A small town in the hills

If Gushaini is a large village, then Banjar is clearly a town. It’s not just the size, other cues kick in too. For example, there were policemen trying to prevent people from parking on narrow stretches of road. The Family wanted to look at a shop we’d been hearing about: it sold shawls and other traditional woolen clothing made by a cooperative of local weavers. Soni was waved on by a policeman immediately after he deposited us at the shop. I walked along the narrow main road at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights. The bright pink hair dresser’s salon was called “New Honey”!

Banjar is built on a slope above the Banjar river, so the main street is rather narrow. The beautiful old wooden houses are now squeezed between brick and mortar construction. I admired the carved wooden panel just below the box windows of the first floor. The new construction always leaves me wondering about the economics: in the plains there is an economy of scale when you use construction material which is widely available. These bricks have to be shipped up to the hills, increasing their cost. So why don’t people continue to use wood? Has the cost of wood increased in recent times? Is that just a question of supply not keeping up with demand?

Just because houses are made of bricks does not mean that the local style has died out. I stopped to look at this three-storied building. The ground floor is a nondescript shop with rolling steel shutters. The upper floors are dazzling gems. Look at the reproduction of wooden carved panels in plaster and cement, and the closed windows which are transplanted from the traditional architecture. I found the upper floors to be quite a statement.

It was a Thursday and I was looking for interesting doors. I found a set in this row of shops. Steel cupboards are quite the rage here. Unlike the old times, these come in interesting colours. I liked these two: one with doors painted the same pink as the hairdresser’s cabin, the other a lovely bottle green. The series of shops has the look of hasty municipal construction. The concrete slabs of the floor and ceiling quickly cast, the walls thin, the doors made of prefab panels which don’t quite fit. The private houses here are built with care, so the town corporation is probably run with a small budget.

Himachal is known for its fruits. Mid-May was too early for cherries, but apples and peaches were in evidence. But the fruit of the season is mango, and that does not grow in these hills. They have to be trucked up from the plains. Everything else looked local and fresh. I wasn’t really checking; Dilsher’s cook, Ram, was doing a wonderful job. The district of Kullu has five divisions, and Banjar is big enough to give its name to one. The route from Shimla to Kullu over Jalori pass travels next to the Banjar river until it falls into the Tirthan. As a result, Banjar is an important town, with a large market, and some low-end hotels for travelers who might be stuck for a night when the pass is closed in bad weather.

Lack of space has an interesting effect on the buildings in Banjar: spiral staircases. All new houses seem to have these curled ribbons of masonry tacked on to the outside. The stairs in traditional houses are more like steep ladders. They don’t bother locals, who are used to such slopes everywhere. The more gentle stairs here are wonderful for city people like us. I think this is also something that people of Kullu can grow to like. I would guess that if I were to come back here ten years later I would find these spiral staircases on almost every building.

There was a temple festival on in Banjar. Apparently villagers carry their local idol across the valleys to another temple once a year. That week the villagers of Bathad had come to Banjar. I kept an eye out for the festival, but the only thing I spotted were the special sweets on display in this shop. The shopkeeper was clearly unhappy when I pulled out my camera after inspecting the sweets. The festival takes place in a field well away from the main road. The morning’s rituals were over, and the evening was far away. We decided to give it a miss. Soni was happy to go; he did not like policemen.

A small temple festival

Anachal temple festival

We drove through the village of Anachal, near Munnar, in the morning. Shankumar translated the name for us: ana in Malayalam means elephant, so the village is literally an elephant path. There were no jumbos in sight, but the market square had a church, a mosque and a temple. Bright yellow flags were planted along the main road. They were an indication that there was a festival on in this small temple.

anachal2Passing by at night again we saw that the temple festival was ending with a procession. When one thinks of temple processions in Kerala one pictures the big ones: with elephants and drums. This one had no elephants. The percussion section was not restricted to the four traditional instruments. I saw the big edayakka and madhalam and the cymbals called the ilathalam.Anachal temple festival The small hour-glass shaped thimila was missing, and the largest section was the vertically held chenda which is beaten with a pair of sticks.

This band of drummers preceded a series of people dressed up as gods, goddesses and holy men. Preparing them would have taken most of the day. I’d spent a part of the day watching preparations for a touristy show of Kathakali, and wished that I’d spent the time in this temple, watching the preparations for the night’s procession.Anachal temple festivalNo matter. I was happy now to stand on the road and watch.

After them came a bunch of less identifiable characters.anachal5I had the impression of a few saffron clad people carrying tinsel trees on their backs (photo here). I don’t know what this section of the procession is called, and have no idea about its significance. If you do, please leave a comment.

The final section of the procession was a line of village women wearing the traditional Kerala sari, each carrying a lamp. In the dark this was the prettiest part of the spectacle. The procession walked down the road slowly, and an hour later walked back the couple of hundred meters to the temple. After gathering at the temple there was a dance. I watched for a while and then left.

A good-enough Friday

Years ago I was introduced to the delightful world of Tamil pickles. Our weekend’s hotel added one to the tally: a sweet beetroot pickle. Other than this the food was well-made but unremarkable. The Family disagrees, but she has to agree when I say “my post, my choice”. In any case, late on the morning of Good Friday we drove down to the bakery in the village. As promised, we found “eatables and other bakery items”.

The bakery is outside the village temple, which was getting ready for a festival to Murugan. Temporary stalls, mostly selling toys, lined the road. Our guide, named after the day’s diety, promised that if we waited for a couple of hours the street would be packed with devotees. We made a quick escape, but caught the first of the revellers dancing at the next cross roads. This was so totally unlike any of my mental pictures of Tamil temple festivals that we stopped to take a few photos.

The group looked like a carnival held a month to late. Was it really Good Friday? We passed a church where a tuneless choir was singing. A little further along the road there was a procession carrying a cross. Relief! We were not taking a vacation on the wrong weekend.