The incident which I’m about to talk about here happened a long time ago, when I was 12 years old and even more stupid than now. I’m from Jammu, somewhat famous for it’s Vaishno Devi Temple.and a bit too famous for terrorist related news. The attention is entirely undeserved for the 2nd part though.
So it happened that I was in Ramnagar for a week during my summer vacations in 1996-97 when I was 12-13 years old. It’s an old historical town nestled among beautiful hills famous for it’s well designed forts. Apart from that it’s an excellent location for trekking. The hills are covered with pine trees, houses are few and far in between and the weather is much cooler than the cities in plains.
A similar place elsewhere would have been developed and made famous in to a hyped tourist attraction, but a lot of things(which I’d rather not explain here) have prevented that till now. Anyhow coming back to the topic, I had two other boys for company, Manu a year younger than me and Vicky, 2 years older (Names aren’t real). Vicky like me, had come in to spend his holidays in Manu’s house. We spent our days collecting wild berries and playing cricket, marbles etc. It was all great fun for 5-7 days after which some monotony started to set in. So one day we were lazing around on the roof of Manu’s house when I noticed a white temple on a distant hill top. I asked Manu about it and he said that he had no idea.
Not to be discouraged so easily, I asked another question, “How long does it takes to get there ?”
Again same answer. “How to get there ?”
This time he had an answer, “Umm,, I think a bus plies on that route once a day.”
Encouraged, I asked, “Have you ever been there ?” I had half-expected the no for an answer and was not disappointed.
Suddenly, I had a bright idea,” You haven’t seen it till now ? Let’s go there then.”
Surprisingly, both agreed at once. I jumped to my feet getting ready to embark on journey and said, “Great, lets do it then.”
They both looked at me surprised, “What, you mean right now ? Look at the watch, it’s going to be completely dark soon. We’ll go there tomorrow morning. They had a point and I had to agree. In hindsight, that was probably the only rational decision we made for next 24 hours.
I don’t remember much about the night but I guess that we had our dinner soon after. During dinner, I asked Manu’s granny about the temple. She was a a bit more knowledgeable about that temple, but not too much. All we could get that it was far away and it’s site of a small annual fair. Next morning, after breakfast, we ran out of the house without saying anything to anyone. Other folks thought that we were off to play something as usual and didn’t pay any attention.
One thing, I like about mountains is that there aren’t too many roads and it’s almost always possible to take shortcuts. There was only a single road passing by the house and we took it, on foot. Let me explain the situation again, we saw a temple on a distant hilltop (must be atleast 10-12km away as the crow flies) and decided to walk to it without any idea of the route and without packing up any food and water. Going was good for first 15-20 minutes when we decided to leave the road and started walking straight towards the temple. Apparently, walking on roads is for wusses.
And trust me, we kept on walking, a lot. For a city kid like me, the place was amazing. Beautiful hills, cool weather, smell of pine trees, occasional berries and springs. Neither of us felt tired at all. Manu didn’t because he was used to mountain life, while me and Vicky were probably running on adrenaline. It was great while it lasted. The area wasn’t heavily populated at that time and we saw very few people in our way. The fact that we were NOT traveling on a path probably played a role too.
One peculiar thing that I haven’t seen anywhere else is that in many hilly areas of Jammu, small water springs are worked upon with mortar and stones and made in to small tanks, 2-4 feet wide and equally deep. Apparently it isn’t same as having fresh water direct from the source, but I guess it’s helpful for people in some ways. We came across some of these in our way and although I was wary of drinking water directly after seeing some algae like stuff , I soon had to drop all the pretensions and drink that water.
In spite of everything, we managed to reach the temple somehow. I don’t remember exactly how much time did it take. We had left the house in between 8 and 9 and it was well past noon when we finally reached there. The temple itself was nothing remarkable. Just a small, plain white building with an idol inside. To top it, the priest wasn’t there and the door to idol was locked. But that didn’t affect us (or atleast me) in the least.
We were somewhat tired by now and sat down in front to rest a bit. We had been climbing up and down hills and th exercise had made us really hungry. That’s the probable reason why we didn’t spend too much time there or went even further. :p
We were back on our feet and tried to locate our starting point. Unlike the white temple on a hill top, we couldn’t get an exact fix except an approximate direction. That was good enough for us anyhow and we started walking back. The journey back was mostly incident free for a while when I began to feel cramps in my stomach. At first I thought it must be due to the dirty water with algae that I had consumed earlier. The other two noticed my discomfort after some time and Vicky being the oldest offered to carry me on his back. He even tried to pick me but I refused as it only made pain worse and it’d have been impossible for him to walk on that terrain anyway. We kept walking, albeit a bit slowly for some 20-25 minutes after which the pain disappeared by itself. It wasn’t due to dirty water after-all.
By now, the afternoon was giving way to evening and shadows were getting longer. Also quite a lot of our path was on sides and foothills of hills which meant that we had no clear sight of our destination. Atleast twice we found ourselves walking in a different direction than what we thought we were supposed to.
After traveling like this for quite some time we came across a 2-3 women washing clothes in a small pond and asked them for directions. At first they were a bit confused but then pointed us to 2-3 different directions which led to a bit of argument amongst themselves. After thanking them awkwardly we tried the direction which they seemed to be less unsure. After a few minutes, we climbed up to a high hill and indeed found ourselves more or less on path. At that time we must have patted ourselves heartily on our collective backs for our “excellent” navigational skills, but in hindsight it was more of our good luck than our skills.
Finally after yet another 80-90 minutes of walking we found ourselves near the exit of woods which began near the house. It was past 6 and getting quite dark.
Relieved, we picked up our paces and walked up to the backyard of house where we found a small crowd engaged in energetic discussion. Suddenly they noticed us and all hell broke loose. Some family members emerged, grabbed our arms and thus began the angry interrogation which to us lasted much longer than our journey.
“Where the hell were you morons whole day ?”
“What were you doing ?”
“Why didn’t you inform anyone? “
and dozens of other questions which you can guess quite well. The questions didn’t stop even through a major part of dinner.
The elders were quite worried by our disappearance and were just about to contact police when we came back, so I guess it was quite a big deal. :D Only hint that they had was the question about temple that we had asked from granny. She never quite stopped mentioning the incident whenever she saw me for the rest of her life. [ She passed away 4 years back :( ]
Now whenever I think of traveling, hiking etc, this first independent travel of mine is almost the benchmark for everything else. Although I don’t remember all the details, it’s still a cherished memory. Yes, even after all that scolding in the evening. I haven’t been to Ramnagar for a long time and want to go there again. Maybe it’ll happen someday soon and I’ll walk to that temple again.