This is a continuation of a travel series. Read the previous blogs here..
To The Himalayas - Unguided Solo Travel
After spending 3 days for permit in Joshimath SDM office, I finally got the Inner Line Permit to visit the border village of Niti.
The village of Niti had fascinated my mind since 2011 when we had planned for Kamet Base Camp trek, but was not given permission. The last village on the Tibet border, an ancient trade route between India and Tibet. The route also used to fall on the famous Kailash Mansarovar yatra, which is currently non-operational.
The Rongpa Tribes Of Uttrakhand:
Rongpa are the high altitude tribes, also commonly called the Bhotias. They are considered intrinsic and have been reduced to very few numbers. The government has supported them to such an extent with reservations that the same policy has now become a reason for their extinction.. By extinction, I mean, the extinction of their deep-rooted culture. Most of them hold Government posts in the state, living in towns and cities, like Dehradoon and Delhi. They give importance to education and studies, their families now live in the cities, which is one of the causes of the extinction of their culture.
Drive To Niti:
I boarded the only shared jeep to Niti, from Joshimath which left around 11 AM. This region of Uttrakhand was not affected by the floods. I had previously travelled on this road, but only till Jumna, for the Baghini glacier trek. This time I am to go further, and see its end.
My jeep was shared by 11 other locals of Niti, Bampa and Ghamsali. They all knew each other and discussions started soon amongst them.. in a language which I could not even catch !! They were speaking Rongpa.
I could not participate in their discussion. In between, they were using Hindi as well, which helped me guess their conversation. They were discussing politics, and hence the women weren't speaking much. When women were speaking, it was mostly about people, nearby village stories, conditions, etc.
Besides, the views from the window seat kept me busy. Many villages passed by on the left. The road was very thrilling as well. Overall journey was going very good, and I could feel an enormous joy within.
When the drive was almost about to end, an uncle, seated behind me started to talk to me. Maybe he thought I was an Army officer, but when I did not get down even in Malari, he got curious about me. The conversation actually bloomed into a welcome gift for me. He was an Ex-SSB man and was posted in my hometown - Jaigaon, on the Bhutan border for 3 years. It was enough to build a bond. It got more friendly now, to my likeness.
After getting my permits checked in Ghamsali, we headed towards Niti. The road was extra treacherous here, and finally, after crossing the lovely village of Bampa, we reached Niti.
The Rongpa Hospitality
I was welcomed in Niti in a way I could never ever have imagined, even in my dreams !!
Apart from warm smiling greetings of 'Namaste', my stay was arranged by them in a guest house built to accommodate visitors or relatives during festivals. There was no hotel there, which I had never known before. However, I didn't have any problem with food, as I was pre-invited by the villagers to eat at their home... I was welcomed into their home, served with their precious kacchi - local liquor and food, with interesting stories accompanying them. It was a very affectionate gesture towards an unknown boy like me.
Tonight, there was to be a ritual post-dinner for which I was invited to attend. For the morning, they had planned a hike to a nearby cave with me. What more could I ask for ??
The village chemistry, rather the bond
I realized a very interesting fact that everyone in the village was each other's relative. They were each other's Brother, Sister, Uncle, Aunt, Nephew, through blood, or as a result of marriages. Marriages happen between neighbouring villages, which makes the neighbourhood villagers their relatives too !! This way, they are very much cross-knitted with each other. Rituals further boost their engagement making it a lively place to be in.
The Bhagdwal Devta Dance
Bagdwal Devta is a big ritual here, and I was lucky to have got a chance to witness it, close and personal. It was the time of the year when the village becomes lively and probably sees a maximum of its people return to it, to celebrate and to keep alive their customs and rituals.
Bhagdwal Devta has a long mythical story. It's something very unique which I have witnessed till now. In this ritual, Gods and Goddesses take over your body.
The Event - My First Impression
The event starts with a signal of drum beats to all the villagers to gather near a small temple, after lunch or dinner. Logs are arranged and a small fire is built. Few of the men get ready for the Devta Dance dressed in a scarf across their shoulders and a turban on their heads. A song is sung, which actually narrates a story, while they go round and round the fire, scattering wheat, on the ground, on the fire, and also throwing it on others seated there. Soon, they start to shiver one by one, which is a signal of God taking them over. Entering a different character now. After some time, a woman enters the scene and starts to dance. Soon, a goddess takes her over. The act depicts PAIN, of some kind. They cry and after a while, they hug each other and cry... They take out swords and knives kept in the temple and dance with it. It ends with a prayer in the temple and the distribution of 'Prasad'
I had witnessed a unique ritual celebrated in one of the corner most parts of our country. It thrilled me, but also made me curious !! The next morning, I asked one of the uncles to explain to me the story before today's ritual. He did and it took him about an hour to explain. It was an eventful day, and now it was time for the village to sleep. I slept quite satisfied and soon entered a different world.
A Brief About Bhagdwal Devta Story
It was about a proud king of Tehri - Jitu Bhagdwal and his family. A clever and talented king who played the flute. He had impressed the angels with his flute playing and he invited them to his kingdom. He foul-played in the hospitality towards the angels on which they got angry and they massacred the whole dynasty, leaving just a brother, a sister and her son, who survived because they were in a different place, and were coming to visit her brother, the king.
On reaching, they found everyone dead. Seeing that, they got angry with the Angels and asked them to kill them as well, which the angels denied, as they could not take innocent lives. The angels then showed some mercy and said that they could not get them back alive, but they can make their souls alive, and enable them to meet each other.
The Bhagdwal Devta song narrates this story, and the souls of those who got killed, get into them. The act shows the deep pain of separation and the meeting of siblings.
The small hike to Shivling:
The previous evening, we had decided to go to a nearby worshipping place about 1.5 kilometres from the village. I was called on time and we started around 7 AM. Three of us went for the hike to the cave of stalactite and stalagmite with offerings for Shiva, who resides in such places. As we walked, lots of information was passed on local wild bushes and flowers which replaced the usual onions and cumin from the kitchen. We bathed in the river. They call it Doodh Ganga, and it always remained white, with the gush of it. The climb to the cave was simple but slippery. We offered our prayers and returned.
Afternoon, it was time for the ritual again. Today, women from the nearby village of Ghamsali had also come for the ritual. They were greeted with very warm hearts, and smiles and with the local liquor. This time, I understood the entire act and when they hugged and cried, I too felt the pain in my throat.. These people maintained 2 relations with each other. One - the normal one. Two - the Godly relation of siblings and uncles.
Post lunch, it was time for some casual talks and it was as if I had become a part of that village. In the evening I trekked up to the border post and returned. It was my last evening here, and an end.
The next morning, I took the only jeep to Joshimath, to get down in Malari, on the way. Malari was a bigger village of them all. It hands over 300 people living in it. Here another Devta had come - The Pandav Devta, which was a similar act, and whose stories we already know.
I spent the whole day roaming about alone with my camera, accompanied by my soul as my best friend !! An experience which I still live...
Evening, I was invited by a local to his house for dinner. Conversation triggered on different topics as glasses of local Kacchi went down.. A lovely dinner and the much-required sleep ended my day in Malari.
I had previously been to Dronagiri on my trek to the Baghini Glacier. This time, the only difference being I went straight up to it from Jumma. The village was entirely different post-monsoon and was lush green with high bushes. I stayed with labourers from Nepal here, which I had never expected before. Staying with them was a deep deep insight to my own life and their outlook towards life.
I had a dream experience here and I felt no less than a local. So hospitable were they. Indeed, here people are Gods..