Splendid Isolation: Shamanic Rituals and Jaw-Dropping Rides in Spiti

Project #100DaysinHimalayas reaches half-point in Himachal Pradesh.  
Hikkim Post Office Spiti Ladakh
Visitors to Hikkim’s post office in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh are sure to be offered a cup of tea by the postmaster. The humble post station is famously labelled the highest in the world. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Ancient ceremonies, India’s highest post office, and one of the world’s highest motorable villages awaited wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee and Bollywood music composer Shantanu Moitra, as they reached the 50-day mark of their Project #100DaysinHimalayas in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. Between February and December 2016, the twosome will make a series of trips in the Himalayas, spanning from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, even in the neighbouring foothills of Nepal and Bhutan.

In Himachal Pradesh, they embarked on a gruelling drive through the famously isolated terrain of Spiti Valley. The high-altitude desert is known for its vast expanses, snow-clad peaks, and Buddhist monasteries with priceless art that have weathered a thousand years. It is also one of the most meagrely populated parts of the country. The district of Spiti is spread across roughly 7,101 sq km—about twice the size of Goa—and is home to 12,445 people, according to the 2011 census. (Goa’s population stands at 1.817 million.) For this, it has its inaccessibility and rugged climate to thank. Roads in and out of the region are terrible and its mountain villages are snowed in for eight months of the year.

Spiti’s seclusion also means that its landscapes and culture remain largely untouched. It has great views but also, “peculiar problems”, Moitra observed. In Hikkim, the duo visited the world’s highest post office, a squat, weathered structure perched at 15,500ft. The post office is known to be small but hospitable; lesser-known is that it takes the post master a fortnight’s journey just to deliver the letters and money orders to the homes around.

Dhankar Monastery Spiti Ladakh

The vast, rugged expanse of the cold desert valley of Spiti is softened by the occasional cluster of village homes and monasteries. Dhankar Monastery, pictured here, has stood on the spur of a mountain for over a thousand years. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Six kilometres from Hikkim, in the village of Langza, they observed a ritual for the healing of a child sick with fever. Spiti is home to a largely Buddhist population, and consultations with a traditional doctor or amchi is routine in these parts; often considered more feasible than a two-day journey to the nearest hospital. Watching the father of the sick child commune with the spirits in Langza, Moitra says he felt far removed from the familiar, and oddly aware of just how little is known about human consciousness. “I saw the shift in focus in his eyes when he snapped out of it,” Moitra remembers. He added that the child still ran a temperature the next day, albeit lowered by four degrees.

Despite the rugged landscape and the rough living, the people of the Himalayas are famously resilient and optimistic, Moitra observed, rarely saying anything negative. This couldn’t be truer than at Kibber, perched on the mountainside at 14,200ft. The settlement is known to be one of the world’s highest motorable villages, and while it is connected by road to the valley below, locals use a quicker, more precarious route when they visit the mountain across from theirs.

Bridge Chicham Kibber Spiti Ladakh

The daily commute between the mountain villages of Kibber and Chicham is in a hand-pulled contraption that resembles a cradle strapped to a zipline. Of course it’s hardly child’s play when the drop below the “jhula bridge” is hundreds of feet deep. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Passengers—ranging from farmers and goats, women with almirahs, and children going to school—pile into a makeshift “jhula bridge”: a rickety metal basket suspended on a thick cord between mountains and operated by hand using a simple pulley system. And yet, when Moitra rode the contraption, he observed only “laughter and merriment that I was doing it with them. They said, ‘Can you imagine, every day we get to fly through the air!’”

At Mudh village, Mukherjee and Moitra watched a traditional performance depicting the tenets of Buddhism. Two actors, dressed as a sheep and a monk, were discussing the Buddhist path to peace. The format was simple and spare, but the austere peaks in the background made it much grander. “Spiti is a huge area with very few people, so this is their entertainment,” Mukherjee added. Moitra was struck by the open-minded delivery of the message. The sheep and monk respectfully parted ways at the end, he recalled, with an air of tolerance that is characteristic of this isolated land.

Mudh Spiti Ladakh Actors

An actor playing a monk supports himself on two swords as a metaphor for how Buddhist principles don’t allow pain to pierce the faithful. At the extreme right is the actor playing the sheep in conversation with the monk. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Keep posted for updates from Mukherjee and Moitra, as this mountain bromance yields stunning photos of the Himalayas’ stark beauty, and stories of its charming people. Missed the previous dispatches? Read more on #100DaysInHimalayas.

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    Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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    Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife.

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