Sound of silence
India Today Plus
October 2003


Anu Malhotra leaves the hullabaloo of urban living and rides up the hill for a few days of soul therapy
Whenever my restlessness overwhelms and city life, with all its clamour and din, weighs me down, I long for the mountains. I just want to wander about on my own with no agenda, destination or charted route. I take very little with me – just my music, my brand of coffee and silence. So it was great to meet Nitin and Sonia, a young couple from Delhi who have chosen to live the life of the ‘ghoda walas’ (literally, ‘horse people’) in Manali. They own a dozen Himachali ponies and organize treks for small groups and single travellers like me. A week’s relaxed trip to the valley sounded perfect.
It is late afternoon when we set off from Manali to the outskirts of Prini village – a 20-minute drive. As we walk through the village, I hear the plaintive cry of a bhopu (a trumpet) and the beating of dreams. Nitin tells me there is a village festival going on. We walk over to a small field, set along the hillface, surrounded by a few huts. A group of colourfully dressed men and women are doing the graceful Kullu natti, the typical dance of this region, in step with the music, watched on by almost the entire village. Shining faces, bright eyes, colourful shawls and topis, catch my eye and lens. The devta (God) of this village resides in the idol, sitting resplendent in silk robes and sparkling jewellery, on a wooden palanquin. Nitin tells me the devtas are all powerful and that the village shaman communicates the gods’ wishes to the people. Divinities from different villages often ‘visit’ each other, setting out in a procession followed by several members of the village. They are received and treated like honoured guests by the entire village. And this is how the locals maintain an enormous network of goodwill throughout their region.
It’s almost sunset, so after a quick tea, offset by delicious, freshly fried jalebies, we set off on our climb. The walk is really steep – 2,000 ft. in the next four hours – and difficult in the twilight. But soon the moon looms over the mountain peak to illuminate our way. This is one of the most ecstatic experiences in the mountain – walking by moonlight in a surreal landscape, the fresh, moist essence of night everywhere, and the sound of the breeze wafting through pine trees…
We float through the silvery landscape, sit quietly by a village hut listening to an old Hindi film song wafting through to the stars, and stop by for more tea and scrambled egg in a small candlelit hut enroute. It’s late and quite cold when we reach Sethan village. We go to one of the huts glistening in the moonlight, up wooden stairs to Ammaji’s rooms. It’s great to get out of our heavy jackets and sit by the hearth, sipping hot, delicious tea. Ammaji, who is Nitin’s village godmother, tells me about her cows that give “specially thick milk renowned all over Manali”. We put out our sleeping bags and stretch out on the wooden balcony outside Ammaji’s room and are soon lulled to sleep by the moonbeam shining on us through broken roof tiles.
Sethan, I discover next morning, is a quaint little village of about a dozen huts. A central muddy street lined with horses and cows runs through the village. This is a Buddhist settlement – people live here only in summer and move down to their homes and other businesses in Manali for winter. A tiny tea place is the only shop. I have a parantha breakfast while watching the locals and Nitin play ‘cholo’ – a pebble and dice game. People sit around and shout boisterously as the game progresses. It’s late afternoon when Nitin and Sonia meticulously load five horses. These horses and their dogs, Pai and Kallu, are their extended family. Both Nitin and Sonia are crazy about them, take care of them lovingly and chat affectionately with them. Rebo is “the gallant stallion”, Neely ‘the mother-in-law’, Chetak ‘the badmaash’, Sonu ‘the bhola one’ and Ashwin ‘the flirt’. Over the next few days, I, too, begin to see the distinctive personalities of these beautiful ponies while I learn to lead them or load them. So, it’s three of us, five horses and two dogs who set off on our trek. Rebo, the handsome dark chestnut stallion leads the way followed by the four geldings, all loaded now with food supplies, tents and other camping equipment. Pai and Kallu follow, barking like pack dogs to keep them moving.
We walk through pine forests dappled with sunlight, the mild fragrance of pine wafting through the fresh breeze till we reach our campsite at Marasu – a tiny meadow surrounded by steep hillsides. We set up ‘dera’ here unloading horses, pitching tents, fetching drinking water from a nearby stream, gathering firewood for the campfire and cooking. At night, I spend hours contemplating the billion stars out in the sky. Hot soup warms my hands, the horses neigh gently and dogs bark occasionally, punctuating the deep, velvety silence. Soon, the distant mountain peak is lit up in silver as the moonlight descends in a gentle sweep, gilding parts of the stunning night canvas. We spend the next day lazing on the meadow, basking under the sun, listening to music while staring at the mountains, clouds and sky – completely rejuvenating!
The next day we leave early, for it’s a 20 km and a 2,000 ft climb to our next campsite in Zamir. Today, I ride Rebo for most of the trek, which is exhilarating – a joyous though terrifying ride – especially when Rebo is walking along steep hillfaces, on narrow tracks and clambering over rocks, even though he is surefooted like a mountain goat. The sun sets the snow peaks on fire as we round the corner and see the Deo Tibba peak glistening ahead. Zamir is a big grass meadow sparkling with tiny summer flowers and purple irises. We set up our tent at one end – there is a fabulous 360 degree view of the mountains. The other end of the meadow is occupied by a gaddi, a semi-nomadic shepherd and his sheep – about 200 of them fleeced out all over. The horses are relieved after a hard day’s job and roll over on the grass, rubbing the sweat off their backs and then gallop off to graze on the freshly minted shoots on the hillside.
The shepherd comes over for a chat with Nitin and gives us fresh sheep milk (which Sonia uses to make delicious ‘kadhi’ the next day). Today we have to trek down some way to fetch water from the stream. Nitin goes off to collect firewood which he heaves to our campsite. It’s very cold tonight so the bonfire is excellent to sit around while the food cooks – simple rice, dal and veggies washed down with sweet peppermint and cinnamon tea. Soon the moon is shining bright, and silvery vistas open up far beyond.
Next morning, we are woken up by gaddi who tells us that his two-year-old colt was mauled by a bear in the night. So that’s why the dogs were barking like crazy last night! Nitin goes off to catch the colt and bring him over while Sonia prepares honey water and peels garlic for a home remedy. These are excellent to clean the wound and disinfect the wound. I can almost see the relief on the colt’s face after the job is done. (Sonia tells me that it is her dream to open a veterinary clinic for the locals, advocate natural cures and educate them about the basics of animal care and health.)
The next day is cloudy and threatens to rain so we decide to laze at Zamir. I lie about on the hillside looking out at mountains and trees, listening to the call of the birds, the rustling of the leaves, and breathing in the sparkling energy of my surroundings. Pai and Kallu run around the meadow playing tag tirelessly all day, and the horses wander higher up the slope to graze. Soup, baked beans, eggs and bread add to the picnic feel. Nitin and Sonia are out for hours, helping the shepherd with odd jobs, and catching up with local gossip. I see how much people here value relationships and help each other. Anyone who passes the camp is welcomed and offered food and drink. The social and ethical code followed by these gentle mountain people is a lesson in grace for brusque urban dwellers.
It’s refreshing to be silent all day and then chat companionably around the bonfire. I look at Nitin and Sonia and envy their easy contentment, their guts to have opted out. It’s another magical moonlit night. We are going back tomorrow but for now I snuggle into my sleeping bag and let the slivery silence seep into my soul.