prayer to the weather gods for a fair day were answered. As the sun set, I could see the crisp snow peaks of Trishul and Nanda Ghunti from my fibre tent on the ridge facing Ali bugyal.
The following morning, we packed up to make our way to Bedni bugyal, but not before visiting the temple of goddess Parvati on the hilltop that faces Ali bugyal. As I knelt in front of the goddess’s six-inch idol, I felt the power of the faith that Bisht had spoken so much of.
Every year, the palanquin of Nanda Devi (or Parvati) is taken from her paternal home in Kurur, a village near Karnprayag, to her wedded home in Kailash, Tibet. This Nanda Devi jaat (religious procession) happens in June, July or August, when it is believed that the goddess returns to Kailash after her six-month stay at home. The yatra takes place on a much grander scale once every 12 years (Nanda Devi Raj jaat), when palanquins from different parts of Kumaon and Garhwal unite at Nanda Keshari, 60 km from Karnprayag, and lead up to Homkund, at an altitude of 3,755 m, crossing the bugyals of Bedni and Ali.
Separated by a distance of 3-4 km, Bedni and Ali bugyals together form one of the larger meadows in Uttarakhand. The other prominent ones are Dayara bugyal and Panwali bugyal. According to religious texts, Parvati and Shiva had performed part of their marital rites in Bedni bugyal. They then proceeded towards Kailash on foot through Roopkund. This whole trail derives its name from Parvati’s life and journey.
Ali translates to “Are you coming?” in Garhwali. Legend has it that after their wedding, Parvati would often be unhappy about Shiva’s wild ways and make her way to her maternal home. Troubled by her frequent trips back home, Shiva one day asked her to stay with him, without such frequent breaks. In his quest to persuade her to stay, he walked as far as Ali with her. Here the goddess decided to rest before her onward journey. When she awoke, she saw numerous Himalayan monal (the state bird of Uttarakhand) bobbing by her head; at her feet were adorable lambs; and by her side, a vast garden of flowers. Enticed by Shiva’s creation, she returned with him.
Like Parvati, I too was smitten by the beauty around me. On one side was the thick grove of oak trees; rolling green meadows on the other. Bisht told me that wild, colourful flowers bloom during the months of May-June here.
We then proceeded to Bedni bugyal. Last night’s hailstorm had added to the beauty of the scenic trail. Apart from being the venue for the union between Parvati and Shiva, Bedni kund is mythologically significant for another reason. Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon, had launched into a murderous chase of goddess Parvati. She returned to Bedni, expecting aid from the gods here and hid in the kund. This holy pond is at the centre of Bedni bugyal. It used to be a flourishing waterbody but now is a dried pit, with Shiva’s temple in it and Parvati’s shrine on the side.
Unable to find her, Mahishasura pierced a horn into the kund, lest she hid there. Soon her sari surfaced and the goddess herself made an appearance. She tricked Mahishasura and beheaded him.
Soon I placed my things in the tent and set out for a quiet walk with Bisht towards Panchkoti, a hilltop above the Kund. Just below Panchkoti, I could see Ali bugyal on my left, Bedni at the centre and the high trekking route to Roopkund with the peaks of Trishul massif on my right — as close as you can get to heaven.
Bisht and I packed up early on the last day of our trek. We descended the trail to Wan and, thereafter, Gwaldam by car. But before that, we walked to Parvati’s temple by the kund. A religious man, Bisht prayed to the goddess as I sat facing her stone shrine, with my back towards the magnificent Trishul.
On our walk back to Wan from Bedni, Bisht pointed out various spots along the forest trail, citing incidents believed to be from Parvati’s life — somewhere, she had stopped for a fruit; elsewhere, she had taken a shower. All along, I found myself falling in step with Bisht’s faith.
On my return to Tridiva, a homestay in Talwari, about 10 kms from Gwaldam, I found Bisht’s belief echoed by Pradeep Singh Rawat, the caretaker. A resident of the nearby Tharali village, Rawat participates in the Nanda Devi Jaat without fail. In fact, in the last 12-year yatra in 2014, he and his friends had made their way as far as Homkund. These journeys and experiences strengthen their faith in the goddess even more.
It seemed as if the people of Dev Bhoomi have allowed these beliefs to guide their lives. And when such beauty is present all around, it is difficult to refute or question its power and existence. The land of Nanda Devi was created by the gods, and the myths, enchanting forests, endless bugyals and the insurmountable mountains complete the frame of what heaven may look like.