Guide Santosh & the future of mountain communities - a guest travel blog

Posted in Guest experiences on Monday, January 7th, 2019

Our guest Simon Maxwell visited Binsar in November 2018, in the company of one of our most senior guides, Santosh Joshi. During the trip, Simon and Santosh reflected on the challenges facing our partner communities, and the very real threat to sustainability caused by outward migration of young people from the villages.

Santosh pulled off his boots and eased into a pair of chappals. Away in the distance, the setting sun glinted on the high snows of Nanda Devi, and illuminated Panchachuli, the five ice-capped chimneys, built by the brothers Pandwa, according to legend, on their journey from earth to heaven. Santosh sipped from a cup of chai, and took a bite from the plate of pakoras on the table at his side.

It had been a good day, walking with the guest from Risal down to Gonap, through the open pine woodland and the stretches of damp deciduous forest, rich in oak and rhododendron. They had not seen a leopard, of course, but black-faced monkeys had scampered noisily in the trees as they passed the Bineshwar temple, barking deer had called in the distance, and a small group of mountain goats had scampered down the hill as they approached. In the trees, parakeets and bulbuls had called, and a scaly-bellied woodpecker had tapped noisily on the trunk of a pine tree. Inexplicably, the guest had collected a sample of leopard droppings, an exotic present, he had said, for his five grandsons and his granddaughter.

Passing Kathdhara, they had observed the preparations for a wedding: the bride’s parents, for this was her village, hosting the eve of wedding party. Hindi film music echoed among the trees, and people began to dance beneath the brightly-coloured canopy that had been erected over the stone-flagged terrace which ran the length of the solid stone house.

Further along the path, they had crossed a group of women walking on the stony path from Gonap to Kathdhara, laughing and chatting on their way to join the wedding party, red and gold saris protected by shawls, silver anklets reflecting rays of light in the dappled shade. They had exchanged greetings and teasing comments. The guest had laughed, too. Surely, he said, there must have been many offers made to you before your marriage. Too many, Santosh had replied, but these are Khatriya villages, and I am Brahmin, so our caste rules would not allow.

Santosh and Hem

Saying this, Santosh (left, above, with fellow Binsar guide Hem on right) remembered his own wedding, only two years before. There had indeed been many offers. A Brahmin, with an MA in Hindi literature, experience working in Delhi, and now an experienced and established guide, he had indeed been highly eligible. But it had been hard to find the right girl. Six possibilities had presented themselves, variously fair, well-educated and talented, but all had suffered from one defect. They wanted to live in town, far away from the green hills and dense forests, from the small villages of stone houses, from the trickling streams, and terraced hay meadows that Santosh called home. 

Finally, though, Santosh had found the one, Babitha, a soul mate who shared his love of the Binsar countryside. Fondly, he remembered the wedding, the 200 guests, being carried to the ceremony in a sedan chair, the feasting and the dancing. Now, Babitha was safely at home, nursing her five week old daughter, Yogyitha, helped by his own mother and the rest of the family. He did not like to be away, but times had changed in India, and he could now speak to her every day on his mobile phone. Just that afternoon, he had received a photo of Yogyitha sleeping.

Times had changed in India. The mobile phone was the least of it. All the villages scattered around Binsar, some with fewer than a dozen families, most without road access, now had reliable electricity. Most had schools, even when the number of pupils was only three. In these respects, Santosh mused, successive Governments of India had fulfilled their pledges to the ‘common man’.

Other changes, though, had been less beneficial. Santosh could remember the villages from his childhood days, terraced fields stretching down the hillsides, neatly ploughed by teams of oxen, planted to wheat and pulses, potatoes and yams. But the coming of the wildlife sanctuary had made such cultivation impossible, the crops attracting newly protected porcupines and wild pigs, deer and goats, and in their wake leopards roaming the hillsides and preying on domestic animals. Now, except in a few places where stone walls enclosed the fields, the terraces had mostly been abandoned, producing only grass to feed animals tethered for safety at the side of the houses, and housed at night in stalls which occupied the lower story. Women were to be found on the terraces, but also ranging under the trees on the mountain side, cutting grass with curved sickles, or carrying huge piles of dried grass back to form haystacks near the home. That is, of course, when they were not tending the vegetable gardens they all had: garlic, mustard, green leaves, red chilli peppers, and turmeric.

These were not the only changes. Santosh could not help but regret the loss of people from the villages. Much like the girls he had rejected, many from the villages had fled to the towns, to Almora, to Nainital, to the rail head at Kathgodam, even to Delhi itself. Once, 17 children had walked down every day from Gonap to the secondary school in the valley below. Now, none did. Few, it seemed, wanted to spend their lives in hidden communities nearly 2000 m above sea level, where the temperature fell sharply when the sun dipped behind the hill, and the dark closed in. No wonder, Santosh thought, that these mountain villages were becoming communities of the old and ageing. What future could there be? Who, in 20 years’ time, would cut the grass to feed the buffalo, or chop the wood to light the evening fire?

Santosh sighed, and reached for another pakora. For himself, at least, he could see a future. As a mountain guide, his expert knowledge of the birds and animals of the forest, his intimate experience of the forest paths, his familiarity with the people of the villages, his friends and neighbours, made him a valuable resource for the growing tourist presence in Binsar. Indeed, the walkers and birdwatchers, or those seeking solitude to practice yoga or meditation, brought life and cash to the villages. But few, Santosh thought, offered to scour the forest when the sun fell, to search for a missing goat. Fewer still would carry heavy loads of grass, or crouch on their haunches to weed a plot of garlic.

Was there another option? Santosh wondered about new crops, but few could withstand the predations of the Binsar wildlife. Even lemons were devoured, surprisingly, by mice and rats. 

Perhaps, and now Santosh realised it was time to stir himself and entertain the guests, perhaps change would just have to be accepted. The beauty of the scenery would remain, the light-drenched valley in the early morning, the pink-tinged evening peaks, the clean air, the blue sky. Binsar would change, but its essential nature would endure. 

Simon Maxwell, November 2018

Many thanks to Simon for allowing us to publish this piece. Full copyright remains with the author.




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