It was September. Early afternoon. A single figure appeared. Just a speck making its way up the steep winding path negotiating the grassy slopes that tumbled almost vertically into the wild Parvati valley. We could not see the valley, but we knew it lay in front of us below a patched cover of late monsoon clouds.
As the figure moved upwards and out of the fog on to the high meadow, it became clear that it was a young man. He strolled in among the many standing stones that marked this sacred spot, the high pass of Chandrakhani. At the centre of the standing stones erected for millennia on the ridge meadow, sits an ancient shrine to Chandrakhani Mata. The Mata is the yogini (female nature spirit) that guards this 3700 m high pass separating Kullu Valley from Parvati Valley. The shrine to her is a cluster of standing, leaning and overturned stones. From it flaps red strips of fabric. There the young wanderer paused, took of his shoes and reverently kneeled in the soft grass. He lit incense, offered something to Mataji and lost himself in prayer.
After the prayer he stood up, looked around and waved in our direction. He was singing to himself as he, shoes in hand, crossed through the groups of healthy cows, buffaloes and horses munching joyfully on the herbs and grass bursting with sap.
He put his palms together in a greeting and sat down with us. He was a small man with playful friendly eyes and an aura of simplicity. He was wearing white wool. From his woven, handstitched woollen Kullu cap to his handmade woollen Kullu jacket and all the way to his feet; white. His pillbox cap was decorated with yellow and blue monsoon flowers and green alpine herbs. He ceremoniously handed us pieces of the sweets he had offered to the yogini; they were now blessed by her power.
We offered him lunch. He accepted with a small smile and in turn shared his tasty rice and veg from a shiny steel container. We all ate slowly, mesmerized by the breath-taking spectacle of the swirling clouds on both sides of the wide pass, and of the distant, eternally snow-capped peaks jutting up through them, marking the Kunzum pass, the gateway to the mountainous desert wilderness of Spiti.
For us it had been a tough five hour ascend. We had set out at dawn and had to return to the village of Rimsu before dusk. That was where the road began. He told us he had come straight up from the first village, Malana, a gruelling 1000 vertical meters below us, hidden in the clouds. He was also going to Rimsu.
After lunch he carefully loosened luminous green herbs from his white cap, with a smile he handed a twig to each of us and asked us to smell them. The aroma was sweet and strong. He put on his white shoes, bowed slightly with folded hands, and walked leisurely ahead, again singing to himself.
As we began our descend, we saw his white figure crossing ahead over the vast undulating slopes. Though we were strong hikers in good boots, he was continuously floating further away from us along the endless path skirting the rhododendron thickets and clumps of white stemmed beech trees. Next time we looked over at the grassy expanse, he had simply vanished. In thin air.
“A mountain elf!” said one of us and touched the green twig in his hand.
Maybe he was.