Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Perfect Book for Your Himalayan Hideaway Balcony

Chocolate Soldier, Golden Sapphire, Orange Oakleaf, Peacock Pansy, Snow Apollo and Spot Puffin - just some of the beautiful creatures that flutter through the pages of Peter Smetacek’s captivating memoir “Butterflies on the Roof of the World”. But you don’t have to be a butterfly enthusiast or even a naturalist to love this gem of a book.

Like the great conservationist Gerald Durrell, Smetacek is gifted story teller who, with wit and humour, weaves fascinating information about the natural world around a cast of engaging human and animal characters.

Based in Bhimtal in Uttarakhand, where he grew up, Smetacek has devoted his life to the study of Indian butterflies and moths. He has published at least 60 scientific papers and described more than a dozen species new to science. His interest in butterflies and moths, inherited from his Czechoslovakian father, began almost as soon as he could walk and became an all-consuming passion.

Join Smetacek as he embarks on bone-shaking motorbike journeys through the Himalayas in search of the Black Prince, the Spectacle Swordtail or other elusive insects.

Share his embarrassment in Nepal when his hunt for “butterflies” is completely misinterpreted by the locals - “butterfly” being the euphemism used by human traffickers when referring to a saleable girl!

Discover Himalayan wonders like hallucinogenic honey, a steroid-producing caterpillar-mushroom, and the milky plant juice that is the Ladakhi equivalent of Viagra.

Enjoy delightful descriptions of wildlife around his Bhimtal house – moths that drank till they were tipsy at his father’s nightly moth trap, an audacious toad he encountered as a small boy and the troupe of monkeys that befriended his family.

Learn about the extraordinary and elaborate tricks butterfly species use to deter predators – being poisonous, pretending to be poisonous; mimicking leaves or flowers with incredible accuracy; flying in different ways at different times of day or hiding out among crowds of other butterflies.

Discover that these insects, rather than being the “free spirits” of popular culture, flitting from flower to flower at whim, are actually rigidly controlled by their ecological requirements – the right kind of trees, the right food plants and the precise level of humidity. They may be confined to one patch of hillside during the monsoon, or a particular grove of trees or a specific ravine.

Indeed, Smetacek’s detailed studies of the butterflies and moths on the “roof of the world” show that we can use these pernickety creatures as accurate indicators of environmental health in the all-important watershed areas of the sub-continent. Their distribution over the mountains has much to tell us about the efficiency of the groundwater systems and the insidious effects of global warming.

If you plan to escape to the hills this summer, this enchanting and informative book is the ideal companion!

Butterflies on the Roof of the World, by Peter Smetacek, 2012. Published by Aleph Book Company

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Rishikesh: Evening Aarti

When you stay at Himalayan Hideaway, then it’s easy to go down to Rishikesh to witness the evening Ganga Aarti. This beautiful spiritual ritual is performed at dusk on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi, and is well worth attending. 


An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering, usually in the form of a lit lamp.  For the Ganga Aarti, a diya, a small, shallow lamp, is filled with flowers and a candle.  The diya is offered to the Ganga, the goddess of the river, and floated downstream.  With several people launching their diyas into the fast-moving waters of the Ganges, the river looks like a gorgeous embroidered sari!

What Makes the Rishikesh Aarti Unique

In Haridwar and Varanasi, the ritual is organised and performed by Hindu priests who lead the congregation in chanting or singing hymns of praise to Ganga.  In Rishikesh, the most famous Ganga Aarti is led by the residents of the Parmarth Niketan ashram and the children studying there.  For many people, this aarti is a less elaborate and more intimate experience, allowing them to forge a bond with Ganga. 

The ceremony begins with bhajans (devotional songs), prayers and a hawan (a sacred ritual of offerings made to Agni, the fire god). The lamps are lit and the aarti acts as the climax of the ceremony. The children’s voices give the ritual a special quality.

Attending the Rishikesh Ganga Aarti

All are welcome to attend the Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan. You’ll need to arrive early to secure a seat on the steps for the best view of the action.  Before entering the area, you’ll remove your shoes and store them at the entrance. You can sit quietly and observe the proceedings or join the crowd in singing the bhajans. Your hosts at Himalayan Hideaway can advise the best time to go and will happily organise the excursion for you!

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Uttarakhand – Land of the Gods

Himalayan Hideaway is located in Uttarakhand, one of the newer Indian states. This area was formerly part of the north-western districts of Uttar Pradesh. The state is known for its natural beauty, thanks to its proximity to the Himalayas, and the many Hindu temples and pilgrimages sites located there.

The Dhamas, Large and Small

The dhamas are pilgrimage sites that every devout Hindu should visit at least once.  There are four “big” dhamas, one of which, Badrinath, is in Uttarakhand.  This dhama is devoted to Vishnu and has been listed in scripture and legend for centuries. The mountains around Badrinath are mentioned in the Mahabharata, the epic saga of ancient India.

There are also four “small” dhamas that make up one of Hinduism's most spiritual and auspicious pilgrimage circuits.  All four are located in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.  Yamunotri, the origin of the Yamuna River, and Gangotri, the origin of the Ganges River, are devoted to Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy and dynamic force of the universe.  Kedarnath, the third site, is devoted to Shiva and Badrinath, the same Badrinath as mentioned above, is the fourth.  The temples of these four pilgrimages open in late April or early May, on the auspicious day of the Akshaya Tritya, and they always close on Diwali, in mid-October or early November.  During the winter, the extreme cold and the heavy snow make it impossible to visit the temples. 

Haridwar and the Kumbh Mela

Another important pilgrimage city is Haridwar, one of the seven holiest places for Hindus.  It is the gateway to the four small dhamas and is also the starting point on the journey to the sacred sources of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.

Every 12 years, Haridwar hosts the Kumbh Mela.  According to one of the Creation of the Universe legends, the gods and demons once churned the ocean to retrieve a Kumbh (pot) containing the nectar of immortality (Amrit). Accounts vary, but it was either Dhanvantri, the divine healer, or Garuda, the celestial bird, who held the Kumbh.  In any case, the gods and demons battled for possession of the pot. During this fierce battle in the sky, drops of the nectar spilled at four different places:  Prayaga (Allahabad), Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. Since then, devotees converge on one of the four cities every three years to commemorate this divine event.  They take ritual baths on the banks of the Ganges to wash away their sins. 

Natural Beauty

In future posts, we’ll introduce you to the natural beauties of Uttarakhand that can be visited from Himalayan Hideaway. From forest reserves and national parks, to hill stations and mountain peaks, there’s something for everyone!

Badrinath Dhama by Pritesh Gupta
Photograph reproduced under a Creative Commons License