The Alluring North, one of four books that make up the ‘Intriguing India’ series, is not a travelogue, nor a guide-book, nor even a retelling of ancient folklore. It is a little bit of all three. It is, in deed, the vivid journey of India’s ancient history, culture and customs, brought to life through two well-informed people who have travelled, questioned, and analysed.
What is the origin of the fear that a monster lies beneath the surface of Lake Pangong? Who was the Englishman who carved out his own kingdom in the Himalayas? What gourmet dish was created by a ruler to feed his famished subjects? Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, while describing their experiences in a gently evocative style, have unraveled many such fascinating realities that have endured within India.
They begin their travel quest at 18,380 feet. While at Khardung La, reportedly the highest motorable road in the world, a suggestion from a fellow traveller finds them stopping by at his village beyond the pass. That experience sets them off on an enchanting trip to explore and unveil the many, intriguing facets of North India. Woven along with the physical and topographical descriptions, are narratives of the people and their customs. The first few chapters of the book capture the essence of Ladakh, Kullu and Uttarkhand, sharing insights and anecdotes about little known tribes. One of which claims Aryan roots, is reportedly descended from Alexander of Macedonia’s army, and resides in the remote village of Dah in Jammu & Kashmir. The Thaaru tribe of feminists from Terai cooks their husbands’ meals and kicks them towards them instead of serving them. Folklore suggests this originated from high-born women marrying their guards on the condition of forever being their superior.
Many mysterious monasteries, and as many high altitude passes later, their journey takes on the guise of a spiritual pilgrimage while they join other devotees in exploring Yamnotri and Gangotri, sources of the world’s two most sacred rivers, the Yamuna and the Ganga, respectively. From here they head to the less verdant ranges of Eastern Garhwal to experience yet more divinity associated with the peaks of Kedarnath and Badrinath; the former said to be the throne of Lord Shiva and the latter that of Lord Vishnu. They also visit Mana, the last Garhwali village on the Indian side of the border with Tibet. They found its cheerful residents contradicting that claim, alluding instead to it being the first village of Aryavrata, the land of the Aryans.
In the latter half of the book, the Gantzers take reluctant leave of Himalayan legends, moving on to the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, before culminating their adventure at Delhi’s bustling Chandni Chowk. From the trading township of Mirzapur, to the fragrances of Lucknow, to the pastures of Lord Krishna at Braj, and finally to Chitrakoot, temporary home to the exiled Lord Ram, Sita and Laksman, the authors continue to seek the little known worlds of ancient legends. The Alluring North may not lend itself to cover-to-cover continuous reading, but it sure whets your wanderlust. Keep it handy, because you never know when the urge to reach for it may strike.
This review can also be read at Cutting Loose.