On my first day in the village of Kandbari, where I’ve now spent more than 4 months, it felt like I was dropped down from a soaring height. Yeah, metaphorically!
The fall where you hear nothing, feel nothing or see nothing but get an adrenaline rush. Like anyone else, I too wanted to live in the mountains. It has been on top of my bucket list since forever. I was getting a trailer of my retirement plan. We (my co-fellow and I) got a flat for ourselves.
Choosing an accommodation was nothing like the dilemma or the dharam-sankat we had on the assessment day. We were provided with an apartment that had a pre-installed microwave and a washing machine. There was free ration to start with, and even the most doting landlady. The place was in the middle of the village, on top of a flat where the woman working at Aanganwadi lived.
The organisation, Aavishkaar’s workstation is a beautiful learning center on a hilltop, at the edge of Kandbari and Nanahar villages. It is surrounded by tall lemongrass bushes across the field in front of what once was a cow-shelter and has now been converted into a library cum office cum classroom.
The biggest surprise on the first day was the tastiest meal I have ever had. We were told to load up in a Winger Van because the entire team was going for Lunch to a Bir, where an Aashram owner had organised a dham, a common term used for himachali feast. I was honored to be served the Kangri dham of the Kangra valley. We sat among hundreds of other people on mats which also had dal and curries on them, just like the floor.
Not being a rice lover, I was worried if I’ll be able to respect the meal which was supposed to have rice with 7 different curries. It began with 3 men carrying brown bamboo-peel chhallas filled with desi-rice. They served us the warm white aromatic rice in such traditional fashion that I got glued to my seat right then and there. The curries started arriving next, the first of which was “Madhra”. One bite was enough to awaken my consciousness. It was the taste that I had once found in “Himalayan Spaghetti” at Delhi Heights Cafe in Gurgaon. I couldn’t find that on their menu again, but the same spices had made their way in Madhra now.
Today, after 4 months, when I had my third dham at the local school, I can again feel my taste buds shaken to the core. Its sweet-sour-spicy flavor somewhat resembles the taste of Maggi Masala, only better. The next curries in line were rajma, yellow dal, urad dal, kadhi, moong dal and finally khatta – another one of the all-time favorites. Khatta is made of black chanaa with extremely sour spices. The first look at this dark blackish curry had made me cringe but now I feel addicted to it.
This traditional eat-all-you-can luncheon always leaves me craving for more but tight tummy acts as a guard of my health. Sweet rice with coconut flakes and dry fruits made a perfect end to the meal. I could already sit for another round but the next chance came only after two whole months. I was yearning for Madhra and sweet rice now.
How are these free treats so popular all over Himachal Pradesh? How is it possible for the locals to afford feeding endless people in such feasts?
The only free meal you get in Delhi is that in weddings, or sometimes when you are able to visit Bangla Sahib or any other Gurudwara for a Langar. The unconditional giving nature of the Himachali community surprises me every day. They invite the entire village, along with the ones their guests want to bring, for such dhams. Today, a school I’m working with, was invited for the dham. All students of grade 1st to 10th feasted together with the teachers. A family member in the neighborhood had passed away.
I realize how oblivious I have been to the Indian communal set up, even after 23 years. I was only telling a fraction of the entire truth every time I told my friends from other countries that in India, community is more powerful than an individual as I just cannot leave home on turning 18; that we live, eat, sleep together and take decisions after consulting with the family. I couldn’t present the whole picture to the outsiders because I, myself, have been an outsider all this while. Instead of being on the community side of the civilization spectrum, I was somewhere in the middle.
For the rest of the year, my target is to crash at seven more dhams during my next 8 months here. If you ever visit, don’t forget to ask the locals about the dham being served nearby. You will always be welcome with great enthusiasm <3
To know more about it and probably even cook it yourself, refer this link.