A Himalayan Adventure In The Spiritual Spiti Valley

Surviving the arrack-fuelled Namkhan festival in the mountains.  
Balang Ri Spiti
The final chapter of the Namkhan festival takes place at Balang Ri, perched at 5,000 metres. Here, it is said, evolved souls can see a higher spiritual universe. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Demul is electric. Every resident of the mountain village of Spiti is dressed to the nines for the Namkhan festival. From the dusty window of my room, I see shiny-faced children chasing each other across rooftops, shirts tucked in, hair slicked down or neatly braided. Fathers and grandfathers in richly embroidered robes chuckle as they walk past piles of hay. I watch older women carry bottles of cloudy liquor and bowls of food to the maidan, their skin wrinkled but taut, torsos draped with turquoise necklaces. My gaze shifts to a mountain in the distance, a flat-topped behemoth with cumulous shadows dancing over its expanse. In only a few hours, I must climb this beast with the rest of Demul. But first, we drink arrack.

I have been in Spiti for a week now, and have learnt much about the region’s Buddhist heritage and sustainable tourism practices. With my travelling companion photographer, Milan Moudgill, and our insightful guide, Tsering, I’ve explored monasteries unchanged for centuries, savoured freshly plucked apricots, and harvested honey with my bare hands.

Spiti Traditional Clothing Woman Turqoise

Men wear embroidered robes and women put on display their turquoise and coral jewellery. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Every day, I learned a little more about this remote piece of our country where people and nature are bound together by instinct and folklore. Spiti—part of the Lahaul-Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh—spans 8,000 square kilometres of high-altitude desert, and has a population of 10,000. Andheri, the Mumbai suburb where I live, covers roughly 50 square kilometres, and is home to over one million. Snickering at this statistic, I grab my nicest shawl and leave my pistachio-green room to join the rest of Demul.

Climbing down the steep wooden ladder of my homestay, I inch past the drooling family yak, and make my way to the village gompa, where celebrations have begun. Namkhan, the annual harvest festival of Demul, is attended by every resident of this lofty village, as well as by people from other Spitian settlements. I see men, women, dogs, goats, and giggling children seated around a circle of elderly gents doing a tai chi-like dance around a flagpole. Their naked swords gleam in the morning light. The air is thin (Demul is perched at 4,350 metres) but thick with chanting and the wail of an instrument that sounds like a haunted sarangi. I find a spot between a girl in a once-pink dress and a regal old lady with jet black hair snaking down her back. It’s cold but the sun, like the energy on this auspicious day, is intense.

If the stories I hear are to be believed, the gods of Spiti are especially temperamental, in need of constant cajoling and appeasement. Every village has its devtas, deities that demand, among other things, a steady supply of yak butter and arrack. Upset the village devtas and the land dries up; anger them and it snows uncontrollably. These supernatural beings are not within the realm of organised Buddhism, but watching the festivities from my place in the courtyard, it’s clear they hold considerable sway.

The ancients of Spiti have surfaced frequently on my journey through this stark landscape. Every mountain pass, river, and monastery seems to have a mythical connection. I hear of healing trees, stallions possessed by spirits, and meditating monks who harness the power of their minds to dry soaking-wet robes within minutes. But of all the tales I’m told, that of the Giu Mummy is the most riveting. I was so taken by the tale, I made a detour to see the 540-year-old lama a few days before arriving in Demul.

Legend has it that many centuries ago, Spiti—then part of Tibet—was ravaged by a terrible drought. Rivers had slowed to a trickle, food and water were scarce, and people were dying of starvation. To ameliorate the situation, monks from various monasteries took to solitary meditation in caves in the rocky mountainside. One among them was the famed Giu lama. Historians believe he exercised a Tibetan form of self-mummification that uses meditation and strategic starvation to preserve the body without embalmment. By eating nuts, berries, tree bark, and resin, these austere monks would slowly eliminate the body of fat and moisture, thereby stalling the process of decomposition. The Giu lama was found in 1975 while digging for roadwork. Locals say his hair and nails continue to grow even today. I had raised an eyebrow when I heard the last detail. Tsering had simply smiled mysteriously.

Giu lama mummy Spiti

Spiti’s culture is steeped in Buddhist legend. Among the region’s crumbling relics is the Giu lama, a 540-year-old mummy. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Like many of Spiti’s villages, Giu is characterised by swirling barley fields in the summer and snow several feet deep in the winter. The mountain views are stupendous, but I do not tarry.

Rangjuth Tulku, or the one who has achieved enlightenment in a single lifetime, sits in an air-tight glass box. He looks shrivelled, no larger than a 10-year-old child, but is in remarkable condition. Wisps of hair still cling to his scalp, and he has, I notice, reasonably long fingernails. Looking closely at his face, I could tell he had high cheekbones, a modest forehead, and a diminutive nose. Teeth peep out from ashen lips. But the most striking feature of the Giu mummy is that he is sitting upright.His left knee is bent under his chin and his right hand, perched on the other knee, clutches prayer beads that had long since disintegrated. The more time I spent there, the more awed I was by the degree of his asceticism.

The austerity of the lama’s faith is a far cry from Demul’s merry-making demi-gods. Back at Namkhan, we are taken to the medicine man’s house. It’s a cool, dark room thick with the scent of dried yak dung. Over 50 people sit neatly filed along the walls, each with a metal bowl of yak butter and a pint of arrack in front of them. In the centre, on a bright green carpet, three solemn men sit ramrod straight, staring ahead. These are the gurs, the mediums between this world and the realm of the devtas I have heard so much about since arriving in Spiti.

Gurs, Tsering whispers, are village people. They undergo no monastic training and live normal lives working in the fields. A few times a year however, they are called upon to perform their metaphysical duties, communicating the village deity’s wisdom and prophecies to its people. They certainly look the part. Their robes, layered with ceremonial scarves, are the colour of fresh blood. On their scalps sit elaborate headgear, heavily embroidered with gold and studded with silver and shell.

Bent in reverence, the women in the room approach the table one by one, placing bowls of butter before the mediums. The gurs do not flinch, their eyes are unseeing, their stance unmoving. When all the devotees have made their offerings, the oracles begin to drink from terracotta pots brimming with murky, white liquor. I watch, mesmerised, as one of the gurs starts to mutter, softly at first, then louder, until his voice reverberates through the room.

Women chant discordantly in the background. I notice how small the windows in the room are, and how many people are packed into this small, suddenly stifling space.

Spiti Shaman

Festivities at Spiti Valley’s Namkhan festival border on the occult. A medium invokes the local deity for blessings and prophecies. Photo: Milan Moudgill

But it isn’t until the third medium takes over that my palms begin to sweat. He is more sombre than the others, and I find myself inexplicably gripping the carpet beneath my feet even though he is simply sipping arrack. His lips start to twitch. I watch his fists clench, eyelids shiver, and his irises roll to the back of his head until only the whites of his eyes are visible. His face contorts, changing with every clang of the cymbals, as he moans and writhes, screaming, begging, and cooing in a tongue and tone that make my skin crawl. I cannot understand a word he’s saying but I can feel their force. The sheer voltage seeping out of every pore is electric. My eyes remain fixed on his, looking for signs of consciousness, insanity, something. Then without warning, he crumples into a heap on the floor, slumps forward, and returns to his mortal self. Wiping his mouth with the corner of his robe, he returns to his seat.

Tsering tells me that the gurs, when possessed, speak ancient Tibetan, a tongue they cannot normally speak or understand. It’s an eerie detail, and though I don’t believe it, I do not entirely disbelieve it either. I have more questions but my guide, it appears, has other plans. “We must go to the maidan,” he says, grinning from ear to ear.

The ground is lined with bottles: chhang, a rustic local beer made from fermented barley, and arrack, which is distilled and crystal clear. I have never seen so much liquor in my life. There are no glasses. You take a sip, grimace, pass the bottle to your neighbour, and within a few minutes, another one comes along. The ritual makes me forget how rattled I was at the medicine man’s house where the last ceremony took place. The chhang is a little sour and the arrack is more potent than any alcohol I’ve had. It burns as it enters my system, leaving a whoosh of warmth in the throat and a trail of sweat on my brow. I feel the dewy grass under my palms, inhale its sweet scent, and grin impishly at the toothless lady next to me. I am, I realise, getting hammered at 10 in the morning with a woman old enough to be my grandma.

Then, the ladies start dancing. They stand in rows with their arms wrapped around their partners’ waists, alternately bending forward and leaning back in unison. Their turquoise jewellery and magenta shawls are in stark contrast to the mountains beyond. As I watch these elegantly aged women, it dawns on me that they aren’t actually performing for us. This is a dance for the elements: They bow deeply, in devotion to their mountains, then arch back, faces skyward, as if in gratitude to the sun. Even their steps are nimble, as if in deference to the soil beneath their feet.

Namkhan Spiti Dance

Ladies wear intricately woven traditional shawls, and dance as part of the Namkhan rituals. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Dhanker Monastery Spiti

The century-old Dhankar Monastery holds Tibetan masks and scrolls that predate the lamasery. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Their age and grace reminds me of Dhankar Monastery, which I visited a few days before. Perched precariously on a mountainside, the 1,400-year-old structure rasped as we explored its cavernous interiors. The prayer room, once alive with murals, is now layered with black soot; wooden beams creak under the weight of the roof; even the stuffed ram that hangs in the gompa’s courtyard looks beat. Milan and I had spent most of our time in the cham room, drawn to the grisly ceremonial masks that adorn its walls. Rapacious demons, fanged and horned, had glared at us as we examined faded thangkas and handwritten scriptures carried carefully from Tibet. Dhankar was once the capital of the Spiti kingdom, ruled by the younger brother of the King of Ladakh. At the time, it was the most powerful monastery in the land. Today, it is a gently decomposing tomb of Tibetan-Buddhist relics.

Perhaps this is why Spiti’s people cling so fiercely to their Buddhists legends and petulant devtas. They are the only links to their Tibetan roots. The people I meet were all born here—most have never been outside the valley—but they all express a deep desire to visit Tibet, a land they know both intimately and not at all.

By noon, things have become pleasantly blurry in Demul—and I have happily forgotten about the mountain I have to scale. The chatter in the maidan has swelled. Arrack bottles are still doing the rounds but I’m lying on the grass, staring at the sky, and dreaming of a steaming hot thukpa lunch and a nice, long nap. So when Tsering tells me what the next chapter of the Namkhan festival involves, I cannot believe my ears.

Fortified by liquor, the men will race their dressed-up yaks and horses up the steep mountain slope. The women will trek up on foot. More games and drinking will ensue until the mediums announce that the celebration is over. The photographer in Milan is thrilled at the prospect of racing up the mountain on foot (he’s wisely abstained from any drink). I am plotting an exit route. Tsering chuckles knowingly, and informs me that there’s a jeep to take us halfway there. We pile into a Sumo with ten women, four children, and one dog, and sing our way up the mountain.

Barley Field Spiti

Most village homes have views of swirling barley fields (left), which is Spiti Valley’s biggest source of food. The grain is used, among other things, to produce arrack and tsampa, roasted barley flour that is fashioned into savoury laddus and a breakfast gruel called thungpa; The entire village (right) troops to the meadow to drink, sing, and dance under open skies. Photos: Milan Moudgill

Spiti Namkhan

Namkhan festival is celebrated to pray for a good harvest. Photo: Milan Moudgill

I do not make the climb. Instead, I plonk down on the grass, and chat with another traveller from Singapore. We swap Spiti stories, hunt for ammonites, collect wild garlic, and watch tiny yak silhouettes make their way up the mountain (with Milan running behind). We’re both a bit overwhelmed by the altitude, the day’s events and by how foreign this place seems to city slickers like us.

I do not believe in the forces that govern this land—the devtas and the legends—and yet, I feel the potency of these ancients. Before me, the gentle Spiti River braids its way through the valley, glinting like stained glass in the pale evening light. On either side, the hulking Himalayas, the most powerful of Spiti’s ancients, pierce an impossibly blue sky.

Appeared in the July 2015 issue as “Trial By Fire”.

Dhankar was once a royal capital. Photo: Milan Moudgill

The Guide

Spiti Valley is a high-altitude desert in the district of Lahaul and Spiti, in northeastern Himachal Pradesh. Kaza is the district capital, 204 km/12-14 hr from Manali and 420 km/16 hr from Shimla.

The closest airport is in Kullu, 50 km/1 hr from Manali but Chandigarh airport (290 km/8 hr from Manali) has better connections.

The writer travelled with Ecosphere, an outfit that organises carbon-neutral trips in the region. Through homestays and guided treks, Ecosphere creates sustainable sources of income that give locals incentive to conserve their natural heritage, and travellers a chance to experience Spiti’s cultural traditions and stunning landscapes (spitiecosphere.com, 94188 60099/94184 39294).

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    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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    Milan Moudgill is a graphic design consultant, based in New Delhi. For the last decade he has been travelling in the Himalayas, and organising extreme treks, in an attempt to bring the mountains closer to the uninitiated and inexperienced.

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