'Resorting' to the Arcane

Spilled Ink Issue 85 Jul, 2010

When is a ‘resort’ not a fancy up scale holiday retreat?
Back in 1952, the inveterate British traveler H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman (1898-1977), published his mountain travel book Nepal Himalaya. To Himalayan readers and writers his book belongs in every well-stocked personal library, not only for the adventures, but for the quality of Tilman’s writing. He was not only an astute observer, but also a man of fitting prose, and sometimes poetry. In east Nepal when he reached a village called Gudel and gazed across the valley at Bung (“a name which appeals to a music-hall mind”), he was moved to write this little ditty:

For dreadfulness nought can excel
The prospect of Bung from Gudel;
And words die away on the tongue
When we look back at Gudel from Bung

At Bung he hoped to acquire some spirits; but, alas, “its abundant well of good raksi, on which we were relying, had dried up”—
Hope thirstily rested on Bung
So richly redolent of rum;
But when we got there
The cupboard was bare,
Sapristi. No raksi. No chang.

In his description of the famous pilgrimage destination of Muktinath, in Mustang District, Tilman’s sensitivity to the landscape comes out. Looking west, down into the Kali Gandaki river valley, he provides us with this perceptive (non) view of the Kali as it was (not) seen: “The Kali river was not in sight. It runs at the bottom of a deep trench as if ashamed of hurrying stealthily by, withholding its life-giving water from so thirsty a landscape...” Muktinath is in the rain shadow of two of the world’s highest mountains, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. To Tilman the arid countryside was a “woodless waste of yellow, grey and black hills—a barren landscape...”

Tilman described Muktinath itself as a “celebrated Hindu pilgrim resort... Well watered by springs and streams... [and] A place to which several thousand pilgrims come every year...” It “owes its sanctity,” he said, “ to the presence of the thrice-sacred ‘shaligram’”, the black ammonite fossil worshipped as a representation of Lord Vishnu.

What puzzles me is Tilman’s term “pilgrim resort” to describe Muktinath. That’s not how I would characterize it, for Muktinath is an austere place with no resort-like delights. So, I set out to determine the origins and alternative meanings of ‘resort’, the noun. I came up with a long list of synonyms including haunt, hangout, playground, vacation spot, gathering place, club and casino; and, a place for recreation, like a ski lodge. It is also used for health spa, baths or springs. Muktinath is well known for its springs (cold) in which devout Hindu pilgrims bathe body and soul in their quest to attain mukti (‘salvation’), for which the shrine is named. ‘Pilgrim resort’ didn’t appear on any list, but when I googled it on the Internet, I found two century-old references. A 1905 European travel guide describes a Christian “pilgrim-resort” in northern France, and the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to numerous places of prayer in Jerusalem as “pilgrim-resorts”. I also found that some of the accommodations available at religious tour destinations in modern India are called “pilgrim resorts”.

My conclusions are that ‘resort’ when used to describe a pilgrim destination is archaic English, retained mostly (or only) by a few Indian travel guides, and that Tilman was familiar with it from his extensive travels under the influence of the British Raj—or was it something he imbibed in  Gudel or Bung?
Good writing! 

Rare book collectors take note: A first edition of Nepal Himalaya sells in good condition for over $200. By comparison, a cheap version (which probably breaches intellectual property rights) sells in Nepal for under 200 rupees. The authorized reprint, in a 1983 collection entitled H.W. Tilman: The Seven Mountain-Travel Books, sells worldwide for $25 or less (London: Diadem Books and Seattle: The Mountaineers).