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2

An incident from a hike to Sudhagad, when a rat snake fell from the rafters of a temple we were staying in, straight onto my friends sleeping bag

This is a very old incident, when Raka and I were still hobby hikers. We are still beginners in a way, but then we were really green. We had gone on a hike to Sudhagad, which is a well-known fort in Maharashtra near the famous Pali, which has a temple of Lord Ganesha.

Sudhagad is one of my all time favorite places to stay. The feeling of having an entire plateau almost to yourself is extraordinary and the natural life is amazing. Snakes in particular.

After a refreshing hike to the top once, we had reached with just enough time to cook dinner and rest for the day. We were some 15 enthusiasts sleeping in a line a local temple on the top of the fort. This is normal.

The first thing I remember the next morning is the sound of a dull thud near where we were sleeping that I would have ignored, if not for a vague and very sleepy comment about a snake fallen from the roof. Didn't make any sense, but it sounded interesting and I scuttled across the last sleeping bag to investigate.

There was a snake - a boa! It was coiled tightly around a rat and they had apparently fallen like that off the ancient beams over our head in their struggle. The rat was scared and struggling, but the snake seemed oblivious to its great fall or our group now crowded around the two watching eagerly the stuff we only saw on TV. In fact, it seemed unconscious of everything but its helpless victim. Not once did its coils loosen, or its head turn away from its prey.

A friend got out his camera and got busy clicking pictures or this rare observation of nature that had fallen almost on our heads. In the meanwhile we were watching. Fascinated.

The snake ignored us all and went about its breakfast like it had all the time in the world. It killed the rat and swallowed it whole and then took a couple of twists and coils around itself for good measure. Finally full and sluggish, it slowly crawled outside to find a nice shady place to digest its meal in.

Over the years, we saw many snakes, had quite a few story worthy experiences, but as our first close experience of the workings of nature, this one is special.

3

Two articles by P. Sainath - Cattle Class: native vs exotic and Holy Cow! Small is beautiful! about the value of indigenous breeds of cattle caught my attention and took me straight back to my nomad days. I remember having very similar opinions with horses.

Sharing here my observations with three breeds of horses, and how they had evolved for specific purposes and the complications of doing the fish out of water thing with them.

We began with a herd of mountain ponies native to the Manali region. These horses don't look anything like the horses you see in films. Or rather, no one wants to make films with horses that look like this for some reason. I thought they were beautiful.

BTW, the difference between a pony and horse is largely height and some differences in quality of coat, legs to body proportion and temperament. It is the same animal. If it is higher than 14.2 hands, it is a horse. A hand is 4 inches.

Mountain ponies have much shorter legs, stockier bodies, smaller height. In my seven years in the mountain living with horses, I have seen exactly two mountain ponies tall enough to be called horses, though everyone calls them horses (the distinction between horse and pony is largely imported). They are very surefooted and are able to walk on mountain slopes and unstable ground very well. They have a thick coat of hair even in summers, which becomes really thick in winters and they are able to live outdoors around the year as a result, even surviving for over a month if they get snowbound.

They are chiefly used for pack loads and carry it well and with great stability (not about skill, but genetics - skeletal structure, gait). They also have tremendous endurance and can literally work for hours and hours. I have had 20 hour days with loaded horses with no harm beyond exhausted foals and old in the herd. They rested, and were absolutely fine. Obviously you don't (and physically can't) make a habit out of this.

The "feel" of riding a mountain pony is nothing to write home about. Sure, you can ride them, but it isn't the kind of speed you see on racetracks and films. Nor is it as comfortable as riding a taller horse. There is a distinct lack of "grandeur" as compared with horses, that tourists wish for and this is the "deficiency" from where my exposure and experiences with other breeds started.

While mountain ponies are the best for trekking related work, there is significant demand for riding ponies - particularly for Indian tourists come to see the snow and such. A few foreigners want to go on riding trails in the mountains too. A really tall man sitting on a mountain pony looks... not all that hot, though the weight is rarely a problem.

So, a few local people who do a lot of joy rides for tourists purchased the more flashy "Punjabi" horses - which are actually some kind of thoroughbred and Marwadi horses 😀 These horses were what is called epic fail. Excellent animals, beautiful to look at, tall and dazzling speeds (for someone used to mountain ponies).... and a Pandora's box of problems.

Their skins were too thin for the cold air, and they caught a chill very easily. They got colic easily and had more expense for both feeding and healthcare. They had no idea how to navigate the mountainous terrain, and while the theory went that they would learn, I never actually saw one that managed it. Mountain ponies have a crucial skill - they are able to step and shift weight with great skill. They may hate it, but they can come down slopes too without harm. Also, the size of the "low-altitude horses" was a big disadvantage for this. Compared to these, the local ponies were like agile goats.

Their larger legs and slimmer bodies meant that they simply didn't have the lung capacity for endurance at high altitudes. Their bones were too fragile for the constant impacts that uneven terrain meant. Most of them died within years of being brought to the mountains. A few mated with local mares and the foals were really big. Some mares did deliver safely, but the off spring also was not as hardy as wished. The offspring of this offspring was not much taller (or slimmer-longlegged) than the mountain ponies, but I did not live there long enough to observe them in adulthood.

Basically, it was like expecting a Rolls Royce to plough your field. Where you need a tractor, you need a tractor. Rugged endurance.

Another experiment we did (the previous one we only witnessed) was with the "Dhoepa" horses of Pin Valley. Known also as Spiti Ponies, Chumurti ponies, these horses have a special gait that makes riding extremely comfortable. In fact, it feels like accelerating a bike. Zero jogging up and down. Before there were roads, these horses were standard transport in this region, and the better the gait, the more it was a symbol of prestige. The old timers would say that people showed off their gaited ponies by riding them with a filled glass of the local arak (alcohol) in hand without spilling it.

These horses are from Spiti, which is a high-altitude cold desert. They have no problems with altitude or cold. Their gait is truly superb for riding. I have had a horse stumble under me without realizing it immediately. I have ridden a mare who was lame in one leg (as an experiment - she wasn't in any pain) and still had a good ride. THAT smooth. Where regular horses move diagonally opposite legs when they start running, these are much like the Spanish Paso Finos (as a foreigners who knew such things told me) - they move lateral legs at the same time. So the result is a shift/shuffle, which barely leads to much movement in the body.

This gait is very efficient on level ground as minimum body movement is used and they can go on all day like this.

To see one of these horse rider combos coming at you in the distance is really funny, because the legs look like they are all over the place, and the body barely seems to move. If there is a mirage... up a gear or five on surreal.

The problems these horses had was with the uneven terrain too. They were bred for long distance riding and can sustain running for hours on end, but Spiti is a desert - the terrain is vast and mostly flat. The way they step taxes their legs when the ground is not level, since the whole shock is absorbed by the feet. To understand this balance a book on your head and walk around and then go up or down stairs - see how differently your legs absorb shock. Most Chumurti ponies I saw that did any extensive walking on mountain slopes developed problems with their fetlocks. Some temporary, some permanent. Still, with care, they did somewhat better.

But they had also been displaced far less - less than a hundred kilometers as the crow flies - though the Himalayan range being in the middle makes for really stark contrast - lush greenery and abundant rain versus arid desert where they say if you sit in the sun with your feet in the shade, you can get sun stroke and frost bite at the same time.

In any case, this side of the mountains, it is green and warmer and humider. Not something these horses appreciated. Bred for single riding and in a region with very scarce grazing (requiring each horse to need more area to feed in), they were not particularly "herd animals" and had a distressing tendency to wander off on their own. I have lost count of the search and rescue expeditions we did when we didn't know to expect this and imagined they would stay with the herd once they had spent some time together - as most horses do. It was oil and water for a long, long time. Some never took to it and we resigned ourselves to managing them independently.

Mares bred successfully, but the problem with the foals was that they either had the gait or didn't. If they had it, it came with all the problems it brought in this terrain. If they didn't, there was no advantage over regular ponies. Certainly nothing that justified the special treatment the mares needed beyond an experiment. A few offspring used the gait at slower speeds and broke into regular trots and canters for faster speeds. They did slightly better at protecting their feet, but for riding, the "smooth ride" wasn't consistent.

Both breeds were useless as pack ponies. The "low altitude horses" or "horses from the plains" had too delicate skin for the pack saddles and loads and were anyway able to carry far less than mountain ponies for any length of time. Strangely, the super smooth Chumurti ponies actually were not able to balance loads well! Possibly because carrying the load well might involve moving the back strategically to counter any off-balancing that may happen. Tough to say without a horse explaining it, but it could be that.

Besides, both of these were too expensive investments to risk harming them. And it was economic suicide to keep animals that will only do part of the work available and eat round the year. We did it, because we were like that, and we pampered our animals - this cannot be reasonably expected to be standard treatment.

Locals once said the horses must have done something good in their previous life to be with us in this one. We lived, breathed, thought, obsessed horses. Happy animals. How to make them happier, healthier... They were NOT our property, but our dependents in care, and partners in work. It says a lot that with a herd of riding horses, we never ever used any whips, spurs and such with any of them, ever to make them run. A horse bursting with health WANTS to run.

Alas, most people who earn from horses have families to feed that unlike ours, don't include horses. We have lived in poverty but not let the horses go without optimal feeds - this is near impossible for most horse owners. The horses ended up doing work they were unsuitable for and suffering for it or suffering from not having their unique needs understood and addressed, no matter how hard the owners tried to avoid it.

To look at this from a different angle, in all my time in the mountains, the only old horses I know are the local mountain ponies and the most successful horsemen have local ponies.

At the end of the day, for us too, it was excellently bred local horses that delivered the money and ease of work that was spent in pampering the more delicate members of our "family". Health and training aid greatly to presentation, and our horses were shining with health and known as the largest herd of riding horses in the area - all our best performers have always been local ponies.

4

Amaji lived in a village (6-7 houses) at a place called Shaminala about 5km from Manali and 2km short of the bigger village of Jagatsukh on the west bank of the Beas. This road winds along the river, and the entire mountainslope has apple orchards everywhere with terrace fields for crops in more even areas. Red [brown] rice in summers along with vegetables for consumption and the outstanding local rajma; wheat [sometimes barley] in winters.

How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!
~ John Muir

A simple four room construction. Two on top of two, not interconnected, all facing same way, built on the slope of the mountain. When I lived there, the top floor had just been built, and the wooden balcony had no railings. We used to spend days sitting on it, doing something or the other, listening to songs as we spun wool, repaired saddlery, or did any of the many things one ends up doing in a rural home. Surrounded by apple orchards and scent of apples on the breeze. Endless cups of tea or chang, depending on occasion. No running water, no permanent toilets. The water supply was a pipe stuck into a natural stream higher up in the mountain and brought into a stone slab. 24 hour running water meant exactly that - 24 hour RUNNING water - no tap. It was just a small part of the stream diverted through the stone slab clearing, flowing year round. Water ferried home in jerry cans for cooking and drinking.

My thin chapatis were a superhit and always desired. Only that the family was the parents, five brothers, two sisters, my then boyfriend, me, and anyone else who happened to be visiting. All robust folks with massive appetites. Making over hundred chapatis for one meal in addition to rice was routine. Me, I loved rajma chawal with the local rajma - or potatoes from Sethan with anything.

Lost count of the nights spent sleeping in sleeping bags on that balcony, staring at the sky, waking up to bright sunlight and amazing views of the valley. Possibly the first time in my life I could just BE without cares, without feeling judged, without stress, strains, pressures. Perfectly accepted for what I was, my contributions perfectly welcome whatever they were.

I have no photos of this place, and now it is much changed too, but Here's a song that I will forever associate with that balcony, its amazing views and feeling of being one with the world and perfectly ok.

Amaji is the undisputed lifeline of the home. Strong, courageous woman, she was the one to work with the horses when her husband's frail health limited what he could do, and the children were too young to help. Remember the nomadic migration with horses I wrote about? Her second youngest son was born on the road, behind a cowshed during a migration. She worked the winters, loaded firewood expertly (one of the most difficult loads for putting on a horse) ... When I met her, she was sixty, and could heave a sack of potatoes on her back and walk off while I collected my jaw from the floor.

But that capacity also comes with tremendous caring. You could speak with her about anything and get straight talk. She might even give you some very orthodox advice, but it was always her opinion, never an imposition. One of the most amazingly mature people I have ever met in my life. Though she did have a fiery temper 😀

The home is about a hundred meter climb from the main road. Now, they have built another home slightly below the original one, I hear. With so many of the sons marrying, space was needed 😀 When I lived there, there was only Sonia - Achoo Lalsingh's daughter. Now they all have kids, except the youngest - Bhimsen, I think. I hear they keep "abi" [grandmother] very busy.

This was my first feeling of being home. Adopted among strangers, loved unhesitatingly as one of their own.

3

This is a particularly sweet memory from my life as a nomadic horsewoman in the mountains.

I lived in Manali, where it snows in the winter. Horsemen here rarely stable their horses, preferring to let them loose in the high altitude pastures in the summer, and tying them together at nights in the winter. The horses themselves are hardy, and I haven’t seen them ever come to any harm like this.

When it snows in Manali, all the Khampa and Kinnauri and often even local horsemen bring their horses down from the alpine meadows and migrate to the Mandi district, where it doesn’t snow, so that the horses can graze by day, and their costs of feeding are lower. They return to the higher areas in spring.

Horsemen come together in small groups for the journey, so that you often have a huge herd of about 50 horses migrating together. Manali to Mandi town is about a 4 day trek, and reaching the interior locations with adequate resources for horses takes another few days. Overall, the journey is about 6-7 days.

We used to travel by the highway and roads, so a huge herd of horses was out of the question in the day. The nights are a different story. The treacherous mountain road is deserted of vehicles by night, so this is when the caravans travel. It was a tough time, as we used to walk all night, and had camp work (cooking and other stuff) and grazing the horses to see to by day. Hardly any time to rest.

But this was also a magical time. Just horse lovers and their precious horses in an age old journey. We used to time the journeys to coincide with full moon nights and a favourite song from my city days took on a whole new relevance. Bear with me, as I share it with you.

Thandi hawa yeh chandani suhani
Ae mere dil sunaa koi kahani
Lambisi ek dagar hai jindagani
Ae mere dil sunaa koi kahani

Mere dil, tu sunaa koi aisi dastaan
Jisko sunkar mile chain mujhe meri jaan
Manjil hai anjaani…….

This cool breeze, this moonlight is pleasing
Oh my heart tell me an (enchanting) story
Life is a long way
Oh my heart tell me an (enchanting) tale

Oh my heart, you tell me, such a tale

Listening to which I come to peace my love
And the destination is unknown…..
And it was like that….. the heart was full of pleasant emotions, as the horses and owners walked in the moonlit nights at peace with themselves…. in harmony….. toward a destination that was an integral part of life for a horse and owner in this part of the mountains.

Saare haseen najare
Sapnon mein kho gaye
Sar rakh ke aasmaan pe
Parvat bhi so gaye

All the beautiful sights around
Are lost in their world of dreams
With their heads cushioned in the sky
Even the mountains are sleeping

And it was like that……….. the world was a beautiful play of moonlight and shadows – a world in black and white – the snow covered mountain tops a very grey against the night. The world indeed seemed to be sleeping, as we walked along the deserted highway through deodar forests silhouetted against the moonlit night. The only sound was the hoofs of horses on the road, and the steady river flowing along.

Aise mein chal raha hun
Pedo ki chaao mein
Jaise koi sitaraa
Badal ke gaon mein

And thus I am walking
In the shadows of the trees
Like some star
In a village of clouds

hmmmm….. drifting along the road…. all night the men, the horses and the night and the journey through the evergreen forests

Thodi si raat beeti
Thodi si reh gayi
Khamosh rutu na jaane
Kya baat keh gayi

Some of the night has passed
Some of it remains
The silent season I know not
What it has said

And the nights….. yeah they passed bit by bit, withthe last kilometer never seeming to end. Its surprising how after walking for 30 km, the last half kilometer seems impossible. It happened everynight, as weary caravans came to open grounds to set camp for the day. Until the night……..

It is a time of my life that was so beautiful, that for all my life, a part of me will remain the simple horsewoman with her simple life and simple cares – away from the complex urban life – far away in the mountains.

Here are some photos from my Advanced Mountaineering Course sent by one of the participants. I don't have any of the Basic - no camera, no one sent.
[slideshow]

The sad part is that there are very few pictures of the action, since she couldn't click pictures then.

Over the coming days, I'll try and describe some of it. Painting pictures with words, so to say.

This tent holds a lot of memories. It was our home for a week and a half. From rushed getting ready around each other to wind driven sound effects. There were excellent singers in our group and time before sleeping rang with clear voices painting associations of amazing lyrics on the experience permanently into memories. More than a decade later, there are songs that remind me of sleeping in this tent immediately 😀

 

Will add more memories later. Duty as a mom calls.