In the summer of 1993, Carol and I traveled in the Kinnaur and Spiti districts of the north Indian State of Himachal Pradesh. Among the most isolated regions of northern India, it was opened to foreigners only the year before, but the bureaucratic hassles involved in obtaining permission to enter this world were so formidable that few travelers managed it, and of those who did most received permission to stay for only a week; others were required to take a police escort with them. Luckily, we were granted a two-month unrestricted permit from a small district headquarters simply because we had struck a friendly note with the officials in that office. Such is the way things work in India. read more

Because the two districts border on Tibet, that is, China, they have been declared “sensitive” since the 1962 Indo-Chinese war. Geographically, access is easier from Tibet than it is from India, and the culture of this region reflects that. Indians often refer to it and its inhabitants as “Chini,” that is, as China or Chinese, and consider it virtually a foreign land.

The district of Kinnaur is largely Hindu, but being far from the centers of and little influenced by mainstream Hinduism, it has retained its archaic character: oracles go into trance and the gods of the villages speak through them. The society is, or was until recently, polyandrous. There are no brahmins, and Buddhist lamas conduct the major Hindu household rituals, those concerned with birth, marriage and death, a practice unheard of elsewhere. Spiti though, is Tibetan Buddhist, but the dominant sects practice magic and archaic rituals and do not recognize the Dalai Lama as their head.

Chitkul, Sangla Valley, Kinnaur –
We came here from Sikkim, in the southeastern Himalaya, a thousand miles or so away. Sub-tropical, lush and damp with orchids on every tree and leeches under every step and on your shoes at every pause, Sikkim is an incredibly steep-sided, folded land lying in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. The mountain was shy with us, obscuring herself in clouds and mist, except on our last day there. Then she deigned to show herself to us, closer and higher and more massive than we would ever have believed possible. How could anything so gigantic, so overwhelming and so near have remained invisible for so long?

The mountains here in Kinnaur are not coy – they stand forth most of the day in rugged implacability – black and white – rocks and glaciers.

We’re in the last village of the valley. Beyond this, the valley narrows and becomes sheer-sided, messy with strewn boulders. There is a paramilitary check post two miles up the valley, and one can go no further as we are quite close to the Tibetan border. This village is 12,000 feet high, and it is only an hour’s walk up to the tree line. The land around wears the bright green coat of just beginning-to-sprout peas, the mainstay of the village’s economy – out of season green peas are sent to Delhi (two days away by truck) where they fetch a premium price. This is a rich but still very traditional village of about four hundred and fifty people.

The locals dress in home-spun and -woven woolen garments: the men in Nehru-style jackets and tight-legged, baggy-assed slacks; and the women in wool saris with long maroon sashes wrapped around their waists, the neatly pleated, woven borders of the sari hanging over their backsides like Victorian bustles. Both sexes wear identical caps – odd, pillbox-like hats with a strip of green or maroon velvet in front, very Chinese looking.

Their two-storied houses are built of alternating wood and stone courses: the lower story sheltering animals, the family living above. The sloping roofs are curved and soaring and covered with large, thick slate-slab shingles.

We are staying in the guesthouse of the pradhan (headman or mayor) of the village – or perhaps it is his brother’s house. It may even be that the pradhan and his brother share the same wife (brothers married one woman and shared conjugal rights with her, though the eldest was nominally head of the house). This practice is fast dying out as modernity pours into even this remote corner of the world – but the pradhan and his brother are at least in their fifties, so it is quite plausible that they followed the old ways. Carpenters and masons are busy from dawn to dusk in the front yard below us building an extension to this house. All the wood comes from the forest just across the river; all the planks and beams are being cut by two men at either end of a long saw; others are shaping them with hand-held adzes, and planing them to final smoothness.

In fact, the scene from our veranda reminds me of a Brueghel painting of a Flemish village scene: people in the fields in the middle distance weeding, harvesting and preparing the earth for the next crop; in the foreground are the carpenters and masons; kibitzers are standing here and there in small groups; a wounded ass is being treated by the local vet; a group of horses quarrel among themselves over vegetable scraps as their handlers try to load them with supplies to take to the paramilitary camps up the valley; a stone-cutter is hammering and chiseling, trying to fracture a boulder embedded in the yard to remove it and level the ground.

The other day, the roof of the new wing of the house was completed. At first, I didn’t think anything of the fact that in the early morning a large and beautiful silken-haired, all white he-goat was brought for the owner’s inspection. He was soon led away and preparations were begun for a feast in the courtyard directly below our window. A massive cauldron held rice porridge, heavily buttered, and a shallow pan was used for deep frying round, flat wheat breads. Everyone who came – and there were many – was given a bread with a lump of porridge on top. When the serving concluded, the goat was led back to the courtyard and tethered. A group assembled there: two musicians (one with a brass, skin-covered drum, the other with cymbals), men carrying platters heaped with roasted grain, a priest bearing a silver-handled yak hair fly whisk, two men, each carrying a bottle of cloudy, locally brewed spirits, cradling them in front of their chests like sommeliers carrying rare wines, and finally, the scruffiest looking member of the group – with one eye wildly askew in its socket, shoulder length Medusa hair and an ancient sword resting on his shoulder. A ponderous and haunting rhythm sounded from the drums and cymbals. The goat was led to the center of the yard and it appeared for a moment as if the sacrifice was about to occur there, directly below our window. But the group climbed the ladder, implements in hand, to the second floor of the new wing, and then up again into the cramped attic at the apex of the steeply pitched roof. When they had squeezed themselves in, the goat was pulled and pushed up the ladders, remarkably unprotesting as if it knew and had already resigned itself to its fate. Then the owner of the building followed by the sword-bearer who, it turned out, was the village oracle or gur, also ascended the ladders and entered the attic. The musicians ceased playing and there was silence. The eight or ten small groups that had gathered below in the courtyard were ill at ease, their normally easy raucousness suspended. The silence lasted for quite some time. From the attic there was no sound but for the occasional shuffle of goat hooves on the newly laid plank floor.

Then, at an apparently random moment, the music began again. The goat’s head, bloody-stumped, appeared, haphazardly placed on the carpenter’s work table in the yard, shortly followed by its body being wrestled down the ladders, silken hair blood-stained, matted and in disarray. The body was tossed on planks laid out for the purpose, and the sword-bearer in no time transformed the noble beast into neatly butchered pieces of meat that were distributed to the villagers.

* * *

Sacrifice has always been central to Hinduism and it is practiced throughout India. Literally to make sacred, sacrifice reiterates the creative act, a sundering of wholeness, and then reintegrates the cosmos back into wholeness again through the ritual of distributing and ingesting the sacrificial victim. Coconuts, pumpkins, rice, milk, yogurt and clarified butter are today among the most usual sacrificial objects. But animal, not to mention human, sacrifice is relatively rare nowadays, practiced openly in only a few regions, including parts of the Himalaya. This area, for a long time closed to the outside world, is a living museum of archaic Hindu religious customs, and goat sacrifices are common occurrences. All the temples have sheds adjacent to them that are used for the purpose. On appropriate days, the compound walls of the temples have rows of headless carcasses draped over them, animal sacrifice being not only religiously meritorious but also providing the villagers with their sole supply of meat.

Pooh, Kinnaur – The village of Pooh tumbles down the side of a steep slope high above the Sutluj River and far enough into the mountains that it is beyond the reach of the monsoon. Pooh, then, lies near the beginning of the trans-Himalayan, virtually rainless high-altitude desert that is the Tibetan plateau. Only where mountain streams have been diverted into irrigation canals and the land terraced is there any green at all; otherwise, it is as sandy and arid as the Sahara.

High above Pooh, on one of its barren surrounding hillsides, the eye picks out a small island of green and a barely discernible white structure in its center. This, we are told, is Tashi Chilla Gompa, an ancient monastery, though now just a temple, as no monks were resident there. It was built a thousand or so years ago by Ringzen Tsangpo, one of those who brought and propagated the religion of Buddhism in the Himalaya. Sent by a king of Tibet to India, the land of Buddhism’s origin where it had already been flourishing for more than a thousand years, Ringzen Tsangpo was a tireless temple builder and translator of Buddhist texts.

We stayed an extra day at the unpleasant Pooh rest house, and at 7:30 in the morning I set off through the village and then beyond it, up the steep mountainside along a path strewn with loose, ankle-twisting rocks. I should have begun an hour earlier, for by eight-thirty the sun had cleared the opposite mountainside, and the cool morning shadows were instantly replaced by a blinding sun and scorching, dry heat. Almost at once, I began to sweat from the effort of the climb. I was frequently forced to squint into the sun to spot the gompa and to be sure that I was following a path that led to it among the many zigzagging up the mountainside.

After two hours, and by now totally drenched in sweat, I reached the gompa’s walled compound which, in the starkest imaginable contrast to the rest of the mountainside, was amazingly lush with ancient massive cedars, a few small, bright green terraces of barley and an impressive variety of flowers and plants, all irrigated by a network of closely spaced and carefully maintained canals full of flowing water. I worked my way up through the barley fields in the refreshing moist shade of a row of poplars lining a narrow water channel, and soon reached the inner compound wall that surrounds the monastery and temple buildings. Finally, I stood at a large, open stone gateway. Out of a wall built against the side of the mountain, an impressive spring gushed through an ancient stone spout. It cascaded into a stone tub and created quite a racket. Squatting on the rim of the tub, scooping water out of it with a brass jug, merrily splashing herself and singing quite loudly with an abandon that comes from the certain conviction that she was unobserved, was an old nun, quite naked. She didn’t notice me for several moments what with the noise of the water and her singing, and I didn’t realize her sex at first due to her closely cropped hair and her position in relation to me. By the time she did notice me I had turned away from her and was leaning against the gateway wiping the sweat from my face and catching my breath. She yelled and as I turned towards her she raised her arms in a shooing gesture, thus fully exposing herself to me and unequivocally revealing her sex.

I smiled at her, waved, turned away and walked a little farther up the mountainside to look at some chortens (the typical whitewashed, stone monuments of Buddhist lands, reminders of the founder’s enlightenment) and admire the view. After a few minutes, I returned to the compound where the nun, freshly scrubbed, was now properly attired in burgundy robes. She gave me a tour of the gompa, a cup of coffee and a fried round flat bread. We talked for a while in our equally halting Hindi (the national language of India being almost as foreign to her as to me) about her long-ago life and her late husband and four children, two of whom now live in this region and occasionally come to visit her and bring her a few supplies such as coffee and rice. She lives throughout the year in this historic but now nearly derelict temple and sees almost no one: the workers who tend the fields and canals they lease from the gompa and with whom she has no contact, her children on their rare visits, and an occasional devotee, moved by some impulse to make the arduous walk up the mountain, who may offer a donation of food or butter for fuel so that she can light the lamps in front of the statues in the prayer rooms every day and keep them burning.

Kibber, Spiti – I’ve always liked Kaza, Spiti’s main town. It has a post-apocalyptic feel, being but a collection of traditional houses and tin-roofed, grey-stone government buildings, many of the structures being either unfinished or derelict (and it is often hard to tell which). The streets are dusty and rubbly. Vacant lots filled with rocks and more rubble lie behind crumbly mud walls. But then you come to a small square shaded by ancient gnarled poplars with a gleaming white, highly embellished chorten in its center. The bazaar, most of which is mercifully closed to motor vehicles, has the timeless feel of an ancient entrepôt, a meeting place of people from all over the Himalaya and the plains who come here to trade. It is still largely a traditional bazaar, not yet transformed by the tourist trade into a souvenir mall – a mere imitation of itself, as are the markets of so many exotic places in the Himalaya. The shops are open to the street and without doors or windows, and tented stalls are set up against crumbling walls of vacant lots and building sites.

All the houses are in traditional Spiti style: massive two-story, mud-brick structures, their flat roofs supported by beams of poplar tree trunks with a network of branches and twigs crisscrossed over them and covered with a thick layer of dried mud. Surrounding the roofs like crowns, are neat stacks of thorny shrubs, pulled along with their roots from the mountainsides and used for fuel. When passing by the houses you have to be careful of getting drenched by drains, which end in PVC pipes that stick out over the streets from the second story where the kitchens are invariably located.

Such buildings as these are practical only in a rainless climate, and Spiti, lying in the so-called rain shadow of the Himalaya, is a high-altitude desert and sees virtually nothing of the southwest monsoon that drenches the entire Indian subcontinent each summer. In winter, when prodigious amounts of snow do fall and the weight on the roofs would become unbearable, they are swept clean as snow accumulates.

We stayed in a guesthouse built along traditional lines. And during our stay, it rained. It was not the sort of rain that would attract much attention in temperate climes – a light, insistent sprinkle, consisting of mist rather than discrete drops. But it fell continuously for three days and three nights. On the first day there was no foreboding among the locals. A day of light rain is an infrequent but not a truly unusual occurrence. Rather, there was quiet enjoyment in the town: a fortuitous sprinkle to refresh the fields and keep down the dust was a welcome event.

But the morning of the second day brought a sea change in local consciousness. It was not just that it was still raining, it was also that the rain, light as it was, had been continuous – it had not let up for more than five minutes in the past twenty-four hours; and the look of the sky and the feel of the air promised more of the same. The dry dusty paths that are the town’s streets were already turning into a substance somewhere between mud and slime. It was earth not used to being wet and didn’t know how to handle it.

People spent most of the day collecting mud – dry earth now being unobtainable – and putting it on their roofs: the idea being that the thicker the layer of mud on the roof, the longer the rain would take to percolate through it. No one seemed particularly worried about the extra weight the mud-brick walls and the roof-support beams were being subjected to by all that mud. The main thing was to keep the houses from dissolving. If they collapsed in the process, then what to do?

Our room, wouldn’t you know, was on the top floor of the guesthouse. Before we retired on that second night, having sat through a day of precipitation identical to the one before, and having watched dozens of bags of mud being dumped onto the roof and large sheets of plastic being laid out as well, I carefully questioned the owner about sleeping under this now sodden roof, bearing I didn’t know how many times its usual weight. “Don’t worry! No problem! The water will not come through,” he said. But he said it with such hearty offhandedness that I was not at all reassured. We organized our belongings for a quick getaway before we retired for the night.

It was 2:30 in the morning when Carol, having just been nailed between the eyes by a dollop of water, woke me. As I directed my flashlight beam around the room, we noticed that the ceiling had several holes in it and stains that hadn’t been there when we went to bed, and in a few places water was running quite uninhibitedly down the walls. We packed the rest of our belongings. When I stepped out on the veranda, I realized that it was still raining and that the entire town was awake. People were on their roofs spreading still more mud on them and laying out plastic sheets. We moved to a vacant ground floor room and resumed our night’s sleep, adopting the same attitude as the locals toward the possible collapse of their buildings: What to do?

The day dawned gray and still raining. All the ceilings and floors of the upstairs rooms were pocked with leaks, but the building had not collapsed and our ground-floor room, though cold and damp, was unblemished and leak-free.

But later, while I was in the outdoor toilet, a piece of land above it gave way and a miniature landslide composed of bowling-ball size rocks and a ton of mud stopped just short of the door. And just short as well of the nicely ambiguous headline that would no doubt have appeared in newspapers throughout the world: “Tourist washed away in toilet.”

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006