Chicham is a village like any other in the Spiti Valley, quiet, pastoral, with a primary school, a friendly lama and spectacular views. But the people in the village have one hell of a time getting out of it as the nearest settlement, Kibber, is one deep canyon away and the only way to get across is through a perilously perched pulley system joining two cliff-sides.
I trotted along with D purposefully towards the object of our adventure. And there they were, the village in the distance, the gorge separating us, the angry waters of a stream gurgling 500 feet below and a little basket and a rope provided to haul yourself across to the other side. D bailed out immediately and left the scene. I stupidly put my foot in the pulley only to realise that it had moved before I could get the other foot in. I got the other foot in and then realised that there was no one on the other side to pull me across. The basket had moved and there was now a 20 meter gap between me and the cliff separated by a yawning canyon. I tried pushing the pulley back to the cliff but it resisted the motion and pulled itself away towards the other side, which made me curse myself for not paying more attention during physics lectures in college.
After a while, no matter what I did, the basket wouldn’t move and this was bang in the middle of the canyon. My nerves were doing a dance of death and I sat there suspended for over an hour, 500 feet above raging waters wondering what after-life was going to be like. I had lost all hope of survival till I heard someone calling from the Chicham side of the gorge, giving me step by step instructions to get out of the jam. Basically, I had to loosen the ropes very slowly and pull myself with all my might to go over to the other side. I fought my vertigo and gingerly got up to loosen the ropes one by one, after which it moved a few feet. In 20 minutes, once I was close enough to the Chicham cliff, the man pulled me across.
He was a Czech musicology student who was doing some research for his thesis paper on ethnic music from the Himalayan hinterlands. He lived in Chicham, he said, and went across to Kibber every day for a snack and a few beers. He didn’t know how the pulley worked either and was primarily using trial and error to negotiate the challenge. Nevertheless, he had saved my life and we went on to have a few beers in Kibber to celebrate the fact. What are the odds.
Most people travel to Sarahan for the spectacularly located Bhimakali Temple and I was no exception. That’s all I had wanted to do, spend a day or two in the serene surroundings of the temple guest house and move on to more exciting things in life, like a short trek in Kinnaur or home-stays in Spiti. Only, I ended up spending a week at the Bhimakali Temple out of sheer inertia.
The village of Sarahan is a dull cluster of dhabas, hotels and a few shabby under-construction guest houses set around the temple. Apart from the odd pack of Israeli backpackers and a Bengali family or two, there was a feeling of desolation here that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere in the Himalayas. Although the views from my verandah were fantastic and living within the grand architecture of the temple precincts was a unique experience, things were beginning to get depressing. I started feeling sad and angry for not getting a move on especially when it was so easy to get a move on with buses leaving regularly for the places I wanted to go.
But the baba had an explanation for it. I was “meant” to have stayed longer than I wished to because I had no choice in the matter. We were “meant” to have met at the temple and he was “meant” to be there to show me the right path. He looked ancient, with a long scraggly beard that extended all the way down to his waist. He was so skeletal in appearance that I felt he grew his beard that long just to cover his bones. He was upset about his previous disciple deserting him on the way to Kedarnath leaving him to fend for himself and I started to get the impression that I was being measured up as a replacement.
I accompanied him for a walk into the forests, him effortlessly walking barefoot, me in my Coleman boots struggling to keep pace. After expounding much on the Upanishads and mythological lore, a lot of which flew over my head, he advised me to do a trek to the lofty peak of Shrikhant Mahadev and said, “I have been to all the abodes of Lord Shiva but none have the ability to make your blood freeze, your feet bleed, your inner systems growel like the Shrikhant Mahadev. At this time of the year, the snow would bury you up to your neck and treacherous crevices could open up at every turn. If you harbour evil thoughts, you will certainly be swallowed by the mountain. But if you have a pure soul, the grace of God will keep your body warm and show you the way. I can help to purify your soul. You can spend months here in these beautiful mountains and get your soul cleansed with the beautiful air and a good diet of fresh fruits and herbs. If you take care of me well enough, we can go climb that mountain together.”
Feeling a little (unjustifiably) creeped out, I told him politely, “I don’t have the faith or ability to live like you do but am highly thankful for your offer to take me into your fold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run because a friend is waiting for me in the village to take me to Rampur. Again, thank you and good-bye!” I scurried down to my room in the temple guest house, packed my bags and hitch-hiked in a milk van out of Sarahan into Kinnaur.
May 27th, 2012
If you pull out a map of India, you would hardly notice the perilously winding road that hugs the Indo-China border in Himachal Pradesh that runs all the way inwards to Kaza in the Spiti valley. It’s interesting that part of it is, even today, after decades of Chinese control over Tibet, also known as the Hindustan-Tibet highway. Stanzin, who was seated next to me on the way to the village of Nako, said he felt he could almost touch China (and not Tibet) whenever he passed Khab, the closest point to the border on this route from where the road bifurcates to the Shipki La where the border lies. Him and his friends had once hiked all the way to a hill above Nako from where they had a glimpse of the first Chinese village. They felt immediately envious of it because they saw a smooth metaled road connecting it with other towns and as our bus rolled and thundered along the most nerve wracking and bumpy road I’d ever been on, I could empathize with them.
Stanzin, like a lot of people who live in these parts, said he harbours a natural hatred against the Chinese because of their irrational attitude towards the Dalai Lama. He wasn’t particularly fond of the Tibetans but, to him, the Dalai Lama was the equivalent of a living God and no human being or entity had a right to disrespect his living God. He did have a grudging admiration for Chinese technology and efficiency though and he said, given a choice at birth, he would have preferred to be born in the village across the border. When I pointed out that it wouldn’t be so convenient for him to worship the Dalai Lama in that village, he laughed and said he would rather have been born in Beijing then because he didn’t like how lazy Indian and Tibetan people were. “China is running trains to Lhasa and we can’t even build a proper road to Ladakh?”, he asked with much vehemence.
“I still do not understand why you’d want to be born there. You live in such a beautiful place”, I said, somewhat naively.
In a calm, measured tone, he replied, “To you, this might be a beautiful place. To me, this is a place I want to escape and maybe never see again. If you lived here all your life, you might understand. I’m a Buddhist and from the day I was born, I have been taught to believe in re-incarnation. The Dalai Lama wouldn’t be who he is if the concept of re-incarnation didn’t exist. I believed in it till I was 20 years old but lately, doubts have started creeping into my mind. When I was studying Science in Bangalore, I became good friends with a boy who was an atheist. He asked me a question that got me thinking. If the Dalai Lama is facing such hardships in this life-time, he must have done some evil in his previous life but his previous life would also have been a Dalai Lama. So how is he a God worth worshipping when he has the same frailties of a human being? If he’s a God, he wouldn’t do evil, right? When I put this question to a lama at Tabo, he told me that the Dalai Lama is not facing hardships but it’s actually a good thing that he’s able to serve more people in this life. It was so unconvincing an explanation that I’ve never gone to that monastery again. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for the Dalai Lama and I still worship him as a deity but his people are suffering because of him while the Chinese who have done them wrong are prospering. The reason I said I would rather have been born in Beijing is that I want to be on the side which prospers not the one that languishes and gets exploited. That’s the cold, hard truth.”
I had many more questions for him but we had arrived in Nako and since Stanzin was from the village of Chango further ahead, we exchanged numbers and said our goodbyes. Though a part of me was sad to see him go, much of me was insanely happy to have reached here in one piece. It was a 9 hour journey from Kalpa and I was feeling the sort of adrenalin rush one gets after a long, uncomfortable, hair-raising bus journey. It was evening time, so I rushed with my backpack to a point in the village where I could get the best view and caught one of the most glorious sunsets I’d ever seen.
I was glad I wasn’t in Beijing or in that first Chinese village Stanzin saw but right here, in Nako, that looked from a distance like it hadn’t changed in a big way in a very long time. But would I want to live here? Only time could tell.