The Narrow Paths
Ah, steeds, steeds, what steeds!
Has the whirlwind a home in your manes?
Is there a sensitive ear, alert as a flame, in your every fiber?
Hearing the familiar song from above, all in one accord you strain your bronze chests and,
hooves barely touching the ground,turn into straight lines cleaving the air,
and all inspired by God it rushes on!
- Nikolai V Gogol (Translated from Russian)
ريح الجنة تلك التي تهب بين أذني الخيل
Reehu ‘al Jannah Tilka ‘alati Tahubu Bayn Uthunai ‘Al Khayl
The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears
- Arabic Proverb
Is is just me or do we really miss out on the We are on Planet Earth! feeling in the cities. Under our feet, we have bituminous or concrete surfaces; All around us we have concrete and glass edifices; Billboards and poles limit our visibility to a few hundred feet in any direction. Above us, electricity and telephone wires scar the little patch of sky visible from the streets.
I’ve had a few We are on Planet Earth! reminders in the past few years: every time I visit my ancestral homes in Kerala; and during my visits to Kaiwara, Madikeri, Gokarna and Yana. But nothing, NOTHING, had given me that geological connect that exposed mountain faces had given me since leaving Jammu. (See incredibly imposing image in The Winter Capital).
Having passed by Vaishno Devi mandir just before dawn, the lights along the path on the slopes leading up to it was another mesmerising sight – Zig-zag lines of fluorescent white dots against complete darkness. It was too dark to see anything else outside. At times, it would be on our left, then right, as the car followed a typical winding mountain road.
(See Places for image and info)
Sabbah, Azon and I reached the last motorable point by 11:15 in the morning. Premnagar is bifurcated by the Chenab. A wooden suspension footbridge stretches over the river, connecting the two wings of the small town. There is an ancient proverb – Once a Harry Potter fanboy, always a Harry Potter fanboy. Okay, it isn’t ancient. Or a proverb. But it is true in my case :) The oddest of things can lead me to create Harry Potter references in my mind. Premnagar is my Diagon Alley. Perhaps that is because all I saw, and hence remember, of the place was one crowded alley with ancient shop fronts on either side, apart from the bridge.
Sabbah led us to a narrow gap in between two shops that served as the way to the bridge. Of course, this is my Leaky Cauldron, connecting us to the magical world of Breswana that lay beyond! ;) At a small landing at the bottom of this path, we met a few villagers who had come down with a donkey and three horses. We handed our backpacks over to one of them, who dropped them into gunny bags and loaded them onto the donkey. Sabbah’s family owns a few horses – some of them local, some brought from the Zanskar mountains. The horses from the Zanskar – the Zanskaris – are much sturdier and stronger than the local ones.
There is a military outpost at Premnagar. A couple of the soldiers asked us – Azon and I – our purpose in Breswana, duration and other such questions. One of them was from Karnataka; We small-talk-ed in Kannada for sometime.
About half an hour after arrival, the three of us crossed the bridge, descended down to the river, and then got on our horses. I had a difficult time even getting on! It was my first time on a horse. Sabbah took the most difficult horse – Randy. (Randy is a total bad-ass horse. You’ll read more of him later.)
We – the three of us, the three horse handlers, the donkey, and his handler – crossed the river. The three-and-a-half hour ride began. It was an eventful one. The paths varied from that of a comfortable width to that of a few inches; From gravelly to sandy; From bright sunlit to dark pine-covered. Occasionally, the sound of flowing water would join the ever-present rustle of pine trees swaying in the wind. The scent of the horses – mildly reminiscent of animal scents back at my ancestral home in Kerala – and those of the trees were strong, all along, and were a welcome change from the smoky, dusty, noxious miasma of the cities.
Winter was just ending as we arrived. The deciduous trees stood brown and bare, the fields were unploughed, the meadows weren’t green, the peaks still had snow. SNOW! I had never seen or touched snow. My list of firsts expanded rapidly..
Unlike the constancy of a city life, I’d soon realise, life here was visibly changing. Within the hundred days of my stay, I’d see the brown trees come back to life, growing a million leaves in a few days, bearing flowers and then bearing fruit. The cycle of life was moving right in front of me, every day. Even the houses changed! The mud-roofed houses would change from snow-white to dirt-brown to grass-green through the year. A city is unnaturally unchanging..
The cavalcade moved as fast as the terrain was permitting. Sabbah at the front, followed by Azon and then me. We stopped a few times, letting the horses get some much-deserved rest and water. We also stopped/paused at points of interest along the way – a site purchased by the trust for setting up a college and a water mill (more on the mills in a subsequent post).
A horse only avoids getting its own self scratched. They seemed completely unaware of the widths of the person on them. As a result, we were always alert on the horses, swaying and swerving to avoid overhanging thorn bushes and branches. It takes some time getting used to the ways of a horse, how they walk right up to the edge of a path before turning, almost as if walking off the edge of the mountain. It really did not matter, though. We knew we were on our way to a earthly version of paradise, something affirmed by the literal meaning of a famous quote.. ;)
But the gateway to (heaven) is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. ~ Matthew 7:14