Wednesday, April 26, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti: The boy in the blue sweater.

Why has it snowed less this year? Where does the ‘cheetah’ live? Where does devil eat? Why are foreigners so white? Where can one find rabbit holes and wolf caves? Why are the mountains so tall? Why is sunlight yellow in colour? Why are the Bingo Mad Angles crisps so costly in Spiti?

 (This guy knows the answer to all the questions asked above :) )

Mohan a.k.a Jaggu is one of the prolific guides who work with Ecosphere through the summers. The workload is so heavy in the summers that he seldom gets time to go home. He goes home only on special occasions and when lady luck showers her blessings on him in form of volunteer groups which have Demul on their itineraries. On one such lucky day, Jaggu came to Demul, his home with a group which was working in Chicham. He recognized me instantly and the next thing I know we’re sipping tea and discussing the progress of the greenhouse being built in Chicham by the group he was leading. As we parted ways, he invited me for a dinner of my favourite Potato momos at his house to which I happily agreed.

In the evening, I was at his door even before time. I called out to him “Jaggu daaas!!” No reply came. Then I called out his name again. Suddenly, two curious eyes popped out of kitchen window and then vanished again. I called out “oye”. This time, the whole face came up with a wide smile etched across it. That is how I first met Tenzin Norbu.  After that evening we became an inseparable lot until my last day in Demul.

For the next few days, clad in his favourite blue sweater and adorning his characteristic smile styled across the crimson cheeks, Norbu accompanied me everywhere I went except in my birding forays. He would have loved to go birding with me too but his mother refused every time for all the right reasons because the boy claimed that one of his aunt knew the location of a wolf den and he knew the way to it. Surely a worrying prospect for any mother. So we didn’t dwell outside the village together but inside the village, wherever I went, Norbu could be seen filtering around me.

(Nawang Tanpa and Norbu in a single frame! That’s a lethal combo!)

On the first day of our friendship, he brought me a dead caterpillar and declared it to be a baby snake. On the second daym he taught me how to avoid rams high on hormones. On the third day, we talked about our respective nonexistent girlfriends and how Nawang Tanpa, the “konsi class mei hai?” guy whom I thought to be the most innocent guy in Demul, terrorized kids even senior to him by throwing pebbles at them(I tried confirming the same with Nawang, but like always he wouldn’t answer any question except.. J ) On the fourth day, he showed me a bird which turned out to be a new bird for me and we watched glimpses of a superhero movie he’d never seen before.

The fifth day was the best day. All the ladies from the village and a few men were going up to the highland meadows above Demul called Yulsa to be a part of a pooja ceremony. This meant, we both could finally go out of the village together. That morning, Norbu came into my room beaming with enthusiasm clad in a neat blue and white shirt, new pants, new sandals and of course his favourite blue sweater while I was still trying to find something clean to wear. We were already late so I just put on whatever I could get my hands on. Norbu, me, his mother and another lady started for Yulsa after most of the ladies had already left. Half a later, like always, I was barely crawling up while Norbu was literally running up jollily.

(Here Norbu pretends to be the saviour of two ladies who have got stuck at the edge of a cliff, the two ladies being his mother on the left and aunt on the right.)

Every now and then, he would wait for me to catch up with him and point out a bird and ask its name. He was particularly intrigued, when I clicked and showed him a picture of a bird called horned lark. After some discussion, it was settled that the horned larks were churus (cows) of the bird-world. The ladies found the churu of the bird world quite interesting too. Further up, we took a sudden detour much to his mother’s worry and reached a patch next to a barley field which had a lot of holes. He said the holes were “khargosh ka ghosla”(rabbit holes).

So we waited silently for about 15min in hope that a rabbit would peep out eventually. But that didn’t happen. So we quickly got back on the track where his mother and the other lady were waiting for us. We picked up clumps of sweet edible grass that grows in the highland meadows and continued on our journey stopping intermittently for the birds and rest. His stories didn’t end until we finally reached Yulsa. He showed me a colony of a thorny plant growing along hillsides on the way and proclaimed them to be devil’s food to which his mother concurred thoughtfully. He also told me about a small pool where people from the village go up to bathe on hot days like the one where we dealing with that day and somehow we finally made it to Yulsa. What happened at Yulsa that day is another story.

(Norbu had been constantly nagging me to teach him how to use a camera for days, so at Yulsa, I taught him the basics of focusing and clicking a picture and gave him the camera to operate it all by himself. This is what the boy in blue sweater did with it. That’s his mum. This picture is one of my favourites from Spiti.) 

The next day was spent frolicking around the village and talking to the ladies working in the fields. We also discussed the reason behind the inflated prices of lays and bingo mad angles. We concluded it must have something to do with the air inside crisps packs and the transportation may play some role too.

(In the fields...trying not to ruin the hard work done by ladies :p )

(And, a lesson on how to life yak calves by the world renowned  yak lifter; Norbu kaka :) )

On my last day in Demul, we finished the unfinished tasks. He had brought in his cousin sister to assist us in the work. So we all sat down together and watched Captain America: The civil war, The Amazing Spiderman and and  THE CONJURING in one go. Needless to say, we screamed our lungs out during Conjuring while Amma and Norbu’s mom sitting in the next room wondered what was wrong with us. We decided to stay in my room that night but the adults weren’t going have it our way. So we bid quiet farewell instead of proceeding with our full night movie marathon. 

(As we were wondering how god bought colours for his paintings.. )

No worries, though. Four days later, I was back in Demul for a day.

I met him and casually proposed that we go to Mulchay and see the family of red foxes that lives there. He just ran off suddenly and came back after fifteen minutes wearing a new set of clothes and shoes and announced that he was ready for the foxes.  Obviously we didn’t go but his mother went all the way to Mulchay looking for him because apparently he had just told her that he was going to see red foxes and ran off. We somehow managed to escape the scolding when she found that we didn’t actually go. Phew.

 (I solemnly swear we were up to no good ;) )

And like always, we spent the rest of the day looking for other jobs to do. Psst, we also broke into a locked greenhouse via the  window. Please don’t tell this to anyone when you go to Demul. Especially Norbu’s mum. Thanks ! :P

Monday, April 17, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti: Lessons from the La

 (Tenzin Takpa offering his prayers before the pooja)

The atmosphere was electric. A chilling silence had spread across the dimensions of the balcony we were all sitting in. The ladies who were busy buzzing with each other moments earlier had become quiet. Even the cacophonous kids had cleaned up their act. Tenzin Takpa, the village coordinator sat ahead facing me across the Chokse table carved with intricate designs and creatures. He was wearing special robes, his eyes were shut in utmost concentration and his hands are placed firmly around a special vessel made of silver containing Arrack, the local alcohol.

And then suddenly, the air was adrift with the reverberation of the flute, cymbals and the drums. It had begun. Tenzin Takpa started shaking vigorously. His teeth were clattering, the eyes were twitching but were still shut and the hands were still fast around the vessel. Slowly, he raised the vessel and took a sip of Arrack from it and quickly hid behind a colourful veil offered to him. This music which was difficult to comprehend still played.

When he let the veil fall, his eyes were wide open but what looked out of them were only their whites. His irises were gone behind his head. Still trembling, He began murmuring steadily into the ear of the man sitting next to him. Everyone sat there holding their breath.

(Behind the veil.. as men sprinkle red barley grains as the devta descends into the body of the La..)

“What has happened to Tenzin Takpa?” I asked the man sitting next time. “The Devta has gotten into him, he’s not—“  our conversation was broken as the music came to an abrupt end. 

 (And the La comes to life..)

The Devta had begun talking to everyone now. Though it was visible that only a few people understood what he was saying, but it was clear that the Devta was not pleased. His voice was husky, but clear and loud and he was pointing fingers at the people around him while they bowed their heads down or clasped their hands together in submission. Every once in a while he stomped his hand on the Chokse table in visible anger and took a sip of Arrack from his vessel.  After about fifteen minutes of ranting, the Devta mellowed his voice down and began murmuring into the ears of the same man again.

And suddenly, the music was back in the air. The Devta had closed his eyes again; the silver vessel was back on chokse with his hands wound around it. He began shuddering again, the expression on his face changing with every note of music and then all of a sudden, he swished his hands into the air and opened his eyes. His irises were back. Tenzin Takpa was back. He looked around inquisitively, then got up, undid the robes and went outside as if nothing had happened. Everybody on the balcony began to relax. The ceremony was almost over. 

The man who was sitting next to the Tenzin Takpa through the ceremony got up and started talking to the people around. He looked like he was translating what the Devta had said moments before. The people most of whom were ladies listened to him attentively.  As he finished with his translation, one of the ladies got up and put forth an argument which was passionately scrutinized and debated upon. Finally, when everything was settled, tea was served and everyone got back to their chattering and kids resumed their cacophonies.  The Devta Pooja was over for the day. 

(The La expresses his dismay to the villagers..)

The fact that Demul Devta was upset with people was not hidden from anyone in Demul, not even from outsiders like me. I had come to know that every village in Spiti has its Devta(s); local deities who reside in the various Langs or temples in the village and they have resided in these temples even before the advent of Buddhism in the valley. It is believed that the Devtas watch over the villages and people. It’s the Devtas who bring good snow, rains, ensure good harvest and cure people who are ill or spiritually lost. The Devtas also guide people regarding how they should live their lives. It’s also believed that the Devtas are very temperamental and expect constant appeasement and devotion from their subjects; the village people. The Devta Pooja is held every month wherein, The Devtas descend into the village and manifest themselves in human form by possessing a chosen person who is called the La. Tenzin Takpa is Demul’s La and he will remain so until his death. The La when possessed starts speaking in a language in Bhoti, an ancient Tibetan language which he doesn’t know or understand otherwise. The person who sits next to him through the ceremony is well versed in Bhoti and thus acts an interpreter and translator for the Devta

The ceremony that had taken place that morning was actually supposed to take place in the evening before but at the last moment, it was declared that the Devta was upset.  One of the elder women told me that the Devta was upset because the villagers didn’t pay attention when he declared his arrival. Ignorance was a pretty serious offence in the eyes of the Devta. 

It is still not clear to me how the villagers appeased him for the ceremony next day but He didn’t shy away from expressing his dismay in front of the people. The reverence that He holds among the villagers was evident in their submission to His preaching which most of them didn’t even understand initially.  

I’ve never been a firm believer of these rituals. The supernatural had never appealed to me before that day. This half an hour ceremony changed everything. It didn’t turn me into a believer, but witnessing the whole thing left me enchanted and I learnt that there are many things beyond our personal and interpersonal understandings and one does not need to believe in things and ideas to respect them. The devotion and regret that the villagers displayed at the La’s sermon and his dismay had something very powerful about it and later on when I learnt the reason behind the Devta’s dismay left me spellbound. 

(Here’s the La is being felicitated by the interpreter/translator. The silver vessel containing Arrack, the smaller vessel containing Yak butter and the peacock feathers are the special offerings offered by the villagers)

The Devta is worshipped as the one who guides people when they lose their way and according to him, they had indeed lost their way when they allowed vices like jealously and ignorance seep into their lives. He reminded the people that it has been togetherness that has guided me through thick and thin in this land. He asked them how they could let jealously of material things like money and possessions threaten this togetherness. He also reminded them that no material possession can ever replace the bonds made and deepened over Arrack and Chaccha(Spitian butter tea).

(Arrack is an essential offering. :))

I confirmed it with two people in the village and immediately felt subtly humbled.

The monthly ceremony continued for the next three days and on the second day, even the Langza Devta arrived. Langza actually means Abode of gods, and the Langza Devta is worshipped as the supreme healer in the villages. I was there at almost all the poojas and also had my sins purified at one occasion. 

I still can’t say exactly if I believe in the La and this tradition. Sometimes when I remember those transient eyes emanating only the whites looking into my own, I feel that they could look right inside me and it still gives me chills when I think of those moments and sometimes I stupidly try scaling it with logical. But I know one thing for sure now and that is I deeply respect this ancient tradition and the belief that people have in this system. And if a system helps people contemplate, introspect and shed a poisonous malice like jealousy, I believe there can be nothing better for a society. :)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti: Shepherding in Paradise

(It begins..)

At 9am every day, the village of Demul stands witness to a special commotion. The clatter of soft bells marks its beginning. Then the dust begins to rise and the earth quivers as mobs of horns and hooves begin to pour out of every home. The air resonates with the sounds of them mooing, bleating and bawling. The mob slowly moves forward as members continue their bellowing and new groups keep assimilating into the larger herd as they progress through the narrow streets of the village.

One fine day, I decided to join them on their daily sojourn to the highland meadows. I was very excited at the prospect of being a shepherd for a day. It had been a childhood dream for me to walk the high hills with a long stick in my hand and a thousand livestock animals ahead of me. Finally the day had come. I had been waiting for the mob to show up and like always at 9am, the streets began to come to life and I quickly joined the group. As we were passing, the villagers came in with their animals and suddenly one of the elderly men handed me a long stick, patted my back and said “Kisi ko khone mat dena”. I was elated beyond measure. It was like being christened a warrior by the king. I was good to go!

(The mythical Yak Devta of Demul enters regally.)

In our party, we had churus( a local species of domestic cows adept at surviving in the harsher conditions of these areas), calves, yaks, sheep and their lambs and a few goats. We also had menacing donkeys that kept fighting with each other. Walking behind the animals was like walking through a dust storm and I was regretting not bringing my face mask with me. 

 (Onwards, we trod, as we step out of Demul onto the highlands..)

I met the three men who were going to be my comrades on this mission. They welcomed me heartily and asked me I was feeling okay. I smiled and said “all good to go, boss!”. Soon we got out of the dusty lanes of the village and began the intimidating ascent to the meadows. I had walked much so much since coming to Spiti and yet it didn’t seem to add up and every time was like the first time; ten steps, out of breath, ten steps, out of breath.  I managed to keep walking somehow out of the fear of slowing the whole group down and after forty five minutes of toiling hard we finally stepped on the flat meadows. 

It was worth it as undulating hills gave way to large meadows full of green grass set against the glistening blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. It was like a dream. 

 (And we enter into the vast meadows..)

(This is what the heaven must look like)

There’s a definitive system of shepherding in the villages of Spiti. In Demul for instance, two local men are chosen every evening in an orderly fashion to join Mr. Naveen Kumar, who is the head shepherd. He is called the Lugzi locally which means shepherd in the local language. It was pleasantly surprising to hear that Mr Naveen who originally hails from Nepal has been coming to Demul for the past seven years to perform his duty as the head shepherd of the village.

(Naveen Kumar shows me his kingdom as his faithful subjects carry on with their daily work in the back ground)

Mr Naveen has a very enticing personality. He carries a calmness around him which is both intriguing and comforting at the same time. He is, you can say, a professional shepherd who can tell you the possible movement of the herd just by looking at them closely. He instructs the men coming with him to move into various directions in order to keep the herd together.  He carries a heavy lasso rope which when he swings and swipes, cattle turn back even when they are hundred metres apart.  Even the menacing donkeys are afraid of his lasso. 

 Naveen bhaiya is respected deeply by the villagers for the job he does and the person he is and it was evident by the ardency with which Angdui bhaiya and Chhuldim dada, the local shepherd for the day were following his instructions. 

 We spent about an hour in preventing the animals from straying away from meadows and essentially running back to the village. It was a tiring task as cows kept running higher up on the mountains and sometimes out of sight and sheep kept following them foolishly. At one moment, Mr Naveen hurriedly rushed downhill and came back 10 minutes later with four cows that tried running back to the village. While I stupidly tried redirecting the sheep running behind the hills by running after them screaming ‘hee-haah’, It took only one swing out of Naveen bhaiyas’ lasso to do the work. 

After the animals finally got busy grazing, We gathered near a small dilapidated rock hut. Angdui drew out a sooty saucepan from the hut and Chhuldim kaka went about and returned with some dry bushes to start a fire. It was then I realized why all of the three men were carrying bags. Fooood!

(Collecting dry twigs and bushes for making tea )

Angdui opened up his bag and took out a lunch box containing loafs of tirik and cooked spinach. He’s had also brought along chutney! Chhuldim kaka opened up his bag to produce a tea bag set( that too Taj Mahal!), a box containing sugar and a bottle of milk. In about twenty minutes, the tea was ready! Everybody peeped into their bags and withdrew a glass each. I just looked stupidly into my bag half expecting to find a glass. Haha. I shared the glass with Angdui. All of us started chatting with tea and sumptuous combo of tirik and spinach. I curiously asked ‘what do we do next? To which Naveen bhaiya replied ‘We just straighten naughty cows and do this again! And again! It’s a good life’. All of us laughed wildly at this. 

(Of conversations made while waiting for tea to be ready..)

(The little pleasures of little life..sipping tea at 4400m above sea level with best people for company!)

After some hearty breakfast and conversations, it was time to get back to work. Angdui worked his way up for the higher grounds. Naveen bhaiya had a feeling that some sheep and cows had traced their way back in the direction from which we entered the meadows, so he went that way while I held guard around sheep on the flat meadows around us with Chhuldim kaka. 

Herding the livestock is very exciting at first; the animals pay special attention to you because you are an outsider and you look weird but after some time they become accustomed to your presence and don’t give a rat’s ass to your gimmicks and hee-hahs. It’s fun nonetheless. 

After some time, we gathered again for another round of tea and tirik.  It was 1:30pm and the sun shone brightly above with no clouds to provide respite from its heat. After tea, it was time for me to go. There was going to be a pooja in the village and the coordinator, Tenzin Takpa had invited me to be a part of it as a spectator to which I had happily said yes. I felt sad at not staying until the end that is until 5pm, when we would have grouped all the animals together. As I bid bye to the men, I promised Naveen that one day I would come back for the full day, although I didn’t fulfil the promise in the coming days. I hope to do that next time. 

(Walk with me on these pathless ways..)

Shepherding in the highlands meadows seems like one of the best jobs in the world and in many ways it truly is. The feelings that you experience as you walk through unchanging landscapes painted in suave earthen colours and blue skies, with wind caressing your skin and birds leading your way into the vast meadows can’t be described in mere words. No photograph can portray the true scale of the beauty and the vastness. You have to be there to experience it.

(The watchful gaze)

But it has its own challenges. It’s not so easy to keep track of all the animals under your watch and time and again, churus and sheep stray away to farther lands and must be ushered back to safety. Sometimes, they even get lost for days and get preyed upon by predators like snow leopards and wolves (during early summers). In recent times, stray dogs have moved out of villages due to lack of food and become wild and readily hunt down sheep in large numbers when they come across strayed individuals or an unprotected herd. Sometimes, while moving through narrow areas beside cliffs, sheep and lambs fall to their death accidentally. So the Lugzis’ job has to be always alert to avoid any unfavourable circumstances. They also have to mediate herd’s movement through narrow areas and ensure that the entire herd stays together.

One of the Ecosphere’s great initiatives in the highland villages is to be support the herding practises among the villagers and lugzis. So as part of this initiative, Naveen Kumar is paid 14000rs annually by Ecosphere in addition to money paid by the villagers. It’s a very healthy exchange. Over the years, Naveen bhaiya has been coming back to Demul and other villages around the area and his expertise in shepherding has helped local men get a better grip at the whole process which is by no standard easy!

 (Chhuldim kaka has the most contagious laugh and the best sense of humour in Demul!)

(The shepherd don’t carry water bottles with them because mother nature has always has water for those are thirsty in her various pristine mountain streams!)

 (This one time, I was hiking around the highlands in Demul following a herd of blue sheep. While I returning to the village at sundown, I ran into a small group of churus and sheep which looked lost. I thought they must have got separated from the Demul group while coming back and people must have been looking for them. This was it. This was my chance of use the shepherding skills I had learnt on my sojourn to the meadows, so I began ushering them back to the village and was doing a pretty good job. We had just travelled some distance when a teenage girl came running from the village of Mulchay which was on other side of the highlands. It turned out that this group actually belonged to Mulchay and it was actually taking them in the wrong direction. I readily apologized for the mistake and made my way to Demul. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout the way back.)

So, when you go to Demul or any village, do try your hands at shepherding with the locals. Look out for Naveen bhaiya and join him next day! You’ll not regret it and he’ll have another comrade to assist him in straightening the naughty Churus. :D 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti: A home in the hills

Haven’t we all, at some point of time in our life wished for a home away from the noise and lights of the city? A home in the hills with a small garden in which we could grow apples and oranges. It’s a wish that unlike other wishes remains ingrained in our mind palace from childhood to adulthood. Only the dimensions of our thoughts change, as we grow. 

When I first started reading about Spiti in 2014, I bumped into this site called Spiti homestay. Reading through this website was my first insight into the concept of homestays. I was smitten and I read more and in the contact us page I found Ecosphere. I found out that homestays were a common thing in India while homestays in Spiti weren’t. 

When Ecosphere came to Spiti, as Muse initially, they saw that the concept of homestays was a win-win situation for both the locals and the travellers who would come to Spiti. Spiti, at that point of time was just opening up to the world and introduction of homestays meant that it could act as an alternative  source of income for locals and it could be an opportunity for travellers to get a deeper insight into the Spitian way of life.  Today homestays form a major chunk of people’s annual income in Spiti. 

The picturesque village of Komic has only 14 houses and you can call at least 6 of them your home:)

No one can stop themselves from falling in love with the sight of houses in Spiti; painted in rich white and tiled with square windows outlined with reds and blues which sometimes also have curious eyes popping out of them. Generally all houses are two-storeyed and people usually live on the upper floor during the summers and shift down to the ground floor in winters. 

When you enter through the wooden doors, every house greets you with a characteristic smell, just like home and there will be someone to welcome you with a genuine smile on their face and of course Julley!  And aaui chai peetei hain (Let’s have tea) you should know that when in Spiti, you can’t escape tea. So you follow your host to the kitchen. The Kitchen is the central hub of all activities in the house and when you walk in, everyone will come to greet you, from little mischief makers to the old Heebi( Grandmother) and in no time, Tea will be ready.  If you’re lactose intolerant, don’t worry, there’s Lemon tea too and Kesar tea for special occasions. 
(This is the typical setup of a kitchen with short tables called Chokse lined along with comfortable mattresses, there’s ample space for light to come in through the windows and there’s always something brewing on the fuel stove. This is where endless cups of tea and arrack are shared over deep conversation and gossip. This is where the kids inspect their newest discoveries found in the mud. This is where everyone watches Doraemon and Saas-bahu serials together. This is where -30’C Celsius becomes a triviality in the winters.  The kitchens are the hearts of Spitian homes)
(And people have fetish for keeping a colourful cutlery in their kitchen. This is just a sample; I’ve seen whole cabinets lined with an assortment, cups, bowls, trays, glasses, spoons of all colours. I am sure these collection give Indian mum life goals when it comes to shopping cutlery!)

The rooms are good. The quilts, mattresses and bed covers are fresh.  The Chokse tables are neatly laid and a water purifier is laid on it, so you don’t have to worry about water quality. When you walk into the room, it does not feel like it’s a hotel room. There’s nothing superficial, it’s all real, like one’s room back at home which was cleaned by mum after repeated warnings! Some room have views and some rooms don’t but all the rooms have that homeliness. 
(This was my room in Demul for 8 days. I never slept on the bed, the mattresses laid on the ground were so comfortable and the chokse table infront of me was my shortcut to everything; from my laptop to the novels I carried.)
(Some rooms do indeed have stellar views to boast like my room from my time in ‘Life as a Local')

But, it’s not the amenities that the homestays provide which make you feel at home. It’s the people.  It’s amazing how the people let you in their lives and allow you to be a part of it. They don’t do anything special for you. There’s no pretence at all. They just simply let you be a part of whatever they’re doing. So you can scribble away meaningless dialogues in a notebook with a Tenzin or learn how to make sumptuous potato momos spiced with wild herbs collected from the highlands. You can sit down in the kitchen with Heebi and simply soak the silence of her mediation as she swirls her prayer wheel in deep concentration. You can talk to Uncle about how cities are so noisy and you can also ask him if he’s seen a snow leopard. I always do that and get the best answers. 

And then, there are local dishes. Potato momos is my favourite, I can gobble down 4-5 plates and that’s not an understatement.(When in Komic, barge into Kunga Jordhen’s home and you’ll not be disappointed by the Aaloo momos!) Then there is thenthuk and thukpa, I believe there’s nothing more therapeutic than a bowl of hot thenthuk after a good day’s hike. It opens up the head and warms the body, the garlic in the soup shoos away the mild AMS headache in a flash. Keu and Shunali are two delicacies which for me beat pasta any day (When in Demul, go to Angdui; the secretary’s home for Shunali!) I’ll happily trade any exotic dish for these local dishes. They are so organic. If you like peas, you’ve got try pea-pulao made in pure ghee obtained from the milk of cows which graze the pristine highland meadows around the village. Once I was peeling peas with my hosts and we ended up gulping all of the peas down our throat because they were so sweet! 

With time you develop a bond with everyone at your home and everyone who comes visiting and it’s reflected in the way the people around you acknowledge your presence. You start with aap(you) and then you gives way to hum(we). For me, these little things make me feel home more than anything. 
(Here’s Kunga with his son, Tenzin who’s the naughtiest kid I’ve ever met, at their home in Komic.) 

(We’re making Aaloo momos here together; the lady and her friend in picture are British. They learnt making momos in Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh and were a great help to Kunga. I on the other hand...Disappointing to say the least. )

(Here’s a curious cat I befriended at one of my many homes. I hate cats, by the way. This one became a friend because of a mutual friend.)

(And that friend is the cutie sitting in the middle here between her Heebi and Meme(Grandfather). I dread cats and this girl was casually pulling her cat’s hair and tail, poking her tiny finger into the cat’s eyes and I was there screaming silently “Don’t do that!!!”)
(Nawang in the middle and his family hosted me and my co volunteers during my stint in life as a local, when I went back in winters, they welcomed me back with open hearts. Isn’t that how a home is? Here they are, holding a picture of the view from my room in their house. )

For me, homestays are not an opportunity, they are a privilege. Homestays is the closest I’ve come to realizing the dream of living in the hills. Through my travels in Spiti, I’ve had so many houses to call home and barge in without a thought. 

In the end, it’s the little things which matter. You may forget the ethereal sunset and the double rainbows. You may forget the views and sightings but you’ll never forget a Gatuk’s mischief. You’ll never forget a Heebi’s toothless smile. You’ll never forget the Thenthuk, you’ll find it everywhere but it’ll never be the same thenthuk that calmed your nerves after the long hike from Langza to Komic. 

The magic of simple memories will bring you back to the middle land and when you’re there, you‘ll find your way back home. Always. :)

This is originally written by Purvash Jha, The post was first featured on Ecophiles. is a platform that drives the emerging movement of conscious travel and living into the mainstream with accessible and informative stories.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

#StoriesfromSpiti : Women of the North

(Ladies tilling a green peas field in the lap of the mythical Chau Chau Kang Nilda in Langza)

“Aao, chai peeyo?” (Come, have some tea with us?) The women called out to me as I was walking through the fields. I shyly refused the offer but they were pretty insistent. So I joined a group of four ladies who were tilling and watering a field sown with green peas. One of the ladies poured out a cup of tea for me and handed me a cup. They also offered me some Channg(barley beer) which I politely refused. About half an hour ago, I had passed the ladies and asked them the direction to Dorjee uncle’s home. I had brought the pictures of his grandchildren; Sonam and Tenzin, which I had clicked last year during my stint in ‘Life as a local’ with Ecosphere.  So while, we were sipping tea, I told them I told them about the weeding and watering that I did in Life as a Local when Dorjee uncle was the coordinator and also how I loved Spiti and that it was my third time there within a year.

(Strength through togetherness; the women here working together in routing the water through a field. All the women instead of working on their own respective fields choose to work collectively on a single field at a time, as a result the work for each individual becomes less and all the fields can be irrigated faster. Collective work also means more tea and more chhang!)

One of the ladies casually said “aap yahin par aajao Piti mei hi rehne”(You should come up here in Spiti and live here forever). I laughed and asked “aap mujhe rakhenge yahan?” (will you keep me here?) to which one of the ladies replied “Han han kyun nahi agar aap hum sab ko Dilli laajayein!”(yes, yes why not? Only if you take all of us to Delhi with you). All of us laughed together and I didn’t realize when my cup of tea was filled again. 

The Spitian society can’t survive without its women. They, for me, are the most important pillar of this society. Everything that happens here involves the ladies in some or the other way. Even the men in Spiti won’t refute my claim here. 

Every time that I’ve come here and lived with the people in Spiti, I’ve always gone back as a better person with a deepened respect and love for women not only here but throughout the world.
Life in Spiti is taxing and more so for the women. Most adult women here wake up at early hours of the day and sleep only after the rest of the house has slept. In the summer months, they do most of the work in the agricultural fields ranging from tilling, sowing, watering and weeding. They work long hours in these fields under the scorching summer sun. They take care of their children, husbands and even the livestock animals. They get the household chores done. They do almost everything and do most of the things with better efficiency than men. 

It’s a fact well known that women do much more than the credited for, especially in the hills. By the looks of it, men don’t do much work when compared to women and that is actually true in most cases except in a few households in the villages where men may go to work in Kaza or as guides, cooks and porters during the tourist season. Very few men spend their time in fields,  even though they can found at homes tending to the children. Men are mostly concerned with the matters socio-political matters of the villages. 

But, for me, the greatness of women in Spiti does not stem from this comparison of men and women and the amount of work they do. Comparison is a cliché which glorifies one side and defames another. 

(a lady benevolently serves food to the men who had been shepherding the livestock for the day at the Yulsa meadows above Demul)

The greatness of women in Spiti stems from their attitude towards their lives. In midst of recent discussion on feminism and equality in the modern world,  to an uninformed person, the lives of women here must like look like an epitome of struggle, oppression and backwardness but when you come here and take a proper look into their lives and talk to them, you realize that this is not even remotely true. 

Once I met a lone woman working in the fields in Demul. She must have been older than 50 years though I didn’t ask her age. When we got talking, I asked her what her daily routine is in summers. She said, she wakes up at 6am every morning, she milks the cows first and then goes off to the fields to water them(it is essential to the water the fields early in the morning before the sun becomes too strong), then she gets back home and sends her grandchildren to the school while her daughter-in-law  goes to the fields. Then she performs a few household chores at home before returning to the fields as her daughter-in-law goes on to daily work for the PWD. She generally takes a thermos of tea and some lunch with her for the field and returns in the evening, when she and her daughter in-law prepare the dinner. She told me she slept at 11pm every day. 

I impulsively asked her “Don’t you get overburdened by this routine? Don’t the women do too much here? Don’t you feel the men should more work?”

She smiled, maybe at my naiveté. “Sometimes, yes. It gets very tiring for us especially during the summers, but that’s no reason to give up. That’s how it always has been because that’s how our society has been shaped, the women have been granted this privilege of doing the important work and that we can do so much work is matter of pride”  

(Some respite from the monotony of daily lives on the day of devta pooja at Yulsa meadows.. :))

The group of ladies that I met in Langza were so eager to go to Delhi but when I asked them if they would like to give up living here for the comforts of Delhi, they immediately said no. “There’s everything in Delhi but it’s not our home, we can’t live without talking to each other but there people don’t talk to each other”. 

On being asked if she had any problem with men not working as much as women, one young woman in Demul said “it does not work like that here, we don’t see how much work men do or don’t, for us the essence of good living is determined by our togetherness and understanding. So for me it doesn’t matter what men do. They shouldn’t do bad things like overdoing alcohol and gambling because it has a negative impact on all of us”.

(This image is perhaps my most favourite image from Spiti. For me, it exemplifies the human connection that forms between people when they begin to know each other. When I clicked this picture, I wasn’t an outsider who had just come to be at the right place on the right time, people knew me, kids knew me and they were comfortable being themselves around me. Ladies generally don’t like their to have their pictures taken that too by strangers but when I asked this resplendent mother-daughter do, they said yes without hesitation. That means a lot to me.)

Of course, these are only few instances when I talked to the ladies, but to me the idea was clear. Yes, people especially women have a tough life here and they can choose to not work and ask the men to do more work in the sheer spirit of equality and feminism. But they don’t that simply because they understand their importance in the Spitian society, they know that without their support, this society would collapse. So they’ve embraced their roles as the strongest pillars of the society. To an outsider, it seems like too much of a responsibility but for them it’s a privilege. It’s also true that sometimes, it’s becomes too taxing for them and even more difficult when men take to lethal addiction like alcohol and gambling but they just don’t give up and for me there lies their true beauty and magnificence. 

If there has to be something done in the valley, its women who come forward every time. Be it generation of alternative source of income through cultivation of seabuckthorn, the wonder berry whose bushes were earlier use as cattle-feed and fences or the beautiful handicrafts and hand-woven woollen products. 

(My wonderful hostess making the daily “Chalo hum dono chai peetein” tea for us. Initially, I used to call her aunty, but slowly as we got familiar, I felt more comfortable in calling her amma(mother). She didn’t want me to click her picture because she thought she was too old for a picture, despite my endless efforts at convincing her that she didn’t look old which was my genuine belief.)

In my little stints in the villages of Spiti, the good fortune of living with the people and essentially the ladies have always been the silver living of my experiences in the valley. The most deep-rooted of them being the week I spent in Demul this time where a wonderful lady hosted me for a week. I came to her house as a tourist and left as a family member.

Even after working in the fields throughout the day, she always had a smile upon her face as she entered the house and would say “aajao hum dono chaii peetei hai”(come, we’ll have a cup of tea together) 

(This was what happened when I told Gatuk’s mum (who had hosted me in my first visit to Demul) that she had the best smile in entire Demul :) )

The women here have made realize that it does not take great deeds to become good human beings. The graciousness in their embrace of their lives has been a life changing insight for me and it has helped me become a more compassionate human being.  

(Winter musings: In winters when the fields are shrouded with snow and there’s not much work to do, women focus on their other talents; beautiful mats of vivid colours and design and woollen products like gloves, mufflers and socks.)

(Leading the way through the fields and through life. )

As new frontiers open up, young charismatic women of Spiti are carving new paths, as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and entrepreneurs and yet the spirit of womanhood remains ingrained in them deeply wherever they go and in whatever they do.