Ground-level gods

A few days on foot in India reveals the everyday divine story and photos

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Elizabeth Miller

Someone else must have declared by now that if you truly want to know a place, you have to see it from the view granted by your own feet. You have to slow down and take a path that meanders.

Mine, through India’s lower Himalaya, wandered in and out of valleys cut by streams that whispered of centuries of monsoon seasons, the boulders rolled to smooth edges and polished nearly white. Some of the houses we walked by were painted blue or yellow, but most were offwhite or gray. Their metal roofs looked to be held down by rocks, their only ornamentation the hung-to-dry laundry and occasional satellite dish.

When we started uphill, I could look down on the villages below us in tableau. Those stacked houses, built up the steep ramp of the hillsides, and the women and children busy with work and play across them looked like a set for a play that shows a multistoried house in cross section. Scenes play out with the characters moving around, above and below one another, blissfully inattentive to each other while the audience looks on, seeing all.

The landscape rotated from pine forests with carpets of tan pine needles on the ground, looking as dry as some in Colorado, to adjacent slopes that would see us walking through a carpet of blooming rhododendrons, everything green with those pink and red blossoms for punctuation.

“Does your mother have land? Does she keep animals?” Jango asked after a day of walking upstream alongside cattle and small herds of goats.

He doesn’t mean her cat and my cat and dog. 

Jango was my guide on a trek that passed through villages shrugged onto the shoulders of those hills, and would end with a push up toward snowline. We were headed steeply uphill to a mountain temple that had a place we could sleep for the night, and had stopped for a break halfway. I snacked on tea biscuits while Jango grilled me about our real estate and livestock holdings. “No,” I said, “we don’t have much land. And we don’t keep animals.”

He had already asked about my family. I described our pieces: step-parents, a half-sister and step-siblings. He tried to line it all up from my father’s perspective — a former and a current wife, two daughters, one from each — then shook his head, muttering, “My God…” 

That night when he called his wife and children, he put me on the phone with his wife to say hello. I began thanking her for letting me start her husband’s trekking season so early. It turned out, “Hello, how are you?” was all she could say. She never went to school, he explained.

Jango likely spent as much breath on the trip explaining India to me as he did sucking in air at our rolling altitudes. The women in their saris squatting on a hillside were gathering mud to plaster on the walls of their houses, he explained, and the shaved heads of two children we found riding homemade sleds down a grass knoll meant that someone had recently died. I’m greeted by excited, staring school children on our first day, near the town of McLeod Ganj, and as we walk further, the children are more wide-eyed and run from the front doors of their houses to get a closer look at the foreigner.

Near the mountain temple where we make our camp for the night on a cold cement floor, families come to perform puja, to pray and make an offering — the real temple being the spring that provides clean water for their homes. They kicked off their shoes, thanked the gods for providing, then sat in the cool evening air by the stream, looking out over the valley.

On foot, I can see that in India, anything can become holy. A rock, a tree, a watersource. What has become sacred is then marked with tridents and ribbons, tiles painted with the features of gods and goddesses affixed to nearby rocks. I can taste the generosity of the people as they share the Prasad — blessed food from that puja at the temple — a crumbly, bright yellow sweet.

For a steep kilometer, I listened to shouting over the valley, the kind of calling that asks only for an echo as the answer. I expected children and prepared to dodge the rocks that would be thrown to test gravity — because while you’re testing a science like echoes, why not also check the earth’s pull? But at the top, we found not children, but three women, perched on an outcropping and looking out over the villages and valleys we had just traversed. They fell quiet as we took a seat on neighboring rocks, no longer bold enough to shout just to hear their own voices. We rested while they got up, collected bundles of sticks three times as big around as they were, helped one another off the ground once they had slid the straps to those enormous bundles over their shoulders and started walking down the trail. Though we lingered only a few minutes more, we never caught up to them.

My backpack was stuffed with supplies acquired at the last minute in fear of the cold — a sweater borrowed from the man who owns the trekking company, new thick wool socks. But Jango hiked in track pants, short-sleeved, button-down shirts, and started the first day in steel-toed workboots that pinched his feet and he quickly traded for blue plastic sandals purchased from a street vendor.

We stopped for chai when the first rainstorm hit, but were camped out, fixing lunch, when it began to snow. His nephew Rishu, who was in training to become a guide and joined us for a few days, kept a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and huddled near the fire when he wasn’t running errands for Jango. I crouched next to the flames and watched the unlikely snow — in April, in India, where people only think to warn you about the heat. Jango put on a fleece jacket and seemed impervious to the biting wind, the tumbling flakes, even the very idea of hypothermia.

And of course, we were constantly passed on the trail by women in beaded and sequined saris — they herded their cattle in these saris, crouched to do laundry in the stream in these saris and walked the same paths we were with baskets of pinecones and bundles of sticks balanced on their heads in these saris and sandals on their feet.

My fastidious concern over gear seemed ridiculous. Jango had been guiding treks in the area for more than 20 years. As we hiked, he pointed out walnut trees, lemon trees, mint and nettles, and picked wild vegetables he would later add to the lunch he cooked. Rishu plucked a blossom from a rhododendron, shook it out and showed me how to eat it. He spent most of the rest of the hike with petals to his lips and left a fuchsia trail behind.

After the snowstorm broke, we continued the push to the Triund forest rest houses, a set of cabins built by English soldiers on an alpine ridge. Tea stalls huddled in the nearby meadow, busy with dayhikers. We stopped long enough for a cup of chai with the caretaker of the rest houses, dropped our heavy bags there and then headed up toward snow line. Rishu came empty-handed; I brought a camera and a bottle of water; Jango carried his radio, playing hill music, a jangly cousin to what you might hear in a Bollywood film, the whole way up. It was faintly audible from the top of the snowfield Rishu and I ran up just to glissade back down.

We were just getting back to the rest houses, looking down on a cricket game being played in that high elevation field — India having won the Cricket World Cup the previous night and celebration being due — when the sun broke through the clouds.

The peaks I had been looking at under a banner of gray all day were at last dressed with sunlight. It carved out the planes of their rocky faces and illuminated the patches of snow. I scanned for a clean line up, and saw nothing promising on their broken sides. They’re jagged and fierce, and the clouds peeled back from them in slices.

When I’d made the request for this trek, the trekking company owner had said something about it being too early for most of his tours, but that his guides would be headed to these rest houses anyway and they could meet us there. That evening, we were joined by every guide in the trekking company. Because I’m an American, or a guest, I’m not sure, I was seated with the senior guides while the junior guides run in and out with plates of food and bottles of whiskey, and then rum, until the whole evening blurred into a hot, warm mess. The thin mattresses on the wood floor of our rest house were dressed in pinstripe sheets, but we burrowed into sleeping bags for defense against the bitter cold and slept lined up, almost too close for near-strangers, across their padding. 

But the next morning, we were up before dawn to dress in frost-damp clothes and hike in the crisp morning to a tiny shrine that appeared at an elbow in the mountain trail. The guides laid down flowers, bananas, oranges, dates, raisins, fennel seeds and more of the sweet, yellow substance. Alongside the sweets, they put trekking poles, climbing rope and the hilt of a knife — pieces of the supplies that will fuel the season’s worth of journeys that are just beginning, of which mine was the first. Every handle, and every wrist, was tied with red strings. Their offering was to Durga, the goddess they hoped would protect their season and who is celebrated annually as a symbol of victory of good over evil. The previous year they had seen few injuries, and no deaths. They asked her to be so kind again for the coming year.

Around the next bend in the trail, out of sight of the temple, a rooster carried to this high elevation in a cardboard box was parted from his head with three thudding whacks and an unexpected degree of silence. One of the young guides strode quickly toward the temple to lay the rooster’s head delicately among the marigolds. I had only to step to the side, bystander that I was, and be totally forgotten by them as they immersed themselves in the task of praying for safe journeys. All of it can be sacred, they say, every journey, every venture by foot into those woods.  

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