Chasing Yamuna: A love story of our time

Deep in the valley, two men are digging the sand off the shore, on the brink of onset of a supposedly cold winter. One is in his early twenties, while other is barely fifty. He calls the older one, uncle (younger brother of his father). Both reign from Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh and have traveled 300 km away from home for work, to mine rocks and sand off the bank of the young river just a kilometer away from her source so their employer could construct more concrete buildings next summer to accommodate the increasing tourists. “We will work here until Diwali eve (a night prior to Indian festival of lights), when the temple will be shut for winter and priests will carry idol of maa Yamunotri down to Janki Chatti for rest of the time till summer” replies young Sudhir, while wiping off his forehead and back of the neck with a towel (gamchcha, as he calls it) and drinking water from a plastic bottle. Thin, grey-haired, wrapped in a white dhoti with multiple layers covering his top, Rajender continues to work with a shovel on another corner as I step further ahead towards the stream of the river. Out of curiosity when I asked, why doesn’t he drink from the river which was so clean, Sudhir replied, “You sure are kidding. Aren’t you?” I kept looking at him, and continue to embrace the beauty of the landscape with a smile, down the hill.

There was a magical city, set by Tomars and Chauhans in pristine greens on the bank of a river worshiped pure as The Ganges. Clean air, an unexpectedly green canopy and a huge catchment of rainwater for ample water supply and ceaseless groundwater; water so pure, that kings used to drink directly from the river when out or otherwise. Settled on the bank of mighty Yamuna, Delhi of modern times is one of the fastest growing global economies with its population exploding from mere 800 000 in 1947 to 22 million in next sixty years. This architectural marvel has traveled miles in history to land where she stands today. What’s special and most storied off late about this city is her lone freshwater resource, River Yamuna.

I was born on the bank of Yamuna some twenty-nine years ago, and the river has always been special to me. I have always defined myself with her. However, all these years what I craved for most was sipping a cup of coffee on the bank of the river – flowing with all her charm, reflecting the golden light of setting sun through the ripples under the background of chirping birds and cool breeze of spring. After spending two years in Pune, when I returned back home in July of 2015, I felt suffocated. The city, Delhi, had got cold in this while; fast, wild and emotionless. The soul was missing, that was crafting the city. Or the city was crafting a soul of her own? The debate had just one solution, as Buddha defined, “the route to real solutions is through the true wisdom, that’s yours – out of your experiences”.

For centuries, all human civilizations of yore are known by the river valleys where they originated, flourished and some even perished. Indus valley is the most storied pre-historic civilization of India, followed by Indo-gangetic plains of the late. Ganga-Jamuna sanskriti, is old enough to be the center of the limelight in epics of both Mahabharata and Ramayana. Digging further deep into the history revealed, the soul of Delhi resides in Yamuna, which is dying; waiting to be cremated.

I work with Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN), a youth-led voluntary organization working for the cause of improving the environment for present and future generations. During exploration of Barmer, Rajasthan (one among driest places in the country) a couple of months ago with IYCN, INECC, Laya and CASA, I dived deeper into issues pertaining to water in arid ecosystems and what water actually meant to people of the remote. The disparity between the meanings of the same resource for a farmer and my family member was extreme. Where I was flushing 6 litres peruse of the toilet, a farmer there was forced to live on 20 liters a day, that included drinking, bathing, washing, cooking and more.

Villagers of Alamsar, Barmer (Rajasthan) in conversation during the visit. Source: INECC
Villagers of Alamsar, Barmer (Rajasthan) in conversation during the visit. Source: INECC

The face of ‘head’ of a village in Alamsar, Barmer, is still hard to forget. In checked blue dhoti, purple turban and little-soiled kurta (the top), an old man in his late 60s sustaining a family of ten individuals including his wife, son and his family, was sitting in the front patiently answering most of the questions I had asked, with fellow visitors. Nearing the end of the conversation he asked a question to us, knowing we had deeper knowledge of concepts and greater access to technology. “This is Alamsar. Here, it rains good for one year and then for next 3-4 years we have a drought. Cattle and farming is our mainstay for making money. Last year, some days we had very limited water, just 20L/day/household, for drinking, household use, cattle, farm, etc., as water had to be purchased. Six of my cattle died.” Tears rolled down the tanned wrinkles under his eyes as he continued “Right now we have some water for the time ahead. But, I’m afraid of coming months. You are so educated. Please tell me what should we do, so our cattle don’t die next year.” That was a moment when I felt all my knowledge and degrees earned are so hollow with no real flesh.

Deeply moved by the state of affairs, on return, I decided to chase the river in month of October. The chase was about hunting for a glass of water from the river, good enough to drink. On broader spectrum, it was a chase of life that Yamuna supports during the course of her journey from source, Yamunotri, all the way to her mouth in Allahabad, where she perishes to join The Ganges, the river of life.

With some homework, it was decided that I’d be running from Dehradun, where Yamuna has her first dam, all the way to the source in Yamunotri, all by myself. The distance was 177 km comprising of trails through leopard ridden jungles, highways, and a tough exponential uphill climb increasing with distance. Another challenge was winter that was marching-in on higher altitudes and nights were getting cold as 2 degrees above freezing. Thus, a solo run from Dehradun to Yamunotri spanned over two days (or three at maximum) was suddenly a herculean task as whatever I’d need on course, was to be inside a bag that was supposed to be on my shoulders, all of the time. I realized how important were basics of survival while packing my bag, with threshold weight of 5 kilograms. With no specialized cold weather clothes that could fit me now, having spent two years in Pune, I was short on funds to get a new gear. Hence, I was forced to settle for whatever I had.

Two full sleeved running t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, a full length lower, two pairs of socks, a pair of shoes, a cap, a headlamp (for running in dark), 1.5L water bottle, 250 ml of honey, a medical kit with bandages, cotton, scissors and iodine solution, and a LifeStraw was all I packed with some money, mobile phone and very heavy power bank to keep my phone charged for next three days. 10 packets of electral, three packets each of lemonade mix and Tang, a few sugar candies, five Snickers, two packs of glucose biscuits were added to the list on arrival in Dehradun. The bag, in all, weighed 5.7 kilograms, excluding a tee, a cap, and a pair each of shorts, socks, and shoes I was wearing. Supriya Singh (President, IYCN) gracefully funded for a highly portable GoPro Action camera to record the key moments of the exploration. Thus, the chase was now official and found her feet under the umbrella of IYCN to make deeper sense out of the adventure, that was earlier lackluster with little limelight.

Going minimalist was the evident plan and I had surrendered to the river, I called mother, for taking care of me for rest of the time. To save further on costs, I reached Dehradun via train on the night of October 21st. The run was supposed to begin at 0230 hours past the same midnight from Railway Station of Dehradun, where I rested for a couple of hours following a late dinner. The route to be followed was Dehardun-Mussorrie-Yamuna Bridge-Barkot-Yamunotri, which was 177 km in total, with a gross elevation gain of 22 700 ft and highest altitude of 10,800 ft, the finish. The steepest section of Dehradun to Mussorrie was highly absorbing and was to be covered in the darkness of the night. Tourist Rest House by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) was booked at Janaki Chatti (Yamunotri) to avoid last minute rush of finding an accommodation with a tired body on scheduled arrival, that could be anything from morning to midnight.

yamuna
Elevation map from Mussorie to Yamunotri

As per the schedule, I took off from Dehradun, that was now in deep sleep, to my maiden climb to Mussorrie and further, on the dark roads in night ruled by stray dogs and some weirdly walking drunk men, asking questions far too many of my whereabouts. Ignoring, escaping and even battling a few, I reached the highway that was to lead me to Mussorrie, still 25 km away. A steep, consistent, winding climb. I can’t recall a stretch that was devoid of stray dogs, always ready to snatch a piece of flesh off my legs as I continued to fartlek through them with a bunch of stones in my hands for self-defense.

City lights were left far off and I was chasing the flickering lights on top of the mountain following the edge of road lit by white LEDs of my headlamp. I was drenched in my sweat within first two hours of running and the wet t-shirt was already giving pleasant shivers as the cold breeze passed through the lone layer shielding the skin that was a constant reminder, the tough part was yet to come. Soon after break of dawn, I reached on top of Mussorrie that was wide awake with tourists, cars and a traffic jam. A breakfast of boiled eggs, a boiled corn, a lemonade while embracing a magical view of Shiwaliks edging off Mall Road, was a perfect set-up. Wearing a desert cap with a hood, still hanging headlamp around my neck, a weird double-layered-backpack, and being in a singlet and shorts, I was suddenly a centre of attraction for people passing by – who were wearing sweaters and shivering. Adjusting the bag so that it doesn’t wobble while running was a challenge to settle on every drink break. Since there was some light now, I could capture some pictures and videos as per the plan to document the run that was worthwhile.

Next pit stop was Kempty falls, a popular tourist spot that was still 15 km away on road. As per my map to follow, it was mere 8 km away, with some part to be followed on trails. After a short break at Kempty falls, while relaxing under thumping water from hills, I took off for day’s first major pit stop, Yamuna Bridge. Kempty, just as per the stories, was heavily crowded, commercialized and had blocked the highway. A lemonade sipped and water bottle refilled, I was off in a jiffy before glares of surrounding people could begin to ask question of my mere existence. Despite all the chaos, I didn’t miss to hold quick conversations with locals selling stuff on edge of the roads about the place, their whereabouts, source of water in falls, its route, and the challenges they face. But, the most important question that was on my mind, and I was asking almost everyone I had met since last night, “How does Yamuna look at Yamuna Bridge?” a few tens of kilometres from Dakpathar. Answers encompassed all colors in the range of blue and green, yet, I was scared what if the real answer turned out to be black. After a struggle of 3 hours and 20 kilometers, I reached Yamuna Bridge, getting lost once in the jungles during the process.

It had taken me nearly 65 km and 10 hours from the start to get the first view of the river. Tears rolled down my eyes as I placed my bag on the floor and sat on a boulder on the river bank, sipping in lemonade and the first salted sugar-candy. I was tired, hungry and a much-needed break was in the sight. So, I decided to consume some cereal (daal) with a chapati and some boiled rice as the first heavy meal of the day. As I consumed my meal, I noticed some chaos outside the motel. A black snake was found under the bed of our neighbours and all were trying to get him out. In the process, the snake was beaten to death with a bamboo stick and was thrown in the river. “Yamuna is the river of death and takes in everything. Snake will be purified by her waters and will get birth of human in his next cycle of birth and death” explained an aged local of the village. Yamuna, sister of Yama (lord of death) and daughter of sun god “Surya”, is sacred, dark river, depicted as goddess Kalindi standing on kachchapa (tortoise). It is believed that a bath in the river results in one achieving liberation.

While gazing the flowing water I was asking myself, when will the chase be over? The parameters to be followed to determine the state of the river were primarily visual. However, observation of water was not the only parameter I had chosen to judge. The activities around the river for a couple of kilometers, local dependence on those waters and their domestic waste disposal mode were some other parameters that were required to be checked before I could gulp that water.

What was the color of the river at Yamuna Bridge? Was that the end of the chase? If not, why? For the continued adventure, stay tuned for the next post coming in a few days.

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