When Bengaluru techie and photographer Ayan Biswas was packing for his March 13 flight to Leh, he was prepared to be a part of the Iranian new year celebrations in Turtuk for a documentary.
What he was not prepared for was to share a meal cooked of a sheep hunted by a snow leopard, and of course, the COVID-19 lockdown.
The 31-year-old is also an artist and would frequently visit tiny villages and private schools around Suru valley in Kargil to teach kids how to paint discarded bottles and turn them into lamps.
Back in Bengaluru, Ayan’s talent of upcycling waste into works of art had earned him a small but loyal group of fans. Their feedback and encouragement made him realise that the activity can be moulded into a commercial venture especially in villages across remote areas where tourism is a major source of revenue.
Ayan, who finds himself more at home in these remote villages than in bustling Bengaluru city has been to Suru valley about six times in the last two years and is a familiar face among the villagers.
“The plan was that when the kids learn how to make the lamps, they will teach others and thus create a chain. During the first few workshops, I had seen the interest generated by people in wanting to own one of these pieces. If this works, then the lamps can help attract tourist attention and become a source of income for the locals. The lamps made in Ladakh can be sold in Leh,” he says. “Also, Amazon delivers to a number of villages here and they can sell their creations via the e-commerce site as well,” he adds.
This visit, however, was not targeted at organising lamp workshops. “I have always been fascinated by Iranian culture. The villages along the border house a lot of people with roots in Persia and since they celebrate Nowruz or the Iranian new year on March 15, I wanted to document their tradition and celebrations,” Ayan says. Nowruz or Navroz is usually celebrated on March 21, which is the first day of the Iranian calendar.
The Bangalorean had taken a 16-day leave from work and a couple of days before departure, Ayan started receiving messages from his sources that the government had stopped issuing inner line permits to visit Turtuk. He says, “I had spent six months on research and other arrangements and could not just give up without a try.”
Ayan did manage to reach Leh and haggled with the authorities to allow him a special permit because he was invited by a private school in Turtuk for a workshop but in vain. “I spent three days visiting the offices, but then realised the shutdown was quite stringent. At that time, I could have just returned home because there were no signs of an early reprieve and staying in Leh was expensive or I could visit other bordering villages. I chose the latter,” he says.
A few days later, on March 19, Ayan found himself in the tiny hamlet of Likir which falls between Leh and Kargil. “It used to be a pottery village and Lamchung Tsephel — who is the oldest potter here — is famous among international circles,” he says.
While living in Old Likir Homestay, Ayan spent the following days documenting the lives of the people there, learning their traditions, helping his host Stanzin’s kids with their academics and teaching them bottle art.
But then on March 24, the lockdown was announced. And once again, Ayan was pushed into choosing between going home or staying back. He says, “Returning would have been the logical option, but if I did, I would not have been able to experience being a part of this life again.”
He stayed back. The local superintendent of police allowed him to continue to stay with Stanzin’s family as it would have been riskier for Ayan to travel to Leh. The shutdown also gave him the opportunity to reach out to more students.
“With all the schools shut indefinitely, I got to interact with more children and teach them decoupage and turn empty jam bottles into lamps and art, in general, every afternoon,” Ayan says.
It also gave him the chance to warm up to the villagers. “Now, they do not see me as an outsider. My rent which was initially Rs 900 per day, was brought down to Rs 600 and now, Stanzin charges me Rs 300 for a day,” Ayan chuckles.
He also helps the children in the family with their studies. “The teachers have been giving out assignments and the students are supposed to take a photo of their work and send it to the teachers on WhatsApp. The teachers then respond with their feedback,” says Ayan as he tries to persuade Stanzin’s children to memorise difficult words from a particular chapter of their textbook.
“I sit with them in the evening, making sure they complete their homework on time but they are quite naughty, especially the youngest one, Dorjey. He is a lama at the local monastery, but is quite a monkey at home,” he adds.
Besides academics, Ayan also helps kids tell stories of their lives through paintings. “The creative process was not simply to paint the bottles and stick a bulb inside. I take photographs of the villagers while they are at their regular chores and use that as inspiration for the paintings. For instance, one afternoon we painted a bottle based on a photograph of two kids on their way to school in Grahan, Himachal Pradesh,” he says.
“I cut the glass using nichrome wire and then coat the bottle with a layer of primer before painting on it with acrylic colours. Finally, a low power 0.5 watt bulb is fitted inside the bottle to make the painting glow,” he adds.
Apart from exploring his creative side, Ayan also got to explore a fair number of gastronomic delights. “Likir has a strong Tibetan influence. While Ladakh is popular for a number of monasteries, the one in Likir is the oldest in the region,” he says. And hence, the meals served at his homestay would mostly be thukpas and tingmos. “People here do not believe in killing animals for meat so most of the non-vegetarian dishes here are made if the animal dies a natural death,” says Ayan.
The Bengaluru techie honoured the tradition but got the real taste of it for the first time after he was served mutton curry. The flesh was carved out of a sheep killed by a snow leopard.
Recounting the tale, Ayan says, “A few days ago, my landlord told me that a snow leopard had been trapped in a cattle shed of a nearby village. The wild cat was only 8-months-old and was often sighted with its mother.”
The forest department was informed and a couple of officials came down to the site. Usually, when snow leopards are caught, they are tagged with a microchip and released. But this time, the officials wanted to catch the young leopard with its mother and so they did not let the big cat out of the shed.
Three days later, the mother arrived and the officials, with the help of the villagers, were able to trap both the animals.
Later, on inspecting the shed, the owner found the remains of one of his sheep which was eaten by the leopard while another lay injured. The animal, however, soon succumbed and the owner shared its meat among the villagers, as was the custom.
This was not Ayan’s only tryst with hunted meat. A few days later while he was at lunch with his landlord’s family comprising three kids, they were interrupted when one among their three pet cats showed up with a chukar — a patridge common in the region — in its mouth.
“While I was taken aback, the children were squealing in excitement. Their mother then retrieved the bird, cleaned it up and we had it with thukpa for dinner,” says Ayan.
With no means of returning home until the lockdown is lifted, Ayan has taken to the village and adapted to its lifestyle.
When he is not teaching or taking photographs and videos of apricot blossoms, the children in the village drag him for fishing expeditions at a nearby stream. “I was amazed at their enthusiasm. I was shivering in the cold while they were frolicking around in the water,” says Ayan.
The next day he accompanied Stanzin in planting poplar trees by the stream. “He climbed one of the really tall trees to cut off some branches and then taught me how to plant them,” Ayan adds.
Even though his stay in Likir has turned out to be an exciting change from his usual life in Bengaluru and from what he had initially expected of the trip, it comes with its fair share of difficulties as resources dwindled.
Nineteen people tested positive for Coronavirus in Ladakh on Sunday and the current virus tally in the union territory is 42, officials said. The new cases include 18 from Chuchot Yokma village of Leh, the biggest single-day spike in the region, added the officials.
The village was declared a containment area on March 17 after three locals had tested positive for COVID-19.
The officials said a 52-year-old woman, a resident of Kaksar village of Kargil, also tested positive for Coronavirus on Saturday. She had gone on pilgrimage to Iran and was evacuated and underwent quarantine for over a month in Rajasthan before being airlifted to her hometown last week, sources said. Seventeen of the patients were, however, already cured and discharged from hospitals.
Ayan says that he had heard stories from his contacts of Iran and that visiting Iran was a common phenomenon owing to the Persian connection. He, however, added that the people in Likir maintain social distancing and the authorities are stringent about ensuring that government directions are not disregarded.
“A few days ago, the government officials distributed some packets of biscuit, bananas and eggs among the villagers. You should have seen the kids here. Running around and shouting in happiness while munching on the biscuits. I had never seen anyone get animated over biscuits,” Ayan says.
The bananas, however, were the least favourite of the lot. “My landlord’s kids handed over their share of the bananas to me and ran away with the biscuits. He adds that the eggs were safely put away for a special dinner.
“The family decided on having egg noodles that night and dinner was served early,” he says with a smile.
“The lockdown is a difficult phase, but here I have also noticed how social distancing has helped bring families together,” says Ayan. “Earlier, parents would put the entire responsibility of the children’s education on schools. They would barely even keep track of what their wards were being taught. Now, I have seen parents take the initiative and help the kids with their studies.”
“The children too are getting the opportunity to observe how their parents and other family members carry out their daily chores and are learning from it. And my entire experience here has been an enriching one. I may have failed in making my documentary but I will treasure the lessons I learned and the friends I made. I look forward to returning to Likir next year, hopefully, after visiting Turtuk during Nowruz,” says Ayan.
For now, however, more than a month since the lockdown was enforced, Ayan — who is on unpaid leave — is uncertain about the future, but is sure that there is nowhere else he would rather be.