As I sat there on the front seat of that old bus and looked outside towards the white mountains I couldn’t help but wonder at the sheer degree to which the place had changed. The road being one of the things escaping the effects of time still remained dusty and irregular, giving a rather horrid travel experience to anyone who wasn’t familiar with the roads of Nepal. I strained my eyes to look at the view behind the curtain of dust; concrete buildings not more than two storey high decorated the space between the paddy fields and the ill-paved road. There was this shop near the bus stop which I remember sold the best leaf tobacco within a 10 km radius; we always stopped for a breather on that old spot. The dust in the air now rather dense forced me to shut the bus window by its broken handle.
The gradual change in the lifestyle of people living in the valley and on the hilltop was evident to anyone who kept a constant eye out the window. When the concrete buildings were replaced by mud brick walls and the mundane grey parapet gave way to whitewashed rumble you knew you were home. The roadway like a snake path going all the way up the hill allowed the view of the valley and mountain in one window frame of the old transport. Oh, how I missed these mountains, I had never believed in the concept of heaven, never believed that we had to die to witness something pure but this breathtaking view always gave a minute of doubt to my sceptic beliefs. If heaven ever did exist it existed amidst these white gold mountains.
When I finally stepped on home ground it was only thirty past five but the winter sun had already set and was casting tangerine hues over the navy blue sky. A dark waving shadow of the boy Himal Daju had sent to get me was my formal welcome home. The rest of the day was made of conversations, good food and two tall drinks of ale. As my head finally hit the hard pillow in that cold corner room, the scent of the familiar pine wrapped around me like a blanket and kept me warm.
The next morning, Himal Daju and I met by the lake.
“Remember the old cottage up there? I live there now,” sighed Himal Daju as he lifted his hands and pointed his rugged index finger towards the top of the hill. His breath still visible in that cold morning air trailed his words every time he spoke. My eyes scaled the mighty hill covered with pine and oak. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. Resting atop was an old cottage my grandfather used to take me when I was four years old, now I am here gazing at the long-lost glory fourteen years after and I know I could only breathe there. How gratifying was it to leave all the mundane aspects of life behind? I didn’t even bring my cell phone today.
A set of steps led uphill behind an old oak tree and we started climbing.
“Do you know what secrets lay behind this oak tree?” I asked Himal Daju and then added, “My grandfather used to bring me along to his morning jog and point at it. Under the tree, he swore was a pot filled with gold left by his ancestors, ‘Gar Dhan’ as he called it. Many a time I insisted we uncovered it for ourselves but he didn’t let me near it.”
He laughed uproariously and then adjusted the stack of firewood under his arms.
“’The Gar Dhan’ is more than just a buried treasure. It is a legacy. Our forefathers gathered gold in vessels and buried it underground with a mark and left for the future generation to find. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing under that tree. You see, the thing with treasures is that they aren’t something you find on your morning run. I really don’t mean to ruin your childhood fantasies but you can think of it as preserving history.”
Upon reminiscing now, I realise how important it is to preserve history. However, the concept of buried treasure still doesn’t fail to intrigue me because apparently, the Himalayan people packed hefty vessels with coins of gold and buried it underground for their future generation. But where did they get all the gold?
The end of the steps marked a trail bowing towards the left, twisting along the contour of the hill and my mind still working out the mystery of the buried gold.
Taking a rather sceptic turn, I asked Himal Daju with least expectation of a reply, “ Come to think of it, the Himalayas have always been infatuated with gold as it forms an integral part of its culture. The traditional attire of any Himalayan cultural group is incomplete without golden jewellery covering themselves from head to toe. Gold to wear, gold for religious rituals, gold for the family heirloom, and gold to bury underground, the Himalayas surely seemed self-sufficient.”
“Yes, haven’t you seen grandmother’s nose jewellery? The thing is bigger than a cauliflower”
We laughed in unison.
The trail led us towards the flank of the mountain, where I stopped for a second and picked up a rock. Amazing how these little things are formed, I thought.
“Himal Daju, do you know how gold is formed?”
“You’re the educated one. Tell me.”
“Unlike rocks or anything on the surface of the earth, gold is expelled during the merger of stars and Earth, being molten when it was formed- almost all of the gold sank into the core.”
“So you mean the gold is on the inside of the Earth?” He inquired with inquisitiveness.
“Yes and consequently when a tremor hits, the sides of the fault lines slither along the route and rub against each other. The gold can thus surge upwards through the fault lines and create a gold rush.”
Himal Daju looked intrigued even though most of it probably didn’t make sense to him at all.
The trail started getting steeper, rockier, and more eroded as we climbed. We reached a point from where we could see the whimsical terrains stretching far across the horizons from where the sun was starting to peer. I remember when I used to sit by the rock and stare at those mountains afar, wondering how it ever got there.
“So what have the textbooks taught you about mountains?” asked Himal Daju with his child-like curiosity.
“Textbooks have taught me that mountains are formed when huge plates smash against each other, and the tonne of forces exchanged during the process causes the landmasses to crumple and fold, making it a perfect setting for a gold rush to occur.”
Then we dropped into what seemed to be the most comfortable and satisfying realisation that we had ever known. The brief day had ended us on top of that mountain, staring at an old abandoned house. The roguish doors and the most beautifully worked upon windows, the piece of art from a bygone era. The past is not on us to uncover but it allows us to understand a lot of questions we have today. Could it be that there was never any buried treasure? Could it be that the Himalayas witnessed one of the biggest gold rushes of the history?
For hundreds of years, gold has been an important part of the cultural growth of the Himalayas. From the huge hammer beaten jewellery of the women to the carved khukuri handles of the men, the jewellery that adores these dresses and weapons are crafted in the mountains itself and are a rather significant part of their everyday gear.
Apart from the critical role it has played in the evolution of the culture of the mountains let’s not ignore the basic consequence it holds in any household respecting wealth. Earlier on in the article, we have proposed the idea of ancestors hiding pots of gold for their family kin, however, keeping the extensive population growth in mind and the simultaneous growth of economy in these regions there is evidently numerous sources of wealth and the gold left to them from the beyond is not the answer.
So where does this gold come from?
Now, what we are proposing is just a theory. Since the Himalayas are Fold Mountains, the scope of a gold rush is pretty plausible. The restriction of certain northern areas of the mountains to a foreigner fuels our doubt to believe that there is rather a gold conspiracy building up in the mountains.
However, gold rush or not, the mountains have proven to be the basic foundation upon which the preservation of the Himalayan culture resides, and the secret of this culture remains hidden in the mountains.