Anyhow, so after much begging and pleading by a few different people, I agreed to return to Himachal Pradesh for a local yearly festival that occurs at the Kamru Nag temple there. Who is Kamru Nag? Honestly I am not quite sure. My friend from Himachal Pradesh places him in the Mahabharat or something. There was some story about him destroying leaves but being outwitted by Krishna. Other things I have read online suggest he is a local rain god. Some place him as a local representation of a different god. So I am not exactly sure. Either way leaves and snakes seem to be important to him. I can't really find much on him, to be honest. And I am not even certain it is a him. The other temple is also relatively obscure. The Shikari Devi temple is more famous than the Kamru Nag temple, it seems, but there is almost no information on it either. I do know that it is dedicated to a local version of Durga and that local tradition holds that it was founded by the Pandavs when they were in exile. (The Pandavs are the main characters of the Mahabharat)
Anyhow, so what went down? Well first our trip was delayed because someone in the local village died. It was not like a funeral observance thing where Indians sometimes do not cook or travel or something. Just, some people were out of town and were going to be late that we were supposed to go with and then the person died, so the trip got pushed back a few days. A little late we set off. The group that went was myself and my friend and his cousin, his friends, and some local village boys. We went in three or four rented cars and started around nine or ten at night. I forgot to check the actual time leaving.
I guess I should first clarify that in all these exploits, my friend from Himachal Pradesh never really explains very well what we are going to be doing and what is going to be involved. I had it in my mind that we were going to some sort of midnight vigil thing or something. We would leave at eight, get there, do our thing and be back by midnight or one. Not so. Oh not so at all.
We left at around nine or ten and did not arrive at the temple mountain until about two in the morning. This whole five hour ish drive was winding around mountain slopes the entire time on what would have barely been one lane highways in the U.S. Except this was used as a two lane high way for big buses and lorries. (the Indian version of a semi, except they are much smaller) So at the temple everyone just parked on the highway. The hiking (yes, hiking) started on the main road far from the starting point because everyone parked wherever and so the road was clogged with cars and bikes and buses and lories. (apparently the less affluent pilgrims just hire trucks to ride in the back of) After some careful navigating and a standoff with a flock of men on motorcycles willing to sit in traffic for forever to drive as absolutely close to the starting point as possible rather than walk for a few minutes we reached the base.
This is where one of the most madcap hikes I have ever been on began. There was no trail. It was a free-for-all. Anything goes, just get up the mountain. And this isn't just the boy scouts and the young men leaders doing this. Everyone and their mom was there. I am dead serious. It was literally everyone and the mom. We were hiking in the pitch dark climbing up the side of a mountain, often very steep, often involving climbing up small cliff faces with grandmothers and small children and fat middle aged women and men and old men and basically anyone you can imagine. It was kind of surreal. I was using the flashlight on the end of my mobile to light my way, but many people, including a lot of old people were attempting the climb in the dark.
Now I have a small confession to make. On this hike I sort of left my FS student hair down and asserted my individuality a little bit. The people here in Himachal Pradesh, at least my friends, call themselves "Pahari's." In the local languages, Pahari means mountain. So they are mountain people, very basic essentially. Which means they assume, rightly so, that they are super good at climbing mountains and walking long distances. True Pahari's really are incredible in this sense. They can literally cross entire mountains with tough hiking in a day like it was nothing.
But now that I think about it, let me take a step back. In India hospitality, many times the comparison is drawn that guests should be treated like gods, which is actually kind of true. When you live with an Indian family they basically won't let you do anything. They want to buy everything for you. They bring you random snacks. They give you their beds. They save the best for you. It drives me freaking crazy! I cannot stand it. You can not even pee without them holding your hand it feels like. So at the point of this hike I was starting to get to the end of my tolerance for Indian hospitality. Which is so great, except when you live through it for a while and get tired of being forced to drink soda after soda after soda and eat so much food you feel sick for the sake of hospitality.
Anyhow, so we reach the foot of the mountain and as I step up onto the first rock my friend puts his hand around my waste and his other hand on my right wrist to help me climb up onto the mountain. Not that this was very academic to begin with, but pardon me for letting my tousled academic hair down, I was like "oh hell no." I mean, I did not say that, but that is what I was thinking. Almost verbatim. I was not going to be helped up a mountain like a little boy. I have been hiking since forever. I can accept that I would be the slowest hiker, maybe even with the least experience, but I was not going to be treated like I was six on my first father and sons camping trip.
...So I did the slightly culturally insensitive thing of pushing on ahead, taking difficult shortcuts, jumping/running up difficult portions unnecessarily. And I found that actually I was much better at hiking than my Pahari companions. They were huffing and puffing and sweating and needed a break and I was rearing to go. Seeing this I opted to drive the point home that I could be independent and pushed my leash further and further until I finally broke away from the group and just met them at the temple site.
I am a little embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed essentially skipping up that mountain while my friends and companions struggled up the mountain behind me. I probably should not have enjoyed the experience of these people having their Pahari cred handed to them by a white boy. Oh snap!
Anyhow, so I got the temple site about four thirty or five in the morning. Everyone else started arriving twenty or thirty minutes later. I have no idea how far the hike was. It was almost entirely up hill over difficult terrain. I have to imagine that it would take some of those families a long time to get up the mountain.
Random cultural observation: Indians are the only people I have ever seen who will stop in the middle of a hike to have a cigarette break. I am mystified by this practice.
At the temple site there were a bunch of people lying around and tents for people to rest in as well as to serve food. We ate breakfast of dal and some sort of curry over rice at one of these tent things. Then we went to go see the temple. The temple is very small. It doesn't even have walls. It was mostly just a roof actually. It sits on a small lake. You can approach the temple from either side, although you have to walk around the pond/lake thing either way. We took our shoes off and went to go see the deity. Seeing the idol was not very enlightening as to what the god actually was, to be honest, but it was a cool experience non the less.
The special thing about this temple is the pond thing actually. At the temple site, people make wishes or requests to the god and then throw money and other things into the lake. This could be anything from a few rupees to thousand rupee bills to even gold jewelry and statutes. I do not know if the temple cleans out the lake and uses it for something or if it just builds up there. All i do know is that there was a lot of money in that pond.
From the temple after spending some time visiting it and wandering around we were going to go to the Shikari Devi temple. There are two options to accomplish this. You can drive there, or you can hike there. We opted to hike since it seemed more exciting. Although to be honest I did not sleep at all the previous night so I was a little apprehensive. I did not take any naps the day before because I thought it was going to be a short trip and sleeping in the car was impossible because it was overstuffed and they spent the entire five hours, yes, the entire five hours in the middle of the night with the stereo blasting at full volume singing along to Indian and Western songs, especially rap and pop.
I'm not exactly sure how long the hike was. Everyone gave me a different number. I cannot find anything online that lists a difference. From Google maps I kind of measured out the distance, but I am still not really sure. All I know is that it was somewhere between twenty-five and forty miles. It was all up and down mountains.
It was pretty amazing. The landscape was so beautiful. It was kind of a cross between the opening scene of The Sound of Music and the traveling scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring. I don't know if that helps. I have pictures. I will work on trying to get them posted somehow. Anyhow, so we are hiking along. I kept switching groups because everyone wanted to stop and rest and I wanted to just get there, so whenever a group would push ahead I would jump ship and tag along with the new lead group.
That worked well until the last group I was on took a wrong turn and we kind of got lost in the backwoods of the Shikari Devi mountains. I think they are called that. Anyhow, so we were wandering through these tiny trails occasionally running into these small cabin things in the middle of the woods where true Pahari's live. It is weird to see true Pahari's because they are often very fair and often have light colored eyes. In many cases they look eerily European. Which is not bad, just it is odd to see the juxtaposition of these people stuck back in time with basic technology, no running water, no electricity, no cars, no roads, just completely living in the woods, living off the land kind of a deal who look so much like South Europeans who are so metropolitan.
Generally everything was okay. I almost slipped off the mountains because we accidentally got split when a trail diverged radically up and down unexpectedly so some of us were climbing up the side of the mountain to get on the correct higher trail. I reached the trail almost when I stood up and ran into a giant spider web with a spider in it so while I was freaking out trying not to get a spider on me while also trying not to harm the spider...I ran into the giant spider web with a spider in it that was next door to the spider house I had just demolished. So while I was overwhelmed with this double spider dilemma I understandably was no longer paying attention to where I was stepping and kind of slipped off the trail and down the really steep mountain side. Luckily I had my camera strapped to my right hand and I kind of used it as a grip to stop myself from going very far. So when I mentally justified to myself spending more money on a camera to get the partially weatherproofed, more durable model a year or two ago, I made the correct decision apparently, because my camera was fine and I did not fall off the mountain.
The other slightly bad thing was when we ran into some junglee cows. (read: wild cows) Which you would think would not be that big a deal because they are cows and cows are docile and friendly. Not junglee cows. They are belligerent and very fast. There was a slightly tense show down where we had to climb up a part of the mountain that the cows almost certainly could not climb on, although to be honest they can practically climb like mountain goats it felt like. Anyhow, we got away and were on our exhausted way.
Eventually we reached the temple which was an open temple. It was just open to the sky. It sits on top of a big mountain with some pretty good views all around. It was a cool experience.
I got a pretty bad sunburn because I did not wear my sunscreen. If I had been told there was going to be a day long hike I might have brought it along. But oh well. Trying to explain a sunburn to Indians is nearly impossible. They just do not understand. My friends kept thinking I was just being prissy about my skin becoming dark. After several attempts at explaining how a sunburn and melanin works, and after they observed me spasming every time they slapped or grabbed me on the arm or neck I think they began to sort of understand.
Oh, other fun fact: we kind of ran out of food and we did not bring water with us. Basically we drank water wherever we found it: mountain streams, random taps, the hospitality of people living in random cabins we found in the middle of the forest. It seemed to work out okay. But please do not take this as evidence to support your own water drinking. If you ask me, my general advice is still do not ever drink the water if you can avoid it. Do I drink the water? Yes, all the time. Especially in Himachal Pradesh where there really is no other option. At my friends house there is electricity, but no running water and no refrigeration. You just take the water when you can get it, and generally they are careful about where their drinking water comes from and keeping it separate from other water. But do not, do not, do not drink the water.
It was a pretty awesome adventure. The temples were not really all that amazing. They were not really national geographic material. But the cultural aspect of it was so awesome. It was my favorite part. I would be lying if I said I was kind of hoping we would stumble across some massive super awesome monastery or fort or something, but then the whole place would probably be lousy with tourists and everything that made the hike so great probably would have been ruined.