Another Festival in Vashisht

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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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.”

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

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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.

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Heat and Dust in Orchha

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Orchha, in Madhya Pradesh, is a good place to relax after spending more than three weeks in the city. This is our third visit here and we still find the small town with its country walks refreshing.

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The surrounding area is littered with the vestiges of a Rajput kingdom that began in the 16th C, reaching its peak in the mid-1800s.

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The last Maharaja died in 1930, after which the kingdom went into decline.

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What is most attractive to us is not only the palace/fort in remarkably good condition or the two temples in town but also the crumbling remains scattered around the countryside of a once thriving kingdom.

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On this visit, we arrived late in the season, very few tourists and hot during the day — reaching 110F (43C) in the heat of the day. Consequently our strolls out into the country are done early.

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One morning we visited a meadow that we spent a lot of time in a few years ago. Even though the brook had diminished to a trickle, it was still a bucolic spot with goats and cattle wandering peacefully and dogs playing in and out of the stream.

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Another morning, when we mentioned to the guesthouse manager that we were going to walk up to see the huge baobab tree next to Laxmi Temple, he asked if we’d seen the other, one km away. A second one?? He said, “Come, I’ll take you on my motorbike.” And this one was even bigger. Pictures fail to convey their enormity.

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There is only a handful of these trees in India, supposedly brought from Africa beginning as far back as 5,000 years ago. They can live as long as 1,500 to 2,000 years. The ones we saw, there’s no way of knowing how old they are, but they are ancient.

Our last morning here we walk out early around the back of the palace and down to the Betwa River. A stray dog attaches himself to us as our guide. Beside a small plot of wheat already half cut into golden sheaves, sits a simple hut, old cooking pots on the threshold, a satellite dish atop a broken monument, the ultimate in recycling.

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Aimlessly wandering into a gift shop we got into conversation with a father and son, transplants from Delhi. Like on many other occasions, we were cautiously quizzed on our feelings for Donald Trump. A lot of Indians are better informed about American politics than vice versa. Of course changes in the immigration policy is pertinent to them. And for us, it’s hard to know what to say other than we’re not looking forward to returning to the U.S. and facing the reality.

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We retreat back to the relative coolness of our room and listen to some cool Miles Davis from the 50s. Gerard is reading his autobiography, which he picked up at the used book stall in Mumbai. He hesitated all of this time because of the continuous swearing. Come to find out, he says, it’s the best thing yet he’s read about Miles.