Rediscovering Shangri La
If words could have portrayed our emotions, like colours in the hands of a painter; if words could have latched on to the reality of moment like a nestled dream in our mind… I would have been happy. I would have danced around the meadowed green like a cur training to catch a butterfly, like an unborn child trying to wiggle his way out from the womb of his mother. But alas, my words fail me… They leave me alone in the midst of battle surrounded by enemy, unarmed and baffled. Only to stop beyond the lines to look back and mock at the General, they once served well. True, I am a man of words, and just words, as Annabelle once pointed out. True, I am a man moist in the deluge of dreams and imagination as Sherry once evaluated. But still, I can’t make it. Words fail me, when I need them the most today……
Emerald green, divine blue, visions of dream perhaps.
I began my journey without much planning like most India travellers. By experience perhaps, of having traveled in Africa, Russia, Chechnya, Nepal and more so having survived in the interiors of Andhra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar there were not much that I was expecting in the backyard of the land I was born. How far is Kalimpong? How far is Pedong? What more can be expected beyond cheap hotels and monasteries visited time and again? Rude questions that I had levied upon those who were to accompany me. There was reluctance on my part. Bhutan would have been a much better destination.
Possibly, my big mouth was to blame, On an earlier visit to Kalimpong, I had walked over the crest of fearsome trans-Himalayan streams – unchangingly hostile. Cold, grey, icy and menacing in the typical profile of the Teesta and Rangeet, their several headwaters that drain the Terai and beyond. What more lies above and beyond the forests – lured into them as Kipling was I had decided to venture beyond the ravaging rivers to scout places for my upcoming documentary.
Far yet near
To show how much close and yet far removed from the hustles of the chaotic town of Kalimpong, it took only 52 minutes to transport the crew to Pedong, packed liked sardines, though, in a can people gloriously call ‘The Commander Jeep’. Yet, immediately, the slopes of Pedong summed up the lyrical appeal. The terrain was more beautiful than dramatic and the poetry it conjured up was that of Rudyard Kipling’s – ‘The Jungle Book’ – an intense fragment of the psychic state most of us come near to owning but lose when common reality and the out turned mind reassert their thrall.
Pedong occupies an area of about 45 sq km and slices right through the crest that divides India, China, Sikkim and Bhutan. The medieval Lepcha Kings administered the land but lost much control to the Bhutanese who later expanded during the 14th Century taking over much of Pedong and Kalimpong. The Sikkimese Rulers themselves, ardent Buddhists and sharing traditional legacy with the Bhutanese Royal House enjoyed much freedom and access to the region. Regular trade was carried out between these Kingdoms and Tibet and the Silk Route that existed operated until the 1960s. In fact, our guide and host Sebastian Pradhan was good enough to surprise us by pointing out that the road we had traveled such uncomfortably and were now standing upon was no other than the ancient Silk Route itself.
I confess I have never been so turned on by history than I was at that moment. The crew disembarked from the can much relieved to be humans again and more so to stand where centuries ago people much like ourselves but less complaining traveled covering almost 500 miles to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. A short descending trek, thence, thank God, took us to Sebastian’s house at Kashyone village, our base camp, a lone sentinel surrounded by hectares of greenery .
Unlike in urban settings where it is each one for himself (or as T. S. Eliot put it – people live together not because they love one another but because they can make money from the proximity of others) the rare settlements in Pedong are pragmatically humane and helping hands are extended cheerfully to all strangers. It was usual on climbing up during the trek and frequent hiking to experience the oasis mood of a thriving little community occupied with small but abundant holdings and giving off that flavour so rarely met with in more advanced societies – contentment with their lot. Barley is a bumper crop yielded in the lower Teesta and Rangeet valley. It is the world’s most ardent fermentor. Chang may not compare with whiskey but their parentage is common. If one is lucky and we were, a vintage Chang, is a treat for the palate, a marvelous sensation indeed that stays for the rest of many days.
A bit like rafting over the Teesta River, in fact. I felt rejuvenated by 10 years – a considerable blessing to an already ancient mariner across the threshold of 30.
Lepcha Heritage House
We left Kashyone, the next day, ready to rediscover a forgotten paradise, one that had already enthralled me. As our convoy of scribe travellers made way up towards the Cross Hill, a light drizzle dampened much of our spirit. The clouds themselves, likes nymphs in hurry covered much of the surroundings and soon there were none that could be seen except hear the heavy breathings of the us, heavily laden gorks, making way towards the unknown forests. Our guide as for the entire trip was Sebastian Pradhan and the entire success and the pleasure of the trip was due to his fluent knowledge of the land and the conditions. “Don’t worry, Roy,” he would frequently cry from the top of a hill scampering over them like a mountain goat, while, I, a man half his age stood down below panting already convinced that the journey was ill timed and the effort, wasted. Surprisingly, enough, our guide never missed a prediction, explaining about all the birds, plants, trees and animals we reached the top to find the sky clearing rapidly and the drizzle now a distant dream. The day turned into a glorious afternoon with scenes of women folks beating off husks from rice. Suddenly and remarkably out of nowhere, then, a most fascinating structure stood out in the fore – an 8th Generation Lepcha Heritage House built during the 1600 A. D., and today still in its magnificent best.
Sebastian quickly set out to explain the fascinating aspects of the Lepcha Heritage House. Still inhabited by the eight and the ninth generation Lepcha family, the house is built over huge stone pedestals, the foundation columns standing over them without a paste or a glue to bind the two. The cross beams themselves dissecting and intersecting without a nail, joint or a binding agent. No equipments except an axe and a scratcher were said to have been used. The thatched roof bound with the inner frames by bamboo laces and the partitions thereof made entirely of bamboo woven mats covered by mud paste.
The house is historic in the sense that it was constructed during the formation of the British East India Company and at the height of Mughal Rule in India. To observe such mastery of architectural skill was a blessing unknown to the people in the hills themselves.
Our crew quickly set on a photographing spree when the plight of the owners surfaced most dramatically. Nothing much had been done for the protection, maintenance and the general upkeep of the historic house and the owners themselves owing to the scarcity of fund were desperate for financial help. An interaction between the owners and the crew mediated by Sebastian Pradhan ended up with my promise for financial help on the behalf of Himalayan Traveller towards the protection, maintenance and the general upkeep of the historic site. The predicament resolved and a hot Lepcha brew set us up for yet another journey of discovery.
This article was published in the July 2006 issue of The Himalayan Traveller.
The photographs have been reproduced from The Himalayan Traveller and have been downsized. (c) 2006 – 2007 The Himalayan Traveller