The many camps bordering the Ganga on the Rishikesh-Badrinath road form the unofficial capital of the river rafting industry in India.
This is where the tourism of staying in riverside camps and enjoying white water runs on a river, started in an organized fashion in the country, many years ago. In 2010, close to 35 camps dotted the 36 kilometre-long regularly rafted stretch of the river. This length of river was considered to be one of the busiest worldwide in the rafting industry in terms of concentration at one spot. Both Indian and foreign river guides worked there. Two villages in the neighbourhood, Sirasu and Shivpuri, were said to have approximately 50 of their people working as trained river guides in these camps. Folks from Shivpuri were already guiding on the Ganga when Sirasu started its foray into the industry. However, Sirasu, a big village located half way up one of the hills bordering the Ganga, had the greater share of river guides – about 30.
Photographs of white water rafting and life in the armed forces dominated the living room of Satya Singh Rana’s house. The nearby shelf was stacked with prizes won for rafting. Now retired, he used to work at Indian Drugs & Pharmaceuticals Limited. His eldest son, Dhruv Naresh Rana became the first formally trained river guide from Sirasu; the younger one joined the National Security Guard. When Dhruv Naresh Rana (or simply Rana as he is known at the camps) decided to become a river guide around 1994-95, there were just 4-5 camps along the Ganga. He trained at the Indian Rafting Company, started by the late Avinash Kohli, who had been a pioneer in the sport. He spent three years at that outfit, then moved to a company called Wanderlust and in 2001 finally settled at Aquaterra, where the ethic of running various rivers and not just the Ganga, seemed to agree with his personality.
As Rana proved his competence, eventually participating in international competitions, others from Sirasu took to the profession. There were approximately 15 camps in operation along the Ganga, when Sanjay Singh Rana became the second person from Sirasu to be a river guide. By then river running had also found legitimacy as an occupation in the village predominantly given to farming, joining the army or looking for employment elsewhere. The third man to be a river guide from Sirasu was Jeetender Singh Rana who entered the field in 2003. His elder brother joined the army but a younger one became river guide eventually joining the same firm, where the first, second and third person from Sirasu into rafting, worked.
Although thanks to its river guides Sirasu’s name got attached to white water rafting, its representation in camp ownership was yet tiny. In fact, that was all of one. Rajinder Singh Rana was studying in the ninth standard, when he chanced to witness the 1977 `Ocean to Sky’ jet boat expedition up the Ganga led by the late Sir Edmund Hillary. He even got to give the great man a piece of cool cucumber to eat. Since then river running had been on his mind. Years later, after a stint in the army, Rajinder got into partnership with a person from Shivpuri to start a small riverside camp. He was the only person at Sirasu to do so. Similarly, according to Dhruv Naresh Rana, despite 30 odd men engaged in river running, the village had only one woman – Sunitha Rana (now Chauhan) – who trained to be a river guide.
The Rana surname was pretty common in Sirasu and according to Satya Singh Rana, they were originally from Rajasthan, moving this side a few hundred years ago. One small settlement above Sirasu was said to have the rather displaced name of Kota while another was pronounced “ Pulani,’’ reminiscent of Pilani.
Rana’s father chose to give the professional choice of his son and several others from the village, a spiritual twist. Like many people around, the Ganga for Satya Singh Rana was “ Gangamaa’’ and a son’s calling to guide on the river was most acceptable. It wasn’t just him. Others, like Jeetender’s father, also welcomed their sons’ choice of vocation. From Sirasu, one can see the Ganga below. On a fine day, any of its river guides would be visible to their families in the village as they guided clients down the foaming rapids and the fast moving swells. Youngsters in these parts had grown up diving into and swimming in the Ganga. That water was in their blood, which was perhaps why the sole worry Satya Singh Rana had, dealt with his son guiding on rivers elsewhere. “ Who knows how those rivers are?’’ he asked, much the same way a family would worry about a son travelling abroad for higher studies. The cream of Sirasu’s river guides now guide on a range of Himalayan rivers, among them – Zanskar, Ganga, Tons, Alaknanda and Brahmaputra.
Much has changed in India since the time Dhruv Naresh Rana became Sirasu’s first river guide. In many sectors, Indians now work abroad. Bhupinder Singh Rana from Sirasu epitomized the emergent trend. Almost ten years after the village got its first river guide he started out on the Ganga with Himalayan River Runners in 2003, then worked at Himalayan Outback and in 2010 (when I visited Sirasu to do this story) was freelancing for Aquaterra besides working the summer overseas guiding on rivers in Norway and Uganda.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article appeared in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in January 2011.)