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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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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?

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

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

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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.

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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.

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Pathway to the Sky with Diamonds

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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