Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Spiti - Tibet in Exile


Hopscotch is a game that we all have played in our formative years. This game decides its outcome based on a player's ability to maintain his/her balance whilst remaining within the boundaries set by a few criss crossing lines. There is a lot to learn about the power of lines and the respect that boundaries deserve from this game. In my eyes, those who have mastered hopscotch, knowingly or unknowingly, have passed one of the most important lessons in life with distinction. As adults, life brings us face to face with many such lines and boundaries, when we are forced to operate within or judiciously take the leap of faith. And the scene is no different for an adult traveller, where International border lines tend to decide the scope of exploration. Yes, travel and International relations in the modern times has its roots in the humble game of hopscotch!

But now the human mind is one aspect that lines, borders, boundaries and even the game of Hopscotch fails to imprison. How else would you describe the curious case of people living along the border lines that India shares with its neighbours? Be it Gujarat in the west, Bengal in the east or Punjab and Kashmir in the north, the mindset and thought process of locals along the border lines just cannot be contained and controlled. Border lines can not demarcate a race like they do the land. For this documentary on people from sensitive areas, I choose to take examples from the lives of the humble Spitians living along the Indo-China border in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. 

Spiti valley, is a remote cold desert in the Indian Himalayas. This land is quite literally Tibet in Exile. The landscapes are an exact replica of the roof of the world, Tibet. Similarities do not end here. Spitians belong to the same race as the Tibetans and their main religion is Buddhism as well. While Tibet fights for its freedom from China, the Spitians watch, hope and pray that it succeeds. 

My visit to Spiti coincided with the Anna Hazare Movement in India's capital. This political event fought for the citizen's right to information to the Government's day to day activities and the running of the Indian democracy. Yes, the Spitians watched closely as the events unfolded in Delhi, but the walls of their houses were adorned with posters of Lhasa, the forbidden city. The capital city of their race, their religion and faith. For a patriotic Indian like me, it is hard to digest the dis unity that this land with varied geography brings, because it is this diversity that had led to us being ruled by foreign powers for so long. But it is also unjust for me to conclude that the Spitians are least interested in matters connected to India, based on a poster alone. 

The two countries, India and China, have done their bit to establish their authority over these people, India more kindly and China more authoritatively. India has provided road access to these remote parts while China has built the Lhasa-Beijing railway line among all the other things. But why the Indian Indian government has provided a veiled support to the Free Tibet movement and turned a foe to a powerful neighbor as China, beats me because on the other hand it has made its stance very clear on the Kashmir issue to the old enemy, Pakistan. Also I fail to comprehend, what if tomorrow Tibet does manage to gain freedom and if there is a similar uprising in Spiti, will it continue to be good to these parts? 

Heinrich Harrer, the author of Seven year's in Tibet brought television to the Dalai Lama's household and this helped the great spiritual leader to be abreast with current affairs. Similar scenes dominate Spitian homes these days. Thanks to the boom in satellite television in India, it isn't a big ordeal anymore as it was for the Dalai Lama and Harrer back in the days. But despite all the exposure to popular culture, you will find the Spitians, barring a few teenage boys, still dressing up in traditional attire and indulging in traditional occupations like farming and rearing cattle. Thousand year old monasteries, established long before the International border lines and the related disputes came into existence, still live on and serve as the guardian of Tibetan Mahayan Buddhism.

One of the key features of hopscotch is that the player has to retrace the path taken by him/her to reach the furthest block, in order to get back to home or the starting block. The teenage boys referred above testify to this beautifully. Our cabbie, Mr. Kesang, did several odd jobs in the Indian IT metropolis, Bangalore until he decided that it was back in Kaza, the headquarters of Spiti, where his heart really was. Similarly, upon striking a conversation with one of the farmers in Demul village, we learned that this man was a qualified Physical Education practitioner not so long ago but had given it all up just to be among the people he calls his own and doing the things that was passed on to him by his fore fathers. The government has taken up the initiative to set up schools but unfortunately the teacher at the school in Demul village is not a local Spitian. He is from the plains and does not strike a chord with the village boys despite all his efforts. So ultimately it falls back upon the monastery to open the youth's eyes  and embrace their heritage. 

Adaptation is man's fifth and sixth limb. History has witnessed the rise and fall of several dynasties but one thing that has survived these crests and troughs is Religion and man's belief in it. Religion has taught man to adapt. It has also taught man to accommodate. Spiti is like a new bride whose beauty is sought after by one and all and thus cannot be hidden for long. There is already a steady flow of tourists who have shunned the path most teaveled and have decided to rough it out in order to experience the greater pleasures of life. The Spitians have one of the greatest religions in the world, Buddhism to show them how to handle their time in the limelight. 

The Middle Path as preached by the Buddha is a path between the extremes of austerities and sensual indulgence. Nowadays, the local tour operators clearly aware of the fate of a neighboring popular tourist destination, have quite literally implemented the Buddha's Middle path analogy in their business model. These tour operators have turned into guardians of the land and handpick their clients. Only after educating them about their culture, they set out on expeditions in this land where with every step there is a miracle unfolding in front of your eyes. By ensuring night halts at villages, they've managed to provide benefit to the village dwellers who rent out their homes as makeshift home stays for the wandering travelers. Five star comfort is best kept out of the equation here. It is a win win situation for the tour operators, who are the face of the industry, the villagers who are the backbone and the tourists, the actual actors of this industry.

Coming back to hopscotch, the game is quite competitive when the players are good. Similarly, the Spitian way of promoting tourism has competition from travels and tour operators who run their business from outside the valley. These folks have no regards for upholding the Spitian values and what drives them is merely monetary benefits. The more the merrier is their mantra. As though arresting this influx is not enough of a challenge alone, the nuisance of Non Government Organizations running businesses in the name of welfare is proving to be a even bigger menace. But then what is the fun in a game without a bit of a challenge. Trust me these humble looking tough guys from the valley of the mighty Spiti river are more than up for it! Life is a long journey and their path is as treacherous as the mountains they live in, on either side of the line that separates them from their near and dear ones. 











































  

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