Culture & Society

Travel Diary: The Driftwood Sculptor And The Mountain Tea Shack

Artist and puppeteer Sudipta Mukherjee Mandal writes about travelling and a mountain tea shack that she found on a trekking trip.

View of Dodi Tal; Samuel Bourne (English, 1834 - 1912); Uttarakhand, India, Asia; October 15, 1867; Albumen silver print.
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A vagabond at heart, travel is my way to connect with the universe through its myriad dimensions and vitality.  

Simple rules: domestic backpacking for easy travel, leaving behind the city, unlearning what I already know, befriending everyday people, and drowning in their stories. 

The people are candid and alluring and the space is a plethora of intrigue. The anecdotes of fascinating wisdom, the skills so fine and evolved and their adaptations inclusive and conserving, the harmony that eludes us, the empathy that's cohesive and refreshing — one cannot experience this super abundance unless you whirl in it completely. 

It's travel that helps us to touch base and reconnect with ourselves and the endearing stories remain with us.

This narrative is from a trekking trip to the Gharwal Himalayas above Uttarkashi. Around Dodital, a freshwater lake, the birthplace of Lord Ganesha, is a mystical world at 3,024 meters above sea level. A group of trekkers, marathoners, their teenage boys and girls, and younger siblings are there. The interesting mix of people made this journey even more enticing.

We landed at Dehradun and travelled to Sangam Chatty near Uttarkashi to camp for the night. It was a sort of base camp. The trek took us through Agora, Bebra Chatti, Mangi, Dodital, and onto Darwa top.

My story is set in Bebra Chatti, a pit stop for camping and rejuvenating. There is a basic setup for campers by a mountain stream amidst the valley of abundance and scenic beauty. 

We pitched our tents, freshened up, and broke into groups of our choice — some resting, some exploring the surroundings. I took off on a little leisurely walk. It was cold, though the sun can be harsh during the day. The sharp drop in temperature by evening was beginning to bite and the light was slowly fading.

I came upon the tea stall and a few local villagers were basking there in the warmth of the fire from the ‘chulha’ within the shack. The clear ringing laughter resonating in the silence of the mountains and the thought of warmth of a hot cup of tea nestled between my palms was too tempting. So here I was, seated among a group of strangers, feeling perfectly at home and already into conversations as if I were here every other day. 

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Photo: Sudipta Mukherjee Mandal Getty Images

I smiled. Everyday people and the connect of the soul evidently works.

This was a family run-enterprise. The husband ran the tea shack and was the man behind the ‘Manna’ from heaven on a cold Himalayan evening. I was seated between his beautiful wife Sonu and charming younger sister among other occupants of the shack.

Their home was at Agora, a well-known village among trekkers and mountaineers. All three trekked to the shack for the day. The wife collected firewood for their daily needs here and carried it back on evenings on a 10-kilometer trek. In fact, I tried carrying her load for bit, and, believe me, It was not a trivial task! The husband ran the shack and entertained the visitors. The sister accompanied them sometimes if housework was done. Simple living and abundant happiness. 

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Photo: Sudipta Mukherjee Mandal Getty Images

As I sat there and shared tales of my travel, my eyes fell upon some wooden artefacts and simple tools at the far corner of the shack. I moved over to find some curiously interesting sculptures crafted out of driftwood. Wasn’t I delighted to find an artist! 

The tribe grows, the kind who create for the passion, who use resources around them and are gracious for the everyday moments and who stay productive in the given situation. I threw him a questioning glance. With a twinkle in his eyes and the most heart-warming smile, he held out one of his priced creations, a Ganesha. 

How overwhelming this was is difficult for anyone to comprehend. My mind travelled through stacked memories — a tradition back home between my son and I since he was a little boy was now even more special. The Ganapati festival is incomplete without him bringing home the elephant God in some form or the other. There have been many over the years — a cloth puppet, wood-carved, stone-carved, hand-painted, embroidered, and many more. This year, it would be one made with love by the driftwood sculptor from the mountain tea shack.

A bit of my soul lingers there and every glance at his work of art unfolds scenes of snow-capped mountains, gorgeous meadows, pine cones on trees, and the sound of mountain streams.

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