The certificate book of the Himalayan Hotel, Khati, is a repository of mountaineering history.
Harish Singh handed me a brightly coloured, crackling plastic cover with ‘Raj Fashions’ written on it; the name of a readymade garments shop in Bageshwar where his family had likely shopped. Within the bag was a small piece of Pindari Glacier history.
Khati is a big village on the trail to the Pindari Glacier. It is not as big as the nearby Wacham; it is a compact aggregation of houses, packing in several families into a modest expanse of land located steeply above the point where the Pindari meets the river flowing down from Sunderdhunga. What it lacks in scale, Khati makes up for on two other fronts — it is the last major village on the popular tourist trail leading to the Pindari Glacier; as last village, it has access to sizable forest lands beyond and the forest produce therein. Notwithstanding this local prominence, Khati is a young village. Its neighbours are older.
Harish, who was my colleague at an outdoor school in Ranikhet I worked for last year, hailed from Khati. He has heard that the area where the village stands was originally called ‘khata’, a general reference to any place where goat, sheep and buffalo are brought to graze and their dung settles into good manure for grass to grow. Usually animal shelters are built at such places and the people come up seasonally with their flocks. There are similar grazing spots at altitude traversed by hikers even today in the Himalaya, where if you visit off-season you are met by stone buildings and sheds with neither man nor animal around. It’s, of course, a different story in grazing season. Over time, Harish said, people from nearby villages like Pattag, Sorag and Supi moved permanently to the ‘khata’, forming the nucleus for the families who currently reside in Khati. Harish used to be very close to his father, the late Pratap Singh, a former soldier who, after retirement, ran the family’s small enterprise in Khati — the Himalayan Hotel. What was in that plastic bag was an old register kept at the hotel. It was titled ‘certificate book.’
Viewed in perspective, the book’s contents were engaging.
History began from the very first certificate on page one. Addressed to Gopal Singh, Harish’s grandfather, it was written on July 8, 1925, by Henry G. Hart, Secretary of the Lucknow Young Men’s Christian Association. Talking of his decision to mail Gopal Singh a little axe as token of appreciation for assistance provided on his trip to Pindari, Hart added, “ I am enclosing a copy of a letter which I have just written the Deputy Commissioner, Mr Rutledge, in which I recommend your help if he tried the Pass again.” Two things attracted attention. The ‘Pass’ referred to here was likely Traill Pass or Traill’s Pass or even Trail Pass and Trail’s Pass, as all these spellings exist in our world’s reservoir of information.
George William Traill was the second British Commissioner of Kumaon. The pass named after him lay at the top of the Pindari Glacier. Mr. Rutledge was most likely Hugh Ruttledge, the well known explorer of the Himalaya, who once served as Deputy Commissioner at Almora. Besides his explorations trying to find a route into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, he was also involved in the early expeditions to Everest. A brief account of Ruttledge’s 1925 attempted crossing of Traill Pass can be seen in the archived issues of the Himalayan Journal brought out by the Himalayan Club. Even today, going up the pass from the Pindari valley is much tougher than trying it from the Milam side. Given the technical difficulties, trekking parties don’t normally try this pass; mountaineering teams do it once or twice a year. Then again, as far as I know (I could be mistaken), it hasn’t been done up the icefall of the Pindari Glacier. From the Pindari side, the approach is designed along the shoulder of Nanda Khat avoiding the gnarly, cracked icefall.
H.W. Tilman, in his account of the ascent of Nanda Devi, says it was Ruttledge who first called the Nanda Devi Basin, the ‘Sanctuary,’ a name by which the area within the outer ring of high mountains and guarded by them, has become popularly known. Tilman then quotes a passage credited to Ruttledge and opening with the famous sentence, “Nanda Devi imposes on her votaries an admission test as yet beyond their skill and endurance.” In a letter to the London Times in 1932, Ruttledge described the challenge, “A seventy mile barrier ring on which stand twelve measured peaks of over 21,000ft which has no depression lower than 17,000ft except in the west where the Rishi Ganga rising at the foot of Nanda Devi and draining the area of some 250 square miles (799 square kilometres) of snow and ice has earned for itself what must be one of the most terrific gorges in the world.”
The Ruttledge mentioned in the register, appeared to be this Ruttledge.
In his book The Nanda Devi Affair, Bill Aitken has dwelt on Traill and Ruttledge, plus a third person important to this article. “Traill’s perseverance in crossing the dangerous ice-fall linking Milam with the source of the Pindar was rewarded with the naming of an unfixed pass after him. On top of this, his explorations have been accorded sporting status. It seems more likely his search for a shortcut had been occasioned by the East India Company’s desperation to get a share of the ‘shawl wool’ filtering over the passes from Tibet (shatoosh happens still to be the most expensive fabric in the world). If Traill is to be termed the discoverer of the pass what does that make Malak Singh, the villager who guided him up and over the ice-fall? The descendants of Malak Singh continue to remind all visitors on the Pindari glacier trek of their ancestor’s prowess but unlike the Chomolungma lobby that deplores the imposition of ‘Mount Everest’ there is as yet no insistence on dislodging ‘Traill Pass’ for ‘Malak La,” Aitken wrote.
George William Traill went over the pass that has since borne his name, in 1830. Malak Singh — he became known as Malak Singh Buda, that last denoting the position of being an elder — was the grandfather of Gopal Singh, in whose time the ‘certificate book’ appears to have commenced its life. That made Harish, the current caretaker of the book, the great-great-grandson of Malak Singh. In October 1987, a party signing in the book as “D.P. Nad & Party” from Asansol confirms hearing the story of Malak Singh and Traill Pass from Pratap Singh. There is also an old clipping from a Hindi newspaper — date not available — in which the Nainital Mountaineering Club is reported to have suggested renaming Traill Pass to reflect Malak Singh’s role in exploring the route. The Hindi word used in the report to describe Malak Singh’s work is khoj, which means search or explore.
In the Pindari area, Gopal Singh held an official designation called ‘Sarkari Bania,’ which, according to Harish, was akin to being a government-appointed supplier of food and essentials. In that role, he appears to have assisted many travellers on the Pindari trail. Harish remembers family talk of his grandfather as a locally important person thanks to his position and the people he encountered so. Thus there is a touch of royalty in the contents.
On October 3, 1940, at Furkia (also spelt Phurkia), a halt up the trail from Khati towards the Pindari Glacier side, a letter was issued by the ‘Baroda Camp Officer’ certifying that Gopal Singh had accompanied the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda, to the Pindari Glacier. “The note issued on paper bearing the seal ‘Huzur Office, Baroda’ — it is there in the book — says, “His Highness has presented him (Gopal Singh) a wrist watch in appreciation of his services.” Another piece of similar paper work from the past was the certificate issued in May 1935 by the President of the United Provinces Legislative Council.
The most endearing story from the register should be the one linking the following two certificates.
On October 9, 1936, F.W. Champion, Deputy Conservator of Forests, West Almora Division, wrote, “Gopal Singh ran an exceedingly good bundobast for us while camping at Martoli on the Pindari Glacier. I had a large number of followers and mules, but I did not have any sort of complaint from anyone — which is unusual. He also seems to be a very pleasant mannered man, only too keen to oblige and I am sure that his presence here as sarkari bania is of great assistance to people touring to the glaciers.” Seventy years later, on October 9, 2006, there is an entry in the book by James Champion from Scotland where he has recorded his gratitude to Harish and his father for having looked after him well when he was retracing the steps of his grandfather F.W. Champion, IFS, who had made the same journey in October 1936 and was guided by Gopal Singh, Harish’s grandfather.
The Himalayan Hotel is no more there in Khati. The register remains.