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Frozen Passes and Primordial Fossils in Kumaon

Nov 2016


We run into Lalith Rana in a chai shop at Bubbledhar after a steep ascent through the forest above the Rairgari bridge - on the trail back to Munsiari from the Johar valley. He is known to our companions Harish and Balwant - but other than a quick exchange of namastes, it is only later, in Khalkot, after the trail crosses Mainsingh Top and begins the descent to Pungdeo and Lilam, that we actually catch up and chat with him.


Lalith Rana has accompanied Indian Army and ITBP joint "LRP" (Long Range Patrol) missions beyond Milam and Dung right up to the borderlands between India and China.  This is fabled land, for us, mountain-smitten, occasional visitors to the Johar valley and we lap up what he has to tell us about the terrain and sights in those far reaches.


After the border between India and China closed in 1962 the entire region of Johar, and its adjoining valleys, fell silent. Trade, along this route, to and from the mandis (markets) of Gyanima in Tibet ended for the Shauka traders of the Milam valley. Their once flourishing villages - Milam, Bilju, Burphu, Tola, Martoli, Rilkot, Ganghar, Pacchu - are shadows of their past with only a handful of families and elders, sentimentally attached to these astonishingly beautiful places, making their way here for a few months each summer.  Their fertile, terraced fields and lovely stone houses are now mostly abandoned and are going into the ground.  Only porters and mule men serving the ITBP, travelers like us and Bharal and Bhalu (Himalayan black bear) seek refuge from the cold and wind amidst these structures. 


There are several 'old' routes into Tibet from the region that is within the modern Indian state of Uttarakhand.  Going west to east these are the Mana and Niti passes from Garhwal, a couple of passes that are hardly heard of today but are mentioned by the British Deputy Commissioner of Almora, C.A. Sherring in his fascinating 1906 account of the Western Tibetan Borderlands - Shalshal/Shelshel, Balchha/Balchh and Keo passes, the once-famous trio of high passes on the route of the Shaukha traders of the Milam valley (Unta Dhura, Jainti and Kungri Bingri) and going further eastwards the passes from the Darma (Neo pass), Byans (Lankpya Lekh) and Chaundas (Lipu Lekh) valleys.  Lipu Lekh is used by today's Kailas-Mansarowar yatris and is where they sign-in to Chinese territory. 


Lalith Rana describes the route from Milam, that he has been on, as going northwards through Dung, Gangpani, Topidunga, Bamras to Khepla - the last of which points, he tells us, is right on border or 'line of actual control' between China and India.  Other than Dung where there is an ITBP post/presence, the other names refer to camping grounds/sites.


A fascinating account of a 2011 expedition along the Girthi valley from Malari describes in much detail parts of this terrain along a route from Malari in Garhwal, following the Girthi Gad eastwards to Topidunga, then south to the Unta Dhura and Jainti Dhura ridges before heading back north over the Khungar pass (not to be confused with Kungri Bingri) to Lapthal and returning westwards to Malari via Sumna. 


The map below plots some of Sherring's points and those from the 2011 Girthi expedition - although we are unable to  identify where Lalith Rana's Bamras or Khepla may lie.  Click here or on the map image below for a live link into Google maps.



Most of the passes here command formidable heights.  Shalshal is at 4943m, Balchha Dhura is at 5340m and Khungri Bingri at an impressive 5591m.  If you study contour maps of the Indo-Tibetan region a sobering and perhaps defining feature of the entire 3,488 km long India-Tibet/China border from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh is that the extremely difficult terrain on the India side of the border eases out, over gentle slopes, onto a vast high plateau on the Tibet/China side.  In Sherring's words, "There is a very notable feature in the whole country which is ... that, generally speaking, the sides of the mountains facing northwards in the direction of Tibet all have gentle slopes and easy gradients, whereas those looking to the Indian, or south, side are extremely precipitous. The ascent of the Balchh, Kungr and Untadhura passes from the north is gradual and causes little distress to men or animals, whereas the ascent of the same passes from the south is quite the reverse, being in places so steep and slippery, the wretched track passing over such dangerous spots, that it is a great strain on all, men and beast both suffering many hardships."


Our enthusiasm about places and passes that he has seen motivates Lalith Rana to share with us some of his photographs and we are time-transported from a span of hundreds of years of the Indo-Tibetan trade to millions of years of past geological time.  He shows us pictures of what are ammonite (extinct marine mollusc) fossils, nautilus-like, strewn in the hills and mounds of the Lapthal area.  The soil and land that form much of the Himalayas once lay below the Tethys Sea some 70 million years ago.  The mechanics of plate tectonics caused the land mass that is the Indian sub-continent to break away from what is now Antarctica and move north, at the geologically blistering rate of 15 cms per year across the great Sea of Tethys finally colliding with the Eurasian plate and thrusting the dregs of the Tethys sea upwards to form the great Himalayas.  Ammonoids that lay under the old sea, today lie encrusted in mounds at over 15,000 feet above today's sea level.  Locally, these ammonoid fossils are called "shaligram pathhar" and, like their closely related and venerated shaligrams - also of mesozoic origin, and also found in the Himalayas - are placed in puja rooms and shrines and worshipped for their resemblance to the symbols (shanka, chakra, gada, padma) of the Hindu divinity, Vishnu. 


Ammonoid Fossils, Lakes, Glaciers and Passes of the Lapthal area (Photographs by Lalith Rana)


Related Reading


1. A Journey in Upper Kumaon and Garhwal, Lt. Hugh Rose, The Himalayan Journal, 1932

2. Region near Indo-Tibetan border to be declared Fossil National Park, The Hindu, January 6, 2014

3. Expedition Himank: A walk in the Girthi & Kio Gaad Valleys  (Blog - Snowscapes of the Himalayas)

4. Western Tibet and the British Borderlands: The Sacred Country of Hindus and Buddhists, Charles A. Sherring, Pub: Edward Arnold 


5. The Forests of Upper India and their Inhabitants, Thomas W. Webber, Pub: Edward Arnold, 1902