The Rabbit Ladies of Vashisht

Vashist – 28th April 2013

There were a series of loud thunderclaps in the night, and this morning the mountains were dazzling under a fresh cover of snow. But slowly the weather turned, and the cloud grew lower; soon it began to rain. It came down heavily all morning, causing the guttering to overflow and pouring jets of water off the slick wet roofs of the village. People retreated indoors and glumly watched the rain fall endlessly. I had to check out of my hotel by 1200, and made it 100 yards up the street to the World Peace Cafe, where I sat on the terrace along with three very cold-looking Israeli girls having lunch – aubergine masala and naan bread, which was very good. Realising that we were likely to be socked in by bad weather for most of the day, I made a dash for my new guesthouse at the top of the village – which just happens to be halfway up the hillside. You walk through the temple baths to get to the path leading up to it, which runs alongside local houses. I steamed up it in the rain with the backpack weighing me down – really need to remember the art of travelling light which I once seemed to possess, or perhaps I’m just unfit. I made the reception area, and then my room which was four flights of stairs further up, and with an extraordinary view of the whole valley before me. This place works out less than half the price of the last hotel, and is perfectly adequate, so I’m happy to stay for a while.

By evening the skies had cleared, and the sun glinted off the tops of the peaks, although it didn’t quite reach into the valley floor. Even after a few days here I still find the views astonishing; periodically I will just look up and take it all in again for a few minutes. There’s a definite chill in the air – quite a contrast from 40 degrees C in Delhi; it’s probably about 16 degrees C here in the evenings, although the sun is warm in the daytime. It’s a reminder that it is still only late April up here in the mountains, and that summer is some way off. You only need to look upwards to see the signs of winter, although the mountains surrounding the valley are so high that their summits are permanently snow-covered.

The sound of a dog barking in the valley at dusk. Woodsmoke on the evening air. A girl sits on the roof of the house opposite with a blanket round her shoulders, doing her homework. After a while she sees me looking and smiles. The lights are golden along the valley; they twinkle and shimmer gently in the darkness. And high up on the ridge, thousands of feet above the town, a solitary light is a pinprick in the sky. What can it be up there? A group of mountaineers? A shelter? A star? I remember what it feels like to be up that high, in a world of snow and steep slopes, of shattered rock and cold winds that clutch at you. Mountains always have that slightly ominous edge to them – perhaps it’s the chill in the thin air – a hint of mortality. Cloud descends and you are suddenly wrapped in a grey blanket where you lose all bearings; the landscape shifts around you. That range of jagged summits that was before you – suddenly it looms large to your left. How did it get over there? A huge gully suddenly appears ahead of you – and a doubt grows in your mind. Which way next? How do I get down? You cast around for a path, refusing to give in to panic. Eventually you pick a route, perhaps trudging across fresh snow. How deep is it? Does it cover a crevasse? I once crossed a saddle in New Zealand which involved having to jump off a large rock that would have been next to impossible to climb up again. I landed waist deep in snow, and got to my feet to follow a solitary line of footsteps that led across the ridge. It must be a valid route, I thought to myself, as someone had been there before. I trudged along, the snow squeaking beneath the soles of my boots, the air sharp and clear and the sun a white compass in a deep blue mountain sky. Halfway along the ridge the footsteps suddenly vanished. What was this? There was nowhere they could have gone – off to one side was a 4000ft ridge that dropped away steeply into space. They just stopped. A yeti, perhaps. But in New Zealand? I had no option but to carry on. It was with great relief that I came to the edge of the snowfield and stepped down onto bare grey rock. Down through the semi-tundra of the high mountains, soon I saw the first small saplings, and then crossed the treeline to enter a dense mountain forest where I had to squeeze between the branches, sometimes crawling on all fours, so thick was the brush. Eventually I found a trail, which became a proper path, which turned out to lead to an outdoor centre. And then you descend into a lush green valley in the sunlight with butterflies flitting about and birdsong in the air, and streams that tumble down the hillsides. And you feel like you’ve rejoined the rest of humanity, and are no longer in isolation upon the frigid heights.

The trick to living in a village is to take the time to slow down. If you maintain the relentless pace of city life you’d miss half of what goes on. Stay a few days and you start to see patterns emerging: the little puppy who gambolls around what passes for the town square here – which you could walk across in ten paces; the old lady who sits on the verandah every morning until the sun has warmed her enough for her to tackle the steps leading down to the shop; the bathers who undergo their assorted ablutions in the hot spring pools just next to the temple. To get to Dharma guesthouse you have to walk through the middle of the pools, through wisps of steam and a vaguely sulpherous tang. Waste water is carried away down the streets in small drainage channels. Women crouch at taps that spout piping hot water out to spalsh on the rough stone floor, washing clothes with scrubbing brushes. In the main pool men submerse themselves, then climb out, get soaped up and tip jugs of water over their heads, sluicing off the grime. They stand steaming and shivering in the chill morning air. There is a separate pool for the ladies, with high walls around it.

The local women head up from the valley floor each evening with baskets piled high with foliage for the cows which live on the ground floor beneath the houses. One carried the basket on her back fastened with forehead strap, and led a sheep on a short rope, which nibbled tentatively at any passing shrub that looked tempting before she jerked the leash and it trotted obediently along. Many of the women wear colourful patterned headscarves here, and their more oriental features give the place an almost Central Asian feel. Periodically one encounters Tibetans in the streets, nearly always grinning broadly; they must surely be some of the happiest people on earth, just judging by their robust good humour. The Tibetan influence is evident too in the menus around the village: momos – a kind of filled pasta, and thupka – noodle soup. Many of the workers in the guesthouses are Nepalese, and work in Goa in the season before the monsoon shuts the place down.

And then you get the tourists: the Indians from the great cities on the plains who waddle about wearing ski jackets and wooly hats, and the westerners, clad either in assorted items of trekking gear, or wearing bizarre ethnic garments like wandering sadhus. There’s something especially unedifying about seeing a couple of dreadlocked westerners wearing turbans and blankets, or the kind of baggy trousers that have the crotch at knee level, the sagging seat of which always reminds me of a toddler who has just taken a dump in its nappy. They are harmless enough if they just wander about in a stoned daze, but put them within a few yards of a set of bongos and they become positively antisocial.

I needed a haircut, and happened to notice a barber’s shop on the main drag, just down from the Lovely Laundry Service, who currently have possession of most of my clothes. I had handed the plastic bag full of laundry to a smiling old man who it turned out was profoundly deaf. “Ek, do, teen, chaar shirts,” he bellowed, and I smiled and nodded. “Paanch socks!” slightly louder. And finally, at tremendous volume, “EK JEANS!” Collect today? “TOMALLO” he yelled. What time? “EARRING TIME!!!” Morning? Evening? No idea. I’ll go back in the evening.

Just up from the Lovely Laundry was a man sitting in front of an old Singer sewing machine, of the kind that function purely as decoration in a certain high street chain store in the UK. My lovely Nehru vest, which earned me a compliment yesterday in old Manali (“You are looking a very smart gentleman. Where from your vest?” How much expensive?”) has been shedding buttons liberally. I asked the tailor if he could sew some more on, and make them strong. He took a large needle and some extra-strong thread, deftly threaded it through the eye and in a few quick stitches had replaced a button. I stood and waited while he did the remaining three, before presenting it back to me. How much, I enquired? “How much you like?” Well, I don’t know. Looks like a good job. Figuring a price of 10rs for a roti or a glass of chai, I gave him 50rs, which drew a shy smile of appreciation.

Up the hill a few doors it was a bargain at 80rs for a haircut – less than a pound – and he did a reasonable job of it, snipping away while chatting to various comers and goers in the shop. I asked him if he had many western customers, and he said not. “That’s because they’ve all got long hair,” I said, which he found so amusing he translated it into Hindi for the benefit of the other customers, causing much hilarity. After he was done snipping away he asked if I would like a head massage. I remember getting one of these from a nice girl in Thailand which put me into a trance and left me going “aaaaahhhhh”, so I said yes. But this was an altogether more vigorous affair. He scrubbed my hair back and forward for a while, and then began a strange kind of drumming on top of my head. He’d cup his hands and tap all over my scalp, then rap his knuckles across the crown. He rubbed my temples vigorously, then thrummed on the back of my neck, not hard, but with enough force to make me produce a sound a little like: “Ur ur ur ur ur ur ur” as my jaw bounced up and down. He then leaned me forward in my chair and drummed up and down the length of my spine, then took my arm, stretched it out, and firmly grasping my fingers, pulled them enough to make each knuckle crack. It left me slumped in the chair feeling wonderfully relaxed – enough to untie the knots in my neck and shoulders after the bus ride from Shimla.

One of the curious features of Vashisht is the rabbit ladies. These four ladies walk up and down the village square outside the temple entrance carrying large white rabbits. Enormous rabbits, actually. They have a curly white fur, a bit like a poodle. These are angora rabbits, and they are groomed for their fur which is then used to make shawls. It is one of the softest and best insulating types of wool that exists. The enterprising ladies, realising from the number of curious smiles they get, that people are generally fond of enormous rabbits, parade up and down with them collecting money for being photographed holding a rabbit. One tired lady plonked herself down on the steps of a shop, her rabbit burrowing its head under her arm. She absent-mindedy stroked its soft fur. The rabbits don’t seem to mind being carried around all day, and appear to be well looked after. There are worse things when you’re a rabbit, I suppose. But it’s a sad state of affairs where the only thing standing between a village woman and a life of penury is possession of a large white rabbit.

This is not perhaps the most curious feature of Vashisht, however. It was as I entered the village that I first saw the sign for fish foot massage. ‘Fish imported from Turkey!’ the sign advertised, thus highlighting the total insanity of what some people come up with. To travel all the way to a village in the Himalayas to have your toes nibbled by Turkish fish, in the name of beauty care (I believe the fish devour the dead skin, in a sort of piscine pedicure), is entering into the realms of the truly surreal. Of course some people may do it for pleasure. Who can say? It’s a strange place.