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Junoonis take to the Road – #Trip Day 1 – A cultural adventure in Sangla

So after a full month of trekking (“bina tankhwa ke mujhe paidal chalwaya jaata he” - Yog Sir), serving awesome food (“ye to sudama ke chawal hain!” – Yog Sir) and managing our Annual Himalayan Camp (“hum to majdoor aadmi hain saab” – Yog Sir), we Junoonis decided to take a few days for ourselves. So close to Kinnaur, the temptation of a road trip was just too sweet to pass. So all packed and done for the year, we decided to leave everything behind and set off in true-blue Junoon-style – no plans, no reservations, not even a means of transportation! (so much for taking a road trip - *sigh*). But what unfolded next was something we couldn’t ever have dreamed! This is our journey, our story – Junoonis take to the road where every single day turned out to be a revelation. This is everything that we could learn, understand and explore about this beautiful, unique and varied part of our country. – Sach me India bohot bada he yaar!

Getting to Sangla Valley was amazing - the drive, the river, the valley views – AWESOME!! But just setting foot in Village Sangla was enough for us to understand that this was a place like nothing we had seen before. We give you:

EXHIBIT A: The Buddhist procession we saw passing by on the road

Notice the lady leading the procession carrying what seems to be a bottle of wine or liquor of some sort and incense sticks. Then the Lama Ji wearing local Himalayan headgear instead of a customary monk hat. And then the local ladies following him carrying what seem to be bags of Prasad (offering), a Buddhist Pothi (scripture) and even what looks like a kalash! This was our first clue – we were entering a transitional world where the boundaries of religion – all religions – seemed very very blurry.

Our usual way of exploring a place is simply setting out and walking the streets. So we started with our wanderings on the steep ups and downs of Sangla Valley and noticed yet another anomaly. We give you:

EXHIBIT B: The Naag Devta Temple

People kept telling us we were on the route to the Naag Devta Temple. But all along the way, there were Buddhist prayer wheels and flags. And then the temple complex itself - a beautifully embellished wooden gate with a structure that looked more like a  a pagoda than a Hindu place of worship. Then there were the main temple gates guarded by - would you believe it - DRAGONS!

Architecture of Kinnaur
Wood Carvings in Sangla
There also was an EXHIBIT C: The language that the people were speaking – but no video to show for it.

After having travelled for, what we would like to believe – quite extensively, across Himachal, we thought we were beginning to get a hang of the local dialects a bit. Catching familiar words here and there, picking up the localised accents – we were quite proud of how much we were able to understand when hearing the locals talk. But then Kinnaur happened and all our linguistic confidence went straight down the Satluj. You hear them speak Kinnauri and you are immediately reminded of China – the accent, syllables, pronunciation – everything! The first time we heard Kinnauri language, I ended up asking a few gentlemen about it, to which they laughed and responded – “Abi aap Lower Kinnaur me ho madam. Yaha to fir bhi bhasha thodi thodi samajh ayegi. Upper Kinnaur taraf to bhasha aur be Chinese jesi lagti he. Hum bhi nahi samajh paate bande kya bol rahe hain.”

In short, we knew were are in for some eye openers. And as the trip unfolded, the culture of Sangla Valley actually blew our minds and then some!

The Devta Sahab of Sangla

Amongst the many unique traditions of Sangla, the biggest revelation for us turned out to be the faith of the people in the local Devta Sahab. In this part of the country, the local deities aren’t just unmoving idols sitting in ornately designed village temples for those seeking spiritual peace. These are Gods who live and feel like us mortals – they get jealous, angry, feel love and joy, host distant relatives at their home and even go visit them once in a while. These villages work like mini republics with the Devtas holding ‘jurisdiction’ - a word of the local priest’s choosing, over a certain geographical area.

For more on the Local Deities of Kinnaur, click here.

The Devta Sahab of Sangla is Bering Naag Ji. Locals believe that Sangla Valley was once submerged under a huge lake (major throwback to the Mesozoic Era Tethys Ocean Theory!). Then Bering Naag Ji arrived in the valley from Uttarakhand, transformed himself into a Mouse and broke apart the rock that was holding the lake in place. Thus, the water was drained, the land became accessible and the people of Sangla were able to inhabit the region.

Devta Ji is said to rule over the entire village. He decides the social calendar of the village, presides over festivities, predicts weather and crop production and even solves disputes for the local people. Twice every month (Hindu Lunar Calendar Month), Devta Ji and his brothers come out for the locals to hear their problems and give advice. We were fortunate enough to witness one such ceremony on the very next day of our arrival in Sangla. And it was a spectacle to behold!

All the villagers had assembled in the courtyard as the temple karyakartas opened the doors and brought Devta ji and his brothers out. Drums and manjeeras sprang to life and Devta ji made his grand entry and took seat in the central canopied structure or Chauring. The locals told us that Devta Ji communicates his wishes/suggestions through his chosen Oracle or Mali – a mantle handed down over generations in one family. Devta Ji also has his own Ministers, Workers or Kaaryakartas, even a Treasurer or Khajaanchi to manage temple proceeds. Any villager with a problem – anything from a family dispute to squabble between neighbours, disease, a question in their mind to even bhoot-pret wale issues are solved right here by Devta Ji.

The court of Sangla Devta Ji is quite fascinating really. The kaaryakartas carry Devta Ji on his rath (notice the poles placed on their shoulders). The idol, we are told, is over a quintal in weight! Devta ji’s energy causes the idol to move up and down on the pole as he hears the requests/pleas (yes or no questions) from his subjects, usually communicated through the Oracle. And then the idol tilts left or right to indicate Devta Ji’s response.

Devta Ji humari sab pareshani suljhaate hain. Unke yaha aane k baad se upar pahaado se baadh (flood) aana bhi band ho gayi. Vo humare rakshak hain, humari zameen k maamle bhi vo hi suljhaate hain. Humare Tehsildaar Sahab to Devta Ji ko Chief Settlement Officer bulate hain!” Imagining the level of faith put into the deity by the people of Sangla set our minds reeling. Everything from court proceedings to law and order to civil disputes – the deity played a part in every aspect of their lives. And they are pretty darn proud of this culture too!

Watching it all unfold reminded me of the many stories I had heard in the past – of Devis taking over bhakts’ minds, of holy spirits speaking through their disciples and of places that hold special powers. I don’t know how much truth there was in the stories – whether the idol was actually moving of its own energy or whether it was being controlled by the Oracle and the Kaaryakartas. As I left that fascinating Temple Space, I could only think of one fateful line from one of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon Books – “My mind tells me I will never understand God. And my heart… My heart tells me I am not meant to. Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.”

But these people – these amazing, hardworking, warm and loving people of Sangla… of Kinnaur… have been blessed with the gift of faith for centuries. And their smiles say it all!

Click here to check out more pictures from Junoon Adventure's Trip to Sangla on Facebook!

And if you wish to experience it all for yourself, call +91-9479824975 to plan your own culture tour of Sangla Valley and book homestays in Sangla or Camp stays in Sangla.