High on Kinnaur

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

Blue yonder: Twilight in Kalpa, a town with majestic views of the Kinnaur Kailash massif   -  ISTOCK.COM

The generosity of villagers in this district of Himachal Pradesh comes in various avatars. One of them is the local liquor called ghanti

It seemed like a mythical land, tucked away somewhere in the Himalayas, near the abode of the gods. This was where, we were told, beautiful celestial creatures, who were also exquisite musicians and dancers, lived. These legends were no doubt born from travellers’ tales of the remote Himalayan region adjacent to the Tibetan plateau, now called Kinnaur, a district in Himachal Pradesh.

Having come across many references to this unearthly place in our classical literature, when we heard of a trekking expedition to this area asking for volunteers, my wife and I immediately raised our hands. We went through the required interview, medical tests and police verification, as this was then a part of the inner line, on the disputed border with China, and tourists were not allowed in. There were no roads, and it was almost inaccessible back in the ’80s, which, of course, added to the charm.

On the lone daily bus that went to Sarahan, our base camp, we met our teammates, the majority of whom I realised (from their distinctive Hindi accents) were fellow Bengalis. My wife was immediately inducted into the group as an honorary Bengali and the default mode of communication became Bangla — which is what happens when Bengalis congregate.

The real trek started from Karcham (about 200km from Shimla), and soon we were in the wild, scarcely populated mountains, climbing up goat trails and camping by the mountain streams.

In our first camp we understood what gave birth to the legends of these astral beings. A group of villagers, hearing rumours of strangers in their midst, came exploring, bearing food, drinks, flutes and drums and, despite the language barrier, treated us like long-lost friends. Bonfires were lit, the music started, and we were all pulled into a conga line of slowly weaving folk dances, sensuous and magical in the firelight, under the twinkling stars, the distant roar of the river and the dark looming mountains ahead.

The men were handsome; the women bewitchingly pretty. Their clothes were colourful, the music haunting and the atmosphere intoxicating, especially since we had imbibed in liberal quantities the nectar of the gods — a local liquor called ghanti, prepared with apples, apricots and grapes.

They departed with lighted torches late in the evening, leaving us with ample stocks of apples and apricots, some dried game meat and ghanti. The next day, before we carried on with our trek, we replaced the water in our backpacks with the ghanti.

This scene was repeated at every camp till we crossed the tree line, and even then some villagers climbed up with us just for the company, singing, playing their instruments and plying us with goodies.

Local accents: A Kinnauri woman in traditional attire   -  ISTOCK.COM


One incident was a little unpleasant — but funny. A few boorish men in the group had misinterpreted the Kinnauri women’s warm invitation to us to visit their homes. The men decided one night to call on a village. They came running back, chased by the ferocious Tibetan mastiffs that guarded the villages.

Having crossed the Kinnaur Kailash pass without another mishap, we came down to pleasanter climes and our last camp was at Kalpa, from where the road was a short walk away and a bus would be available the next day to take us back to Sarahan and onwards to Shimla. We were in a relaxed mood. It was to be a full moon night.

We were visited by a delegation from a nearby village with a different sort of invitation. The village had a fair on full moon nights. There would be music, dance, food and drink and we were invited to the mela as honoured guests.

We were elated at the prospect of seeing this rarely witnessed festival which is the stuff of myths and legends. Accordingly, we were escorted to the village where a huge welcome awaited us. One woman informed us that there was something in her house that was hard to find in the region — hot tea. The women in our group made a beeline for her home. The menfolk drowned us — and themselves — in ghanti. Soon everyone, irrespective of age or gender, was pickled in it, giving the music and dance additional vivacity.

This was truly something from mythology: A moonlit night, snow peaks glittering on the horizon, eerie music, enchanted beings swaying to the music and drawing us into their rhythms. The food on offer was somewhat less ethereal: Goat entrails, local sausages called gimpi and other meaty fare.

As dawn approached, none of us was in a position to walk back to the camp down the mountain trails. So we were practically carried down in procession by the singing Kinnauris, holding lighted torches and playing their instruments. But the songs they were singing were not their haunting folk melodies, but the rather impolite Bengali songs that we had taught the whole village that night.

So if an intrepid traveller today finds that the green hills of Kinnaur come alive not to the sound of celestial music of our folklore, but some strange ballads sung to the folk tunes of a distant humid land, do not be surprised. Just blame it on ghanti.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

Published on October 18, 2019
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