Memories of Chitkul

Across the valley

Memories of Chitkul

Fragrant culture: Kinnauri men and women celebrate the festival of flowers. Photo by author

First, there is the spine tingling drive on the narrow, twisting road climbing the Baspa valley to Sangla, with numerous blind corners and long stretches. Then just as we sight the Baspa dam at Sangla and begin to heave a sigh of relief, we find ourselves in deep trouble. The mountainside has been crumbling and dumping tons of mud and rocks on the road, destabilised further by rain. Unable to find traction on the loose mud while on an upward climb, our heavy SUV starts digging itself in, and the engine cuts out.

Conventional wisdom to provide the wheels traction does not work and I have the lurking fear that the rear axle of my car has been damaged. The queue of vehicles on either side is growing longer by the minute. I am almost at my wits end when a Sardar, with a military bearing, helps us get out. With the knowledge that the worst of the road is behind us, we enjoy the scenic drive along the Baspa through the lovely village of Rakcham and on to Chitkul where the guest house we have chosen to stay in, marks the end of this road, literally.

Beautiful mountain slopes

We have the better part of the afternoon before us and decide to take a walk along the Baspa, upstream. As we leave behind Chitkul, we are in a wide valley stretching out on the right bank of the Baspa. On the left bank, the mountain slopes right down to the river. We pass fields where men and women are digging out tiny potatoes. In front of us, Baspa snakes its way up towards the snow peaks. Red and yellow-billed Chough, locally known as Pahadi Kaua (mountain crow), give us noisy company.

Ahead of us is an ITBP camp, an orderly grouping of barracks with green tin roofs. Just short of the camp, a bland notice states in English and Hindi that advancing beyond this point is forbidden without permission. There is no one visible in the camp — the terse notice is presumably sufficient to keep people away. We sit for some time to absorb the colours of the river and mountains and then wend our way back.

There is still daylight and returning to the room will mean we will slowly freeze until dinner. We sense that there is something going on in the village from the arrival of some official jeeps. On making our way to a ground in front of what looks like a temple pavilion, we find a large number of villagers assembled, dressed in traditional clothes.

Both men and women wear the distinct Kinnauri caps — flat and round with the green band — with flowers. Some of the women are wearing elaborate jewellery. As we watch, men, women and children join hands and, in a line, head towards the main temple.

At the courtyard of the main temple, a slow rhythmic dance begins — everyone takes a couple of steps forward and then a step back in unison. A drum and a cymbal provide the music. The beat is slow and simple and has a hypnotising effect. The musicians and the men in the lead seem almost in a trance, completely absorbed in the moment.

A young man goes around with a silver jug with a large spout and pours out a liquid, into the cupped hands of the male onlookers as some sort of prasad. I get a taste of the clear and fruity smelling brew. It is heady. The swaying movement, including so many people old and young, remains graceful with everyone in step. As it begins to get dark, we leave, slowly making our way towards our guest house. We have indeed been lucky to witness the concluding festivities of the phulaich (festival of flowers).

Next morning while my family prefers to sit and enjoy the spectacle of the snow peaks at sunrise from the window of our room, I decide to trek to the peak overlooking Chitkul.

The path goes by the monastery — a little further up from the temple. A villager indicates to me to go around the monastery from the left instead of the right. Always sticking to the left around holy places ensures that in a return journey, one would complete a parikrama. Hinduism and Buddhism coexist in these parts and everyone respects both religions. I walk towards the water source of the village as directed.

A pipe captures water from a stream some distance above the village and fills a tank from which other pipes take it down to taps in front of the houses providing them unfiltered pure mineral Himalayan water. The untapped water follows a course through the village before flowing into the Baspa. 

Beyond the water source, a path of loose gravel heads up the mountain. The walk is exhilarating and I continue until a point where the Baspa valley, north of Chitkul, unfolds before me. After a few minutes of absorbing the view, I scramble up the hill towards the prayer flags that mark the summit.

The return journey is easier than expected. I slide down the slopes until I reach the well-marked path to the village. Walking down along the stream through the village, I find the answer to a puzzle. Last evening, walking around the village, we had wondered about the purpose of several single roomed structures on stilts. I now realise what these are water mills located along the downward course of the stream. I peep into one that is in operation to see flour being milled.

It is time to leave Chitkul, but in the span of a few hours, we have collected memories that will last for years.

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