It was September. Early afternoon. A single figure appeared. Just a speck making its way up the steep winding path negotiating the grassy slopes that tumbled almost vertically into the wild Parvati valley. We could not see the valley, but we knew it lay in front of us below a patched cover of late monsoon clouds.
As the figure moved upwards and out of the fog on to the high meadow, it became clear that it was a young man. He strolled in among the many standing stones that marked this sacred spot, the high pass of Chandrakhani. At the centre of the standing stones erected for millennia on the ridge meadow, sits an ancient shrine to Chandrakhani Mata. The Mata is the yogini (female nature spirit) that guards this 3700 m high pass separating Kullu Valley from Parvati Valley. The shrine to her is a cluster of standing, leaning and overturned stones. From it flaps red strips of fabric. There the young wanderer paused, took of his shoes and reverently kneeled in the soft grass. He lit incense, offered something to Mataji and lost himself in prayer.
After the prayer he stood up, looked around and waved in our direction. He was singing to himself as he, shoes in hand, crossed through the groups of healthy cows, buffaloes and horses munching joyfully on the herbs and grass bursting with sap.
He put his palms together in a greeting and sat down with us. He was a small man with playful friendly eyes and an aura of simplicity. He was wearing white wool. From his woven, handstitched woollen Kullu cap to his handmade woollen Kullu jacket and all the way to his feet; white. His pillbox cap was decorated with yellow and blue monsoon flowers and green alpine herbs. He ceremoniously handed us pieces of the sweets he had offered to the yogini; they were now blessed by her power.
We offered him lunch. He accepted with a small smile and in turn shared his tasty rice and veg from a shiny steel container. We all ate slowly, mesmerized by the breath-taking spectacle of the swirling clouds on both sides of the wide pass, and of the distant, eternally snow-capped peaks jutting up through them, marking the Kunzum pass, the gateway to the mountainous desert wilderness of Spiti.
For us it had been a tough five hour ascend. We had set out at dawn and had to return to the village of Rimsu before dusk. That was where the road began. He told us he had come straight up from the first village, Malana, a gruelling 1000 vertical meters below us, hidden in the clouds. He was also going to Rimsu.
After lunch he carefully loosened luminous green herbs from his white cap, with a smile he handed a twig to each of us and asked us to smell them. The aroma was sweet and strong. He put on his white shoes, bowed slightly with folded hands, and walked leisurely ahead, again singing to himself.
As we began our descend, we saw his white figure crossing ahead over the vast undulating slopes. Though we were strong hikers in good boots, he was continuously floating further away from us along the endless path skirting the rhododendron thickets and clumps of white stemmed beech trees. Next time we looked over at the grassy expanse, he had simply vanished. In thin air.
“A mountain elf!” said one of us and touched the green twig in his hand.
Unplugged Memories – The Himalayan cook by the holy lake
It is late February in the Himalayas. At the altitude of 2800 meters the mountains are nestling the holy lake, the old pagoda style temple, and the surrounding barren land. Rudra Sing says that thick snow is covering everything and showing no signs of melting yet. We are a month away from our hiking and meditation retreat, we have 25 participants, and it is time to start finalizing accommodation and transport. “The ice in the pipelines hasn’t melted, we will thaw the snow for drinking water, a makeshift toilet outside the guest house can also be used!” Rudra Sing (name changed) the caretaker and cook as well as receptionist of the Forest Department rest house told me. Sing thought I was a government employee calling to inspect how things were in the guest house. I didn’t reveal to him that I wasn’t. I was enjoying the attention and details that Rudra Sing was giving me.
I remember the Forest Department rest house. It sits on the top of a mountain, in an isolated tract of high grassland, resembling the most elegant centre piece at the pinnacle of a multi-layered cake. The wide base covered by thick green cedar forest which ascends up to a vast meadow decorated by a few flat roofed mountain homes thatched with green grass. Up here one can always watch the cattle forever merrily grazing. Further up the meadow, sitting by themselves, are two identical bungalows with hexagonal green roofs. They are the Forest Department rest house. Their lofty position, looking into a deep valley below and the vast sky above, brings the feeling of waiting at the edge of life.
“When the snow melts, we will start the bookings”, the tourism officer told me over the phone the following week. I informed the lady officer that we were bringing a big group and we would book the whole house. The officer understood my difficulty and, despite the late snow, activated the online booking link just for me and let me block the dates for the group. The kindness of heart these mountain people hold is striking; there is a certain natural understanding that allows them to ease someone in trouble. Mountain life inspires the universal love which is so accessible and visible in people’s eyes here. It fills my heart.
Shortly after this, the white crystals started to disintegrate, matter stepped from one stage to another changing form, allowing everything to spring back to life. Rudra Sing, still thinking I was the tourism officer, called me at once to give the news that we could send tourists. I explained I was just booking for a group, but he ignored it. We discussed the menu. After a dull, lonely winter for Rudra Singh, finally work had started and I could sense a new zeal of enthusiasm in his voice as he explained how it was not possible to make last minute changes or an elaborate entrée, because shopping was a two-hour drive down to the nearest town.
Because the mountain was cut off from the continuous flow of cyberspace, it was impossible to reach Rudra Sing for spontaneous conversations. Calling him always took me back to the world of trunk calls, letters, and waiting in steady anticipation for an answer. If nothing else, these conditions made me more patient. I was always delighted when Rudra Sing called and since we started to talk, he called almost twice a week, sometimes more. We would always begin by discussing the weather and how he was dealing with guests and food. We never seemed to have agreed on a specific menu but one day we finally did, and I thought my work at this end was done.
However, the next day Rudra Sing called me back asking me how many guests were coming the following day. He still thought I was booking for the forest department. I explained it to him again, but I realized he just liked to talk to me, so I never asked him not to call back.
Just three days before our hike when I was with the group in Chandigarh, we spoke many times about food and rooms; accommodating 25 people was a big deal for Rudra Sing. Knowing the relaxed attitude of people in the mountains and being aware that there were no one really to help him, I could understand his urgency.
One day before the hike I dreamt of sitting by the holy lake again. The dream took me to the September evening I spent there two years back when we were hiking with a small group. We were all hypnotized by the view. I could hardly take the eyes from the vast canvas displaying jagged mountain range upon jagged mountain range stretching all the way to the distant horizon. Below the orange western sky, the farthest range was covered by white snow, while the nearest outline was grass green. The light of the setting sun seemed to be caressing the landscape with a palette of infinite colours. This dream made me even more eager for another rendezvous with the view and of course this time, Rudra Sing, whom I still knew only as a voice over the phone.
Vijay had already explored the many paths which lead up to this holy lake and it had become one of his favourite hikes.
This time the group started at the end of the road at a remote village with a famous Brahma temple. We spent the morning walking through dense jungle, now and then opening to undulating meadows and ancient gnarled rhododendron forest.
At midday we were walking along an exposed mountain ridge when Vijay pointed out the distant lake and the tiny green dot of the guest house. I could see the surprised look on everyone’s face as they imagine the long and winding path rising and falling with the ridges laying between us and our destination. It looked impossible to cover the distance in the same day, but the spirit of the group was strong and later, arriving at the road, we ended up walking in the dancing light of the full moon for the last hour, before finally reaching the guesthouse.
And there welcoming us was at last Rudra Singh. He was lean, with deep dark eyes and thick small curls. Many fine wrinkles made him look older than he was. The lack of company and the long, lonely winter explained his stained teeth and his lips darkened at the side, where a cigarette dangled as he showed us around the guesthouse. But with a large and mixed group, finding out who should sleep where was challenging. Luckily, Rudra Sing’s unflustered attitude made everything easy and in no time a warm simple meal was waiting for us.
After dinner I walked down to the kitchen to see Rudra Sing, amidst all the chaos we hadn’t had a chance for a proper introduction. He told me that although we had not met, he recognized my voice but was surprised that a government employ would walk all this way and that’s when he realized that I was not working at the forest department. Rudra Sing told me about his hard life in the mountains, his side business as a camp organizer, and then we discussed the menu for breakfast and dinner for the next day. We exchanged warm smiles and before I left the kitchen, we shared a brief friendly gaze which meant “finally I could see you!”.
The following days ran smoothly. We had many rounds of masala tea and ginger lemon honey prepared by Rudra Sing. I sometimes helped him in the kitchen. He never took part in our meditations, our long conversations or photography sessions but we all felt the warmth of his presence around us. On the final day, we were reading through his scribbled notes, discussing accounts; our work together had concluded. I thanked him and as we all left, he waved us off with his friendly radiant smile, which travelled from his eyes to his lips and made his wrinkles more prominent; I was going to miss him.
A few days after I get a call, a distant voice asks me, “How many tourists are going to visit tomorrow and what food should I cook!” I laugh and he laughs back, I reply teasing him, that I have a complicated menu in mind for a rather big group and that it will be impossible for him. “I will manage!” he replies with the familiar eagerness of voice. He is always delighted when guests come.
The next few months I received more calls, then slowly the frequency decreased and finally ceased.
I often wonder where our Himalayan cook is now, and I recollect our conversations with the hope that our paths would cross again someday…
I want to thank Vijay for all his help in enhancing, editing and guiding me for this blog.
In one of the most beautiful villages of Parvati Valley lives Didi. As part of one of our hiking and meditation retreats our group spent a few days at Didi’s homestay acclimatising to the altitude. In the cities every apartment has a name, every corner seems to call for your attention but in this part of the world it feels less important, here timelessness feels real. Houses are often recognised by the one family member who is taking care of everything in the house. So to find her house we simply ask ‘Where is Didi’s home?’
After a 12-hour bumpy and winding bus ride from Chandigarh through the Himalayan valleys we finally arrived where the road ends. As we stepped out, a sudden thunderstorm whipped us with rain and startled us with flashes of lightening. It was as if Shiva and Parvati were welcoming us in their abode, perhaps a sign of the days to come. When we arrived up at her dark house, Didi greeted us with a warm fire, candles and the most affectionate smile. The purity of her heart reflects every time she smiles. I was worried and asked her what about the electricity and she happily said “Well it will come after a week maybe!” I was flabbergasted but Didi seemed completely at ease as though this was part of her routine life… that was my first in person impression of Didi
In the mountains the women do all the housework with few or no modern amenities. I watched Didi graciously looking after the family, tourists, and cattle. I marvelled at how she managed everything and still had the time to put a bindi, tie the scarf (Bandana) over her head, paint her nails and apply beautiful red lipstick which made her rosy cheeks shine even more. Didi for me was a perfect embodiment of a strong Himachali woman.
Before the group arrived, Vijay had visited the village to have a look at the guest house. We had asked Didi to wash all the bedding. He had noticed that there were no bathrooms on the 1st and 2nd floors of the beautiful old wooden house and no facility for boiling water. To our surprise, in two months’ time Didi had bathrooms and water heaters installed on each floor. She had bought new bedsheets, blankets, pillows and mattresses. This is a feat easily comparable to any contractor or event manager doing their jobs in the city. And still when we arrived and there was no electricity Didi kept her equipoise; she never complained. She has an unwavering steadfastness which we don’t witness often in the fatigued city minds.
Didi was tireless, a reflection of effortless effort. When it was necessary to act she acted but at the same time she remained free from the action. This attitude made Didi a symbol of women power, of acting in freedom and detachment.
The following year we were not able to stay at her guesthouse because the permission for tourist accommodating had been cancelled. I often crossed paths with Didi during my stay in the village but she didn’t complain about the situation she was facing. Life continues in the mountains where fortunate or troublesome situations are accepted in the same way village people accept the ever changing mountain weather.
This brings to mind a few lines in the Tao te Ching by D.R. Streeter which say “On the roadside an old monk, all his possessions are contained within.”
Recently, during the lockdown, Didi’s husband went missing. Everyone in the village helped her to look for him but he was not found and has not returned for several months. Worried after hearing this, I called Didi to ask her how she was, and to my surprise she was as calm as ever, not a quiver in her voice. We spoke for a while and she was hopeful that he would come back. She trusted him and prayed for his safety.
I have seen Didi face difficult situations in the past years with such unwavering calm. Didi has inspired me to trust in life itself, to trust my heart and to be at ease. She showed me how to loosen the tight grip that I used to feel would control and hold everything together. I learned that to have faith and to let be, can bring happiness to your life. To trust that things will unfold naturally if one remains acting in freedom and stillness.