Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Sarah Verrinder
Almora, to the west of India’s border with Nepal, typifies as much as anywhere the juxtaposition of shopping and spirituality that has come to symbolize travel in the Far East. Here temple guardians rub shoulders with purveyors of washing up bowls, watering cans and those highly flammable kiddies’ nighties that have probably been banned everywhere else.
The course of Almora’s Lalal Bazaar follows a meandering parallel to the town’s petrol fume and jeep choked main road. The river analogy extends to the crowds of shoppers, colourfully attired, their jewellery glittering, who dart like schools of silvery fish from doorway to doorway. A Tibetan striped over apron here, a dash of hot pink sari there, and the occasional flash of denim or khaki, representing the Western travelers in search of a lift up to the Valley of the Flowers, all attest to the town’s diversity, and the popularity of shopping as a pastime amongst the various local hill tribes.
I began my expedition at the Nandi Devi temple, at the Bazar’s northern end. Dating back approximately three or four hundred years, to the Chand Raja dynasty, the temple’s erotic carvings are faded now to the point of mild titillation. Despite its great age, it’s still very much a working temple, and as I wandered around the complex, two paint brush wielding lads were setting up a ladder against the front of the building, preparing to give the outdoors a lick of paint, whilst in the cool, datk interior, a team of teenage girls in jeans and t- shirts, delicately touched up centuries old murals with teeny tiny paint brushes.
Leaving the temple, I turned right, and followed the lane down towards its hubbub. The bazaar is enclosed on either side by archaic wooden buildings, their ornately carved wooden fronts in various stages of repair. One or two, brightly painted, balustrades picked out in contrasting colours, hanging baskets full of psychedelically coloured flowers, had a touch of the bucolic about them, and could have been transplanted wholesale from some rustic Tuscan farmyard.
I soon reached the end of the map in my guidebook. With the physical world’s typical disregard for the parameters of publishing, however, the Bazaar kept meandering on, and I followed. The crowds thinned out, and there were fewer stall holders trying to encourage me to buy flip flops, lighters and the like.
Through a slightly ajar wooden gate set into a wall, I found myself in a small temple complex, with three sides of a large courtyard given over to open fronted temples, a morass of statues and pillars, wooden painted deities, arms outstretched, shoulders raised in a seemingly eternal celestial shrug. Dutifully slipping off my shoes, I caught sight of a group of about twenty or so women, sat in a group on the floor of one of the temples. Mostly middle aged, their jewel bright saris offered an endearing contrast to their sensible hairstyles and spectacles which wouldn’t have looked out of place behind the counter of the Abbey National in Cheltenham or Harrogate. Heads bent over knitting, and bobbing together in twos and threes in gossip, they appeared, at first glance, to be a chapter of the local WI. Not wanting to intrude, I was about to slip my shoes back on and leave, when one of the women, looking up, caught my eye, and beckoned me over.
She and her friends made space for me on the floor, and I was able to see something that I’d missed from my vantage point at the gate. In front of the group of seemingly oblivious women, sat cross legged on a throne, was a fat, bad tempered looking priest, his vast stomach spilling out from the folds of his saffron robes.
More women drifted in to join us, and each of them stopped in front of the priest, and doused his shiny bald head with rose petals, before sitting down with the rest of the group, retrieving knitting from handbags. Despite his somewhat grumpy demeanour, the priest seemed to tolerate his occasional fragrant shower, and muttered continually, although whether to the women or himself wasn’t quite clear.
Someone shoved a small pair of finger cymbals into my hands, and I noticed that several of the women held drums or cymbals, and a man sat in the shadows at the edge of the room held what looked like an accordion. Soon the music started, and the woman next to me showed me how to bang the cymbals in time. As the sound of the accordion rose and fell and wheezed, and we clink- clink- clinked our cymbals, the Priest’s mutterings became more resonant and preacher like. I was so desperate to keep time, not to let the ladies down, that I forgot to feel self conscious. In fact, I started to actually enjoy it. Here I was; me, who’d never managed to get further than a couple of stilted rounds of London’s Burning on the recorder at junior school; me, who’d tried desperately to wind my pudgy, adolescent hands around the neck of my little second hand electric guitar; I could finally say, “I’m with the Band” and mean it. Not quite the rock’n’roll excess of teenage fantasies, but here, in this little Himalayan town, thousands of miles from home, it still had a certain sort of cache.
We played on for a bit more then, handing my cymbals to a woman sitting next to me, I strode back out into the Bazar, in search of a plastic watering can.