If places were books, Netala would be that rare timeless classic sitting on a hard-to-reach shelf, in a less-frequented aisle of a quaint bookshop that only incorrigible bookworms make their way to. No snazzy cover jacket to grab eyeballs, no stellar reviews announced on its back cover, no catchy tagline, no hashtag-endorsed popularity, not even a shred of well-deserved pride displayed for admiration. Just unassuming dust-laden covers holding between them a world that could enchant and devour anyone who stepped in. An exterior that couldn’t possibly have hinted at the grandeur inside. Much like the harsh terrain that precedes this well-kept secret of a village.
Eighty-five kilometres from Gangotri (the source of the Ganga) and eight kilometres north of Uttarkashi, Netala stands a world apart from the world outside. A small Himalayan village right on the banks of the Ganga with no networks, no tourist traps, and a skyfull of unadulterated crisp mountain air. And the ice-cold waters of the Ganga (known as Bhagirathi here) roaring past mountains elegantly dressed in lofty trees of every green. Home to roughly a thousand people and their animals, it has the air of a place that somehow stayed true to what nature had intended for it, long before it got marked on a map. The reassuringly sturdy Siror bridge, the Sivananda ashram and the villagers’ humble abodes being the few signs of human occupation dotting its terrain.
The nearest restaurant was a twenty-minute walk away on the road to Uttarkashi, with the eclectic menu of apples, chai and Maggi. Staying at the Sivananda ashram, we made the most of our two freshly-cooked sattvic meals a day. Setting off in the wee hours from Rishikesh had been a good idea, given the ‘middle-of-nowhere-ness’ of this place, flat tyres and falling rocks on the way. It had been a matter of nerves and luck, getting there alive and in working condition for the yoga sessions in store for us.
But it wasn’t going to be all pristine views and yoga by the river, as it turned out. In case our brains were still a bit fried and rattled by the arduous 9-hour drive, nature had just the ticket to jolt us out of it once and for all. Quietly awaiting us in our dorm was this huge spider and a gang of his (thankfully) less ginormous relatives, who had presumably been making full use of the ashram facilities in the absence of humans. True to our urban roots, we ran out screaming at our highest pitches at the first sight of it. On the upside, having a bunch of menacing arachnids as roommates does make every other problem pale in comparison.
Across the Siror bridge live Netala’s people in their mudhouses, where everyone knows each other’s names, animals and their shared mountainous backyard like the back of their hand. Friendly and hospitable as ever, they showed us the mountain’s trails and invited us for lunch, even offering my ‘firang’ friends (friends from abroad) some English-speaking grooms to take home in case they were interested. Further proof that getting strangers married off to each other is a cherished national hobby that reaches even the remotest corners of India.
The high altitude and low roofs under that uninterrupted sky reminded me of Gibran’s haunting lines: For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of the night.
An early morning walk along the river revealed more expansive views at every turn. As inviting as the pristine water looked, it had a crushing coldness that seemed to cut through you in a matter of seconds, as we found out the hard way.
Surprisingly enough, a renewed respect for donkeys was in order after watching these impressively acrobatic donkeys negotiate a steep cliff while carrying fodder.
Heading back from Netala to Rishikesh, at one of the many precarious curves, a peek outside the window gave me this:
And in a time-honored tradition of road-trip snafus, one of the tyres decided to call in sick midway. To be fair, it had perhaps sensed our collective reluctance to leave Netala and was just acting in accordance.
But serendipity wasn’t far away. A short walk ahead led to this picture-perfect view of the proverbial cabin in the woods by a stream.
Eventually, all tyres intact again, the journey resumed. And we made our way back to Rishikesh on those twisty mountain roads, holding on tight to the car handles and tighter to the memories of the idyll left behind.
In a world where a butterfly doesn’t flap its wings without it being tweeted, whatsapped, snapchatted and instagrammed about – basically contributing its own little tornado to an already turbulent world – those five days in Netala showed me what life in a far removed, way quieter world can feel like. Less networks, more connection. Less time-chasing, more timelessness. Less adornments, more beauty. Less indulgences, more involvement. Less amenities, more resourcefulness. Less safety nets, more adventure. Less walls, more sky.
If places were books, Netala would be one of those books you never want to end, and one that stays with you long after.
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