Storytime: Shivaland

It would be nice to be in Gangnani right now. As I write this I conjure up the faint essence of burning wood, sulphur, cow dung, incense and chai. The signature scent of many places in mountainous, Far Northern India. It would be so cold, the Himalayan Foothills covered in snow. Not like the photos I found online. I don’t have many photos of when I was there.

The origin of the Ganges not far up in Gangotri, iced waves rushing over the boulders. Teal, silver, green, and white. No sounds but the birds and the magical mother river. Very few vehicles – a rickety bus that shows up once a day. Super narrow roads. White-knuckle type cliffhangers. You just have to let it go and let it be. In Gangnani, hanging high upon a mountain ledge, dipping into the piping hot sulfur springs and then cozying up to a potbelly stove. So simple and relaxing. Eating farina porridge, drinking chai, and reading musty books left behind by travelers.

This is Shiva country. You will know that by the random Tridents that you see posted along the way and the abundance of Shiva worshipping sadhus that you will see at certain market junctions. They get high on weed all day and even more on festival days. Shiva is like the Snoop Dog of the Hindu Lords and it shows wherever he reigns. I was not lucky enough to see a major Shiva happening here, unlike my very first day in Chennai, Tamil Nadu- which is all the way across India and far south. There, I saw a band of tiny children, not more than 5-7 years old, covered in white ash from head to toe, dreaded hair, walking quietly through clouds of smoke as eery instruments played a haunting beat. Shiva reigns. They had iron tridents pierced sideways through their cheeks. The Hindu cults of India are powerful and warrant an entire post all their own.

Here is a baby Shiva that I met in New Delhi

In these foothills there were old women, wry and shriveled, who climbed the mountain ridges, serpentining up and along until you could no longer see them, they were so small. I would sit on the wooden balcony in the morning and watch them hiking along the side of a mountain until they were out of my eyes’ reach. They went along and harvested the wild ganja that grows everywhere. Yes, 8 foot tall wild hemp plants as far as the eye can see. The ladies pick the fine leaves and bring their haul to their cabins in the forest where they rub the resinous oils from the plants and make giant cannabis braids called “Charas” and clay pipes that they call “Chillum”. It is a money maker and the way many villagers survive.

rubbing charas

Gangnani is very quiet and usually does not have a hippy party vibe, but at this time, 2002, over in Kasol, Parvati Valley, there are many guest houses full of travelers from all over. Most seem to smoke charas all day and drink hot chocolate while gazing at Tibet in the distance. The Israeli presence is strong here, so if you speak Hebrew you will have an instant crew. We just hung in the sidelines, mostly doing our own thing. I’m from San Francisco – don’t travel this far to party, since I can do that at home. But it is always interesting to chat with people that made it this far at the same time as you. The air is thin from the altitude, so oftentimes you will see the kids slow down a bit after a few ambitious days or sometimes hours.

Gangnani was just fine for us, it is healing, the people there get overlooked, we felt welcome. Hiking along the mountain ridges a day away from our hot-spring home, we found a small village, tucked away in the craggy hills. There, ancient carved wood Shiva artifact stood in a small square with a smattering of tin and wood shacks arranged around it. One of the shacks had a small satellite dish on top, which looked weirdly modern and out of place, but it must have been exciting for them to have a link to the outside world.

Little kids in various colored knit sweaters ran around us. We played with them and took their photos. They were ecstatic and fascinated by the digital camera, so we just kept taking selfies with them and then showing them the pics. This made us popular and so we were surrounded by a band of dirty faced, possibly inbred children, with odd shaped foreheads and strange eyes. Not judging, it is just true. Some cousin mixing is apparent when you get into very rural parts of many places in Asia. They were beautiful and sweet, smiling and playful,but you could tell their lives were hard.

A young man invited us into his shack, 3 rooms, where he lived with his mother and aunt. His room was papered with old Bollywood magazine pages, and that was pretty cool. He sat us down in his room and then left, only to appear a while later with a dubious tasting tea and some betel nuts. The tea was luke-warm, which is not something that gringos like us can take chances with, so we politely held it in our hands, not sure what to do next. Suddenly he left the room after gesturing he would be back soon. And so, we sat there, my 2 friends and I, looking out the small windows at the little kids, who were now playing games and peeking at us from various places. “what are we going to do with this tea? It’s not very hot, the water here is fine for them, but……” Always weird when you are in places where the locals can eat or drink, even swim in a river that’s floating with dead people (Varanasi) and be fine, but one cup of this luke-warm mud water could have us all in a Delhi Hospital. My traveling companion squired away the cup I was holding and snuck out a moment to find a patch of dirt, then came in quietly and sat in place again. “I don’t want to offend them, I just don’t speak their dialect to explain why…..” It was fine.

The minutes ticked by as we sat in this stranger’s room…. I guess… waiting for something to happen. His hay mattress and Bollywood walls, turning a bit sepia from age and air……finally he came back and nodded his head, prayered his hands and said “thank you!” Like we had been the best guests ever. We all walked outside and waved goodbye and so we left, but not without all the kids and a few of their baby goats following us along the mountain trails. It was lovely.

I found out later that we were brought into the house and left there alone with tea not because he was bad at socializing but because it is believed that if a stranger suddenly arrives at your home it is amazing good luck and you have to bring them in to give good fortune to your village. I wish we had known this, we would have left some rupees for them to easily find, but alas, it was not clear at the time.

The area is magical and the people are kind. So remote, it would be hard to go anywhere in the winter. Bring lots of food, and maybe some things for the locals, like socks and thermal underwear. I would stay till next year.

Hot water that pipes right out of the mountains.

Author: Subterraneans

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