The sangam (confluence) of Chandra and Bhaga river at Tandi village in Lahaul valley is an auspicious mark “on the map of Buddhist and Hindu sacred geography”.i For the Himalayan yogis of the past, this sangam signified the “sacred triangle of the Mother of all Buddhas, from which all the phenomena originate”ii; whereas the economic logic of our times have reduced this living entity “into hydrologic data, cash flow statements, political will and truckloads of concrete.” iii Cast in this dominant vision is the state of Himachal Pradesh that wants to lead the hydropower race in the Himalayas- as a laboratory of renewable energy production. The hydropower extraction frontier here is expanding into the remote territories of the state, rather aggressively. The 130 kms of relatively undammed Chandrabhaga or Chenab river meandering through the districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Chamba of Himachal is a crucial coordinate on the energy map of this “hydropower state of the country” where close to fifty hydropower projects are proposed in a cascade, with majority allotted in Lahaul valley.iv But how are these grand visions of a hydropower future coming to life, as they “proliferate across different physical and human geographies” of Himachal? v
In 1991, anthropologist Elisabeth Anne Stutchbury completed her Phd thesis titled “Rediscovering Western Tibet: Gonpa, Chorten and the continuity of practice with a Tibetan Buddhist community in the Indian Himalaya.” i The community she carried out her research with happens to be the Lahaulas of Kardang village. The Lahaul of early 1980s was the focus of her study. In specific, she studied the continuity and revitalisation of Tibetan Buddhism of the Drukpa Kargyu tradition by understanding the interconnections between religious life at Kardang gompa (monastery) and the village “against a dynamic social and cultural change” in the 1980s.
Given the paucity of in depth anthropological research on post-Independence societal transformations in Lahaul, Stutchbury’s work is a valuable resource. This critical work on religious and socio cultural transformation and continuity in the region argues that post independence social analysis is mostly limited to a superficial administrative documentation of religion, society and culture. Such a linear, homogeneous and statistical account of religion, society and culture, for instance overlooks the diverse ways in which religion is lived and experienced differently by people inhabiting a same geographical space. ii In fact, the absence of critical academic knowledge on Lahaul is a recurring concern in Stutchbury’s thesis as she then hoped that educational access would inspire younger generation of Lahaulas to further research on the area like Mr. Tobdan, a local scholar from Tod valley who in the 80s offered her crucial insights into the religious history of the area.
To visually document the Border Road Organisation (BRO) employees celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi in Tandi was a matter of chance. Last year in August as we waited for the taxi in Stingri, we heard a screeching loudspeaker not very far from where we stood. We asked Tashi, the dhaba owner if he knew what the noise was all about, and of course he did. The echoing bhajans (religious songs) were from the pandaal (makeshift shrine) set up at the BRO station in Stingri. The employees of BRO from Maharashtra were the organisers and like every year, locals were invited over for lunch. As we reached the venue, the women from Stingri had just finished eating. They were easily up for some post lunch chit chatting as they got themselves comfortable on the neatly aligned chairs and pulled out their knitting bags. It’s highly unlikely that Lahaula women will abandon their knitting pouches at home. A mobile phone and a knitting bag are two essentials. (Lahauli women and knitting deserves a special post)