Pathway to the Sky with Diamonds


At almost 7,000 feet, Vashisht is our last stop in the mountains. Nearing the head of the Kullu Valley, the town looks directly up the Rothang Pass toward Ladakh. As the valley beside the River Beas narrows, the mountains move closer.


Vashisht is larger than Naggar but the habitation in the valley is sparser. With steeper terrain, terracing is harder, leaving only apples for cash crop.


These old style houses that we love so much were built to accommodate cows on the ground level with porches on the second floor extending out. They’re somewhat reminiscent of cottages in the Swiss Alps. The cows are kept outside on the terrace during good weather and as the temperatures drop they’re brought indoors, helping to warm the house. Our guesthouse is in amongst these houses, lending to the sensation that we are staying in a farmyard.



In the center of town is a temple, believed to date back more than 4000 years. Adjoining it is the third sulphur hot spring in the Valley. The town was named after a holy man, Rishi Vashisht. Legend has it that after learning that an opponent killed his children, the saddened Rishi tried to commit suicide. But the river refused to kill him. So the river was renamed Vipasha, which means ‘freedom from bondage’ and later, shortened to River Beas. The Rishi vowed to start his life anew and began meditating. When Lakshman, the younger brother of Lord Rama, paid a visit, he realized that the sage had to travel a great distance to bathe. So he shot an arrow into the ground and hot water began to gush out.


Hot water is still gushing today, and there are always people bathing or clothes washing beside the temple.


It was our good fortune to arrive at the end of a Kullu festival. Full of mystique and folklore, we understood only that a ‘local goddess’ lives in the temple and is brought out to give his blessing at the time of festivals.


Twice we watched the richly decorated effigy being carried on a palanquin in a colourful procession from the temple and paraded through the town. Large horns and drums led the procession. Gerard’s comment is that it sounds something between the snake charmers of the Jaama el Fna in Marrakech and Cecil Taylor’s Big Band. Legend has it that the goddess leads the procession not vice versa. We watched as the ‘Gur” (spokesman of the goddess) went into a gyrating trance in front of the palanquin.


This event and many others that we’ve experienced throughout India are examples of the mystery that is still so present when you look for it. Perhaps less so on the streets of Mumbai or Bangalore, or any other city that has been strongly influenced by the West. But it still may be there; just harder to recognize buried under consumerism. It reminds both of us of a quote by Paul Bowles. He defined mystery as “…a secret connection between the world of nature and the consciousness of man. A hidden but direct passage that bypasses the mind.”


As we stood in the crowd, we recognized a young couple from Kerala we’d first met in Naggar a few days ago. Commenting on the unorthodox nature of the ceremony, the girl said, “There’s many things we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t true.” Gerard replied, “The older I get, the more I realize how little I know.”


After a leisurely breakfast, we pick one of the numerous trails that lead out of town into the forest. Being from New England, Gerard has a soft spot for stone walls. The goal is to reach one of the many waterfalls that spout out of the mountaintop.


The stones on the path, filled with mica, shine in the sun like a thousand diamonds.


The path often guarded by ominous looking lizards warming themselves in the morning sun.



Further on, the path winds its way through evergreen forest, standing tall in majestic silence.


The higher and closer we get to the waterfall, the more impenetrable the path becomes with thorn bushes and sliding rocks.


Only once did we actually reach the base of one of these gigantic falls, water spraying as it cascaded down the rock face. 


As our stay in one place winds down, it’s our normal tendency to start thinking about our next stop. But that’s not the case in Vashisht. It’s not because we have such presence of mind to stay in the now; it’s more to do with the fact that we know Delhi has been well over 100F for the past ten days and will remain so on our arrival. A shock to the system after a month in the cool weather of Himachal Pradesh. In fact, with the exception of the Himalayas, most of India is suffering under a severe heat wave. But we are looking forward to seeing our adopted family in Delhi again.





Meadow on the Mountain


We pulled into Naggar in style. The four of us rented a car and driver to make the five-hour journey further into the mountains. Gerard and I were here four years ago and anxious to return; our enthusiasm obviously spread to Varun and Megan. Himachal Pradesh is such a beautiful state. We had just enjoyed a week and a half in a hilly countryside setting and now we’re up here – snow-capped mountains to the north, east and west of us. Being lowlanders we’re fascinated by how the mountains are constantly changing depending on the light. The Kullu Valley below twinkles at night, as do the stars overhead; the air is so clear.


The town itself is small and attracts mostly day-trippers from Manali. But in the evening when the sun goes down, it becomes very quiet. Only the occasional barking dog in the distance.


I wake early while it’s still dark, anxiously awaiting first light. A single bird sings while others join in as the sun hits the snow on the mountains directly out our windows.


One of the big draws for Gerard is the indigenous architecture, the wooden balconied houses with stone roofs. Even though there are fewer of these homes than there were four years ago, there’s still plenty to see walking through the twisting and winding paths of the village. There are signs of restoration on some of the older buildings up to 500 years old, but as a man on the street explained to us, sadly there is no new construction in the old style because it costs twice as much as concrete. And as we know, with any old building there’s continual maintenance.

DSC_0746Another draw is the numerous walks through apple orchards and dense forest within minutes of the town. Varun and Megan go foraging for fiddleheads and stinging nettles that the friendly cook at our very basic restaurant happily cooks up for us. One day walking through the village we find the house where four years ago we were invited into the courtyard and given tea and biscuits.


The woman of this wonderful old house claimed to remember and again invited us in.


We were so surprised to learn that her husband is the cook who, with the help of his two sweet daughters ,prepares and serves our food three times a day!


The subject of the mountain top temple, Bijli Mahadev, had come up a number of times. So again the four of us decided to rent a car and driver (there’s no other way to get there). Driving back down the valley to Kullu, then turning north and climbing 15 kms through wonderfully picturesque mountainside, we finally came to the end of the road and had to continue on foot for another 3 km. Now 3 km may not sound much of a hike, but considering that where the car stopped it was already 6500 feet high, the additional 1500 to the mountaintop was all that Gerard could do. But it was so worth the effort.

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Sitting in a meadow with a 360 degrees view, it really was enough to take away whatever breath you had left.


And there was even a shack that served light refreshments before we started the arduous knee-straining descent.


On the trip back up the valley we watched the sun set on the snowy mountain peaks to the north just like a Roerich painting. (Nicolai Roerich was a famous Russian explorer/artist who lived in Naggar from 1928 till his death in 1948. We both love his paintings).


Two days later, we made another excursion across the valley to a Buddhist monastery, the only one that supposedly houses both men and women.


Built on a steep incline it offered yet new views of the surrounding mountains in an incredibly peaceful setting of apple orchards and kitchen gardens. On the way back we stopped off at a sulfur hot spring. Not sure what the temperature was but it was HOT. Quite a treat to sit in the spring in the bright sunshine and look out over the Himalayas.








An Oasis of Simple and Friendly People


Several years ago, we came across a small town at the base of the Himalayas and spent a memorable week there, always planning to return. This year it worked out. Unlike most of India, this place has changed very little although it does seem to be prospering. There’s very little option for accommodation, so we decided to rent a room in the Buddhist monastery.


I love everything about this room, even though we have to puff and pant up the hill. Large and spacious, wood floor and one wall that is mostly windows, with afternoon sun pouring in. We look out on trees filled with birds and monkeys. The latter are entertaining, but they’re also very destructive, pulling washing off the line, sneaking through the window to grab our bananas etc. A bit of hike to get here means it’s also peaceful and private; conducive to meditation.


 We’ve tried to put our finger on exactly what it is about this town that is so appealing to us. Surrounded by hills on one side, terraced fields and hamlets on the other, it is very picturesque. The air is clean and there’s little traffic and horn blowing. The Buddhists and Hindus alike seem to walk around with a smile on their face.


 We’ve mentioned numerous times how we’re attracted to the Indian people and their generosity. So it sounds like a broken record when we say the simple and uncomplicated life style of these villagers is so attractive. Numerous times in the past we ‘ve made comparisons to Morocco and here we make another one. In our first years in North Africa it was common to be invited into people’s homes for tea and even something to eat, without fear or reservation that there was a hidden agenda. We have found this kind of hospitality again in these mountains, and in the 21st C no less.


One day, we were walking through the fields of winter wheat accompanied by Varun, a Punjabi who grew up in India but has spent the last fifteen years in the U.S., and Megan, a dreadlocked girl from Thunder Bay, Canada. Stopping in a hamlet, a family invited us to come in and see their compound. Of course, this was mostly precipitated by the fact that Varun was conversant in Hindi. Many times we have been in similar situations but without being able to speak the language the experience was limited. One this occasion we heard about the farming, the milling of the wheat, and the fact that everyone in the area was related, 120 odd people. They were so welcoming and informal. The husband and wife were preparing subzi while we all sipped tea.

Varun is enthusiastic about reconnecting with India and said to us: “These village people are where humanity begins.” Gerard replied, “No, I think it’s the last vestige of humanity.” And as we all got caught up in the utter simplicity –their adobe house, slate roof, mud cook stove — it really was like a hundred or more years ago. Then suddenly the mobile phone rang, and we all fell back to earth.


We first ran into Varun in Varanasi when he was in a quandary about where he should go next. Sikim and Nepal were first choices, but he loved Himachal Pradesh and thought of revisiting. Gerard and I both said that all three places had their attraction but of the three HP was a better bet. We suggested a few places to visit. He said goodbye without having made up his mind. To our surprise, the second night we were here, eating momos in ‘a whole in the wall’ restaurant, his smiling face peered in and he said, “I decided on HP. So happy to see you here.”

DSC_0638 He told us he’d been in Pushkar and now had a traveling companion, Megan, and they also were staying in the monastery. Megan had just come from Australia where she picked fruit for the last year, saving money to make her way back to Canada via India. The next day we had breakfast together and then they asked us to show them around. The fact they are so much younger than us and wanted to go everywhere meant we’ve ended up doing a lot more than we might have.


We’ve done well to keep up with them. In fact, Varun commented that he’s never met people our age who are so ‘lively!” And for us, being with someone fluent in the language and customs means that we’ve been able to have a more intimate look into the life of the people we meet in these little hamlets.


All four of us are drawn to walking out of town through the fields and each day we pick a new path. On passing a cluster of houses, some ancient, some modern, Varun inquires if the oldest building is adobe construction. Very quickly the conversation leads to an invite to see inside the house and meet the family. It’s nuclear with great grandmother (five years younger than me), mother, father, son and daughter–in-law, and young Hansu. 


Varun keeps the conversation going while the chai is brewing. He also encourages me to practice my limited Hindi with these women. They’re amused and uncritical at my attempts. But Varun is right; if I stayed in this hamlet for a month I would be speaking Hindi.


A neighbouring woman comes up to see what’s going on and sits down with us. Varun and Gerard notice how these young women, in their mid twenties, have such an air of sophistication. Even though they have little education, speak no second language, probably have never left the district, yet they have a strong sense of self.




Then the neighbour invited us to see her home, a beautiful house painted in white and blue. Her husband works in Saudi Arabia and comes home for only one month a year. She has to manage all of the farming — the wheat, cows, sheep, and two young children. And she smiles all the time.After she proudly showed us her two cows, she invited us to come back anytime. We couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.


The morning we began to tear ourselves away from this oasis of humanity we wanted to say goodbye to the families in the two restaurants we frequented. At “Welcome” they served us our usual radish parathas and curd and then rejected all our efforts to pay.


Back at Khora Café for a last chai, again our money was no good. Hugs and handshakes and good wishes all around, we hope to return one day.