Travel & Food: Morning has broken with a full moon

Himachal Pradesh is a place one returns to, again and again, with the same delight and astonishment as the first time

Ratna Raman Yol

Seeing the Dhauladhar range of mountains from the plane as our flight lands on a cold clear winter morning is like being back in geography class, looking at models of snow-peaked mountains. The Gaggal airport is small and the propeller-driven plane stops in front of imposing violet, blue and white mountains, to which flaming poinsettias pay tribute from the other side of the tarmac. By now everyone has whipped out cellphones to capture the exhilarating view. Mountains do that to people who live away from them.

We troop out of the tiny airport, get into cars and drive to Yol, 15 kilometres away. Large valleys with steep gorges, some that we have seen from the air, come into view. The landscape is scenic. The day is cold but pleasant and there is bright sunshine. This is January weather, oscillating between grey, cold and bright cold; the car ascends the slopes and freshly painted rooftops beckon to us from across the valley as we drive by.

Yol (Young Officers on Leave) is a cantonment town in the Kangra valley. Once it had a Prisoners of War (PoW) facility that sheltered German and Italian prisoners in the First and Second World Wars and has hosted ethnic Tibetan refugees since the end of the wars. Unsurprisingly, Yol makes for easy access to other well-known destinations.

A half-hour drive to McLeodganj finds us amid quaint streets that go uphill and downhill, with shops selling shawls and curios, cafés with tea and delicious cakes, each little shop more inviting than the previous. The Tsuglagkhang Complex houses a museum, the imposing temples of Tara and the Buddha, and the Dalai Lama’s residence. Located at a height, it has gorgeous views and we watch the magnificent deodars swallow up the sun by simply spreading out their arms, early on in the evening.

A little beyond the main McLeodganj market is the ancient Bhagsu Nag Temple (dedicated to Lord Shiva), named after the legendary king who saved the kingdom from drought and died valiantly ensuring that there would be abundant water in Himachal all round the year. Small wonder that Himachal Pradesh is also known as the fruit bowl of India.

With its mountains, deep valleys and extended skylines, it is also referred to as devbhoomi or the playground of the gods. Ancient temples with legendary stories dot the mountainous landscape. Tapovan, the meditative abode brought into existence by Chinmayananda, makes for a bracing visit with its open spaces framed by a verdant  forest filled with monkeys.

Not very far from Yol is Norbulingka, a charming monastery with exquisite wooden and lacquered floors. We visit training centres for weaving and sculpture and spend time at the well-maintained Dolls Museum, showcasing the lifestyle, customs and costumes of Tibetan tribes. Trees, stone, water and wood synchronise aesthetically to create a space that houses members of the Tibetan community, while allowing them to hone their skills. We drink exotic tea and wash it down with cake at the Norling Café which also sells traditional Tibetan food. A wedding feast and the promise of traditional Himachali food demand the postponement of all other gastronomical indulgences.

The wedding at the Vedic Mandir is low-key. A large havan kund in the yard occupies centrestage. Everyone sits around it while cows gaze amicably at all the visitors from the posts they are tied to. The wedding guests are asked to make themselves comfortable, feel free to sit in for the ceremony or go off to have hot breakfast in another section of the building. We wander off and eat hot pakoras that we wash down with tea and return to sit by the havan kund

The bride and groom, elegant in their wedding finery, are listening to the priest. The bride is also intoning the mantras that are part of the wedding ritual. Many of the guests, conversant with the chants, chip in as well. In the interim, people walk in and out, the fire is lit and oblations, flowers, woodchips and fat puffed rice grains, as large as small popcorns, are offered to the gods.

The old priest describes marriage as a social contract and highlights its layered connections—with each other, the family, the community and the nation. Rounds of tea are untiringly proffered by volunteers. From time to time the priest and the group break out into celebratory songs. The walk around the fire and the saptapati (seven steps) come to an end and everyone is invited to partake of lunch and bless the newlyweds. The air is festive and the invoked gods seem to be endorsing the gaiety. 

The staple food of the Himachali household is dal and chawal or roti and sabzi, but weddings call for an elaborate traditional meal called dham, a feast in which the entire neighbourhood participates. The food is cooked over a woodfire in large copper and bronze pots collected from various houses in the village. Very often, in rural communities, buttermilk and other farm produce such as ghee, milk and shakkar are brought for the occasion by neighbours and form part of the wedding gifts.

The hereditary cooks, the botis, dressed in festive dhotis, supervise the placing of plates made of anjeer leaves on which food is to be served. Large mounds of aromatic Kangra rice, swollen and creamy, are ladled out on the stitched leaf-plates called pattals. This is followed by servings of lentils and vegetables that arrive, one after another, in slow rhythm, delighting the taste buds with new flavours and textures. Madra, made with kabuli chana (garbanzo peas), cooked in ghee, curd, onion and tomatoes, and aromatic spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, is served first.

A portion of rice is segregated from the main mound, mixed with madra, and eaten. The next serving is of soft mutter paneer (peas and cottage cheese). As one mixes a little rice and makes the most of this flavour, along comes a moong dal and spinach serving. This round is followed by pahari maa ki dal, rich and fragrant, followed by rajma (kidney beans) and vegetables. Next on the list is jaggery and tamarind khatta, with walnuts, that introduces a tangy element to the palate.

The mound of rice has begun to diminish on the leaf pattals and bamboo baskets filled with second rounds of rice reappear. The last savoury dish is a variation of dahi and vegetables, piping hot and flavourful. It is now time for the sweet dish to arrive. Sweet rice cooked in sugar ghee and khoya, warm and aromatic, completes the meal and seals off most comfortingly the exciting range of flavours we have been treated to, rounding off this hearty lunch. The long luxurious meal, redolent with flavour, has stretched out into the late afternoon. It is time to head back home. The colours, flavours, festivities and bracing mountain air ensure that we will be back very soon for more. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2016