Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bharmour, 10-13 June (Written 13 June 2010)

Bharmour is the former capital of the kingdom of Chamba. The claim to fame of this magical village hidden away in the foothills of the Himalayas are the Chaurasi temples, the main one being a breathtakingly gorgeous Shiva Linga. I had never heard of Bharmour, there is very little foreign tourism here, and it is the one hidden gem of India that I have found. There is no car honking; people are friendly and there is almost no visible poverty; the food is phenomenal; the scenery changes by the hour; am I still in India?

We arrived on the 10th at around 5pm and we were pretty exhausted so we decided to spend a night in the first place our driver took us to. We checked in and went wandering to the main town square where the Chaurasi temples are. From the films and literature I have been exposed to, this town is what I imagine somewhere in eastern Iran, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan. Emerging onto the town square, children play cricket, skillfully avoiding running into the 84 Mahasiddha Lingas. Older men with their folded hats sit with their canes, chatting away. Water flows all over the place, pipes bursting with the freshest, most refreshing glacial river water I have ever tasted. So the first evening we simply wander, and end up at the Chaurasi Hotel and Restaurant for dinner. The place looks totally abandoned, and as we enter there is a man whom we ask if we can eat, and he thinks for a minute and says yes. We order two different dals, a shahi paneer and a mixed veg and wait. And wait.

Meanwhile our hot drinks come out one at a time, and there is a bit of shuffle as they leave to buy some of the ingredients – a true sign of freshness. And it is so worth the wait. And it is cheap. 70 rupees a person for proper restaurant food, and lots of it. I like this town already. We head back towards home, but get stuck in a traffic jam. Yes, I said there is no honking and no traffic in this one-road town. But there are sheep! And so there must also be sheep traffic jams. Two shepherds in wool sweaters and hats whistle at their flock of about 300 sheep as 4WD vehicles patiently wait. This is the rhythm of this land.

The next morning, we head down to the dhaba for breakfast. Piping hot Chana Masala (chickpea curry) and mixed vegetables with paneer – the paneer in this town is hands-down the best I have had in India. It is such a perfect consistency, solid but moist, and it has a lovely flavor of mild milk – often paneer is so tasteless and either too moist and crumbly or too hard…then the paranthas arrive. These are basically chapattis that are stuffed with different things – in this case we are talking about aloo parantha, so potato. Perfectly crisped in the tandoor, they are lightly brushed with ghee and an assortment of herbs. If you dissect the lovely bread, inside you find whole cumin seeds, black pepper, a healthy dosage of coriander, and chopped fresh green chili. Mmm.

Fully inspired by breakfast, we head up to the Bharmani Mata temple after we change hotels. Tashi had gone exploring to find room options for us, and he came upon Shiva and Swarna, a lovely farmer couple who rents out rooms in their house. This one and a half hour walk takes us first through orchards full of apples, wheat, barley, apricots, and plums, alongside wild marijuana plants, and then we wander up through the village. Almost every household has at least one cow, and the cows here are the healthiest-looking I have seen in India. People are drying wheat in their courtyards. Colourful laundry hangs, framed by snowcapped mountains. We go further up and then it becomes terraced green fields. There are white-icing granite mountains almost 360 degrees around us. We finally reach the temple which has holy water flowing alongside it. After awhile, we continue up and split with Tashi, who can barely hide his excitement at going off wandering into the hills. He has spent the past twenty years between Dharamsala and his monastery in Karnataka, South India, and he is totally straightforward about how much he loves this place. It reminds him of home – eastern Tibet with rolling green hills and snowy mountains – his parents are barley farmers, and you can see his childhood coming back every moment here. It is beautiful.

So Krishnan and I sit and just enjoy the breathtaking scenery before slowly heading back. The architecture here is wonderful. Homes are carefully constructed using combinations of wood, stones, and shingled roofs which seem to perfectly blend functionality and aesthetics. We head down to the dhaba for lunch, and head back to our rooms where we find Tashi arriving. He says he fell down twice, but he is saying this with a huge beaming smile. He rolled down, just a few rotations like somersaults, he says. He is proper mountain goat style, hopping from boulder to boulder, kneeling to drink from the river alongside the cows.

In the evening we head up to the temple square, and watch life unfold. Sorry for the blasphemy, but if I was a God and if I had a temple, this is the ideal way I would want my abode to be used. For people to convene, simply be together, play, laugh, and live together.

We head home and have the delicious home-cooked meal prepared by the family. Most of the food in our meal is homegrown, organic, and you can taste the love in the meal, and the food tastes so alive. It’s simple, dhal, an okra sabzi, a simple salad, but the chapattis in this town are so full-bodied. We go to sleep, totally satiated in mind, heart, and body and are ready to face the next day.

And the next day is supremely gorgeous. We had decided to set off early since it seemed that weather gets worse in the afternoon. Swarna had packed us a lovely breakfast of aloo paranthas, and so we headed towards Tennali. This was a much easier walk than the previous day, as we headed 7km on the paved car road eastwards. We passed a few waterfalls, a few Shiva and Hanuman temples, and a big herd of sheep, maybe about 400. As I was photographing the sheep, one of the shepherds mockingly indignant, asked me if the sheep were more beautiful than him, since I was only interested in photographing them. I got an awesome portrait of him.

Finally, we came to the village where we were supposed to turn off the main road and go up, up, up to Tennali. What strikes me about this area is how much the scenery changes. In this case, everything seemed normal until we turned one corner and all of a sudden we emerged on eye-level height golden barley. The layers between the terraces were a deep green, wild deep blue chicory flowers were everywhere, as were wild strawberries, and an array of yellow, pink, and purple wildflowers – and don’t forget, this is all under the watchful eye of the snowy peaks. We continued up through the immaculate houses to the top of Tennali. Friendly locals, including lots of kids, came out of their houses to greet us.

On our way down, Tashi lingered behind us and all of a sudden erupted into joyous song. Krishnan and I chuckled and Krishnan said, he’s deliriously happy. And he was. And we all were. When we reached the main road, we found out that there was a path to get to the riverside. So down, down, down we went, for about an hour. The scenery changed yet again. Now it was pine forest, a landscape of boulder-strewn meadows and rich dirt. Then we reached the river, where we crossed a swinging bridge, and the water gushed by with great ferocity, gathering the green color from the limestone that it has slowly but steadily been eroding for centuries. I am still very much working on my fear of falling and heights so we all had a laugh as Tashi strolled down without even looking down, Sara and Krishnan walked down, and I scrambled on all fours down to the river. An impromptu picnic of mangoes, nut mix, and Tashi made a pine-cone fire and roasted some barley for us. Just like home in Tibet. Ahh. We split up at the river and all found our own little spots to just be. Sadhguru came to me so strongly here. Just watching the creation, the simplicity and complexity of the scene unfolding in front of me, the butterflies, the trees, the boulders, the powerful river, the perfect blue sky and the perfect huge mountains…you melt.
We made it back up to the main road just as the rain started, and the walk back to Bharmour was joyful, as we were refreshed and rejuvenated by the sprinkling water.

We reached the dhaba, famished and enjoyed every morsel. To live with this intensity as we have been doing here in Bharmour – to me, that is one of the many goals that I am working towards. Thank you.

When it rains here, the temperature drops quickly and dramatically, so we took hot showers and had deep, blissful naps. Dinner was served in the boys’ room, and was again delicious.

And today…breakfast at the dhaba, then we went up for a puja at the Bharmani Mata temple. A totally different side of the temple, and the walk up of course was an experience, with dozens of kids running around us and local women in traditional dress, which consists of one huge nosering in the left nostril, and elaborate headscarves. Beautiful. Tashi and I decided to leave the pooja a bit early and took an alternate route back since we had already done the path a few days earlier. We started on the jeep road but then Tashi decided we should go down the path in the fields…this Tibetan monk has stolen my heart. As we descended (“Take your time Yuri, we come for enjoy, we come to go hiking and walking and to be with nature and we are not in rush today, we are here for enjoy”), we talked a lot about Buddhism and the values put forth by HH the Dalai Lama, by the spiritual teachings I follow (or aspire to follow), about so many things…one of the things that amazes me is how he speaks of the Chinese invasion and how he genuinely can put a positive light on it.

One aspect of this is that as a result of the invasion, the Dalai Lama has actually become much more accessible to Tibetans, especially those that are not from Lhasa, like himself. The Dalai Lama has been given a lot of international support to travel and give teachings all over the world, which may never have happened if Tibet was allowed to continue its existence in peace. As for Tashi himself, he was never given the chance to have any education in Tibet since he lived in a small village far from Lhasa, so escaping to India has given him a world of opportunity. He is literate in Tibetan and English now, and has come into contact with so many people, ideas, and his world is so much bigger than what it would have been if he was in Tibet in his village. This is just a glimpse into the comprehensive, compassionate view of the world which Tibetans, not just the monastics, embody through people like Tashi. Wow.
I spent some time teaching some origami to Tashi and he loved it. He spent the whole afternoon trying to wrap his head around the crane, and the sheer joy and satisfaction at finally getting it, was of course gleeful but the whole process was full of so much presence, involvement, and bliss. It’s the journey, not the destination. Thank you Tashi.

Another lovely dinner, this time with corn chapattis (Oh my goodness, think Mexican corn tortillas, I almost lost it…) and this is just another day in paradise.

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