A four horned ram and a faith safari
A Four Horned Ram And a Faith Safari. The dawn sky is divided into two. Below us, the rain clouds are retreating into the valley and above us; the eastern flank of the sky has just caught the first light.
The dawn sky is divided into two. Below us, the rain clouds are retreating into the valley and above us; the eastern flank of the sky has just caught the first light. A string of sonorous chants ‘Jai Ma Nanda’ rent the pristine mountain air.
We are at a camp at Bedni Bugyal, a 12,000 feet high altitude bugyal (meadow) carpeted with a profusion of wild flowers. Fronting us is a 180 degree view of the Garhwal Himalayas standing resplendent and proud. Bedni Bugyal is an important way-station on the Nanda Raj Jat Yatra, a ritual procession held every 12 years, in honour of Nanda Devi, the reigning deity in this part of the Himalayas. The goddess Nanda Devi is worshipped at many places in Uttarakhand, but the region around Mt Nanda Devi Sanctuary in the Pithoragarh district, Almora district and Chamoli district, is the prime area related to Nanda Devi.
Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra marks the coming of Nanda Devi to her mother’s place and ends when the people of her mother’s home escort her in a procession to her Sasural (Husband’s home in Kailash- a snow peak in the Himalayas). Beginning in the village of Nauti in the Chamoli district of Garhwal, the yatra goes up to the heights of Homkund, in the process covering 280 km in 21 days of long arduous trek undertaken by thousands of devotees escorting the Goddess. The legend goes that when Nanda Devi, left her mother’s village and proceeded to her husband’s home, she did so with tear-stained eyes. Therefore when the Yatra starts, heavy rain occurs as if the Devi is crying. The Yatra is a perfect reflection of the beauty of traditions of the Himalayan society and in Uttarakhand a deep feeling of faith and reverence for Nanda Devi has got translated into respect showed towards the women.
Another unique feature of this spiritual pilgrimage is a four-horned sheep leading the entire Yatra. Supposed to symbolise goddess Nanda Devi, the ram decorated with ornaments and clothing is one of the main attractions of the Yatra and enjoys a strong security cover all along the journey till Homkund, where after the customary rituals, it is set free and is believed to proceed on its own to the celestial abode of the goddess.
Hence approximately after every 12-year, whenever a ram with four horns is born in this region, it is a sure sign of Nanda Devi having returned to earth. The news is communicated immediately to the Kunwar (Royal family) who begin preparations for the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra.
The route of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra passes through charming alpine pastures and offers magnificent views of an array of snow peaks which of course, include the Nanda Devi. The pilgrims have stopovers at 19 villages along the trek route, all of which are located at altitudes between 1,200 and 4,000 metres above sea level. The highest point of Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra is the Juraagli Top at an altitude of 5333 metres. In between the yatra falls a Lake Roopkund where lie hundreds of skeletons. It is said that once a king took some dancers to this sacred place due to which divine forces felt insulted leading to heavy snowfall and many people died. The dancers too got transformed into stone which can be seen at another nearby halting point, Patarnachonia.
Our walk to Bedni Bugyal from the village of Waan entailed a 14 km steep climb through a dense mixed forest of Oak and Rhododendron. The path was a little slushy due to the incessant rains, but the verdure and variety of scenery kept our spirits high as we trudged forward.
Nehru once wrote of Garhwal that it was “extraordinary to be so near and yet so far from the rest of the world”. Really in this terrain, the Divine manifests itself in myriad forms and in spite of the crowd of people all around; a strange sense of calm existed on this alpine meadow.
How to Reach
By Air: The closest airport is Jolly Grant Airport, near Dehradun ( 251 km).
By Rail: The closest railway station is located at Haridwar ( 231 km).
By Road: To attend Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra, one has to first reach Karnaprayag in Uttarakhand and then proceed to Nauti village, the starting point of the Yatra, 22 km away. Karnaprayag is connected by road with Haridwar, Dehradun.
Where to Stay: During the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, it is a custom for residents of the village that fall on the trek to open their doors for pilgrims. However, as more and more people join the pilgrimage, it is advisable to embark on the journey with one’s own tents, sleeping bags and make his/her own cooking arrangements.
However, other times of the year, it is possible to stay in the homes of the villagers. The quaint little villages have less to offer as amenities but are big on hospitality and warmth of the local folk.