Another Festival in Vashisht


Last year, we asked for an electric fire in the guest house. Now, we’re peeling off layers, wishing we hadn’t left our summer clothes in Delhi. The temperatures are unusually warm and the snow is rapidly melting, but still spectacularly beautiful here. Apple trees in bloom, wisteria, irises popping up everywhere. Kullu Valley is now much narrower than in Naggar, and the mountains higher. The craggy peaks seem to be within one’s reach.


Compared with Naggar, Vashisht is a hustle and bustle of activity. Our timing was perfect to catch the religious festival again this year.  It was in full swing. Each village has its own god or goddess loosely translated into patron saint, but not really. During this festival, a few of the neighboring villages brought their deity to Vashisht to celebrate…we’re not sure what.


Off and on, for the three days, one of the goddesses would be taken out and paraded through Vashisht, accompanied by horns and drums. In the evening there was line dancing (reminding us of the Berber dancing in the Atlas Mountains) and games including musical chairs and blind man’s bluff. (Did the British bring these games, or did they pick them up from here?) The last evening, the musicians played without a break for hours. I don’t know if the dancers were in a trance, but I think the musicians were.

The day after the festival the town returned its sleepy weekday routine. On the weekend, the Indian tourists will arrive in increasingly large numbers, now the temperatures are soaring well over 100F in Delhi.


Our first walk out of town to a huge waterfall, we bumped into two women we kept running into in Naggar. They live in Vrindavan, where Krishna is said to have spent his childhood years. One is from the US, the other Leeds, England, and they’ve been in India for the past 17 years. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but when directly questioned, they’re Hari Krishna’s. We all thought it was a happy coincidence to meet each other again and they invited us to come to Vrindavan – one destination Gerard’s been contemplating for some time but for one reason or another, maybe because of the lack of accommodation, we haven’t included in our itinerary yet. They assured us of lodging and would be more than happy to show us all of the hidden temples that Vrindavan is known for. The two women had an aura of joy and contentment that was very obvious and we thoroughly enjoyed hearing their stories.

We also ran into for the second time an American our age, who has lived outside of the US for over 20 years. He’s also followed a spiritual path for more than 40 years and we found we have a lot in common. Peter now spends the winter in Auroville (the natural farming community associated with Sri Aurobindo) outside Pondicherry and comes to Vashisht for the summer.  Gerard was impressed that he’s able to live reasonably well in India on his social security check!


One early morning, Peter led us on a new walk over to a neighboring village on the other side of the Beas river.


Every twist and turn walking down the path, there’s a new vista. These mountains seem to be in constant flux without ever losing their presence. As Paul Brunton says in A Hermit in the Himalayas, “The fascination of finding nature in her wildest and grandest form never ceases. As an ancient Sanskrit poet says, ‘In a hundred ages of gods I cannot tell you of all the glories of the Himalayas.’ Whatever one says about it, will never be an exaggeration.”


Crossing the Beas on a rickety footbridge, we reached the old wooden houses, with decoratively painted doors.


Down the river valley, through apple orchards, we came to Old Manali, which we had considered as an alternative to Vashisht. But after seeing the chillum smoking, chilled out crowd and all of the cheap knick-knack shops, Vashisht seems the best alternative.

Like our previous two destinations in Himachal Pradesh, this year has been a repeat of the last. It’s often said that you can never return, and with that in mind both of us had some reservation. But fortunately, in this case, we could return. Each stay was a continuation and expansion of the year before. Not to mention meeting up with old acquaintances, each village had more to reveal to us. This past month in HP has been a highlight of our four months in India and even though we’ve missed early spring in Boston, springtime in the Himalayas is also a beautiful season. Tomorrow, we will have to reluctantly pack our bags and return to Delhi with a final farewell to our family there.


Folklore and Kath-Kuni in Naggar

Moving on to Naggar could have involved three buses and all that entails, but we opted for the luxury of a car and driver. Sapana from the restaurant decided to accompany us; she had never been to Nagar before. Following the Beas river through the Kullu Valley is never boring, and we made a quick stop to walk across an old suspension bridge to a village on the other side of the river.


When we arrived in Naggar, the father and two-daughter team at Sharma Dhaba warmly greeted us. Like Sapana they serve up delicious but simple food, made to order.


Since it’s early days for the tourist season, we had no trouble booking the same room we had a year ago with its view of the mountains. We woke the following morning, with the rising sun shining on the snow-capped peaks. Our memory and photographs can’t do it justice.


Our first day, we walked through the apple orchards to the Krishna temple, high on the hillside.


In fact, any walk here involves climbing — the town itself is perched high above the valley. There’s more than one temple buried in the forest, some associated with sadhus with mystical powers. Himachal Pradesh and Kullu Valley, in particular, is steeped in folklore. Our landlord, Sumit, says that there was a sadhu who lived where one of these temples is now located.

DSC_1230When questioned by visitors how he kept so clean, no available water in this location, he replied that he went to Manikaran every morning to bathe in the hot springs. This village is in the Parvati Valley, maybe 50 miles away as the bird flies. The sadhu’s visitor said, “How is this possible? The reply was, “Very simple, I just wish it.” Sumit continued, “Naggar supposedly has three or four “portals” to a different dimension. The sadhu was accessing one of these portals.” Sumit, in his early 30s, comes from an educated, well-off local family. Not someone who you would initially expect to be telling such stories, making it all the more interesting.

Nicolai Roerich, the Russian seeker, explorer, philosopher and painter made his home here for many years at the beginning of the 20th C. His pictures reflect the magic that can be found in these mountains. His home is now a small museum with a collection of his paintings that we visit whenever we’re here. Some say he settled in Naggar after hearing such tales of the sadhus.


On another occasion, talking to Sumit about the different types of trees in the forest, Gerard asked him about a peculiar looking evergreen. First off it’s enormous, but most importantly it flattens out like an umbrella at the top. Sumit said. “It’s just another devdar (tree of the gods), but as you know that one is on the temple grounds where our local goddess resides. The legend is that she receives her energy directly from the heavens that, pouring down from above, flattens out the top of the tree.


At night, full moon shining on the snow-capped mountains. Silence – no barking dog, no mosque call, no car horn, not even a distant train whistle. A stillness that we have not found anywhere else we’ve traveled in India. Before dawn, the birds begin to sing softly, then swelling into full chorus. The moon sinks behind the mountains. I think I understand why both Hindu sadhus and Buddhist monks are so attracted to the mountains to do their practices.

It was recommended that we should visit a neighboring village, Ramsu, just up the road. Since the road runs along the edge of another valley, Gerard had in mind that it would be an easy hike. We were told where to turn off the road, to a footpath. Trouble is the footpath went up at a 30-degree angle and Gerard noticed houses on the top of a small mountain. This can’t possibly be where we’re going!


After nearly two hours plodding up, we finally staggered into the village that was mostly comprised of the old “Kath Kuni” style buildings i.e. combination of wooden beams and stones; livestock underneath, people next floor up. Once there, it was well worth the hike, providing Gerard didn’t spend much time thinking about the walk down…


Another village, recommend to visit was Jana, only 13 km away and reachable by one bus, leaving early morning and returning mid-afternoon. Jana’s primary attraction is two waterfalls pouring out of the top of the mountain. The bus ride, winding up the mountainside was not only spectacular but also a little hair raising. When I looked out the window, there was nothing in sight except a sheer drop. Exactly where is the road beneath this bus?

Reaching the bus stand, which was only a collection of shacks and unfinished rooms for rent, the waterfalls were still another two km up the road…and there we’d find food. Breakfast was chapati, rice pudding, and very sweet chai, right next to a waterfall. What more could you ask for?


By midday we were back in the village, which sat below the bus stand, marveling again at the old architecture.


No one seemed to mind us wandering through the lanes and soon we were invited into one of these beautiful houses for chai.


Afterward, the man guided us through the village to a spring. He spoke no English so we probably missed the specific significance of this spring. In the back of our mind, we were expecting baksheesh to pass hands, but it never happened.


On the way back to Naggar, Gerard saw the most incredible sight and we asked to get off the bus. No doubt commonplace for the locals but this large terraced field with old style farmhouses scattered, looked to us like something from centuries past. Another spot untouched by modernity. They’re getting harder to find but they do still exist.


Another Room with a View

After a few days rest with our Delhi family (following our hectic rest in Orchha) we set off for the mountains. With no other choice than semi-sleeper overnight bus, we had to get to the other side of Delhi. We knew the metro would be crowded at 5.30 pm but we had not fully grasped the situation. With suitcase and backpack we forced our way on to the metro that we thought was already at capacity. At every stop, more and more people pushed their way into the carriage. It was reminiscent of riding the commuter rail in Mumbai. But what was more unexpected was how jolly the people right next to us were as they engaged us in conversation. The hour-long journey passed quickly and before we knew it we were getting off, with just about everybody else, at Kashmiri Gate. One of our metro companions led us through the throng to the appropriate gate leading to the bus station.

Last year, we made the same journey and had to find our bus in an open space of probably one hundred buses parked with no signage. It was bedlam. This year, we found ourselves in a brand new bus station with digital signs and a helpful information booth. What a difference a year makes! The semi sleeper was quite new, functioning seats and a friendly ticket collector who promised to wake us at Mandi. (last year we almost slept through our stop).


After managing a couple of hours sleep, we got down at Mandi just before daybreak. Fortunately, the local bus was just leaving. During the hour’s ride, climbing up the mountainside, we watched the sunrise over the snow-capped peaks. The town was still asleep. The little restaurant where we had eaten breakfast on our previous visits was just opening up.


Sapna greets us, “Come. Sit. Take chai.” Sliding into our familiar bench across the entryway from where she is cooking parathas, we try to converse. Why didn’t I work harder at my Hindi? But she’s speaking more English this year. “Yes,” she agrees, “I learn it from my daughter.”


Priya is wearing a new dress to celebrate the first day of Navrati (Hindi New Year) and poses for us. The puffy pastel-colored fantasy of net reminds me of party dresses when I was her age. Sapna feeds us gobi paratha… then refuses payment. “First time, no pay.”

I was disappointed that the spacious room above the Buddhist monastery we rented last year was not available. Remembering the gangs of barking dogs by night and attacking monkeys by day, Gerard was confident we could do better. Last year, Vijay at the other restaurant we frequent, had mentioned he would be offering rooms for rent. He’s just finished the six-room building high up the hill at the other end of town. A steep climb — the narrow pathway and steps (52 Gerard counts) wind around the dwellings below. The rooms are small, but have large picture windows looking out over the town and valley below.


On our second day, we walked out through the terraced fields. Everything seemed so lush. Other than Goa, everywhere we visit in India is dry and dusty; but not here.


As we approached the little hamlet, we wondered if anybody would remember us from last year. Urmila greeted us with a huge smile. I don’t think too many white people get out here. Last year we had the advantage of a young Punjabi in tow who provided the translation. This year it’s back to one or two words and sign language, but I don’t think it mattered.

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Everybody was happy to see each other. Of course, tea was served, and shortly after we went around to visit another family we had met previously. Mira recognized us but was supervising work on her house so it was a brief visit. We promised to come back in a few days.


Gerard had last year’s pictures on a hard drive and selecting a few, brought them to a studio to print. With photos and biscuits in hand we hiked back out to the village. Stopping at Mira’s house first, her sister and children were visiting.


The eldest daughter spoke enough English. The biscuits were a definite success; the pictures were a mixed bag. For whatever reason, it was never clear to us, everyone was in their Sunday finest…gold bangles, black kajal-outlined eyes, braided hair and all.


There was lots of picture taking; they were as enthusiastic as us in capturing the moment. And there was entertainment – the young girls dancing, with a combination of both classical Indian postures and Bollywood moves, to the latest popular tunes on their mobile.


Eventually, we bid our farewell and promised to bring back more prints. Mira’s husband is nowhere in sight; working in Saudi Arabia for the second year straight, she says.

After breakfast we walk around a small lake, sacred to the Hindus and Buddhists alike, stopping at a chai shop on the way. An elderly man with cheekbones jutting out from his angular face serves the best chai in town, delicately cardamom flavored.


Like a juggler, he pours milk and water from a height into the saucepan and then the finished tea into a brass pot, and finally our drinking glasses. His rotund wife fries pakora to accompany the tea, while his brother, equally angular in features, picks up and washes the dirty glasses.

After having a conversation with a 78-year-old doctor, who refuses to fully retire because he feels he’ll lose his identity, it sparked a conversation between us whether our identity changes when we travel. Traveling in India for four months, we’re neither part of the community or country we’re visiting nor are we part of our homeland by virtue of not being there. This doesn’t bother us, in fact it’s one of the many reasons we like traveling. There’s a freedom in not belonging. Of course, it’s not as though we’re without identity (being from the west, white and everything the Indians perceive that to mean)– but it’s all pretty superficial. Staying in a foreign culture for any length of time helps to remind us that we’re all members of the human race – living in one great mansion, each with their own room but still part of the One.

After a continuous spell of sunny days and warm temperatures, our last two days were rainy and cool. But the upside was the thunderstorms that would roll down the Kullu Valley. Being from the lowlands, we loved to hear the thunder echo across the valley below. At night it was nature’s light show. We spent the days skipping between showers from restaurant to café to guesthouse.