Infrastructure reconfigures how we experience space and time, and the 9.02-kilometre-long Atal Tunnel connecting the Kullu valley to the district of Lahaul and Spiti of Himachal Pradesh, is no exception. Until recently, the Lahaul valley had to be accessed via the Rohtang Pass. Perched at almost 4000 metres above sea level, Rohtang (which means a pile of dead bodies) is a difficult and circuitous route, with unpredictable weather, treacherous roads and never-ending traffic jams. Constructed over a span of ten years, after multiple geological tests, feasibility studies and structural redesigns, this horseshoe-shaped tunnel was formally inaugurated in October 2020. Several governments (including Congress, Janata Dal, National Front and Bharatiya Janata Party) have put their stamp on this complex endeavour. Eventually named as Atal Tunnel by the Union Cabinet under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019, it bypasses the Rohtang Pass, making Lahaul accessible all year round and reducing the travel time by several hours.
Till now, we haven’t really placed the Himalayas in the right perspective. Our efforts have been piecemeal, resulting in a fragmented understanding of Himalayan societies. My goal is to write more about ancient Lahul, as there still exist many small cultural realities that have preserved their socio-cultural ways of being and language. Languages especially can reveal a lot about the past of these societies. What I am suggesting with this title is that to arrive at an understanding of ancient Lahul, we have to first better study the ancient Himalayas.
Tshering Dorje, Nana Ji Friday, 13th November 2020.
Twenty days have passed by since Coronavirus consumed that giant body of yours. You are no longer just a phone call away. Your strange departure has been difficult to comprehend for everyone whose lives crossed paths with yours. I thought you were always going to be there.
For Lahulis, you were our homegrown repository of knowledge. A free-flowing storyteller, a treasure of oral history, who sought commonalities even in the most disparate cultures. Your visibility and the community’s unquestioning faith in you— be it within Lahul-Spiti or Himalayan academic spaces— I admit also irked the critical researcher in me as one person after the other suggested I meet this man called Tshering Dorje, or Bhoti Master, as you were known locally. I would say yes and stop at that, feeling a sense of frustration as to why every research inquiry on the region was to begin from you? I confronted you often. Why not Nani Ji or any other Lahuli women? My provocations wouldn’t offend you, nor would you defend or question your position; just laughingly ease my annoyance by listing younger generations of Lahulis, Spitians, Kinnauris, Ladakhis you were helping facilitate research in their contexts.
I listened eagerly to your stories all these years but never read what and how you wrote about the Himalayas. Except for that one article for The Illustrated Weekly of India describing the Puna ceremony, the copy of which you retrieved from your records in a matter of a few minutes. Reading that article, I was convinced about you and I inhabiting two different worlds and ways of seeing but lately, in our conversations, the divides stood challenged as you displayed a tremendous openness of heart and mind. In your narratives, the Himalayas were always in motion and Lahul was always relational. Culture was about interconnections—the reason we returned to each other with our frameworks of culture despite our differences. In the last five years especially, in our hopes and worries, we lent each other silent solidarity, as we kept working toward a progressive and inclusive Himalayas in our spheres.
As I think about you now, my research journey actually began under your guidance. In 2010, we spent ten days together in Malana speaking to women for my undergraduate thesis on women in Panchayati Raj. Now that I have lost your guidance, I’m realising the value of that first fieldwork experience. As a young girl, it was empowering to be in your company as you helped me navigate a deeply gendered and casteist field site.
I still see you climbing up the 37 stairs of our home in Raison. Excited and nervous, I watch you from above. What must you be carrying in your lama style jhola today? My cousins and I knew it was full of books but sometimes also imported chocolates that you received from your foreign friends. Being in your company meant having distinct experiences, like eating cooked apples, European style thukpa, discovering regional and local literature in your floral wallpapered study room, or simply watching you work on a typewriter. Alongside your passion and dedication for the Himalayas, people are also remembering your infectious laughter. If I close my eyes and see what I will remember the most about you— along with your sharp smile and glinting eyes—it’ll be your genuine hugs. They carried the same care even when our families were breaking; a gesture of love straight from your heart. I will carry along with me the memory of your comforting hug on the day of my wedding. Tears rolled down as you embraced me, happy to see two people in love unite.
I hadn’t shared this with you that I was planning to document your life. I wanted to know you not as Tshering Dorje, the walking encyclopedia as people called you, but Tshering Dorje as a person with myriad life experiences. Tshering Dorje, as a rebellious young monk in Western Tibet, husband, father, grandfather, spiritual practitioner, and much more. A man who had no fancy degrees to flaunt, yet was deeply engrossed in the question of culture. You were in your mid–80s, still traversing the mountain roads on HRTC busses hopping from one seminar to the other. My wish to travel together with you through the Rohtang Tunnel, the making of which you negotiated tirelessly, cannot be realized anymore.
In the last few years, I saw you looking inwards. Perhaps, you were preparing to leave. You were finishing your final project of compiling your works in the form of a book. You were increasingly seeking the space to elevate your spiritual practices, but knowledge seekers wouldn’t stop knocking at your door. On several occasions, you expressed your growing disenchantment with political ongoings. You worried about conservative forces hijacking the spiritual essence of the Himalayas. To all kinds of dangerous binaries birthing around us, you responded by seeding culture as a unifying force. Culture, you utilised skillfully and compassionately to put people and ideas in conversation. In his tribute to you, Ajey, a Lahuli poet and writer, to whom you were a mentor and friend, succinctly captures this political vision of yours. He writes:“You were a true cultural worker. Culture and heritage wasn’t a matter of fake pride for you or a hobby. It wasn’t a means to show off your intellect or to garner fame. Culture for you was a complex political crisis. Acutely aware of the deep rifts political trends were leading to, you looked beyond monastic Buddhism and institutional Brahmin Vaishnavism and talked about shamanism. You went beyond the Aryan and Mongoloid binary to talk about Kinnar Kirat. You spoke about the Bon tradition and Zhang Zhung language. You believed that shaman tradition contained within it immense possibilities to dissolve fatal inhuman binaries. You searched for its remains in Lahul, Kullu, and the entire Himalayas till the very last moment”.
Your going away is a huge loss for Lahul as the valley has lost one of its progressive thinkers. As a community, we have lost your generosity, sincerity, and openness at a time when we need it most. May you be in peace.
Filming Lahaul continues collecting new visual and sound material. Meanwhile, the editing for the first feature film has begun. Soon, we’ll post the teaser, as well as some visual studies we did on the material. Also, we would like to share updates on different platforms we presented our visual research in the past two years.
In April 2018, we presented ‘Khandroma’ , a visual study on the local movement against hydropower dams in Tod valley of Lahaul at Displacements, the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Society of Cultural Anthropology and Society for Visual Anthropology.
Soon after in the month of May, we showcased our short film on the bagh (mask) ritual of Kardang village at ‘Chandrabhaga Flavours’, an evening of poetry, music, painting, and films organised by Samgh Foundation in Manali.
In November 2018, Filming Lahaul travelled to Dharamshala International Film Festival to participate in the Film Fellows Programme.
In Sapno ko kaun gayega: Lahul main Kavita’, a poetry event organised in January 2019 by Save Lahul Spiti Collective to celebrate Ajey’s poetry, a progressive poet and writer from Lahaul. Filming Lahaul presented its visual study on Ajey’s poem ‘Byoons ki tehniyan’ (Willow Branches).
We see the tangible impacts of climate change in the retreating glaciers, depleting rivers and shifting agricultural patterns of the Himalayan region. The much reiterated call for sustainability – the need for a sustainable present for a sustainable future – underpins multiple climate change reports. But is this understanding reaching the common Himalayan people, or are sustainable solutions presupposed as emerging only from scientific expertise? If the latter is the case, the “solutions” ignore the value of local knowledge and skills in triggering bottom up climate change solutions. Today, the ‘remote’ borderlands of the Indian Himalayas are emerging as central sites of different socio-environmental conflicts due to an increasing dissonance between institutional and local understanding of sustainable development. The Trans Himalayan valley of Lahaul (Lahaul and Spiti district) in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh – and my ancestral home – is one such frontier where unfortunately development solutions are unfolding in a similar fashion.
Filming Lahaul presented its “work in progress” at the 18th Conference of the International Association of Ladakh Studies, held from 2nd to 6th May 2017 in Pozan, Poland. The conference was jointly organised by the Polish Academy of Sciences, Humboldt University, Berlin and the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland.
The conference brought together sixty researchers from Europe and South Asia working indifferent regions of the Western Himalayas. We were delighted to share our visual research on Lahaul and received many thought provoking inputs. A big thanks to IALS, especially for the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with young scholars from Ladakh and Kargil,India.