Temples and Traditions of Kinnaur

We left behind in Nako, the barren, scenery that characterised the Spiti Valley. As we dropped in altitude, we were greeted by green alpine forests, that probably seemed that much lusher after an absence vegetation. We were even greeted by light showers as we entered the Kinnauri village of Kalpa in the early evening. We decided to stay two nights at a small family guest house a short climb above the village centre. We were in serious need of rest in order to recover from the bus rides and Kalpa seemed to offer a lovely setting for doing nothing.

Other than the mountain scenery, Kalpa's main attraction is its temple. A collection of intricatally carved wooden buildings, built in the traditional Kinnauri style. This style is marked by its “balagad” shaped roofs and carvings depicting the natural environment. Of particular intrigue were the very well-endowed male animals, whose images occupied a large portion of our camera's memory card space. From the building eaves hang hundreds of delicate chimes that eerily resonate when the wind blows. Our second day in Kalpa happened to coincide with an annual celebration of the village deity. This celebration was marked by a procession through the streets of Kalpa by village's men. As we ate on a hotel patio we heard the beating of drums and the sound of trumpets which is actually what led us to catch a glimpse of the large black item, the village deity, as it was carried up towards the temple, the procession's ending point. The stream of green-capped men followed the deity, in a state of alcohol-induced gaiety. I was drawn into the festivities and followed the procession into the temple. I left the others to settled the bill while I entered the temple grounds. A group of men had already begin performing a ceremonial dance with the deity, while the village band accompanied them. Although very welcoming, the men were becoming increasingly rowdy, and were particularly enamoured by the presence of lone foreign woman. Even once Yann had joined me I had the feeling that the presence of foreigners was somewhat of an unwelcome distraction. So we quietly left the temple heading towards the outskirts of the village to wait for the sunset.
Despite our distance, we could hear the loud, monotone chanting emanating from the temple celebrations. The chants seemed to call on the clouds to lift, revealing for the first time since our arrival in Kalpa, the snow-capped peaks of the sacred Kinner Kailash mountain range that were actually surrounding us. We watched until the last sliver of light had disappeared from the sky. We headed for bed expecting that the village men would continue their celebrations throughout the night. From Kalpa, we took a small detour from the main highway to visit Sarahan, location of the Bhimakali Temple. A multi-story construction of alternating layers of timber and stone whose original construction dates back over 800 years. As a temple honouring the local manifestation of the blood-thirsty goddess Kali, it has been a site of sacrifice for hundreds of years. Apparently even human sacrifices as recently as the 1800s. It seems a strange contrast from the beauty of the temple and its surroundings. Unbelievably, we had the temple entirely to ourselves. We stayed in the temple guest house, as possibly its only guests, with a balcony looking over the courtyard entrance to the temple. The architectural wonder was ours to explore and admire without any distraction.

Nako - "Land of Fairy Tales and Fantasies"

Tabo marked the end of our trip through the Spiti Valley, we would now be passing through the Kinnaur Valley. Our inner-line permits that we had patiently applied for in Kaza were now necessary as we traveled within ten kilometers of the Indian-Tibetan border. At the highway checkpoint, we watched as a poor foreigner was detained for traveling without a permit. They seemed to be discussing whether to send him back from where he came, and he was distraught. Even though the nearest permit office was less than 100km away, on this highway this could represent an entire day of travel, on possibly the world's scariest roads. Had it been Yann being sent back, this might have necessitated a helicopter evacuation. His nerves were getting shakier and shakier as we climbed towards the town of Nako, where we would be stopping. We had discovered that the only thing keeping Yann together on mountain bus rides had been his MP3 player. I had managed to forget mine on the train and drop Yann's out a bus window. All I could do was hold Yann's hand, which didn't work wonders but was all we had. But Nako's precarious location, afforded it simply breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. Sitting within a few kilometers of the barren Western Tibetan frontier, the village of Nako is centered around the small but sacred Nako lake. The narrow alleys of Nako are lined with prayer wheels, crumbling chortens and piles of Mani stones. Livestock or gardens are enclosed by stone walls and roofs are piled high with kindling and hay. Fancier homes are adorned with intricately carved wooden door frames. Prayer flags criss-cross the village. We had some trouble finding accomodation in Nako. There didn't seem to be many tourists around but many of the small guest houses claimed to be full. The larger, newly constructed hotels in the village's centre were large and obtrusive and uglified the charming village. We weren't keen on using them. The four of us ended up in a basement room of a restaurant, using the bathrooms of the guest house next door (which conveniently locked its doors after dinner, making for interesting nighttime bathroom runs).

The villagers, both men and women, sported the traditional Kinnauri wool cap with its bright green flap and appeared from the surrounding hills carrying crops on their backs. An elderly man who we passed on the road stopped to proclaim his love of Kinnaur. Packs of small children played together as their parents disappeared for the long summer days in the fields. We spent an afternoon walking the hills surrounding Nako, taking in the views and wondering if the foot trails led into Tibet. Chortens, Mani walls and prayer flags dotted the landscape, the blue sky reflected into the crystal clear Nako lake. We did a pretty good job of taking advantage of the village's tranquility without thinking too much about our upcoming bus ride and the contiunation of our trip. With a little bit more time we would have stayed longer, and would have had even more trouble leaving than we already did.

"At last they entered a world within a world - a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains...
'Surely the Gods live here', said Kim, beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. 'This is no place for men!'"

- From Kim, by Rudyard Kipling