“Jhulley ji!” I greeted the old lady soaking in the sun outside her home. “Jhulley, Jhulley” she returned the gesture with a toothless smile before going back to counting the prayer beads that were held together by a decorative tassel. ‘Jhulley’ means Hello in the local language, a word I had learnt even before setting foot onto Spiti Valley.
It was about 5 PM in the evening and the sun was still shining bright. We had arrived at Kibber about an hour back and after settling down at our homestay, had stepped out to explore the village making sure that we were layered well enough. Soon the sun would go down and it would become really cold. I chit-chatted with my travel companion – my sister – while walking down leisurely through the only dusty lane that ran through the center of the village.
Just a few meters down the road and suddenly a herd of sheep came rambling down from nowhere. We did expect to see sheep and other livestock in the village but not at that time and in that manner. Completely taken by surprise, we were jubilant at the sight of least a 100 sheep with their sheep dogs and shepherds. As we moved to the side to give way, I scampered through my jacket pocket hurriedly trying to locate my mobile to capture the moment. The sheep were too fast and by the time I was ready many of them had moved on. I had seen herds of sheep in many of my Himalayan sojourns before but this was different as the animals blended perfectly into the surrounding colour of the landscape, which was sharply contrasting to how I had seen them stand out in the green meadows. I regretted not getting a good shot and wished I had my mobile handy at that time!
We walked around the village for some more time, climbing up and down, passing through the narrow lanes, talking to the villagers and reveling at the beautiful surroundings against the setting sun. The leisurely pace enabled us to actually feel the evening slowly giving way to night. This was refreshingly different from the mad rush in cities where we don’t know where our evenings go.
The village was really clean and much to our delight we found it well equipped in terms of a school and even a dispensary. There were solar panels all around and most houses had a television and satellite channels as well. This turned out to be different from what we had seen at Osla village (in Uttarakhand) a few months back.
The village of Kibber, situated at a height of 4205 meters is about an hour’s drive from Kaza, the main town of Spiti. As you drive from Kaza through the steep and winding roads, Kibber can be seen from a distance as a green patch of land with a cluster of houses with white walls and red roofs surrounded by formidable mountains. Kibber is the biggest village in Spiti Valley, having around 80 houses that are densely packed to make sure that not an inch of agricultural land is lost in this dry and arid mountain area. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the major occupations here. Snow leopards have been sighted in Kibber during the winter season making it a much sought after destination for wildlife photographers. Kibber houses a Gompa and also the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, which is India’s only wild life sanctuary in a cold desert.
Back at our homestay, we found Padma waiting for us with the evening tea and snacks. Padma and her husband owns the Kanamo homestay, which they had built recently. They lived there with their 4-year old daughter, Saraschotun. We soon discovered that Saraschotun was a bundle of joy with a contagious energy that cannot be escaped. We spent the evening playing with Saraschotun and chatting with her mother as she prepared dinner for us. Padma had two more daughters and a son, all of whom were in boarding schools at Kaza and Rangrik. The importance she gave to education was praiseworthy.
The spick and span homestays in Spiti turned out to be much more comfortable than hotels. Our itinerary had just one day of homestay but we ended our travel with three. Two in Kibber and one in Lhalung.
My Kibber story will remain incomplete without mentioning Tashi’s home. 20-year old Tashi was the bell boy at our hotel in Kaza, who stole my heart with his simplicity and innocent dimples. I almost felt like adopting him. Tashi belonged to Kibber. When I showed him the pictures I had clicked in his village, he was quick to point out his home. He urged us to visit his home when we go back to Kibber. We did as we wanted to respect his wish. We met Tashi’s father and brothers, his mother and sister had gone over to Kaza. Unlike Padma’s homestay, Tashi’s home was very ordinary and their only source of income was livestock. Tashi was their eldest son, who had studied till Class 12 and wants to do better rather than spend the rest of his life at Kibber. We were humbled by the immense respect showered on us by Tashi’s father.
Lhalung is situated at a height of 3,658 meters and is another beautiful high altitude village in Spiti valley. The word Lhalung means ‘land of God’ (lha for God and lung for land). It is said that the Tangmar Mountains, which surround Lhalung village changes color depending on the mood of Lhalung Devta, who is the head of all the Devtas in the valley. Red denotes anger while yellow signifies happiness.
At Lhalung we stayed at Khabrik homestay. Tandup Dolma, the owner and lady of the house was very hospitable and a great story teller giving us glimpses into the indigenous spitian way of life. Tandup lived a happy life with her two husbands. Her husbands are brothers – one of them is in the army and stays away most of the time, while the other is a farmer and lives with her in the village. Their three children were at a boarding school in Rangrik. We met her nephew Nuwangsonam, who was staying with her as his school was closed. Nuwang was in 8th grade and studied in the village school. However, his innocence appeared to us like a usual 5th grader of the cities. Lhalung does have a school but no dispensary. If anybody falls ill they have to travel all the way to Kaza.
We spent the evening chatting with Tandup while Nuwang desperately tried to teach us the local language. The next morning Nuwang took us around the village, especially to show the old Gompa of the village. The Gompa is also known as the Sarkhang or Golden Temple and we were told that it is 1020 years old. A new Gompa has also been built recently besides the old one. The old one appealed to me much more than the new one. Nuwang introduced us to an enthusiastic septuagenarian man who had the keys to the Gompa. This man took us through the Gompa with elaborate descriptions, much of which we just weren’t able to follow. Though we learnt that villagers believed the Gompa was built by angels one night. Hence, touching the murals on the Gompa wall is forbidden as that will anger the angels and they might leave the village.
Later Tandup played their traditional musical instrument, Kho Poh, and also tried teaching us a strum or two.
Everything about the lives of the villagers fascinated us. It was amazing to see the villagers holding on to their beliefs and customs. In spite of the tourist influx, their culture is still intact and modernization has not eroded their traditions and values. The people of Spiti live a life of happiness and pride despite their problems of long winter months and isolation from other parts of the country. They are very hospitable and more than happy to have you as their guest. The sense of compassion and the spirit of Buddhism is deeply rooted in everyone.
Padma and Tandup have not set foot outside Spiti and have never seen a city, but guests like us are their window to the world. They have their own hardships but are happy and satisfied and in many ways lead much more meaningful lives than those of us in the cities.
Here are some snippets of the villages, the people and the culture:
- The tandoor in the village homes have the chimneys passing through the center of the homes making the homes warm, much warmer than hotels. Dried yak dung and cow dung are the main source of fuel for heating the tandoor. The floors of the houses are made of mud and the roofs made of dried twigs/branches provide the much needed insulation.
- The rooms are clean and well furnished, however there were no mirrors in the rooms. The local women didn’t seemed to care about their looks though we found them exceedingly beautiful and simply loved their unique jewellery.
- The homestays are better than hotels and are easier on the pocket too. They are much warmer, food is great, and you get to learn so much about the culture.
- The practice of polyandry is seen and all the brothers in the family maybe married to one woman. The main reason is to avoid division of property. This system was fairly common before but now is not accepted by all, especially the youngsters.
- During the brief summer (mid-May to mid-Oct), people work really hard to prepare for the 8-month long winter.
- During the long winters, there is snow everywhere and most of the villages are cut off from civilization. People don’t have much to do. They spend their days soaking in the sun, knitting sweaters, and feeding their livestock. In the cold evenings, everyone in the family gathers around the tandoor and spend their time singing and dancing. So they work hard during summer and party hard during winter.
- During winter, sheep are usually shifted to lower altitudes where the temperate is not that extreme. Cows and mules remain with the owners and are kept indoors. Yaks remain active through the winters and people even ride them to move through snow.
- Green peas, potatoes, and barley are the main crops. The government is also promoting the cultivation of Seabuckthorn – the orange-coloured berries growing all around Spiti that are rich in vitamin C. The farming is organic and most of the crops are free from pesticides.
- Some local way of saying things, that we learnt from Nuwang:
- Accho: Brother (Bhaiya)
- Acche: Sister (Didi)
- Thammo: Sister-in-law (Bhabhi)
- Amma: Mother
- Appa: Father
- Aane: Aunt (Bua)
- Yato: Friend
- Chiru: Cow
- Nyuth thuk thapa: How are you?
- Gno yak poh thak: Am doing good