TRAVEL / First footsteps in a Forbidden Land: Aminatta Forna journeys deep into the Himalayas, to the province of Kinnaur which has recently been opened up to Western visitors

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS THE Dalai Lama who brought us to Kinnaur. For it was he who made the choice of the tiny hamlet of Peoh, close to India's border with Tibet, to perform the Kalacakra initiation ceremony.

A Kalacakra teaching by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's leader-in-exile, is, to the faithful at least, a very big deal. In Buddhism, enlightenment is generally believed to be attained only after many lifetimes and reincarnations. But the ancient Kalacakra doctrine teaches a fast route, through intensive study and meditation. If the book were published today, it would be titled: How to Achieve Enlightenment in Only One Lifetime.

The Dalai Lama has only taught the text a handful of times before, so when the people of this remote Himalayan region were afforded such an opportunity, thousands travelled from miles around - or further - to attend. From Hollywood came Richard Gere and his supermodel wife Cindy Crawford, who almost upstaged the holy man himself.

Few outsiders have ever visited the Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, and - further to the north - Lahul and Spiti. Until the 1960s the lack of roads made access extremely difficult. After that the Indian authorities considered the provinces too politically sensitive to allow visitors access to them - hemmed in as they are by Tibet on one side and Kashmir, with all that region's political troubles, on the other. Together they have become known as the Forbidden Land.

This year, for the first time, the Indian government agreed to open the area so that pilgrims and visitors could attend the Kalacakra in Peoh. Once that step had been taken, the authorities decided to go even further, and allowed travellers to go beyond Peoh, through Kinnaur, and right on up as far north as Lahul and Spiti.

To get to the region you must first either fly or take the overnight sleeper train from Delhi to Simla. For those warmed by memories of British rule, the mock-Tudor facades of the old hill station might hold some attraction. Otherwise it is a rather damp and miserable town. Life revolves around the main thoroughfare where, in earlier times, Indians were not allowed to walk. Now vehicles are forbidden access so that wealthy Indian tourists can take advantage of the departure of their erstwhile rulers to parade and perambulate at leisure, pausing now and again to pose or pass the time of day. It is a remarkably tedious place.

We stayed in Simla long enough to get the travel permits we needed for access to the restricted area. In an 'olde worlde' shop selling maps and British memorabilia, I bought a copy of Rudyard Kipling's Kim. This is Kipling country; he spent a great deal of time in Simla, and travelled throughout the neighbouring mountain regions. I knew that Kim was set hereabouts, but was thrilled to discover that our itinerary more or less followed the path taken by Kipling's spy as he left India for Tibet.

Kim and his Tibetan lama teacher journeyed to Tibet on foot. We hired a little Maruti van - an uncomfortable, locally made vehicle - usually the only available form of transport other than the bus. This we shared with a French Buddhist nun and a German student of Buddhism, both on their way to Peoh. For eight hours we twisted and turned at a horrifying speed along the mountain roads. There were signs planted strategically every few kilometres along the road, bearing warnings such as: 'Be cautious, be slow and a long way you'll go', or 'Do a good deed, control your speed'. And more bizarrely: 'Death lays his icy hands on speed kings'. Our driver shot past them all without so much as a glance.

Our first stop was Sangla Valley, where Kim had an encounter with Russian and French spies. It seemed virtually unchanged since then; the telegraph poles were the only sign of the 20th century that I could see. Tourist brochures love to call the Himalayas the Switzerland of Asia. Generally speaking that is both an inaccurate and a lazy way to describe these immensely varied mountains, but it fits Sangla Valley. The steep-sided terrain is all grassy meadows, bubbling brooks, acres of wild flowers - and it smells strongly of rosemary and pine. Cannabis grows wild everywhere. We arrived on Independence Day and locals were celebrating by playing volleyball, dancing and drinking tea in the sun.

A place with no visitors has no hotels either, so we asked if we could stay in the government resthouse in the village of Chitkul, at the northernmost point of the valley. The resthouses were built for visiting government officers, census counters, election officials and the occasional diginitaries, though they do take paying guests, too. That evening, we went for a stroll. Here, deep inside the Forbidden Land and cut off from the outside world for years, everyone behaved as though there was nothing strange about the sight of four foreigners (including an African and one dressed as a Buddhist nun). Only the children gave in to giggles.

Perhaps it is because the people here are Buddhist and taught to accept all other forms of life without question. (Elsewhere in India, I had often been met with slack-jawed, mesmerised astonishment.) Whatever the reason for the people of Sangla's acceptance, they did not stare. Instead, they asked us to tea.

But later, as we walked back through the village, there was a change of atmosphere. Further down the hill, in the low-caste part of the village, the people were silent. Two women sat hunched and motionless outside a wooden house, their eyes closed. There was blood splattered on the ground. Back in the guest house we waited for dinner, which never arrived. All night there were shouts and lights moving to and fro. In the morning the caretaker apologised. Somebody had died that night and he had been called to help lay the body out in the temple.

We arrived in Peoh the following evening. Before the main Kalacakra ceremony, there were to be several days of additional teaching. The three-day ceremony itself was enough for European voyeurs like ourselves, so we decided to use the extra days to travel north, as far into the restricted area as we could go. No more than a fraction of the thousands who would ultimately attend the Kalacakra could have arrived in Peoh, but already the tiny village was crammed with people. So we booked a room and left our bags at the only hotel, the newly built Fairyland, switched cars and drivers and headed straight for Kaza, the northernmost point on our journey.

The new driver wore a jaunty green hat, had six fingers on one hand and was even more of a hell-raiser than the last. We said goodbye to our fellow travellers and hurtled out of town.

Kaza is in Spiti, and we were still following in Kim's footsteps. We were now at an altitude of 4,000 metres, where the air is so thin that it sometimes hurts to breathe. Rudyard Kipling observed of the villages that they clung 'like swallows' nests against the steeps, huddled on tiny flats down a 3,000-foot glissade; jammed into a corner between cliffs that funnelled and focused every wandering blast'. It is a harsh land and Kim suffered, as did we, from every uphill trek to a town or monastery which 'sweated the suet' from his bones.

High on the mountainside several kilometres outside the town is the Kee Gompa monastery, Kaza's main attraction. I arrived alone and wandered through the gateway. The first monk to spot me said hello and beckoned me to follow him. The monastery was pitch dark inside and he shot up a staircase at the back of the hall. I followed gamely, catching only a glimpse of his maroon robe as he disappeared around each corner ahead of me. Finally we reached the kitchen where he poured me a cup of traditional and unutterably ghastly Tibetan tea - made with rancid butter and salt - and smilingly watched me drink.

It is a small monastery and the tour of the three shrine rooms did not take long. But I warmed to it because it was a living monastery, not a museum, and many modern conveniences have been incorporated. Electric light bulbs have replaced some of the traditional butter lamps around the statues of Buddha, and lino covers the old mud floors. On the roof of the monastery a solar panel provides the monks with power. Still smiling and waving, our guide dispatched us back to our vehicle and returned to his duties.

Two days later, we were invited by a local historian (who was staying in the same hotel in Kaza) to join in a festival at Kungri Monastery in Pin Valley. The monks of the ancient and tiny Nyig-Pa sect were celebrating the life of the 8th-century founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Padam Sambhava.

The celebrations consisted of dances by the monks. Dressed in elaborate costume they performed lama dances, the famous Tibetan Buddhist Black Hat dance and the dance of the Ten Dreadful Deities of the Scriptures. Then, it was the turn of the locals to sing and dance for the monks.

The Nyig-Pa monks are known for the ascetisism and discipline of their lifestyle. Like all Buddhist monks they are celibate and dress plainly, but the Nyig-Pa reinforce their commitment to the religious life through yoga and even longer hours of contemplative meditation. As we waited in the growing heat for the dances to begin, our historian friend, Dorje Tshering, explained the symbiotic relationship of the villagers and the monasteries. Each family gives up its first-born son to the religious life and the community provides the monks with many daily necessities.

But their lifestyles could not be more different. While the monks remain celibate, denying themselves any distraction from the spiritual life, for the people of the region anything goes. They are, Dorje explained, primarily a polyandrous society (one woman may have several husbands) but polygamous and monogamous unions are accepted. And there are so many elopements that running away has become a standard way of avoiding an unwanted marriage or the cost of a full-scale wedding. They are poor people, he explained, and eking out a living in the harsh terrain is hard. So for poor men, one wife between three or four is as much as they can afford.

The flip side is that a rich man may take several wives. In Kim, Kipling professed a loathing for the women of the region. He described them as the 'unlovely, unclean wives of many husbands'. But as they stood around us, decked out in gold and turquoise, laughing somewhat immoderately at the antics of the dancing clown, their strength and independence was strikingly and happily at odds with the traditional view of womanhood elsewhere in India.

By now we were heading back to Peoh, where the Kalacakra ceremony was due to start in two days. On the way, at the insistence of Dorje Tshering, we visited the 1,000-year-old Thabo monastery.

We were glad he had insisted: entering the monastery for the first time, with its unprepossessing mud exterior, we felt that we now knew what it must have been like for the men who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb. Inside, the richness and splendour of its antiquity was breathtaking. There was the Room of a Thousand Buddhas - paintings which covered the walls and ceilings, each hand-painted with individual expressions and clothing.

Around the walls of the main prayer room, the life of Buddha was painted in minute detail. Statues of the Buddhas lined the walls. We saw only one young monk lighting butter lamps around the shrine; he had been left to perform the rituals while his colleagues attended the Kalacakra teachings.

In the early morning, as the sun was rising, we had to go back for a second look inside the monastery. The place was deserted and the door unlocked. We left our shoes outside and went in, past the two 20ft statues of the gatekeepers. After a few minutes the young monk came in to pray. Our Western sensibilities made us feel we were trespassing and so we apologised for being there, unchaperoned among so many priceless artefacts.

He just smiled and shrugged. It was fine. But how long will it remain so, now that this remarkable and once Forbidden Land has been exposed to the outside world?-


GETTING THERE: Fly to Delhi with British Airways (081-897 4000) or Air India (071-491 7979) for pounds 700 return Pex fare (min stay 14 days, max stay 4 months). Trailfinders offer return flights for pounds 374 plus pounds 4.50 tax.

GETTING AROUND: The train journey from Delhi to Simla takes 10 or 11 hours. You can book tickets in this country. An Indrail pass allows unlimited train travel - 24 hours for pounds 20, 21 days for pounds 114, 30 days for pounds 143, 60 days for pounds 206, available from SD Enterprises Ltd (081-903 3411). Tickets booked on the spot could be about pounds 8 or pounds 9 one way, although no exact prices are available. Flights from Delhi to Simla with Indian Airlines are approximately pounds 33 each way; Trailfinders will request flights but confirmation and payment must be done by the traveller once in India.

TOUR OPERATORS: Ultimate Holidays (0279 508034); Himalayan Travel (0981 550246); Explore Worldwide (0252 319448); Sherpa Expeditions (081-577 2717) for trekking in the area.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Government of India Tourist Board, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2PB (071- 437 3677).

(Photographs and map omitted)