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Fifty kilometres from Darjeeling, the motorable road ended at Rimbik, on the edge of the Singalila National Park. In those days it was a sleepy settlement under the shadow of dense, forested mountains. We stayed in the house of a local Newari man named Shiva Pradhan. His modest wooden cottage has since been converted into a budget hotel, thanks to a favourable mention in the Lonely Planet travel book, whose devotees normally end their Sandakphu-Phalut trek here. But at that time it was a two-storeyed structure with a large open kitchen, a row of small cubicles and a washroom in the open courtyard. Like Aunty’s Café on Kutchery Road, the key to Shiva Pradhan’s success as an innkeeper lay in the art of hospitality in an authentic family ambience. A place to catch one’s breath after an arduous trek and the company of a simple hill family—the combination is bound to cast an irresistible spell on travellers of this lonely planet.
We enquired about the primitive Lepcha village inside the forest. Local men at a tavern in Rimbik bazaar confirmed its existence. It was around two days’ trek from the forest village of Gurdum, they said. Shiva Pradhan arranged for a guide and two porters for our journey. Nima Sherpa, our guide, was a taciturn man of uncertain age with a pair of narrow eyes chipped into a stony face. He claimed to have taken a sahib to the colony a few years earlier.
We dined that evening in the Pradhans’ large kitchen with members of his extended family. Photographs of Western visitors and warm hand-written notes in different European languages were pinned to the walls. The following morning we set out for Siri Khola.
Our journey’s aim was two-fold: to search out a lost tribal settlement and to collect data on a rare sub-species of salamander—an ancient tribe and a Paleolithic reptile, living fossils inscribed upon the bed of time.
Julia was carrying in her knapsack a paperback titled Himalayan Village written by Geoffrey Gorer. Gorer, an amateur anthropologist, spent four months in a Lepcha settlement in Sikkim in the 1930s. The traditional Lepcha society, as Gorer observed, seemed to enjoy a fair amount of sexual freedom within certain taboos. One could have consensual sex with almost anyone, except with members of nine generations from the mother’s side and four generations from the father’s side. Again, a father and son were forbidden to have sex with the same woman; the same applied to a mother and daughter with respect to a man. It was the duty of the parents to caution their pubescent children about the persons they had had sex with.
There was no embarassment or shame in this but, as Gorer writes, ‘Incest for the Lepchas is horrifying; they do not call it a sin but nam-toak, an act which produces a year of disaster for the community.’There was also no big fuss about a child’s identity, unless it was the fruit of incest. A Lepcha boy was allowed to have sex with the wives of his brothers and uncles, if the uncles were younger than his father. The same applied to women in similar relations. Gorer had found that the Lepchas made full use of these contingencies. The casual encounters of the body never involved any emotion: no strings were attached, and there was no fuss. But, at the same time, there was nothing saturnalian about these matters. Sexual trysts—Gorer’s Christian mindset called them ‘legalised adultery’—usually took place in forests around the villages, behind boulders and in watch-sheds in the fields. It followed certain codes of conduct; indiscretion was socially condemned. The words of a villager named Chudo are illuminating in this context:
If I caught Chimpet (the son of his elder brother Tafoor) sleeping with my wife I shouldn’t be cross at all; on the contrary I should be very pleased, for she would be teaching him how to do it properly and I would know that he was in the hands of a good teacher! On the other hand, if I caught a married man, who had a right to sleep with my wife, doing so, I should reproach them for their lack of shame in doing in my presence what might better be done in my absence.
The Lepchas with whom Gorer lived had embraced Buddhism more than two centuries earlier. But their life was still under the influence of various ghosts and demons. The lamas had no authority over the village shamans. They would sacrifice yaks and hold communal feasts to exorcise and appease the supernatural powers. Each clan would have its own power to protect it. At the individual level, too, man and woman would be possessed by separate powers, which were passed on from father to son and from mother to daughter. Women were also ruled by Ami-rum, the god of riches, and Katong Fi, a mysterious demi-god who appeared during menstruation and copulated with them in their dreams. If Katong Fi failed to visit them, it was believed that death was imminent. The woman would then retire into the forest, bathe in a mountain spring and wait for the assignation with Katong Fi, or death.
Dewdrops fell from low moss-covered branches, a stone loosened by a boot rolled away, fog swirled in clumps of rhododendrons, a raven cawed. An eerie silence, save the crunch of gravel under the plastic sandals of the porters. The forest was like Nima Sherpa’s face, mute and impassive.
We spent the second night in Gurdum.
From Rimbik, the trail up to Sirikhola was mostly flat, along a forest of tall conifers, and strewn with smooth boulders. The Siri spring murmured across it to meet the Rammam river a few hundred feet below. A pretty log cabin with sloping double roofs stood by it. This was the trekkers’ hut. A narrow hanging bridge spanned the stream. The place echoed with the ceaseless noise of water rushing into the gorge below. Tiny fire-engine-red birds flitted over the spray and darted to the wet glistening stones. They were catching insects.
‘Those are scarlet minivets,’ Hemraj said.
Julia rushed to the stream bed, sat on her haunches and dipped her fingers in the cold water.
‘Shouldn’t we have spent the night here, instead of Rimbik?’ she shouted over the roar of rapids, pointing to the trekkers’ hut. Seen from the edge of the stream, glowing in the light reflected off the water, it appeared like a mystic Japanese pagoda.
‘But then we wouldn’t have found the porters here,’ I replied. ‘And we would have been like the poor creatures over there!’
I pointed towards the bridge. A pack of six mules, loaded with huge sacks, had appeared from a bridle track behind the cabin and were now gingerly stepping onto the hanging bridge in single file. A boy, wearing a coarse Tibetan coat and a red cap, egged them on with a stick.
The bridge, the mountain spring, the animals, the boy and the log cabin in the background—a perfect picture postcard. Julia whistled in joy and ran to fetch the camera from her knapsack. Frames were captured in succession: the mule caravan at the head of the bridge, upon the bridge, away from the bridge.
After drinking mugs of hot salt-tea that the caretaker of the trekkers’ hut made for us, we took the bridle path. A steep climb began. Keeping the cascading stream to the left, the path wound up through a thick sun-dappled forest of firs, magnolias and yellow primroses glowing in the thickets. After an ascent of nearly two hours, we came to a wide ledge in the mountain and found the burnt remains of trees standing like giant spears. Nothing grew on the dry grass. Hemraj broke off a piece of charcoal and sniffed it.
‘There was a forest fire here before the rains,’ he said.
The National Park rules had banned the collection of dry leaves and twigs by villagers living on the margins of the park. During spring, when deciduous trees shed their leaves, the forest waits for a spark to turn it into a devastating fire. We would find more such forest areas later, blackened and deathly, in the higher reaches.
Gurung herders grazed their yaks at a height of ten to twelve thousand feet. Chhurpi, a type of dessicated cheese, is made from the milk of these animals and sold in the markets of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. This practice has been going on since the British times. The founders of Darjeeling had realized early that it would not make economic sense to procure from distant plains the regular supply of dairy products the sanatorium would need. It was necessary to have large grazing grounds nearby to meet the requirements of fodder and firewood—in short, a reserve forest. With this aim, vast tracts of forestland were bought up in 1882-83 from the descendants of a wealthy nobleman named Chebu Lama. Woodcutters and cattle-grazers were settled there. After Independence and the passing of forest-protection laws, these villages remained but the people living there lost their rights over the produce of the surrounding forests.
Gurdum was one such village.
We reached up there from Sirikhola but, as Nima told us, trekkers usually came here on the last leg of the Sandakphu-Phalut trek. From Sandakphu top, off the spur that connects Phalut, a trail climbs down the steep hillside clad in silver fir and other sub-alpine trees and leads to the village. Here, board and lodging was available for trekkers in a loghouse that hung over the deep gorge of the Siri. Surrounded by dense forests, Gurdum was alive with the muffled roar of rapids and fleecy mists rising from below. A dozen Bhutia families lived here, rearing cattle and farming maize and other vegetables in tiny forest clearings. Their huts, made of wood and corrugated tin, stood on stilts against the hillside. Pigs and poultry were raised under living quarters; the cattle-sheds were open on all sides and made of dried leaves woven on wooden frames. Clumps of prayer flags fluttered here and there. At the approach to the village was a row of sacred Mani stones.
We pitched our tents above the dwellings upon a grassy clearing on the edge of a rhododendron grove. But the dinner that evening was arranged at the village headman’s house. The special favour was granted us because of the blonde memsahib in our group.
The main room of the headman’s house, around fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, was built out of solid pine logs. The walls inside were burnished with years of oily soot while, outside, the barks were alive with layers of moss. A hearth made of stone and mud was built on a part of flattened hillside flush with the wooden floor of the room. Visitors were invited to sit near it for the warmth.
Despite his boyish looks, the headman had a large family of several children and grandchildren. Members of the village council were also present, huddled near the fire and chatting among themselves. I couldn’t follow their conversation, and asked Hemraj about it.
‘In these remote places, they often mix their dialects with Nepali or Tibetan,’ he said. ‘Some of the expressions are so localized that they sometimes differ on two sides of the same mountain.’
‘Can you mark the differences?’ I asked him.
‘Of course not!’ Hemraj smiled. ‘I’m also fumbling along.’
But Julia wasn’t bothered. She had already cosied up to the womenfolk using the language of signs and touch. They giggled and tittered as they compared notes on skin colour and hair, clothing and ornaments. The headman’s wife, a matronly woman in an apron-like dress with horizontal stripes, handed us tongba in bamboo-stem vessels even as she tended the fire in the hearth. A large kettle of water hung over it. One only needed to fill up the bamboo vessels to have an endless drinking session. There was enough supply of fermented millet in a large wooden cask.
About four feet above the oven that burned day and night like Ravan’s funeral pyre, slabs of cheese wrapped in gunny were drying upon a wooden frame. There were also strips of salted yak meat, bundles of corn, strings of onions and garlic, bamboo shoots, dallé khorsani (arguably the hottest variety of chilli in the world) and other dried herbs and vegetables. Freshly harvested potatoes were heaped in a corner, next to upright wood. A baby swaddled in sheepskin slept on the raised wooden floor. A large grey dog, it’s eyes alert under droopy lids, lay close and gave it warmth. All the social and biological needs of a family were laid out around the hearth, its heat and scented smoke.
After all these years, the word hearth still calls up to my mind that room in the headman’s house. I can vividly recall the knots on neatly dovetailed planks, the simple furniture bearing khukuri marks, the carved wooden bowls and the weave on the yak-hair rug—the work of brawny arms and deft fingers.
I also recall a face—prematurely wrinkled, framed in a worn woollen cap, lit up like an ancient folktale by the flickering light from the fire. His name was Pemba and he was a shepherd who lived on the other side of the mountain, a full day’s trek away. He had come to Gurdum to receive an old umbrella that had belonged to his uncle, also a shepherd. The uncle had declared once he died, the umbrella should go to Pemba. The old man had recently passed away, and Pemba had come to collect his bequest.
Pemba was sitting in a corner of the room, eating roasted potatoes with cheese chutney. He bowed nervously whenever our eyes met. I learnt that he had set out before dawn from his village to arrive late in the afternoon, and would depart soon. He would walk through the night around the forested spur and reach his village the following morning. When we wanted to see the umbrella, Pemba jumped to his feet, shuffled forward and held it in his outstretched hands like a sacred object. It was a large umbrella, of faded, patched-up cloth sewn upon a framework of canes. The canes had been replaced many times over. Perhaps the uncle, too, had inherited the umbrella from an ancestor. Now it was Pemba’s and would go to an heir after him. The cloth and the canes would be replaced from time to time, but the umbrella would remain the same and be passed on from generation to generation. Not an article made of cloth and canes, but an idea; not a faith or a myth, but the shadow of an object that was an integral part of a shepherd’s life; a shadow imbued with the scents of the sun and rains, not sacred flowers and blood.
After dinner, Hemraj and I took leave of the headman’s family to spend the night in our tent above the village. Julia stayed back at the behest of the womenfolk. Pemba followed us. We would have to set out very early the following morning, Nima informed us. But the people we talked to in the village didn’t have encouraging words. No one had seen or heard about the settlement we were searching for. Perhaps it had been there in the past, and had moved to more remote forests in Nepal. The news cast shadows of despair over Julia’s face. But Nima was impassive.
‘We’ll start very early tomorrow,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to cut our path through dense jungle. There is no route.’
Pemba bade us farewell near the tents and disappeared into the dark stands of rhododendron. With the big umbrella resting upon his shoulder, a khukuri on his waist, bits of chchurpi in his pocket and a talisman on his neck, he would cross the deep nocturnal forest to go to the other side of the mountain. The chhurpi, khukuri and the talisman would protect him from thirst, wild animals and ghosts respectively.
We, on the other hand, had lots of equipment scattered around our tents. Two single-hoop tents stood side by side in the clearing—one for Julia and the other for Hemraj and myself. Julia’s tent was empty. The lights of the village below had gone out and the dwellings were lost in darkness. A lone dog barked there from time to time. Countless stars shone above in the clear sky. A mountain spur jutted before us and looked like the hairy back of a primaeval animal. The sub-alpine forest started from here: bamboo, birch, rhododendron and, higher up, rows of spear-shaped silver firs. Above their pointed heads the Milky Way stretched across the horizon, packed with millions of stars, and a big comet close by. The comet, tinted green like Julia’s eyes, looked out of the bottomless depths in search of a lost tribal settlement.