Waking up to the scent of fresh mint and to a concerto grosso orchestrated by the warbles of the little birds, the mellow of a Spanish guitar drifting from a distance and the rhythmic fall of rain drops, is not an everyday happening. But in Dharamkot, a small village in Himachal Pradesh, it grew on me: the taste of mint and music. It’ll never get old though.
Being a bird of passage with no ends in view, I seldom travel with prior knowledge of a place and even less frequently well equipped to track places. Hence, I discovered Dharamkot quite fortuitously. On reaching MacLeodganj early in the morning, we decided to walk further up the hills, as the buses travel only up to MacLeodganj. From MacLeodganj one has to either walk up the hills or hire an auto or else a car. Apparently, the walk was too tempting for us to resist despite the needs of the body after a 13 hours night-long journey from Delhi. First blush of the morning, clear skies, fulsome oxygen, a free and empty road and a light breeze: all I could wish for. I heard my heart humming even when I was huffing halfway through my walk. Initially, it was only the road, deodar trees lining it and a bench set at the edge of the hilly track at every quarter of a kilometre. Not more than 3 kilometres away we reached a crossroads of around four roads diverging into different directions, with three of them heading into the same direction but at different elevations. The quandary was: which one to take now? For some advice my friend approached the shop at the corner, where a few passersby were enjoying their morning tea. A part of the conversation, of my friend with the elderly man who from his gestures looked like the owner of the shop, fell on my ears:
“Could you tell me where all of these roads lead to?”
“The road you see towards your left has again forked over there”. He points to another crossroads at a distance. My friend nods on seeing. We see it too.
“Now, those forked paths lead you to two places, the one on the right goes up to the village of Naddi and the one on the left takes you to the Tushita Meditation Centre.” He spoke of the Tushita Meditation Centre earnestly, yet with an enforced indifference, the look in his eyes implying we must have heard of it and came searching for it. Truth to be told, none of us had any idea of any meditation centre but only of a few monasteries downhill in MacLeodganj and Dharamshala. It was only later, over the days, that we were enlightened about the meditation centre and its popularity among the foreign tourist and among few westernized Indians. It’s not cynicism that makes me say this; rather it’s the surprise over mounting spiritual crisis among the people of this world. I better continue on this later.
The elderly man continued:
“The two roads downhill to your right head up to the village of Dharamkot and the road uphill to your right will lead you to Galu temple, from where you can trek towards Triund.”
With the Sun now rising like the crowned princess in the throne primed by the hill ranges, all these words : Naddi, Triund, Galu temple, Dharamkot materialized like some sashaying phrases of fairy tales and we were again at a tight spot regarding which place to choose at the moment. Me and my sister, exhausted from remaining awake all night and then from the walk, strolled up a little, unable to resist the appeal of sitting on the two swings in a park like spot definitely meant for tired travellers and resting our legs for a while. In the meantime, my friend spoke to a cafe owner on the lowest downhill road and decided that we can find place with a host family in Dharamkot to stay for a few days. Finally, we made our trip downhill now, only to realize at a turn that it is all uphill and downhill from now: an arduous journey ahead.
Trails ran everywhere; now up, now down. We rotated our lead and followed the leader’s whims. On the way, I probably gasped a thousand times at the wonders: wherever we went, confetti of colours followed us: cosy café with abstract graffiti on their walls and locally designed upholstery, an array of handiwork shops, gems and trinkets on display, lively cute houses and a vibrant crowd of foreigners as well as locals.
After asking for directions to the next home stays (home stays were in abundance but most were filled) we ended up booking one without delay, on the slightest opportunity, for the next day. Yes, we had to return to MacLeodganj for the night with a heavy heart. The owner of the home-stay (henceforth Ashu) was considerate enough to let us leave our luggage (except our everyday bag) with him. Opportunely, the return journey proved less onerous. We slept in a hotel in MacLeodganj and woke up to a beautiful new day.
From that day onward the next few days passed in a whirlpool of marvellous experiences.
The Argus-eyed hills and the lively trees
It was as if I was sleeping in the arms of the hills. The whole of Dhauladhar range kept me mesmerized throughout the day with its myriad moods: before the rains, during the rains, after the rains; with the Sun appearing between the clouds and spreading its light on one hill while shadowing another unable to light all the hills at once, like a mother wedged between feeding all her babies at once and yet unable to. And yet, in all the moods, there was music. Yes, one can actually hear the music if one tries and it drifts from the hills: the Argus-eyed hills…
And from the pair of shepherd girls who sings a folk song while coming to gather the sheep in the late afternoon.
The hills do not sleep. I sense their eyes upon me when I choose to trek through lesser known ways. Suddenly from somewhere a couple of young yogis appear or else a tradesman with a donkey and we walk together for some time. At other times, I fall behind intentionally to listen to the trees sing…
The hills remain vigilant even during the depth of the night and when the wind blew over the thousands of dark green deodar trees, I hear them singing again. Are my senses supersensitive?
Mint Tea at Munna’s
The mornings always started with two things: Munna’s aromatic mint tea at his café beside Ashu’s homestay and my wistful thoughts about learning painting from the painter from Madrid who was staying just above Munna’s café . By the way, the mint leaves were plucked from the roadside which grew abundantly along with other grasses and weeds.
The next occurrence almost always: having breakfast at Navin’s ‘Evergreen café ’. My favourite breakfast was one of their exotic sandwiches, a masala omelette and a glass of fruit juice or milkshake. Although there were many food joints, restaurants and café but Navin’s was the best for us. There are two reasons behind this:
First: Navin is from Nepali lad from Darjeeling who had worked elsewhere before settling in Dharamkot with his own business. Navin and his wife own a small organic garden too, behind their house and they use the produce for preparing the dishes. While they prepare, anyone can meditate in the silence surrounding the place. I actually enjoy the slowness! The menu consisted items from Turkey and Afghanistan besides the usual Chinese, Continental and Indian and all of them were delicious. They serve local wine too.
Second: The café was situated midst lush greenery on all sides and it was open except for the shed above our heads. The interiors were simple with soft lighting and the low bamboo walls were lined with flower saplings in paint boxes. Standing on an impression of a countrified sophistication, it usually appealed to many a new comer and once inside, they never chose other café . We came across a range of old and new faces, although the place never remain crowded at any hour of the day but not empty too. Foreigners loved the place. They would come with their musical instruments and soon burst into a scherzo; others would join in or just enjoy the show.
Every day is a festivity of the little arts and pleasures of life.
It appeared that Indians hardly prefer such altitudes for prolonged stays. And thus, most tourists were foreigners who came for two purposes: for a spiritual growth through practising Hindu, Tao and Buddhist philosophies and for trekking in the higher altitudes of the Himalayan ranges. I would like to bring in again about a former observation regarding the mounting spiritual crisis. Many wise people from the Western countries have sought refuse in eastern philosophy for understanding life in-depth but this is not same as seeking an escape in eastern philosophy from the traps the western knowledge system has produced over the course of time; rather the wise has often chosen the best of both. However, the swarm of foreigners wanting to learn Yoga without first understanding the Hindu philosophy in-depth or turning to Buddhist monks without first understanding their own wishes has left many spiritual values nothing more than a sale-able good in the market. I do not mean to criticize the well-meaning foreigners, for it is not their lack of genuineness but a lack of depth in Indians themselves which has led to such commercialization of religion.
It is a sorry sight to find many Indian youths running to Meditations centers one moment and listening to some pop song on the way to Triund, when the majestic hills leading to the snow-capped mountains were nothing but an abode of music and silence, which required no external music and where meditation could be sought better than in any other place. At least the foreigners always appreciate silence while amidst nature.
The local people have rightfully appropriated their benefits from the tourism industry and most of them have turned some quarters of their houses for the ‘homestay’ experience for the tourists. The ones who owned farmlands in the hilly terrains were more fortunate as they could use their produce for entertaining their guests as well. Indians or foreigners who stayed for long terms usually ate with the host family and learnt about their culture.
Yet poverty ruled. Ashu told us that during the off-season, especially during the monsoons, with torrential rains closing down all the roads, they had to face crisis owing to unavailability of tourists as for some households the homestay business was the sole earning source. Most of the local people are originally from Haryana and farming and cattle rearing their only professions. The young men have taken up the responsibility of developing the tourism sector in the village by opening cafés, internet joints, bars, hotels, shops and by giving trekking and tour packages. The young women, however, had to remain inside their houses after finishing their secondary schooling and only few of them from relatively unorthodox backgrounds managed to turn up in colleges and universities and took up jobs.
I and my friend came to know about the extent of the crisis on another occasion. It was a dry day and wewent looking for suitable rooms for a prolonged stay. On our way back we chose a short-cut through the paddy fields behind a range of houses. A lady working in her area of the fields asked us if we were looking for rooms. We nodded affirmatively and she offered to show us her house. It was a small two-storied building with around 9 people already staying in the house and with no room left for anyone. The information got us cagey and we soon courteously sought her permission to leave telling her that we had already found better rooms. But she insisted and seeing her helplessness we gave in. She told us about their vulnerability; about how her hardworking husband’s income could hardly afford the household necessities let alone the schooling expenses of the six children and for saving for the eldest daughter’s marriage, who, by their standards of age, was already coming of age. She, in fact, told us that they would adjust in one or two rooms and prepare the rest for our stay. The experience was overwhelming and if only we had it in our power to help her we could have but we couldn’t picture the children sleeping outside their rooms and had to decline the offer. The rooms were such that they couldn’t have served our purposes as well. Hence, we had to leave with a heavy heart and much regret.
This was, nevertheless, an eye-opening experience for I couldn’t have understood the value of women’s education better. The presence of six children is already an evidence of poor education and on top of that eight people depended on the income of a sole earner when the wife could have helped the husband as well had she been equally educated. She even lamented about this fact and yet was comfortable with the idea of marrying off her eldest daughter at the tender age of sixteen.
Interaction of foreigners and locals
The inexpensive homestay rates invited prolonged stays from the tourists, especially tourists from other countries. And thus it ensured a continuous interaction between the locals and the foreigners which especially helped the youth break the impasse of an orthodox life and career and seek motivating avenues. They always seemed happy unlike many well-to-do youths from the larger cities like Delhi. No matter how much they were earning, it was always visible in their faces and gestures that they loved what they were doing and that they loved the beauty of their place as much as they loved their own life. Evidently, cases of crimes were next to nil. Besides, the same interaction brought the foreigners closer to a culture alien to them and they learnt to appreciate it. In fact, it was inspiring to find many of them teaching foreign languages and helping the locals educate the Tibetian refugees.
Trekking on the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas
Nothing was more desirable for me than embarking on a new trekking experience each day and finding new routes through the wilderness. As the altitudes increased, the tracks got thinner and at some places, a less cautionary step meant someone’s death. Snakes and some other creepy insects wandered about more frequently than trekkers but like the rest of the wilderness they were always a beauty to come across. I managed to find a solitary rock which served as a bed for me on the days I didn’t go wandering about in the wilderness and watching the hills while lying on its wide flat top became one of my cherished activities during my stay. There, sometimes I would read a book, make my journal entries or else enjoy a chatting session with my friends who too came to love the place I had discovered.
Dharamkot to MacLeodganj: A Sad Encounter
Many roads lead to MacLeodganj from Dharamkot and one can easily come across monkeys frolicking around.
There are many tourist attractions in the lower hills of MacLeodganj. But, only at a few occasions, did I venture to travel to these places as they were always crowded. Monasteries were the main attractions and the view of the snow-capped mountains from the Tsuglagkhang temple is simply stunning. Tourists love swimming in the lake where the Bhagsu falls flow down and Bhagsunag temple is a major pilgrimage for many Hindus.
Strangely, in this place known for its religious attractions, I encountered a rather irreligious act. A foreigner, an invalid who lied in a sordid state on a bench in the MacLeodganj branch of Himachal Pradesh Transport Corporation office, unable even to ask to be lifted and taken to the toilets was left neglected by many spectators to fend for himself. He was stinking mass of sweat, urine and liquor, with his whole body paralysed and yet no one cared, except for a young fellow who was trying hard not to spew up while he did his best to lift the man into a sitting position but to vain. As I and my sister reached closer to the scene we went ahead and gave the fellow a helping hand but none of us were successful. We then tried to approach the monks walking by the roads but to no avail as they were in a hurry. At last in sheer helplessness we left the man where he was and made our way to the Tsuglagkhang temple to inform the first monk we meet there and describe the situation. We did what could have been done and left the rest to God. Finally, on our way back, we saw a jeep carrying the foreigner towards the temple. We didn’t know if it was the result of our effort or of someone else’s; that’s of no consequence. But what I usually expect to find in people is a caring feeling for a fellow human being and no monk can be a monk without such a spontaneous empathetic attitude. We might renounce the material offerings of this life but to the day we live we cannot renounce our duty towards our fellow beings. Neither are we entitled to condemn a person for being an alcoholic to such an extent that we remain impassive.
Call me a moralist but I felt very dispirited by the show of indifference in the faces of so many people; people who were engaged in leisurely pursuits like buying and eating; people who were in a rush to visit the tourist attractions; people who had time to watch us trying to help the man but no time to extend another helping hand.
MacLeodganj held no attraction for me after that incident.
Dharamkot served my interests better.
Dharamkot reminds me of a small paradise on earth, most of which is left untouched by human hands. The beautiful confluence of the simplicity of the villagers and suave conduct of the tourists, their blending to form another culture and in time obscuring the lines of any disunion that existed earlier is something one must experience. Without plunging into the life of Dharamkot one will never understand its worth. The experience helps one grow.