Posts Tagged ‘India’

Super Tree!

The Khejri, Prosopis cineraria, will give any wilderness survival expert a run for his money.  In an environment that endures as little as 100mm rainfall each year, competition for water is the game.  For Khejri, winning is easy.  It is capable of lodging roots 30 metres into the ground and accessing water obscured from the grasps of animals and other plants alike.  Withstanding great variation in temperatures, it easily copes with summer heat in the 50⁰C range and winter nights that can bottom at around 0⁰C.  Almost evergreen and thriving in the harshest of conditions, it is a super species, with all the stamina, vigor and resilience of a great warrior. 
Huge, untouched Khejri tree
A Khejri or Prosopis Cineraria

Like a true hero, it is patient benefactor, generously giving shade from the pitiless heat of the sun, feeding our animals, providing fruits fit for our consumption, releasing nitrogen for our soil, stabilising dunes, medicating the weak, fuelling our fires and supplying the most sophisticated air-pollution filtration system known to man.  Over the years this old combatant has seen its surroundings change, as wilderness gives way to rising agriculture, political systems ebb and flow under the weight of oppressive regimes, industrialisation and mechanization.  It patiently stands by as many human lifetimes pass before its eyes and we increasingly reap the gifts that Khejri gives to us but provide it with nothing in return.

Back in 1485 AD, this was recognised by a prolific leader named Guru Jambheshwar, or Jambhoji, who understood its importance and made his followers swear never to cut green trees.  These people, the Bishnoi community, have faithfully devoted themselves to this cause and vehemently protect all green trees, especially Khejri.  The most famous and astounding story is that of Amrita Devi, which took place in the year 1730 AD.  Stop anywhere near Jodhpur and you will find this story has become a legend, proudly disclosed by all communities to tourists and stoppers by. 

Painting of Amita Devri found at the Bishnoi Village Camp near Khejarli

Painting of Amita Devri found at the Bishnoi Village Camp near Khejarli

So it is told, the Maharaja of the area had plans to build a princely palace and needed a substantial quantity of firewood to produce lime.  He sent forth his forces to a large population of Khejri trees, in Khejarli, to cut them down.  Amrita Devi, a loyal Bishnoi mother versed in the teachings of Jambhoji, faced the soldiers and proclaimed that anyone wishing to cut a tree would have to first cut through her.  Weaponless in her protection of the trees, it is said that she hugged the nearest Khejri, forcing the axe-wielding soldiers to cut through her neck.  Incensed at the loss of tree and fellow compatriot, villagers came from all around to face the Maharaja’s army.  By the end of the massacre, 363 Bishnois had given their lives in sacrifice to save green trees.  Appalled at the situation and overwhelmed by the dedication of the villagers, the Maharaja passed a decree legally protecting green trees, which stands to this day.  Furthermore, it is highly likely that the term ‘tree hugger’ originated 280 years ago when Amrita Devi demonstrated a mother’s love for our hero, the Khejri tree.

 

In modern times the tree is not simply threatened by people intent on destruction for firewood.  It is the bearer of a crueler ill, falling victim at the hands of farmers who are unintentionally harming their protector.  Of the gifts donated by Khejri, there is a vital foodstuff for domestic animals known as ‘Loong’.  In addition to providing feed in times of scarcity, Loong is highly nutritious, increasing both the quality and quantity of milk yield in cows, buffalo and goats. 

Camel Cart being loaded with Khejri

Lopping provides both Loong and firewood

Another repercussion, only identified in the last few years, shows that lopping also creates an ideal habitat for invasive beetle larvae.  Species such as Gahen, Derolus discicollis, which are huge beetles, bore into the open shoot or branch and lay their eggs.  Growing larvae need lots of nutrients and extract these from their host, the Khejri tree, further weakening its condition.

The Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI) in Jodhpur kindly permitted me to accompany them on a research mission to assess mortality rates in the Khejri population.  It was fascinating day, not least because the AFRI Khejri specialists are a diverse and knowledgeable crew of experts.  We visited several farms, quantifying tree populations, assessing the incidence of infection and causes of death in each.  While the team collected samples for analysis, it gave me time to gauge the considerable share drying out from the top branches downwards, all at varying stages of dilapidation.  Hanging off many trees were mushroom-like growths, the trees were not just under attack from shoot-boring beetles but fungi causing heart rot and root damage too.  AFRI experts earmarked healthy trees for further scrutiny, in the hope that some form of immunity could be identified, and took samples for lab analysis from deceased trees.  Although there were undoubtedly pockets of healthy, undamaged trees in view, farmers typically reported that they were loosing between 1 and 5 trees per year.  They were confounded by the loss and could not understand the cause, let alone administer treatment.  Care alone can be woefully inadequate where knowledge is not available, especially in remote farming communities with high illiteracy.

Painting of the Khejarli massacre displayed inside the temple

Bishnois: Passion for wildlife protection and ready to fight for it.

Naturally, in depth analysis of deceased Khejri means that one had to be uprooted, which happened to take place in a Bishnoi-owned farm.  No sooner had men begun to expose the roots with shovels than a greyed, weather-worn lady came approaching at implausible speed.  She was furious, spitting out protestations in her native tongue, Marwari.  It took some time for her husband and the team of experts to calm her down, explaining that the tree had already expired with no chance of recovery, that the scientists mean no harm and only wanted to help solve the problem.  Despite the eccentricity of the situation, I was greatly encouraged to see that the Bishnoi were not simply legendary idealists but still actively impassioned about wildlife protection and ready to fight for it.
Lopped Khejri tree just starting to reshoot

Lopped Khejri tree grappling to produce new shoots and leaves

 

Khejri is the treasured state tree of Rajasthan and sacredly embodies the divinity of nature for the Bishnoi, so it is not short of care from supporters.  However, under siege from ignorance, overuse, root borers, shoot borers, fungus and inhibition of its natural functions, will this be enough?  Dr Ahmed, AFRI expert, explains “Farmers need to be educated about the perils of lopping and receive remuneration for the loss of an essential animal fodder source.  Excessive agricultural mechanisation also causes problems; it does not allow the slow growing Khejri saplings time to take root.  In turn this means that we are also contemplating these problems in the context of an ageing Khejri population.” 

In mythological stories of super heroes and far-fetched odds, the protagonist comes alarmingly close to perishing at the hands of wrong doers.  In these dearly loved tales the champion always conquers in the end, albeit with a few friendly nudges in the right direction.  The Khejri now hangs on this precipice, the part in the story where the situation is seemingly bleak.  The question is whether this treasured great warrior will continue to be the king of survival experts and recover from persecution.  We are its trusty sidekicks and have a responsibility to ensure the Khejri’s survival by spreading branches of awareness as far as we can reach.  If only trees could talk!

Bishnois’ design for life

More than 500 years ago a forward-thinking man, aged just 34 years, created a code that has become a religious way of life for a community of around a million people. 

Painting of Guru Jambheshwar Ji

Guru Jambheshwar Ji, innovative founder of the Bishnoi religion

Originator Lord Jambheshwar founded the Bishnoi creed upon 29 principles, which explains a name derived from the words ‘bis’ meaning twenty and ‘nau’ nine.  With firm roots in Hinduism, Bishnois have maintained many traditions and regard Guru Jamboji, his broadly used title, as an incarnation of the god Vishnu, the sustainer.  Nonetheless Bishnoism has marked adaptations from its parent religion, like burial rather than cremation – a particularly constructive selection in the arid Thar Desert where tree preservation is paramount.

Bishnois are renowned for their care for animals, trees and the environment.  In the last 10 years they have received much media attention in India following the misdemeanor of Salman Khan, a popular Bollywood actor who was caught hunting gazelle and black buck.  The Bishnois exposed his crimes and ensured that he was brought to justice, playing a leading role in the trial.  They shrewdly used the attention surrounding the incident to raise the profile of desert conservation and demonstrate their intolerance towards anyone who disregards nature or the law. 

Within the 29 principles, Bishnois are commanded to care for wildlife, never cut green trees, provide common shelters for animals that would be slaughtered and only eat vegetarian food.  Consequently, their name has become synonymous with conservation and the religion is regarded by many as the world’s first environmentalist doctrine.

Bishnoi man feeding millet to chinkara

Bishnoi scattering millet to feed wild gazelles

Many people comment that gazelles, or chinkaras, tend to congregate around Bishnoi villages because they feel safe there.  They are easy to spot around the communities and, though typically shy, allow people within a few metres without becoming nervous.  Could this confidence be a result of Bishnoi kindness? 

Indeed whilst living with a Bishnoi family my bedroom has become a kind of nature reserve.  First came my least favourite, the crickets, whose strumming echoes dramatically off the stone walls throughout the night, next was the lizard, who eats crickets, then a pair of sparrows, who cause little bother nesting in the light fitting, and finally some mice living under the hard wooden bed.  The mice, which do have a nocturnal gnawing habit, made me wonder how Bishnois cope with infestations and pests.  What happens when wild creatures cause inconvenience and damage?  Compromise is not an option; humane traps can be used to relocate creatures but a true Bishnoi will never intentionally kill or harm any living animal.  Using my room as an example, I was also fascinated to see that Bishnois do not osteracise the natural world to the outdoors like we do.  There is a western attitude that creatures are fine outside but a troublesome pest once indoors.  Thinking about it here, it seems irrational, particularly as most animals are afraid of, or uninterested in, humans.  Here nature is as free as we are, and if they roam into the house that is their prerogative.

Bishnoi woman wearing traditional clothing and jewellery

My host's mother dressed in traditional clothing and jewellery

There are distinguishing clothing and jewellery used by Bishnois so it is easy to identify their communities when you know how. 

Red, black & white print on Bishnoi skirt

Distinctive design on Bishnoi skirts

Most noticeable is a printed design used solely for Bishnoi women’s skirts, complemented by unique types of jewellery, such as a marital pendent worn on the forehead, a big half moon shaped nose ring and a large rectangular gold plate on the chest.  Men are much more simply dressed, normally just wearing white lungis, tunic and turban, or pagari. 

Bishnois try not to be fond of material possessions.  However, a woman’s gold jewellery is an exception because it is given as a gift at marriage, when she goes to join the house of her father-in-law.  Money is not endowed because it is easily frittered and wasted, whereas gold is a long-lasting investment.

Cleanliness also features highly in the 29 principles, with rules about taking an early morning bath, washing before eating, drinking clean filtered water and a monthly religious day called amavasya, devoted to internal and external cleansing.   It takes place each moonless night and is typified by a day of rest from all work.  One main aspect of the day is a type of fast whereby no heavy food is consumed, only raw fruit and veg.  Elsewhere this is recognisable as a vogue detox recommended by elite dieticians and nutritionists, here it has been part of the religious code for hundreds of years.   Scientific by design, it is understood that the moon controls our digestive system, like it controls the tides, so fasting on this day helps to cleanse the body.  Rest also ensures that every individual has time for reflection, spiritual contemplation and internal cleansing at least once a month.

Fundamental moral codes are also covered in Guru Jambheshwar’s 29 principles, as addressed by most world religions, including avoiding telling lies, deterring theft, promoting forgiveness and refraining from intoxicant use, specifically prohibiting smoking, alcohol and opium use.  The benefits of which are easy for us to comprehend even if we do not choose to practice. 

Cooking chipatis over an open fire

Where lifestyles are so different, we can't automatically understand everything

Some Bishnoi principles are not so easily understood by foreigners to the culture of the harsh desert climate for which they were designed.  Admittedly, when I first read the 29 principles, there were some that I could only identify as being slightly eccentric.  For example, one rule prohibits wearing the colour blue and another keeps women away from household chores for 5 days during her menstrual period.  The more deeply I understand the culture and context, the more I realise that these rules were created with exceptional common sense as well as profound perception.  Over the coming months, I will delve into the detail and convey ways for outsiders to connect understanding to the more unusual tenets.  If you’re interested, read the 29 principles – just remember to keep an open mind.

Taken as a whole, Lord Jamboji’s 29 principles form a complete practical guide for harmonious living, not only with the nature but also for physical, psychological and social well-being too.  It is a simple, doable way to lead a good life, tailored for the farmers of the Thar desert.  Most people will know the term ‘sustainable living’ and, in the UK, it is generally perceived as a marketeers buzz phrase to make us feel that we’re doing our bit to combat ‘environmental issues’.  Here the environment is not seen as a problem.  Sustainable living is just part of a happy, healthy life, not a source of sacrifice.

The Thar desert: A contradiction in terms?

DESERT (Definition as per Oxford Dictionaries, April 2010)

 

Rolling dunes as far as the eye can see

Bare expanses of desert are present but rare in the Thar

Noun

  • a waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand

Verb

  • abandon
  • leave (a place), causing it to appear empty

Adjective

  • uninhabited and desolate

 

Conjure the image of a subtropical desert into mind and you will most likely picture a vast expanse of uninhabitable sand dunes.  Therefore it comes as something of a surprise to find that the Thar uniquely supports rich vegetation, wildlife and culture. 
A pair of eagles

Eagles

Conditions are extreme, with intense summer heat, failing monsoons and a rapidly dwindling water table, but flora and fauna are still thriving here.  Agriculture not only sustains the local population but makes reliable profits at markets as far away as New Delhi.  In most villages there are new stone buildings popping up in amongst the huts, and in some cases dramatically out-numbering them.  Where biodiversity is concerned, neither time nor patience are required to sight exciting and rare wildlife, like black bucks, blue bulls and gazelles, eagles, vultures and kites, to name just a few.

Man and wife in traditional dress in the desert

Pilgrims travelling over 300km on foot to pray for a child after 15 years of marriage

Survival in the Thar Desert requires toughness in order to cope with the relentless and unforgiving climate.  Even the majority of plants and shrubs have evolved deadly looking thorns.  Similarly, the people who live there are robust and sturdy, with weather-beaten faces and surprising physical strength even at old age.  Over thousands of years, life-preserving knowledge has been passed through the generations, enabling each community to adapt and flourish.  Communities are still segregated by caste, such as Bishnoi, Jat or Rajput, but whichever the group family always reigns supreme.  Families live collectively with many generations under the same roof, working together to generate income, care for the dwelling and raise children.

On our first day in the desert we stumbled upon a farm near Sika where the farmer was very happy to answer some questions and show us around.  For generations his family had owned and worked 16.5 hectares, or about 41 acres of agricultural land.  Having just harvested a yield of ground nut, he was in the process of sewing the winter wheat. 

Green, unripened Ber fruits

Unripened Ber fruits

One thing that was immediately impressive was the efficiency of this desert farm; it was almost entirely self-contained, requiring little from the outside world and putting nothing to waste.  In addition to the agricultural produce, many uncultivated shrubs and plants were also used in some capacity, whether for firewood, animal fodder, roofing, pillow stuffing, medicine or food, like the sweet, red fruits of the Ber shrub.  Water was collected using 3 tube wells and electricity was the only fixed cost, on which 10,000 rupees, or £150, was spent per month.

Two cows and four buffalo, fed on shrubs and leftovers from crop production, produced about 40 litres of milk per day, 5 for family use and 35 sold at market.  Sold at 20 rupees per litre, this meant the farm generated 700 rupees (£10) in income per day or an equivalent 255,500 rupees (£3650) per year, providing that none of the cows were in calf.  Another valuable commodity, the farm played host to around 30 Khejri trees, which, as well as providing highly nutritious loong for animals, also provide Sangri fruits consumed by people.  According to our friendly farmer, one tree could generate as much as 80kg of Sangri and selling for 180 rupees per kg at market.  Across 30 trees, that is a potential 432,000 rupees or £6171 income per annum.  With few costs and high efficiency, I came to the conclusion that this farm was a highly profitable business.  Certainly, the numbers above would be enough to make my family, who are small-holding sheep farmers in rural Warwickshire, incredibly jealous.

The future of the Thar Desert and its current agricultural prosperity is not at all promising and clear-cut.  Unchecked mining and deforestation means that the water table is unstably diminishing and that the desert is expanding.  Over utilisation of resources and rising agricultural mechanisation also puts strain on the whole ecosystem, causing new problems to arise. 

Male gazelle

How can we secure the future of the Indian gazelle?

Wild animals are illegally poached and the spiraling dog population is causing particular problems for animals like gazelles and black buck.  Education in India is free and only on the brink of becoming compulsory, so many farmers’ children choose not to attend and stay at home to help on the farm instead.  Resultant illiteracy makes it difficult to promote awareness of threats to the desert ecology and sustainable agricultural techniques.  At the governmental level there are also many problems, such as the necessary rapid growth for combating famine and poverty clashing with the need to protect the natural environment.

The problems of the Thar Desert highlight the need for protection of the plentiful wildlife and unique, culturally rich communities that live within it.  One community standing at the forefront of desert protection is the Bishnois, indigenous followers of a religion sworn to safeguard its flora and fauna.  Over coming articles, the Bishnoi religion and their valuable involvement in the future of the desert will be explained as per my experiences of living in their community.  With regards to the Thar, it may fit the technical label of a desert but other associations do not apply, deserted it most certainly is not.

Where is all this going?

Dear friends and readers,

You may have noticed that this website has not been following its dedicated course over the past few weeks.  It’s called “Meet the Bishnoi” and yet where is anything related the Bishnoi people of the Thar desert, Rajasthan, India?

I’m here to tell you not to worry.  In McLeod Ganj, I made a pledge that I would write about the my experiences with Tibetans and, being a stickler for promises, refused to go back on my word.

Favourite animal in Jaipur: Chipmunks

My online work has also fallen behind schedule because there’s been lots going on in the real world too here in Jaipur.  I’ve been busily making plans for the desert and the time when I do meet the Bishnois.

It turned out, not so surprisingly, that my primitive use of Hindi would not be sufficient to gain a deep understanding of the Thar desert world.  I have still be plugging away with my ‘Teach Yourself’ book but have had to come up with some other solutions too.  The biggest change to the original plan is that, instead of staying with one family for the whole three months, I’ll be staying with a few, some of whom have good English speakers amongst them.  Also, with the help of my friends at the internet cafe, I’ve made an introductory A4 page in Hindi explaining who I am, why I’m there and what I would like to know.  Hopefully it’ll help me out of tricky situations and bridge a little bit of the communication gap.

Fortunately Mr Harsh Vardhan, my guide and mentor, has given me contact details for experts in desert conservation, Bishnoism, zoology and poaching prevention so I’ve written to all seeking interviews.  It will be wonderful if I get to meet them and I’m hoping that I have some great questions ready.  The structure has been guided by my Project Plan, a document that I’ve put together to give me clear aims, objectives and timescales to work to.  It’s also helped me identify some key themes for my research, some of which are listed below, so look out for articles on these themes soon.

Proposed research themes:
  • Availability of food in the Thar desert
  • Bishnoi religion and the divinity of nature
  • Developing tourism in a more positive manner
  • Gazelle and Black Buck populations
  • Khejri tree mortality
  • The role of women in Bishnoism

Masses of dirty plastic waste clogs up one entrance to the lake as treated water mixes with raw sewerage. Tom & James have their work cut out for them!

This week Tom and James successfully began their project helping to clean up the Mansagar lake in Jaipur.  In between three week home-stays with Bishnoi families, I’ll be spending a week with them at their hotel.  The deal rests on the grounds that I help out with their placement provider, JMRPL.  As a result I’ve learned about what the boys are doing and will assist them in their office work.  Yep, that means I’m back in the grasps of good old Excel spreadsheets.

Alongside project plans, issues surrounding Hindi, articles about Tibet, interview planning and Mansagar lake, we’ve also been exploring Jaipur city a little and experiencing our first Diwali.  I’ve never seen fireworks like it.  The difference between here and England, where Health and Safety bods stamp all over firework production, is phenomenal.

Please excuse me because I appear to have rambled on.  The final thing to tell you is that we’re leaving for the desert tomorrow.  A group of five of us are setting off to explore the desert ecology and also to get our first introductions with the Bishnoi community.  When the others return to Jaipur, they’ll leave me with my first Bishnoi family and this project will finally be set in full motion.  I’m not sure about internet connectivity for the next few weeks but if there isn’t plenty to write about on my return I’m definitely not cut out for this.

Ta ta for now everyone.  All the best to you all and hope that you will pop here again soon to read the next edition.

Best wishes from TorJ x

McLeod Ganj: Tibetans in exile

“The systematic eradication of Tibetan culture and religion saw the destruction of 6000 monasteries and temples.  The handful still standing today are used as tourist attractions, army barracks, or public toilets.  Precious scriptures and sculptures were destroyed or sold in international art markets.  The Chinese use scriptures as shoe soles, and monks and nuns were forced to desecrate religious objects.”  

Hatsang Jigme, Norbulingka Institute and the Tibetan Museum, McLeod Ganj

 

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a distant awareness of a situation with China and Tibet.  Regrettably, however, I knew little more than two facts about it all; the Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile and China claimed Tibet as its own.  

In McLeod Ganj, every other interaction was with a friendly, polite Tibetan.  The hostel, our cafes of choice, friends we made in the street and places we visited, all were mostly Tibetan.  As tourists, we were made to feel relaxed and at home, totally comfortable.  We didn’t pick up on signs of current pain or suffering from them.  Looking back, I never really talked to a Tibetan about the situation with China, how long they’d been in McLeod Ganj or what circumstances they arrived in.  As generally timid, reserved and modest people, maybe it’s not surprising?

Gate at the entrance to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts

Gate at the entrance to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) - One of three main buildings set up to preserve Tibetan culture, there is also a library and cultural centre called the Norbulingka Institute

It took a chance meeting of a Canadian woman, called Mati, to open my eyes, followed by a visit to the Tibetan museum to supply some facts.  Suddenly I realised that China’s occupation of Tibet wasn’t a remote saga in a history book long since concluded.  The elderly red-robed lady that I’d been sharing smiles with on the walk home from the monastery was actually a well-known and respected torture survivor, currently taking care of newly rescued orphans.  In all probability, every Tibetan over 50 years old that we’d met had made the perilous month-long trek over the mountainous border.  Certainly many of the younger guys, people who we’d chatted to about football or rock music, had never seen their homeland.  And those who were born in Tibet grew up under the Chinese regime and can have only ended up in McLeod Ganj after becoming refugees themselves.  From what we were told, many Tibetans still have to flee their country in exile every day, and do so without being able to let their families know what they’re doing or that they’re even alive.

Struggles for land, power and resources have been in existence since humans began walking on the earth.  In an evolutionary sense, it’s understandable.  However, I think there is a stark difference between exploitation of an advantage and attempted racial destruction.  From what I can gather, the past fifty years have not only seen murder, torture and imprisonment, but a systematic attack on the Tibetan identity; targeting religion, destroying literature, banning native clothing, demoting the language, preventing the attainment of wealth or education and making Tibetan people a minority race in their own country. 

Red flag that reads "Boycott 'Made in China'"The Tibetan strength of character and astounding Buddhist approach, which has enabled them to continue in such a dignified and positive manner, touched my heart very deeply.  Staring at preciously displayed coins, stamps and flags of a people desperately clinging on to their heritage, I made a pledge to shout about this and try to raise awareness.  If there’s anything I can do to help prevent Tibet and its culture from becoming a forgotten land, only existing in history books, show me the way! 

 

Don’t just take it from me…

Books

  • The Voice that Remembers by Ama Adhe, the elderly torture survivor I mentioned.
  • Freedom in Exile, the 14th Dalai Lama’s autobiography
  • Tibetan Foothold by Dervla Murphy, the lady who cycled from Ireland to India in 1960’s.  This is her encounter with McLeod Ganj when she ended up volunteering there.

Facebook Group

  •  ‘High Peaks Pure Earth’ run by a London-based action group

Blog 

Mati, the Canadian lady, was leading a teaching exchange project with Canadian students working in McLeod’s Tibetan schools.  This is what they have to say about it all:

Texts from the Tibetan Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

McLeod Ganj: Through the eyes of a tourist

Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, McLeod Ganj is a curious little town that forms its own microcosm, apart from the rest of Himachal Pradesh and India itself.  Home to the holy Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan government, it is a place of refuge for many displaced Tibetans, who still arrive after the treacherous, month-long journey over mountains and the Tibet-India border to this day.  The Tibetan presence is immediately apparent and a decided difference can be noticed passing from Dharamshala, the Indian lower town, to McLeod Ganj just 5km above.  Litter strewn and heavily polluted streets recede as incomers pass outposts guarded by Tibetan soldiers.  Signs line the road, politely asking all inhabitants to consider water usage, dispose of waste safely, live peacefully, and respect nature.  “Ooh, conscientious living,” I thought “this looks exciting!”

Valley lined with prayer flags

Brightly coloured prayer flags decorate the length and breadth of McLeod

In the main square, a cluttered but calm scene awaits, with red-robed Tibetan monks mingling alongside dready backpackers and Indian holidaymakers escaping the heat for cooler climes.

Dog in disused market stall

Dog in a vacant market stall as dusk falls

After some time, I got the feeling that there are many faces to McLeod Ganj and, if you scratched beneath the surface, an incomprehensible number of difficulties, complications and subtle politics might emerge.  Apparent peace is by no means continuous or absolute.  Although there is much less traffic, drivers still race around the town aggressively beeping their horns at other pedestrians, animals and motorists.   Dogs curl up into neat little sleeping balls in the day but become crazed packs, howling and picking fights with rivals throughout the night.

Crowded street in McLeod Ganj

Kunga's Hostel, Bhagsu Road - underneath the white sign in the distance by the car.

Even our abode, Kunga’s Guesthouse, demonstrated the town’s somewhat schizophrenic identity with one side opening on to a busy, dirty street and the other a terraced veranda, overlooking a valley surrounded by mountain peaks.  Although the two sides were just metres apart, it could have been a galaxy.  The street noise was totally lost on the terrace, leaving a calm, natural, sunny spot, teaming with wildlife and breathtaking panoramic views of the mountains in all their glory.  Within this  setting, we enjoyed many a meal at Kunga’s, where wholesome vegetarian goodness is the dish of the day and staff don’t bother if you forget to pay your tab until hours after breakfast.  There is a sign asking customers not to smoke or drink because it’s bad for the body, but, in true Buddhist style, they provide ashtrays and don’t pass judgment on those who do.  Behind the boisterous street and unimpressive hostel façade, Kunga’s is a sanctuary where I felt at home and able to relax.

Green leafy trees lining the valley sides

A view from near the Dalai Lama's monastery

Reading the Rough Guide and travel forums, I came prepared for a place that gets under the skin and takes hold on many people.  Whatever the reaction to McLeod, it seemed it was always a strong one.  Indeed my feelings towards the town varied strongly; sometimes it felt like a peaceful haven of spiritual discovery, at other times electric and full of possibilities, and then also oppressive and intimidating at times too.

From what I can gather, it has undergone dramatic change over the last ten years or so.  As with any influx of tourists, it is often followed by the arrival of people looking for a new opportunity to make a living.  This is no different in McLeod; most streets are lined with craftsmen and gift vendors, musicians and reiki masters, yoga teachers and Ayurvedic healers.  Whether you want to buy pictures of the Dalai Lama or learn how to meditate, there will always be someone willing to relieve you of a few rupees.

Tom & I sat drinking an afternoon lassi on the terrace at Kunga's

Sat drinking a banana lassi on the terrace at Kunga's

The change has lead to a disgruntled vibe emanating from some backpackers and repeat visitors to McLeod.  It is a kind of disgust that the town has become commercial, which is said to contaminate life’s simplicity and the potential for spiritual attainment.  However, and a massive one at that, the bigger picture is that there is less famine and poverty, and more employment.  On the whole, life for McLeod’s residents has improved vastly over the last ten years and who is more important, backpacker or resident?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say.  Maybe it’s easier for us, we didn’t see the town before it was touched by tourism. Collecting my thoughts in writing, and sitting in Jaipur, I miss McLeod Ganj and sincerely hope that I return one day.

Nice weather for Yeti

“Sat at around 3,000 m.a.s.l. it feels like a weary end to a long day.  Thunder rumbles deeply around me and only now can I fathom the creation of unhappy mountain Gods.  Apparently there are 200 hikers at this tiny hamlet tonight and most of them are brassy school children living up a bit of parent-free time.  Despite the energy and noise of the kids, it’s strangely uncrowded.  We’re sat atop a rolling green mountain sloped with pine forests and lush grazing for goats, cows, sheep and mules.  Raven or jackdaw like birds circle in large flocks above our heads.  This spot represents the last of the Himalayan foothills, with no further civilisation in sight.  There are rugged, baron mountains covered in glaciers and early snowfall as far as the eye can see.  The passes between them reach 4,500 m.a.s.l. so I’m struggling to comprehend how big the actual peaks are.  This is the real beginnings of the formidable Himalayas.”

An excerpt from my notebook on Thursday 21st October 2010
Rugged mountain range capped in snowfall and glaciers

The view beyond Triund and the last of the grassy foothills

What I omitted from the entry above was that both Tom & I had misgivings about our guide and porter.  Both of us shared the same sense that there was some trouble or malcontent coming from them.  Maybe they’d had bad experiences with tourists before?  After all it can be a delicate relationship.  Maybe they didn’t want to be working?  Maybe they weren’t particularly nice or sociable people?  Who knows!  At times you could cut the atmosphere with a knife and the feeling we were being abused in a language we couldn’t understand was hard to ignore.  Steely looks and vacant responses to questions didn’t do much to further our confidence.  I tried to find reassurance in the knowledge that it can be hard to forge a trusty connection between tourist and local, and that, as their employers, maybe they just wanted to get the job done without an interest in friendship.  It didn’t go far though, that night Tom slept with his Leatherman in his pocket and I hardly slept at all.  The bad atmosphere was hard to ignore.

Dark skies disperse the sunshine

Storm clouds rolling in to darken the afternoon sun

Next day it was planned to ascend into the rugged mountains pictured above, with an overnight stay in some enormous caves.  From the ground this sounded amazing, a true adventure!  However, in the hands of men with questionable trustworthiness, storm clouds rolling around above, early signs of altitude sickness, and a hole in the back of my heel from badly chosen climbing shoes, it didn’t seem so wise after all.  Though there were many trekkers at the hill station, almost all were overnighters returning to base the next day.  It was completely plausible that there would only be four people sleeping in the caves the following evening; Tom, me, the guide and the porter.  With what felt like the odds stacked against us, we made a difficult decision to abandon ship and end the trek 2 days early.

Rugged mountains peaks in beautiful sunshine with Tibetan flags flying in front

Glorious mountains seen from the safety of the ground on a sunny day

Breaking the news to our guide and porter, their reaction was bizarre.  It was as if they’d expected us to decide to descend and had just been waiting for the revelation.  New information started to come out; a group on the previous day had attempted the next stage but returned after only an hour and a half due to treacherous weather and the guide admitted he was ill-equipped because he didn’t have any ice kit with him.  Everyone agreed that the weather was continuing to worsen.

Beneath sky that promised a full day of thunder storms, Tom and I set out early leaving our trekking colleagues to pack up the kit above.  The track down was well-made and, despite heavy rainfall, we both felt confident, relieved to escape bad company and determined to enjoy what was left of the adventure.  Nature did not disappoint.  Thunder and lightning were all around us – not above as usual – we were in the storm cloud!  Half an hour into the hike, fierce hail stones erupted from the sky, pelting our skin through our clothes.

Dog looks over a metal roof against an alpine mountain backdrop

Day 1 - Gorgeous pup spootted hanging out on a metal roof with the alpine covered mountains in the background

Carefully watching our step over the wet and icy stone footpath, we met a mountain herder with five terrified cows.  Tom held the farmer’s neon umbrella so that he could put on a raincoat, giving him time to explain that if one of his cows bolted she would break her leg for sure.  Winter was coming in unpredictably quickly this year and it wouldn’t be the first time he had to descend the mountain with injured animals.  He explained in clear English that he was taking the herd ‘downside’ as soon as possible to keep them safe.

Meeting the cow herder bolstered our spirits, reminding us of the comparatively easy situation we were faced with and also encouraging us that standing in a thunder cloud couldn’t be too dangerous if there was time to stop and chat.  Soaked to our underwear, passports and the last rupee, we made it down in a bit under four hours, shivering, but full of adventure and a strange pride for listening to our hearts, keeping safe and accepting that our long sought after trip would have to be postponed for another day.

The adventure happened on the way down but the beautiful snaps were caught on the way up, so here’s a few for your enjoyment!

  • Grey mountain goat perched on wood pile

    Grey mountain goat perched on wood pile

  • Lovely mountain views

    Lovely views

  • Sunlight stone path through an alpine forest

    Alpine forest path

  • Inside a mud hut drying off and eagerly awaiting a lunch of spicy chilli noodles

    Drying off in a mud hut

  • Bunch of school kids with Tor standing with them

    "Mr Thomas, take one picture!"

  • View down the whole valley with a dog in the foreground

    A view along the whole valley

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