As soon as one crosses the Rohtang Pass from Manali, there’s an amazing transformation in the landscape. The green, conifer-lined ridges give way to stark and brown mountainsides. It’s the land of the Lahaulis, harsh and lyrical at the same time. Only that the tune is haunting one that transfixes you and pervades your senses like organ music in a church. Many notes ascend and descend at the same time, like the small valleys and steep cliffs that define Lahaul, one-half of the tribal district of Lahaul & Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. Even today, when the modes of communication and transportation have improved appreciably, Lahaul manages to stand apart from the Indian mainland, culturally as well as geographically.
Till a couple of decades ago, it was not easy for a visitor to enter the world of the Lahaulis. No wonder then that the myths and legends of Lahaul are in stark contrast with the motifs of the hills on the other side of Rohtang pass. It is in this context that M.S. Gill’s Tales from the Hills: Lahaul’s Enduring Myths and Legends is a welcome addition to Indian literature. So remote have been these parts of the trans-Himalayas Lahaul along with Spiti and Ladakh that find mention in the book that not much is known about the humanscape of these mountain regions. This book, thus, provides the much-needed window to this world. It, though, just cruises the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
Gill obviously is in love with the mountains and this is clear from his foreword. Despite rising impressibly in his administrative career and later as a politician, Gill still hankers for the years he spent as district commissioner of Lahaul & Spiti back in the Sixties. In fact, the foreword has one of the most readable pages in the book. And, as he says in it, the rest of the book is a collection of stories sometimes mere fragments he heard in the hills nearly five decades ago. The language is straight and simple, one that suits this kind of a book eminently.
Lahaul & Spiti is one of the largest districts of India but with one of the smallest population density. It’s no wonder then that the high mountains and deep valleys here are inhabited in popular imagination by djinns, witches, rakshasas — dead beings that come alive as evil spirits. If you have visited Lahaul, you’ll agree that these stories are in sync with the landscape lengthening shadows in the evenings of the high, almost unreachable, mountain peaks and the gorge-like channels of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers that flow through the district, easily lend credibility to these stories.
One interesting feature that distinguishes the “myths and legends” of Lahaul is that they are rooted in the real world. The villages and the peaks and the forests that are mentioned in the book exist on the map and, importantly, their geographical location plays an important part in the stories. So, Keylong, the biggest town of the region and today the sub-divisional headquarters of Lahaul, figures prominently in many stories. Tandi, where Chandra and Bhaga rivers meet to form Chandrabhaga which takes on the name Chenab once it enters the state of Jammu & Kashmir — too serves as an important marker in a number of legends. Rohtang and Baralacha passes, the two main passes of the region, find a pride of place in a number of legends. In a nutshell, as one reads the legends in this book, the geography of the region becomes clear.
One story, “The Rohtang Pass”, is named after the high-mountain pass that links Lahaul with Kullu valley. The only passable point between the two valleys, Rohtang has a lot of significance in the lives of the people of Lahaul. No wonder, the legend is about how the pass was made by the gods. While in the Kullu valley it is believed that Lord Shiva created the pass, Lahaulis ascribe the act to a king of Western Tibet Gyapo Gyasar (Gyapo means the king in the region).
A major character in many legends is the Buddhist monk and many stories obliquely point towards the change the region went through after Buddhism became the major religion of the valleys here. The author, too, mentions this transition, one that is so visible in stories like “Gods & Men” where the ritual of human sacrifice once an integral part of life in high hills loses its popularity because of monks.
These are stories that can be heard in the district even today. While some have been embellished with further details, some have new stories added to their existing plots. For example, the fairy of Chandratal, a high altitude lake that is located on a ridge dividing Lahaul and Spiti sub-divisions, in some versions becomes a seductress witch who looks for prey on full moon nights.
And amidst all these legends, Gill slips in a story about “Makhan Singh and Sallakhan Singh, Lahaul-wale”, two Sikh men he met in Keylong who specialised in dental care. This is no myth or a legend Gill admits as much but has its place in the pantheon of the ultra-terrestrial beings that inhabit the pages of the book. By starring himself in the story, the author perhaps wants to live on as a legend of Lahaul.
Himanshu Joshi is the editor of Terrascape, a travel magazine.