Shanag (Himachal Pradesh): A tiny coronation bridge over the swift Beas river connects the Manali-Leh highway to a pristine and quaint village caught in a time warp. Barely a hundred-odd houses and a handful of homestays comprise Shanag village, a hidden destination in the Himalayas where the residents live in the lap of nature, meditate and reflect upon life amid all its grandeur.
When looked at from the other end, the village is almost hidden behind a few cottages and homestays that face the river. Just above the highway is a titanic rock, overlooking the Beas and blocking direct sunlight for a large part of the day. On the farthest horizons of the either side are snow-clad mountains, melting like wax from a marble statue.
The rustic iron bridge is at the centre and cuts off from the highway to allow an elevated passage for vehicles – one at a time – headed towards the village. The bridge is the busy affair that leads to the almost heavenly, silent world of trees, the murmurings of the bees and the singing of the breeze. Its clanging fades behind you as the first shops – a little kirana store selling things of everyday use, a vegetable shop with carrots on top of onions and tomatoes behind the herbs, all boxed up in separate columns of greens and reds, and a dark eatery run by a Tibetan woman, selling tea, momos, thukpa, and similar fast food – become visible.
As you pass by the shops, the last of the homestays make their appearance, followed by apple orchards and some houses scattered here and there in the woods. This, for most visitors, is where the excursion ends. Notably, the river is the centre of attraction – even when it is hidden behind the houses, the sound of its rushing water invites one to sit on the banks and watch it make what Tennyson called "a sudden sally."
But beyond it lies a little universe, unperturbed by habitation.
Walking along the little paths meandering through the woods, silence becomes one's best, and perhaps only, companion. Located as it is at a much higher altitude than the highway, the afternoon sun is comforting. The titanic rock that blocks the sunlight from the highway now appears like one of the many rocks that dot the mountain, and looking beyond it, one can spot the snow at its peak.
This leaves one in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by snow-clad mountains on all sides, a few animals grazing in the open and village women soaking in the sun. Momentarily, birds of multiple colours come and sing their songs, incomprehensible to the human ear but soothing nonetheless.
By mid-November, the village receives its first snowfall every year and that marks the beginning of the time meant for the little pleasures of life. Most of the winter is spent indoors, in the company of loved ones, and in doing simply nothing. It is almost customary to spot a family or two, sitting on the balcony for hours together, and admiring the beauty of nature. Juicy red apples, plucked from the orchards all around, come handy too.
The bridge is not functional for vehicles after snowfall and venturing out means taking the old-Manali road. The residents, however, prepare for the winter well in advance and seldom have a reason to take the route.
The evenings are meant for families to sit together by the fire with large mugs of tea, and snacks to chew on. Almost all meals of the day are consumed together, everybody participates in the daily chores, all of which makes winter an extremely personal family affair.
It is also during these months that they look back at the year gone by, how their kids performed at school, the successes and setbacks in business and the many issues that vex them. Most houses are equipped with chimneys and just when the dinner is done, the fire is carefully lit to make their rooms cosy and comfortable for a good night's sleep.
And people in the hills rise early, though kids may be reluctant. They watch the sunrise from their windows and balconies – waiting for another day of nothingness. But the beauty that is lost in our day-to-lives, the little joys that we miss on in our humdrum affairs, the warmth of family and the chill of icy fangs, are best relished by them at this time of the year.
If only time could stand still.