Saturday, March 26, 2011

India: II: Valley of the Shawls

Setting off from Rishikesh, Pi shawl underway, we set off to Kasauli. A relatively non descript British Raj era hill station.
We'd set out for a 4 hour car journey after having morning tea with Babaji, so when we hadn't arrived at our hotel by 9pm, the 'romance' of a car ride through the low lying Himalayas was quickly losing it's shine. This was mostly due to the roadworks underway to widen and reinforce the winding road up the mountain after the previous monsoon season. Watching the men on the sides of the road breaking up boulders by hand was one thing, seeing them continue at night and with enormous trucks passing either side of them simultaneously, horns blaring, was something else! There had been a number of mudslides and occasionally we would see in the (not too far away) distance a dust cloud from a recent landslide, which was all the reminder I needed as to where I was and how 'safe' these roads were compared to similar roads at home. Its mostly luck that more people aren't killed or their homes destroyed in any given year. The journey the next day to Mandi was far more pleasant and the scenery much prettier, as the snow capped mountains shone all around us and the air became significanly cooler. I was very glad I had my (finished) "New York Delhi' Cream Cardigan - I sewed the collar on during the first few days at Rishikesh - no way I was getting up for a 4am class without it!
It was no surprise then that we began to see shawl shops appear, at first a few and a then more shawl shops and signs for shawl shops than I could believe. Since we weren't stopping every 5 minutes my photographic record of these signs is less than 1% of what I saw, but you get the picture. It turns out that the Kullu Valley is famous for its shawls. That and being the place where Alexander the Great's men mutinied and refused to travel further into India. Kullu supposedly translates as 'The end of the habitable world'. This is where the Beas River meets the Parvati river (Shiva's wife). We stopped at a Shawl factory and watched women working the looms with some of the most beautifully coloured pashmina yarn I'd ever seen. I was also struck by the women's local dress. It was very different to the Saree's worn by other Indian women. Actually it reminded me a lot of the dress worn by women I'd seen in the mountains of Guatemala. I found myself noticing many similarties with travelling through Mexico and Central America in India as it happened.
En route we passed many temples perched on cliffs and walked across a bridge to see the valley from another perspective, passing a cement bag laden donkey on the way of course. No guesses for who had right of way. There was even a cement manufacturing tower that looked like a spaceship launcher on top of a Himalayan peak. My camera was playing up so I don't have a photo, maybe its better I don't, not quite the image of the Himalayas that was appealing. Together with the power stations this was a saddening site.
The best hotel we stayed in along the way was in Mandi, called the Raj Mahal. We ended up having dinner and then breakfast with the 80 year old Raj, Ashok (though he was stripped of his title during partition in 1947). He was resplendant in pyjamas and dressing gown on both occasions, and I guess you really can do what you like when you're 80 and you own the place. His family have owned the building (now hotel) for 800 years and there was so much character to the place. From the white metal outdoor chairs with red cushions that looked like they were off the set of Alice in Wonderland and a Mad Hatter's tea party, to the longest barrelled musket rifles any of us had ever seen, nearly 2m long. In the rooms there was wood pannelling and lots of switches for numerous different types of lights. I figured it was to get the mood just right. Turns out it's probably more because electricity is free in this state (probably a trade off for all those power stations supplying the north of India) and a keen electrician had a blank canvass to play with.

After a walk around the town looking for silk fabric and pricing up harmoniums (average price 3000 Rupees = $70, alas, no room in the backpack - hubby was spared my dulcit tones) it was back to the Raj for a seemingly appropriate G&T. Though I expected some significance of ordering a gin and tonic in such a place I wasn't prepared for the ceremony that went with it. The tray arrived with a highball glass with a very generous measure of gin, another high ball glass with fresh lemon juice, another with sugar syrup, another with tonic syrup and a bottle of soda water on the side. There were two of us at the table (me and my tour buddy Eileen), so just double the number of glasses and bottles on the table at this point. Then came the pouring, which I very quickly realised was not my job, that honour was the Indian gentleman serving us dressed in formal wait attire Indian style with cap and white waistcoat. First the tonic syrup added to the gin, then sugar, then soda water, a touch of lemon and a little more soda water. Through hand gestures I was offered to taste then tweak as required. This was so much fun that when the others in our group arrived we ordered another and few on the other side of the table. I lost count how many high ball glasses we had on the table at one point, but there wasn't much white table cloth to spare. To top it off, it was one the best Indian meals I ate while visiting. Ashok entertained us with his riddles, such a , he reminded me of my own, who also happened to be an accountant and loved number puzzles. He was adorable and when I arrived last to breakfast the next morning (a few drinks after a sober time at the ashram will do that) he didn't miss a beat giving me the next puzzle to work on. Fortunately there was tea, just the one cup and saucer this time.

So we continued the trip up to Dharamsala, it was a long ride in the car and I really needed to get out and stretch. The views continued to be amazing and we stopped overnight in Manali. A town with many Kashmiri salesmen who were a little more persistant. Had a lunch at a great place call the Dragon restaurant next to hotel of the same name. If you're headed to this part of the world I highly recommend staying at the Dragon. We didn't and had a less than satisfying night in a very basic hotel, owing to a monumental stuff up by our tour guide. Actually that was her in a nutshell, but that's another story. Shopping was good in Manali and fun haggling. I bought a black wool and hand embroidered coat for under $50, just as well too as the temperature dropped that night, out came the woollens from the Knitting Man!

Oh, I almost forgot one of the funniest sites of the trip. We visited a temple in the afternoon and no sooner out of the car we were descended upon by Yak men wanting us to have a ride or photo sat on a Yak, and they were huge. While local women tried to throw angora bunny rabbits into your arms for about a dollar a time. Now I'm allergic to angora (such a shame) so I kept our driver in stitches trying to avoid having a bunny flung into my arms. Meanwhile, even the Yak men and rabbit women were in hysterics at my tour buddy Chris who had ended up with 2 bunnies in her arms, another 2 perched on her shoulders and a fifth trying to nuzzle in hence the title 'Pancha Angora' (five rabbits). It was hilarious and I haven't laughed so hard for so long in ages. We were still laughing about it at dinner, so was our driver 'Kashmiri Pashmina'. I don't remember much about the temple, apart from the snow outside it and how slippery it was, but I sure remember the bunnies!


  1. Ohhh.. I'm swooning over those angora bunnies, lots of fluff to spin...squeee ! :D

    Also I love that you got to go to the Shawl weaving factory that would be just awesome to see !

    Love the concrete carrying, I would breath in and let it pass on by too.

  2. oh angora, it makes me sneeze something terrible too! what a great adventure this is, i love the way you really got out there and met people, your reporting is really excellent, and makes me realise what a complex part of the world this is.

  3. Definitely complex and so impressed you both read to the end, it's a long one. Next up Dalai Lama and shawls/knitting, hopefully tomorrow.

  4. Nice and informative post on shawls. Shawls of kullu are famous in all around India. Kullu is in Himachal Pradesh. One should visit himachal pradesh once in the lifetime.Himachal Tourism