A Date with Leeches at Kudremukh

A lush green montage of rolling hills, sprawling grasslands, and tropical forests….

“Good Lord, Eewwwwww!” I shrieked. A swollen wobbly leech just fell off from my upper arm as I took off my rain-jacket. Stuffed and all pumped up after a sumptuous blood meal sucked out of my arm, the hale and hearty leech was wriggling on the ground trying hard to move around. Sounds gory, isn’t it? Not quite! Leeches are creepy but pretty harmless creatures, something I learnt after I trekked to Kudremukh peak in Western Ghats.

I soon discovered that there were three more leeches – one on my stomach and two on my feet that were happily feasting on my blood while I was engrossed with all the wonders of Mother Nature surrounding me. I had managed to dodge tonnes and dozens of them all the way and these were the lucky four that secretly found their way onto my skin. And it was not until I was back from the peak that I discovered them.

I’m still not sure if I have overcome my fear of leeches – not fear, rather the uncomfortable creepy feeling associated with these creatures. However, these wriggly-wiggly creatures surely added to my overall experience of Kudremukh.

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Pic 1: The green mosaic of thick vegetation, vast grasslands, rolling hills, and dreamy clouds

Trekking in the lush green Western Ghats had been in my wishlist for a long time now. Kudremukh was an obvious choice to experience Western Ghats for the first time after having seen mesmerizing photographs of the chain of rolling hills laid out in a mosaic of sprawling grassland and dense forests.  It was with this motive that I had started following Tranquil Voyagers on Facebook and it’s been more than two years now. However, life is paradoxical and I landed up discovering Himalayas in the far north while I kept contemplating Western Ghats, which is right next door.

Tranquil Voyagers is a trekking company in Bangalore run by Shravan Kumar. Having observed them on Facebook for quite a while I decided to join them in my quest to discover the beauty of Western Ghats. Being with the right people is extremely important when it comes to hiking, trekking and exploring nature and I must say I am quite selective about that. Shravan himself leads all the treks conducted by Tranquil Voyagers and they exceeded my expectations with their idea of fun combined with high levels of energy, responsible trekking, and ecofriendly practices. I highly recommend them. (http://www.tranquilvoyagers.co.in).

It was early monsoon in the month of June. We reached Kudremukh National Park at dawn and were put up in a homestay with very basic amenities. Surrounded by tall trees, thick vegetation, and green hills, it was nothing but heavenly. Soon after breakfast, we started out towards Kudremukh peak.

Kudremukh or Kudremukha is a peak in Chikkamagaluru district, in Karnataka, located within Kudremukh National Park. The name ‘Kuduremukha’ is derived from a view of a side of the mountain that resembles the face of a horse. ‘Kuduremukha’ is a Kannada word meaning ‘horse-face’.

A group of 18 of us walked along chit-chatting with the early morning sun shining brightly and adding cheer to the newly found acquaintances. An important topic of discussion was the leeches that we knew we would be encountering and everyone had their own theories and stories to tell. All of this was doing little to drive away the discomfort I had at the very thought of the slimy wriggly-wiggly creatures. I had done my own research and had read up quite a few articles but the knowledge I gained did nothing to ease my apprehension. Very soon we started encountering them. And as we stepped into the forest, they were all over. It took me a while to recognize them as they can be easily mistaken for twigs scattered amidst the big brown leaves all across the forest floor, until you see them moving and stretching all around looking out for potential unsuspecting victims.

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Pic 2: Refreshing shades of green

Keeping aside the leeches, the wide variety of landscapes throughout the trail was a source of constant delight. The green carpets of grasslands would merge into smooth hill slopes with a very few or no trees at all. Patches of shrubs and bushes would appear intermittently. This would quickly give way to stretches of evergreen Shola forests with foliage so thick that the sun rays could hardly penetrate. (Shola is the local name for stunted tropical montane forest in South India). Once in a while the gurgling streams showed up gushing through the forests complementing the humming cicadas and chirping birds creating a surrealistic experience of dream and fantasy. Crossing the streams was great fun as we carefully made our way through the stones and pebbles, some of which were slippery due to the moss, lichens, or algae covering them.

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Pic 3: Walking through the shadowy groves of ‘Shola’ forests enjoying the leafy canopy and trickling sunlight
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Pic 4: The giggling stream greeted us as it happily passed through the forest
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Pic 5: The stream smiles, lit up by sun rays piercing through the thick jungle foliage.                               Pic Credit: Nikunj Amipara

It rained every now and then, adding to the enchanting aura created by the varied landscapes. The National Park houses a variety of wildlife and herds of sambars, spotted deer have been seen on the trekking route. However, we weren’t that lucky but we did see a couple of birds including a few peacocks. Not to forget the leeches though! To make sure that the creepy creatures didn’t catch us, we literally ran across the leech-infested forest floors and didn’t dare hang around to admire the pure serenity of crackling leaves, crunching twigs, and rustling foliage. There was no escape, whatsoever! Every now and then we would have to stop to remove the slimy creatures off our clothes and shoes. Once they sneak in and attach themselves to our skin, it gets tricky. Then, it’s important to take them off along with their suckers or else infections may set in. I was armed with a packet of salt but contrary to my knowledge, I learnt that sprinkling salt on leeches is not a good idea at all as that not only entails killing the leeches mercilessly but can lead to severe skin infection. Apparently, once the creature attaches to your skin, leaving it there and letting it fall off after it’s done with sucking your blood is a safer bet. Of course, I have no idea how you can do that without psyching out at the very thought of it.

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Pic 6: Carpet of green stretching as far as one can see  – a real treat for the eyes

As we were nearing the peak, after a few stretches of steep climbs, it started raining and a thick layer of fog engulfed us. I felt like I was walking in a vacuum of white as I couldn’t see anybody or anything ahead or after me. The heavens were not kind enough and by the time we reached the peak, the rains intensified. Along with that, the winds blew strongly and it was really cold. Drenched from head to toe, our raincoats provided little respite. The thick fog ensured that we got no view at all.  Shivering and trembling in the cold coupled with disappointment of not being able to see anything, we decided to descend. After a while, the rains stopped and the fog cleared just for a few minutes and that was our only window to catch a glimpse of the hypnotizing rolling hills undulating in all shades of green.

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Pic 7: The thick fog of grey that engulfed us as we approached the peak
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Pic 8: The window that opened up for a few minutes provided a glimpse of the undulating green hills that lay behind the clouds

The rains lashed hard again and didn’t stop till we were back at the homestay. Some areas, especially while climbing downhill had become slippery, forcing our concentration on the path ahead of us leaving us with no opportunity to stop and admire the enthralling surroundings. Though a few of us did stop at the clearing that was lined up with mango and jackfruit trees. With the raw mangoes hanging low, we couldn’t resist gobbling up a handful of them with salt before the salt was washed off in the rain.

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Pic 9: Happiness is walking into clouds through a soothing stretch of green
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Pic 10: ‘Onti Mara’ – The Lone Tree stands tall in the barren hillside undeterred by the thick fog.

Back in the homestay, after clearing the leeches, we bathed in hot water and feasted on onion pakodas and hot tea. The hot water bath was quite a luxury I must say!

It was an experience of a different kind, even though we couldn’t see anything at the peak. The journey is always more important than the destination and the beautiful and varied landscape we experienced made for an enchanting experience.

However, I have to say that having experienced the Himalayas, nothing else truly makes a mark upon me. Though, I know it’s unfair and I should not compare a hill with a mountain!

The leeches turned out to be harmless but something else almost killed me that night after I was back to my city in Bangalore but that’s another story. You can read that here – When my Immune System Overreacted

When Kedarkanta Happened!

My First Tryst with the Himalayas…

The year 2016 was particularly difficult for me. Certain things happened that negatively impacted my personal environment changing the course of my life, perhaps forever. Alongside something else happened. Again impacting me, but in a positive way.  Even though this cannot compensate for the other things that have gone so wrong, I feel fortunate and blessed.  And here’s what happened – I undertook two fascinating journeys discovering the intriguing beauty of the majestic Himalayas as I trekked to Kedarkanta and Kuari Pass in Uttarakhand.  In an attempt to share my wonderful experience, I am penning down the story of my Himalayan sojourn.

Let me start with Kedarkanta…

I am not getting into the details of how I landed up deciding to go on a Himalayan trek.  It was a very impulsive decision and how grateful am I for that!

It was the third week of April, the week of my birthday. Accompanied by my friend, Partho, I embarked on my maiden venture to the Abode of Snow with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). Kedarkanta peak is located in Govind National Park and the trek starts from a tiny village called Sankri, tucked away well within the park.  We started from Dehradun and the entire route to Sankri was a picturesque one, making the 10 hour drive really pleasurable.  Sankri is a tiny little beautiful village with a population of just about 300 offering some stunning views of the mountain ranges in Uttarakhand.

I was trekking for the first time, though I had gone for a day trek in Bangalore before but I don’t consider that to be of any significance. Kedarkanta is considered an easy trek but for people like me with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, it wasn’t all that easy. I did have an edge though – at least that’s what I would like to believe. After all, I belong to the mountains, having spent the first 30 years of my life in the Eastern Himalayas in the beautiful little hill station of Shillong. My hometown, fondly known as the Scotland of the east, the capital of Meghalaya – abode of clouds!

We were in a group of 25 people of all age groups with the youngest being 9 years old. Most of us were first timers. There were three families and half the group constituted members of the same family.  However, by the end of the first day, the entire group had become like one big family.

As we climbed up towards Juda-ka-Talab on Day 1, it was raining intermittently.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the steady ascent through the forests of pine, deodar and oak trees. Occasionally, we would pause to admire the rhododendrons that were blooming all the way.  We even plucked a few to satisfy our curiosity of tasting the flower petals. This was totally new to me. I had no clue that we could eat rhododendrons!

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Pic 1: Our colorful raincoats blending harmoniously with the surrounding forest.

The changing landscape kept us engaged all along – forests with shades of all kinds of green with tinges of yellow and orange; trees with intricate trunk patterns having roots that spread far and wide; occasional green meadows irresistible to our already aching feet. We also came across one or two shepherd huts that appeared abandoned. These are places where the shepherds spend the night when they come up grazing their sheep as they cannot go back on the same day. We later learnt that the shepherds of the adjoining villages usually move around in team of twos armed with ‘kukris’ so that during the night while one rests the other watches over the sheep, protecting them from wolves and bears.

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Pic 2: Multiple hues splashed across the forest creating a divine aura.

After a continuous climb of 4 Km for about 4 hours through countless pines and oaks, Juda-ka-Talab revealed itself as a small pond in a tiny little clearing amidst the lush green and dense forest. Legend has it that Lord Shiva opened a little of his hair and water flowed out to form this small pond.

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Pic 3: Behold, the impressive Juda-ka-Talab!

A little after we reached Juda-Ka-Talab, the rains intensified, forcing us inside our tents.  After a continuous spell of about an hour or so, the rains disappeared without trace and a bright and sunny afternoon greeted us.  We didn’t see a frozen Juda-Ka-Talab as the ice had melted just a week before we had arrived. No complaints, especially with the snow-clad mountains around us and the reflections of the surrounding pine trees on the ‘talab’ making the entire place an ecstatic visual delight. With our minds and hearts overwhelmed, we retired for the night as the stars shone bright and beautiful making the whole experience blissful and magical.

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Pic 4: Upside down or downside up!

We looked up and saw the Kedarkanta peak at a distance that was partially covered in snow.  It was Day-2 and we had just arrived at Kedarkanta base after a very short and steep climb. The quick ascent left us pleasantly surprised. While most people were delighted with the thought of being able to rest and relax in such heavenly abode, I was excited about the prospect of exploring the adjoining woods. Being the naturally energetic person that I am and with my mind busy fantasizing the witches and fairies of the woods that surrounded us, I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day just idling around the tent.  At the same time, I couldn’t master enough courage to venture into the woods all by myself. I found the 55-year old Vinod for company whom I had befriended the day before, and who amazed me with his stamina and fitness, passion for trekking, his grit and determination, and his love for the Himalayas. We shared our common love for yoga.

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Pic 5: Time for a break!

Time stood still as we walked through the enchanted forests of oaks and pines, admired the lichens and mosses, listened to the rustling of dry leaves below our feet, took note of the birds calling out every now and then, discovered streams and waterfalls, relaxed in the meadows, clicked selfies, talked to the occasional shepherd appearing from nowhere with his flock of sheep and disappearing in the same way, encountered the extraordinarily friendly mountain dog, and chatted about our lives and experiences. I was living in a picture postcard. Life seemed perfect!

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Pic 6: Time stood still as we lay on the soft green just below the Kedarkanta Peak…
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Pic 7: The extraordinarily friendly mountain dog.

It was 3.00 AM in the morning and we were already on our way to Kedarkanta peak with headlamps and torches lighting our paths. It was cold and we walked in silence in one straight line being led by our trek guides.  The cold eased a bit as twilight approached giving us hope and making Day-3: the Summit Day seem a little more achievable.

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Pic 8: As dawn broke, there was magic everywhere! 

As twilight gave way to early morning, we were delighted to see patches of snow glistening with the first rays of the sun.  There was some fresh snow indicating that it must have snowed the day before.  The terrain constituted patches of steep ascents and continuous gradual ascents as we huffed and puffed our way towards the top. In some patches, the snow had turned to ice making it a slippery and risky affair.

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Pic 9: The choco-vanilla landscape is a complete contrast to the lush green landscape!

Finally, after a climb of 6 Km for 6 hours, we reached Kedarkanta summit standing tall at 12,500 ft! The 360 degree panoramic view of some of the famous snow-clad peaks and mountain ranges was simply jaw dropping. Swargarohini, Bandarpoonch, Black Peak, Gangotri and the Yamunotri range, Chanshil Pass and Kinnaur Kailash ranges were clearly visible. Keeping my eyes wide open, I was gorging on every moment as my heart and soul danced with joy.

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Pic 10: I could have sat there forever!

Climbing down was tricky at times especially during the initial descent where the slope was steep and in those places where there were patches of ice.  We also did a slide in one patch that had some good amount of snow. It was some real fun as we twisted and turned, rolled and slipped, amidst hooting, laughter, and cheer!

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Pic 11: The slide!

After a brief rest at Kedarkanta base camp, we continued walking down towards Hargaon. While I was always amongst the top five people while climbing up, I was mostly lagging behind while climbing down – a clear sign that my knees needed some workout. Once again a spectacular trail through oaks, pines and streams led us to a meadow laid out in a carpet of green where we were camping for the day. It was a sunny afternoon with clear skies and we spent the rest of the day chit-chatting, reveling in the beauty of the surrounding snow-clad mountains, watching the horses grazing in the distance, walking barefoot on the soft grass, and playing cricket.

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Pic 12: Sunsets are gorgeous anywhere and more so in the mountains!

As Vinod and I basked in the sun along with a few others, a shepherd we had met the day before passed by with his flock of sheep. It was a moment of mutual delight. This time we chatted longer and learnt more about their lives and it was by no means an easy one. A pang of guilt hit me slightly as my mind did a spontaneous comparison of the kind of life I lead with all amenities at my disposal and here was someone whose life was a constant struggle oblivious to all the comforts that modern life has to offer.

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Pic 13: Picture postcard it was!

Starting early on day-4 and revisiting our rhododendrons through the forest floor laden with dry pine needles and cones, we descended back to Sankri, the village where we had started.

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Pic 14: The forest floor strewn with pine cones and pine needles.
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Pic 15: Rhododendrons – Yes we did pluck and gobbled a few!

At Sankri, we further explored the village, visited the ancient wooden temple of Bhairava (a fierce manifestation of Shiva), mingled with the locals, bathed in river Supin, watched young children play joyfully without a care in the world before finally calling it a day.

It was the end of my first Himalayan trek. However, for me this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a newly discovered love and passion for the mountains.  I was spellbound – the enchanting Himalayas had captivated my soul. It was intoxicating and I knew I would be back very soon, which I did…. (Kuari Pass Trek)

 

The Mythology of Kedarkantha

Uttarakhand is considered to be the land of Lord Shiva and Kedarkantha peak has its own mythological story related to the Lord. The word Kedarkantha means Throat of Lord Shiva. The story goes back to Mahabharata. After the war of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were looking for Lord Shiva to atone for the sins committed during the war. First they went to Varanasi, Shiva’s favorite city, which has the famous Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Lord. Infuriated by the death and dishonesty at the Kurukshetra war, Shiva wanted to avoid the Pandavas. So, he assumed the form of a bull (Nandi) and hid in the Garhwal Himalayas. Not finding Shiva in Varanasi, the Pandavas went off to the Himalayas. Bheema spotted the bull and recognized it to be Lord Shiva. He held on to the bull not letting it go. In the resultant struggle, the bull was torn into five parts that appeared at five different locations. This resulted into the Panch Kedar: Kedarnath – Back of Lord Shiva; Kalpeshwar – Hair of Lord Shiva; Rudranath – Face of Lord Shiva; Tungnath – Arms of lord Shiva; and Madhyamaheshwar – Navel of Lord Shiva. Locals believe that during that time, the throat of Lord Shiva fell at Kedarkantha peak and that’s how the peak got its name. A small temple dedicated to the Lord is situated at the summit.

When my Immune System Overreacted

An Unexpected Turn of Events from a Simple Allergic Reaction!

“She’s had an Anaphylactic Shock, we recommend moving her to the ICU immediately” says the doctor. That’s what my sister came and told me while I lay in the Emergency ward of the hospital.

Anaphylactic Shock – what on earth is that, I wondered as I looked up at my sister while she was already googling the term in her phone. 

Shivering as I was even under three blankets, I prodded a little nervously, “What does it mean?” My BP was down to 60/40 but I was fully aware about everything happening to me with not an ounce of disorientation hitting me. Anaphylactic Shock sounded something terribly dangerous though I was more intrigued than afraid. Before my sister could respond, a medical orderly promptly arrived and changed my clothes into the hospital uniform for patients, which was not only drab but highly oversized – guess they have just one size, which is the biggest possible on earth!

Within a short while I was whisked away to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and before I realized I had all kinds of wires and attachments all over my body with several complicated machines beeping all around me. I was more curious than concerned. My roving eyes did a quick survey of everything around me, including the other patients making a mental note of the level of seriousness of each patient based on my level of understanding of how they appeared, and how many instruments were attached to them. I didn’t stop at that, the next day I enquired about every patient from my attending nurse.

Needless to say this was my first experience of being hospitalized.

Earlier that evening, I was back from a trek – my first trek in the Western Ghats. It was a Sunday, the 4th of June, 2017. Accompanied by a friend, I had gone for a weekend trek to Kudremukha National Park. We were dropped off at Majestic Bus Station, the main bus station at Bangalore. Mesmerized by the gorgeous Kudremukha hill, I did not have the slightest idea that in the next 10 minutes I would be getting into a life threatening situation. We had been travelling since morning with a lot of ‘Antakshari’, Dumb Charades, and other games all the way. As we bid goodbye to our fellow trekkers with promises of meeting again, we realized just how hungry we were.

It was already 8.00 PM and so we decided to have dinner before heading home. While crossing the road as we headed towards a ‘Biryani’ restaurant located across the street, we encountered the road divider. It was an enclosed area with trees and shrubs cordoned off by iron grills that stretched for quite a long distance. Our stomach was growling as we walked besides the divider towards its end to be able to cross over to the other side. In one place, we found the grill broken and people were passing through it jumping onto the other side of the road. With impatience getting the better of us, we decided to do the same even though it wasn’t the right thing to do. Unfortunately an inebriated man followed us. There was a tall tree beside us with shrubs and bushes around it. In my attempt to avoid the man, I stepped into the bushes. Immediately a swarm of insects attacked my bare feet through the open sandals I was wearing. I had mistakenly stepped into their habitat unable to see well through the dimly lit street lights.

I felt a thousand needles pricks accompanied by a burning sensation on my feet. Within seconds my body was covered with rashes.

Hurriedly, we walked towards the restaurant.

It was nothing but grace that we had a first aid kit with us that had antihistamine tablets (Avil). I popped a pill and cleaned my feet with Dettol. In the incidents that followed, I lost consciousness, puked the Avil, my feet became black and swelled beyond recognition, rashes of all dimensions covered my entire body including my face. My friend managed to get me to a hospital and also informed my sisters even though he had freaked out completely.

Back in the ICU, I felt dazed even as my alert mind continued scanning the space around me. I thought to myself and sent out a quick prayer that I never ever should need to get back here again.

Before being transferred to the ICU, while in the Emergency ward, I was treated with Adrenalin administered intravenously. It was in a diluted form but my body violently reacted almost causing a heart attack and threatening to blow my head apart. Adrenalin is the only treatment and my body was rejecting it.

In the ICU, however I was treated all night long with the concentrated form of Adrenalin administered intramuscularly. By morning my BP was doing much better. With the care and attention provided by the nurses and doctors my recovery was quick and I was shifted to a common ward and finally released from the hospital.

It was not until I came home that I got to know my condition could have been fatal, had it not been for the prompt medical attention I received.

I was lucky that I was getting back from a trek and so had a medical kit with me. Though it was surprising that nothing happened while I was in the jungle but in the city I had a fatalistic insect bite. Life is full of ironies!

An Anaphylactic Attack or Anaphylaxis is caused by an overreaction of the immune system to an allergen, something that the body is allergic to. It is an extremely serious and life threatening condition.

It’s by Almighty’s grace that I am here today narrating  what happened to me. The point of this write up is to spread awareness about allergic reactions. More than often, we do not pay heed to allergies but be on your guard, it could be the onset of an Anaphylactic Attack.

Read up and educate yourself about the risk factors of this potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called Anaphylaxis.

KNOW ABOUT ANAPHYLACTIC SHOCK

Allergic

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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