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Memories of a gentle river
Climate change and growing urbanisation is slowly but surely changing a way of life in Himachal Pradesh. A tale of two ordinary villages and one town that are not on the tourist map
Good morning! A warm welcome to new readers who subscribed this week. This is The Intersection, the weekend edition of The Signal. Himachal Pradesh is currently facing one of the worst floods in decades, resulting in losses worth ₹10,000 crore (~$1.2 billion). The state has been hit hard by relentless rain and frequent landslides, a consequence of increased human activity and climate change. Sveta Basraon, the writer of today’s piece, belongs to Himachal Pradesh and her sister still lives on the banks of the Beas river, whose angry torrents made headlines for the destruction they wreaked. Sveta recollects what it was like to live in the Himalayan foothills when the rivers were playful and life unfolded to a gentler rhythm. Plus, we've shared a list of long reads for you.
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The Beas at Nadaun on August 14, 2023.
Sitting in Noida, my family has been closely watching the shocking news pouring in from my home state Himachal Pradesh. Of the incessant rains, flash floods and destruction in Mandi, Kullu, Shimla, and more. The death toll has climbed to 71. There were horrifying videos of houses falling and being swept away; of railway tracks suspended in air as the rain washed away the soil. Chief minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has estimated the loss at ₹10,000 crore and said it will take a year for the state to rebuild.
And then three days ago, my sister sent us videos and photos of the Beas in spate, close to her home. This is from a part of Himachal that is lashed by rain but was spared a calamity. Those images shocked us out of our guilt-laden thankfulness that “our” regions had been “spared”.
In all the years that I’ve visited my sister, I’ve never seen the river in this raging avatar. It is usually a blue ribbon, about a quarter the width that you see in the photo at the top. The remaining area was the exposed riverbed, where I used to look for colourful smooth pebbles as a teen. In the rains, the river does swell up, and it’s a local attraction to come view it from the bridge. No one in living memory has seen this form of the river, my brother-in-law tells me.
In his younger days, he could swim across even though the current was swift. My dad too has swum in the river. But now the raging river will sweep away anything—trees, cattle, people. As an orange alert was declared, there were policemen stationed at the bridge, to stop pedestrians and prevent cars from halting on the bridge. Most homes here are at a safe height, but some villagers had their cowsheds in low lying areas. These were flooded, with cows stuck in knee deep water and no way to rescue them last I heard.
My village in Hamirpur district, close to the border with Mandi district, and my sister’s town on the northern border with Kangra district, are not places that you’d hear about in the national news. They are ordinary places in the foothills of the Himalayas, and are not on the tourist map.
Map of Himachal. The Beas originates in the Rohtang pass in Kullu district. It passes through Mandi and Kangra districts and joins the Sutlej in Punjab. Map by cacahuate, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Not much happens in the village that’s out of the ordinary. And the same goes for my sister who lives near Nadaun—a historical town mentioned in Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s poem “Bulla Ki Janna Mein Kaun”.
But all that’s been changing over the past few years.
For the first time ever, my sister’s mango orchard has not a single mango, as all the flowers fell during the unseasonal rains earlier this year.
Climate change has had other mystifying effects. Last year in March, there were stories of houses in Bilaspur and several other areas that had water seeping out of the walls even though there had been no rain. Scientists said it was due to a severe winter and then a sudden rise in temperature.
A change in beat
In my village, change has taken a slightly different shape. As a kid visiting during school summer vacations, I recall there was no electricity. The closest road was on the hill across the khad (shallow ravine or seasonal stream); a party of cousins and uncles would come to pick us up, with some helping us carry our luggage on the hike back to the village.
In the 1970s, my cousins used to study by the light of a homemade kerosene lamp. They did their homework on a wooden board called patti coated with a limestone wash. They’d grind their own ink, and used pens carved from bamboo. After school, they’d wash the board, put a fresh layer of the limestone wash, and do the day’s homework. The pace of life was dictated by the sowing season.
All that started to change in the 1980s. First there was electricity. Then a road. People started building houses along the road, which now has a bus that comes by in the morning and returns in the evening. Most people have a car or a bike, and most youngsters prefer a job to the farm.
A road connects our village to the rest of the world
A bridge over the khad
What that means is that while life is easier, an entire way of life is vanishing. There’s less farming, and no one keeps cattle, save a cow or two, so there’s less need to get fodder. As a result, the jungle is slowly creeping into the village. It’s lovely and green everywhere, but I am not entirely sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Some old pathways into the hills have been completely overtaken by vegetation and no one sees any merit trying to hack the trails clear. On our last visit, in January this year, my father remarked that there were no stray dogs. My uncle shrugged and said “mirg ne kha liye” (mountain leopards got them). A couple of days ago when my dad called to check on everyone, he reported that wild pigs had entered the village, so everyone was out in the rain trying to chase them away.
There was a time in my childhood when all the men and kids slept on charpais in the courtyard on summer nights, and the women slept on the upstairs verandas. Out under the stars, it was cold enough in the summer to require a light quilt. I don’t see any of that happening any more, for many years now.
In the traditional houses built of sun dried bricks, timber and with slate roofs, the room in the centre is cool even in the hottest summer. No one had a fan. And in winter the whole family would gather around the woodfire stove in the large kitchen. Now, as people move to concrete houses, fans are ubiquitous. In the towns, like my sister’s, many have air conditioners.
And then there’s the growing garbage problem, even though the village is tiny with some 30 families. Plastic wrappers and all kinds of rubbish finds its way down this one gully that has become the dumping ground. You no longer can find the traditional pattal—a plate constructed with big round leaves sewn together with thin twigs—for the Himachali Dham, a traditional feast that Pahadis hold for any big occasion, be it a wedding, a kid starting school or college, even as thanksgiving for getting the bounty of a provident fund on retirement. It is plastic or paper plates and that too find their way into that garbage dump.
Stranded but safe
Living in a fragile mountain region comes with its share of risks, especially in the higher mountains. It is a hard terrain and always in the shadow of a natural disaster—avalanche in winter, landslide in the rain, and in some parts in the outer Himalayas, water scarcity in summer. Yet the people accept that with grace.
I had a chance to see this at close hand in the summer of 1999. We were high in the mountains in rural Chamba, in a village called Ranuh Kothi—named so because the Ranuh (king) had a hunting lodge close by. It had rained all night, though we were oblivious to the din of rain falling over the slate roof and the destruction. We slept through it all.
We woke up to a rain-washed morning, the sound of the rain indistinguishable from the “noise” of a waterfall a few dozen feet away. And to the news that large sections of the road had disappeared in landslides through the night.
We were stranded. The rain and landslides had also taken out the electricity. Though, we were lucky to be safe where we were, with enough food to see us through the week that we were stuck, disconnected in every way from the rest of the world.
My brother, a then 13-year-old nephew, and I were going to surprise my brother-in-law who was posted as headmaster at Ranuh Kothi school and was tasked with upgrading the school to higher secondary level.
We’d reached there the previous evening after an arduous day’s journey. A five-six-hour bus ride from Nadaun to Chamba city. Another two-hour bus ride from Chamba had brought us part of the way. The tea-shop owner where we alighted suggested we hitch a ride as it was a long trek. So, we hitched a ride with the only vehicle going our way—the only vehicle, period. A small lorry loaded with logs. While I got a seat in the driver’s cabin, my brother and nephew perched atop the logs at the back. The road was just wide enough for the lorry, with one side a cliff wall and the other a sheer drop into the Ravi River tumbling several feet below. At every curve in the road, the lorry was almost on the edge of that fall, and a few pebbles would dislodge and fall away.
Twenty minutes into the ride, there were loud panicked calls to stop and let us off. The driver stopped just before an old hanging bridge across a mountain stream. And out fell three ashen passengers—two of them on rubber legs. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to get an unrestricted view of the gorge as the lorry swayed close to the edge every few minutes.
We preferred to trek the rest of the 4-5 km to the school.
It was a slow steep climb for us city folks. Along the way we met a woman herding her goats. Seeing we were strangers and struggling, she slowed her pace to keep us company and guide us. And she kept up an easy chatter about the crops, her goats—and how the red bears came down to raid their fields. (Apparently, if you happen to encounter one, playing dead won’t help much. The bear, it seems, will poke a twig in your ear to check! Or so she said.)
Three hours into our trek, we reached her picturesque village, with what seemed like miles of stone steps serving as the main street. By now she had learnt we were guests of the school headmaster and two young men took our backpacks and escorted us the last few metres.
Over the next two days, with the electricity still out, I raided the school library during the day. And in the evening, by candlelight, the boy from the village who helped my brother-in-law told us folktales and myths.
One that is stuck in my memory even after 24 years is their belief that descendants of a witch live in a certain village across the gorge. The village is the only one in the area that has a temple dedicated to her and, he said, every time someone dies there you can hear the witch howling. The story goes that a witch hunting for food caught a woodcutter in the forest. He pleaded that she should let him get enough firewood first, so his family won’t freeze in winter. She agreed and he somehow trapped her. As a condition for her release, he asked her to marry him (presumably she wouldn’t eat him then!). She agreed but warned that she could stay with him only as long as he didn’t speak to her directly. Many years passed. One winter night, as they were sitting around the kitchen fire, he saw the milk was about to boil over, so he called out to warn her. That broke the spell and she had to return. But since she’d stayed with a human for so long, her punishment would be that she’d have to lead an avalanche, and she died. (The locals believed that avalanches are led by witches howling as a sort of rite of passage.)
On the third morning, we woke up to silence and feeble sunshine. By now the sound of that waterfall had become white noise for us. When I looked across the gorge, I could see the dark gaps in the road. And when I turned to look at the valley below, the village was obscured by clouds. We were above the clouds.
We had to wait a few more days for the roads to be repaired. As more sunshine greeted us over the next three days, we went on short walks to the village, to the waterfall, to an apple orchard. In every field we came across, we saw small stone tablets with wavy lines carved in—these represented the snake and invariably there were offerings of incense and flowers.
By the sixth morning, the road repair work was well on its way as there had been enough dry days. The school had started as well. By the next day, we’d most likely be able to leave. So, we decided to make the best of our last day here and ventured out further to Chhatrari village on the hill across.
[Chhatrari village, at an altitude of 6,000 feet above sea level. Photo by Harvinder Chandigarh - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The village takes its name from its 36 water sources. Our local guide and storyteller told us that a sage was meditating and asked his disciple for water. The disciple shot a trishul into the mountain and fountains sprung from the 36 places it struck. Many of them have beautifully carved fountain slabs or panihars.
The village is also famous for an 8th century temple, carved from Deodar wood, dedicated to Shakti, built by King Meru Verman of Bharmour (the ancient capital of Chamba).
In the late afternoon, as we were heading back to the school, my brother and I spotted a shortcut down the mountain. Half way into it, we came across a patch of loose earth and pebbles—the remnants of a landslide going all the way down to the Ravi bounding so many feet below. That patch must have been about 12-feet across. Even as we were deciding whether to cross or to climb up back to the safer, slower road, a woman and a small child came by and crossed the patch effortlessly. My brother went first. When I was crossing, I suddenly felt the earth shift under my feet and froze. A cry went up the mountainside—“Ruko Mat!” (Don’t stop!)
Clearly, I made it safely across and no fresh landslide was caused.
The next day, we trekked back down to the main road and hopped two-three buses to reach Chamba city and onwards. At every stop between buses, we were instructed to keep walking, as there were still loose rocks falling on the road occasionally.
This experience is memorable to me not least because of the man-nature connection I saw everywhere and the glimpses of a gentler, more generous, more trusting way of life. A lorry driver giving a free ride to strangers; a woman slowing her pace to guide us lest we get lost in the mountains; schoolkids greeting us with a “Namaste ji” as we crossed paths; the respect for natural forces—wild bears, snakes, avalanches, landslides.
Much has changed in these 24 years—like in my village. The hanging bridge became a pukka bridge; a jeepable road goes up to the school; and this rural area is not as cut off as before. But nature’s fury only seems to have gotten worse. Can they continue to accept it with grace and treat it as part of their heritage, weaving folk stories around it? Should they be expected to?
Sveta is the editor and head of operations at Founding Fuel and a part of the founding team.
This article was first published in Founding Fuel and is reproduced here with permission.
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