Pilgrims attend the Aarty Ceremony, Hindu ritual, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities, at the ashram of Parmarth Niketan, in the Himalayas.

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Northeast of Delhi, bordering Nepal and Tibet, the mountains of the Garhwal and Kumaon regions rise from the fertile sub-Himalayan plains. Together they form the state of UTTARAKHAND, which was shorn free from lowland Uttar Pradesh in 2000 after years of agitation, and changed its name from Uttaranchal in 2007. The region has its own distinct languages and cultures, and successive deep river valleys shelter fascinating micro-civilizations, where Hinduism meets animism and Buddhist influence is never too far away. Although not as high as the giants of Nepal, further east, or as the Karakoram, the snow peaks here rank among the most beautiful mountains of the inner Himalayas, forming an almost continuous chain that culminates in Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India at 7816m.

Garhwal is the more visited region, busy with pilgrims who flock to its holy spots. At Haridwar, the Ganges thunders out from the foothills on its long journey to the sea. The nearby ashram town of Rishikesh is familiar from one of the classic East-meets-West images of the 1960s; it was where the Beatles came to stay with the Maharishi. From here pilgrims set off for the high temples known as the Char Dham – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, the source of the Ganges. Earthier pursuits are on offer at Mussoorie, a British hill station that’s now a popular Indian resort. The lesser-visited Kumaon region is more unspoilt, and boasts pleasant small towns famed for mountain views and hill walks, such as Kausani and Ranikhet, as well as its own Victorian hill station, Nainital, whose promenade throngs with refugees from the heat of the plains. Further down, the forests at Corbett Tiger Reserve offer the chance to go tiger-spotting from the back of an elephant. Both districts abound in classic treks, many leading through the bugyals – summer pastures, where rivers are born and paths meet.

Facilities are good in the big towns of the foothills, but not upcountry, so if you’re aiming to ascend, you should make the most of foreign exchange services, internet cafés and satellite TV before you set out. In the mountains, roads are good – maintained by the army, which has a large presence up here thanks to the proximity of the Tibetan border – but getting around is not always easy as the monsoon (Aug–Sept) causes landslides and avalanches which block the roads; similar troubles occur during the winter snow season (Dec–Feb). There are buses, but, especially high up, most locals get around by shared jeep, with many vehicles crammed to bursting. Compared to the plains, there’s little caste strife (most mountain people are high-caste rajput or brahmin) and you’ll see few beggars other than religious mendicants. A few words of Hindi are certainly handy as the mountain people usually speak little English. Uttarakhand Tourism (uttakarhandtourism.gov.in) plays second fiddle to the two regional tourism organizations, GMVN in Garhwal and KMVN in Kumaon.

Brief history

The first known inhabitants of Garhwal and Kumaon were the Kuninda in the second century BC, who seem to have had a close affinity with contemporaneous Indo-Greek civilization. Essentially a central Himalayan tribal people practising an early form of Shaivism, they traded in salt with Tibet. A second-century Ashokan edict at Kalsi in western Garhwal shows that Buddhism made some inroads in the region, but Garhwal and Kumaon remained Brahmanical. The Kuninda eventually succumbed to the Guptas around the fourth century AD, who, despite controlling much of the north Indian plains, failed to make a lasting impact in the hills. Between the seventh and the fourteenth centuries, the Shaivite Katyuri dominated lands of varying extent from the Katyur-Baijnath valley in Kumaon, where their stone temples still stand. Under them Jageshwar was a major pilgrimage centre, and Brahmanical culture flourished. Eastern Kumaon prospered under the Chandras, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, when learning and art took on new forms and the Garhwal school of painting was developed. Later on, the westward expansion of the Gurkha empire was brought to an end by British annexation in the nineteenth century.

Following Independence, Garhwal and Kumaon became part of Uttar Pradesh, but failure by the administration in Lucknow to develop the region led to increasingly violent calls for a separate state. Things came to a head in October 1994 when a peaceful protest march to Delhi was violently disrupted in Mussoorie by the UP police. The separatist cause was taken up by the sympathetic high-caste BJP when they came to power in March 1998 and the new state was created in November 2000.

The process of creating this new state was somewhat acrimonious; there are deep cultural differences between Garhwal and Kumaon, and both regions wanted the capital to sit in their patch (Dehra Dun, a city in Garhwal, was eventually chosen, which upset the Kumaonis considerably). Meanwhile in Haridwar – culturally a part of the plains – farmers took to the streets to demand things remain as they were. Currently, the new administration faces serious environmental problems. Deforestation is causing the loss of arable land in the hills, and glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate as a result of global warming, causing water shortages lower down. Yet while officialdom founders, scattered mountain villages – inspired by self-reliance crusader Dr Anil Joshi and his Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO) – are taking sustainable development into their own hands, working to meld local resources and modern technology.

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