I ate breakfast with my coat on looking out over the delicate village of Dhangkar. The air was thin but the sun hot on the back of my neck.
For ten thirty, Tilly and I get in the car to drive along to Kaza, administrative centre of Spiti. Kamal has met two fellows, he thinks are Australians, but are in fact Austrians; at first I am evidently surprised by their accents. He met them last night and said they’re a chatty bunch. This they are not, tho when questioned about themselves and their work they are suddenly as excitable as children explaining their rules to a new game.
The Austrians – Marcus, and another whose name I cannot remember – are geologists… What a place for geologists! Every day on the last six of this drive through the Lahaul and Spiti valleys has been a tectonic marvel. Spiti itself is of a yellower, khaki thirst of colour, than the green and brown of the alpine and clouded valleys before. Dust, grey pebbles, collect in towers. Strange arid honeycomb-caves weathered beneath mud-bake steeples, beneath great billowy snow caps. A trove for my sketchbook.
The Austrians are from Graz Polytechnic and they are looking at local landslides: ‘We have done some drilling and taken soil samples. But now we must wait for a new drill-end, hopefully we can order it in to Kaza from Delhi.’ One can buy any thing in India. The landslides in question are two of the biggest, or the two biggest, landslides in the world. They are ten million years old. One, they point out, and we can see to the south from the descending road. The other, they say, is that on which Dhangkar the town, and the endangered monastery, is built. ‘Will your data be able to aid the renovation or conservation of the monastery? – you know it’s gradually becoming eroded off the cliff.’ I ask, thinking that, with a mapping of the underlying rock strata, and an accurate model of how the landslides came about, a design preventative to future landslides might be accessible. Almost gleefully, exchanging glances with each other, their cheeks pasted with sun cream, Marcus says ‘Ah no, our research I’m afraid will not help that, we are just looking at how it happened… It’s very big, you know.’ I saw in them the tremendous satisfaction of academics at work.
We drop them at the south end of Kaza and pass in to the town. It’s a classic El Paso of dusty streets and travellers hotels. I don’t see any women – they are hard at work – until they go to shuttle their children from school in the evening.
At the Snow White Hotel we meet A.J., a tall and hook-nosed young man from Mumbai, with dark skin and a childlike smile. He’s an architect. As a student he had surveyed Dhangkar, and now he was back, helping out a friend in his hotel. We are driving up to Komic for a day trip- one of the highest working villages in the world. A.J wants to come with us, to see a friend of his, but, from the stresses in his conversation in the car, I think he really just wants to look for fossils, or buy some from the village children for a cheap score. Kamal becomes dour. A son of a local Rajput family, I think he resents A.J. who is an erratic beam of new India, and whose English is fluent and full of artistic notions. At Komic, Tilly is not allowed in to the old monastery to see the risqué images of Mhurakal and Mhurakali.
(Image II / working in my studio from visual material gathered around Himachal Pradesh)