We are a land of billions. We're also a land of very few. Read about a walk into Yurutse - An Indian village with just one home.
India can surprise you. Even if you are Indian and have lived here your entire life. It is a curious, vast country with many people…
Many, many people.
Roughly, 29 births occur every minute. Which is to say, about 150 newborns will have drawn in their first whiff of sterile, hospital-air by the time you leisurely glance through this story.
If there is one thing that outnumbers the enormous mass of humans, it is the stories this wonderous, magical land holds. There are more stories than there are people. And for anybody who is curious, India is ‘wonderland’.
I was at a ‘Parachute Cafe’ near Saspol, Ladakh, when I overheard two local men speak of a village called Yurutse. What struck me as fascinating was how they described it. ‘Ek ghar wala Gaon…’ one of them mumbled in Hindi before resuming banter in Ladakhi.
A ‘Village of one home.’? Could that be true? Unapologetically, I broke into their conversation and began asking questions…
Shameless probing in Saspol had lead me to Zingchen, the start point of a very well known trekking circuit in the Hemis region.
‘There is only one path. Follow it till you reach Rumbak. At the Parachute Cafe there, turn right and follow the only trail until you reach Yurutse.’
These were the straightforward instructions given to me by my friend Angchuk, who dropped me at Zingchen. About 4 hours of hiking uphill would take me to Yurutse, I was told.
No more than two minutes of walking heavily on the slopes was enough to realize I hadn’t acclimatized well enough. So I trudged on, slowly. Jagged fortresses of ancient, flaky rock rose from the earth on every side. At first, I pulled out a pair of Binoculars to scan for wildlife. I abandoned the effort at once because my breathing was so heavy, I found it impossible to hold the contraption steadily over my eyes.
In the next 3 hours, I lost my way thrice. With some luck, I had managed to bump into fellow trekkers who were assisted by guides each time I lost my way. The guides set me in the right direction and advised that it was best not to trek alone.
I was lost again, an hour later. I remembered Angchuk telling me, ‘After you pass Rumbak, you’ll find a house in the distance. That is Yurutse. There is only one house. You simply cannot be confused!’
Past Rumbak, my eyes fell upon a structure in the distance.
I saw what looked like a home across the river bed. I had no way of knowing if it was Yurutse. As I walked closer, I saw that it fit every description of Yurutse – A lonely home along the trail after Rumbak.
It stood at the foothill of a mountain beyond a wide, rocky river bed. I made it to the structure after 30 minutes of negotiating a path across the river bed only to find the doors locked. I saw that the corrals were empty and assumed the residents had taken their livestock to graze in the mountains. I spent an hour waiting. That is when it began to snow. With no shelter in sight, I hastened back toward Rumbak, away from the dark clouds hovering above me.
Utterly confused about the whereabouts of Yurutse, I walked hoping to meet with two old women by the river, gathering herbs. We had exchanged hellos as I walked past them, near Rumbak. I was sure they could guide me.
I had been lucky thrice in the day and there was more to come; after retracing my steps for about 25 minutes, I met a trekker and his guide making their way to Yurutse. The guide told me the locked door I was knocking on was actually the winter home of some shepherd. Yurutse, he told me, was more beautiful than a featureless, unexciting projection over a hill. ‘The house in Yurutse is the best looking house in town,’ He chuckled. I could tell it was a joke he cracked every time he brought someone here. So old, even he was bored of it. It was the funniest thing I heard that day.
And there it was – The house on the hill; the most fascinating address… It was true, the ‘Ek ghar wala Gaon,’ I overheard the two men at Saspol mention did indeed exist.
Yurutse – There it was, Yurutse!
I was looking at a single, traditional Ladakhi home painted white, standing beautifully perched on the edge of a little hill, overlooking a colorful patch of vegetation and gigantic mountains that surrounded the valley. From where I stood, beside a Stupa on the way to the house, I heard the welcoming flutter of prayer flags tied across the terrace. I quickened my pace, eager to know who I would meet inside.
‘Do you think there are more people coming here today?’ Asked Angmo, the first person I met at Yurutse. She was a middle aged Ladakhi woman, cordial and soft spoken. Yurutse was where most trekkers passing by would usually halt for the night. ‘I didn’t meet anybody heading this way.’ I replied, seated comfortably behind a low rising tea table in her dim lit kitchen-cum-living room. ‘Alright then, would you please watch Skarma while I’m out gathering vegetables for lunch?’ She asked me and the guide, Nawang.
‘Sure! Please go ahead.’ replied Nawang, walking over to a corner in the room and seating himself beside a heap of blankets. In the center of that heap slept an adorable little boy, his innocent face barely visible in the pale light pouring through a shaft in the kitchen. That was how I saw Skarma – Inhabitant no.2, Yurutse.
No 3 was Rinchen; husband to Angmo & father to little Skarma. He had been running errands around Rumbak and arrived past lunch time. Seemingly shy and reserved, he kept to himself and spoke very little. I assumed he was tired from the day’s work and decided to make conversation with him over dinner. Meanwhile, I waited curiously to see who else walked in..
Temperatures dropped significantly at dusk. Nawang and I watched the Sun disappear behind a ridge and felt the difference immediately. I purchased thick woolen socks Angmo had knitted from the wool off their sheep to keep warm.
Skarma was up now and brought a sort of warmth around the kitchen that made everybody laugh and participate in games that were his inventions. Rinchen, watched and laughed from behind the stove; still very much to himself. Dinner was served. Skarma’s antics continued and kept everybody entertained well into the night.
It was Rinchen who was making tea in the morning. ‘Good morning!’ he greeted me, smiling warmly as I entered the kitchen. He seemed refreshed and open to conversation.
‘Acholey, Who else lives here in Yurutse?’ I asked him. ‘Acholey’ meant elder brother in Ladakhi.
‘It’s just us!’ he replied. ‘Angmo, Skarma and Me. Though Skarma has two older brothers who live and study in Leh.’
‘Even in the winters? When everything is frozen?’
‘Yes, this is our only home. We can survive the winters here just fine.’ He announced confidently, placing steaming hot tea and biscuits on the table before me. The thought of staying in a house without neighbors or friends to talk to in the icy winters of Ladakh made me grip my teacup only harder, to draw warmth.
‘How long has Yurutse existed? Do you know?’ I asked, curious about the village’s origins.
He paused to think, then he said, ‘I’m 37 years old. I was born here, in the village. Before that, my father lived here. I think he came here when he was very young… Or maybe he was born here too. I cannot be sure.’
‘Is there a historical record about Yurutse? Has any history been written?’
He shook his head, slowly.‘I cannot write.’ He told me. ‘My father couldn’t write… there are no photographs either.’
Hearing Rinchen’s words, I wondered how much history was lost.
Just then, Skarma charged into the room with his toy car, ‘Vroooommm!’ he sang. Angmo came running after him. Rinchen watched Skarma fondly.He said, ‘Ifhe stays here, he will become like me. He won’t read and write. I have to send him to Leh to study with his brothers soon.’ I sensed a hint of regret in his voice. I wondered if he was waiting for one of his sons to grow up and be educated enough to write about Yurutse, Making sure no more would be forgotten about their home.
An hour later, Rinchen, Angmo and Skarma stood before me in their kitchen, smiling. I had asked them after breakfast if I could click a photograph before I left.
Angmo struggled to steady Skarma for the picture. A packet of cream biscuits did the trick. As I saw them in the view finder of my camera I wondered if this really was the India I knew. I had before me, an entire village, illuminated by a small beam of light that streamed through the roof. The population of Yurutse was a grand total of 3. And yet, my country was the second most populated country in the world? Was this the land of billions?
I was looking at an entire village standing before me – 3 happy people. In a land of billions.
‘It’s just us. Angmo, Skarma and me. We are Yurutse!’
With the picture taken, I promised to send printed photos of Skarma and the family portrait after I returned to Leh. Rinchen thanked me and wished me well. He said goodbye in the same way one would bid farewell to an old friend. Angmo quickly packed food for the journey back. I thanked them dearly and started to walk. A herd of Tibetan Argali grazed peacefully on a high ridge line. I stopped by the Stupa and cast one last glance toward Yurutse. Skarma stood at the doorframe, watching me. His presence could easily replace an entire hall of relatives.
Rinchen and Angmo had returned to their chores. It was the best looking house in town.