I reached Majnu-ka-Tilla where once the sufi saint Majnu used to ferry people across the Yamuna to meet Guru Nanak who had stayed there for a while. Today the Indo-Canadian travels a Punjabi enterprise (obvious from its nomenclature) ferries people to Himachal from the same location at a significant price. I got into the bus at around 7pm to Aut. Anagha has told me about Astha Homestay in a village called Upper Neahi. I was headed there to stay for a month.
I reached Aut at 8am and got a bus to Sainj. Sainj is a valley drained by river Sainj in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. The valley is a mirror image of Banjar valley drained by river Thirthan.
Aut to Sainj took an hour on the bus. The local busses are skeletal, the most stripped down version of a bus you can imagine. But the imagery they bring to you on route is extravagant. I am from the coast and has almost all the time lived at sea level, to be transported at such altitudes alongside mountains was arresting. It was like an IMAX movie seen from the seats of a traditional single screen and i watched choking curiosity. I looked at others in the bus for reciprocation but they were mostly locals and were more amazed by my constipated face than the scenery outside.
Sainj is a small town and being at the edge of a mountain cannot afford a town square. All shops are in one stretch along with the bus stop, after my unsuccessful attempt to find a washroom I boarded the bus to Deori. These busses are not regular and runs only thrice a day. The road to Deori is not exactly a road in its time honoured meaning but a path with unconsolidated sediments and hence the ride isn’t very smooth.
I reached Deori in another 45 mins, as you enter the village you have a small temple of Durga and a few shops and houses and a small post office. I trekked up to reach Upper Neahi. The path is a bit steep initially but becomes plain half way through. All along the way I was guarded by Deodars on both sides and sunlight filtered through them creating patterns on ground. A 30 minute trekk culminates in one of the most stirring sites i have ever seen. A lake invaded by vegetation, walled by Deodars and sacred by customs emerges.
We have to tread along the perimeter of the sacred Pundrik lake to reach Upper Neahi. There was a light shower as I walked along the lake, magpies flew with their long tails on trees nearby and wind spoke through the murmur of leaves. It was like entering the world behind a wardrobe or a world found by falling through a rabbit hole.Corn fields emerged after i passed the lake and across the corn fields the first few roofs crowned with corn emerge, the smoke from the chimneys in houses signal your arrival.
I slowly moved down through rock and a group of stones posing as a staircase to reach Aastha Home Stay where the care taker Mahi (Mr.Mahender Singh Kaith) was waiting for me. Aastha is the only home stay in the entire hamlet. It is made in its entirety of Deodar wood and is painted Facebook blue. It has a large airy verandah with an unobstructed view of the Great Himalayan National Park. I entered and sat there on the carpets inhaling the panorama. All my senses appeared drugged as they found it difficult to classify this reality they have been fed, it was unprecedented and required a category of its own.
The Home Stay
I have been staying for more than a month in Upper Neahi reading writing trekking and hiking in and around the village. Mahi would make me tea and breakfast in the morning and then take me around places near by. He is the heart and hands of the homestay, always active and ready for things. You can see him wash utensils and cook in the morning, play Pubg in the afternoon and fight with his girlfriend in the evening and demand every visitor to take his pics which he later posts on WhatsApp with some Aashiqui type song in the background.He acts as the social glue between guest introducing everyone to the other, working hard to find common ground between them. He is very educated, did M Com and they worked as a teacher got bored to death and decided to do what he wanted in life.
Mahi would cook and serve me almost everything from daal to mutton. Siddu is another Himachal special dish I tried here. It is atta stuffed with potatao and cooked over steam, this is then dipped in locally sourced ghee and eaten. It is very filling and tasty at the same time.
I was also invited for a dinner at Mahi’s ancestral house which is just behind the home stay. The house is almost 200 years old and has a unique architecture. The house had four stories, the top most was kitchen, below a dinning hall, then a sleeping area and the lower most which is called the gufa (cave) had animals. The dining floor is accessible only through a small square shaped hole and i had to literally crawl to get in. Inside there were carpets laid and a tandoor were placed at the centre. It was extremely warm, I was served food live, rotis were put in tandoor and then immediately into my heavy brass plate. I ate listening to stories from Mahi’s father.
The Coffee Shop
After my breakfast every day I walk to the coffee shop near by. It is owned and run by Dadoo ( Mr.Vijay Kumar). Dadoo was in the apple business for 35 years then he opened a shop in Deori but soon got irritated, as school kids would come and keep buying sweets for a rupee or two. Every time he had to put his hand into a plastic can get a toffee and hand it over. He hence shifted the shop to Upper Neahi where school kids were lesser. I would sit for hours at his shop reading and writing, he would serve me tea and egg parantha in the afternoon and aloo pakoda which is his speciality. Dadoo is very different from the over enthusiastic local people I usually see in places I have travelled. He would rarely initiate a conversation and talk only if he is asked something. He respects your privacy and expects you to respect his.
The School and the Meadow
Between the Home Stay and Coffee shop comes a school with a meadow, I would go there everyday in the evening to run. The first day that I went the kids who were playing there watched me with unapologetic curiosity. The second day they all came and started doing push ups with me and started repeating every action of mine. I started blushing, upon which a kid came forward and asked “aap sharma rahe ho kya?” (Are you shy). I laughed and decided to be their PT master for the rest of the days.
The school in Upper Neahi is till 8th standard for education till plus 2 one needs to go to Deori and college education is only available in Sainj. Hospitals or clinics are not there anywhere close, people trek down to Sainj for clinic and travel to Kullu for tertiary care. Women have a very difficult time during pregnancy, as they have to trek down to receive medical attention. A few days ago a woman in labour from Shraan was being carried to Deori and her child died on the way.
I learnt more about the village from Girdhariji who is Mahi’s brother and also the Sarpanch of the area. Three villages come under him Upper Neahi, Jille Neahi and Sharan. He is the most influential person in the area. He is perceptive, patient and harbours a significant amount of political ambitions. He told me that there are around 250 people in the village, a large portion of them are out in Kullu or Mandi working hence effectively around 100 people. Family structure is joint with at least 3 generations living together. Village exogamy and caste endogamy is practiced, brides come from Banjar valley and Thirthan. Villages are also arranged on caste lines, which is the tragic truth with almost all villages in the country. Upper Neahi is a Rajput village, below it is Shraan which is a Dalit one.
Girdhariji also talks about how many houses in the villages which do not have toilets. The 12000 INR provided by the sarkar under Swacch Bharat Abhiyan for making toilets is completely inadequate. In the rocky terrain the amount would not even suffice to dig a hole in the ground. An average cost of building a toilet goes up to 1.5 lakh rupees. Also people here see toilet as polluting hence they either refuse to build a toilet or build it away from their houses.
Girdhariji took me to the corn fields and apple orchards, he climbed a tree plucked an apple and gave it to me.
In October when I reached it was the end of Saeb-Makki (apple-corn) season. Apple is the moral currency of the village, as you walk villagers randomly approach you and give you an apple with a smile. Corn on the other hand is burnt into Butta and given in the evening to munch as you shiver in the cold wind. Post the harvest corn Ghehu (wheat) and mattar (green peas) are sown. It is predominantly subsistence agriculture, the produce is used for local consumption, only apple and mattar are marketed. The division of land across generations has made land smaller and non contiguous making economies of scale impossible. No pesticide nor fertiliser is used, people rely on cow dung to enrich the soil.
Sheep, Goat and Cow are major animals domesticated but chicken is not. The reason for alienating the species is because they are secular in their diet and eat everything. The local God Janasar is not happy with this and has put restrictions on poultry. So in many houses in Upper Neahi mutton is cooked but chicken is not.
Deodar (Himalayan Cedar) dominate the landscape in Upper Neahi. They appear tall and disciplined, unlike tropical vegetation they do not whore around the forest growing one over the other. They stand as soldiers in formation, close but separated from each other. Deodars understand the notion of privacy among trees. Once in two years Deodars communicate to each other through pollen rain. Enormous amounts of pollen move from one deodar tree to another with the wind and the air is impregnated with pollen. When it rains the pollen is watered down and the soil becomes yellow.
As the name indicates it is the wood of Gods. Houses made of deodar are beyond the reach of termites. But now there is a complete ban on felling of Deodars, and hence new house construction is slow and almost impossible, this is a major reason why families stay in joint forms in Upper Neahi. Most of the houses are sliced in middle between brothers. Hence one can see a part of the house painted and decorated in a different manner than the rest. .The other trees include Kail (Himalayan Pine) and Akhrot ( Walnut).
Forests also shelter beasts, bhaloo (bear) encounters with villagers do happen as they go for collection of forest produce. Girdhariji was attacked by a bhaloo and was badly mangled but he escaped. Tendua (Leopard) also enters villages and hunts for the local dogs. The village dog Shamus was attacked by Leopard and she narrowly escaped. Since the area is a national park all the animals within it is protected under Schedule 1 and 2 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Hunting animals is hence not allowed. Even then local during intense winter wade through knee deep snow to hunt, as the animals would come down from the mountain. Junglee Murgi ( Red Spurfowl), types of deer and wild goats are hunted and the meat is shared among villagers.
Treks and Hikes
There are a few places for trekking from Upper Neahi, the closest is Sarikanda. It is a steep climb up for around one and a half hours, the end point is an almost vertical meadow. People also go to Shangarh from the village, it is a very scenic trek, where i encountered waterfalls and small bridges coiled with vegetation. I also hiked to many other villages like Manyashi, Jille Neahi and Ropa. The path to these destinations are pretty well pronounced and hence did not get lost on the way. Also Mahi makes maps for all treks, these maps have no relation to cartography whatsoever. But can help in producing a placebo effect during the journey.
Aastha serves as a good place to meet people. I met very warm travellers at the Homestay. I met a couple Rajashri and Nikhil who were travelling in Himachal for the past month and reached Aastha to stay for a day, loved the place and instead stayed for a week. There was Gaurav,came alone for his vacation from his IT job, very friendly and then Anshuman who is a repeat visitor in the Homestay and is part of the folklore in this place for reasons I cannot mention in this write up. But it is not that all people who come to Aastha are great, assholes also do make their way to Upper Neahi. I met two insensitive guys who played music on loudspeakers across the village and became a complete nuisance.
I would like to say that this Homestay is for people who understand the nuances of staying in a village and respecting the people and their way of living. A stay at a home is different from a stay at the hotel. Here you are treated in a more intimate manner, relations are more diffused. Mahi does not even take any advance for the stay, I have been staying for a month and yet they refuse to take any money from me and say that they only take money at the end of the stay, however long it is. So when we misbehave in such spaces the owners do not get angry but they are hurt.
And finally Aastha, she is Girdhariji’s beti (daughter), the Homestay had started when she was born hence the name of the Homestay is fused with hers. She is a constant presence in the house and it is impossible to ignore her. She is very self aware and responsible, she washes her own clothes. She is unlike other babies you find in cities. She can manage things on her own.