The Goddess Nanda and Place Names of the Nanda Devi Region

Author: H. Adams Carter. Climb Year: 1976. Publication Year: 1977.


ALTHOUGH the goddess Nanda* (Devi means “goddess”) does not appear in the ancient sacred Hindu texts, that does not mean that she, a consort of Siva, is not one of the important, if not the most important, of the Hindu deities in Garhwal. She permeates the whole area. In the region drained by the Rishi Ganga and the Dhauli Ganga, every nook and cranny seems in one way or other to be dedicated to her. The highest and most impressive mountain of the region, Nanda Devi, bears her name. Other peaks too bear her name. Within the Inner Sanctuary rises her bed (Nanda Khat) and nearby, her fortress (Nanda Kot) and her headdress (Nanda Ghunti). But her own name does not always appear. The name of the town of Lata has to do with “leg.” Lata supports the small mountain, above the town, Jipur, Nanda’s resting place. Thus, names which do not seem to the casual observer to be connected to the goddess are closely linked to her in the minds of the local people. They feel her presence everywhere. Ever since my first visit to the region forty years ago, I had associated the mountain Trisul (Trident) with Siva’s deadly weapon. This year on two or three occasions my suggestion to the porters that the peak represented Siva’s trident brought speedy denials. “No, sahib. Not Siva’s but Nanda’s trident. When she needs to protect someone and becomes angry, she gets eight arms, each holding a weapon. But the most important is the trident and it is that which she uses to kill the demons.”

My confusion with Siva was a logical one, for Nanda is one of the manifestations of Siva’s consort. There are indeed many manifestations of Siva’s Sakti. Of the four principal ones, two are mild and two fierce. The mild ones are represented by Sati and Parvati. Sati, daughter of Daksa, one of the saintly sages (Rishis), cast herself on her father’s sacrificial fire to protect her husband Siva’s honor. Parvati, the mountain goddess, was Sati’s reincarnation and Siva’s principal companion. One of the violent manifestations is Durga, who protected the gods from demons and who acquired her name by slaying a frightful demon of the

same name in a fierce battle. The other, Kali, is much more terrifying and her thirst for blood seems unquenchable. From talking at length with our Garhwali porters, I got the impression that Nanda Devi normally had the attributes of the beautiful, active, amiable Parvati, but when aroused to protect her own, she took on the qualities of Durga.

It was in particular to protect the saintly sages, the seven Rishis, that Nanda acted as protectress. The Rishis, tormented by demons, retired to the upper gorge of the Rishi Ganga, the river that drains the waters of the Inner Nanda Devi Sanctuary. This gorge was never penetrated by local shepherds. In fact, although European climbers tried to work their way up it starting in 1883, it was not until 1934 that Shipton and Tilman managed to find the route. It was an ideal refuge for the holy sages, protected by the goddess Nanda. Rishikot (the Rishis’ fortress) lies above the top of the gorge. Our porters told us that they heard sounds from the Rishis themselves coming from that mountain: drums, trumpets, dogs barking.

More accessible is the mountain, Gauri Parbat. Gauri (the fair or golden goddess) is another manifestation of Siva’s Sakti. She is the goddess of fertility and beauty. The peak rises downstream, above the junction of the Rishi Ganga and the Dhauli Ganga.

There are also many legends which do not deal specifically with Nanda Devi, such as the origin of the peak, Bethartoli. The gods were tarrying in the hills, where they were to be supplied by goatherds and pack goats. On their arrival, the goatherds heaped up the pack saddles and began to haggle over the price with the gods. When no agreement was forthcoming, the gods turned the heap of packs (bethar) into stone, creating the mountain, onto which snow then fell. Our porters told us the tale with great glee when we were having price difficulties with our goat drivers.

I carried my investigation into the meaning of place names further. Some, such as Nanda Devi, come from Sanskrit, but most are Garhwali. Some Garhwali names are intelligible to those who speak standard Hindi, but many are not. I have included in quotation marks at the end of some of the sections translations of explanations made in Hindi by Dharam Singh of Lata.

Nanda Devi = “the bliss-giving goddess” from Sanskrit nanda or ananda (bliss or joy) + devi (goddess).

Rishi Ganga = “the Ganges of the Rishis.” The Rishis are seven saintly sages.

Gauri Parbat = “the mountain of the fair or golden goddess” from Gauri, a consort of Siva (see above), + parbat (mountain), a word clearly related to the goddess, Parvati.

Nanda Khat = “Nanda’s bed.” Khat has been taken over into English as “cot.” “Where she sat when she gave out decrees and ruled.”

Nanda Ghunti = “Nanda’s headdress.” A ghanti (the proper pronunciation) was described as a headdress with a veil of shining cloth and the rest white. “The thick vegetation is the veil; the snow is the white top.”

Nanda Pal = “Nanda’s glance.” Pal means either “an instant” or “a quick glance.” “When Nanda was angry, she looked at demons with bloodshot eyes and killed them with a glance.”

Nanda Kot = “Nanda’s fortress or court.”

Trisul = “Trident.” See above.

Maiktoli = “cloudy place” from megh (cloudy) + toli (place). Bethartoli = “Goat-pack-saddle place” from bethar (goat-pack-sad- dle) + toli (place).

Devistan = “land of the gods” from deva or devi (god or goddess) + sthan (land).

Mrigthuni = “deer snout” from mrig (deer) + thuni (snout). Hardeol = “temple.” A deol is a ghee (clarified butter) lamp used in a temple.

Rishi Kot = “the Rishis’ fortress.”

Changabang = “shining mountain.” Dharam Singh says that the name is badly transliterated and should be Changvanga. He further explains, “It gives Nanda Devi light.”

Kalanka = “cockscomb.” Dharam Singh believes this should be Kalenka and that there is a connection with the goddess Kali. “When the demons troubled the Rishis and the gods too much, Nanda became Kali and destroyed the demons.”

Bagani Bank = “lioness glacier” from bagani (lioness) + bank (glacier). The words bank and gal are used interchangeably for “glacier.” “The river roars as it comes from the glacier like a lioness.”

The names of the stages on the way to the Inner Nanda Devi Sanctuary now all have names. Above Ramani the names all date from 1934 or later since no Garhwalis had penetrated this far earlier. Yet they are acquiring religious significance.

Lata and Lata Kharak from lat (leg). Lata is the leg or support of Jipur, Nanda’s resting place. Kharak means “pasture.”

Dharansi = “the open ridge.”

Dibrugheta = “small stone god meadow.” Dibru is a small stone god in the form of a standing rock.

Deodi = “the vestibule.” This is formed by rocks through which one passes after crossing to the south side of the Rishi Ganga.

Ramani = “joyous or beautiful.” “The Rishis were troubled by bad people and demons but they came to this place and found refuge.” Bujgara = “birch tree.” There is a grove of birches here. “After the demons were killed, the Rishis celebrated among the birches with the gods. They ate their feast off birch bark.”

Pathal Khan = “flat-stone quarry” from pathal (flat stone) + khan (quarry). “After the defeat of the demons, the Rishis decided to live there and quarried rock.”

Sarson Patal. The meaning of sarson is not clear. Some said it meant “bedbug.” Others said “mustard.” The green of mustard foliage would be indicated more than the yellow flowers. Patal often refers to a big leaf or several leaves put together to make a kind of leaf plate to eat off. By extending this, it is often used to refer to a “green meadow.” Dharam Singh sees a connection between Sarson and Sarasvati, goddess of learning, though she was Brahma’s, not Siva’s, wife. “When the Rishis settled there, Nanda Devi became Sarasvati and it was here that she instructed them.”

Appendix: The Goddess Nanda, by Vasudha Rajgopalan, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University.

Nanda Devi, a mountain in the sacred Himalaya, is a manifestation of the goddess Parvati, who is both an important deity in her own right as well as the consort of the Hindu god Siva. The Sanskrit word nanda means joy or happiness; devi is the Sanskrit word for goddess. (The word devi is the feminine of deva and is cognate with the English divine; both words come from the common root div: to shine.) The name Nanda Devi, therefore, simply means: The Goddess of Joy. I had mentioned that she was a manifestation of the goddess Parvati—the Sanskrit word for mountain is parvata and Parvati means “from the mountains.” Parvati first came onto the earth as the daughter of Himavan, the king of the Himalaya, and has therefore, always been associated with the mountains.

Parvati has an enormous range of moods: from the extremely benign and happy—showering joy on all her devotees—to the harsh, fierce and horrifying —a mood assumed to destroy the enemies of her devotees. It is to give joy— directly, or by destruction—-that she comes to earth. The places with which her deeds are associated are named after her; stories and legends are transmitted through the generations and her memory is kept alive amidst the people who live near the sacred place. Every fresh incident which hints of the supernatural is interpreted in light of the older manifestation of the goddess: in each place she has a distinct personality and is a vital power, a real being who participates in the lives of her people. Thus, the people around the Nanda Devi area would look upon every major incident in the area as an expression of Nanda’s favour or displeasure.

It is extremely probable that the “death” of Nanda Devi Unsoeld on the mountain is interpreted in two ways (at least) by popular superstition. Both follow paradigmatic stories in our epics. The first kind would probably be that the goddess, loving the young girl took her to her “kingdom,” or unto herself, to be her own, to protect her from the world. The second line of interpretation would be that the goddess Nanda Devi, seeing a young girl named after her, a mortal who was young and charming, was filled with apprehension, and feeling vaguely threatened (local goddesses are almost human in their frailties: our epic Mahabharata records the story of an air-spirit called Chitrangada who felt threatened by a human king of the same name and therefore tried to vanquish him), wanted to include the mortal as her devotee or enlist her as a friend, and took the young girl to herself. Both would be normal, even simultaneous ways of interpreting the death. [Additional note by HAC: A third interpretation has been given us by Indian friends. According to them, when in 1948 Willi Unsoeld announced that he would name his daughter after the most beautiful mountain he had ever seen, the goddess Nanda later caused herself to be reborn as his daughter. She lived for some years as a human, not really knowing her divine qualities. She was instrumental in organizing the expedition which brought her “home.” One of the Indian members of the expedition has written, “Devi lives; she has not died. She was the goddess personified.”]

Images of the goddess Nanda Devi are almost kaleidoscopic—she is Parvati, the gentle daughter of the mountains who illuminates the minds of sages meditating on the mountains and bestows wisdom on them; she is the angry goddess who protects her devotees by hurling her weapons at their enemies; she is the harsh goddess who is offended by the population and has to be appeased with the sacrifice of a goat; she is the jealous maiden who feels threatened by mortals; the soft protective mother who is pleased with her devotee and loves her so, that she cannot live away from her, the radiant and gracious goddess of bliss who confers joy on all, who smiles at the world, who bestows her name on the mountain, who owns the mountain, and who in fact, is the mountain. …

To the devotee, these themes are not conflicting, not contradictory. They are simply an expression of their mythopoeic approach to reality, a human expression of what some Hindu theologians conceptualize as the dynamic reality which makes the universe move, the personification of grace and wisdom, the deity who serenely leads the world towards liberation.


* To be entirely correct, one should use diacritic marks on many names, such as Nanda Devi. Many have been omitted.

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