What do you say about a journey that begins with a mix of some-what known, some vaguely known and the totally unknown? I was going to Ladakh with people I just knew by names and email IDs and eager to see what would unfold.
The Kahwah is a brew I was familiar with. Voraciously consumed in the Kashmir valley, I was waiting to taste the original flavor. With the first cup I felt a warm certainty. I met my group of fellow travelers in Srinagar – matched names to faces, took in to their diverse background. We rode for the next two days to our destination. Slowly the zesty mix of tea leaves, spice, nuts and saffron soon brewed itself into warmth and energy and lo! there was an interesting melange of wit, wisdom, laughter, silence and chatter. The urge for Kahwah did not stop at the first cup in the houseboat. I was asking for it at every other destination, reveling in each sip, each cup.
Then, at Drass, came the butter chai something I was vaguely familiar with but nothing really prepared me when the Nun chai turned up in tiny glasses pink in color! And then began the tiny wrestle in the mind – the regular chai versus the salted version. Not an easy line to draw between the stark contrasts. On the way to “the second most coldest inhabited place in the world”, breath-taking beauty and harsh conditions alternate with each other. Tiger hills, witness to valour and patriotism, peeks out majestically in the glowing twilight. At the table, some marvelled at the salty brew, some equated it to a medicinal concoction, and some likened it to soup that helped them welcome the newness! Few indulged in a small talk with the chai stall owner, who patiently explained the procedure. A little salt in cup marked the tea complete. With this, pinch by pinch camaraderie wafted through, helping each other try to pose for the camera, bite into green apples, dig into apricots and break into the nuts. From the coniferous and the meadows to the arid vast browns, the vaguely familiar was slowly lifting itself to reveal a more interesting tapestry. Healers, dancer, seekers, deep thinkers, jesters, readers, writers, and facilitators – it was as if the rumpled mountains were releasing various shades out of its folds. The ride continued onto the next day, with us taking to rich landscape, sitting up to the words of a wise one, correcting each other’s vocabulary, warming up to Hindi tunes with Kashmiri lyrics (forcibly rather!) and enjoying the highway humour, courtesy BRO. I was going beyond the ordinary and happily at that. The taste of pink still lingered.
Gurgur – Honestly I thought the butter version ends with the Nun chai. After the well accomplished trek, sitting in the cosy, well-kept kitchen of a village home, cupping my hands around the steaming hot gurgur chai, it begins to warm my heart just by running through the many things Ladakhi…
…that they have an unmistakable closeness and reverence to nature and all living things around them. That they owe their harmonious and contended existence to the symbiotic connections with these very things.
… that perhaps their proximity to nature helps them exercise good senses. Houses have smaller entrances and windows (at least the ground floor) to protect them from cold winds and snow leopards. Most families have an agriculture land at the upstream as well as the downstream to ensure no field ever remains deprived.
… that they treat even livestock and mules with good care and respect. Journeys on mules are undertaken well before daybreak to not unduly subject them to harsh sun. Leh even has a sanctuary for helpless donkeys.
… that SECMOL is not just an experiment or an inspiration for a movie. From utilising readily available solar energy to preserving local talent, and from helping them build life skills, it is a heartening reality!
…that the Amma shkupa or the Mother Juniper is rightly the most revered of all species. A living testimony to rising against all odds. …that despite the harsh winters -spent mostly indoors – Ladakhi’s do not know lazing around. While summers see them up before sunrise, toiling in the fields and busy stocking up for colder months, their winters are equally productive. From working on yak wool, designing garments, brewing the chang, there is plenty to be done. It is then hardly surprising when they reveal – with a mix of pride and secure knowledge – that a middle class man has enough stock to last his family six years, the poor enough for three months.
…that there is so much more to unravel, experience, and learn and all I have scratched is the surface. Once I am back to my urban existence, I continue to delight in the Kahwah, the fact that I have brought back along with me a tiny piece of everyone’s persona, and that the “unknown” that I began my journey with, is no longer so. I now greet it with abundant openness and with the promise of an encore!
Originally published in Sep. 2013