This is a story very close to my heart. The story of a village that gave me refuge after a snowstorm. The story of a family that took me in and made me one of their own. The story of a culture changing rapidly with time while also staying true to its roots. The story of one of the most beautiful, harshest places in our country. This is the story of Todnam. The little village with a big heart.
Winters in Pin Valley can be described in 3 words. Cold, Windy and White. Life is tough here, but also very beautiful. Even the mundane day to day activities look spectacular in the winter. The people, restricted to their homes in the winters, are both cheerful and industrious. They wisely spend their winter downtime by performing various activities and chores that they just woundn’t have the time for in the summer months.
Life revolves around the kitchen during the winter months. It is the warmest place in the house, the place where the family gathers, not just for cooking and eating, but to perform anyone of the various chores that could be done indoors. All this is possible, because of Bukhar their now traditional stove which is kept burning throughout the day on a mixture of gobar and wood. This dry dung or gobar is the lifeline of the villagers during this months.
They spend weeks in the mountains during autumn collecting gobar from the various places where their horses and yaks typically go for graze. The biggest responsibility of the villagers during winter is to take care of their animals. Their yaks,horses, donkeys and cows most of these animals are left free to graze in the mountains during summers but they are brought home after the first heavy snowfall of the winters and kept indoors until all the snow melts in the spring.
It is a huge task to feed these animals throughout the winter. The vilagers prepare for these by collecting sufficient grass from their fields and from the mountains during autumn months. The grass is then dried and stored indoors in huge store rooms. The animals spend most of their time indoors in dark dingy rooms which keep them warm but every few days whenever the weather is nice they are brought out and kept in open pens to enjoy some sun and fresh air.
The houses in lower Todnam have it easy as far as water is concerned. They have a working hand pump which provides for all their water needs but the trouble here is to operate the pump in sub zero temperatures at over 12500 feet. People go out of breath after a few pumps and so the villagers usually gather together and help each other operate the pump and mutually collect water for their daily use. The handpump in the upper village does not work, so the villagers walk to a stream few hundreds meters away in order to collect water.
The snow covered landscape might look calm and serene but all this snow is the result of the ferocious winter storms. A typical storm would dump anywhere between 2 to 4 feet of snow overnight. Despite all this villagers have free time in winter months, the men spend their time participating in various religious ceremonies conducted in the village and elsewhere in the valley.
They go to the ceremonies to help the read the Buddhist scriptures and get paid for their time. The women are more industrious than men during the winter months, they spend their time weaving carpets and knitting various sweaters and socks. Looms are setup in the kitchen for weaving carpets and a single person could weave anywhere between 5 to 10 carpets during winter season.
They do not sell these carpets though it is purely for personal use. Some of the more skillful women weave intricate shawls, each one of which takes over a month to be made and are sold for ten thousands of rupees. The children have a lot of fun during the winter months, most of the kids study in private boarding schools in main towns like Kaza and Tabo but they are all home for the winter holidays which last almost 3 months long.
Some 30 years back. It was a world without cell phones, without television and without electricity even. Sunchok is a special prayer performed for 100 years only in Pin Valley for the long life and prosperity of a person. It is a grand event with close to a hundred monks and hundreds, even thousands of guests attending.The main source of entertainment back in the day were the plays performed by Buzhen lamas and the Da Chang or archery competitions.
The Buzhen lama tradition has almost died down in the recent years but Dachang is still held all over Spiti and Pin Valley during the winter months. It brings people together and gives them a chance to break the winter monotony. And more importantly it is a lot of fun! This is most beautiful example of the camaraderie between the people of Pin valley, helping each other out physically, emotionally and even financially whenever an opportunity presents itself.