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Reckong Peo: Between God and Man

Aerial view of Reckong Peo town

You buy vegetables from a market overlooked by snow-capped mountains. You pray standing amongst the heavens. A gush of pure and cool breeze greets you as you get off the bus. Look around and your pert, pretty little town is hemmed in by bosky barrancas and mountains awash in a thousand hues. It was early morning and I watched the sun soak the ice tips high above the slopes and slowly wash down the forests a tad darker than the virid valley. As the milky haze that lazily hung over the town began to be dispersed away, I wondered whether the people of Reckong Peo realised what they were blessed with? Beautiful and friendly, quick to smile, they are only getting used to seeing total strangers, foreigners regard with awe what they were born into. Tourism, afterall, opened shop here only in 1989.

Bus stand with the best view

Himachal Pradesh is a state of perennial landscaping – it is either the landslides (‘slides’ for the acquainted locals) or the dams. Of the latter, the upcoming Karchcham (swelling the existing list of Bhakra, Pandoh, Nathpa, Chamera, Gobind Sagar, Maharana Pratap Sagar, whew!) leaves mile upon bone-crunching mile of treacherous roads with perilous banks veering within kissing distance of the thick muck-grey torrent below. Heavy machinery lounges in silhouette on one side vying for your nerves with the overhanging monstrous boulders on the other. The fact that people reach here is a tribute to the skills of the Himachali driver. As I got off the bus at Reckong Peo, 240km from Shimla, I felt like hugging mine.

The scenic walk to Kothi temple

Reckong Peo is the headquarters of the Kinnaur district lying in the northeast corner of Himachal Pradesh. Enclosed by the Greater Himalayas, Zanskar and Dhauladhar mountains and the valleys of Baspa, Spiti and Sutlej, one look at the region and you understand why Kinnaur apples have to be sinfully succulent. Old texts referred to the people of Kinnaur as Kinners or halfway between mortals and gods. Closer to god for their striking features, calm demeanour and tolerant, helpful and cheerful nature. Tourism coupled with the spate of large scale constructions saw the influx of migrants by the truckload. The wary Kinner was caught on the backfoot with the suddenness and severity of the change. Opting for their orchards, chilgoza, spruce and dry fruits, they moved further up the mountains, closer to their gods.

A (once) booming business

The call of slowly but steadily flourishing tourism was too tempting to ignore for long and very soon the Kinners too decided not to loose out: while some sold their heavenly properties to hoteliers, the wiser ones gave theirs on rent. The younger Kinner too jumped into the fray and today guns on Bullet bikes with mutilated cylinders – remnants of what the Israelis left behind. I met four Israeli bikers and counted three hotels announcing Israeli food a tad unconvincingly (“put plenty of tomato sauce and cheese” – as one hotelier explained the basic ingredient). The bikers come here for the ride as well as the trip – you can see ganja growing by the roadside, healthier than my mother’s lovingly cultivated anthuriums. The free-growing weed is more mythology than menace in the Kailash mountain areas.

The scenic Chandika Devi temple

A brisk 3km walk from the town centre is the Kothi village. Save for a group of garrulous women who had come to register for the NREGS, the village was otherwise sleepy quiet. One interesting business signage that caught my eyes was that of a gun repairer. Hunting used to be rampant – both for sport and food. Kothi, once upon a time also known as Koshtampi, enjoyed an almost iconic status. Mythology says the Pandavas while in exile roamed around these parts. The temple of goddess Chandika is a favourite among locals and tourists alike. Exams to business to marriage, you name it and Chandika Devi has the answer.
Phullu, Reena and Naveen are class nine students and have science exams today. They are all engrossed in a sombre perambulation but vigorously chewing gum as if it sharpened that part of the brain relevant for the test.

This Shiva temple opens once a year

“What all did you ask for?” I asked them and they looked at each other, smiling through teeth clenched together with pinky white gum.
Phullu wanted to be an IAS, Naveen wanted to finish tenth, Reena didn’t say anything. Her friends helpfully chipped in, “She wants to get married to her boyfriend.”
“But she has to be 18 years old for that,” I pointed out.
“No,” they corrected me, “her boyfriend has to get a job. That’s all.”
For once I didn’t envy the job of a god.
Right next door to the Chandika Devi temple is a Shiv temple which bore distinct influences of the coexisting Buddhist and Hindu cultures over several centuries. The architecture amalgamated from the styles of these two strong traditions. It was predominantly a square space with lines of columns with conical sloping roofs, typical of a Buddhist vihara. Like a Hindu temple, the main prayer hall stood on elevated ground and saffron flags fluttered from all corners. In a small green pool right in the front of this sanctum sanctorum, there was a statue of a serene Lord Shiva facing the Kinner Kailash mountains; the mountains which once used to be his playground. As if fearing the temperamental god might not be able to resist the call of the mountains, the gate to the temple was locked – opened only during Shivaratri.

The people are talented and goodlooking: Shopkeeper Mangal Negi next to his work

Ambling back into Reckong Peo, I squiggled into a cyber cafe. For a state with half a dozen dams tapping the humungous hydro power reserves, the frequent power cuts would strike any outsider as an anomaly. Not for the Kinner folk. They are too happy to be bogged down and too optimistic to give up.
“There is no power now, but will come soon,” the proprietor said.
“How long since the power went?”
“Oh, there is no power since morning,” she replied with a brilliant smile no electricity could match. “But it will come soon.”
Leaving Peo that evening, I took one last look around as I boarded the bus. What did god make first, I wondered, the beautiful people or the wonderful land.

Wanderink recommends: Though there are privately owned decent hotels as well as those belonging to the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, their facilities are at a bare minimum. There have to be initiatives to train the Kinnaur youth as qualified trekking guides or mountaineering instructors. Electricity and roads are public utilities the government has to seriously improve. The walkway to the Kothi temple, a very picturesque one, has to be developed – it is now broken in several parts and at many places with not enough space for two people to pass each other.

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