A Himalayan miracle to carry into the New Year

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My New Year's resolution dawned on me while watching the sun set over the Himalayas last week. For three days, my daughter and I had trekked through Kumaon, a region in the Indian state of Uttarakhand so remote many of its villages don't feature on the map.

View of Himalayas and blue sky (Photo by Catherine Marshall)We'd met our guide at the railway station in Kathgodam and had driven along narrow, zigzagging roads into mountains so high it felt like we'd reached the top of the world. All around us, valleys dropped away. Tiny box houses clung to hillsides. Chir pines defied gravity, their orange-green needles piercing the sky.

Stopping along a ridge on the first day of our walk, we beheld the Garhwal Himalaya range as it came into view: a tumble of mountains crowned on the horizon by an irregular, saw-toothed range. Protruding from them like a camel's hump was Nanda Devi, India's second-highest mountain.

We woke early next morning in time to catch the sunrise, a saffron flooding of ink-black sky. Birdsong emanated from the oak trees. Colour leached from the sky as the sun rose higher. In that brief moment between sunrise and daylight, when a once-secretive world would be illuminated, our wonder at the world was multiplied many times over.

Such is the balm delivered by an escape from reality, a journey beyond the mundane, in which one is forced to be alone with one's own self. Robbed of internet connection and the distractions of frenetic city life, we were drowning, quite literally, in stillness. Chit-chat diminished into self-reflective silence as we walked through towering forests and along sparsely-foliaged ridges, past mules carrying construction equipment to isolated villages and farm animals grazing beside houses wedged into the hillsides.

We felt like special guests in a secluded wilderness. Our world had reduced from something unfathomable to a pinpoint on which this place — familiar to its residents, extraordinary to us — stood.

This sense of peace prevailed even in the town of Jageshwar, where pilgrims gather to visit the collection of over 100 Hindu temples built between the seventh and 12th centuries. In one of them, I stooped before a Brahmin who delivered a blessing for my long life and good health; the sandalwood paste he smeared on my forehead felt like a balm to my already elevated sense of wellbeing.

 

"The serenity, it seemed, had unwittingly opened a space within my psyche for contemplation and enlightenment."

 

On our final day in Kumaon, we sat outside our village abode waiting for the sun to set and the stars to emerge. In a gap through the overlapping ranges we could see the Nepali Himalayas shining ice-bright against the blue sky. Laying down our books, we absorbed the sounds echoing around us in a subconscious meditation: herders cajoling their cattle through the terraces and up towards their pens; children laughing; bulbuls rustling the fruit trees.

The sun slid earthwards, turning the Himalayas pink. It felt like a loss, a shutter coming down on us. Sunset extinguished not just the day's light but the tranquillity with which this place had imbued us; the next day we would make our way back down the mountains to Kathgodam, take a train to Delhi and travel onwards to Australia.

But the serenity, it seemed, had unwittingly opened a space within my psyche for contemplation and enlightenment. As the light dimmed, I was struck by a thrilling (and quite obvious) realisation: I could carry this miraculous event with me wherever I went. It was the gift I would take home with me from the Himalayas, a resolution for the New Year and a new way of seeing things.

Though sunset is muted in my home city back in Australia, where hilly topography obscures a defined horizon, I can stand outside at twilight and look up at a sky filling with soft colour. In the morning, I can greet the sun as it pokes its rosy face over the gum trees at the bottom of my garden, and contemplate the sounds vivifying my neighbourhood: shrieking cockatoos, the slap of a swimmer's body against water in a neighbouring pool, the tinkling of piano keys beneath a child's fingers, the distant hum of traffic.

In unfettering myself from fruitless distractions and submitting to that deep contemplation that came unbidden in Kumaon, I can transform this place that is so familiar to me into something utterly extraordinary.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. She travelled to India as a guest of Shakti Himalaya.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Himalayas, New Year, travel

 

 

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Existing comments

Lovely. God bless.
HH | 17 December 2019


Beautiful description, Catherine. Inspired images. I will carry these words with me to Darjeeling in a couple of weeks when we visit Darjeeling and gaze at Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the Himalayas. Thank you!
Anne Doyle | 18 December 2019


Yes, yes, and yes again . Carry that insight with us which you so beautifully described. Thanks.
Peter Collins | 18 December 2019


Many of these places you describe are incredibly lovely and still relatively unpolluted, Catherine. They also have a very rich, living culture. Some places, like Darjeeling, are getting a bit stressed, polluted and overcrowded, partly due to being overtouristed. There is a great deal of exploitation of the locals and those from neighbouring countries, such as Nepal, as with the legendary Sherpas by unethical trekking companies. These days everyone wants to climb Everest, with often disastrous results. Fortunately, Kanchenjunga is so difficult to scale, it has been mainly left alone. You can get a beautiful view of Kanchenjunga from the small field outside the chapel of St Paul's School, one of the old 'Raj schools', now thoroughly Indian. The Gurkha Liberation Movement can shut off Darjeeling, so travellers need to exercise their wits as when to go. I would also urge them to chose ethical trekking operators.
Edward Fido | 23 December 2019


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