“Four long hours walk from the sacred lake,” explained the chowkidar with the weather-beaten face and pointed, “There lies a hidden hamlet of about seven houses of stone and timber.” I hardly met anyone as I walked through towering ancient cedar forests and rhododendron thickets, along paths winding over fern framed brooks, cascading waterfalls, and flower strewn shrines dedicated to Shiva.
I know the way, but I will not name the hamlet.
As I stepped out of the forest, low houses appeared dotting the forested slope at the end of a small valley. I was greeted by slender Sita, the young daughter in law of a chowkidar who had taken me to the beginning of the path leading to here. Sita was a smiley bright spirit with clear lively eyes. She was putting down a heavy basket of freshly harvested grass for the cows. “I will call Ram” she laughed and took out her mobile. Ram was her husband.
I waited on the porch overlooking the undulating valley embracing the terraced fields sloping down in front of me. It was late afternoon; the sunlight was golden and full of buzzing insects. Only birds, cows and the breeze in the tall old trees were heard. And a babbling brook.
A few other people gathered around silently and sat down. A yellow dog sniffed my bag and wagged its tail. Everyone was polite, even shy. Ram appeared with two young dark eyed boys. They were Sita and his sons. Ram was handsome and exuded an unassuming proudness, a quality I soon discovered was shared by the rest of the village people. They brought me tea and, with smiles concealed by hands, but still showing up in their eyes as a twinkle, they watched me closely drinking it from a metal cup. After the tea, Ram and his boys showed me two rooms in the communal house where guests could sleep. Ram asked one of his sons to bring his wooden staff, smooth from use. Ram and his brother then accompanied me along the paths. We were immediately swallowed up by the forest. They showed me where the trail climbed steeply up towards a tall deodar covered ridge. “Come back” they said, put their hands together in a greeting and watched as I ascended the first bends.
Next time the forest opened up on a high rocky ridge, I looked back and saw the slate roofs of the tiny hamlet caressed by the saffron sunset in the ocean of endless darkening forest. I had to hurry to get to the road where I could catch a bus now.
A few month later we returned with a small group of hiking meditators and spent the night in the village. We were treated to an amazing meal under the starry sky. With half the handsome village surrounding us, watching with the same shy white smiles and quiet dignity, we enjoyed the food. The next morning Rina and I sat in the sun by the natural village spring among huge rocks. Sita appeared with laundry and spoke to us as she was washing the clothes vigorously in the cool clear water. We thought she looked like a certain Bollywood actress, whose face we have now forgotten, but we did not forget Sita and Ram. Their village hidden in the folds of time stayed in our hearts.
The following year we were again passing along the same winding mountain paths with a larger group, so we could not stay with Ram and Sita. After descending through the forest to the valley of the village, I stopped with happy apprehension among some boulders by the tree shaded path for the group to catch up.
From my nook among the boulders I heard the ringing of bells and soon saw a red cow appear, it turned and looked at me with large, beautiful eyes, another cow appeared, and two white goats stopped curiously eyeing me up with their intelligent eyes. Next came Sita with a fresh green willow branch in her hand. She was stepping lightly like a forest spright. She stopped in her tracks, gasped, dropped the willow branch and put her hands together in a greeting. Her smile beamed across the path. I think we both teared up at the unexpected encounter.
“Ram is waiting for you!” she said picking up the willow branch, “He will make tea.” We stood for a moment, both touched by a sense of kinship beyond language and logic. I wanted to express how I felt part of The Ramayan, that she and Ram to me were like Ram and Sita, the hero and heroine of the ancient Indian epos. But it would not make any sense. She smiled shyly and took her cows along, into the dense forest. The group appeared and time shifted thousands of years to the present.
Ram made tea. The village sat with us draped in their calm and warm dignity.
Every time I think of the name of that village, I sigh with a longing for the age of myths, magic, and humble heroes. The era of Ram and Sita.