“Those mountains that you are carrying, you are only supposed to climb”
The saying personifies mountains as instances of struggles, of those one must not carry the weight but climb over to know newer boundaries of you.
This trip to Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, perhaps made me live through the struggles of people in the Mountains and how they have lived through it to become happier, widened aura-ed, stronger souls.
It started with the bus from Delhi to Sundernagar, a town in Mandi. A 12 hour journey of which 5 hours were mostly uphill, at the end of it, I was in utmost gratitude to the person who drove us up, the driver bhaiya, with almost no moments of jerks. Having lost a friend in a bus accident, such driving gets back faith in you, of one kind.
We were almost a dozen of us, office colleagues, travelling for reasons beyond work, for the first time, together, knowing surfaces and perhaps open to dive deeper over the course at the mountains. We happened to spot a Mandyali Dhaba near the bus stop and a group of us went to explore. As I was asking uncle if there was tea and breakfast, he first refused. I requested for some tea, to which it almost felt like I got him angry. When I apologized on a light note, he smiled and offered us Tandoori paranthas and some hot tea. There is nothing more divine than hot fresh tandoori paranthas – we in Delhi and other cities have no idea what we are missing. Tea, by any standards had four spoons of extra sugar than required but then ofcourse, welcome to the Hills! (:
What started after that was a hour long journey to Village Thatta in Mandi district – the host village for the home stay experience that we were all excited to experience. 90s and 2000’s old hindi songs accompanied us all through – mostly AR Rehman, Lucky Ali and Atif Aslam Catgeory – that have somehow passed out playlist. From “Awaare Bhanwre Jo haule Haule Gaaye” to “Pappu can’t dance saala”, to me it was just living through a past decade of my life.
After a brief stop at the Forest Guest House for freshening up with gyser (one would know how gyser is really a luxury here!), we moved up towards Thatta.
The village was uphill, quite steep. On perhaps the 63rd step out of 75 that we had to climb, I almost gave up for the first time. Lunch felt too far and it almost looked like Hills are perhaps too difficult for a person with Delhi lungs. But after 5 minutes of panting, we all finally made up to our Home stay!
The family who was hosting us has Jhaveram ji, his wife, his son Kamal, daughter in law Nisha and her two sons, Puneet and Devesh. We were warmly greeted and served hot tea, made of cow’s milk, pure delight. When we finally took a breathe after being awed by the sight of the mountains and the village from our homestay, we realized that we’ve surpassed our capacities and were starving. We were made to sit, in a hand woven cot, served hot rice, some rajma, kadi and maah ki daal on Pattal, a plate of leaves. Anyone from Northern part of India knows that Rajma, Kadi and Maah Ki Daal are considered exotic means in their own and usually one makes only one of the three at a time – on a certain good occasion. To have all three in one meal, and that too just a welcome meal, was a humbling experience of love from the family.
The meal and the view together was enough for all of us to feel rejuvenated and refreshed to do whatever they had in plan for us. There was Pratap, Yudhishter, Vishnu and Chaman with us – local young guys – our age – who shall be our tour guides for the three days we will be there. Pratap and Yudhishter were also photographers (by birth) or so they say and at many instances during our trip would make us stop at good locations and make us pose in 4 different directions to take the best shot. Vishnu was someone, when you see him in his eyes, you can see the aspirations and dreams in his eyes. He was just happy to help, happy to share this blessing with us all. Chaman was the calm and lost soul, locally popular for being in the role of a Baba.
So we all got set to take a short uphill to the famous temple of Lord Shukdev ji, son of Ved Vyas, the Rishi who wrote the Epic Ramayana according to Mythology. The trek to the temple wasn’t as difficult a trek as the one up to the village, perhaps because our tummies were full or perhaps our bodies got more accustomed as we got more agile. As we reached the temple, we stopped at the entrance as the local Devta (Deity) was visiting the temple. I have heard this million times, had witness this once in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand, but witnessing this again, like the first time, left me thrilled and amazed at how our local cultures tie us together. So typically, in every village or a cluster of village, there is a local Devta (Deity) which is a sculpture positioned in a small house type shelter with four wooden planks to carry him anywhere, who is considered to have special powers. The Deity is considered to be staying in this sculpture and in certain occasions gets inside the chosen one from the village. Who will he choose, is known to no one but only The Deity. We waited as the Deity entered the Temple. We were watching from outside when I suddenly saw the Deity rolled half to one side, almost falling on the floor. As I asked Vishnu, was it an imbalance, He explained with complete faith, that No, this was what the Deity did by his ownself. I don’t want to typically comment on the science and logic of it. I feel humbled and amazed at anything that people say with faith and love for something above us, humans, And so goes my submission. We spent another hour at the temple, applauding the various wooden artifacts, amazing paintings made by the locals, beautiful view of the Mountains and most amazingly hearing tales from Mahabharata on Shukdev Ji and connected stories. It felt like mythology class happened with really not making us have yawn moments, like a typical value education lecture in school. It was interesting to note that the entire temple was run by Rajputs, as there were no Pandits in the village. Caste has different connotations in different regions and hills are not an exception. You could easily miss the diversity of the hill if you do not reflect specifically on what kind of people you are generally meeting and engaging with.
The first evening was perhaps the most magnificent and grand one. It started subtly, with slogans on Hoo-la-la-la-la, Haiya-Haiya, leading to Tamilian songs, Bengali songs, up until Pratap our guide went all shayarana and set the mood with “Hume to loot liya dil ke husn waalon ne” (Beautiful hearts have stolen us from us).
We had a small music break for dinner. They served us a local dish – Sendhu. It was steamed wheat floor cakes with stuffed pulse. Locally, its eaten by adding ghee and milk to the cakes, mincing them with hands, for full pleasure. To an urban tongue and tummy, ghee and milk aren’t things that can be consumed in large quantum. And spices are perhaps too basic a need to live without. Some of us had a hard time eating those but I can assure you, if you are a food enthusiast, it is a sure delicacy one must explore from the Hills.
The dinner was followed by Nati- local group dance form from Himachal Pradesh. We got local dholak and some sang, all danced and don’t know for how long did we dance. It was a perfect immersion to the celebration mode of the locals. The most amazing part of the story was that couple of youngsters we making live videos and telecasting them over Facebook. And many others from the village kept joining us for Nati as they saw us being live streamed on facebook. Technology has it’s own utility everywhere.
Later in the night, Jhaveram ji before going off to sleep, was with his Hookah and was quite unsettled. When I asked him if everything is okay, he said his internet is not working. I tried but failed so gave him connection through my hotspot. He got so lost on facebook, the next moment that he didn’t care why it wasn’t working on phone. He said he needs an-hour-long-doze of facebook before going off to sleep. Are we really striking similar chords or spoiling all across the country and the world with such technology?
Next morning came to us with an invite for a 5 hours trek in the forest and the hills. For the foodies, our breakfast was Kodu Millet Paranthas stuffed with Arbi Masaala – again there aren’t any ways to express the delight this food was. There were moments of amazement, complete breakdown of not able to walk ahead, thirst with noise of water fall but no sight, delight with beautiful beastly trees, lost in the aroma of the plants of the hills – there were just many moments. The best about the trek was that it was as raw and natural as you can imagine, still not conquered by a forest department with ugly plastic dustbins and sign boards. Second, it ended (actually doesn’t end, it goes all the way to Parashar lake) for us at this beautiful waterfall –what locals call the Mcleod – surely having similarities with McLeodganj but much less disturbed by heavy tourist rush, much closer to nature. Third, we had an 8 year old young Devesh, mostly walking ahead of all of us making us feel so old and wrecked because he just never gets tired, that’s what we can call the spirit of the mountains!
By the time we reached back our home at the hills, it was 4 in the evening, and our hunger levels had risen a new high. Also because, we were aware that the traditional meal – “Dham” was being prepared for us. As we sat impatiently, it took less than 10 minutes to bombard us with 6 different dishes with rice: Moong daal ki vadi – It was dipped in hot sugar, to be missed with rice and eaten – typically north Indian style to start your meal with something sweet; Rajma; Maah Ki Daal; Kadi; Kaddu ka Khatta – Pumpkin made deliciously, mixed with sour Imli; Simphu – Small cakes of a local lentil, soaked in curry.
We ate and ate and ate, till we really could not eat more. With all the work that our legs did since morning, all the great views our eyes saw, and all the good food settling in our tummies, it took us few minutes to doze off. We only had faint memory, until we were woken up, for dinner. There was never a feeling being full, more sure than we all were facing. And guess what was waiting for dinner – Sarson ka Saag and Makki ki Roti. The Punjabi in me, could not care of what happens in the body and just took two good chapattis inside. One of the other amazing part of these days was that in most of such travels, many of us face constipation and other stomach issues. We all were just fine, more than fine. And it was unbelievable. As many locally told us, the water had magical digestive properties there, quite believable.
As we closed our stay at Thatta Village, two people who left deep sketch in my mind were Javeramji and Nisha, his daughter in law.
Javeram ji was welcoming to all us, from his heart. He kept saying that there should be no shyness in eating, eat and stay heartily. At the age of 50, he smokes up Hookah almost 5-6 hours a day, and lives a life of calmness and peace, opening up to newer things and opportunities, whether facebook or the idea of homestays in the village.
Nisha, on the other hand is a pure inspiration. Always smiling and finishing off one errand to the other. She was the lady behind all the good food we ate, all the hot water we used to drink, to bathe (using Hamaam to heat it), and taking care of her two kids. She is 27 years old and she sees all this work as a usual part of the day. She, amongst others I spoke to, here and generally in the hills, will always point out that the body will get wasted and will get junked if we don’t use it, so doing work is best for body to stay fit and healthy. She was the only woman, with support from usually 0-2 on an average, doing all the chores to host the bunch of us for three days. I am humbled yet again, with her love and commitment to life.
As we moved to the main city Mandi, we still had half a day before we catch the bus. While we enjoyed the first taste of urban spice after a while, we got so bored of even Mandi, in few hours. It was the same dry shopping sprees and some unworthy food joints. When you experience the pure and the untouched beauty of the hills, hill-towns just don’t feel worth it. Much worse was witnessing a teenage birthday party at the Hotel we were sitting for our dinner. They used the entire cake in putting on their face. The two worlds suddenly felt so different, in their belongingness with food, in their nature of celebration. Still facebook connects them both, and many others! (:
I wish many more of us could experience what we did and thus bring back our roots in some way, and move us towards climbing the mountains of our lives with patience and the spirit of the Hills! (: