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.
I heard you will come to life today. I hope your mother Pir Panjal is not deceiving us yet again, with her zillionth labour pain. You were to arrive five years ago. Never mind. Now, in 2020 and a frugal bill worth 3200 crores, we are waiting for you, outside the operating theater. How can our arms tire out holding the Kalchhor (ceremonial libation) and Khatag (white scarf)? We, Lahulis, thank you for teaching us the art of waiting.
Your mother had a painful journey. She bled profusely in these years but doctors said her pains and cries were mere geological surprises. If not for the masses, you need to come alive for the media that gloriously announces the same old saga of your birth every few months. I heard you were even given a new name after some closed door discussions. Atal Tunnel, Rohtang. Congratulations, this infrastructural feat of Bharat Mata is a Man. I do not wish to hurt you or question the choice of your name, but I must tell you that ever since you were conceived, I have only known you through the hesitant utterances of my Aama (mother) and Abi (grandmother): Tandal. I still get goosebumps recalling how softly and reluctantly my Abi first whispered your name to me, as if you didn’t belong to us. As if she didn’t want Meme (grandfather) to claim her eccentric pronunciation of your name. But each time Abi tries to unify you and Rohtang, she’s breathless. For us, you have overtaken Rohtang’s sacredness, for Abi, not as yet. How could you? Rohtang is her refuge. Rohtang is her sacred escape to the sky. Rohtang is her formless realm. You, in your enticing emptiness, are profoundly concrete, deeply earthly. Tandal, even today when she calls you out, you unsettle the warmth of our sun soaked tandoor room as you did back then. But my Aama and Abi too have cultivated faith in you. It shows in the dissolved color and coarseness of 108 rosary beads. They have obsessively chanted, prostrated and circumambulated on the doctor’s prescribed mantra day and night.
Mane Padme Hum
an engineering miracle
Mane Padme Hum
Mane Padme Hum
mighty as our men
Mane Padme Hum
Abi has consistently been complaining though. In the stubborn and overprotective care of your mother Pir Panjal, we didn’t justify our ways of being, she says. “What is this show of tribal tourism?”, she shouts at me even if she’s nearly lost her voice. “Have we already put our values and beliefs on sale?” Tandal, I am truly confused. Your doctors authorise worth in packaging our history, our rivers and mountains as tourist itineraries. Only now that I am learning my language, each lesson is an encounter with depths of your contamination. Lahul isn’t Lahul anymore. It’s a tourist place. As you are opening us to the world, the dakinis (female Buddha) and dakas (male Buddha) are retreating into caves, remerging into rocks and stones. The wisdom inflows of Chandrabhaga are drying out. Will ego and individuality flow now on?
Abi’s rainbow body has shrunk visibly since the definitive announcement of your birth. She’s sleepless at night, unable to distinguish the ferocious mood of her guardian deity Palden Lhamo from those of men and machines churning inside you for the one last time. You know, your big mouth was once her fertile field where she sang and danced with the dakinis.
Aama is waiting outside the operating theatre luminous in her goshen (silk brocade) cholu (attire). By her side is an inconsolable Chandrabhaga. Your bright and shallow eyes have possessed us. I heard they are the longest in the world. But will you have the courage to look into my Aama’s eyes? I should let you know, in my dream last night, she revealed her desire to transform your wrath into blissful radiance of the Khatag.
Text by Kesang
This essay is first in the ‘Tandal’ series, a collaboration between Kesang and Krishna on infrastructure and gender in Lahul valley.
A shorter version of the essay was first published in The Tribune
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)