Circa 1974, four young activists in their 20s set out on a 45-day journey, traversing 1,110 km on foot across the Himalayas. The journey started in May from Askot in eastern Kumaon bordering Nepal and ended in July in Arakot in the western hills of Garhwal bordering Himachal Pradesh. Sekhar Pathak, Shamsher Singh Bisht, Kunwar Prasun and Pratap Shikhar walked six to eight hours a day, ate with villagers, slept in their homes and talked to locals to know about their daily travails.
Walking through remote villages, river valleys, forests and pastoral lands in what is now Uttarakhand and was then part of Uttar Pradesh, the four men acquainted themselves with the mountains and the life of its people like never before. Their motto: Know your village, know your people.
Four decades on, Pathak undertakes the arduous trek again — beginning the journey on May 25 as he did all those years ago.
The 1974 yatra went on to become a research expedition to be undertaken every ten years — 1984, 1994 and 2004 and now 2014 — to record changes in the lives of the people and the hill ecology. Christened Askot-Arakot Abhiyan, the yatra is now organised by Pahar (People's Association for Himalaya Area Research), which was founded by Pathak in 1983.
Says the renowned historian and academic: "I was 23 and a student of Almora Degree College when I first went on the yatra. Being from the hills, I wondered what more I could learn about my people and region walking from village to village." He and three friends were summoned by veteran activist Sunderlal Bahuguna to travel the hills to understand its life and people better. And there was a lot of learning to be done.
The yatra turned out to be a humbling experience and continues to be so. "Trekking for 45 days across the Himalayas makes me realise how small I am and how little I know," says Pathak, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007.
The Abhiyan traverses through 350 villages, 16 bugyals (alpine pastures), 20 kharaks (high-altitude grazing fields), 15 chattees (ancient pilgrimage camping sites), eight regions where the Chipko movement started and, this year, will also pass through the deluge-affected regions of Uttarakhand. Through the journey, the trekkers will meet indigenous communities like the Jaunsaris, who trace their origins to the Pandavas and practice polyandry and polygamy, along with the Bhotiyas, Banrajis and Jats.
Interestingly, the core yatris who trek for the complete 45 days — others can join and leave the yatra according to their time and convenience — follow the rules set by the original trekkers. You cannot spend any money during the yatra so you have to rely on villagers for food, shelter and other amenities. The FAQs section on Pahar's website emphasises that "one needs to ask/cajole/persuade them for the same".
You can't carry a tent or take porters along. The idea is to ensure that you interact with villagers and get a taste, quite literally, of their lives.
"Sometimes you do it for your own selfish reasons, like a cup of tea or snacks, but the yatra helps you create a fruitful dialogue with the locals," says Kamal Joshi, 60, who was part of the yatra in 1984 and 1994 despite being asthmatic.
He believes the best thing the yatra does is to help you explore yourself. "You get to know things about yourself and your own strengths and limitations. I think it makes you a better person and it is for everyone.
If you are a doctor, you'll become a better doctor; if you're a writer, you'll become a better writer," he says.
Sure, it gets tiring and sometimes you feel like giving up. "But then you realise that the path you will take only once in 10 years, most villagers take every day. You realise their hardships and also see the innovative ways in which they try and overcome them," he says, adding that he will continue with the yatra till as far as he can.
Through the years, Pathak has traced changes in the region and witnessed the positives and negatives of development. "Alcohol has reached remote villages along with roads. So have Coca Cola and Maggie. Mobiles are ubiquitous as is western wear, though the people have managed to preserve their language and folk culture," he says.
This year, more than 500 people are set to join the yatra at various points along the 1,110-km stretch. The core group that will walk for all the 45 days will comprise about 12 people. "We have students, academics and professionals joining us from India and abroad," says Chandan Dangi, who has a corporate job and is using all his earned leave to join the yatra for about 10 days. He is also organising the yatris from Delhi to join the starting point in Askot.
"I am a little worried since many people want to join the yatra because it is too hot in Delhi and want to escape to cooler climes. But this isn't a picnic and can get tough on people," he says. "I'd prefer fewer people but in sync with our motto."
For those who want to join the Askot-Arakot Abhiyan, there's still time since it will continue till July 8 and you can join the yatris anytime along the route. But be warned, the yatra is a quest for knowledge and not a vacation in the hills, even though you'd traverse some of Uttarakhand's most spectacular landscapes.
Details of the schedule: