Imagine a place where you awaken to the clip-clop of hooves, to delicate birdsong, to children’s laughter and distant temple gongs. A place on a mountainside, where the sun rises over glistening slate roofs, delicate shoots sprouting from dark soil, huge Himalayan rocks commanding the landscape, and colourful houses. A place where you walk at dawn among smells of hay, cow dung, wood smoke, incense and early morning cooking. This place is Upper Dharamkot, and it has a magic unlike any I have ever experienced elsewhere. While only fifteen minutes’ walk above the village of Dharamkot, it feels like a different world. The area is beautifully haphazard, criss-crossed by a loose web of footpaths, some concrete, more often earth and stone, that wind between houses, turn abruptly into steep, narrow steps, or seem to vanish before emerging once more, now into the courtyard of a house, where right of way is not questioned, now between terraced fields. Here, past and present meet. There are stables built of stacked flat stones daubed with clay, long ago painted pastel shades, for cows and goats, hay and farming tools. But they are slowly being encroached upon by new concrete buildings, which sprout like eyesores, their metal reinforcement rods protruding like broken ribs. There are no machines here though – the bricks, cement, and gravel are carried by horses, small in stature, and slender, but strong and resilient. As the day begins, schoolchildren emerge, the girls in loose trousers and long dresses, their silky hair tied into jet black braids, the boys in clean blue shirts and leather shoes. The girls hold hands as they walk, and a small boy with an oversized satchel whizzes past me, his arms outstretched like aeroplane wings. Cows wander nonchalantly, foraging among the nettles and brambles, or seeking out the organic waste the villagers leave them.
Here, the magic is not only of the place – the view over the valley that drops away below, or the tree-clad ridge above, where dark clouds often gather, as though threatening to swoop down and engulf the mountain, or the terrific winds and rainstorms that appear out of nowhere, reminders of the raw power of nature. Nor is it merely the slow pace of life, the incredible feeling of contentment, the sense that all is well, that there is nothing that needs doing in order to simply exist and soak up what each day brings – in short, that nothing is lacking. Above all, perhaps, the spell is cast by the people, the inhabitants of this microcosm, both permanent and temporary. The locals are soft-spoken, gentle, peaceful folk, ever helpful and accommodating, welcoming but not intrusive. The travellers are the most eclectic bunch imaginable, and yet simply being here seems to form a common bond. Each encounter feels special, a unique moment in time, a blessing. Here, I am not “sir”, but “brother”, as indeed are all of us. And these companions are full of surprises. One day a Russian brother, whom I had seen a few days earlier packing large amounts of weed into a pipe, astonishes me with his masterful Tuvan throat singing and overtones. Barefooted and wearing a sleeveless sheepskin jacket, he sits, thinning dreadlocks falling across his face, plucking away at his gopichand, a single string in a bamboo frame, and filling the air with enchanting sounds. But his gaze is turned inwards, he is elsewhere, and I marvel at this shaman-like character uplifting my soul in his trance. Another Russian brother, his greying locks curled into a topknot, confides in me that he has been coming here for twenty years, but this man seems more familiar with hashish than the language of song, or even the local Hindi, (though when a third companion, who I think of as the Orthodox one because of his bushy beard, joins him with a guitar, they form a passable duo). And languages are many here: at any given moment one may hear conversation in Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, even Scots or Mancunian, each with their own music.
Each wanderer finds their own gathering points, and there are many small, unassuming places serving tea and coffee, that conjure up simple, delicious food, in often improvised kitchen spaces. For my part, Friends’ Corner feels like the epicentre of this neighbourhood, such is its magnetic pull and the haven it provides. It is place of sharing and serenity, in the heart of an already peaceful place. Consisting of a wooden hut, which is in fact little more than a shack, it sits on a bump in the ground, prolonged by a tent canopy that provides shade, for visitors and the vegetable stall. Plastic chairs and tables are set out in the small open areas on either side. Huge rocks encase the space, providing a sense of security and shelter, and coarse cloth is laid over the stone to provide makeshift benches. The kitchen at the rear of the hut, fronted by a small shop selling biscuits, water, toilet paper and other basic commodities, is barely bigger than a cupboard. And yet, toiling away in this tiny workshop, the family who run the business cook up a wide variety of some of the most delicious food I have eaten here in India. Or indeed anywhere. But it is a labour of love, and each time a steaming thali or even a hot chai is placed before me, I feel like a priviledged guest. At Friends’ Corner, there is barely a time of day when friends are not indeed gathered there, and when no familiar faces are present, new acquaintances are usually friends in the making. Talk is in turn stimulating, inspiring, soothing and even healing. Time slows down, and, to paraphrase Parkinson’s law, conversation expands to fill the time available for the pleasure and fulfilment of it.
As dusk draws near, I slowly sip my apple juice, content just to listen, and to watch my new friends, as they speak of their day, of vipassana meditation, philosophy, Mother India, yoga, their chatter punctuated by laughter and banter, or giving way to moments of silent, shared companionship. And I realize there is nowhere in the world, no other circumstance, in which I would rather find myself, than this tiny, insignificant spot on the face of the planet. As I reflect upon such simple happiness, I see a stern-faced youth, with blonde fuzz on his cheeks, walk solemnly by, his tiny girlfriend held in tow in a vice-like grip. I have seen this couple every evening for a week now, always grim, rigid and determined. It takes time to relax and let go, to abandon oneself to the energy of this place, I remind myself. But perhaps even this magic cannot work upon everyone. As I watch them pass, I am reminded of the words of Peter Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard, in which he recounts his walking pilgrimage to the Dolpo region of the Himalayas: “And as the wary dogs skirt past, we nod, grimace, and resume our paths, to separate destinies and separate graves.”