“The Bhyundar Valley was the most beautiful valley that any of us had seen. We camped in it for two days and we remembered it afterwards as the Valley of Flowers.”
Frank S. Smythe, a British mountaineer, came across this meadow beneath the Himalayan peaks in 1931, and in 1938, documenting more than 250 species of flowers here, he wrote about the valley in his book, The Valley of Flowers. Ever since then, the apex of the Bhyundar Valley in Uttarakhand became known to the world as the Valley of Flowers.
But to the villagers of Bhyundar, this Valley has long been known as Nandan Kanan – Indra’s garden, a magical land inhabited by fairies and gods. Lokpal, or Hemkund as it is now known, which is close to the Valley (see map), is where Lakshmana did penance after killing Ravana’s son, and the gods forgave him by showering him with flowers. Sanjeevini, the magical herb which revived Lakshmana, is also believed to have been found here.
The Valley of Flowers, covering about 87.5 sq.km, is very heterogeneous geographically, varying from the temperate zone (2400-3000m) to sub-alpine forests (3000-3300m), to the alpine zone (3300-3500m). This mosaic from forested land to meadows (bhugyals) to glaciers to slopes of varying gradients, and boulders, cliffs and rivers have created a unique microclimate, says Dr CP Kala from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, whose doctoral dissertation was on the Valley.
It is this mosaic of habitats that lends itself to a wide diversity of species. This lush region is home to some rare animal and bird species, including the Asiatic Black Bear, Snow Leopard, Musk Deer, Brown Bear, Red Fox, Blue Sheep, Himalayan Monal, Himalayan Golden Eagle, Snow Partridge and Snow Pigeon.
The Valley is best known for its meadows of endemic alpine flowers and the variety of flora. More than 650 species of flowers can be found in the Valley, Kala writes in his book The Valley of Flowers – Myth and Reality. According to Dr Keshava Murthy, a renowned botanist who has spent years studying the region, there are at least a thousand species of flowers in the Bhyundar Valley, at the apex of which lies the Valley.
Different flowers bloom at different times between June and August, and the valley transforms every few weeks. When I visited in August 2017, the dominant colour was the pink of the Impatiens. There were splashes of purple (the Geraniums and Campanulas) and white (Heracleum and Polygonum).
Other Himalayan Valleys in Uttarakhand, like Har-ki-Dun and Raj Kharak, have similar geomorphological conditions and flowering plants, but it is only this Valley that boasts such a great diversity of habitats, which is perhaps why it was deemed a National Park in 1982. It is also a World Heritage site. Now, it is a protected area and entry is restricted. But prior to this, the Bhyundar Valley used to be the summer grazing grounds for the sheep, goat, buffalo, and even horses of the migratory villages of Bhyundar and Pulna. Due to naturalists’ concerns about the floral diversity, livestock grazing was banned in the Valley and shifted to nearby valleys. Since then, Kala told me there has been a resurgence of near-extinct plant species and the treeline has improved. Kala added that grazing by wild tahr and Blue Sheep helps with seed dispersal.
But there have been other consequences too. Weeds like Polygonum polystachyum locally called saran, have proliferated due to the absence of livestock grazing. The forest department has taken to sending people in to uproot the weeds with their bare hands. Kala says this is a mistake. Polygonum grows on eroded slopes and areas prone to soil erosion; physically pulling it out will lead to the disturbance of the ecosystem. Also, he said, flowering plants dominate stable slopes and do not cross paths with this weed.
Originally, the villagers in the settlements above Ghangaria were migratory pastoralists, but with restrictions on grazing and wood-cutting, they cannot return to their traditional ways of life. Many of them have turned to tourism and hotel construction as alternative livelihoods.
With improved roads, the number of visitors to the Valley has been steadily increasing every year. In 2016 alone, around 10,000 people visited; to Hemkund Sahib, a pilgrimage spot for Sikhs, it was a few lakhs. Tourism, profitable but unregulated, has taken a toll on the natural ecosystem and culture.
Unfortunately, the authorities fail to realise the potential of the entire Bhyundar valley. In fact, according to Chandrashekar Chauhan, a photographer and documenter of the Valley and nearby areas, the region from Govindghat to the source of the Pushpavathi in the inner reaches of the Valley of Flowers, has a remarkable variety of flowers. From the small settlement of Ghangaria, a 5km trek along the Pushpavathi takes you through a beautiful forest with moss-covered trees and a myriad of flowers, like the Pink Impatiens and the exotic Cobra Lily, and even Edelweiss and Chinese Lantern in the higher reaches. One can spend hours on this path, but most people fail to notice the beauty along this route and head blindly towards the Valley.
This concentration of tourism has given rise to an unprecedented construction of hotels, shops, roads and parking areas which have led to heavy deforestation, which in turn causes landslides and soil erosion.
Sanitation is poor and littering is rife. Until recently, the path from Govindghat to the Valley or Hemkund used to be littered with plastic bottles, food wrappers, and disposable raincoats, amounting to more than 10,000 sacks of trash a year. The Forest Department joined hands with an NGO in Bhyundar and formed the Eco Development Committee (EDC) for waste management.
The unimpeded collection of medicinal plants such as Brahmakamal, a very local species, is also cause for worry, said Kala. The region has also seen an influx of migratory labour, predominantly from Nepal, while the degraded environment has displaced local families. Because of this, there has been a loss of indigenous knowledge of natural systems and local traditions such as the flower festival is on the wane.
Chauhan said that changing weather patterns has made it harder to predict the flowering season in the Valley. It has become increasing difficult to tell when a particular species will flower and in what profusion. Locals of Ghangaria also say that with each year the weather is getting warmer.
Kala explained that since there have been no baseline studies or documented surveys of the plants here, it is difficult to tell if there has been a change or decline in the flowering pattern over the years. Experts have urged the forest department to conduct this much-needed research in the Valley, but no studies are underway yet. For now, if we are to protect this unique landscape with its profusion of flowers, it is imperative that we spread awareness among both locals and tourists alike.