When we were heading out to the Valley of Flowers, a friend, Nitin told us about the village of Reni, not far off, where the Chipko movement started. He also mentioned that we may get to meet people who would know songs from that time, which is what got us really excited about going there. He put us in touch with one ‘Sunilji’, who he said would help us to get to Reni. After many conversations with Sunilji, who lives in Dehradun, Iswar seemed to have figured out how to get to Reni, so we headed out from Joshimath in a shared taxi that was heading out towards the village of Lata. We’d been told to jump off at ‘Thaniji ki dukaan’ and ask for ‘Ranaji ka ghar’ from there.
When the taxi reached Reni, Iswar jumped off and started pulling out our luggage at top speed. (Iswar: In my defense there was a shop there!) Just as our car zoomed off, he asked the shopkeeper, is this Thaniji ki dukaan?
And of course, it wasn’t. All shops don’t belong to Thaniji. The dukaan we wanted was 2 km away, near the village of Lata. So we had to hoist up our backpacks and set off again. A half hour walk later, we’d reached the dukaan we were supposed to. Just as we were approaching I had this vague memory of Nitin telling us that Ranaji’s house was a one hour uphill trek from the main road.
And of course it was! The one hour trek took us two hours, but we finally arrived at Ranaji’s house in Lata. Here’s the village of Lata and the windy path up to it.
In the first ten minutes of meeting Ranaji, I kept thinking that he reminded me of somebody, and then it hit me- Fidel Castro, but with a beedi! And ten minutes later, Iswar said, if I ever need to cast anyone in a film as Chattrapati Shivaji, this would be the guy.
So here he was, a small-built but fierce looking maverick of a guy who was initially wary and reserved but over the next few days totally warmed up to us and even burst out into songs from various protest movements – including the Chipko when he was just sixteen – that he had been part of.
Lata is a village of hardly hundred families at the border of the Nanda Devi reserve and it is here and in the neighbouring village of Reni that the Chipko movement began, and created an environment for political activism in these villages, which had also greatly influenced Ranaji. When the Nanda Devi sanctuary was closed to outsiders, Ranaji was one of the people who led the protest against this decision, saying that this would greatly damage the livelihood of people in surrounding villages who depended on the forests on a daily basis. Since Lata is on the edge of the Nanda Devi reserve, many of the men in the village have at various times served as porters on expeditions to the Nanda Devi peak, including Ranaji, who went on the 1976 expedition. With this experience, he also presents very convincing arguments to prove that these expeditions do more damage to the ecosystem then the presence of the villagers. We spent much of the four days in Lata with Ranaji, reading his writings, talking to him about it, showing him our video, watching videos about Nanda Devi, walking around with him and listening to rare snatches of song from him.
On our second day at Lata, Ranaji took us to Reni, a 4 km walk away, to meet some of the women who were part of the Chipko movement. This is Bali Devi, who we spoke to at length and even sang one of the movements’ songs for us.
This is the path to the village of Reni and the trees above it are all part of the original forest that was saved by the women of Reni. We’d stopped for Ranaji to point and tell me some of the history of the place. Its a bit long to include in here, but if you want to know more, here’s a pretty accurate wiki entry about the history of the Chipko movement http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chipko_movement.
Now back in Lata, there was one other guy who hogged our attention in Lata. His name is Sweeti or Julie depending on who you ask, and here’s a photo of him.
Ok fine, he wasn’t just any guy, he was their pet polar bear.
Some of the time we also spent watching the family make concrete blocks for no particular purpose. When we asked them, they said that the cement that they had was going bad, and there wasn’t any farming work, so they were fetching rocks and sand from nearby and just making as many concrete blocks as they could for some future unknown use. Iswar hammered away at rocks for a little while, but unfortunately no photos of him.
One of the highlights of our stay at Ranaji’s was eating local Garhwali food – this yummy local spinach called Cholayi, and rotis and uttappam-like things made from local grains and the best was that everything is flavoured with this ‘salt’ that is made at home, made up of salt, red chillis, a ginger-like local root, dhaniya leaves, pudina leaves, this grass-like herb that smells and tastes like onion, and tons of garlic, all pounded up together. Here’s the salt making in action.
Soon after this fresh batch was made we got to taste it sprinkled on cucumbers fresh from their farm, each of which was as big as a pumpkin. We also got to taste two kinds of the local liquor, one wine-like and the other beer-like.
Sunilji who we spoke to on the phone is Dr. Sunil Kainthola, who along with Ranaji, his son and others has set up both a community based eco-tourism venture (www.mountainshepherds.in) as well as an online store to promote and sell Uttarakhand spices, clothes, music, handicrafts etc. (www.angwal.in)
Some other photos from in and around Lata and Reni