Didna Village

The Futur of India lies in its villages - MK Gandhi.

Last October, I trekked for the first time in the Himalayas. The base village where we began our 4-day Ali Bedni Bugyal trek is called Lohajung. Lohajung is situated 257km from Rishikesh. It is an 8-9 hours drive from Rishikesh. There are limited buses to this village. However, there are enough shared taxis  to Lohajung from the town of Dewal, located at a distance of 28KM from it. While driving from Rishikesh to Lohajung, one passes through a section of Char dham circuit. We passed through Karan Prayag, Srinagar and Rudra prayag. The road conditions are fairly good, except for the last stretch. The road from Dewal to Lohajung, though paved, badly needs a repair. Nevertheless, there is an approachable road till the village of Lohajung. 

Nestled in the Garhwal Himalayan valley of Chamoli district in Uttarakhand, Lohajung is one of the most beautiful places I have visited in this country. The main road leads you directly to an old tree at the centre of a junction. Under the tree, the locals sit and chat all day like in most Indian villages. Four streets diverge from this junction; towards various villages around the region. On each side of these streets are shops. Some sell local harvests or savouries and many rent out trekking gears. But the most impressive thing about this village is the view it has to offer.

If you climb up a small hill next to the junction to reach the only government school in the region, you will witness a spectacular view of the valley. I saw a few houses scattered around the region and terrace fields ripe enough to be harvested. At a distance, the snow capped Nandagunti, stands tall and adorns the setting.

We hiked up a neighbouring hill. On this narrow path uphill, I met a villager and his mule Heera. Heera was overloaded with packed bags. He waited patiently for the man to finish his smoke. Apparently, there is a village on top of the hill. The only way to reach it is by foot. The villager had gathered all the essentials and was on his way back to the village. Yes the animal is overloaded, and yes, it does not deserve to endure this hardship. But visiting this village, gave me an opportunity to look at it from another perspective as well. Here, man and animal have developed a unique bond.  

All through my stay in these mountains, I noticed a special attachment between the villagers and their mules. The mules were fed on time, allowed to rest enough for the hard work they had to endure. I know all of this could be easily debated as the animals do not need humans to feed them.  But still, there is a strong sense of camaraderie between the villagers and the animal that is hard to be ignored. 

On the first day of the trek, we drove 6km by road to reach the village of Kulling. From here, we took a trail down the valley and climbed up to the other side. After a short trek of 4 km, we reached the village of Didna. Didna, a small village consisting of less than 30 houses, is situated on a plateau, on the other side of the valley from Lohajung. If you find Lohajung to be beautiful, then Didna deserves a superlative.

Most of the the houses on this plateau face the valley and mountains towards the west. The trail to the alpine meadows of Ali and Bedni lies behind this village. We were allotted a homestay owned by our guide. It is built according to authentic pahadi design. The front door faced the setting sun. Needless to say that we had a great view. Since the village, is kind of, cut-off from the civilisation, there is hardly any disturbance here. Our guest house in particular was hidden away from the view of the villages on the other side of the valley. Therefore at night, we saw no artificial lights at all. 

The mules that carried the tents and grocery that was required for our trek, got some much deserved rest. They threw themselves on to the loosened mud prepared for them by the villagers and turned around to rub their tiring backs. They rolled in the mud to get rid of the itching, insects and perhaps also to exercise their joints. After witnessing that interesting sight, we took a walk around the village. Next to our guesthouse, a group of villagers were building a new house. At a distance, a farmer, along with his wife and teenage son, was harvesting potatoes. The shepherds from here and other neighbouring villages, I learnt, take their animals - sheeps, cows, mules and horses to the meadows for grazing. They live there with the animals until the winter approaches. As we headed further, we met an old lady in her traditional Garhwal attire. She was walking up to her house with a humongous stack of dry grass tied to her back. She had gathered them from the jungle for her animals. 

She threw the stack near the animal shed and invited us over for some tea. Some of the girls from our group accepted her invite. She spread a mat for the girls to sit and kept a kettle filled with water on the Choolah (Traditional mud stove) that was fuelled using dry sticks. While the water boiled, she struck a conversation with them and enquired more about them and their lifestyle. We walked back to the guesthouse as it was getting dark. 

At nightfall, we had a spectacular view of the sky filled with stars. With the help of our teammate’s binoculars, we identified the moons of Jupiter and various constellations. The caretaker at our guesthouse was a lady, perhaps in her late 30s. She returned from the farm with some freshly plucked rajma (Kidney beans) and pahadi karela (Mountain Bitter gourd). She allowed us to taste a few. The bitter gourd was hardly any bitter and tasted as refreshing as a cucumber. After dinner, we hit the bed almost immediately. There was no need for a fan or an air conditioner here. Even electricity wasn’t of much help. In that mud plastered house, under a stone roof, I slept peacefully. 

I remember thinking about visiting the village again someday and spend a week exploring its surroundings, and observing the lifestyle. I would also like to take some time out to paint or write. On some days, I would just do nothing but sit and enjoy the views. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful vacation? I bet my description of these villages has made you want to experience something similar. I have hopefully romanticised my experience enough that you now desire to visit a mountain village like this, that is cutoff from the civilisation. Well, all that you have read so far is just one side of the story. There is always another side. What follows, is the other. 

As I mentioned earlier, the roads leading to Lohajung passes through a section of Char Dham circuit. The Government of India has sanctioned the widening of these roads. A lot of this stretch is under construction currently. Himalayan roads are known for terrible landslides. Environmentalists claim that the ongoing construction is causing an increase in landslides. On our way back from Lohjung to Rishikesh, we witnessed two major landslides. After waiting for almost 30 minutes, we had to race past the zone and luckily missed the falling stones by a few inches. The roads to Lohajung have been paved since a long time now. It will however require occasional repairs to bring it back to shape. 

Lohajung is the base village for important treks like Roopkund, Ali-Bedni Bugyal, Brahmatal etc. Apart from being farmers, villagers also take up the job of trek guides or support staff for the treks. With gaining popularity of these treks, this small Himalayan village is noticing a huge influx of visitors during the peak season. From electricity to mobile network, this village has all the facilities. 

There is a school that attends to kids up to high school. On our way, we also saw a new college announcing registrations. Most villagers however travel to Dewal or Dehradun for higher studies. Our guide’s family lives in Dewal to avail a better education at a private school. While he quit the city life after doing odd jobs and returned to the mountains of his childhood, he wonders if his children would have any reason to do the same? Lohajung cannot be called a village that is cut-off from the civilisation anymore. And people are exploring other ways to survive rather than simply depending on farming. Infrastructure developments in the village has only been increasing over the years. But things are not the same with Didna. 

Until recently, Didna had access to only solar power. Our guide tells us that last year, they have had the privilege of receiving electricity. The solar cells still stand there, blankly looking up at the sky. But there is something interesting to note about the villagers of Didna. 

These villagers are basically from Lohajung or Kulling who moved to the plateau for farming. Therefore, this is their second home. During summer, they come here to farm on the plateau and go back to their houses in the valley during winter. Most of them, including our two guides, have a house in Lohajung and Didna. Recently the Government, under the scheme - Pradana Mantri Awas Yojna, has funded for new houses. The villagers have availed this benefit to build new houses for themselves. Our guides, on the other hand, have built home stays for their visiting trekkers. There is a divide among the inhabitants of Didna - Few who still farm and others who do not. It is the latter who have converted their homes into guest houses. 

Today, we have to trek across the valley to reach Didna. But just like how the electric transmission lines have made their way across the valley, someday, the motorable road that now ends at Kulling will find its way to Didna. After all, that for us seems to resemble “Development”. Is it so? 

I wonder, if this is what development actually means. Are good roads, electricity and infrastructure the signs of development? And at what cost do these developments come in? Do we risk losing people, their culture and lifestyles? 

I grew up in a small village near Surathkal, in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. During my childhood, I have experienced a very different lifestyle from what exists there today. I remember my house surrounded by paddy fields. To go to school, I had to walk along a narrow path between the fields and reach a slightly wider unpaved street. After half a kilometre walk along that street, I would reach the highway. During the harvest season, workers from nearby villages would come to help the farmer harvest paddy, in return of a daily wage. The group of women walking past our house never forgot to stop and chat with my mother and grandmother. As I sat outside at noon, I could here them sing a folk song in the fields. In the evening, on their way back, they would stop by to have some tea and snacks at our place. Many strangers who would walk long distances in those days would stop for some water. My grandmother would serve them some jaggery as well. She would tell me that jaggery helps quench the thirst. Such were those times. 

But today, things are way too different. There is a concrete road  leading upto my house and the paddy fields have disappeared. They lie dry, unploughed for years. The farmers have sold them off to a builder. Their children have become engineers, moved to distant cities and cannot return back to their homeland due to commitments. Therefore, there are no villagers coming to harvest paddy anymore. Moreover, we rarely see strangers walk around. If anyone does, it only raises suspicion. All this makes me wonder about our idea of development? Connecting distant villages through roads was never a difficult task. It can be easily done; even to a remote village like Didna. But one has to ponder on what are its consequences?

Having received electricity and new houses, will the villagers of Didna now demand for wider roads to the plateau? Will that new access to the cities eventually snatch away from them, their children, their lifestyle and their culture? This is not an argumentative article that I write here, but I am trying to understand the nature of development we are so obsessed with? Does development mean a slow transformation of villages into cities? Because, the roads and electric transmission lines can be easily dragged upto these villages. Perhaps we can also bring education to these settlements. But what about employment? So then, is replacing farmers with engineers and clerks, a sign of development? What do we therefore need and what we do not?

We seek knowledge and awareness, but do we need degrees and certificates? We need to learn survival skills, but do we need an employment? We need healthy life style and maybe sometimes access to modern medicines, but do we need a hospital at our door step?  We need connectivity, but do we need wide paved roads and vehicles? Are we finding solutions to the problem that does not exist and then dealing with the problems these solutions bring? 

Therefore, can development mean improving the lives of the villagers by modernising their work but not forcing them to acquire new ambitions and different lifestyles? Or do we even need to do that and instead leave them undisturbed? 

There are so many questions that emerge and I do not claim to have an answer for them all. But I cannot help but wonder, if in the end, are these so called roads of development only killing a peaceful existence, a way of living; in which humans have been, without any complexity, coexisting with nature?