Magadi Days

The Mtoto Mela, 2018

In Swahili, Mtoto means Child.

Our bi-annual Mela this school year focused on learning about the lives of children in various parts of the world and in a various parts of Central to South India.

Every year, we journey to places from as close as Coorg in Karnataka to Assam in the East, Kutch in the West and the Eastern Himalaya. It is a time when we engage with people and places and over the years, has been an immense learning about the world around and our own place in it.

This year, we were keen to make a concerted endeavour to make friends with children we may not otherwise meet, to learn about them and from them and to share about ourselves as well. We hoped to broaden our own perspectives and feelings of what is to be a child.

We wondered if in this process of mutual encounter we would see that being a child and the process of childhood has many avatars. We worked in four groups of students and teachers.

We travelled to parts of Bangalore, spending enriching days at several schools. These included the Annaswamy Mudaliar Academy in Fraser town, founded in 1907. Warm sharings happened between young adults. There was song and play.

We visited children at the Association of People with Disabilities and hosted them at CFL as well. Here too, we were welcomed with grace and warmth. We visited neighbouring Bachenhatii school, where children came together around energetic games. We visited Ananya school, where too, it was a day of getting to know one another through games and craft.

We reached out to children and adults in select regions of the world and regions of the subcontinent. We explored our own notions of childhood. Our youngest lot (by now called the Lat Bats after their assigned region of Latin America) shared a poster on What is a Child? Amongst the many thoughts shared here, one was: Every Adult has a Child in them.

We began to contact schools who may exchange letters and voice mails and video calls. Excitedly, adults wrote to all manner of contacts and “leads”. We suddenly remembered people we’d known from our past lives, friends in different corners of the world. A soccer coach in Ghana, an ex-student, now engaged in Conservation work in Chile.

Large maps of Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern and Western Africa and the Indian Subcontinent went up in our dining area. Small presentations occurred at assembly. Our middle schoolers shared a short film: A conversation with young friends in Ghana, filmed atop our library tower.

Along with repeated tos and fros of ‘Where do you live?’ and “What are your interests?’ was laughter from the film makers themselves who were thoroughly enjoying the work of being camera people.

We sang De Colores, a Joan Baez rendition in Spanish. We listened to and practiced Tibetan phrases.

And so there was correspondence, between Us and our not so nearby friends. As well as between Us and friends who, we would soon visit in their schools and homes. Handwritten letters and Emails travelled to Chile, Chiapas, Ghana, Kenya, Thailand, Nepal.

As well as to Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Kutch, Northern and SW Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. These were precursor to actual “trips”. Our usual yearly excursions happened to people and places we had been in touch with. And already, we were busy preparing for two separate weeks of our Mtoto Mela when children and adults would visit CFL.

We called these two weeks the “Mtoto mela or Children’s Conference”.

The process of conceiving and planning the Mtoto conference was both exciting and demanding. Students formed several committees which took on work in various areas. There was the Kitchen Committee, the Hospitality Committee, the Timetable Committee, the Resource Committee, the Infastructure Committee, the Transport Committee. Overnight, a Parallel Government of sorts arose, able to take on all of the required to run key aspects of not just a conference but of a school itself! Every student was part of a committee and every student took their membership seriously. Being a committee member meant both doing tasks as well as helping to keep an entire group process going. Listening, sharing, imagining, being patient, sorting out differences, learning when to step in and when to invite those who stayed on the edge. Committees adopted teachers as guides. But depending on the work, committee members took on a huge amount of work themselves.

The Conference Weeks had entire townships alive on the CFL campus. And all of the students rose to the occasion of holding the Conference with a warm sense of ownership. There were many spaces to meet children and adults.

Children from other parts of the country brought their stories to CFL. During the conference weeks we had long assemblies, where all gathered and narrated the histories of their schools and the wider stories of their lives.



And now, some recollections and reflections on our Mela theme: Childhoods.

We met children in rural parts of Tamil Nadu, Chattisgarh, Kutch, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. We received letters from children as far away as Puerto Guadal in Chile.

Some themes of Childhood spread across the lives of many friends we made.

Childhood is work.

All children work in some way or the other, at home and in school.

Childhood for some means coming home in the evening and gathering firewood for the evening and fodder for your goat. Or looking after the cows that live in the school community: Taking them out to graze, giving them water, milking, washing.

Childhood for many means helping to run a kitchen. Cooking, cleaning, planning, keeping a system going.

Childhood for many means being responsible for younger children.

Some of the young adults we met had barely had a childhood. Their lives moved from little formal schooling at all, to leaving school and home and having to earn their own keep young, to now dedicated learning of artisanship (carpentry, masonry): expertise that will bring a livelihood.

Childhood for many includes a chance for creative expression, and for some, to truly delve into areas of the arts such as classical music and dance.

We met with an abundance of song and craft and drama. The music, dance and drama told stories of people’s lives.

Some of the children we wrote to make crafts such as bead necklaces and earrings which they take to the local market in their town.

Childhood is play and abandon! From playing marbles and football and Frisbee, children have a great time just playing!

Young people from Central India put the circle of seasons vividly to song:

Jamun fruits falling when the rain comes, a woman off to her khet (field), the child left behind in tears, boys playing the flute and dancing, as they work in fields.

To sing is to tell about your life.

Childhood means participation in the larger plans of the school, helping to organize, bringing in your ideas. In one instance, young people announced that they wanted more time to study for exams. It was a shift from a earlier school time that allowed more space for spontaneity. They made sure the time table had time to prepare for imminent exams.

Childhood is a Tapestry of Personalities and Emotions.

We were surrounded and inspired by children who were at once: generous, warm, kind, strong-minded, loving, defenceless, vulnerable, silent, shy, vibrant, smiling, contemplative, articulate, sophisticated, determined, kind, independent, playful and sensitive.

For some, childhood is filled with a longing for a lost homeland. For some, childhood merges seamlessly into adulthood, young members of families and communities taking on the responsibilities of adults.

The Mtoto Mela was incredibly moving in many ways.

We were overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of communities we stayed with. Our lives are even wider now, with friends we may write to any time, and with a sense of deeper connect with people in pockets of now familiar worlds.

~ Diba

Reflections On Kalluru, 2019

In Kannada, Kallu means Rock. The ancient temple at the edge of Kalluru village, a half an hour walk from CFL, could well have been built from rocks carved out of the nearby landscape. There are large granite outcrops here. Carrying granite to the site would have been easier than having to transport it from far.

We are used to wondering about time in years and dates. But this temple only gives us clues about when it may have been made and the life it may have seen.

Years ago, the oldest village elder, Hanumanarasaiah, told us of how the temple was built in the time of Veera Ballala, a Hoysala ruler. This area was under Hoysala rule around a thousand years ago. A local legend tells of how the temple had a big copper door which disappeared. Ten years ago, our middle school children found similar lotus-like carvings on roofs in Kalluru and a nearby temple complex, the Ranganathaswamy temple. They wondered if the temples could have been built around the same time with similar motifs prevalent? Or did the motifs endure and they were used over a long period? The narasimha, or lion on a Kalluru pillar, resembles the familiar the Hoysala lion.

Our ten year-olds found inscriptions along an outer wall panel. Could this be Halle Kannada, Old Kannada?

We wondered. There seemed to be some Tamil letters as well.

A stone structure with a stone roof, housed four pillars with base relief sculptures on all sides.

Ubba Chitragallu. Children drew some of the images and speculated about whether the sculptures spoke of a life in the past and about who some of the characters may be. They drew a peacock, a lion and a person leaning on a stick with a goat nearby. They drew acrobats with limbs locked in a circular formation.

Children encountered these clues and sensed how Time may be sensed through folk memory, images and symbols.

Children have explored the Kalluru temple site over the past eighteen years that we have lived in Magadi taluk. We have walked to Kalluru scores of times. Looking back on early walks, there was a narrow bumpy earthen path. You may meet cows on their way home, a boy on a bicycle, school children walking home barefoot from nearby Bachenhatti, with heavy book bags.

As several middle school children have done, a group of middle schoolers explored the Kalluru temple in July 2018. This was part of a Local History Project. They had visited a few places in the vicinity.

Our attempt was to try and interpret what we had seen and what we had heard.

We looked yet again at the relief sculptures. We made guesses. What does a relief sculpture of a dancing woman suggest? And the figure playing the flute? Does it have anything to say about the sculptor at all? Did sculptors draw on their own imagination or did they just receive designs and images?

We talked about evidence and finding meaning and speculating.

The change in Kalluru temple was well on its way. Around seven years ago, large plaster figures appeared, atop a flat stone entrance. They were painted light yellow.

The change seemed sudden.

The road widened. Still bumpy but wider now. A car could come through comfortably. Some stone carvings lying in the courtyard were cleared away. A metal door with a mesh window covered the closed mantapam.

In July 2018, our Local History middle school team went to Kalluru temple. It was a long time since I had been there. I had glimpsed inside, but what we now encountered was incredible. Not a total transformation, but a dramatic amalgam of the seeming ancient and the seeming present.

Elaborate stucco sculptures perched on the entrance way and other structures. Sculptures painted with all A manner of colours. Extremely intricate art work done by skilled artisans. A juxtaposition of rough granite and smooth plaster. What was made centuries before and what has now arrived, collapsed almost into one.

The mantapam was open. In place of the earth floor which we used to sweep and which sheltered cows at night was a shining pink granite floor. The temple priest, the pujari, welcomed us in. In our Local History class we had attempted to learn about the stories of places and people. We sat down on the granite floor. The pujari held forth about life in his grandfather’s time. Some of the children wrote notes.

People extracted oil from the seeds of the ippe mara trees.

The ippe mara trees were grown before the pujari’s grandfather’s time.

People used herbal remedies.

There were fewer illnesses.

Children learned letters by drawing them in the sand.

People cooked in earthen pots.

Children played kabbadi.

They swam in wells.

We listened to the recollections.

Here was oral history, received memories.

One of our children drew a broken sculpture in the courtyard of a seated figure, broken at the waist. Nor torso or head. Only a belly and cross-legged legs. A semblance of cloth visible across the lower part of the body. A clue about clothing at some period.

The most recent group of middle school Local History students made an exciting “discovery” in March 2019. While trying to copy and make rubbings of inscriptions along outer panels of the temple, they poured water over the engraved letters. And the letters magically appeared, much clearer than we had ever seen them! The students went to work copying down strings of text. As they wrote and as we later examined the findings a few observations appeared:

There were Telugu, Tamil and Kannada letters in these inscriptions.

There were a few names which seemed to be the name of a woman and names of places.

In our discussion, we wondered what this meant. The students suggested that the woman may be connected to the temple in some way, perhaps the priest’s wife? Multiple scripts suggested the presence and interaction of people with varying and connected cultures.

While the eleven year-olds have explored, made drawings and now uncovered inscriptions, a few senior students of Photography and I came to Kalluru with on an early August morning. They were stunned, as I had been, at the transformation.

They had been to Kalluru innumerable times, over their school life. The dizzying splash of colours, the intricately sculpted stuccos caught the eye. But so too a small black granite lotus with incense burning nearby and a pair of dark granite feet sculpted on the ground.

The students, two young women, roamed the site, finding their frames, before bright sunlight shone in.

For our eleven year-olds, stepping into this temple complex for the “first” time, what they see and encounter is a reality that may not alarm. They explore, describe and wonder.

What does such change mean?

Can we even reach for the significance?

Are the meanings we suggest fairly subjective, each of us with our own perceptions?

What does such juxtaposing of the ancient and the modern, an amalgam that may seem alarming to some and celebratory to others mean?

The story of Kalluru, fascinating and mysterious at once, may only become more intriguing as we move into the coming time.

And our children as explorers and story tellers will have more to unravel and more stories to tell.

~ Diba

Remembering Leela Aunty, 2016

Leela Garady was an important pillar of support to many founding members of CFL and a deeply inspiring presence. She developed many new and creative ways of teaching language to children. She actively wrote and directed plays in Kannada and Hindi for the students at CFL over the years. Many of her works remain an integral part of the languages curriculum in the school.

Leela passed away peacefully in December 2016. Her insight and knowledge will be missed by all of us.

To read more about her click here.

A Visit to a Granite Quarry, 2017

Nestled as we are in Magadi Taluk on a verdant twenty plus acre campus, it can be hard for us to imagine a world devoid of greenery, fresh air and quiet. As part of our Environmental Management course with the 9th grade children, a colleague and I thought it worthwhile to explore a nearby granite quarry, to experience first hand, some aspects of this form of mining.

As we entered, we were all struck by the assault on our senses. Rubbing their eyes, choking on rock dust the children pointed to the overburden (of waste from the quarry) and greying shrubs (the few that remained) clothed in quarry dust. We had entered a moonscape – hills of rock occasionally clouded by a pall of dust as a delicately balanced earthmover pummeled bundles of stones down the hill in continuous avalanches. Giant drill heads attacked the rock with gusto and trucks carried away stones of different sizes to a processing area. And here, deeper, and further from the main road, the air took on a different quality completely. Our bodies, hair, tongues, nostrils, eyes and ears were sprayed and coated with dust. What was once a magnificent hill, much like that we were so used to climbing on walks from school, now coated us, clung to us, in a completely different form, unrecognisable from its lofty origins.

“How do these workers live here?”, we wondered.

“What kind of lung diseases might they have? What kind of breathing difficulties? Where was their basic safety equipment?”

And then of course, a reflection, that this rock dust was a familiar sight in trucks on roads leading to Bangalore, a metropolis less than fifty kilometres away. The same rock dust that builds our houses, our offices, our entertainment and public service venues. It has sadly become an alternative to the fast depleting river sand which has been (illegally, perhaps) mined for decades from the smattering of stream beds in this region.

Some quarries in this area are said to be in the watershed of the Arkavathi River which emanates from Nandi Hills. This river, dammed at Thippagondanahalli where it meets the Kumudavathi River, was once, and is still occasionally, a source of water to western Bangalore. A source of recharge for bore wells, and water for those along its course.

And so again, we come to core issues in environmental management, whether the context is a big dam, a mine, or a quarry: Who pays? Who benefits? And at what environmental and social cost?

~ Nagini

Sudarshana Garvabhanga : Yakshagana, 2017

In the month of November 2017, the whole of our village Vardenahalli was gathered on the CFL campus to watch a spectacular Yakshagana performance, Sudarshana Garvabhanga.

Yakshagana is a unique traditional dance form of the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. It is a performing art form where music, dance, dialogue, elaborate make up and costumes come together to weave grand, eloquent stories. Yakshagana performers often choose stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavat Gita.

Tarakit Kala Kammata, the performing group of the evening, hail from Dakshina Kannada. This group was founded by a former parent of the school, Vani Periodi. The group’s unique feature is that it is an all girls group, with young girls and women performing all the roles. It was a treat to see such youthful energy in the narration of a mythological story, and an added delight to see our former student Indu Periodi performing Lord Vishnu’s role so effortlessly.

The play Sudarshana Garvabhanga is based on the personified character of Sudarshana Chakra, Vishnu’s weapon – a spinning, disk with serrated edges. The story itself begins with Goddess Lakshmi praising Vishnu, and Sudarshana Chakra feeling hurt and angry that all the credit for defeating the asuras (demons) is going to Vishnu alone. Sudarshana, overwhelmed with an injured ego, wants to show Lakshmi and Vishnu how important and capable he is. He vents all his anger and frustration, claiming boastfully that Vishnu wouldn’t have defeated any asuras without his help. Vishnu, being Vishnu, listens to Sudarshana calmly. Sudarshana Chakra goes away to prove his valour.

Meanwhile, the asura Shatruprashudana, who has been blessed with a boon from Lord Shiva, begins to bother all the devas (gods). Shiva’s boon renders Shatruprashudana powerful and almost invincible, a boon that ‘no human or God can kill him, but only a weapon which comes to life may defeat and end his life’.

Shatruprashudana having menaced all the devas, defeats Indra and takes over Devaloka, the abode of the Gods. Indra comes to Vishnu for help but Vishnu gets defeated by Shatruprashudana. Finally, Sudarshana Chakra kills Shatruprashudana and feels fulfilled in his quest to prove himself worthwhile. He goes to Vishnu to show off but Vishnu reminds him that the victory would not have been possible without the boon. He propounds that one has to emerge victorious over one’s own ego, rather than over anyone else. The play ends with Sudarshana Chakra feeling ashamed about not having seen this truth for himself.

The performance was mesmerising! No words will be adequate to describe the rapt experience we had that evening.

~ Kavya

Landscape Mapping : Middle School Project, 2012

[January to February 2012]


As part of their three-month Observation sessions with Sandy, the Akshas and Palashas (our 12 to 13 year-olds) worked in small campus areas which have rocks and vegetation.

The main intent of this Project was to have students observe an area closely and to describe and map it as accurately as possible.

They spent time becoming familiar with their own areas. This involved looking closely at the different kinds of rocks, trees, grasses, shrubs and other plants.


They wrote descriptions about their places in which they included details about the place, its boundary, the terrain and vegetation. They also drew maps in which they placed most of the rocks and vegetation they had seen. This involved drawing shapes correctly, drawing rocks to proportion, being able to create a map starting with one or two reference features and then positioning other features relative to these. While drawing their maps they would pay attention to slopes (aspect) and angles between objects.

During this entire process, students also learned to identify a few trees.


~ Diba


Reading Between the Lines : A Conversation, 2014

Three teachers from Swami Vivekananda youth movement, Ramkumar, Mr. Lohith and Mr. Ravi, visited CFL in mid-July, 2014. They work at the Viveka School of Excellence in Sargur and the Viveka Tribal Centre of Learning in Hosahalli. They came with an interest in learning about CFL’s Open Library. They interacted with many teachers and almost accidentally, found themselves befriended by a group of 11 and 12 year-olds. Ramkumar’s recounts the evening with the children:

We visited CFL to learn about the functioning of the CFL Open Library. On our first evening, we had a chance to meet a group of 12 year-old students, members of the Palasha Group. We sat together in front of their hostel and had a long conversation. It began outside, with the children enquiring about our school and our students. When they heard that we have 500 children in each of our schools, they wanted to know more. What language do your children speak? How far do they have to walk or travel to come to school? What happens in your school? Why are you visiting CFL? The children’s curiosity and interest set the platform for our conversation. As it began to drizzle, we moved into the hostel. The exchange continued. The children told us about the CFL library, about how it functions. We learned that they use the library on their own. They borrow and return books and make entries on a regular basis. We talked about the conversations they have about the books they have read and about the questions that arise. The children told us about recent books they have read.These included English books and comics and Kannada novels. I asked the children what they discuss amongst themselves, after they have read books. One child responded by saying that they are trying to “read between the lines”. I was a bit puzzled and asked them to explain. They had a variety of answers, such as: It is important to read what is not visible. I was convinced that these are serious readers who seek information beyond the text. Each of them understand the perspectives of authors in their own way.

~ Diba


Story of a Tree : Mela, 2016

At CFL, our melas have been a chance to collectively delve into diverse realms of exploration. Melas occur every two years. We choose a theme we would like to explore and in smaller groups, adults and children immerse themselves in a six-month long process where we follow ideas, embrace the unfamiliar,engage in a learning that allows for play and imagination.

Mela themes over the years have included Math, Toys, Astronomy, Land and Magic. In 2016, we chose to have a Mela that would bring us closer to the world of plants, creatures and natural movements on the wilder parts of our campus.

We called the Mela the Story of a Tree Mela. From June to November 2016, four groups spent almost a hundred hours around four prominent native trees. The idea was to spend long hours in a given area, in order to become familiar with the tree and its surroundings.

The trees we chose were:

a Honge (Pongamia pinnata for our younger children),

a sprawling Banyan (Ficus benghalensis for our middle-schoolers),

a long-limbed Acacia leucophloea for our high-schoolers and

an Albizzia odoratissima for our senior-most students, located in the ravine.

It was a time of learning about life on and around these trees. It was a time which awakened us to details we were barely aware of. It was a time where we encountered both unexpected surprises as well as periods of restlessness when minds find it difficult to be present in stillness. The question of what it means to pay attention both to the surrounding world as well as to the inner one was a primary focus during this mela.

We built machaans on our trees. The experience of the canopy world from the machaan perches was enchanting. We spent magical nights on the machaans as well as camped near our trees in the moonlight.

Students and teachers worked on themes of interest, understanding chosen areas through their own senses as well as with guidance. People learned about a range of areas. Leaf-fall patterns, ant diversity and behavior, grasses, the life of the bark, canopy maps were a few themes. We shared a glimpse of our learning and fascination on a Mela Day at the end of November.

This time of closeness to the world of our Mela trees has touched each of us in some way, however silent. We are fortunate to live in a partially wild land where you can vanish into a natural nook in a few minutes. On quiet weekends, when there are few footsteps around, creatures come closer. Painted spur fowls scuttle up pathways, a peacock visits the vegetable garden. We have a chance to move out and continue exploring this land. The invitation is open every day and night.

~ Diba

From our archives : Trek in the Himalayas, 2011

Interlude in the Gori Ganga Valley : Munsiari and Ralam

The quest for the meaning of human life is something that has plagued ordinary people and philosophers alike for millenia. I am similarly bothered as the jeep begins to climb the Shivaliks towards Munsiari, a good 300 km away, from the train station at Kathgodam. The station is located at the point where the Gaula river debouches from the Himalayas to densely populated alluvial plains, and we have travelled over two days and nights from Bangalore. I begin to wonder at the human condition as I look at the broad river glisten at a distance in the morning sun, and the endless towers of fissured earth being continuously uplifted as the Himalaya. Is it fatigue that awakens you to this question?

The question continues to come up as we reach Munsiari that evening, past driving rain and minor landslides. The Panchachuli pentatops present themselves spectacularly in the fading light. The sense of wonder and awe in seeing the mountain that is part of the human condition. Munsiari is a quiet town, usually an outpost even for the interprid tourist, but the next day sees us applying for permits to go on the trek to Ralam Glacier, and return via the traditional Tibetan trading route in the Milam valley. The question on the human condition arises again, with a sour note this time, as the official tasked with issuing permits asks for more paperwork. “Sensitive Border Area”. “Lives at Risk in the Remote Himalaya”. Sigh. Why do borders carve up non-existent lines across mountains? Rhetorical question, I tell myself, as we go on a flurry of activity to get the extra photographs and photocopies from the nearby photo printer, an innovation in Munsiari since I last visited in 2009. Ramnarayan and Malika, of Himal Prakriti, the organization that put together our Milam trek then, help us this time as well. In our meeting before we leave for the trek, we hear of various other changes that are have happened, are happening or due to happen in the Gori Valley – the planned hydroelectric power projects, a road linking Milam and Munsiari, the state of schools, politics of jungle ownership, the role of women in the local village society, the flow of rivers in Himalayan geological history.

I begin the trek with disappointment when I see Jhimi Ghat, where we camped on our Milam trek, in a state of being blasted for a mountain road to link Munsiari and Milam. Piles of rubble extend right up to the stream banks along the steep valley, clogging the channel in parts. Dynamiting and JCBs alternate in carving up the mountainside where we saw over thirty or more vultures roosting two years back. The hitherto peaceful village is dusty. We end the day climb to camp at Paton village, the winter home of the Ralam villagers. There are few people here, as most have migrated to the short summer in Ralam. These villagers are migrants from the neighbouring Dharma valley, and are ethnically and lingustically distinct from their neighbours in the Bhui village. Apparently the secured the land ownership rights to Ralam village and its van panchayat from the residents of Bhui in 1964. But they have been moving between Ralam and Paton for atleast seven or eight generations, as recalled by living memory. The walk up to Paton is refreshing, we cross the Gori near Lilam and then have lunch at a stream, where we encounter our only amphibian of the trip, a spectacular mottled green frog, horsetails and spiders await in webs just a foot above the flowing water. Our camp is above the Paton village, in grazing land abutting the village school. The stunning sedimentary beds in the ridges on the other side of the valley raises the question again – we are in an ancient realm, far older than civilization. I feel like an intruder.

We pass fairly dense forest the next morning, as we cross the ridge from Paton, a north-facing moist woodland, dominated by atleast two if not three species of Maple, same numbers of Oak, an understory of Rhododendron and a sprinkling of conifers in the upper reaches. The trees grow in thickness and girth as we move further in, and the understory is a vivid stranglehold of aroids, ferns, lycopods, and astonishing array of fungi. The last of the rhododendrons are in flower. The dead trees rot in the forest and are part of this landscape, with woodpeckers and barbets aplenty in the old growth. This forest and others in the valley beyond belong to the Ralam Van Panchayat. The van panchayats are a system in Uttarakhand where the local forests are communally owned by the village and administered by an elected body. The Ralam van panchayat is one of the largest in the state and controls sizable areas of deciduous and coniferous woodland, and alpine grassland across a steep elevation gradient. Our walk on the second day reveals the gradient as we ascend and descend ridges in a seemingly endless series before we end up at Lingurani. The campsite is named after the abundance of Lingu, the circinate young leaf of a fern, edible when fried in butter and salt. The good sites are already occupied by an American group, and we have to make do with sites that are also favoured by goats and rainwater as the evening progresses! The redeeming feature of the campsite are the massive horse chestnut trees, all in bloom.

The next day sees us awake to open skies. We are cold from the previous night, and Angshu has part of sleeping bag drenched in a puddle. Amiti wakes to fifteen bearded goats staring at her. We decide to move on and save a rest day for a later date. The rain does not relent, but the mind does. I wonder at the human condition again. Why am I fascinated by the flowers and the birds? Why do I need an explanation for this fascination? Is there a hidden moral dilemma that this fascination is a deeply selfish action, uncaring about another’s questions and interests? I also wonder at the way the mind works when fascinated, I do not feel the weight of my bag and the rain when I see an interesting flower, or the flurry of Mrs.Gould’s Sunbirds feeding on a Berberis clump at 3000 m, or a spectacular waterfall on a sheer cliff. But the bag weighs on my mind, and back, otherwise. We camp at Kildam, another regular stop for sheep. Dhiraj,Yattu, and Prahlad, part of our kitchen-guide-porter crew, conjure up hot soup and dinner as the night recovers from the day’s rain and cold. Kailash, another crew member, gives me a clear quartz crystal that he found on our steep descent to Lingurani. He reminds me of someone, and upon query, I realize that his brother Tillu had accompanied us on the trek to Milam two years back. I wake up the next morning with the moon rising over the ridge above the campsite.

Ralam is the only settlement in the Ralam valley. We camp the next day at Marjhali, a few kilometers before the village. A landslide had destroyed the regular road and we cross a large, recent landslide and a tongue of old snow across the river, climb a ridge and reach Marjhali. Another species of rhododendron is in full bloom, the plant is much shorter and the flowers are larger, mauve instead of red. There is a speckled moth that reminds me of Biston betularia in the shade of a rock on the landslide. Horsetails and marsh marigolds sparkle along streams. A Golden Eagle flies overhead. Birch woodland begins and ends. Red-billed Choughs circle in flocks. We are in the alpine zone.

The Ralam river cuts deep in the valley, braiding on the river bed before the monsoon excess changes the shade and turbulence of the waters. Angshu, Anirudh and Abhimanyu make a snow man from snow collected on the hillside above the campsite. We come across sheep everywhere. The alpine sheep are curious creatures, they may let you pass quietly but as Maria discovered, might also just gently crash into the backside to indicate their presence! We spend a lazy afternoon before heading off early the next day to Ralam Glacier. Theo, also part of Himal Prakriti, joins us as he did the previous day from Kildam to Marjhali, and continues to offer valuable information and insights into the Himalayas. He tells us the story of yaks in Ralam that he helped get from Ladakh via Tibet several years back. We could see the yaks at a distance across the valley. He and Chander, one of the Ralam villagers, come along with us towards the glacier. The land is covered with juniper bushes and Cotoneaster shrubs. Streams enroute have Primulas, Caltha and Veronicas in dense huddles of white, yellow and blue. Potentilla atrosanguniea carpeted the floor of the grazing slopes with bloody blooms. Closer to the terminal moraine are dwarf willows in flower. Its a dry and desolate landscape; the long moraines on the laternal flanks of the glacier, the brown terminus of the ice flow, the river gushing out, the glistening snow and ice on the mountains above, all remind me of my own insignificance. The beauty is overwhelming.

Shane finds a fossil. Its a bivalve imprint fossil on shale. This part of the Himalaya was under the Tethys sea before India collided with Asia, and many fossilized creatures have since then been upfolded into mountains several thousand meters up. The finding of the fossil reminds me of the discovery of the Burgess shale, except that Shane, who is also Canadian, does not have a horse at the time of the discovery nor is the fossil as ancient as the Cambrian fossils found in British Columbia. Shane and Chaiti have accompanied us on the trek, and are an essential part of our group. They push us up when we are down (literally!), help us across snow slides, advise us on trip rations and liaise with the crew. They are warm and large-hearted people, like our crew, like the mountain people we meet wherever we went, like Theo, Mallika and Ram.

We sleep early on returning from the glacier. The next day, we have to cross the Burjikanj pass so an early start is essential. An exceptionally fine day on the glacier is not predictive of weather in subsequent days. We huddle and talk about our mental states. Mental states matter in steep climbs, and can make a significant difference to the quality of the climbing experience. Also, the weather is something we will be working against, so we need to be in top mental form. All of us. We decide that the slow climbers go first, the others follow. And so we begin at 5 AM, cross over to near Ralam, meet Chander who is there to show the way, and start climbing at 0730. It is 1130 when we reach the top at 4567 meters, after crossing increasingly smaller gentians and primulas, fewer birds, some treacherous ground, good weather and almost no snow. The other side of the ridge is deep in snow. We can see the large Milam glacier at a distance, and the two peaks of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East on a closer ridge across the valley. It is an exerting climb, and after a quick lunch we begin the descent after saying goodbye to Chander. He has to return to Ralam to plant out potatoes and other vegetables. In the short summer in Ralam, every day in the field counts and it is Chander’s third day with us. We need his knowledge of the lay of the land, and his wife need his hand in the fields.

Our initial descent of the first 200m or so of the slope is at 50 or 60 kmph – we slide down the 50 degree slope, an unforgettable experience that many of us want to repeatedly renew – we slide and climb back a few meters and slide again! The fatigue of the morning is soon forgotten. But the skies begin to darken and we have to move on. We make a difficult descent through steep slopes and deep snow, bordered by dwarf, fragrant rhododendron krummolz. The threat of rain is made real as we manage to set up camp at Bharmatganj, overlooking the Gori Ganga and Milam glacier at a distance. I revisit my question on the human condition. I don’t feel particularly exhilarated that I crossed the pass. I was more inquisitive of the primulas, genitians and the dwarf rhododendron krummolz. Is the motivation to cross the pass to see these plants, or be responsible for a group of children from Bangalore? Is the motivation for people in the Ralam valley to know the path on the pass to collect a valuable fungus that might net them thousands of rupees or for some other reason? In camp, huddled in the tent and talking shop with Shruthi and Abhimanyu, the answer isn’t immediately clear.

A steep descent along an alpine meadow and skirting the Gori brought us to Tola, a village that is partly in ruins. We are enroute to Martoli across the valley and stop here for lunch. There is a blue-fronted redstart nesting in a hollow in the ruins. A neatly lined nest with three chicks. We also see house buntings, and begin to see several species of warblers. The Eurasian cuckoo calls at a distance and flocks of Snow Pigeon and Hill Pigeon hurtle across the windy valley. It is interesting to note that every turn in the path can mean the difference between being in flower or not; aspect, as well as elevation, have a critical influence on  vegetation in the Himalaya – the thickest forests are north-facing.

Martoli is at 3400 meters, a quiet village in the Milam Valley that comes alive once a year in October for a Nanda Devi festival. Milam and the surrounding mountains have been open to mountaineers and trekkers only since 1993 when permits were first issued to travel in the Milam valley. It is currently a fairly well-visited valley for trekkers, and part of an ancient trading route to Tibet. After the hostilities with China in 1962, the route was closed an trading ceased. The trader communities stopped visiting these villages and the supporting farmer families found the short summers and harsh landscape less inviting. The villages slowly swept into decrepitude. Martoli is a typical example of such a village. We spend the evening and the next day resting and exploring the village and the birch forest. The forest yields a few flowering dwarf rhododendrons, flowering strands of the similar but unrelated Guizotia and Cassiope, isolated patches of Marchantia, horsetails and a purple orchid amidst Primulas along a stream. We meet several visitors at the local hotel – an old couple and their son heading back to Munsiari, a couple of German nanotech students enroute to Milam, a Bengali family enroute to the Nanda Devi base camp. Everyone has a story to say, everyone offers interpretations of the human condition. Our crew gave a wildly entertaining version on the evening of our arrival. The Bengali family praying at the Nanda Devi temple before their departure is another version.

Abhimanyu and Angshu outdo themselves and make another snow man, complete with arms of sticks and a discarded bidi stub and glasses for style.The snow man is soon dismantled and come in handy in a snow brawl a few minutes later. By now, many of us are sun-burnt, or mildly numb in the toes and fingertips due to frost bite. The wind dies down with the sun, and we sleep a quiet night. The next day is the long walk to Bugdiyar and we descend sharply at Rilkote and Mapang. The cliffs are high and steep and stunning. Forest and sheer cliffs and landslides compete for attention. The path goes quite close to the river, and with the drop in elevation, the humidity increases. We pass glacier-cut cliffs and sharp descents of the river to reach Bugdiyar at 2500 meters by evening and camp by the riverside. The river washes up rounded pebbles of varied colour and texture, a testament to the complex geology of the Himalaya. We are confronted by mating pairs of Plumbeous redstarts and an active nest with three eggs of the Grey Wagtail. The last day of the walk was through humid forests and some open areas closer to Lilam. We encounter Munna, also part of our previous trek crew. He now works for one of the companies involved in surveying the Bugdiyar site for a run-of-the-river power project. This involves a series of small dams on the river to divert the water into tunnels running through the mountainside and running turbines. Fact remains that this is a seismically active area, and that the river carries enormous amounts of silt weathered by the glaciers and eroded by rain – either way the turbines will be choked sooner than later. But the river bed will dry up. The lifeline of the people in the valley will no longer exist.

We reach Munsiari tired and wet. Binaji, mine and Srini’s hostess for the rest of our stay in Shankdura village, makes us feel at home with our first baths in ten days and a hot meal of rotis and subzi. The next day, we meet the women of the Maati collective at Sarmoli village, and hear their experiences of running homestays and include visitors like us as part of their otherwise busy lives. They also speak of their work as a collective, the experiences and politics of working with the van panchayat, male domination in the society, the impact of liqour on their lives. In living with them for a few days and promising to transport some rajma to Bangalore, we feel good at being part of their lives.

I leave Munsiari with the same unanswered, perhaps futile question – the meaning of human existence. I haven’t understood it any better, but perhaps I can put it in perspective – the Himalayas, its resilient people, the turbulent rivers, the captivating flora, the fine group of children that I went with – all contribute to the question, its very personal, present and future statements and meanings.

~ Thejaswi


A Walk Along Water : Aksha Excursion, 2016

In the winter of 2016, nine twelve year-olds and two teachers set out on a riverine and coastal walk.

We walked alone, in pairs or groups. We walked quietly or chatting softly, exchanging observations of our surroundings or just sharing stories from our lives, but, walking most of the time.

The landscapes were varied and wide: some breathtaking in their beauty and others striking in their filth. Beginning at an erstwhile trading town, Kharepatan, on the southern bank of the Vaghotan river, in Maharashtra, we walked and boated along the Vaghotan through verdant farmlands and garbage-lined shores, over vast ghostly, grassy cliff -tops. We waded through wet river streamlets, criss-crossed the river in a boat, swam in its waters but mostly, walked along its banks for fifty-five kilometres till we reached its mouth at the Arabian Sea in Vijaydurg.

The river widened mightily each day and as we reached the Arabian sea, the massive mouth was hardly recognisable as the same narrow river we had started our journey on just three days earlier! We noticed the salinity increasing during our daily swims.

The hospitality of communities and people along the way taught us a lot about the spirit of generosity: how people share time, space and resources; how people give of themselves to complete strangers expecting nothing in return. We were moved by the spirit with which our hosts opened their homes and kitchens to us!

Now turning south, we walked about eighty-five kilometres from Vijaydurg to Malvan along the Arabian sea; along her white sandy beaches and in her glass-like waters; up and down her headlands;sometimes flanked in foliage and at other times rocky or covered in a carpet of golden grass. Here too, as we moved further south, we noticed more evidence of human presence – garbage washed up along the high-tide lines.

But we savoured the sense of solitude between settlements, the sense that there was no one else but us on this tiny dot of a coastline. We returned the greetings of dolphins and seagulls having their own gatherings nearby; met two long fish and a myriad tiny crabs in the shallows. Sadly, we also encountered a dead turtle, cow, eel, puffer fish and shark.

All along our way, we received  the hospitality of many people – everyone from migrant labourers from Karnataka, to local residents and people in hotels and lodges where we stayed.  It was a humbling experience.

As we left the coast we realized that 8 days of eating healthy meals and walking 15-20 kilometres every day with 6-10 kilograms on our backs made us all a little more fit and a little less fat!

~ Nagini