The usually quiet and obscure Pindar valley was buzzing with excitement as countless vehicles rumbled along the course of the river past sleepy settlements like Tharali, Narayanbagad and Deval. The roar of clouds and imminence of a punishing shower had failed to dampen the festive atmosphere that was all the more evident as one climbed higher past dense jungles of pine to the village of Mundoli. As the grayness of the evening had embraced the approaching darkness thousands had poured into the quaint Himalayan village awaiting the coming of the Goddess. Contrary to the usual silence typical of a solitary village in the hills, Mundoli had been rejoicing in folk songs complimented by traditional instruments like dhol, damua and masak been (Bagpipes). And as the Goddess strode into the village on her palanquin this non-descript corner of the Himalayas was whipped into a frenzy of adulation and respect – fourteen years of waiting had been washed away in tears as the daughter of Himalayas, Nanda Devi, had finally arrived!
Maha Kumbh is often considered as one of the most intimidating and awe-inspiring events of congregation of faith; however Nanda Devi Raj Jat or the Himalayan Maha Kumbh, organised usually every twelve years, takes the concept of reverence to another level by demanding pilgrims to endure extreme weather, terrain and human frailties in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. The Nanda Raj Jat that traditionally begins from the village of Nauti in Garhwal travels for nineteen days covering 280 kms spanning sleepy villages, forgotten archaeological ruins, undulating ridges, steep ravines, lush grasslands, desolate moraine and treacherous high-altitude passes. The folklore of Kumaon and Garhwal abounds with stories of Nanda Devi – some assert that she was the daughter of Katyuri King Bhanupratap while others accord her a divine status and as is the case with vocal transfer of knowledge it is hard to untangle the entwined truth and fiction. The narrative that has survived is that a grand Yatra was organized by the Kings to bid farewell to Nanda who travels from her maternal home to the high Himalayas and it is this tradition that is still practiced today.
If the celebration in Mundoli had been an expression of veneration, the festivities in the next village Wan had been drenched in unbridled joy and elation. People crowded on sloped slate roofs of elegant houses occupying every inch of available space had vied to grab the choicest of vantage points to witness the unique images of devotees from far flung corners of Uttarakhand come together to honour the Goddess. Dolas or palanquins and decorated chantolis (umbrellas made from dwarf bamboo) that had traveled days from places as varied as Srinagar, Bageshwar, Lata, Martoli, Kurud and Almora unified with the main procession coming from Nauti. For hours the echo of drums, bells, conches and bagpipes had rung in the narrow lanes of the village as waves and waves of people poured into the courtyard of the main temple dancing and singing without a care.