This story is based in Sangla Valley located in Western Himachal Pradesh. This is a gorgeous valley, famed for its apricot orchards, alpine meadows and the village of Chitkul, from where a short trek takes you to the Chinese border.
Karma Yatri is a travel company, that specializes in motorcycle adventures across India and offers immersive encounters for solo travelers, groups and families. We organize trips to Spiti and Kinnaur and you can find more details at “The 5 Valley Trail“.
Eastern Himachal- the regions of Kinnaur & Spiti are legendary, every nook and corner of villages, twists in the road or the absence of one, owe allegiance to some myth, tale or folklore. It’s quite easy to understand, as one travels through these enigmatic landscapes- nestled in the higher folds of the most majestic mountains of the world- a perfect symbiosis between man and nature is on display. People have coexisted with nature for millennia, little having changed till recent years. Centuries old villages, temples and monasteries dot this region, surrounded by a mixture of paganism, Shamanism, Tibetan Buddhism, providing the perfect ingredient for tales of the supernatural and divine.
I was en-route Chitkul, having entered the Sangla valley at Karcham. A friend of mine had told me about this valley and the trek from Chitkul (the last village with road access) to the Chinese border. It was my first time in these parts and I was thrilled to have followed my friend’s advice, finding myself on a narrow road, winding high into a gorgeous valley- A panoramic colour palette, in layers of snow-capped peaks tracing dense green forests that bordered rich orchards of Apple, Plums, Apricots fading into bursting fields of corn, peas and potatoes. Small settlements on the side of the road or perched on some seemingly inaccessible mountain top were the only signs of civilization. People took little notice, as I stopped to take photographs, drink from the innumerable streams, or at chai & sutta breaks, only a mild curiosity but a ready smile on their faces.
He was on the edge of a steep cliff, the road taking a sharp turn to the left. He was calmly waving, standing next to a small temple his thick white beard blowing in the wind. Obviously, I stopped, went over to him, folding my hands and greeted him, “Hari Om, Babaji”.
He was preparing a prasad, the regular bus from Chitkul was scheduled to pass in sometime he told me, while handing over the paring knife, going towards his dwelling to make some coffee, shouting instructions on how big the pieces of coconut must be cut, all this happening in a flash of a second.
“Do you smoke chillum” was his initial reply to my greeting and what had followed was just the beginning of an amazing story, spoken with simplicity by a very free soul.
But first! the coffee had arrived, steaming hot, with a dollop of ghee floating on it. “It’s good for the throat”, he said matter of fact.
“When Baba smoke so much chillum, he must take care of his throat.” He started crumbling the makings of a pipe while talking to me about the special prasad he used to give the devotees, a big handful for every passenger, composed of almonds, dried coconut, raisins, peanut, crystal sugar and jaggery. I was working on the mix and it sure was the nicest prasad I had ever eaten, a perfect high energy snack for the cold and altitude, I thought to myself.
“The regulars look forward to eating my prasad” he gleamed with pride, holding the chillum to his lips, mouthing “Alakh bum” pulling gently at first and then a hard pull as the mixture lit up. He passed the pipe to me and moved purposefully instead of waiting for me to return the chillum.
The bus was approaching fast, down a straight descent but slowed down in sufficient time, acknowledging Baba from far away, well aware that this scheduled/ unscheduled stop was a routine, a routine he had followed for the past 12 years. Yes, that was the year Baba had arrived and that was the year when the curse of the road was finally broken. The stop took all but 5 minutes, Baba disbursing the Prasad and collecting the offerings (money) from the people, like a pro. Walking up and down the aisle, Baba had exchanged a word with the regulars, anointed each passenger with a tilak, and returned with a tray, empty of the prasad but filled with donations.
“Now we have time for the chillum”, he said with a twinkle in his eyes, his smiling lips concealed by his beard. “Baba live a good life” he exclaimed after we had finished the pipe.
Introductory conversations done, I was intrigued by this gentle soul, a self-confessed capitalist baba, who explained to me over the course of the next hours, the nature of his enterprise, the commercials, the socio-cultural ramifications, the death of a curse, giving life to a legend, a practical and simple insight into the complex world of the supernatural.
Arjun had left his home at the age of 16, following a group of sadhus, knowing, at-least, it was a socially acceptable form of living and more importantly he would be fed. He was from a large family in central Maharashtra and there simply wasn’t enough food in the house. He didn’t dwell too much into that part of his life merely using it as a familiar reference point, talking more about his journey across the country with his ever-changing family of fellow sadhus. He spoke about accomplished people in his trade, specific sadhus, in different parts of the country, who by virtue of some miracle had acquired fame and thereby a following, the donations and with that the easy life. Maybe they were holy, maybe they could perform miracles, he didn’t want to pass judgement. He lived the life of a disciple for 24 years, when at the age of 40 he decided to start wandering on his own, seeking- hoping to find his miracle.
“Time for another coffee and chillum” claimed Arjun leaving me to make the mix while he went into his cave dwelling, on the opposite side of the road. Coffee with Ghee and chillum with Alakh Bum done, Arjun continued his story and how he first ventured into Sangla valley, after 6 years of solitary wandering. That was 16 years ago and the new road to Chitkul was being constructed. Instinctively he ventured higher up Sangla valley and along the road saw a small temple that been left to neglect, a small deity of Kali ma, abandoned. On inquiry, he was told that temple had been constructed in the past due to a spate of accidents on this stretch of the road, but was now not used because of the new road and a newer, larger temple had been built in the neighbouring village. The cave that came along with the temple was being used by people from the PWD, who carried regular maintenance on the road. Through this time however, the accidents on this road not only continued but increased in frequency. Thus, came alive the legend of the cursed road.
Arjun, over time got the villagers on his side, convinced them that the cave belonged to the priest of the small temple, and since he had been looking after the temple for the past 3 years, he should be the one rightfully living in the cave and not the people from the PWD. This is how he acquired his current residence which, with modifications and all, allowed for a kitchenette, living room, a bedroom and a smaller nook in the cliff for any staying visitor. Arjun had meanwhile managed to spruce up the temple and with money collected over the past few years, had got new clothes and some jewellery for the deity. He performed the puja every day, made prasad and waited for the vehicles to stop. Only a few stopped, the temple being located at a turn on the edge of the cliff and both the approach roads from either side were long straight stretches, that allowed the driver to pick up speed and hence it was seldom that anyone really stopped at the temple. Meanwhile the accidents continued.
Winter was fast approaching and Arjun was beginning to get worried. All the money he had saved had been spent on the temple and he had no idea how he was going to get through the bitter winter. One fine day, in an act of desperation, he stood in the middle of the road directly in the path of the local bus that was coming down from Chitkul. It was a scary few seconds but as he had anticipated, the bus driver slowed down and eventually came to a halt in front of Arjun, who without waiting for any words to be exchanged, hopped onto the bus and started distributing the prasad. The driver was quite irritated but he knew he couldn’t say much to a Baba as Arjun came up to him, anointed him with tilak and pushed a fistful of prasad in his hands. Arjun smiled at the driver, and shouting out blessings from Kali ma he hopped off the bus. He spent the day in similar fashion, watching for any approaching vehicle, standing smack in the middle of their path, and pray fervently that the driver would slow down and all of them did, some stopped and took his prasad and blessing while others passed by with an irritated look on their face. At the end of the day, Arjun had collected more than 1 month’s donation in a single day’s work. “I continued this over the coming days, all the time perfecting my prasad mix. I was experimenting with different ingredients until I came upon the current masterpiece.” He was really proud of his prasad. In the meantime, news of the baba on the cliff had spread across the valley, his mad act of suddenly appearing in the middle of the road, his flowing white beard and costume, his smiling eyes and his generous prasad. People spoke about him, in opinions ranging from the absolute madman to somewhat divine, irrespective of which, people now began to instinctively slow down on the road to Chitkul, some knowing that baba could appear and some hoping that Baba would appear. A year went by and not one accident had occurred.
“Meet me on your way back from Chitkul. We will smoke one more chillum.”, he said with yet another smile, but signalling that our conversation had come to an end.
I spent a few days in Chitkul, enjoying the remoteness of the village and the hospitality of the people but was looking forward to my visit to Arjun. Our conversation had left me intrigued and I wanted to know about the miracle that was attributed to him and how the curse of the road had ended. I bought some provisions for Arjun, as I was too intimidated to give him money, unsure if I could attach a monetary value to the time he was so freely spending with me. I was racing along the road and was surprised with the pace I could reach, a long inviting straight enticing me to pick up further speed. I saw the edge of the road zipping past me, an occasional glance allowed me to see the sheer drops into the valley below, wondering what it would be like if I lost a moments concentration or misjudged the road by a fraction. I was pulled out of my reverie knowing that the temple, and Arjun would be coming up in a couple of minutes. I slowed down!