The sight of a family of seals staring back at me, through the patchy openings of a thick mangrove forest, with their round and gullible yet inquisitive eyes, was incredibly delightful. At least for those rare moments I was delivered from my certainty of a distinctive existence to that of one where I might be the alien instead: unfamiliar and ready to be accused of trespassing or experimented upon! Thankfully the population of these curious seals is way too less to be a threat to us humans- the constantly burgeoning mass- on the surface of earth. We- my friend, the boatman and I- travelled for some distance, rowing through a narrow waterway between two mangrove islands and them-the family of seals- travelled parallel to our route through the forests on our right. To listen to the squeaks of the little seals was another delight, and I asked the boatman to row the boat closer to the forests.
Pichavaram is the first mangrove forest I have seen closely in my life. The boatman- a robust Tamil fellow in his early twenties perhaps- told us that the mangroves are not only home to the seals, the fascinating migratory birds, the fishes and crabs but also the only major livelihood alternative to farming for the villagers. They have shaped the lives of the villagers as much as they have for the estuarine biome. If it were not for the mangroves, there would have been irredeemable damage to the villages of the region during the devastating Tsunami on 26th of December, 2004 that ruined many coastal areas in South-east Asia beyond recognition.
What makes it a wonder:
At some places, as we rowed, the route turned pitch dark, the prop roots and branches of the relatively short Rhizophora trees hung over us and some prop roots protruded lower near the ground to interweave with their neighbours, creating some forbidding motifs, all of which reminded me of fictions and movies plotted in the Amazon rainforests and the like: eerie! Numerous unfamiliar small insects and butterflies abounded these zones. Now and then, I spotted small crabs crawling on the roots as well.
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.