Many have lost their hearts, and some their lives, to the rugged, soaring peaks of the Himalayas. In February 2016, the lure of the majestic mountains spurred top wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee and Bollywood music composer Shantanu Moitra on Project #100DaysinHimalayas. Between February and December 2016, the twosome will make a series of trips in the Himalayas, spanning from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, even in the neighbouring foothills of Nepal and Bhutan. In July, they reached the 50-day mark while on a gorgeous but gruelling road trip through Himachal Pradesh.
Mukherjee has journeyed often in the Himalayas, having spent years mountaineering before his decade-long career in wildlife photography. Even so, he says that the Himalayas are so rich in culture that it feels as if “they have done nothing in 50 days.” For Moitra, the project has been a months-long answer to the question: “What is life like above 17,000ft?” Half-way through, he says it is clear that the difference between mountain-living and city-life runs fathoms-deep, and not just because of the views.
The biggest contrast was the harmony with which the communities lead life in the high reaches of the Himalayas. One morning when camping on Lake Tsokar (153km from Leh) in Jammu and Kashmir, Mukherjee and Moitra met a family of nomadic Changpa shepherds. A snow leopard had made off with several sheep the previous night, but the duo was struck by the calmness with which the family accepted their loss as a natural part of sharing their home in an ecosystem. Thousands of kilometres away in West Bengal’s Darjeeling, they met a humble tea stall-owner who was also involved in conservation efforts for the endangered red panda.
This empathy extends to travellers too. Mukherjee and Moitra’s Himachal Pradesh road trip in July included Sach Pass, a crumbling, glacier-lined strip that was opened to vehicular traffic only over a decade ago. There, on one of the world’s most dangerous roads, vehicles were backed up coming from both sides of the pass, because a truck had lost the bolts on a tyre. “Waiting for rescue in a place like this could prove fatal,” Moitra recalled, “So each gave a bolt from the tyre of their vehicle so it could move.” Sharing is a natural part of everyday life too. “Every time I shared a sweet with a child, the child promptly offered it back saying, ‘Why don’t you take a bite too.’”
Each neck of the Himalayas has its own character. The thriving tea estates and bustling tourist industry of Darjeeling in West Bengal is worlds away from Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, where tiny clusters of homes and monasteries cling tightly in the vast, cold desert. Browse through the story to see snapshots of the sweeping landscapes and cultures they encountered along the way.
Saumya Ancheri is the former Assistant Editor of NGT India's web team. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife. He is a RBS Earth Hero award winner for inspiring people for conservation.