Western Indian Himalayas

It was late June in Bagi village and I was grateful for the clear, windless sky. The summer monsoons that pound the western Indian Himalayas, turning its trails into treacherous trenches of mud and debris, had not yet arrived. Because the footpaths were dry, the pilgrimage I traveled so far to see would go forward. Shringi Rishi, the most venerated god in the region, could now return to his sacred seat on Sakiran Peak where he first miraculously appeared as a stone. This event occurs every June, weather permitting, and draws hundreds of villagers, spanning the generations, who walk with their god to the 11,500-foot peak.

My host Karan and I waited outside Shringi Rishi’s temple with villagers spilling down from their mountainside homes. They were buoyant when their god emerged at last — his serene golden face floating, bodiless, in a mantle of silk and mountain roses. An elderly priest carried the god through the parting crowd as long-necked horns and beating drums heralded that the procession had finally begun. By nightfall, in a single long day, we would trek more than 5,000 feet up the mountainside to Sakiran Peak.

Sakiran Peak is located in the Seraj, an obscure region in the northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh. It’s a stone’s throw from the Great Himalayan National Park, 468 square miles of pristine wilderness rich in flora and fauna. The Seraj’s sublime natural beauty, especially the unsullied waters of the Tirthan River where the wild brown trout still spawn, is a testament to the villagers’ David-and-Goliath struggle to keep the river free of hydroelectric projects.

Sakiran Peak is worlds away from San Francisco, where I live, and the dirt trails of Marin County, where I’ve primed my legs for 18 Himalayan expeditions. When I’m not practicing law, I investigate and document the religious traditions of the western Indian Himalayas. Unlike many Westerners who journey to the East, I’m not seeking a higher spiritual truth. My impetus is a keen desire to understand a culture that boggles my mind with its beauty and ferocity.

IRONICALLY, I WAS INDIFFERENT TO THE RELIGION WHEN I FIRST VISITED THE HIMALAYAS. I hurried through the villages to get to the untracked wilderness and high mountain passes that left civilization far behind. Gradually, my interest shifted from crossing mountain passes to exploring the secluded valleys into which they spilled. I grew intrigued by the religion practiced in these valleys, which is unconcerned with the metaphysical pursuits that most Westerners associate with Eastern religion. The mountain religion struggles to subdue the unforgiving forces of nature — the flash floods that wash entire villages away, droughts that cripple the local agricultural economy and diseases that afflict loved ones. Such dangerous forces call for forceful gods, and the mountain gods are fierce and commanding and often exact blood sacrifice in return for their blessings. These domineering gods, the devatas, upended my understanding of Hinduism as a creed of spiritual salvation and devotional love of benevolent gods. They set me on an engrossing trajectory of research and study that landed me, 20 years later, on Sakiran Peak.

There are at least 300 devatas in the vicinity of the Seraj and thousands in Himachal Pradesh. They have a bewildering array of identities and make this Himalayan strain of Hinduism polytheistic to the max. Some devatas, like Shringi Rishi, are known by the names of mythical Hindu sages. Others are addressed as nag, a title that signifies that they’re snake gods, and reveals the devatas’ deep animist roots. People believe that the devatas are alive and present and vest them with authority that extends far beyond religious life. Each devata is regarded as the chief of a specific geographic place, a vestige of pre-independence India, where the devatas were seen as landholders and the villagers as tenant farmers who tilled the land. The devatas weigh in on community affairs through a human medium, a gur, and their positions hold so much weight that locally elected governing officials must heed them.

Not all devatas are equal in influence and prestige. Nearly every cluster of villages has its own devata, but the real power players, including Shringi Rishi, exercise authority over the territories of lesser gods. These paramount gods battle for supremacy through rivaling factions of villagers, who claim to be carrying out the devatas’ inviolable commands as spoken by the gurs. Yet even the mainstream Indian media portrays these hostilities as deities at war, not conflicts instigated by men. On October 15, 2013, The Times of India reported that Shringi Rishi and his rival, Balu Nag, “have locked horns for the last many years,” and local authorities “put them under house arrest in their tents” at a festival to prevent simmering tensions from erupting.

BUT THIS INTERNECINE STRIFE WAS A DISTANT THOUGHT ON THE TREK TO SAKIRAN PEAK. Children scampered uphill, while adults adopted a steady rhythm of breath-to-step that kept pace with the god’s. Men plucked wildflowers from high mountain pastures and tucked them into the handwoven borders of their flat-topped Kullu caps. The procession swelled as villagers from mountainside hamlets kept pouring in. It was a sea of locals streaming up the mountainside, with the exception of my blonde Western head.

Shringi Rishi led the way and was represented by a small metal image of a face, a mohra. These faces, although less than 12 inches high, have immeasurable religious significance. They not only symbolize the devatas but are also suffused with the devatas’ divine essence. Normally stored in temples under lock and key to safeguard them from theft, the mohras are brought out and elaborately adorned when the devatas take to the road. Shringi Rishi’s mohra, burnished to a high sheen, was dressed in a long red cloak that made him nearly lifesize. He glided uphill in his priest’s embrace like a Japanese Bunraku puppet moves in the arms of its silent puppeteers.

Outside the hamlet of Chaini, the trail narrowed as we passed through fields of young green wheat. The long ribbon of people walked single file to avoid trampling the precious cultivated ground. The Great Tower of Chaini loomed in the foreground, recalling a time past when warring tribes inhabited these valleys. Originally a defensive castle, the tower was built nearly 400 years ago and stands an astonishing 147 feet high (roughly 13 stories). It’s the tallest free-standing structure in the entire Western Himalayas that’s built in the traditional style.

Just before nightfall, the procession reached the Sakiran Dhar Ridge and made a final push for the crest. Shringi Rishi’s mountain temple finally came into view. This modest wooden structure seemed to humble itself before the grand Himalayan ranges. Without warning, a bare-chested gur went into a violent trance, dashed around the peak to ward off evil spirits and flogged himself with metal chains. The villagers looked on calmly as if to say “all in a day’s work” for a gur, then retired to temporary encampments where they spent the chilly night.

THE PEAK WAS HUMMING WITH ACTIVITY WHEN WE WOKE UP THE NEXT MORNING TO CLEAR SKIES. One after another, villagers offered small vessels of milk and clarified butter at Shringi Rishi’s temple. These symbols of regeneration are offered to the god because he follows the more orthodox Hindu precept of nonviolence toward animals. But ritual animal sacrifice (bali), a common form of worship in the Seraj, was being performed at a stone shrine only several yards away. The shrine is dedicated to a yogini, a wild nature goddess with dangerous cosmic energy and a healthy appetite for blood. Her power is so threatening that even the supremely powerful Shringi Rishi pays homage to her and asks for her protection. Villagers rarely mention the yogini, for fear of inciting her wrath, and they normally steer clear of her mountaintop shrine. But once a year, when they follow Shringi Rishi to Sakiran Peak, they offer a goat for sacrifice to win the yogini’s goodwill.

Just clear of the crimson-colored ground, a crowd gathered around Shringi Rishi’s gur. The gur was seated cross-legged and his long tresses, which he’s forbidden to cut and normally hides from view, flowed down his chest as a sign that the devata was present. The gur was using his god-given powers to divine the future. Just as die are cast and tea leaves are read in other cultures, black mustard seeds are counted in the Seraj. Gurs hand out the seeds in seemingly random pinches and one’s future is foretold by the number of seeds one receives. Goaded on by the crowd, I suspended my disbelief in predestination and accepted some seeds from Shringi Rishi’s gur. My number was disappointing, and I was motioned to take a second try (inauspicious again), and a third (auspicious at last). I suspected that my repeated tries were breaking with tradition but I figured that in India, where “the guest is God,” dooming me to an ill-fated future would have been the greater sin.

The crowd suddenly shifted to Shringi Rishi’s temple. All eyes were on its gabled roof where two goats, facing opposite directions, were straddled. A hush fell over the crowd as the goats were swiftly beheaded. Their blood was left to purify the temple until Shringi Rishi returned again. Even the vegetarian Shringi Rishi hasn’t forsworn this age-old practice, one of many things in the Seraj that can’t be explained.

The peak emptied out quickly after this climactic event. In a sprawling pasture below the peak, slaughtered goats were being divvied up and nothing edible was left to waste. I reached into my pocket for the lucky mustard seeds, let them slip through my fingers and drop to the sacred ground, and started the long walk down.

If You Go

HOW TO GET THERE Domestic airlines fly daily from Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi to Bhuntar Airport in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, and flying time is about one-and-a-half hours. Taxi service to the town of Goshaini in the Tirthan River Valley takes about two-and-a-half hours. Flights to Bhuntar can be canceled on short notice because of bad weather. Delhi-based Nexxtop India Tours, [email protected], can make your flight reservations and will help you rebook in the event of a cancellation. Luxury Volvo buses (1,300 Indian Rs.) are more reliable and economical. They depart daily from Delhi around 6 p.m. and arrive at the town of Aut around 6 a.m. the next day. You can book seats at hptdc.nic.in or makemytrip.com. Swagatam Holidays, Himachal Pradesh Tourism (HPTDC) and Harison Travels are recommended bus operators. The websites do not list Aut as a destination. Book your reservation to Manali, several hours past Aut, and, before you board the bus, inform the bus driver that you want to get off at Aut. Drivers are usually cooperative and will drop you off at Aut. A taxi from Aut to Goshaini takes about one hour.

WHERE TO STAY Raju’s Cottage, Goshaini, [email protected] or +91 9459833124, +91 9625211848. This rustically lovely, seven-room lodge on the Tirthan River is owned and operated by Raju Bharti, who spearheaded the movement to save the river from being dammed. The tariff per person, per night is 1,250 to 1,600 Rs. and includes all meals and nonalcoholic beverages, including juices from locally grown apples and plums. The meals (vegetarian and nonvegetarian) are prepared by Raju’s wife, who is a legendary cook. The lodge can organize treks in the surrounding areas, including the Great Himalayan National Park and Sakiran Peak, mountain biking trips, and angling in the Tirthan River. The lodge can assist you in arranging taxi service from Bhuntar Airport or Aut.

TREK ON For exploring other parts of the western Indian Himalayas, I recommend Himalayan River Runners, info@himalayan riverrunners.com. This adventure travel company is owned and operated by the celebrated Indian mountaineer Yousuf Zaheer, who has provided me with invaluable assistance in organizing my expeditions.