This article was featured in the Open page of The Sunday Hindu on 17 December, 2023.
A gentle breeze rustling through the ancient deodar forests…a milky waterfall cascading down rocks and boulders…the shrill whistle of a Snow Partridge…a mystical temple precariously perched on a hilltop…the first sunrays glistening on pearly peaks…the city lights twinkling at a distance like a fairyland — what is the common thread that binds all these diverse montages together? The mountains, of course!
The UN General Assembly has declared 11 December as the International Mountain Day, to highlight the life-giving potential of the mountains, and spread awareness about their rich bio-diversity and the need to conserve it. Interestingly, the mountains account for 60-80% of the world’s fresh water supply, and are home to countless species of flora and fauna. They cover 24% of our land surface and provide shelter to 13% of the total global population.
For an orophile like me, this day holds a special significance. It evokes memories of all the beautiful hill destinations I have visited in both the northern and southern parts of the country. Each chain of mountains has its signature beauty. A lot depends on the altitude and terrain, which in turn, dictate the overall climate, the vegetation, and the lifestyle of its people.
During my solo trip to Uttarakhand in November 2022, I marvelled at the mesmerising beauty of the Winterline phenomenon, where an orange-gold faux horizon is formed at dusk in the winter months. It is visible only at two places in the world – Mussourie and Switzerland. Similarly, during my visit to Himachal Pradesh last month, I witnessed the Alpenglow effect where the snow-crested hill face turned flame red at sunset due to the indirect scattering of the sunrays. Both are scientific occurrences but for a layman, they are nothing but a miracle of nature, a splendid magic, that can be witnessed only in the mountains.
If the woodsy smell of the towering pines enamoured me at Tehri, it was the dense deodar forests that fought for space in Naddi. Down south, the hills are usually home to rolling tea plains like in Ooty, Coonoor and Munnar, often punctuated by the towering silver oak and eucalyptus trees that seem to whisper secrets to the azure skies.
However, mountains are not all about stellar views and Insta-worthy images. Real-time life in the mountains is difficult and even basic jobs like walking, cooking and farming require immense physical effort and stamina. They have a very vulnerable ecosystem that needs to be nurtured and respected. Accessibility and availability are major concerns for most part of the year when it rains or snows. Climatic disasters like flash flood, mud slide, landslide, and avalanche bring life to a complete standstill, jeopardising the safety and livelihoods of thousands. And more often than not, they are triggered by man-made reasons like irresponsible tourism, selfish commercial goals, mindless deforestation and unplanned urbanisation. The natural calamities in the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Kashmir in recent years, serve as cruel reminders of nature’s imbalance and fury. This, probably, is the thought behind this year’s theme – ‘Restoring Mountain Ecosystems’.
These parts are usually populated by simple, genial, god-fearing people who welcome tourists with open arms and wide smiles. They are proud of their habitat and never tire of regaling visitors with heartwarming stories of their land, their gods, their animals, and the abiding and symbiotic relation they share with the mountains. As a middle-aged solo female traveller, I have spent long hours with local cab drivers traversing desolate, forested patches winding through the dark, silent mountains, but have never had reason to feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
The sight of a Himalayan Griffon flying across the peaks gives us valuable life lessons in resilience, courage, and self-reliance. The mountains stand as silent sentinels, protecting us against many hostile elements – both human and natural. A mountain getaway gives us the best opportunity to make a primal connect with nature, to dive into an introspective odyssey. This Mountain Day, let us renew and strengthen our resolve to restore the glory of our ancient geological wonders.