Spirits And Sustainable Living In Spiti Valley

Decoding Spiti Valley through medicine men, Buddhist culture, and wild onion blooms.  
Kiber Spiti Valley Himachal Pradesh
Like many of Spiti’s villages, Kibber, about an hour from the district capital Kaza, has commanding views of the valley. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Chundwi gently holds my wrists. His weathered face is luminescent; his eyes, flecked with green and yellow, glow like amber. I wait, watching his furrowed brows as his sons devour a breakfast of steaming thukpa. Chundwi is the village medicine man, the amchi, and I am having my pulse “read.” A minute later he gently says, in a mix of Hindi and Tibetan, that I have a migraine problem. I nod. And a particularly acidic stomach too, he adds. I nod again. Then, in a hushed voice, Chundwi asks if I was sick three days ago for precisely two days. Perhaps I was vomiting profusely? My skin starts to crawl and I stare at him pop-eyed, unable to comprehend how this man I met only minutes ago knows this about me simply by taking my pulse. “Yes,” he says shaking his head sagely, “You were possessed.”

I’m in Demul, a village in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh, with two purposes: to acquaint myself with this land deeply steeped in Buddhist culture, and to learn about sustainable living and travel. The amchi’s analysis however, is a little too close for comfort. Beads of sweat form on my upper lip as I rewind to the start of my adventure.

After a 13-hour drive from Manali I arrived in the town of Kaza—the first halt on my trip—with my head feeling like it was going to split into two. To get over my acclimatisation woes, I drank lots of water, plenty of Electral, and even tried garlic soup, the local remedy for altitude sickness. For two days nothing worked. I was miserable and felt it was terribly cruel that I should feel vanquished in a place so obviously brimming with vitality.

Spiti Valley Himachal Pradesh

Sheep, horses, and yaks are allowed to graze freely along the mountainside for most of the summer. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Between garlic pods and silent prayers, something eventually worked. After a light lunch on day three, my companion Milan and I set out for Tabo, with our guide Tsering and quiet 20-something driver Gatuk. They are both from Ecosphere, an outfit that promotes community-based ecotourism in Spiti. Through homestays and guided treks, the 12-year-old organisation attempts to create sustainable sources of income in the district. It gives locals incentive to conserve their natural and cultural heritage, and travellers like me a chance to immerse themselves in the culture while on a carbon-neutral trip.

Gatuk manoeuvres the Innova on barely-there mountain roads with ease. I’ve learnt that the emissions our trip generates are being offset through local renewable energy projects in the region. Tsering meanwhile gives me a crash course in Tibetan Buddhism. He’s well acquainted with Spiti’s history, its plant and animal life. When he isn’t unravelling the valley’s many layers for tourists, Tsering teaches school children about the wildlife that share their habitat. School textbooks, he says, tell them about peacocks and tigers—animals they may never encounter—but he introduces them to the snow leopard and Himalayan wolf, both endangered species that live in these parts. Tsering’s favourite subject is Buddhism, but he takes pains to emphasise that everything is open to change and interpretation. I learn that of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, three have monasteries in Spiti. Tabo monastery, where we are headed, belongs to the Gelugpa or yellow-hat sect, led by the Dalai Lama. It is the oldest lamasery on the subcontinent, dating back to 996, and because of its location on the erstwhile Hindustan-Tibet route, was once a melting pot for scholastic and artistic traditions.

The light is fading by the time we get to Tabo. Tightening a coarse woollen shawl around me, I stroll through the charming village: past apricot trees, a post office with a blue hand-painted signboard, and a café with a monk playing a slow Hindi song on a guitar. Everything about Tabo makes me smile.

Spiti River Himachal Pradesh

The most striking feature of this landscape is clusters of sharp, rocky spikes that stand like sentinels guarding the Spiti River as it ambles along the valley. Photo: Milan Moudgill

The monastery is closing by the time I get there but a lama gestures for me to come in anyway. The main temple is shrouded in darkness and a silence so deeply penetrating I walk on my tiptoes. As my eyes adjust to the lack of light, numerous sculptures begin to emerge. I see the whites of eyes, folds of maroon robes, and lashes of blue. There are 33 clay figures lining the four walls and I remember Tsering telling me they symbolise moments in the Buddha’s meditative process. The murals are too tarnished for me to decipher. I am told that lamas would light butter lamps in this room for their daily prayers, causing the walls to be covered in soot. Since the 1975 earthquake, the day’s rituals have been conducted in a new prayer hall in an adjacent compound. If this room is ever restored, the monk whispers, the soot is probably the only reason the murals will survive.

There are other temples to explore but I am drawn to a tree near the back of the complex. Something about its branches, like perfectly formed sound waves, pulls me in. I duck under the foliage and find that there is a sparrow for every leaf. I am enveloped by their song. And for the first time since I have arrived, Spiti reverberates through me. My muscles relax, my breath slows down, and inside me something unclenches. I touch the bark and leave knowing that the storm from Kaza has passed. Later I discover that very mala tree with the rough, ripped, and scarred bark is over 1,000 years old, as old as the monastery.

Spiti is steeped in spirituality. It is everywhere. In the prayer flags furiously fluttering in the breeze, in the temperamental village devatas that need constant appeasing, and in the wrinkles of old monks chanting as they go about their day. Through my trip, I find myself having thought-provoking discussions with souvenir stall owners, pea farmers, and medicine men about our connection with each other, with a higher power, and most importantly, our relationship with our planet. The locals have a quiet sense of pride for Spiti’s natural heritage, and are deeply connected with their land. The message is loud and clear: How can any definition of spirituality exclude our relationship with our habitat? I am humbled by it, and hope I will return home a more understanding and conscious person.

I feel this most in Komic, the highest inhabited village in Asia. Perched at an altitude of 4,500 metres, it has perfectly shaped pebbles, swirling barley fields, and views of snow-capped mountains. Spiti’s landscape is unlike anything I have seen before. The river braids through the valley’s vast plains and narrower gorges, glinting like a stained-glass masterpiece in the crimson sunset. When a village approaches, the browns give way to tumbling pea fields, apple trees, and swaying willows. But it’s the mountains that are hypnotic. Almost sinuous in form, they look like sleeping giants that may awake at any moment.

I’m staying with Yonden Dolma, a tall, smiling mother of two rosy-cheeked children. Dolma’s home is large and sparsely furnished but she provides everything I need: a mattress, blankets, and a low table by a large window with sweeping views of the village. Sitting cross-legged on the mat, I watch flocks of sheep and yaks placidly chewing the cud. After a cup of fragrant mint tea, I take a walk with Tsering who has something to show me. Along the way, he points out wild spinach, black cumin plants, and a bush called potentilla, the stems of which are used to make brooms. I chew on cumin blossoms, pulling my floppy woollen hat low over my ears. It’s only August but it’s getting chilly.

Farming in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh

Because of the potent smell they emit when they are pounded, the crushing of onion flowers (left) is done outside the village. The lilac blooms are harvested annually and used throughout the year; Tumbling pea fields (right) are frequently seen on the river bank. They are Spiti’s primary cash crop. Other produce, like barley and vegetables, are grown for consumption. Photos: Milan Moudgill

Winters in Spiti are brutal, but thanks to investment in building greenhouses, locals now grow tomatoes, beans, and potatoes all year round. Building the greenhouse alongside the largest room of the home ensures energy efficiency and the temperature inside stays over 11°C despite the mercury dropping to -40°C outside. This, Tsering says, cuts down on the cost of buying wood and reduces carbon emissions. He swoops down to pick a few pea pods from a field we’re walking past, cracks them open, and hands me the sweet, green orbs.

A little outside the village, cane baskets of spiky flowers are drying in the shade of a rocky outcrop. I recognise the wild onion blooms, a delicate herb that I was introduced to a few days ago. I’ve been haranguing Tsering ever since I tasted the lilac, needle-shaped buds, asking how I can score some for my kitchen. Ecosphere normally sells bottles of the dried herb at their cosy office in Kaza, along with wild garlic, but they were out of both when I visited. I’m glad though—this is a far better source for my stash.

Farther down the path, we come upon six locals perched on a boulder the size of a small bus. They’ve spent two days collecting the dandelion-shaped flowers from meadows around Komic and are now pounding the petals. The air is potent with the smell of onion (no tears though). The coarse chutney they make is then dried and used to flavour food, particularly in winter. They fill the flowers into hollows in the boulder, a result of years of pounding in the same spot. The pestle is a solid metal rod that I can barely lift. Together two women lift and drop the heavy pestle, grunting with the effort. Their clothes are damp and their hair sticks to the sides of their sweat-slicked faces.

Spiti Valley Himachal Pradesh Homestay

Homestay accommodations are sparse and functional at best, but the chance to live with a local family makes the travel experience infinitely richer. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Back at Yonden’s, I reap the benefits of being at a homestay. She teaches me to make potato momos flavoured with the onion blooms. For dinner, with the dumplings there is a light broth of wild spinach, fresh peas, and churpi, chewy yak cheese that the hostess has made. And a Spiti staple called tsampa, a savoury laddoo of sorts made with roasted barley flour and water. It isn’t particularly flavourful, but the joy of eating it with the family and knowing where the grain comes from is deeply satisfying.

Ecosphere adopts entire villages, and every house offers visitors homestay facilities. The families host travellers on a rotational basis so there is a fair distribution of income throughout the village. Understandably, some are nicer than others. My room in the Sharap family’s home in Demul for instance, wasn’t as nice as the one in Komic. It was smaller, the sheets weathered, and the glasses chipped. But the more battered the home, the more aware I become of how little my host family has. Not that Demul was a disappointment. I witnessed the dramatic Namkhan festival there—an intoxicating mix of song, dance, horse races, and lots of arak and chhang, a local brew made from barley. Drinking that sweet, fermented beer under the piercing blue skies and the magic of the festival is something I will never forget.

It is in Demul that I meet the medicine man Chundwi. Once the initial shock of his astute diagnosis of my recent ailment wears off, Chundwi shows me his prayer room. Here he keeps his textbooks: yellowing sheets of handwritten paper held together by wooden blocks and bound with leather strings. Their age is unknown, but he knows they predate his grandfather. I spend two hours chatting with his beautiful wife Dolma Yutung—over 65, but with waist-long hair that’s as black as a raven—and poring over Chundwi’s medicine suitcase. It’s filled with leather pouches, vials, old tin boxes, and pockets of cloth filled with roots, flowers, minerals, soil, even animal parts. Traditionally, medicine men would forage for the ingredients they use and the elderly man still does, as much as possible. He tells me that the herb mixes take days, sometimes months to formulate, and the amchi chants specific mantras while mixing the ingredients together. Ironically, Chundwi can’t diagnose himself. His technique requires that he listen to the pulse on both wrists simultaneously, which he cannot do. I could have spent days talking to him about his craft. Not for the first time, I am struck by how culturally rich this trip has been.

Spiti Valley Himachal Pradesh Tibetan Medicine

Traditionally, medicine men forage for the ingredients they use. The mixes are preserved in small leather pouches. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Most of my long drive back to Manali is spent replaying montages of Spiti in my head. As we cross the Rohtang Pass, the browns change into vibrant greens and I see horses that belong in a romantic novella, free grazing on the lush mountainside. The insights I’ve gained into local life, conservation initiatives, and the sustainable development of this Trans-Himalayan region have been educative—but it’s the amchi my thoughts keep looping back to. I spend most of the next day googling Tibetan medicine and find that pulse diagnosis is a technique used in Ayurveda as well as traditional Chinese and Unani medicine. Despite the hours I spend in fevered research I cannot explain Chundwi’s diagnosis. But then again, that is why I travel. To discover new worlds, make lasting connections, and be assuaged that in this know-it-all, google-anything world, the inexplicable still exists.

Appeared in the September 2014 issue as “Spirited Away”.

Map by Gaurav Ogale

The Guide

Spiti Valley is a high-altitude desert in the district of Lahaul & Spiti, in northeastern Himachal Pradesh.

Getting There 
Kaza, the district capital, is 204 km/12-14 hours from Manali and 420 km/16 hours from Shimla. The closest airport is in Kullu, 50 km/1 hour from Manali. There are a few weekly flights between Delhi and Kullu’s Bhuntar airport. Manali is 550 km/14 hours from Delhi and 260 km/8 hours from Chandigarh. There are numerous Volvo buses connecting the hill station with these major cities.

Guided Trips 
Ecosphere is a social enterprise that helps create sustainable livelihoods linked to nature and culture conservation in Spiti. They organise a variety of trips in the region, including walking holidays that introduce travellers to the region’s natural beauty. Their office is in Kaza. Visit spitiecosphere.com for details (94188 60099/94182 07750/94184 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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