People travel far for a plethora of reasons ranging from escaping the heat to evading the mundane city life. I was craving for a short break too and my chance encounter with my friends, Jaspreet & Madhu helped me in arriving at a decision sooner than I had imagined. While both of them are corporate junkies, lost in the big and unruly overcrowded city, they had recently converted Madhu’s ancestral home in a Himachali village into a home stay and many who had been there had been raving about it. Another strong reason that convinced me to visit the home stay was the fact that it was the wedding season and the hostess assured me that I would get to participate in one and even take some stunning pictures. So the thrill of photographing a Himachali wedding with hundreds celebrating around-the-clock and singing folk songs could not hold me back any more. The thoughts of clicking locals in their traditional attire and indulging in rituals was making me impatient. Luckily, just two days in advance, I managed a ticket on a holiday special Jammu-bound train and a very comfortable overnight train journey brought me to Pathankot in the wee hours of the following day. My cab driver, sent by the hosts, was waiting anxiously and within minutes we were on our way to Dalhousie. A co-traveler in the train that I had chatted with the previous night before retiring into my bunk bed, turned out to be a common friend with my hosts and so we ended sharing the cab as well. My host family and the co-traveler grew up in the same village and happened to be chums. What a small world!
The two hours road journey became hilly after 30 minutes or so but it didn’t slow down our driver, who seemed to be on a record-breaking mission to clock the fastest time ever between Pathankot & Dalhousie. To completely wake up after a chugging sleep, we stopped at the mid-way for a ‘chai- pakoras’ breakfast. The hostess was in constant touch on the phone ensuring we didn’t lose our way. 6 km short of Dalhousie, the driver took a detour and went downhill through the cantonment area of BALLUN to a picturesque valley in the small village of BHARYATA, inhabited by the GADDIS (people belonging to Gaddi tribe).
I got out of the car when the driver stopped to chit-chat with an elderly lady, who welcomed me in her village and asked a 5-year old boy to lead me to the place, where I was booked to stay. The extremely shy mountain boy with rosy red cheeks, stared at me from the corner of his eyes sporting a naughty smile and within minutes brought me to my destination. Only in the evening i found out that the helpful lady was none other than Madhu’s mother, without whose approval i wouldn’t be welcome. 🙂
Madhu, the gracious hostess met me and showed me my room. An aerial view of the village from my balcony and I was anxious to explore it on the foot. I didn’t want to waste any time indoors, having been trapped in an overnight train for 10 hours.
In next five minutes I was following my hostess, as she led me from one house to another, greeting every one we walked past. Happiness quotient seemed to be extremely high here. The innocent faces of villagers showed signs of tough life they are subjected to, but also a permanent smile that flashed naturally. The pleasantries exchanged in the local language, Gaddi, was Greek to my ears but sounded sweet. Gaddi, the local dialect, I was told is still widely spoken in Kangra, Dharamsala, Dalhousie etc. and even in some parts of Khajjiar and Chamba. Gaddis were originally farmers & shepherds, who followed a nomadic lifestyle and never settled in one place for more than a few months. These days however most of them are seen working as masons, commercial drivers, carpenters, govt servants with the MESS, mechanics, shopkeepers etc. We finished our walk at the house, where the wedding was supposed to take place later in the evening. The wooden house was cozy, had children playing around and three generations of men seated on the same bed, which made quite an interesting frame.
Having spent good two hours in the village I witnessed all the preparations for the big wedding in the evening. Here, I learned that life can be very simple and only we make it complicated. Nature therapy works its magic on people and happiness is so evident on their faces. Despite the hardships that life in a hilly terrain poses, people looked content. One reason could be that the needs of the people here are small and often met. Here the honesty is in people’s DNA, the houses are still left unlocked, there is tremendous faith and trust in each other, entire village is like one big family, every happy occasion is celebrated at a community level and meals are prepared for the entire village at every wedding. The people are calm, chilled out and often seen looking for a chance to chit chat.
I returned to the home stay and noticed that the walls had photographs clicked by none other than Jaspreet, an avid photographer & friend since very long. I checked out all three levels of the house, especially the balconies and appraised myself of the views all around. I was hearing some birds in the background and instantly realized that the place was a haven. The thick forest of deodars & pine all around confirmed that it was also a leopard & sloth bear country and many stories I heard from locals in the next few days endorsed it.
I was glad that the home stay run by the gracious couple Jaspreet & Madhu, and her sister-in-law, Satya was away from the hustle bustle of the main Dalhousie town, which people talk of only for a variety of wrong reasons such as overcrowding, lack of parking space and shortage of water. Luckily, the location of CEDAR VILLA was something that exceeded my expectations. It was just another home in a village that housed around 250, where everyone knows everyone. It is a no-frill home with warm hosts, family atmosphere, delicious home-cooked food and three generations of people for company. Don’t’ expect anyone to be formal with you. You will be treated like one of them and you will have to wait for your turn for Parathas. This is the USP that appealed to me the most as you are not a guest here, you are one of them. All around the house were lovely trails for that solo walk to immerse in the nature. Colorful flowers, tall trees and sounds of the birds made me continue to walk for as long as i could. All that i came across was shepherds and a small procession of guests, probably headed to the same wedding.
The village of BHARYATA has a population of around 300 including children, they worship LORD SHIVA and KALI MATA besides hundreds of other deities. They are hard-core meat eaters, though the rising cost has seen many wedding functions to be totally vegetarian off lately.
The next day was reserved for wedding rituals. I went to and fro from my home stay to the venue a couple of times. The people were perched on various terraces and awaited the arrival of the guests. Women could be seen wearing bright colors and loads of gold & silver jewelry. Children danced non-stop to local songs, that the DJ was happy to belt out. The music echoed everywhere in the valley.
I was witness to all the rituals right from the Dhaam (the community lunch) that included yummy dishes such as Madra, Mahni, Ohri, Kadi and some Daal (lentils) dishes. It was a delight to see hundreds of people, women first, sitting in the middle of the village while the young boys served them with smiling faces. Towards the evening there was more dance & drama and a Chola wearing ceremony for the Groom. All his sisters and cousins had to line up one by one to receive gifts, which is the grooms’ way of showing his appreciation for the bonding he shares with them.
We came back as there was still a lot of time for the Baraat (procession) to go to the bride’s home in a nearby village, where the party would have continued till the wee hours of the following day. Having had our dinner, we were in two minds about our visit but the music we could hear belting out from the village a good 7 to 8 kms away, was too irresistible to be avoided. We decided to walk down, though the procession had already left an hour back or so. Nevertheless, we arrived where the bride’s house and a banquet hall the next doors was buzzing with people and activity. It seems that every individual from both the villages had showed up here for celebrations and fun. The local musicians were pretty engrossed in singing the wedding-folk tunes and songs, while the ones who were spirit-ually (pun intended) high, tried to dance along.
Following day I was googling for some offbeat places to visit around Dalhousie when the hosts decided to drive me down themselves. My efforts to convince them to let me be on my own didn’t yield any luck. A heavy breakfast of assorted Parathas was followed by a few of us in a TATA NANO driving uphill across Dalhousie to the KALA TOP SANCTUARY known for its trekking routes and bird life. So strong is the camaraderie here that a cousin of theirs not only decided to join, but also happily volunteered to drive us around for the rest of the day.
The second stop was at the temple of KALI MATA at DAINKUND PEAK.. It is a steep trek for an hour but the view gets better with every step. Many devotees here can be seen tagging a goat along, who would be on its last journey. The temple has been known for fulfilling the wishes of those who come with a clean heart and a goat to sacrifice. Another of those religious faiths that run deep and strong in our culture and traditions. I wasn’t happy to see so many goats being taken up there so we decided not to visit the temple site. We settled for a viewpoint that not only gave us a bird eye’s view of the temple at a distance, but also the panorama of breath taking mountain ranges.
On the third day my host-family had to go for another distant cousin’s wedding in the afternoon at a village called BATHRI around 25kms off this one, incidentally an adda (center) for the Gold and Silver smiths. I was too tired to oblige and still recovering from the post-processing task of hundreds of images I had shot at the first wedding. I sheepishly chickened out of this one and retired early. I spent a long time sitting in the central room that doubles up as the lobby, with good views all around from its balconies and bay window. The lobby also has a TV, a small collection of books and collectibles at display.
Only the following morning I learned that most of them had gone to the wedding in the evening only, leaving me all by myself in the big house spanning the three floors. They requested me if I could come over to fetch them in the mini NANO car, whose survival in the hills was still a mystery to me. I had already been feeling like another member of this family so jumped at the offer, followed the directions they gave carefully and happily drove down to BATHRI, an odd 20km away. Having picked my hostesses, we headed back and stopped en route at a very homely and popular restaurant called VATIKA situated at one of the bends on the highway connecting Dalhousie with Pathankot.
Soon it was time for me to say bye to the charming family, with a promise to be back soon to see some other traditions & festivals here. I headed back to Pathankot, settled on my berth in my overnight train and got engrossed in scanning the images shot over last three days, which narrated a beautiful journey and insight into the heart of the Gaddi tribe.