A Little on the Up Side
(Himachal Pradesh) — Photos of the valley by Robert from England
It was a 25-kilometre trek to get to Kheerganga and there was no road in those days. We set out in the morning from Manikaran following the course of the Parvati River. The river was wild, white water gushing over granite. Shrines all along the way. The Shiva tridents or Trishul stuck firm in a pile of rocks, stained with blood and draped with cloth prayers and offerings. I read at one, “Love Begets Love” scrawled in charcoal across the rocks. Walking as far as Pulga in a day we stayed there for the night. Pulga is famous for its hashish cream, the cakes of rubbed pollen made from the cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana grows wild along the tracks and everywhere in the valley. It is a cottage scale industry and by the time we reached Kalgha, Jon and I had already each bought tolahs of the golden brown black putty. Sanda smoked but was not as enthusiastic as we were. I bought mine from a kid that looked about ten years old. He suddenly appeared out of the undergrowth from the side of the track. “tolah melaga just 100 rupees boss….” It was twelve grams of the best hash in the world for 3 dollars, so I took the deal.
Pulga was a village of a few hundred souls. The houses were built of wood, often set up high on stilts. Many of the people living there looked more Nepalese than Indian. We found a room in a family house and paid for the night. Finding food took some time, but someone agreed to cook us a meal for a minimal charge. To us it seemed like we had arrived in paradise. No electricity in the village. Water was from the communal well. After food we had a smoke and walked out to the edge of the village. Just sitting out there on the edge of the world looking at the vast mountains in the distance. Parvati is a steep valley, its sides slope down to the raging river, with pine forests thick on both sides. The track was cut low down, near the river, all broken boulders and shards of rock. It leads back towards the main Himalayan range. The immense dimensions, the sheer weight of plains and peaks, the snow crowns, nothing compares to the Himalayas. We contemplated this vast prospect until it started getting dark and we returned to our gas lit room and soon slept.
Morning brought short purity. There was a breakfast of bread, honey and yoghurt. Light sunshine among the green pointed leaves of the ganja. Then I did something I have always regretted. In the middle of the village there was a giant cannabis patch. Although when I say patch I mean a small forest. These plants were over two meters tall and each was in heavy flower. I strolled into the middle of the patch, completely hidden from view by the thick foliage; I squatted among the thick stems and took a shit. I figured I was fertilizing the plants, giving back something to this magic place. Later in my travels I told this story to another traveller and he was horrified. Thinking I had left a pile of shit in such a place, and I quickly saw it from that same perspective. It was a turning point for me, as I suddenly understood that the tourist mind, with its eyes for curiosity, thrills and difference was really just ignorance on the road. I decided from then and there to do as the locals do, to watch and follow their example wherever I could. This was my first real step in moving from tourist to traveller.
The traveller is the professional of transience. The traveller stays, spending time using the same institutions and amenities the locals do. The traveller learns some or enough of the languages and perfects enough to conduct life in the street, manage a home, make food, engage in business and fraternise with the locals. The boundaries for the traveller are the same boundaries containing the locals. A traveller does not buy experience; she takes her time and earns it along with the others in the café, market, train station or City Square. I suddenly realised I knew nothing of being a local in India and had very little contact with the people who lived there. I had met Indians in train stations, taxis, travel agents and hotels. But I did not know anything about them.
After my fouling of the cannabis field we left Pulga for the continued hike up Parvati Valley. The landscape was spectacular with the Parvati River rushing as white water below us while we followed the narrow track that was cut into the steep hillside. High pine trees towered above us with the track occasionally punctuated by shrines to the holy pair Siva and Parvati. We made it to Kheerganga after some hours. In those days it was mostly populated by Sadhus living in the caves in the cliffs behind the hot spring. There was a large wooden box on the side of the hill a couple of hundred metres down from the hot spring where pilgrims could sleep. This was literally a large wooden box with a door. It was placed on logs to separate it from the earth. There were no windows or heating in the structure and inside was just a dark room with rough benches around the edge where bedrolls could be placed. This was to be our home for the coming weeks. The only other structure besides a hut separating the female bathing area of the hot spring was further down the slope, a shanty structure made of beams and plastic sheeting that had the sign ‘German Bakery’ placed on top of it. This is where a young dreadlocked German man named Andre, who had lost his feet to frostbite in the Swedish mountains some years earlier, sold cinnamon rolls, wholemeal bread and coffee. I would spend many hours speaking to Andre as he was leading the life of an initiated sannyasin.
Jon, Sanda and I settled into the sleeping quarters and took a bath in the hot spring. Sanda was the only female on the hillside when we arrived and this created some attention from the sadhus. We spent our days talking, reading, bathing, smoking and walking. The cry of Bom Bolendad!! hung in the air at all hours of the day and night as sadhus and the few visitors we shared the hillside with, as we all smoked well-packed chillums alone and together. We ate at the German bakery with Andre supplying us with bread and pastries. We smoked regularly and in quantity with tourists and with Sadhus. We spoke a lot about opening the Third Eye. Andre told us about his life.
He had been initiated as a Vanaprastha, or forest dwelling aesthetic. He had been meditating for months and told me he no longer had to eat solid food. Rather he could take energy directly into his body as sunlight through his throat chakra. He spent his days baking bread, doing yoga and sunbathing. His feet were missing from about halfway, and the stumps required dressing as they had become infected at some stage, even though the amputation had happened years earlier in Sweden. Andre walked, or rather hobbled on his heels with the assistance of a long stick. He stated that the sadhus respected the loss of his feet and it was one reason he had been admitted into their company. I heard later from another friend that Andre spent the summer season in Goa the following year. At a rave party he was prevented from diving into a crater lake based on the belief he would emerge through an underground tunnel connection among his beloved Himalayas. That was the last I heard of Andre.
A little on the upside
Carried by mountains
Torn shoulders of gods
Down river valley gouged
This be my sign.
A sky with dreadlocks
Cave dwellers surround the spring
Siva has sat here
Parvatti joins the lucky silent roar
Both being one parsee paradise.
Watching fires at Kheer Ganga
Ashram sleep chest wood locked with mud
Laughing BOM BOM laughing
There have BOM been many christs here BOM
I have seen some BOM without sandals
Silent always speaking in whistles
Rough paste incense charas blood
On stones the trident rusting
Tight in its shaft.
Love begets Love
Bom Siva to the smiling western eyes
Who travel to Asian valleys
With Gandalf and his hobbits behind
Each ancient tree rock precipice
Movies in their mirror which push
The return as somehow changed
It’s an ill wind that blows no minds.