Secret Rhythms in the Himalayas

Secret Rhythms in the Himalayas

The crisp mountain air bit at my cheeks as I huddled closer to the counter at the picturesque Recong Peo bus stand. Picturesque, it might have been, but the news from the counter staff was far from it. The road to Tabo, the mystical land I yearned to explore, was choked by heavy snowfall, closed with no hope of reopening anytime soon. Disappointment washed over me, leaving a dull ache in its wake.


For days I'd traveled to this remote corner of Himachal Pradesh, seeking solace in the tranquility of the mountains. Peo, the nearest town, offered little solace. The once charming town was now marred by an ugly sprawl of concrete buildings. The saving grace, however, was the near absence of tourists, all likely deterred by the bone-chilling cold that had gripped the region for weeks. Winter, it seemed, held the high mountains in an icy grip.


Seeking an alternative, I turned to the man behind the worn wooden table. "Any hidden gems around here?" I asked, hope flickering in my voice. "Villages untouched by tourists, perhaps?"



The man peered at me over his thick-rimmed glasses, a warm smile creasing his kind face. People in Kinnaur were known for their hospitality, and this man was no different. The entire region, I'd heard, was blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, and its people were no exception. Both men and women were said to possess a striking handsomeness, and this fellow certainly lived up to the reputation.


"Ah," he chuckled, "so you're one of those free-spirited travelers, eh? No set course, just following the whispers of the wind." A glint of amusement danced in his eyes. "Well, then, do I have the perfect place for you! It's a small village tucked away near mine."


Intrigue sparked within me. Here, nestled amidst the stark beauty of the Himalayas, was a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. A secret whispered by a friendly stranger.  This, I realized, was the beginning of a story unlike any other, a tale woven in the heart of a little paradise. And it all started with a chance encounter at a remote bus stand.


He rattled off directions, including a shortcut that would shave off some precious time. "In Kinnaur," he explained, "we only have two options: private cars and buses. As a solo traveler, I know the bus is the way to go. It's easier on the wallet, and you get a real taste of local life. Sharing a ride with the people who call these mountains home, that's an experience money can't buy."


Himachal Pradesh, he assured me, boasted an exceptional bus service. The HRTC, Himachal Road Transport Corporation, reached even the most remote corners of the state. In these mountainous regions, with treacherous roads and scattered settlements, buses were the lifeblood of the community.


Following his detailed instructions, I arrived at the village bus stand around 3 pm. The few fellow passengers who disembarked with me melted away, heading towards their own destinations. The bus stand itself was a quiet affair, surrounded by a mere handful of shops. Slinging on my two bags – a camera bag slung comfortably across my shoulder and a hefty backpack on my back – I made my way towards a small restaurant that beckoned with the promise of warmth and sustenance.



As I approached the restaurant, a couple of young men huddled around a crackling wood fire that blazed invitingly in front of the establishment. I greeted them with a warm smile and a question, "Excuse me, could I trouble you for a cup of tea?"


One of the men nodded readily and disappeared into the small kitchen tucked away behind the restaurant's entrance. I deposited my bags on a nearby table and ambled towards the fire, seeking not just warmth but also conversation.


"Is there anywhere to stay here?" I ventured, hoping for a cozy guesthouse or a friendly homestay.


The man by the fire shook his head apologetically. "No, we don't have any hotels in this village."


A knot of worry tightened in my stomach. "No hotels? Really?" I stammered, a touch of panic creeping into my voice. Spending the night stranded, with no return bus until morning, wasn't exactly part of the plan.


"Not even a homestay?" I pressed, grasping at straws.


His reply was a definitive, "No homestay either."


Disappointment washed over me. Here I was, stuck in this remote village with no place to rest my head for the night. The bus that had brought me here was my only link back to civilization, and it wouldn't return until the following morning.


"So, no place to stay at all, huh?" I sighed, more to myself than to him.


The young man, however, seemed to ponder my predicament for a moment. A flicker of something akin to a mischievous glint appeared in his eyes. Leaning closer, he spoke in a conspiratorial tone, "Well, there might be another option... but it depends on whether you're a tourist or a government employee.


My confusion must have been writ large on my face, because just then, a woman materialized from behind us.  "You see this building?" she interjected, pointing towards the very white structure beneath which we stood. "Downstairs is the restaurant and a cloth store, which I own," she explained with a smile. "But upstairs, that's Usha Devi Ki Guest House. You can stay there."


Relief washed over me. "A guest house? That's fantastic!" I exclaimed. "Can I speak with Usha Devi to arrange something?"


The woman burst into laughter, a warm, melodic sound that filled the crisp mountain air. "Usha Devi is our local goddess," she explained, amusement dancing in her eyes. "Her temple is just over there," she added, gesturing towards a distant structure. "This guest house was built by the temple committee and is run by Arjun, a young man from the village."


My cheeks flushed with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement. Here I was, a seasoned traveler (or so I thought), completely oblivious to the local customs and deities.  "Oh, of course," I stammered, a sheepish grin spreading across my face. "Usha Devi, the goddess. My apologies for the misunderstanding.


After stowing my bags in the surprisingly neat and clean room, complete with a balcony overlooking the bus stand and the village itself, I ventured out to explore. My initial impression of desolation held true. Few people roamed the streets, and the bus stand remained quiet.


A pang of hunger gnawed at my stomach. Chowmein, the ubiquitous noodle dish from the downstairs restaurant, wasn't particularly appealing. Seeking something more substantial, I made my way back to the cloth store, hoping the friendly woman there might offer some guidance.


"Excuse me," I said, approaching her with a smile. "Do you know if there's anywhere around here that serves lunch or dinner other than the restaurant downstairs?"


She chuckled, a warm sound that crinkled the corners of her eyes. "Tired of chowmein already?" she teased. "Well, just across the street, maybe thirty feet away, there's another shop. Ask for Sunny, the young man who runs it. He might be able to whip you up something more interesting."


With a word of thanks, I crossed the road, the crisp mountain air nipping at my exposed skin.  The shop itself was a simple affair, with shelves stacked high with colorful fabrics and local handicrafts. A young man, seemingly in his early twenties with a mop of dark hair and a disarming smile, stood behind the counter.


"Hello," I greeted him, stepping inside. "The lady from the cloth shop said you might be able to feed this hungry traveller?


The young man's smile widened. "Sure, what can I tempt you with today? Aloo paratha or rice?



In just a couple of days, I'd managed to forge some good friendships with the local boys and shopkeepers. One such friend was Lucky, a young man of only 23 who ran the very restaurant I'd first encountered in the village.  He was also a budding entrepreneur, having won over a few other shops he rented out and even owned a goods carrier car that he used for local transportation.  For someone his age, he was a sharp businessman already.


The day dawned with the gentle sounds of instruments drifting across the street from the house opposite the guest house. It was Shiv Ratri, I realized, and the sounds carried a sense of reverence for the festival. The rest of the day unfolded like a scene from a tranquil paradise. Pine forests and apple orchards, nestled amidst the mostly barren mountains, surrounded the village.  I'd heard this place was one of the greenest in the region, but as it was late winter, most of the trees were still bare.  However, the towering pines stood proudly, their evergreen needles a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape.


One of the local dogs, a hulking creature used by shepherds to protect their high-altitude herds from predators like leopards and bears, decided to join my exploration. Initially, his intentions seemed less than friendly. These dogs were known for their ferocity, bred not to be cuddly companions but formidable protectors.  Cautiously, I struck a deal with this formidable canine companion.  A whole packet of Oreo biscuits later, he was happily trotting by my side, occasionally nudging my hand for more treats. From a ferocious guard dog, he had transformed into a playful (albeit slightly biscuit-obsessed) friend.

Knowing the irony wouldn't be lost on the locals, but finding the name strangely fitting for his initial demeanor, I named him "Saitan," which meant "devil".  Despite the name, my new companion, Saitan, became an inseparable part of my exploration of this hidden gem in the Himalayas.


Later in the evening, as the sun dipped below the mountains, casting long shadows across the village, Lucky returned. He emerged from his goods carrier, wiping sweat from his brow after a day of delivering construction materials.


"Hey there," he greeted with a smile. "Just finished my deliveries. Fancy joining me for something a little different tonight?"


Intrigued, I raised an eyebrow. "Something different? What did you have in mind?"


"Well," Lucky scratched his chin thoughtfully, "it's Shiv Ratri, as you know. Almost every Hindu house in the village is doing a puja ceremony tonight.  Our village is special, a mix of Hindus and Buddhists living together peacefully for generations.  I thought it might be interesting for you to see how a Hindu household celebrates the festival."


The idea sparked my curiosity.  Entering a local home for a religious ceremony was an opportunity I wouldn't want to miss.  "Absolutely!" I exclaimed.  "I'd love to join you, Lucky. Thank you for inviting me."


A grin spread across Lucky's face. "Great! Let's grab a bite to eat first.  Then we can head over to the house where they're having the puja.



The two-story house had a distinct character. Made of a sturdy wood with intricate carvings around the windows, it spoke of generations living and thriving in these mountains. Lucky led the way, navigating the familiar space with ease. We climbed the stairs on the right side, the rhythmic beating of drums growing louder with each step.


Finally, we reached the source of the sound. A doorway stood open, revealing a brightly lit room. Inside, a vibrant scene unfolded. Half a dozen people, a mix of ages and genders, sat comfortably on the floor. Their faces, bathed in the warm glow of oil lamps, held expressions of devotion as they chanted prayers. In the corner of the room stood a small, elevated platform adorned with vibrant fabrics.  The star of the show, however, was the idol of Shiva.


It was a relatively small statue, but the reverence it commanded filled the room.  Flowers of all colors adorned the base, their sweet fragrance mingling with the smoky scent of incense.  But something else caught my eye – tucked amongst the flowers were notes of various denominations, a physical manifestation of the devotees' offerings.


The homeowner, a gentle-looking man of his 65 years, greeted us with a warm smile. Despite observing a fast for the past two days, his eyes twinkled with a welcoming spirit. He gestured towards a couple of empty cushions on the floor, inviting us to join the gathering.


Lucky, ever the smooth operator, leaned in and spoke a few words to the homeowner in their local dialect.  A moment later, he turned to me with a grin. "Good news," he whispered. "The family doesn't mind if you take a few photographs. Just be mindful of the women, some might feel uncomfortable being captured on camera."


This was a stroke of luck. Capturing a scene like this, a family celebration steeped in tradition, was a rare privilege.  I expressed my gratitude to Lucky with a silent nod, and then reached for my camera, careful to frame my shots respectfully. The women, adorned in colorful saris and adorned with intricate silver jewelry, continued their prayers seemingly unfazed by my presence. The younger children, however, couldn't help but steal curious glances at the strange device in my hand.


 As the rhythmic chanting continued, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. Here, in this remote village nestled amidst the Himalayas, I was witnessing a beautiful display of faith and togetherness. It was a moment I knew I would treasure long after my journey ended.


The ceremony continued, and after some time, a delightful aroma filled the room. The family began distributing prasad, a sacred offering of food blessed during the puja. To my astonishment, the prasad included not just sweets and fruits, but also boiled mutton.


This was a revelation. Alcohol, another forbidden item in the Hinduism I practiced back home, was also offered. It was a clear, homemade apple wine, served in small cups. Just a sip sent strong warmth through me, hinting at its potency.


Completely bewildered, I ask about the mutton and explained, "Thank you for the offering, but in my part of the country, we worship Shiva as a vegetarian deity. Mutton is strictly forbidden."


One of the women, her kind eyes crinkling at the corners, offered a gentle explanation. "Here in Kinnaur Kailash, we have different traditions," she said. "Hinduism is a vast and diverse religion, with customs changing from village to village. Just a few hundred meters from here stands the temple of Usha Devi, where if eat non-vegetarians you are strictly prohibited to enter for that day. But here, we offer mutton to Shiva.

She gestured towards the other guests, some of whom were partaking in the meat dish with relish. "See? Our faith might share the same core principles, but the ways we express it can be beautifully unique."


I contemplated her words, a newfound appreciation blooming within me.  This experience was a powerful reminder of the rich tapestry woven by Hinduism across the vast expanse of India. Traditions, like the vibrant threads in a meticulously crafted carpet, could differ yet contribute to the religion's overall beauty.


With a newfound respect for the local customs, i continued to observe the ceremony, my heart brimming with the warmth of religious acceptance and the thrill of discovering a new facet of my own faith.



As the evening deepened, casting long shadows across the village, Lucky approached me with a proposition. "Fancy joining a local mela?" he asked, his voice tinged with a hint of hesitation. "It's a gathering of people, with shops selling local wares, but there's also traditional dance and some rituals involved."


A mela, a festive gathering, sounded like an exciting way to immerse myself in the local culture. However, the way Lucky phrased it sparked a flicker of caution.  "Is everything alright there?" I inquired. "You mentioned people being drunk and possibly violent?"


Lucky scratched his head sheepishly. "Well, yeah," he admitted. "There might be a bit too much of the apple wine flowing, and things can get a little rowdy sometimes. But hey, that's just how some folks celebrate here. As long as we stick together, you'll be fine."


The idea of a potentially volatile situation did give me pause. However, the prospect of witnessing a genuine, unfiltered celebration outweighed my apprehension.  "No problem," I declared, a determined glint in my eyes. "If you're by my side, I'm sure things will be manageable."


A relieved smile spread across Lucky's face. "Great! Then let's go."  He hopped into his trusty goods carrier, a well-worn but reliable workhorse.  Joining us were a couple of his restaurant staff and a lanky teenager from Nepal who worked part-time as a dishwasher.


The bumpy ride that followed was an adventure in itself. The road, a testament to the collective spirit of the villagers, was a patchwork of loose stones and shallow potholes.  Built entirely by the community through sheer hard work and pooled resources, it provided a much-needed lifeline to the lower part of the village.  As we jostled along, Lucky explained the history of the road, his voice filled with an obvious sense of pride for his community's resilience.


Despite the bumpy journey, the anticipation for the mela thrummed through me.  What sights and sounds awaited me? What unique traditions would I witness?  Clinging on for dear life in the back of the car, I couldn't help but feel a thrill course through me.  This hidden village in the Himalayas continued to unveil its secrets, each one a layer richer than the last.


The mela ground buzzed with a frenetic energy. The crowd, clad in their finest Kinnauri finery – the men sporting colorful caps tilted at jaunty angles – pulsed with a collective excitement. Young boys perched precariously on rooftops, their whoops echoing off the surrounding buildings. A cacophony of sounds assaulted my ears: a rhythmic drumbeat mingling with an unearthly chorus of shrieks and guttural growls.


Yielding to my curiosity, I pushed through the throng, Lucky close behind. The scene that unfolded before me was unlike anything I'd ever witnessed. Men and women, adorned in elaborate costumes and grotesque masks carved from applewood, danced with a manic fervor. Their vibrant attire stood in stark contrast to the unsettling expressions etched on the masks. Some masks were grotesque caricatures, their gaping maws revealing rows of blackened teeth. Others were ethereal, their smooth, painted surfaces evoking a sense of otherworldly beauty.


The masked figures moved with a chaotic grace, their bodies contorting in unison. They shrieked like banshees, beating each other playfully—or perhaps not so playfully—with bundles of twigs.  A palpable energy crackled in the air, a mix of revelry and raw, primal power.


"Lucky," I whispered, my voice barely audible over the din, "what exactly is happening here?"


"Last day of the festival," he replied, his voice barely a murmur. "They're performing a ritual to drive away the ghosts from the village."


The realization settled in my stomach like a cold stone.  Nearly everyone, dancers and onlookers alike, seemed thoroughly inebriated with the homemade apple wine. This, coupled with the frenetic energy of the ritual, created a heady mix that made me acutely aware of my own vulnerability.


As a photographer, I'd seen countless unique customs and traditions. Yet, this ritual felt different. It was a secret, a well-guarded practice hidden from outsiders' eyes. Here I was, a stranger with a camera, a potential intruder in a sacred ceremony.


But the allure of capturing this once-in-a-lifetime event was strong.  Carefully, I edged closer to the front, weaving through the throng. A young woman, her beauty rivaling any pageant contestant, appeared before me. Her voice, though polite, held a tremor of anxiety.



Just as my conversation with the young woman seemed to be smoothing things over, a man in his fifties emerged from the throng.  His unsteady gait and bloodshot eyes were clear signs of overindulgence in the apple wine.  He lurched towards me, a barrage of questions spilling from his lips in rapid-fire Hindi. "Who are you? Who sent you? Why are you taking pictures?"  The hostility in his voice sent a shiver down my spine.


Lucky, ever the quick thinker, intervened.  He exchanged a few words with the man in the local dialect, his voice calm and reassuring.  After a tense few moments, Lucky turned to me with a sigh. "Let's go," he said. "They're not comfortable with you being here. But don't worry, they won't cause any trouble. No one messes with someone under the protection of an upper-caste person like me."  He gestured towards a temple perched on a nearby hill. "Used to be a priest there myself, you know," he said with a hint of pride. "Served Nag Devta, the serpent god, from the age of six until I was sixteen. Everyone here knows and respects me, including that drunkard back there."  His words were a testament to the unexpected twist of fate that had protected me.


We walked back towards the car, the cacophony of the mela fading into the distance. The Himalayan night deepened around us, a blanket of stars emerging in the inky black sky.  Despite the unsettling encounter, a strange sense of satisfaction washed over me. I had witnessed a ritual both captivating and deeply personal to the villagers, a glimpse into a world hidden from most outsiders.  The experience, though unnerving at times, had solidified my belief in the power of travel to broaden perspectives and challenge assumptions.  As we bumped along the familiar rough road, the image of the masked dancers etched itself into my memory, a reminder of the night I stumbled upon a secret ceremony in the heart of the Himalayas.

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