The Poush Sankranti I Used to Know

Cultures and traditions almost extinct…..

“It’s gotten too cold and with Sankranti this weekend, I need to get some things ready for Pithes, miss you all”, said my Mom on the phone yesterday. Oh yes, 14th of January is just round the corner. It’s time for Poush Sankranti, the Bengali version of Makar Sankranti. A major Indian harvest festival celebrated by Hindus across the country marking the first day of sun’s transit into Makara or Capricorn. Called by different names, it is celebrated in different ways in different parts of the country. Maghi in Punjab, Sankrat in Rajasthan, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam, and so on.

Poush Sankanti is named after the month, Poush, which is January in Bengali. Bengalis celebrate this festival with Pithes, or special Bengali sweetmeats made of khoya, flour, rice powder, sweetened coconut, jaggery, cardamom, etc.

The thought of Poush Sankranti suddenly brought back a flashback of childhood memories urging me to pen them down before they get washed away with the passage of time. Poush Sankranti used to be a big festival associated with elaborate celebrations and the neighbourhood homes having each other invited.

It was almost like a Pithe Festival with the entire neighbourhood merrily immersed in Pithe-making and Pithe-eating that would spread out to 3-4 days.

In our joint family, this used to be a very special time of the year. The planning would start days in advance with listing out of the kind of Pithes that would be prepared for that year. Usually 4-5 types would be finalized taking into consideration special requests from all the family members. One or two savories, Nimkis and Shingaras would also make to the list to balance out the sweet Pithes.

The entire house would then get together in a hustle and bustle of activities. Dads and Uncles would be busy making several trips to the local market to get the ingredients, especially the perfect coconuts – the ones they feel will yield substantial meat. Removing the coir and preparing the shell to make it ready for grating was their job as well.

My Grandfather’s primary job was to eagerly wait to consume the Pithes while blackmailing the rest of the family about this year being his last Sankranti and hence his Pithe wishlist better be fulfilled. As long as I remember, it was the same story every Sankranti till one fine January morning when it turned out to be real – yes he passed away on a cold January morning.

Moms and aunts would have the more demanding part of the job, grating the coconuts, preparing the khoya, making the sugar syrup, mixing the ingredients in perfect proportions, kneading the dough and shaping up the Pithes, frying them in oil on slow fire, and so on.  Back then, Khoya was also prepared at home by thickening the milk – a job primarily done by my Grandmother. I remember participating wholeheartedly and lending a hand in all the activities.

Dad’s elder sister, Boropishi lived in the same neighborhood with her family. This was a great advantage as usually her Pithes would taste different and often the types would vary giving us a wide range to satisfy our palates. The women, of my family take great pride in their Pithe making skills and that continues to this day. Not the ones of this generation though, most of us have no patience, and the few of us who have tried their hands in it are hardly any good.

Back then, the youngsters of the family, like elder siblings and younger uncles had nothing to do with the actual Pithe preparations but their interest in eating them is what motivated the elders. Besides, they had another important role. They were entrusted with the responsibility of creating the ‘mera-merir ghor’, which used to be a makeshift home made out of haystack. Mera refers to the Ram, the adult male sheep and Meri refers to the Ewe, which is the adult female sheep.

So, ‘mera-meri ghor refers to the house of a sheep couple.

This would be burnt at dawn on the day of Poush Sankranti ( Jan 14th), amidst chants of “mera-merir ghor jole re hooooi!; Mera gelo bajaro, Meri gelo koi; mera-merir ghor jole re hooooi!” (The sheep’s home is up in flames hoi hoi; the ram’s gone shopping and ewe’s missing, the sheep’s home is up in flames hoi hoi). Before setting the ‘mera-merir ghor’ on fire, everyone would take a mandatory bath and stand beside the fire with a plate of Pithes. So, have the Pithes while soaking in the warmth of the fire – what bliss on a chilly January morning! A few Pithes would sometimes be thrown onto the fire as an offering.

Young boys and girls, the courageous ones who dared to brave the cold, would also spend the night merrymaking in the ‘mera-meri ghor’. Often times there wouldn’t be enough hay, so pine needles, bamboos, cardboard boxes and anything that will aid in making the fire burn strongly would be used to supplement.

I have only very early childhood memories of ‘mera-meri ghor’, a few years later as I stepped into adolescence it had disappeared altogether from the celebrations in our home. I believe ‘mera-meri ghor’ was part of Poush Sankranti celebrations only for Bengalis of North East India. I am not sure about Bengalis in other parts of India.

The Assamese people had a similar celebration and they called it ‘Meji’, experienced from the few Poush Sankranti that I spent at my maternal Grandparent’s home in Assam. Their amazing boga-pithas are still my favourite. I am not sure how much of the celebrations still exist in the same way. As for Shillong, I know there are hardly any. Probably, it is still celebrated in pockets of North East India but by and large it is disappearing. Another sacrifice at the altar of urbanization!

It’s sad that our children have no idea of the distinctive flavours of such celebrations. Today’s children celebrate a Haloween with a lot of fun and fervour but probably have no idea about a Poush Sankranti. Who else but us to be blamed!

The tradition of Pithe making at Poush Sankranti continues to this day at my home in Shillong. Though there is no mera-meri ghor and over the years it has reduced to being ritualistic with may be just one type of Pithe. However we do have our impromptu ‘Pithe celebrations’ that make up for Poush Sankranti and which happen at other special times, such as, when our parents visits us or we visit them.

Bridges that Breathe

I stood there and stared at it, there it was, just as I had visualized. It looked brilliantly gorgeous in the subdued evening light. “Love is the bridge between you and everything”, I muttered. Rumi has indeed captured my imagination and seems to have followed me even to this remote village in Meghalaya. The tantalizing double root bridge seemed like an entwined poetry between the two trees that flanked the Umshiang River silently flowing through the rounded stones that lie below. It was winter, and the reduced water level in the river made it look more like a stream.

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Pic 1: A marvel of organic engineering – man and nature in perfect harmony!

It was my first time at Nongriat village after braving 3600 steps and it was all worth it. The natural bridge floored me with its splendid elegance and grace. I couldn’t stop marveling at the ingenious organic engineering of the local tribal people. There are several root bridges in Meghalaya that are hand-crafted, using natural resources by the Khasi and the Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya (Khasis, Jaintias, Garos are the three tribes that constitute the native people of Meghalaya.).

These root bridges are made by guiding the aerial roots of Rubber tree (Ficus elastica) across a stream or river, and then allowing the roots to grow and strengthen over time. The young roots are tied, twisted, and weaved together encouraging them to combine with one another. The roots are wound around areca nut tree trunks, placed on either side of the water body. The roots keep growing, entwining the trunk and the bridge is elongated to the desired destination taking about 10-15 years to completion. The roots thicken over time and the bridge is further strengthened with mud, stones, sticks, and bamboos. These bridges last for hundreds of years and can carry the weight of 500 people at one time.

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Pic 2: Enchanting tree trunks that seem to be straight out of a fairy tale.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the double root bridge is nearly 200 years old. Locally known as Jingkieng Nongriat, the bridge is one of a kind and famous across the world. As a non-tribal resident of the state of Meghalaya, I could feel my chest swelling with pride as I stood there trying to fathom this tangled masterpiece hand-crafted by my tribal brethren.

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Pic 3: The water in the crystal clear stream below irresistible to our tired feet.

Soon, I found myself kicking off my walking shoes and settling down with my feet dipped in the cold water and the bridge right in front of me. My sisters joined in. We chatted into the evening accompanied by the occasional fishes that swam across tickling our tired and aching feet. We stayed at Nongriat and hence could enjoy the bridge in the way we wanted to, which would not have happened otherwise.

The reason being, it was the Christmas – New Year time, when the maximum surge of tourists happen leading to the place getting over crowded. To top it all, not all tourists who come here are nature lovers. It may seem strange but it is true. When we reached this place in the late afternoon that day, we were shocked to find people all over the place. There were some who were bathing in the river and shouting their lungs out disturbing the tranquil and serene surroundings. This is not how I had visualized the double root bridge and this is not my idea of enjoying nature. Dismayed, we walked away towards the jungle and came back only in the evening.

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Pic 4: A single root bridge on way to Nongriat village.
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Pic 5: A closer look showing the floor of the bridge.

Earlier that day, while on our way to Nongriat, we had been to a single root bridge. It had a prominent notice displayed stating that only two people are allowed on the bridge at one time. But the crowd of over enthusiastic tourists had no time read that. We pointed out to many but they didn’t care. We waited for a very long time for the crowd to thin down before we embarked upon the bridge. The next day, we crossed two other bridges in the interiors of the village. Each one leaving us spellbound with their spectacular intricacies.

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Pic 6: Another single root bridge in the village.

Last year when I was home, we had visited the single root bridge at Mawlynlong. That one is accessible by road and hence remains very crowded. However, the day we visited there was no one. We were really lucky. Mother Nature ensured peace so that we could soak in her comforting ecstasy.

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Pic 7: The single root bridge at Mawlynlong village.

Brilliant

The Old City of Shanghai

As we explored the city of Shanghai, moving from one place to another, sometimes walking and sometimes in a taxi, what struck me was the remarkably beautiful roadsides and the sparkling cleanliness of the city. Besides, it’s a paradise for flower enthusiasts. There was colour everywhere. Even the road dividers were flower pots having multitudes of seasonal flowers. The dull and dreary rainy day was completely subdued and splashed with cheer and brightness all around.

Yuyuan Garden (Yu Yuan)

Yuyuan Garden provided a glimpse of what life was like in ancient China. Built during the Ming Dynasty, the garden has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the last few centuries and its latest restoration was completed in 1961. The place was bustling and overflowing with people. We jostled our way through the crowd of locals and tourists, as the aura of the place was transporting us to a different world.

The rock gardens, ponds, bridges, and pavilions stole the show and all the maneuvering through the crowd seemed worth the effort. Climbing onto the zigzag bridge passing through a pond of moss green water with plenty of orange fishes, we walked towards the mid-lake pavilion.

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The classical garden stood up to its name, ‘Yu’ in Chinese means ‘pleasing and satisfying’. 

The mid-lake pavilion was a fascinating elegantly designed 200 year old tea house. Being a tea-lover, this constituted the main highlight of Yuyuan Garden for me. If I had the time, I would have surely spent a couple of hours there tasting as many varieties of Chinese tea as I could. There is much more to the garden and I really wish I had more time to cover it all.

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The 200 year old Tea House
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Inside the Tea House, note the shelf on the right stacked with tins of different types of tea

City God Temple (Chenghuang Miao)

The City God temple is an ancient Taoist temple located in Old City and very close to Yuyuan Garden. We passed by the temple and saw it from outside.

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A selfie with Miss Sunny in front of Chenghuang Miao

Yuyuan Bazaar

A cluster of shops randomly scattered through narrow alleys greet you as you step out of Yuyuan Garden. Also known as Yuyuan Bazaar, the shops here sell souvenirs, scarves, t-shirts, etc. One of the lanes offer a variety of street food, many of which looked alien to me. I would have liked to dig deeper into those stalls to know more but once again the luxury of time I did not have. I had to satisfy my curiosity only by ogling at the variety of stuff that was on offer with occasional knowledge inputs from Miss Sunny.

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Stepping out of  Yuyuan Garden

Shanghai Old Street (Shanghai Lao Jie)

We passed by the lanes of Yuyuan Bazaar, crossed a street or two and landed into Shanghai Old Street. It was a busy street lined with curio shops and teahouses. Miss Sunny informed that this was the center of the Old Chinese City and foreigners seldom ventured here during the Concession days. Presently, this place looked vibrant with a lot of activities and exuded a contagious old world charm that cannot be missed. The corridor-like straight road lined with attractive shops on either side was a shopping paradise and can instantaneously change your mood.

The dormant shopaholic me raised its ugly head and overpowered the sane me.  The result was I ended up spending all the Chinese Yuan I had carried with me buying stuff from hand creams and face lotions to home decors, gifts and fake antiques. Miss Sunny’s expert advice came in handy in distinguishing the real stuff from the fake ones.

The laments and repents for my abrupt uncalled for action arrived sooner than expected when I was charged additional money for withdrawing cash from an ATM using my credit card.

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The shopping paradise – shopaholics beware!

It was indeed a great way to end my 7-hour Shanghai sightseeing. Miss Sunny dropped a happy and satisfied me back to my hotel. Due to the short time, I had to pick and choose and couldn’t visit all the places or do all the things I wanted to do. Hope to go back some day again.

Here’s a list of things that I would like to do, if I am lucky enough to land up at Shanghai again:

  • Take a night tour of the city
  • View the city from Oriental Pearl Tower
  • Shop at Nanjing Road
  • Take a ferry ride at the Bund at night
  • Ride in the site seeing tunnel below the Huangpu River
  • Ride the Maglev
  • Visit the water towns
  • Experience the traditional Chinese way of life at Qibao

[This post is a continuation. If you have missed the first part of this post, it’s here.]

 

 

Streets of Shanghai on a Sunday

Exploring ‘Paris of the East’ on a Cold and Rainy Day

Clad in a warm coat and a beautiful scarf, Miss Sunny was there right on time. “I think you should put on something warm”, she advised with a look of surprise seeing me ready to leave in a jeans and light sweater. It was an April morning and I was inside the comfort of my hotel with no idea how cold it was outside. Though there was no sun and the weather looked bleak and gloomy. I hadn’t packed proper warm clothes as I wasn’t prepared for it to be this cold. However, I went back to my room, scanned my suitcase and put on two more layers. Layering keeps you warm, and two t-shirts is equivalent to one sweater – one of the many things learnt during my Himalayan treks.

I was in Shanghai for a 3-day work-related visit and was put up at Renaissance Shanghai Caohejing Hotel, which is situated in the business district and a little off from the main city. Miss Sunny was my guide and kind enough to come all the way to escort me to the city. Otherwise, with my zero knowledge of Mandarin, it would have gotten difficult.

My Shanghai trip was close on the heels of a trek to the Himalayas and naturally I wasn’t too happy. I hoped and prayed that it would be moved but that didn’t happen. As I was reluctantly getting my tickets and booking my hotel, the traveler in me suddenly woke up, just in time, to remind that this was an opportunity! How could I miss that! So, I added a day to my itinerary to see what I can of Shanghai. A little bit of research and I found Miss Sunny through Trip Advisor recommendations and contacted her. And, I highly recommend her (sunnyerday@qq.com). Getting around in China can get tricky if you have no knowledge of Mandarin.

As we stepped out of the hotel, I realized just how cold it was! It was raining too and I had to borrow an umbrella from the hotel lobby. I am so not a rain person! Anyway, there was little I could do. So, I made peace and was all set to get a taste of the ‘Paris of the East’ with Miss Sunny by my side.

Jade Buddha Temple

We took a taxi and headed straight to the Jade Buddha temple, which is situated in the heart of the bustling city of Shanghai.

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The Jade Buddha Temple from the outside

The temple houses Buddha statues in two postures – sitting and reclining. The reclining one represents the Buddha’s death – the peaceful Sakyamuni. It portrays the sedate face of the Buddha and is also known as the ‘lucky repose’. There are two of these sparkling white and crystal-clear statues. The smaller one is the original famous Jade Buddha statue that was cut out of a single Jade and was imported by sea to Shanghai by Buddhist monks from Burma during the 1800s. The larger one is made of marble and was donated by Singapore. Miss Sunny mentioned that many people mistakenly think the larger one to be the Jade Buddha.

The temple is large. We walked around its three halls and two courtyards as Miss Sunny kept enlightening me with small nuggets of information every now and then. An interesting thing that I learnt here was the feminine form of Buddha – the Mother of Liberation, known as Quan Yin in China and Tara in Tibet. She is the Goddess of Compassion, a symbol of purity of heart and spirit. The female Buddha was new to me, I hadn’t known this before.

People’s Square (Renmin Guang Chang)

People’s Square is the main public square of the city with the main attractions being the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Grand Theater, and the People’s Park. People’s Square also has several tall buildings, fountains, and other structures. This place used to be a horse racing track before the Communist Revolution. Not much of a museum person, I decided to explore People’s Park instead.

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Gorgeous flower beds at People’s Park

The park was beautiful with flowers blooming all over. The unexpected splash of colours was enough to light up the dull and dreary day. As we strolled on admiring the colours, a flurry of activities diverted my attention nearby, where a group of men and women had gathered around colourful umbrellas laid out sporadically. On a closer look, I noticed all the umbrellas had some kind of laminated paper pasted on the outer side.

And I learnt a fascinating story. This was Shanghai marriage market where parents flock every weekend to find a match for their children. The laminated sheets contain details of bride or groom. Parents stick that on the outer side of an open umbrella and sit beside it all day for other parents to come by and if they think it’s a match they get their children connected. Reminded me of our online matrimony sites, though that’s virtual but same concept. The Marriage Market was unique and made my visit to People’s Square a memorable one.

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The Marriage Market at People’s Park

The Bund (Wai Tan)

The Bund is the waterfront area and has been the symbol of Shanghai for hundreds of years. It is located in central Shanghai on the banks of Huangpu River. Once again a splash of colours greeted us – the wall of flowers of various hues at the entrance. Infused with instant delight and happiness, I just kept gawking in awe.

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Greeted by this stunning flower wall at the Puxi side entrance of the Bund

We were at the western bank of Huangpu, known as the Puxi side. We walked on the pedestrian promenade on this side admiring the skyscrapers across the river, on the other side, and watched big ships pass by toting the world’s goods. The other side of Huangpu, where all the skyscrapers stood, is known as the Pudong side.

The Puxi side is characterized by 26 buildings of different architectural styles – Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Classicism and the Renaissance. The river was like a connecting link for the old and the new. Having seen this place in so many movies, walking on it felt quite surreal. The weather was playing spoilsport and had marred the view to a great extent.

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The hazy view was disappointing

Miss Sunny informed that there is a sightseeing tunnel of about 650 m. that runs under the river from the Bund in Puxi, to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong. It is supposedly an interesting experience by a speed train through the tunnel with colorful radiating lights. However, we had other places to visit and couldn’t go to Pudong just yet. My hotel was also in Pudong side. Miss Sunny also talked about the fantastic night view with the colorful lights floating on the river and the flashing lights from the far side of the river. One can also take a ferry ride and view the city from the river. I missed night views altogether as I had to reach office early the next morning and I couldn’t afford to compromise with my call of duty in anyway.

Former French Concession (Tianzifang)

The Former French Concession has a very European feel with its gorgeous tree-lined avenues and villa-style buildings. True to its name, the French once ruled this part of the city and many of Shanghai’s expat population live in this area. “After the Opium Wars, the French, the British, and the Americans were administering certain pockets of Shanghai”, explained Miss Sunny.

The area is marked by the presence of hip cafes and restaurants, concept bars, breweries, boutiques, art galleries and antique stores. We decided to have lunch here. I have forgotten the name of the place where we had lunch. Not just that, I can’t recall the names of any of the food items we had there other than Wulong Tea. And being the non-foodie that I am, I didn’t click any pictures of the exotic food! And, that’s making me feel awful right now! Miss Sunny had taken the trouble to explain each dish in great detail.

However, indulging in interesting conversations at the lunch table with Miss Sunny about life in general and the similarities and differences therewith in our respective countries was far more interesting to me than food at that moment.

I was loving every bit of my tour so far. The rainy day and the cumbersome umbrella was a botheration but I couldn’t care less. The city of Shanghai was incredible and everything amazed and fascinated me. After lunch it was time to go visit some parts of the old city.

Continued here…..

The Dreamy Desert Mountains

Sketches of my experience at Spiti Valley

It was dark in the room as I lay cozily tucked inside warm cotton quilts and blankets replaying the day’s events while my sister was fast asleep right beside me. It always takes me a while to fall asleep and this wasn’t unusual but today I wasn’t bothered as all I could see was the rugged roads and the radiant mountains. I smiled my way to sleep and couldn’t wait to be up the next morning.

The cold desert of Spiti Valley, with its austere barren mountains, deep gorges, emerald green river, ancient monasteries, gorgeous villages, and unique culture has given me a lifetime of memories and experiences. Here’s an attempt to capture the essence of Spiti through a brief outline of the places we visited.

Kaza – A Tiny Little Commercial Hub

Kaza brings memories of walking through narrow lanes of the busy little market area that sits right at its center.  Surrounded by jagged mountains, and situated at an altitude of 3,800 m. above sea level, Kaza is the capital of Lahaul and Spiti district. It is like a central place which connects all other places in the valley. On one side of the market area is a series of Chortens or Stupas that face the 14th century Tangyud Gompa. Just besides the Chortens is the only petrol bunk in the valley, which also happens to be the world’s highest retail outlet. The only ATM in the valley belonging to State Bank of India is also located in Kaza.

Solitude at Rangrik

While Kaza was bustling with activities, Rangrik’s solitude appealed to the nature-lovers in us. Situated at an altitude of 3699 m. from sea level, the quiet and sleepy village is marked by the large golden Buddha statue and prominent prayers written on the mountains. The village has a couple of good schools that attract students from all across Spiti. Our hotel, Spiti Sarai, was located a few meters away from the village homes just across Spiti river with sprawling open spaces. Initially we were disappointed about being 5 Km away from Kaza, but it turned out to be just as we would have wanted. We did things that we love to do, which wouldn’t have happened had we stayed at Kaza.

Walked in the open fields while watching the sun set behind the mountains; climbed up the long flight of stairs painted in white across the road to take a look at the Chorten up in the mountain but discovered a temple instead; clambered up the mountain looking for the cave with a magnetic rock that the hotel bell boy had talked about but took a wrong turn and ended up on a cliff overlooking the river on one side and the cave on the other and had to be satisfied with only a view of the cave from a distance. Most importantly, we spent a considerable time lazing on the banks of Spiti River.

Autumn Colours at Mane Village

The most notable thing about Mane was the vibrant Autumn colours in various shades of yellow and gold. Situated at an altitude of 2926 m, the village has a small Gompa that did not appeal much to us. Other than this, there is nothing much in this village. We spent  most of our time here interacting with the village kids. Later, we got to know that there is a lake known as Sopona Lake, which is a 2-3 Km trek away from the village.

The Buddhist Mummy at Gue

The intriguing mummy at Gue had captivated my imagination right from the first time I had heard about it. After I landed in Spiti, I could no longer contain my curiosity and kept asking about it to everyone I met. Finally, I was at Gue and as I knelt in reverence, it was a moment of awe that no words can describe. The remarkably well preserved mummy in a sitting position with intact hair and nails left us astonished. That no chemicals are used, the natural mummification just left us marveling. At a distance of about 80 Km and a few kilometers away from the Indo-China border, Gue is the furthest village from Kaza. Situated at an altitude of around 3200 m, Gue is famous for this 500-600 year old naturally preserved mummy of a Lama that was discovered by the army after an old tomb containing the mummified body had opened up following the earthquake in 1975. The mummy is now kept in a separate chamber inside a glass casing just beside the village Gompa. Locals believe that the mummy is of Lama Sangha Tenzin, who had sacrificed his life to free the village from a menace of scorpions. They say when the Lama’s soul left his body there was a rainbow in the sky and the scorpions had disappeared. Carbon Dating has scientifically established the mummy to be of a 45 year old Lama from the last quarter of 15th century. The Lama apparently belonged to Gelugapa order who are practitioners of Zogchen, the highest form of meditation. This is the only Buddhist mummy in the world and also the only known naturally preserved mummy in India.

Apple Orchards & Mud Monastery at Tabo

The extraordinary Mud Monastery at Tabo took us by surprise as I had not heard/read about this before. Tabo is situated at an altitude of 3279 m. and the monastery dates back to 996 CE, the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape, when it was founded. The monastery, consisting of temples and Chortens, is completely made of Mud and is surrounded by tall mountains that supposedly have a number of caves carved into the cliff face that are used by the monks for meditation. That’s why Tabo Monastery is known as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’. We read about the caves in the description provided in the signboard but didn’t have the time to go see them. We got to know that the Dalai Lama considers Tabo Monastery to be one of the holiest and has also expressed his desire to retire in this ancient monastery. He has also held Kalachakra ceremonies here in 1983 and 1996.

The same compound also has the new monastery, which is concrete and of modern architecture. We were fortunate to attend a prayer ritual that was happening at the new monastery when we were around. Tabo Gompa houses many ancient and priceless Buddhist manuscripts and is considered second in importance to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet.

Tabo also fascinated us with its apple orchards, which start off many miles before reaching the village and continue many miles beyond it. To top it all, the apple trees were covered with ripe red apples and it was with great difficulty that we controlled our desire to just go and pluck off a few. Even the monastery has a garden of apple trees with the tonnes of apples hanging from the trees.

The Quaint Villages of Kibber, Lhalung, & Chicham

We experienced the local culture through our homestays at Kibber and Lhalung village. The enriching experiences at the homestays demanded a separate post altogether. An important highlight worth mentioning here is catching a glimpse of the red-eyed fox on our way to Lhalung as it quickly passed by our car and went down the mountain.

While at Kibber, we went to visit the newly inaugurated bridge that connects Kibber to Chicham village – a bridge that took 17 years to complete. It is unnerving to think that before this bridge, people would use a trolley tied through a ropeway between the deep gorges at a drop of about 150 m. to go to Chicham. It’s not surprising that many people have lost their lives during this commute, which was the only mode of connectivity to Chicham.

Dhankar Gompa from a Distance

Dhankar village is famous for the 1000 year old Dhankar Gompa and the mesmerizing Dhankar lake, which can be reached only after a steep climb of about 3 Kms up the mountain. The quiet and solitude at the lake made all the climb totally worthwhile.

The Dhankar monastery is built on a high spur of the mountain overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Dhankar was the traditional capital of Spiti Valley and the monastery is like a fort that also served as a prison. Dhankar literally means fort on a cliff (Dhan: cliff, and Kar: fort). Most of the fort is in ruins now after the 1975 earthquake. A new Gompa has also been built but the old one is truly fascinating. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to explore the fort and had to satisfy ourselves with the view from a distance. However, we were lucky to have spotted a few blue sheep grazing up in the mountain on our way to Dhankar. You can’t have it all…can you!

The Pristine Beauty of Pin Valley

Pin Valley mesmerized us with its gorgeous landscape. Pin River, with its majestic greenish-blue color runs throughout the length of this fascinating valley before merging with Spiti River. Pin also houses the ‘Pin Valley National Park’. We took a drive down the valley upto Mud village but did not have enough time to visit the National Park.

Our Pin Valley drive can be summed up as a sunny day with azure blue sky alongside the graceful and sinuous Pin River through the enchanting silence of miles and miles of isolation accompanied by stunning views of the mottled desert mountains.

We crossed several villages on the way of which Mikkim is worth mentioning as its population of only 30 amazed us. We also walked on a hanging bridge over the river and visited Kungri Gompa on the way. Kungri is the second oldest Gompa in the Lahaul and Spiti Valley and has the distinction of being the only monastery, which belongs to the Nyingmapa order of Buddhism.

Looking for Fossils at Langza

Situated at an altitude of 4400 m., Langza village is dominated by a large statue of Lord Buddha, overlooking the valley. Langza is also the place to find fossils of marine animals and plants, which is attributed to Spiti Valley being submerged in the Tethys Sea millions of years ago. We expected to see a few but got to know that they can be found only if we trek higher up in the mountains.

Seabuckthorn Tea at Komic

Situated at a towering height of 4587m, Komic’s distinguishing feature is that it is the highest village in the world connected by a motorable road. However, our memories of Komic is associated with Seabuckthorn tea as this was where we had tasted it for the first time.  Seabuckthorn are orangish berries, the shrubs of which are scattered all over Spiti Valley. These fruits are a rich source of vitamin-C and due to their therapeutic properties are used in traditional medicines. The dried and crushed form make amazing organic tea that tastes like hot Fanta though we enjoyed eating them right off the plants too!

Posting Letters at Hikkim

Hikkim was super special – after all not everyday you get to post letters from the highest post office in the world. We sent post cards back home to our parents, which they are yet to receive and which is a surprise. Can’t wait to see their reactions. We also posted cards to our own addresses in the city and which have already arrived. At an altitude of 4440 m., Hikkim also has the highest polling booth in India. While driving back from Hikkim, we got lucky again and this time witnessed two Ibexes looking down at us from the mountain top.

Praying at Kee Monastery [or Key Monastery]

Picturesquely perched on a hilltop, Kee Monastery appears like a fortress with its haphazardly stacked rooms and temples. At an altitude of 4,116 m., the over 1000-year-old monastery is the oldest training center for Lamas and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Besides invaders, it has also dealt with natural calamities of fire and earthquake. It has a vast collection of ancient murals, books and centuries old thangkas. We had expected to see a flurry of activities in the monastery with Lamas of all age groups busily carrying out their daily activities. None of that happened and the monastery wore a barren look as all the Lamas had gone over to Kaza that day for attending a ceremony. Also, we had plans of spending a night at the monastery but our amazing homestay experience resulted in swapping it with another homestay instead. So, we explored the monastery, prayed, and chatted with the only Lama available and headed for Gette.

Tying Prayer Flags at Gette

Dozens of prayer flags fluttering in the strong wind tied around an old Chorten on a hilltop is what greeted us at Gette. Surrounded by tall mountains and situated at a height of 4270m., it is also a viewpoint for Kee monastery that lies on one side of the valley.  On the other side is the Gette village, which has only 2-3 houses. There was nobody other than us at Gette at that point of time and we spent our time leisurely tying prayer flags and clicking selfies while reveling with the wind in our hairs.

Kunzum La and Chandrataal

It was afternoon and the wind was blowing strong when we reached Kunzum La on our way to Spiti. The prayer flags were fluttering and the landscape around it breathtaking. Situated at an altitude of 4,590 m. Kumzum La is the gateway to Spiti being the only motorable route that connects Kullu valley and Lahaul Valley with Spiti Valley. It also offers a spectacular view of Bara-Sigri, the second the longest glacier in the world. A series of Chortens and prayers written on flat stones are prominently displayed. All vehicles passing by this route stop here and pay respect to Kunzum Devi. The stunning Chandrataal is at a distance of 9.5 Km from Kumzum La and the more I say about Chandrataal the less it is and definitely demands a separate post.

Spiti Valley feels like a dream. The surreal landscapes that remain cut-off by snow from the rest of the country for at least 7 months a year is a different world altogether and has completely enthralled me. I have already written so many posts on it but it still feels like I have so much more to share…..And now I can totally relate to Rudyard Kipling’s description of Spiti –

“At last entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here.”

‘Jhulley’ from Kibber and Lhalung

Kibber

“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!

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Pic 1: The herd of sheep blends harmoniously with the surrounding colour

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.

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Pic 2: The farmland and few scattered houses on one side of the village
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Pic 3: View of the village from the window of our homestay

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.

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Pic 4: The densely packed houses at Kibber
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Pic 5: Rooftops serve as a storehouse of livestock fodder, collected in preparation for winter
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Pic 6: A typical house in the village

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.

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Pic 7: The tandoor burns while water is heated in a pan
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Pic 8: Saraschotun sits still for a moment as she plays with my phone enabling a quick photo

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.

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Pic 9: Tashi’s home on the right, quite a climb uphill it was
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Pic 10: A selfie with Tashi’s father and brothers

Lhalung

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.

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Pic 11: A stack of hay stored neatly in the terrace of Tandup’s home, note the mud flooring
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Pic 12: Nuwang takes us around his village with a lot of pride and excitement
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Pic 13: The old monastery or Gompa at Lhalung
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Pic 14: Another part of the old monastery
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Pic 15: Murals on the wall inside the old  Gompa
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Pic 16: Inside the new Gompa
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Pic 17: Tandup tries to teach my sister how to play the ‘Kho Poh’

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.

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Pic 18: The ceiling of the homes made of branches and twigs, which provide very good insulation

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

Tales of Pithe-Puli

Fast Disappearing Exotic and Traditional Home-made Bengali Sweetmeat

A pan filled with oil simmered over a low flame as Ma peered onto it maneuvering a shining steel spatula with her spectacles daintily perched at the edge of her nose. Driven by curiosity, I take a closer look to discover the diamond-shaped flattened cubes seething in the hot foaming oil. Tossing and turning the cubes, she patiently waits for them to turn a reddish brown.

It was a Sunday afternoon and ‘Chana Daal Pithe’ was underway at my Bangalore home. Yes, it was that time of the year when my parents were visiting me.

Anybody who understands Pithe, knows the amount of labour that goes into its making. And Ma managed all of that single-handedly and more so after she had prepared breakfast, cooked lunch, even got me a bowl of fruits sometime in between, and doing a dozen other chores around the house. As I watched her with awe yet again, the same old thought crept into my mind – “Why don’t I have half the energy she has and how does she manage time to get so much done!” – All mothers have superpowers, I swear!

Chana Daal Pithe is an irresistible mouth-watering authentic Bengali sweetmeat. It is made by mixing boiled and mashed bengal gram, sweetened coconut shreds, khoya (milk thickened and solidified by heating in an open pan), and refined flour. The diamond-shaped flattened cubes are crafted out of the mixture and deep fried in vegetable oil. They are then dipped in sugar syrup, which is spiced up with cardamom. It’s often served by garnishing with a layer of kheer over it. (Kheer is milk with sugar, thickened to a certain consistency by boiling over low flame). Chana Daal Pithe is one of those special dishes that comes from Ma’s kitchen and like many other things is on the brink of extinction. I don’t know how many of us have the time and energy to prepare pithes even though we love to eat them……..I for one wouldn’t have the patience, I know that for sure! Grate the coconut, boil the gram, mix with flour, sugar and kheer in perfect proportions, and the right proportion happens to be really important, fry them over low flame while you prepare the sugar syrup separately…………PHEW!

At the same time it upsets me to think that the future generations may never know what pithes are and how they taste. After all, you don’t get to buy pithes off the shelf. Though, I did see a few during Poush Sankranti in a sweet shop in Kolkata a few years back but definitely those wouldn’t taste like the home-made ones. A business opportunity hidden there? Hmm…..

Pithes are indigenous home-made Bengali sweets that are traditionally prepared during Poush Sankranti (Makar Sankranti) in the month of January. Pithes can be of various types. There are those that are common across all sections of Bengalis, then there are those that are indigenous to certain regions of Bengal. Again, some pithes are made from refined flour, while others require rice flour; some should be sweetened with jaggery while sugar suffices in others; in some potatoes are a must while some cannot be imagined without bananas, again others require jackfruit or dates; there are those that are deep fried and those that are steamed or boiled – the combinations are endless.

Pithes are not any random dish and are not a part of our usual menu. It’s definitely not what fish is to us. Pithes are distinctive and special. It has to be a Poush Sankranti or a special occasion for pithes to make their appearance.

Besides Bengal, pithes are also popular in the states of Orissa and Assam. However, each state has their own set of unique and distinctive pithes. 

Pithes have also been associated with a special kind of love, affection, and indulgence. Many of us associate our grandparents with pithes. I remember demanding pithes from my Thamma (paternal grandmother), who would not only be delighted but would do anything under the sun to fulfill our wishes. And Thamma’s pithes belonged to a different genre altogether, the range of pithes was way broader and the taste couldn’t be reproduced by anyone in the family.

Today, pithe is ritualistic each time we visit home or parents come over. A visit to my Pishi (aunt – dad’s sister) in Guwahati is also ritualistic each time I go home, and she will invariably have some pithes in store for me. Some of which would be prepared in a special manner for a longer shelf-life so that I can bring them back to Bangalore to savor at leisure.

Back in Bangalore, it was Chana Daal Pithe that Sunday afternoon and it didn’t stop at that. Puli Pithe, Lobongo Lotika, and Sureshkhowa happened on the following days. All of that prompted me to write about pithes, as I know for sure that pithes will soon become a thing of the past. Even now, the world swears by roshogollas as Bengali sweets, not many know about our exotic pithes.

I’ve already described Chana Daal Pithe, here are few more pithes that are popular at my home:

Patisapta: White elongated rolled pancakes made with milk, refined flour, and semolina, stuffed with coconut or khoya or both; often served by dipping in kheer.

Lobongo lotika: Dipped in sugar syrup, stuffed with khoya or sweetened coconut shreds, the square-shaped parcels are created by neatly folding flaps of kneaded and rolled out flour, the ends of which are secured with a clove; and the clove in turn brings in a sudden pungent and spicy burst of flavor that sharply contrasts the sweet taste.

Puli Pithe: Semilunar flour parcels, folded with a definitive pattern at the edges, stuffed with kheer or sweetened coconut or both; optionally dipped in sugar syrup.

Malpoa: Round flat, fried pancake dipped in sugar syrup, Fluffy inside with crisp edges made from khoya, flour, fennel seeds; often served by dipping in kheer.

Aloo Pithe: Perfectly rounded reddish brown balls can be easily mistaken for gulab jamun; made by mixing boiled potatoes, kheer, refined flour and immersed in sugar syrup.

Dudh Puli: Rice flour dumplings with a stuffing of coconut and date palm jaggery boiled in thick milk, which is again flavored with date palm jaggery

SureshSureshkhowa: Small oval balls made by mixing flour, semolina, coconut, with an optional sugar syrup coating; this can be stored for a longer duration

 

 

 

For the Love of ‘Shidol’

Loved by a few, loathed by many…

The pungent smell filled up the air as I sniffed the familiar mouthwatering aroma. Shidol Chutney it was! You don’t need a sharp nose for a smell as strong as that. I ventured to the kitchen for a quick glance to make sure I was right. And, Oh yes I was! Lunch time was a good two hours away and I wondered how to divert my attention and control my already salivating tongue till then.

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Pic 1: The spicy and pungent Shidol Chutney

It was that time of the year when my parents were visiting my home in Bangalore. Food is always a top priority during their stay here. Going with the firm notion of their daughter being deprived of all the good food life has to offer, every day during their stay is nothing but a feast. Their misbelief, fueled by parental love and affection, is true to a certain extent especially considering the authentic, indigenous food that only moms and aunts can cook. And in my case, Shidol Chutney (also known as Shidol Bhorta) is definitely one of them.

Shidol Chutney is a heavenly mishmash of Shidol, onions, and garlic spiced up with a generous dose of red chilli powder.

Savored with white rice, this and its variant Shidol Bora fall in the category of most eagerly looked forward to dishes from Ma’s kitchen.  Shidol is a traditional fermented fish, popular in North East India. It is nothing but the freshwater Punti fish, the scientific name for which is Puntius sophore, and the common English name is Pool Barb.

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Pic 2: Fermented Puntius ready to be cleaned and cooked

I never bothered before, but just learnt from Google that Shidol is prepared by stuffing earthen pots with the sundried fish. The earthen pots are then sealed airtight to provide the anaerobic conditions for fermentation and stored at room temperature for 3-4 months. Bamboos are also used sometimes instead of earthen pots. Pretty interesting, isn’t it!

I am not a foodie, but when it comes to Shidol, it’s a different story altogether. My Shidol affiliation has to be attributed to my lineage – the Sylhet district in Bangladesh. Sylheti Bengalis are tad touchy about their Shidol and I am no different. In fact, without my love affair with Shidol, I may lose my credibility of being a true Sylheti*!

Many Sylhetis lovingly call it ‘Hidol’. Shidol is our pride and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Shidol Chutney and Shidol Bora have evolved to become a cultural identity for us.

*Sylhetis are an ethno-cultural group of Bengalis, who speak the Bengali dialect Sylheti. Native to the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and Barak Valley in Assam, they have a significant presence in Meghalaya and Tripura.

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Pic 3: Shidol Bora with white rice

And, being a Sylheti with roots in Shillong, my craving for this dish can only be understood by fellow Sylheti Shillongites. Shillong supposedly has the best quality Shidol in the country (maybe world, for all you know). And with an epidemic of Chayote (called squash locally) plants all over, the popularity of Shidol becomes even more pertinent. After all, the leaves of Chayote plants are considered the best for preparing Shidol Bora. Pumpkin leaves (Kumro pata) are otherwise used.

Shidol is also popular amongst the communities of Khasis, Tripuris, Kacharis, and Manipuris, in North East India. I am not quite sure how they cook their Shidol though.

Back home, the pungent appetizing aroma was only growing stronger as Ma had closed all the doors and windows to prevent our neighbours from having to put up with something they may find rather repulsive. During the process of cooking, Shidol emanates a rather obnoxious smell. And that smell is definitely not for the faint-hearted! It’s strange to think that a delicacy for one becomes nauseous for another. The pungency of onions and garlic balances out the smell in the cooked dish.

Finally, the much awaited lunch time arrived and I gorged on a sumptuous meal of white rice and hot and spicy Shidol Chutney even as tears streamed down my face and my nose ran. Only a Shidol-lover will understand the utter joy of my gastronomical delight. My mouth waters even as I write this. Can’t wait to have it again, which can happen only when I go home or Ma comes here. I haven’t tried my hand in preparing it yet….  Too used to the taste of Ma’s hands. The dish has to be prepared well in order to taste well and not everyone prepares it well. Hopefully, it’s in my genes and I’ll do good!

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Pic 4: Loitta or Bombay Duck

Besides Shidol, something else that truly delights a Sylheti is Loitta or Lotka (dried Bombay Duck). Shidol and Loitta, collectively known as Shutki mach can be prepared in various other ways – combined with brinjal (eggplant/aubergine), or with a variety of vegetables, or simply with potatoes. While my Shidol favorite is the chutney and the bora, my Loitta favorite is the roasted dry fish mashed with onions, mustard oil, salt and chilli powder…………….slrupppp!

Here’s Ma’s recipe for the adventurous you:

Shutki process

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The Story of Osla

It was a bright sunny April afternoon when we were on our way towards Har ki Dun, walking alongside river Tamosa. As we took a turn in the valley our gaze instantaneously fell upon a bunch of beautiful wooden houses on the mountain slopes. The haphazardly arranged houses almost appeared to be rolling down the mountainside in some form of a disarrayed haste. This was Osla!

Awestruck we were by this neat little village tucked far away in the Himalayas. We took a spontaneous decision to visit the village on our way back with the help of our guide, who had friends and relatives in the village.

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Haphazardly arranged homes on the mountain slope and river Tamosa that flows below.

Situated in Uttarakhand, in Western Himalayas, every little thing about this quaint little village intrigued us – the city dwellers.  Stuck in some bygone age, this unfrequented and relatively unseen village has millions of stories to tell.  As we set foot into the village through the narrow pathway lined with randomly arranged stones on one side and a mountain slope on the other, we noticed the place was dotted with apple trees all over. Just a few meters and the narrow pathway ended at the village temple.

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The wooden village temple as seen while entering the village, a view from the back.

Beyond this there was no clearly defined pathway.  Dedicated to ‘Someshwar Devta’, the unique wooden temple has a charm of its own.  The area around the temple appeared to be some sort of a village square. Young men were idling around, smoking ‘beedis’ while playing cards without a care in the world, children with cheeks as red as cherries chased one another as they ran around unmindful of the dust all around.  Some people say the temple used to worship Duryodhana*, who was a well-loved king in the region but the villagers deny this.

*An important character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, whose desire and ego blinded him leading to the famous war of Kurukshetra.

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The temple as viewed from the front.

The beautiful wooden homes that had caught our attention earlier had roofs made of flat stones that were apparently procured from some faraway place. The stones provided the much needed protection during the harsh winter months. With wood appearing to be the primary source of firewood, furniture and construction, a rapid discussion on deforestation ensued between us, the cognizant city dwellers, only to die down quickly as our focus was on the villagers and their lives.

The indigenous people of the village stole our hearts in an instant with their hospitality, innocence and simplicity. Untouched by the vices of the modern world, the love and respect they showered on us was overwhelming, something we can never experience in the cities. Almost everyone we met invited us for tea or dinner. A young girl, Shamita insisted we go to her home for a cup of tea and we had to oblige.  The teenagers, Kashmina and Krishna weren’t tired of showing us around the village. They even got their best clothes to dress up my sister in their traditional attire – something that the whole village gathered to see and which they found profoundly amusing.

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The villagers dress my sister in their traditional wear.
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She poses with Kasmina (right) and Krishna (left). Notice the flat stones that make up the roof of the homes.

The concept of community living and the self-sufficient people truly appealed to us. There were villagers who were spinning yarn from sheep wool. The sheep is again reared by themselves and they use the yarn to weave their own warm jackets.  They proudly announce that their wool is priceless and cannot be found anywhere in the world – a claim that perhaps cannot be denied.   We notice that almost everyone in the village was busy doing something or the other, not many are seen idling time away. We were amused to see a lady stomping her feet in a large wooden basin that had clothes and water. That’s a community laundry where everyone goes to wash heavy clothes like blankets. Also, we were astounded to find children barely 7-8 year old busily washing clothes in the only tap in the village. Tap would be a wrong usage, it was rather a pipe through which water flows out constantly into Tamosa.

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Villagers spinning yarn from sheep wool.
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The yarn is processed further and colored with organic dye.

There is just one tiny little shop in the village which sells a few packets of chips, toffees, and potatoes. There is no grocery, no vegetables. The hard working villagers cultivate and grow their own rice, rajma, and potatoes. These constitute their staple food. Besides, some thorny leaves, bushes, and roots gathered from in and around also constitute a part of their food. There is no concept of storing these items, they are simply plucked as and when required. Cows, sheep, and mules constitute their livestock – cows for milk, sheep for wool, and mules to ferry things from outside. The mules also cater to trekkers like us to carry necessities like food, tents, etc. and in some cases carry our bags as well, enabling us to walk light.

A typical well-to-do home constitutes three floors – upper floor for people, middle one for sheep, and the lowest one for cows. Mules stay outside. Upper floor typically has three rooms alongside a long balcony overlooking the snow-clad mountains. The rooms are minimalistic having only cotton mattresses and quilts. Most of the homes however are smaller, constituting of just one room that serves as the bedroom, kitchen, living room, and everything else.

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A typical well-to-do home with three floors. Notice the apple trees on the side.
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An ordinary home that has just one room.

The tough life of the villagers brought tears to our eyes. The village has no network and hence no phones, Internet is out of question. There are no toilets, no roads, no electricity. A few homes do have solar panels that provide some basic not so bright lighting. Young girls barely 12-13 year olds carry a minimum of 20 Kgs of firewood regularly from the forests and walk 11-12 Km with that load.

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An old woman carries firewood and she must have walked 11-22 Km or more with that load.

In spite of such adversities, the village folks wore a happy smile complementing their unparalleled hospitality. As we bid goodbye the next day, they packed rajma for us in keeping with their tradition of not sending off visitors empty-handed. With an experience of a lifetime we left Osla.

It is incredulous to think that even after 70 years of independence, such remote and backward villages still exist in India. This is strikingly contrasting to the digital India and smart cities that we are supposedly moving towards.

There is a primary school but children are uneducated as the teacher is always drunk. A few children have the good fortune of being educated in other villages or in cities but mostly can’t afford the cost. In some families, especially those with several children get only one or two of their children educated while the rest remain in the village either because the parents cannot afford to educate them or they are needed to run the chores of the home. Amidst all of this, we happened to meet a young man who was completing his Masters in Botany at Dehradun and who had come home during the holidays. This was so refreshing and hopeful indeed!

The worst part is the village has no clinic or dispensary. The nearest medical help is 27 Km away. With no roads, seriously ill patients are tied to a chair that is then carried by four people, who walk 16 Km to reach ‘Taluka’, where they get transport and then drive another 11 Km, and that’s the nearest medical help.

We are back to our comfortable city lives with precious memories of Osla etched in our minds forever. However, each time we remember the lovely time we spent at the village it is accompanied by pangs of guilt as our mind does a spontaneous inadvertent comparison of our comfortable lives with the difficult lives of the villagers. The innocent villagers continue their daily struggle relatively oblivious to all the amenities of modern living.

Note: I am not quite sure I have been able to express myself well enough to do justice to the wonderful experience we had in the beautiful village of Osla. Hence, sharing a few more pictures below with the hope that you might be able to relate to our surreal experience at the village. (All pics are clicked through phone and are unedited raw photos.)

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Pic 1: A patch of green encountered just upon setting foot onto the village.
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Pic 2: A lady busy weaving at her home with several apple trees in her yard.
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Pic 3: Not quite sure about the purpose of these houses, probably a storehouse for wooden planks.
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Pic 4: Beautiful jewelry and rich deep wrinkles that must be harboring millions of wonderful tales!
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Pic 5: There’s just one or two such community taps rather pipes through which water flows out constantly.
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Pic 6: The wooden basin for washing clothes, the community laundry area, where clothes are washed by feet stomping.
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Pic 7: A wooden stairway leading to the upper floor of a 3-storied house.
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Pic 8: The balcony overlooking snow-clad mountains, a view that I could die for!
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Pic 9: There is no proper pathway as you go around the village. It’s like an obstacle course as you pass by somebody’s yard, jump over a pile of stones, walk through stone steps and so on…
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Pic 10: A lovely group photo with some of the village kids!
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Pic 11: Dinner being prepared over a ‘chulha’ in the minimalistic kitchen, which also serves to make the room warm during winters.

The Humble ‘Kwai’

A Symbol of Hospitality in the East Khasi Hills of India!

The humble Kwai made a very special appearance at my Bangalore home last week. Preciously wrapped in banana leaves, the Kwai had travelled all the way from East Khasi Hills in the North East to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Kwai is nothing new to me and I have my usual rendezvous with it each time I visit home, but seeing it perched on a ceramic plate atop my dining table made me nostalgic and evoked special sentiments in me. My mind immediately took off on a virtual tour of my homeland, Meghalaya – the abode of clouds. Everything associated with Kwai flashed before my mind like a continuous slideshow and I started missing my pretty little homeland with renewed vigor. It suddenly occurred to me that Kwai was such a unique aspect of the culture of Meghalaya and I wondered how many people know about it.

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Kwai is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan) smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut, which is chewed with the optional tobacco leaf. While chewing paan is common place in India, the state of Meghalaya has a very special relationship with their paan and areca nut. All the three tribes of Meghalaya – Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are equally passionate about it – ‘Kwai’ for the Khasis and Jaintias, ‘Gue’ for the Garos.  An integral part of the traditional tribal culture, Kwai brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and is considered to be an equalizer between the rich and the poor. People irrespective of their age and gender are literally addicted to it. Chewing paan by young children may be frowned upon in other parts of India but not in Meghalaya where even school children can be spotted chewing Kwai even though most schools have it banned. Associated with red lips and a constant chomp, Kwai is of special significance to the tribal etiquette in Meghalaya.

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Kwai is an integral part of all formal and informal gatherings – official, social, or religious. Whenever you visit a Khasi family, you will be welcomed with Kwai and it is considered to be a mark of respect and honour. Women carry Kwai in pouches tied around their waists, while men have it in their pockets. Sometimes, Kwai may also be carried in small tin boxes made specifically for this purpose. It is fairly common to greet each other by offering Kwai, which in turn indicates offering a hand of friendship and honour. Refusing Kwai is associated with bad manners. Besides Kwai is a boon during the cold winter months as it gives an instant boost to the body temperature. The humble Kwai can be used for many other miscellaneous purposes as well. Such as, Kwai-chewers use the coir of the betel nut to clean their teeth and scrub off Kwai stains as it leaves deep red stains on the teeth and tongue.  The importance of Kwai can be gauged from the fact that in earlier days it was used as a unit for measuring distance – how many Kwais are chewed to cover a distance!

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An elderly Khasi woman with lips and teeth stained from chewing Kwai.  (Pic Credit: A.D. Roye)

Scientific researches over the past decades have evidences to indicate the carcinogenic effects of areca nut. Notwithstanding, Kwai is deeply rooted in the culture of Meghalaya, the symbol of hospitality and its significance will not wane away any time soon. The significance of areca nut spreads out to the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram as well.

Over the years the traditional Kwai has seen quite a bit of change with the addition of ginger and coconut as other ingredients, surely influenced by the common paan. But most of the local people swear by their traditional Kwai.

But, the one thing that I am most proud of is, despite its obsession, people in Meghalaya manage to keep the red stains of the Kwai on their ever smiling lips. The land is untainted by smear marks, characteristic of the paan chewing habit in other parts of the country. This is probably because of the cleanliness obsessed native people or because tobacco is not usually used in Kwai – a detail that perhaps makes this hill tradition a safer addiction than its counterparts.

I missed mentioning how the Kwai landed into my second home, Bangalore. A Khasi friend was staying with me while on a visit to the garden city. Addicted to Kwai, it was like her lifeline. It baffled me to see that she had gotten 200 rolls of Kwai for a period of four days, which amounts to 50 per day. The sheer number of Kwai neatly stacked in my refrigerator amused and astonished me. It got me thinking about the importance of Kwai in her life and I decided to write about it. 

Kwai Khasi FolkloreThe story behind Kwai, tympew, shun, and duma (betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco):

It’s a tale of friendship between a wealthy woman, Ka Mahajon and a poor man, U Baduk who grow up together. Baduk moves to another village after marrying Ka Lak. Whenever Baduk goes to his ancestral village, he makes it a point to visit his rich friend. Mahajon  in turn would give fruits and vegetables to Baduk to take back home. Baduk and Luk feel they should return the favour and invites Mahajon to come over some day and have dinner with them. Then, one day Mahajon goes to her friend’s house. Baduk and Lak are overjoyed to see her. However, on that day there is no food in their house. Lak goes to the neighbours to request for some food but gets none. Disappointed and ashamed, the couple kills themselves as they cannot bear to face their friend. Mahajon, who was waiting for the couple in the courtyard, wonders what happened and enters the home only to find her best friend and his wife dead. Disheartened and shocked,  she feels her life is useless without her friend. Mahajon too kills herself. In the meanwhile, a thief enters the home while running away from people who were chasing him. He hides for a while in the house and discovers the three dead bodies. Scared of being accused of murder, he too kills himself. The villagers are aghast when they get to know of this unfortunate incident. They pray to God that something like this should never happen again and even the poorest man should have something to offer to visiting guests. God answers their prayers by transforming Ka Mahajon into betel nut, U Baduk into the betel leaf, and Ka Luk into lime. That is why betel leaf and lime are always served together. The thief is transformed into tobacco. The place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place. The humble Kwai was born making the lives of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes incomplete without it.  

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