Temporal Rhythms and Life in the Kumaon Hills

The lilting tunes of the famous Garwhali/Kumaoni song, ‘Bedu pako barahmasa, Naraina, kafal pako chaita, meri chaila’ made me go to the nearest kafal (bay berry) tree at the Nayalap camp site where I am staying in Sitlakhet (Kumaon). It was early June and I could still see a few red berry like fruits on the trees. Though the monkeys had taken the lion’s share, I was able to taste the last of this sweet fruit.

This beautiful song put in perspective two things that I had been thinking about on my fourth visit to Kumaon – the seasonal nature of things and how natural rhythms and village life can temper compulsive consumption into moderation.

I keep returning to Sitlakhet, year after year, and each time I visit in a different month because the landscape transforms with each season offering novel experiences. Kumaoni cuisine offers endless delights, and the array of seasonal fruits and vegetables are an important part of this.

This year, I visited at the end of May. At the beginning of my stay, I enjoyed plucking kafal and the hisalu (Himalayan yellow raspberry) on my daily hikes. I also enjoyed foraging for fiddlehead ferns. After hunting in the many patches of lush greenery close to some springs, we found some growing in a reasonably accessible spot. The season for this vegetable is short lived and it must be consumed in moderation as over plucking could lead to a depletion in the plants for next year.

Kafal. Photo: Tanuja Sah

This is also the season when the trees are laden with fruits. People become generous when there is plenty. Now that it is almost end of June, everyone in the village of Salla Rautela has been offering us pears and plums. When I was here in August last year, everyone had been offering us pahadi cucumbers, also called kakdi.

Soon, it will be apple season.

These haven’t just been delicious experiences but have also become mnemonic markers for me to recall when I had last visited Sitlakhet. For me, time has become intertwined with natural rhythms in a way that fruits and vegetables have become associated with months. I always remember that I had first stayed at Nayalap when the rhododendron flowers were blooming and my friend Tanuja, who is the proprietor of Nayalap, had climbed trees to pluck them so that we could eat rhododendron pakoras (fritters). This was February and the Himalayan peaks were visible almost every day.

Then there had been that winter afternoon when I had enjoyed sana hua nimboo mooli. The sun had felt lovely, and big pahadi lemon was in season so it must have been November!

Another temporal effect that being in the Kumaon hills has on me is that it teaches me patience. Being from Delhi, and with the prodigious growth in e-commerce, it feels like I can have many things, if not all, at the click of a button. Such instant gratification has made me slightly less patient and a bit more entitled.

Being in the hills teaches me to wait. My restless entitlement is tempered and I experienced this when I wanted to have some delicious pre-roasted mutton. I had had this mutton on a previous trip and had been yearning for its smoky flavour ever since. The catch though is that in Sitlakhet, you can usually only get this kind of meat when a goat is slaughtered in the village. It is not generally sold commercially and thus is not always available at the butcher’s.

Now, a goat in the village only gets slaughtered when there are enough takers for the meat. Till such a demand builds up, people wait. The reason why I like this meat so much is because it is roasted, before being sold, along with the skin and the hair of the goat. Also, all parts of the goat are consumed. The singed skin is had as a snack. The raw liver is fed to the children with some garlic salt smeared on it. But the pièce de résistance is bhutwa (goat offal). It is considered so delicious that the family whose goat is being slaughtered keeps it for themselves. Of course, a little bit can be acquired with some coaxing and bargaining.

This time around, I have already been here for a month and my requests and inducements have not resulted in me being able to taste this meat that I crave. There is a certain amount of food self-sufficiency in the Kumaon region that makes people impervious to monetary inducements. This also has a very sobering effect for a city dweller like me. The realisation that not everything can be bought and that you just have to wait for some things, and be grateful if and when people do finally decide to share it with you, is oddly satisfying.

Coming back to the folk song I started this piece with – often in song traditions, like the barahmasi, natural rhythms and occurrences are used to illustrate emotional experiences. In the Kumaoni folk song ‘bedu pako’, the woman is comparing the season that kafal blooms, which is chait (April-May), as the time spent in her childhood home, and contrasting it with the much longer blooming period of bedu (fig), which represents life after she got married. The sweetness of kafal is being contrasted with the not so sweet bedu. This is also a reference to the short period of time each year when she goes back to her maternal home, and the sweetness of that experience.

As I prepare to go back to Delhi, I eagerly wait for the metaphorical kafal to bloom again in my life and that is when I will return to Nayalap for a few weeks. This time, maybe I will come back during the time when going on a stroll means collecting pine cones and beating them on the ground to make the nuts fall out. You can continue the stroll while slowly peeling and eating the nuts. Or maybe I will come when the daffodils bloom under the old walnut tree, which is at the end of a row of old empty wood-and-stone village houses. I think the acacia trees will also be covered in yellow flowers then.

Saumya Agarwal is an Arts Research Fellow at the India Foundation for the Arts. She has previously been published by LiveWire, Firstpost and EPW. Many of the insights in this article are courtesy of Tanuja Sah, whose knowledge of the mountains has allowed the author to experience the hills in such an enriching manner. She can be reached at https://www.instagram.com/home.nayalap/?hl=en

Featured image: Tanuj Arora