There were signs, but we missed them. First, a little shower of snow from the deodars on the right. Then, a screech. Sounds of the forest—par for the course. It was a bright February morning when our little party of three set out on foot for Landour Bakehouse. The fledgling wasn’t keen on getting his shoes dirty, preferred to perch on my shoulder. The Bakehouse is barely a few bends away, we were told. Sun dappled through the forest, the breeze blew in the scent of pine and unless you slipped on the day-old snow and cracked a hip, nothing was going to spoil this perfect morning.
We had walked past the crossroads when he slithered down the mountainside. The first of the lot. Before I could look for a stick, came Monkey No. 2—this time up from the valley on the left. Just the previous evening, we had a close brush with a snarly pack near Chaar Dukaan. Then, a kindly local had scared them off. This time, we were alone. We had to think fast–turn back or proceed. With no snowshoes, and a child in tow, retreat seemed the safest option. We swung around and there he was: number three. It was an ambush. The bakery was a few hundred metres away. But on that snow, running could mean disaster.
With three routes shut, there was only one way out. We swung back and there she was—walking up from around the bend, slow and sure, with all the menace of monkey Mafiosi. Now the foursome were creeping in, ready for the kill—or whatever it is that monkeys do with tourists. One at a time, I thought, as I turned around to face the first within kicking distance.
Then, there were sounds. First, a crush of the snow, then gnarls, then barks. Four mountain dogs came tearing through the snow baring fangs of death. Within seconds, the scene changed. Two rascals scampered up the trees. The third slithered down the valley onto a roof. The fourth—clearly the ringmaster—briefly put up a fight, then shot out of sight. It was all over.
The four mercenaries then sanitised the corridor—checking down the valley, up the mountain to make sure none of these simians would return. Then, they formed an escort party and walked us all the way to Sisters Bazaar, where they parked outside the bakery, expecting nothing. We hadn’t seen them before. We hadn’t fed them a biscuit. No boops or pats either. I’d love to flatter myself but safe to assume that we weren’t the last people they helped. Nor the first.
On a clear day, Landour’s Chakkar trail offers incredible views of these mountains. One of the more prominent features is the Swargarohini range of peaks—a set of four massifs in the Garhwal Himalayas. Even from afar, they look imposing. So imagine what a trek it must have been for the brothers. After the Kurukshetra war, the Pandavas eventually renounce their kingdom and begin their final journey. The final course is this Himalayan stairway to heaven. As it happens on any other trek, a dog joins the party for no rhyme or reason. The journey to heaven turns out to be more of a reckoning. One by one, the Pandavas collapse. Eventually, when only the eldest brother Yudhishthir is left, the god Indra descends in his chariot and offers him a ride to heaven. But there’s a problem. Heaven has a door policy: dogs not allowed. The Righteous One is asked to choose: ascend to heaven and escape samsara—the cycle of birth, death and rebirth—or stick by the mongrel. Who knows what the rest of us would have done, but the Pandava king says he’d rather stay back if it means giving up on his fellow traveller. And then comes the reveal: the dog is Dharma, the god of righteousness in disguise, out to test the king one final time. That the gods chose to cosplay as a dog and that Yudhishthir chose the dog over gods says something about man, gods and dogs.
We’d like to believe that we domesticated dogs. But the truth is that it was them who domesticated us. There is general scientific consensus that dogs evolved from wolves. While several animals fought their way to survival, wolves took a wholly different tack. As man’s hunting skills began improving, he started picking off anyone who posed a threat or competition. In a smart evolutionary move, a line of wolves turned from foes to friends. In an act of “self-domestication”, they developed floppy ears, curvy tales and other features that made them look more docile. It was the first animal that domesticated itself to man, an evolutionary coup that may have ensured the survival of both species.
Science may have worked out the friendship, but it’s yet to explain the chivalry. “Dogs,” writes Landour’s most famous resident, were “benevolent creatures, who looked after lonely travellers, provided of course, the travellers were well-intentioned and pure of heart.” In his story The Black Dog, Ruskin Bond talks of a late-evening walk through the hills from his then home in Kempty village. (This was a time when Kempty had yet to turn un-kempty.) On this little trip to the Royal Hotel in Mussoorie, Bond gets uninvited company. A huge, black dog shadows him all the way to the town and then, a few hours later, back across the moonlit forest right up to his door.
It sounds like a pretty ordinary experience, till he ends up chatting with the prison warden of Haridwar a few months later. Two robbers stalked you back and forth, Mr Bond, the cop tells him. They were planning to rob you or worse. But they saw the hound with you and ditched the plan, the warden tells him. “‘I’d never seen that dog before, and I never saw him again.” What unreasonable behaviour is this? It’s a case even Bond may not be able to crack.
The odd thing about mountain dogs is that it’s almost always them who make the first move. They don’t wait for a reward—they show up and hang around, no questions asked. They don’t care if you’re a dog lover. Their relationship is not transactional. It’s almost like their affection is genetically hardwired. Unlike that other creature from the hills, they aren’t after your bags or snacks. Unlike humans, who are different in different ways, shaped by the places and people around them, mountain dogs are most often the same: silly creatures that will pop up when you expect them the least but need them the most. This strange bond between man, mountain and dog is as old as man, mountain and dog. Ask the Himalayas—they know.