Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
Sitting in a train in the city or a plane I often see people whose faces or expressions or language intrigue me. And I wonder what their lives must be like.
In most cases their setting is similar to mine – yet their lives are different.
This intrigue is rarely satisfied and I have to satisfy myself with conjectures and theories that I make up in order to entertain myself – based on the few data points that I have.
But sometimes, this intrigue drives me to act and I pursue any lead available that can create a pathway that allows a peep into the lives of these interesting people.
And so it was that I found myself on a journey to the village home of a lady from the Dard ethnic minority group of Ladakh.
(Please see Introductory note on this journey)
We started early in the morning from Leh – husband & wife, driver & me, in a 4WD. Within minutes we were outside the city limits and into the mountains. Even after 4 weeks in the Himalayas I feel the rush – the experience of being surrounded on all sides by the Himalayas still makes me awestruck – I can’t stop staring at every mountainscape – because every second in the journey is unique. No two stretches of road have the same view – every 100m of mountain dramatically different from every other! I never saw myself as being impressed by nature – but these mountains have complete control over my senses as I pass through them – dumbstruck and starving for more time to study every square meter that I lay my eyes on. They have magnetised my mind.
Speaking of which – we pass a ‘magnetic mountain’. any vehicle parked here without the hand brakes on, rolls upward instead of downward. FACT.
Then we pass a cyclist. on this curving sloping road – a cyclist! And then another and another. Over a kilometer we saw about 6-8 cyclists peddling away making their way to Kargil maybe. Why? All this exercise always shocks me!
We are still in Leh District.
Soon we reach Lamayuru Gompa – and the stories about that monatsery experience are in a separate article.
Our road now takes us into Kargil district – and the landscape and the culturescape changes. Women have veils and the houses seem less sturdy. This region is at a lower altitude and it is not so cold. After a short detour the rough road makes it way back toward Dha and Biama villages.
The road now runs alongside the Sindhu river. As we move, the character of the river changes. At some places it is a meek demure stream, being commanded by the mountains. But by the time we reach Biama village, it is a roaring river full of energy and spirit, ready to defy every mountain in its path. The tall majestic mountains have been cut into a deep ravine purely by the power of its waters and the Indus knows its own might.
The narrow river separated the two mountain ranges and we are midway up on one side. We have been driving on a road alongside the river that is at least a 15 story drop from the road. And suddenly my host tells the driver to stop in a flat patch of land that is just enough to park the vehicle. I see no houses or settlements. In front of us is the gorge leading to the river with the mountain face rising up on the other side of the river. And on our side of the river I see a forested slope rising behind us. We get out of the car and the host welcomes me to his home, that I cannot see.
And then he points to the forested slope – and lets me know that it is halfway up to the top – a point that cannot be seen as it is a steep slope covered with trees. That we could not see it was a good thing – or else I would have been too daunted to even begin the climb.
We begin walking up – they as agile and sure-footed as mountain goats (including my hostess who is a heavy grandmother).
And I struggle along groping the rocks and branches on all fours, slipping and losing my footing more than once. My hosts smile gently and offer to take my small bag to make it easier for me. My driver has already been entrusted with the job of carrying my little suitcase up. And I find it hard to carry my personal load that is packed inside my skin. But of course I find my amusement by observing my own incapability as a third-person observer. It is alarming and distressing for my ego to meet this clueless avatar of myself who knows so little about manouvering my very own body. And it is a reminder not to judge others when they cannot do things that I consider simple e.g. speak english or use the internet.
My host – a lean man of about 70 advises me to lose weight – he says it would make this journey easier for me.
In my other world, every topic has its own taboo and stigma and everyone wants to be politically correct rather than just plain correct. And so I find his direct and unsweetened articulation of his thoughts very very refreshing and endearing. What a lovely world this is.
We finally reach the top. A field filled with flowers and vegetable patches. And a quaint stone house just behind the field – set against the mountain wall! What a view – what a lovely home to live in!
My host goes to the car twice more to pick up all the wares he has brought back from the city. He says they also carry gas cylinders and furniture up so they are used to heavy loads!
His daughter-in-laws and their children arrive and we all gather in the little kitchen and sit on the carpeted floor. Sweet tea and salted butter tea are served with biscuits. And they talk in their own language called Dokskat. They have not met each other for over 2 months and there is a lot of news to be exchanged.
As we sit and chat and have chai, people from the village come over to the house to meet my host. They have heard of our arrival. And by late evening we have a full living room with many guests.
They all talk to me with great warmth and entertain my curiosity about their magnificent culture. One tells me very matter-of-factly that he is uneducated and he doesn’t know much. I disagree about him not knowing much. He has led a successful life, farmed, raised children, has a happy and well fulfilled life – so I could not see how his statement of ‘not knowing much’ could be true. I point out that he obviously knew all the things needed for a good successful life. He might not know the latitude and longitude of Argentina or the current president of a world power (face it – how many of us know the name of the current PM of Japan!) but then these are not directly important anyway.
And so the evening proceeded with a lot of talking, a lot of listening and definitely a lot of enlightenment acquired through this peep into a world that is totally different from mine.
FAMILY TIME IN THE COSY KITCHEN-CUM-DINING-CUM-LIVING-ROOM
A video taken on my very frightened iphone on the way down …..on youtube.com
Their lifestyle provided a very refreshing contrast to the lives surrounding mine. It is this contrast that I am after. It is this mind-opening experience that keeps me grounded and down to earth. Meeting these simple people who have beautiful complete lives in spite of their ‘seeming’ hardships teaches me much more than the people in cities. These people energise me, they stimulate thought and leave me with experiences that I will remember forever.
The single-course dinner on that nameless mountain in dim light eaten with all of us seated on the floor chatting and talking about simple things. It was a luxury meal eaten not to the sound of light club music but to the sound of the roaring Indus; Lit not by candle light, but by dim 0 watt bulbs and bright spirits. Not a skyscraper-top view but a mountain viewed from less than 500m. Not cooked by a chef trained in Paris – but cooked by a grandma whose recipes are shared by less than a thousand families. How much fancier can a dinner get! Ironically in the people providing me with one of the fanciest meals of my life, did not really care about such superficial events as a ‘fancy dinner’ at all.
If I had to choose only one of these two lives I straddle, I have no doubt that I would choose life in rural India. Preferably in the Himalayas. In the biting cold. On that mountain that sniggered at my lack of fitness. I would still trade my whole life happily to live that Himalayan life.
More about the costumes, their lifestyle, their mindset and their beliefs in the in-depth articles to follow in the next few articles