Ecosphere, an organisation in Spiti, is offering an immersive taste of local life
I’m still recovering from an exquisite panoramic view of the Trans-Himalayas from atop a cliff 5,000m above sea level, when Kunga brings me something cupped carefully in both hands, his excitement redolent of a child flaunting his favourite figurine. It’s a plant. Well, parts of one. He peels the skin off a stem and hands it to me. “It’s called rubaab [sic]. It’s perfectly edible,” he assures me. The light-green stem is sour, with hints of a sweet note, its texture on the tongue similar to sugarcane’s, and size that of a straw. “When we go into the woods to graze cattle, this is our lunch; it has vitamin C and E. They even make jam from it in Europe,” states Kunga, as he merrily munches away at a bunch of rhubarb stems on our trek down from Balari top to Demul village.
Further ahead on the trail, Kunga points out a shrub with tiny red flowers, which when combined with some roots, make for an excellent analgesic. We pluck purple cloves of wild garlic as aid for high-altitude breathlessness, and for culinary use. We’re in Himachal’s Spiti valley and this is no regular sightseeing tour. Kunga Lodhren is a 24-year-old guide and cook with Ecosphere, an organisation which works with locals to facilitate responsible, eco-friendly tourism. We’re here to get a taste of the Spitian way of life while treading a breathtaking mountainscape over three days by engaging in activities designed to this very end.
On our first day, we find ourselves in the kitchen of Sol Cafe, a cosy eatery run by Ecosphere amidst the din of the only market in Kaza, the sub-divisional headquarters of Spiti where we’re based. For someone as dyslexic in the culinary realm as I, cooking a local dish is no mean feat. Kunga has his task cut out, which becomes obvious as I start chopping onions, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and cauliflower to make the gravy for keu, a local version of pasta. Next up is fashioning dough out of super-refined wheat flour. The dough is then flattened and tiny dumplings of it dropped into the boiling mix of veggies and spices in the cooker. The dish that is served after 10 minutes is surprisingly scrumptious.
Now that we’ve made the food, we must do the dishes. It is no coincidence that we head to Langza to throw a pot. The village gets its very name from the craft. ‘Lang’ stands for temple and ‘za’ denotes a certain kind of mud found here which lends itself to pottery. Until around half a century ago, the annual Ladarcha festival saw traders from Spiti and Ladakh barter items of business here, including a certain chemical (locals call it namak) which reinforced the pots and prevented cracking at high temperatures. But, over the years, as plastic and metal invaded lives, the mud pot lost its place on the kitchen shelf. And the namak disappeared. Today, a lone potter is active in the village that was named after its clay. Fifty-six-yearold Dorje Angchuk now uses the potter’s wheel to make artefacts like candle holders, flower pots and even replicas of sea fossils which are routinely found in the area.
The first step of the process is surprisingly similar to cooking. I’m trained in making dough out of the moist mud. It’s beaten into a firm ball to remove air bubbles and placed on the potter’s wheel, which is driven by foot. Over the next hour, my sloppy hands learn the fine nuances of pot making–from centering the dough to carving out the perfect cavity and tapering the rim. The final product bears the marks of a newbie but isn’t too bad. This pot will now travel to Kaza to bake in an oven at 800- 900°C before acquiring a glaze.
Lahaul-Spiti was once two separate districts. While Lahaul has a mix of Hindus and Buddhists, all the residents of Spiti follow Tibetan Buddhism. To better understand their religion, we spend the second day with Buddhist nuns at Pangmo, one-and-a-half hour away from Kaza. The nunnery here started in the 70s with 12 nuns meditating in a cave for 7-8 years. Today, it’s a concrete, two-storeyed structure that houses 46 nuns, the youngest of them just four years old. Discipline is central to their lives. Each session of the day commences with the tolling of a brass bell. Their studies begin at 5.30am, when a guru, the only monk in the nunnery, teaches them Buddhist scriptures. There are sessions in Tibetan, English, Hindi and Math during the day, interspersed with praying time.
But the session that stands out is called ‘debate’. At 9am, the nuns are paired up according to their age. In each pair, one sits on the ground and answers questions posed by the other, who makes a resounding clap at the end of every query. A cry of ‘So che!’ (Answer quickly!) mocks the sitting nun for not knowing an answer. The questions come from their holy books, mostly from lessons learnt earlier that morning. It’s a revision test like no other. Later, the exercise is repeated in groups, where it acquires a competitive tenor.
In the afternoon, the little nuns turn teachers, helping us navigate the Tibetan alphabet. I learn how to write my name in a script where every letter looks the same, and the proper way of chanting Buddhist hymns, including ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ and ‘Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha’.
The third day could very well be called Yak Day. We head to Demul village (4,310m) to get a lesson in twining rope out of yak fur. Yaks are the most common domesticated animals here, besides cows. The fur on their back, called khulu in Bhoti, is soft, warm and plucked at the onset of summer, to make sweaters and blankets for winter. The fur on their belly, sitpa, is much tougher and clipped off to make ropes. The haircut, in turn, helps the yaks cope with summer.
Puneet and I mount two yaks, aged 11 and 13–both called dullu for a lack of horns, to reach the the cliff-face of Balari top. A yak is mighty enough to carry a human on steep slopes through the wild countryside but it has the heart of a mouse, startled by loud noises and strangers. The journey to Balari top is a trek to a vantage point for tourists, but for the people of Demul it’s a ritual. Kunga tells us the story as he treks alongside our yaks without breaking a sweat.