East of Joshimath the majestic twin peaks of Nanda Devi – at 7816m, the highest mountain that is completely in India – dominate a large area of northeastern Garhwal and Kumaon. The eponymous goddess is the most important deity for all who live in her shadow, a fertility symbol also said to represent Durga, the invincible form of Shakti. Surrounded by an apparently impenetrable ring of mountains, the fastness of Nanda Devi was long considered inviolable; when mountaineers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman finally traced a way through, along the difficult Rishi Gorge, in 1934, it was seen as a defilement of sacred ground. A string of catastrophes followed, and in 1976 an attempt on the mountain by father and daughter team Willi and Nanda Devi Unsoeld ended in tragedy when Nanda Devi died below the summit after which she was named.
The beautiful wilderness around the mountain now forms the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. This is the core zone of the 5860-square-kilometre Nanda Devi National Park, which was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in October 2004. Access into the core zone has been prohibited since 1982 for environmental reasons, and trekking in the National Park is restricted to a limited number of visitors between May and October on a single route from the roadhead village of Lata to Dharansi Pass, which has fabulous views over to the twin peaks of Nanda Devi. The nine-day trek can be arranged through the GMVN Mountaineering and Trekking division in Rishikesh (T0135/243 0799), and costs around Rs25,000 per person all-in, in groups of three to five only. Further information on getting permits can be obtained from the Forestry Office in Joshimath (up two lots of steps to the left of the Dronagiri hotel, and then right).