Last month, I did the trip I’ve come to look forward to every year – to Kibber, a village perched 4200m above sea level in the Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. The day-long journey to the Spiti valley from Manali is like watching a much loved film yet again, waiting eagerly for the best parts. We drive through the Rohtang pass at sunrise: golden-tipped peaks glisten above hills and valleys cloaked in mist and cloud. We drive along the Chenab: the sparkling waters run through a brown valley dotted with boulders the size of small houses, a landscape like from another planet. We drive into the Spiti valley: it is like driving into a masterpiece that’s come to life. I’ve never seen skies so blue, clouds so white, or so many stars at night anywhere else!
This incredibly magical, yet unyielding, harsh land belongs to a people who are as soft-natured and kind as they are tough in body and spirit. Their friendship over the years has allowed me a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage that permeates their daily living.
I was helping one of my friends in the village in his kitchen one day; he had guests coming for lunch and the rest of his family had work in the fields. We were talking about their foods and their kitchenware when he pointed to me a couple of huge vessels made of solid stone on a rack in the kitchen. They were pitch black. ‘My mother used to tell me they were brought from Baluchistan centuries ago. The oldest families in the village all have them’, he told me. A few years ago, a trader appeared in the village. He was offering shiny, new aluminium vessels in exchange for these heavy, cumbersome stone ones. The vessels I saw were two of the very few pieces of the kind still in Kibber. ‘We don’t use them for cooking anymore, of course’, my friend grinned.
A morning a couple of years ago, as I was strolling along the winding mud roads of Kibber, I heard a high pitched song that echoed across the hilltop fields to the edge of the village. Slowly, I could discern many voices singing the same song, some faint and far away, some distinct, close by. The mismatched chorus somehow blended beautifully with the brown and grey and white mountains, the drab mud houses and colourful prayer flags of this little village high up in the trans-Himalaya. The farmers sang it as they led their yak round their fields. It was their ploughing-song, a song that is centuries old. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people know the songs and stories with every passing generation. Theirs is a way of life that’s fast changing. ‘We’ll probably get a tractor some day to do the ploughing’, my farmer friend told me one day. ‘Then, we’ll not hear the ploughing-song anymore. Only the monotone of the tractor’, he said after a moment’s reflection. There was hope in his eyes. There was profound sadness in his voice.