The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 16, 2002

Land of colourful shawls & praying lamas
Arun Gaur

A view of Kinner Kailash
A view of Kinner Kailash

NATIONAL Highway 22 — the Indo-Tibetan Road. From Shimla (2200 m) to Narkanda (2700 m) and then a deep descent to Rampur (900 m) via Thanedar. From Rampur we climb again gradually to Rekong Peo (2300 m) and then further to Kalpa (2960 m) in a steep ascent of 7 km.

Just after Kufri we are caught in a brief hailstorm. The road via Thanedar is unmetalled at places. Before we reach the big wooden rest house, where no attendant is in sight, we stop at orchards richly laden with deep red cherries, sweet and luscious. At Rampur, the landscape becomes plain. The setting sun lends a golden glow to the wheat fields. The river water is looking muddy, probably because of the Nathpa-Jhakri Project.

On way to Rekong Peo we see giant pipes being fitted into tunnelled rocks. The road has turned rough and the passage of heavy-duty carriers and the movement of equipment raises a lot of dust. An occasional waterfall is soothing to the eye. The gorges are craggy and narrow at places. Through them, water gushes down in great tumbles; it becomes a stormy sea at Tapri and Air Force Fighter planes swoop down through the narrow defile.

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The leopard motif engraved on wood in an old temple
The leopard motif engraved on wood in an old temple

Rekong Peo is a district headquarters and, therefore, has all essential amenities, including photo studios.

The climb of 7 km to Kalpa sees dramatic changes in the landscape. At every turn, Kinner Kailash (6050 m) seems to loom larger. As the day advances, the snow starts melting, exposing some deep grey or brownish slopes.

Summer nights are cold in the Circuit House with the ancient chimney-apparatus. We sometimes get up before the crack of dawn, when the shepherds have just started taking out their goats, to watch the fading stars and the grey Kinner-Kailash become white.

Later in the afternoon, the range appears loftier, almost invisibly luminous, its evanescent complexion of light white scarcely distinguishable from the sky.

Kalpa Monastery: Monks’ annual invocation of ancestral spirits
Kalpa Monastery: Monks’ annual invocation of ancestral spirits

Near our back door, a bubbling ice-cold rivulet gushes. When we wash our clothes in the stream, they instantly balloon up as the water tends to take them down. At times, a herd of goats walks over the wooden plank we have placed across the stream. This route is also a short cut to Rekong Peo. Our kitchen attendant always goes down this route to get a supply of fresh milk from town since cows are not kept in Kalpa because their survival is difficult at such an altitude.

We dig for exotic roots and instead find scorpions, ready to sting with their tails. Scorpions mushroom everywhere, they can be found crawling under the soil, slumbering in the carpet folds, crushed within the door brackets, and fighting on the roads with a horde of savage ant-warriors who are determined to take their prize, dead or alive. But the attendant assures us that these scorpions are harmless.

A lama with clanging cymbals proceeding towards a village
A lama with clanging cymbals proceeding towards a village

Kalpa has got its monastery at the edge of the market place. It is not very old — its older version was burnt up in parts, though some older paintings did survive. Today, the folk from the villages around make their annual offerings here to the ancestral spirits. Hundreds of earthen lamps are lit amid the unfolding of Tibetan scriptures and the reverberation of metal. The throat veins of tonsured young men inflate as they blow through long muzzles, while the silent, swarthy lips of old women open and close in prayer in the dim corners of the monastery. The youngsters print their prayers on a long strip of cloth and hand it over to us to put up on the roofs of our houses so that the Buddhist messages may be wafted out by the breeze.

In the market lanes, election posters are pasted on the walls. Some boys are playing carom, while a few undernourished kids are enjoying their apprenticeship in a shoe-maker’s shop. Elderly fathers as well as little lasses carry infants on their backs. In a big hall, some women are weaving colourful threads into Kinnauri shawls. Of late, they have realised the growing market value of their products and haggle to the last rupee. The other shops are no bigger than cubicles with their ceilings patched up with innumerable cuttings from newspapers. Their owners, too, are much simpler than the crafty women weaving the shawls.

A mountain lass carries an infant
A mountain lass carries an infant

When not in the market or at the monastery, we spend our time exploring the villages scattered around. Driving becomes difficult in this terrain. The road almost vanishes. From the Kalpa monastery, a group of women, kids, and red-clad lamas are proceeding towards a village to observe some ceremony. They carry carefully wrapped holy books over their shoulders. From a distance, we watch the group advance amid the bare rock. An eagle spirals around the cliff-heads as the songs of the women are interspersed with the occasional clang of a lama’s cymbals.

At the house where the ceremony is taking place, soft nuts, and salted-buttered tea await us. The villages around have temples made in wood, dedicated to the local gods, where one can go on exploring wood-inscribed motifs for weeks or even months together, till the snow returns.