Lippa is everything you want in a Himalayan town. You approach her via a series of hairpin turns through the thinning pine forest. Suddenly ahead, on the other side of the river, houses appear, brightly colored houses terraced into the hillside. Preferably, at this moment the Kinks are on your car stereo singing “Shangri-Laaaaaaaaa”…You leave your car in the lot and cross two footbridges. Above, skimming along the winding lanes and stairways, you see boys bent over under huge bundles of hay, cows browsing the weeds in the cracks of the cement, women in green caps gazing down from their balconies. If you’re lucky, you’ve arrived just in time for an annual festival honoring the local gods, and you’ll sit in the courtyard of the temple with women in shawls and gold jewelry, and men in jeans and sports jackets. The townspeople consult two idols which bounce up and down on long poles carried by 4 men each. At the end of each pronouncement, the musicians scramble to their instruments to raise a blaring wall of noise from long trumpets, cymbals, and drums. When they are finished they resume chatting on the steps of the temple while the gods huddle towards each other to discuss the next question. Suddenly, the music strikes up again and the gods are paraded to the pagoda in the center of the courtyard, where they rest in clouds of incense. Then the drumming begins, and a line of women holding hands wind their way around in an unevenly metered grapevine dance, led by a man waving plumes of white feathers. They sing in high-pitched, nasal voices. You are encouraged to join the dance, which you do, and a man with a teapot comes around pouring barley wine into everybody’s upturned palms. Then the dance breaks up, and a new one begins, this time the dancers following each other in a circle and gracefully rotating their wrists. You dance until it becomes the hour of drunk old men hitting on tourists,* and then you return to your hotel room, where you fall asleep to the sound of the river rushing below.
In the morning, you walk again to the temple, now gated, and hear children next door performing folk songs in the covered hallway of the school. You pass the old houses built of stone and wood, with auspicious signs carved here and there. You climb up stairs, pass through a doorway and up a ladder to reach the goldsmiths’ workshop. Inside, men sit cross-legged, bending silver wire with pliers. They unroll great jangling pieces of wedding jewelry, and explain the local system of polyandry—the young man leaning in the window will be married in two months, along with his brothers. Outside, two women are setting the warp for a shawl, while two others sit shucking piles of almonds. You join them, eating fresh almonds and drinking milky tea, before continuing on to the house of the woodworker. While your companions examine the carvings on a series of poles, you walk out onto the roof of the house below. At the corner, you see a small house with rocks piled around it. You move closer until your guide says, “Don’t go near it. It is god, I think.” You look around and notice shrines at the corner of every roof.
Climbing up and up, you look out over apple orchards and gardens full of cabbages and tomatoes; pens of sheep and calves; tarps full of almonds and beans drying in the sun. Ah, Lippa. When will I walk your charming terraces again?
*I should mention that I was totally expecting to be harassed, because everything I’ve read about India says white girl+festival=bad scene, but actually it was the Indian women I’m with who had problems. I think the men figured I couldn’t understand them anyway, so they didn’t bother me.
PS: In case you couldn’t tell, I really loved Lippa. I felt like I was walking through a chapter of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, hence the 2nd-person present-tense narration.