After years of travelling through my favourite state in India, Himachal Pradesh – and witnessing many festivals in different seasons; I finally got lucky to attend a traditional village festival in Kullu Valley. I had reached a small village in Sainj Valley after changing a few bus rides and special buses had been started to ply people to the village for the 3-4 day village festival.
I was staying in a different village but the unmistakeable energy of the mela was not lost on me. The weather was proving to be a dampener with constant rains hampering movement of people. The walk to the festival village of Deori from the bus stop had become tricky after slush occupied the road and one had to manoeuvre carefully to avoid an embarrassing situation!
In the village square, the festival preparations were in full swing. And what a stunning location it was for a traditional village festival. A circular park had a statue of a woman that was capped with forests in the background. On one side was Durga Temple – there is a temple of Goddess Ambika (I hope memory serves me right). A vast ground that has recently been cemented is in front of the temple where the fair is to be held.
The devtas had been kept in a small structure in the middle of the ground and a constant stream of devotees roamed around to pay their respects. I was especially amazed at the elaborate palkis of the devtas. Men and women wore their best clothes and a festive spirit prevailed; everyone smiled at me (at stranger) and asked me to enjoy the mela festival. Television and movies have made the hill people aware about usual city life and there were also kids playing areas in Deori village.
Temporary structures were erected close to the temple and the festival ground had been surrounded by shops of all kinds. There were food stalls, shops selling garments and jackets, some shops selling kidswear, a few selling shoes while makeshift tents were all selling fast-food like golgappas, aloo tikki and burgers and were a huge hit with the locals!
I could only see so much on the first day as the homestay where I was staying was located in a different village and since it was already evening it was better that we left before dark.
Next day, it was a Sunday which was supposed to be the biggest day of the fair and the energy was on an altogether different level. Ever since we had our morning cups of chai at a late hour, the only talk around the village and the homestay was with regards to the fair. Our host, Mahi was going crazy since he had received many phone calls from his friends about the cricket match that was going to be played during the festival!
At our homestay, Mahi’s brother’s wife was also getting decked up excitedly for the mela (which, mind you was a cool 45 minute walk away!). I felt as if I a part of the intimate mountain life of small villages and what better place to experience a traditional village festival than in Kullu valley (valley of Gods, where every village has its own deity).
We saw the cricket match was being played in the drizzle, and the venue beside the sacred Pundrik Rishi Lake could rival the best locations in the world!
When we finally started made it to the festival ground in Deori village, it had started drizzling and there was a huge crowd gathered in the temple compound. A chilly breeze blew and I clutched my jacket tightly. Dark, stormy clouds dominated the skies and provided a stunning background for photographs. Since I was with locals, a few ladies posed for pictures and demanded to be clicked and laughed happily when we showed them the dslr pictures!
Some locals invited us to their homes for chai, and since it had began raining heavily we accepted their kind offer for tea. I was inquisitive about the course of action and the programs to be held during the mela. Kids were having a ball in the playing area that had been erected in the green grounds away from the festival square. There was even an ice-cream seller that I spotted; he wasn’t able to do rousing business because it was so cold!
As a starting ceremony of the festival, the procession of the devtas was first. 4 deities in their palanquins had been carried on people’s shoulders accompanied with trumpets and cymbals to Deori and now was the time to see one of the most famous performances of every festival across Himachal Pradesh. I don’t really know how to describe what happened; so its better that I use the link to the video that I uploaded on YouTube.
Another fascinating thing during the procession was that the devtas met each other and exchanged greetings. It was a surreal moment to see a traditional Kullvi ceremony in the small village of Deori close to Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) and I was ecstatic. But even in that moment of happiness I had no inkling of what was coming next!!
The Gur (Messenger of God) had arrived and was clad in traditional brahmin attire, and the music and the procession stopped. He prayed before the devta and after beating himself with the chains that he carried on his shoulder, he was ready with his predictions. It was a very charged up atmosphere and was very nervy indeed; my hair stood on end, in anticipation.
A villager had looked at my camera and had indicated to me to not bother clicking the Gur incident. I dare not offend the Gods of Kullu Valley, and solemnly indicated to him that I wasn’t going to attempt any photographs until the villagers were ok with it.
After a tense minute or two, the Gur finally started speaking. He spoke urgently and I could barely understand what he was saying. The villagers stood with folded hands in reverence to the deity and the gur. I had read about these ceremonies but this was the first time I was actually experiencing it. I noticed a few villagers had tears in their eyes while the Gur was speaking.
The festivities started again when the Gur had his say and the devtas were dismounted from their palanquins and were kept again in the structure in the middle of the ground. Now it was time for another performance to unravel! Hitherto, I’d only heard the pahari naati songs in shared cabs but that was it. And my limited knowledge as an outsider meant I always used to think it was only the ladies who would dance on pahari naati.
So, the men who were supposed to perform pahari naati were getting ready in a nearby wooden house and inadvertently we were standing right outside it! When we saw them coming one by one dressed in colourful clothes, they started posing. With the stormy background, some portraits really came out like fine art! It was a lovely time when we all had a group photograph just before the pahari naati dance performance started.
Pahari naati is a slow form of dance with measured movements where the participants make a round circle and perform steps with music. The villagers watched in rapt attention and I was content knowing the fact that I had finally seen a traditional Himachali village festival of Kullu Valley. Although Kullvi dham might have made it a perfect end, but it was like asking for too much from Deori village.
Like all human beings, the locals were more content with chhole bhature and other spicy food items and as outsiders, who are we to decide what is right or wrong. The Gur had made some strong statements with regards to the weather and forests and that had got the villagers worried. The rain had stopped thereafter and golden evening light with sunshine made a return. We decided to walk back to our homestay village and a really strange thing happened on the way. Read the next few paragraphs carefully :
This region around Deori village is also called Seraj and a peculiar thing in the valley is that they worship iron instruments and also accident sites – ‘Jai Jehar Devta’ is written in some of these places. On our way back to the homestay village – In the jungle, there were a few iron items piled up by a devdhar tree and ‘Jan Vansheera’ was written on a signboard. Since it wasn’t raining and I had the dslr in my hand (and not in my bag), I clicked a picture of the deity temple of ‘Jai Vansheera’.
After that, we continued walking and reached the Pundrik Rishi Lake where the bhabhi and bhaiya posed for pictures in the stunning background of the green lake with dazzling evening light. After clicking 3-4 pictures, I realised the photographs were not upto the mark and after checking all settings like shutter speed, aperture and ISO – I was perplexed as to what had gone wrong.
I thought it was a good idea to check the previous photographs as well to check from where the trouble of bad quality pictures had started. And as I went back in the camera, I spotted a simple change in setting that had happened. When I clicked ‘Jai Vansheera’ deity, the settings in the camera had automatically changed from RAW to JPEG (Basic). I was astounded. Everyone else around me said that I must have inadvertently changed the settings or maybe the settings had got changed from pressing of a single button.
When I tried resetting it to RAW, I actually had to check the menu options a few times before I could find where to change it. And then the villagers also understood, that I could possibly not have changed the setting because it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. And anyway I had no idea about a one click change of the setting from RAW to jpeg. I don’t know what to make of it but it was an experience I will never forget.
Thanks for reading. Hopefully, I can pen down a book with all these varied experiences someday.
~ Excerpts from a traditional village festival in Deori, Sainj Valley in the Kullu Himalaya, Himachal Pradesh.
One day when we shall all be old… There will only be memories that our hearts can hold.
Original lines by Travelshoebum – in Murakami style.