Every flower was a smile, and there were thousands of them. The valley was smiling the fecund smile of flowers. Rich silken green was flowing easily down to meet a contented river. The breeze touched the flowers and became a purple-pink-yellow-blue wave on that shimmering green ocean. Clouds, restless and playful, added their cool moistness, changing the light every now and then, creating mystique from patches of light and shade.
Misty haze rushed upfrom the winter snow still hiding near the riverbed, screening everything from view, till I became free of the weight of time, hidden from the world, empty of all that was not mist, breeze, grass, river, snow. Till it was just the valley and me, awash with happiness. Having said all of which, I’m still anxious that I haven’t been able to convey the experience of beauty that the Valley of Flowers was.
Reaching the valley
It had been a long journey. An overnight train trip and a further day-long road journey on NH58 had taken me high up in the Garhwal Himalaya, near Joshimath, on the road that leads to Badrinath. But all this toil wasn’t enough for the god of flowers. Understandably. Something called by as intriguing and romantic a name as the Valley of Flowers cannot — should not — just be found conveniently off the highway. So next morning there was another journey, a steep hike from a point on the highway called Govindghat. And what a hike. I crossed a hanging bridge on the Alaknanda, and stopped, and marvelled: the walk to the Valley had hardly begun and it was already so breathtakingly beautiful, with immense mountains, snowy backdrops, a gushing river, and some 50 shades of green.
They stayed with me as I crossed the Alaknanda, met up with its tributary the Lakshman Ganga, and walked along it for a happy 4-5 hrs, as much away from the world as towards a new one. I covered more than 13 hilly kilometres during that trek, and would any day travel eagerly all the way from Delhi to visit any one hundred yards on that route. The portal to the new world was a settlement called Ghangharia, which is the overnight halt for the valley. And so, there was yet another journey next morning when I woke up fresh as the smell of pine trees around me. And left, with a guide, finally, for the Valley of Flowers.
The valley, but not yet
Up and above these trees, finally up and above all trees, along the gurgling Pushpawati River with patches of leftover snow on its edges. Far to the right was a mass of snow under which the Lakshman Ganga disappeared for a while after falling out of the clouds as a feisty waterfall. For the famous Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara, you went up on the stonepaved path beyond the waterfall. The path to the Valley of Flowers, a narrower mountain trail, went left past an official entry gate. Here the landscape was greener than anything else, a rich vibrant green.
At this altitude the dark tall pine that allows little undergrowth had given way to a dense canopy of evergreen oaks, fir, maple and the splendid birch trees with their whitish papery bark, the famous tadpatra used as paper in ancient times. Underneath was a rich and interesting shrub dotted with large pale yellow and pinkish flowers, and the readily distinguishable Morina longifolia with its long spike of flowers exhibiting all possible shades from white to rose pink at one go. This valley had flowers, and was part of the designated national park, but it was still not the Valley of Flowers. As we walked across this hill and crossed over a bridge, the valley narrowed into a fine gorge, compressing its forest between immense walls of rock. We were walking on an almost vertical slope, whereas on the other side was a mountain still higher, which, in fact, overhung us, giving a stern and austere look to the otherwise lush valley carrying the resonating sound of the icy waters flowing through it.
Beyond the gorge rose higher peaks and but for the guide, I might have concluded that the valley ended there, and may have gone back. In fact, many people come up till here and go back disappointed at not having seen any fields of flowers. As if to prove the point, we had to scamper over some loose rubble and then tiptoe over a small glacier till we reached a place called Bamini Dhar, where the treeline ends and where the valley becomes a bugyal — the high-altitude grassland meadow of Garhwal. I turned a corner from behind a big grey boulder and gasped in disbelief….
The entire valley was thick with clouds; slowly, a hazy picture loomed ahead of us — of an entire mountain slope covered with ice, framed by two dark hills, and a river coming down quietly next to it. As the clouds lifted, the vista opened up in its true colours and its incomparable smiling glory, with a foreground of dense green topped by pink, yellow, blue, white, purple flowers. Flowers plummeted down from dark rocks and eagerly proliferated among green grasses over every inch of space, devouring every morsel of soil and drinking in every trace of sunlight. The pale yellow of fritillaria, the light green lily, the bluish hue of cyananthus, snowwhite anemones, the bright red potentillas, and violet of delphiniums — today, the Valley of Flowers was an absolutely radiant canvas. There were more flowers than I could hope to learn about or even see properly.
The valley is home to a bewildering variety of different plant species; in a few square kilometres there were a hundred distinct species to be seen. Wading through a meadow-full of flowers, clutching my book, rolling the Latin names on my tongue — arenaria bryophylla, viola biflora, sorbus aucuparia and, fittingly, a garhwalium, and matching them to their colours… white, yellow, pinkish-purple, yellowish white — early in the afternoon, we reached the far end of the valley. It’s an area strewn with rocks and boulders and giving way to a plain where the Pushpawati spreads out into many streams and carries communities of the pinkish blooms of epilobiums on the drier portions of its bed. Here, we devoured our packed lunch while I was busy spying in the shadows for red fox and musk deer that are sometimes sighted in this area. This possibility, however, lies in September, once the rains are over. If you come in early May, large parts of the valley are full of blue primulas.
In June, it is the purple-red of geraniums that dominate, but gives way to herds of lanky, fragrant polygonums in September. But for me it was peak monsoon time. The season, as I could see, for the maximum number of flowers to bloom and for this sparkling greenery. The clouds congregated around us, and then converted into a drizzle as happens on most monsoon afternoons. It was wet but not biting cold and I enjoyed the soft trickle of water in my hair, but the flowers seemed to suffer in the rain. Some drooped, others wilted, some closed their wings, as if denied an audience with the sun. They seemed more inward, withdrawing into themselves, and not radiant.
More than the valley
Despite such an embarrassment of riches, people come here and manage to be disappointed. To me this underlines how disconnected people are to the wilderness, its multi-facetedness, its rhythms and its beauty. We are used to only the domesticated flowers, big colourful specimens that are taken out of their contexts and arranged in neat geometric patterns. This phenomenon is further amplified by promotional photography where again single flowers are framed, their settings edited out, their colours enhanced and their sizes blown up, such that people anticipate a ‘Mughal Gardens’ experience when they visit the Valley.
So they are often disillusioned in this verdant greenery sprinkled with the charming tiny blue forget-me-nots. It is in the wild that the true magnificence of flowers is actually to be seen. You see the thorough colonisation of an entire slope by flowers… inhabiting the soil, rising from between rocks and boulders, occupying the crags and the gullies. The flowers are the hill. It is an entire collective, a whole community that lives together and speaks to you as one, where each individual is different but it’s the entirety that you think of as the flower. Then you can zoom in on one flower and take note of its complexity and forget the rest, lost in the position of its leaves, the stalk, petals, stamens, colours…
About the Valley of Flowers
The Valley of Flowers was earlier known as Bhyundar Valley. The people, for whom the valley was home, and its meadows the summer grazing grounds for their animals, had populated the hills, rivers, flowers and forests in the valley with myths and stories about deities and fairies, about the Pandavas, and Shiva and Ram. In 1931, mountaineer Frank S Smythe and his colleagues chanced upon this valley on their way back from a mountain expedition, and were mesmerised.
“It was impossible to take a step without crushing a flower…. The Bhyundar Valley was the most beautiful valley that any of us had seen. We camped in it for two days and we remembered it afterwards as the Valley of Flowers.” And that’s how this patch of the Garhwal Himalaya got its exotic name. In 1937, Smythe got an opportunity to return here, this time as a botanist to collect flowers and seeds.
His reminiscences were published as the book The Valley of Flowers, the name stuck and the valley changed forever. It became part of the larger world, whose scientists studied it in great detail, and whose administrators colonised it. In 1982, it was declared a national park, out of bounds for the local people and animals, a protected habitat and tourism preserve. The people of the valley were thus forced to change and now run shops, guest houses and eating places, wanting ever more visitors. An area of 87.5 sq km was notified as a national park. Its altitude is above 10,500 ft and the region is under snow from November to April. Within its boundaries, the valley contains a range of altitudes and types of land and vegetation. Only 19 sq km is the kind of bugyal or meadow land that I have described above.
While in the Valley of Flowers
From Ghangharia you can do another trek (6 km/ 4 hrs, one-way) to visit the beautiful high-altitude Lake Lokpal or Hemkund (14,203 ft), the famous gurudwara there and the equally divine Brahma kamals. The ascent to Hemkund is tougher, the path stony and steep but well marked. The slopes are often speckled with flowers, which blossom wherever they can find even a hint of topsoil; otherwise the hillsides are tall, dark and imposing, sometimes making way for a gurgling stream or covered with still-to-melt snow. Hemkund Sahib has become an important pilgrimage for the Sikhs in the last couple of decades and they believe this to be the place described by Guru Gobind Singh where he meditated in a previous birth.
If you can somehow escape the constant loudspeakers (for they play devotional music endlessly), you will also find it an apt setting for meditation. Here you will be able to hear the fall of the water into the lake, the sweet trickle of droplets disappearing into the tranquil depths of the pool. The lake is surrounded by hills on all sides except one. One of them was blessed with the flower known as Brahma Kamal, a rare delight. Brahma Kamals are usually seen singly, or in twos or threes. They look whitish, are actually a very light green, and seem like somebody has very delicately cupped their hands to hold something inside, hands that are simultaneously raised heavenwards in praise or supplication. What you can see are the flower’s bracts: modified leaves. The actual flower, biologically speaking, is red or purple and is hidden inside. It blooms rarely.
By Amit Mahajan
Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer, translator, and has done a few other jobs. He hopes to add to the list, if he needs to keep earning.