The Beautiful Siyah Mentok
What is home, what is belongingness? For me, it is the uninhibiting mountains, the barren landscape, the deep gorges, and the high peaks of my homeland Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Also, it is the vast grazing ground, the piercing cold thin air, the green summer meadows, the ripe barley field, the meandering water canal and the delicate pink bloom of Siyah mentok.
Flower of Rosa Webbiana; Photo by Deepshikha Sharma
While growing up, I used to visit my grandmother and stay with her for months. She lived in a small hamlet in Spiti called Gowang which was home to just 5 households and had less than forty residents. My grandmother spent most of her day working in the barley field. Later in the evenings, before darkness of the night seeped in, we would both go out into the pastures to gather wild firewood. During one such visit to the pastures, right at the foothills of giant snow-capped mountains, I first witnessed the beauty of vibrant wildflowers and wild shrubs in an otherwise dry cold desert.
Spiti is a high-elevated region with an extremely arid landscape; characterized by equally sparse vegetation mainly comprising annual perennial herbs, shrubs, and very few varieties of trees (willow, poplars). Despite harsh ecological conditions, the landscape nurtures an incredible diversity of plant species – each unique and resilient in their own way. Pastures and hills are full of wildflowers and have rich repositories of aromatic, medicinal, and edible plants. There is the sour-tasting tirhuk (sea buckthorn) and lichu, the deep ruddy khamet (Ratan jot, Lal jari), the hardy thama (caragana), the healing chukku-gongma (rheum), the delicious kotsey, gyaman (wild herbs, seasonings) and the auspicious shukpa (juniper).
My grandmother would patiently show me how to pluck wild thorns, wild shrubs for firewood without pricking myself. I learnt how to gather tserma (dry caragana) and bursey (white dry woodchips) by observing her. At home, she would skilfully light a fire in our traditional heater (chak-thap) using dry twigs and cow dung and tenderly kindle the firewood to get a good hold before placing more wood logs on top of it. Having lived in a remote mountain village and spent so much time with my grandmother, I learnt to appreciate the wild plants around my home.
Siyah mentok truly deepens my connection to my homeland. Siyah (Rosa Webbiana/Webb’s Rose) is a beautiful variety of wild roses that grows in many Himalayan regions in extremely dry and harsh conditions. It is pink in colour with a mild sweet scent and tender petals that fall in your hands when you touch it. What I like about Siyah is that it is an extremely resilient plant that grows in the harshest conditions and can thrive without water for a long time. Siyah typically starts blooming in late spring or early summer, flowering for a short period of time. But during its brief blooming period, it illuminates the entire surrounding with its striking colour and radiant beauty. It is commonly found at lower elevations of Spiti and all the way up to above 4000m. It can be seen growing on the riverside, rocky slopes, mountainside, in the garden, and in the fields.
My grandmother’s illustration made by a close friend Apurva Pandhi
The blooming of Siyah is seen as the arrival of summer in Spiti. It is the epitome of beauty and serenity. It is particularly dear to me as under the bushy, dense canopy of this wild rose plant, my grandmother used to rest and take naps during hot summer days of the peak agricultural season. It is the same flower that she alludes to while describing the beauty of Tibetan queens in ancient folk stories and it is the sweetness of Siyah mentok and Serchen mentok (Himalayan golden flower) that she refers to while telling me about sweet melodies sung by nomads herding in the high mountains. It is difficult not to think about my childhood and my grandmother when I think about Siyah.
Rosa Webbiana; Photo by Deepshikha Sharma
In many Himalayan communities, Siyah is highly valued for its ornamental qualities and it also features in old traditional songs, stories, proverbs, wise sayings, and other forms of oral cultural expressions. It is often associated with themes of love, romance, and beauty and is also referred to as a symbol of sacred devotion. I remember my grandmother telling me that during her early years in Spiti, if a man likens a women’s beauty to Siyah mentok or Serchen mentok through songs, it is considered a subtle declaration of love and the girl is to immediately discuss the matter with her family! The usage of Siyah in daily household has become quite popular especially, Siyah-cha (Siyah-tea) in higher, more remote villages like Hull, Hansa, Kibber, Demul and Lalung. It is used ubiquitously by Spitian Amchis (traditional doctors) for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties. Medicinal plants are used by traditional doctors and healers for ages, particularly for curing skin ailments like boils, blisters, itching, and skin eruptions. For me, Siyah mentok is a symbol of beauty and resilience, reminding me that even in the harshest conditions, beauty and life can flourish.
About the Storyteller
Chemi Lhamo hails from Kaza in Spiti and holds a postgraduate with a degree in English Literature from University of Delhi. She like to explore wildlife conservation through the lens of social justice and intersectionality. She has played a vital role in setting up Himkatha and is on its editorial team