The view left our mouths gaping when we drove up to Kalpa around 10 AM. The Kinner Kailash mountain range beamed majestically in the morning sun, and the broad stretches of snow glimmered against the bright blue sky. We stepped out of the car, stood, and just breathed, letting the overflowing beauty dazzle our eyes. In the distance, the deep baritone sounds of gongs from the Buddhist monastery struck our souls. The rhythm of the beats guided us along our steps up the steep road.
The gallery of snow-capped mountains was mesmerizing us in a live exhibition. Frankly, we could not take our eyes off the beauty. We had to pause and pull our eyes away to observe the village and its inhabitants. A group of elderly women were working and chatting in a field. I glanced up at my friend seeking translation, but he shook his head. Hailing from Hamirpur, he reasoned that his dialect was very different from the Tibeto-Burman dialect of Kinnauri. But as a Bengali, I could detect a similar musical tone in their words.
The road was lined with stone fences guarding apple orchards and apricot trees. The pink leaves swayed in the cold breeze, making for a fantastic view with the massif in the background. As we kept snapping the heavenly place, I noticed some women passing us. Their hair was tied neatly beneath the ‘thepang’, or green Kinnauri caps, and their traditional attire seemed to be freshly ironed. The ‘chanli’ or colorful shawl was gracefully draped around their shoulders and pinned with gold broaches. They returned our curious glances with inquisitive eyes.
After a short hike up rustic village paths, we came back to the main area of Kalpa. Mesmerizing beats and haunting melodies floated from the Nagini Narayan temple. Intrigued, we directed our steps toward those sounds. A flight of stone steps led us up to the wooden gate, engraved with intricate motifs. I hesitated slightly before entering and did so after confirming with a local that outsiders are allowed. We stepped into a courtyard with the main temple at the far end and a structure in the middle. The Kinner Kailash range looked on as the place vibrated with spiritual revelry.
A group of men and women were dancing in a semi-circle around the holy structure in the middle. Each person’s hands were joined with those of every third person. They swayed forward and backward, and then moved sideways, led by the village head at one end of the arc. Their stepping was directed by the trance-like beats of a man playing a ‘dhole’. The women sang an ancient devotional tune in praise of the local deity. Yellow cotton balls called ‘bakrikan’ dangled from their ‘makhmal’ or green velvet caps.
We sat on a ledge and watched, mesmerized by the proceedings. A man wearing a dark blue puffer jacket and Kinnauri topi approached us. ‘Join the dance, it’ll be an experience’, he told me. But I declined the enticing offer due to back pain. Instead, we engaged in conversation over cups of butter-flavoured tea. He introduced himself as Kamal Verma, hailing from Manali, and lent us some information.
Called ‘Kayang’, this dance is performed during Navratri. The locals move in sync with the drum, in a half circle or ‘nritya mala’ around the Devi or goddess in the middle. The rotating arc of dancers can stay in motion for hours. They can get lost in a trance, and mesmerize the surrounding people as well, all in devotion to the deity. The village head, or ‘pradhan’ had given prior notice to the people to assemble at the temple ground.
The Kinnaura people do not allow outsiders inside the temple. Grounded in ancient rituals continuing since time immemorial, the beats haunted us. It was easy to forget which century we were in. All the more so as the locals were dedicated to guarding their culture and rituals from outside influence. Verma ji said that the people of his hometown, Manali, are generally more receptive to foreign elements as compared to the guarded behavior of the Kinnauri people.
The dance came to an end after a while, as did our time to stay in Kalpa. The villagers sat down in the courtyard and shared some laughs, as the head took a roll call. Meanwhile, we bid goodbye to Verma ji and descended the temple steps, eagerly looking forward to the next time we would be enthralled by mesmerizing spiritual beats.
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