Thursday, 6 June 2013

Winter in the Summer! Himachal Pradesh

I recently took a 9 day trip with a friend to Himachal Pradesh, a northwest state in the western Himalayas. After exploring the tropical south and the Rajasthani desert, I was drawn to the snowy peaks. I would have preferred to go north when my knees were being paralyzed by the 110 degree October heat in Mumbai, but the usually snow blocked roads in Himachal Pradesh are only accessible in summer months. 

Rivers and glaciers surrounded us as we drove around this state, whose peak elevation reaches 22,966 feet above sea level. 

Getting around on buses and motorcycles, I feared for my life as we spiraled up and down the steepest and narrowest mountainsides I have ever seen. My knuckles were frozen white as I held onto the bottom of my seat. (When one of our bus drivers got off the bus and returned with two bottles of whiskey I thought of calling home to say bye to my family forever). But this fear (which I often have here when I put my life in the hands of people whose language and culture I don’t speak) dissipated as I looked beyond the edge of the mountain to the breathtaking views. It was astonishing. (By the way, he didn't open the bottles...)

We spent a day in and around Shimla, previously British India’s summer capital. While we enjoyed some horse riding and meandering through the town, it was generally too kitschy so we continued on our itinerary to Manali. Manali had a pleasant ambience, as a starting point for long treks. We spent a couple of days riding my friend’s rented motorcycle up to snowy peaks and into villages where we found short, attractive treks to waterfalls and hot springs. Wrapping around snowy mountains, feeling the cold brisk on my face was so refreshing after 10 months in sweltering Mumbai.
About half way through our trip we travelled to Manikaran, a small town celebrated for its hot springs. 

Hot Springs & Temples

It’s interesting that more often than not bodies of water in India have legends attached to them. In Hindu mythology, Manu was created as the first man who gave life to all mankind. The most famous story involving Manu relates to the great deluge that destroyed everything on earth. Some remarkable connections to the story of Noah and the flood are that Manu was told to build a ship to save himself and to bring two of each animal on board (one distinction is that he was told to bring seeds from every type of plant as well). It was in Manikaran where Manu is said to have recreated human life after the flood. During our visit, Manikaran was crowded with pilgrims coming to visit temples of Rama, Krishna and Vishnu. There was also an impressive gurudwara (Sikh temple) there. While it was enjoyable to walk in and out of temples, dipping my feet into the springs, it was more entertaining to watch Indians dip bags of uncooked rice into the natural springs to boil them. 

After Shimla and Manali we took a bus westward to Dharamsala, home of the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama’s residence. We arrived in the still dark early morning and ambled around McLeod Ganj, the main village in Dharamsala. Tibetan exiles- monks, children and women- walked past in orange and deep reds and greeted us with warm smiles. When daytime stirred, we found ourselves a hotel and relaxed a bit after the long overnight bus ride. 

We spent a couple of days in McLeod Ganj visiting Bhuddist temples, monasteries and a museum about the Tibetan exile. Watching monks debate in the traditional Tibetan style was impressive. The choreographed clapping after statements and the positioning of the defender and questioner’s robes are all key elements to a debate. Similar to the positioning of a Kathakali dancer’s eyes (see my post about Kerala), every hand motion and clothing position is telling. 


Bhuddist Temple Prayer Wheels

On our last day we walked around the forests surrounding McLeod Ganj. I ate my last momos (Tibetan dumplings) and breathed in as much of the crisp air of northern India as I possibly could.
After a 9 hour overnight bus ride to Delhi, I looked back on the journey with pleasure knowing that I had fresh memories and a broader understanding of the ways of life within India’s far-reaching borders.