Sipping Chai in the Abode of the Gods
By D.K. Bhaskar
As the last light of the sun faded across the surrounding mountains, we inhaled the fresh scent of the apple and walnut trees. There was energy in the air and exuberance in the landscape of the beautiful Sangla Valley. Pausing to admire the exquisite Thunga painting at the Kamrup temple’s steep stairway and picking apples and walnuts at will, we climbed the steps to the abode of Kamakshi, gasping for breath. It was an auspicious day and devotees had gathered at the shrine from neighboring towns. The silver deity was carried in a palanquin in a traditional religious ceremony as the full moon glistened. Just a week earlier, I had been in Tirupati, where worship is so commercialized that the ceremony in Sangla seemed poignantly pure by contrast.
Traveling in our Toyota Sienna, we had covered over 300 kms on National Highway 22, earlier known as the Hindustan-Tibet route. The journey from Shimla to Sangla in eastern Himachal Pradesh, through treacherous mountains, deep gorges, blue-green waters, and amazing cloud patterns, was challenging and enthralling. We passed ancient monasteries, hamlets dotted with shepherds, occasional roadside markets, waterfalls, apple and pear orchards, and gompas (Buddhist places of meditation and worship). Every little village seemed quainter than the last one.
Traders and shepherds have long used the road to Tibet. During the days of the Raj, the Tibet trade route was rebuilt and maintained by the British. Mules, horses and yaks were the only mode of transport on these non-motorable high-ridge roads. People traded across several passes on this route, resting at Kalpa, Sangla and other small Himalayan towns.
Since 1960, when the national highway was built, it has been the lifeline of Kinnaur and Sangla Valley. Chiseled out of the mountain, it is in itself a magnificent civil engineering feat.
It was a magical journey to say the least. The mountains rose higher, the valleys plunged deeper as the Sutlej accompanied us along the way until we climbed the mountain towards Recong Peo, the new district headquarters of Kinnaur. Everyone waved happily at us — children with bright eyes and rosy cheeks running about on the precarious cliffs, shepherds herding their sheep, and women carrying firewood. We seemed to be the only intruders in this legendary abode of Lord Shiva!
The influence of neighboring Tibet on Sangla Valley is seen in many things, beginning right with its name: ‘Sang’ means light in Tibetan, and ‘la’ is a pass, and Sangla translates to ‘pass of light’. Legend has it that the kinnaras (creatures who were half human and half divine) roamed these valleys. The Pandavas are said to have lived here during their exile. Nevertheless, in sharp contrast to its fabled past, Sangla makes an unremarkable first impression. A lone road with small shops and restaurants, an insignificant police chowki and the ubiquitous street dogs greet the first-time visitor. What adds character to the entire landscape of course is the indomitable snow-clad Kinnaur Kailash range of the Himalayas!
The villagers graciously welcomed me when I asked if I could sample apples, pears and apricots. These rich cash crops have boosted the economy of the region. Giani, an old-timer of the valley, informed me that the apples, sought after for their taste, were exported to Western countries. I also learned from him that the traditional Kinnauri attire is today all but forgotten, although women still sport the trimani necklace with gold beads, turquoise and coral stones. Hailing from a city myself, I still found their attire very traditional indeed.
Sangla has a beautiful fort and temple atop a hill. The Kinnars (as Kinnaur residents are called) practice a religion that is a harmonious blend of Hinduism and Buddhism. Embellished with intricate woodcarving, the Kamru temple and the adjoining fort, where many of Kinnaur’s rajas were crowned, command a great view of the valley.
During our dinner with an administrative officer of the district, we learned about the high status accorded to women in the valley. Divorce is not taboo, and single mothers are supported and helped. In the course of my short visit, I was also mesmerized by the locals’ immaculate attire. The men wore traditional coarse wool coats, rather well cut, and the women were in salwar-kurtas. Both sexes wore the smart Kinnauri caps, flat-topped, with a colored strip known as Kinnauri tepang. I was told the cap also depicted their social hierarchy.
In the course of our journey, we ate in several roadside dhabas, which were just modest little shacks. Despite the disparaging remarks we often heard about their lack of hygiene, I thought the momos, dal makhani and parathas we ate at the dhabas were some of the best I have ever eaten in my life. For a $2 equivalent, we had hot, delicious food in every one of these dhabas. I gratefully remembered the famous Sanskrit phrase — Athithi devobhava (Guests are gods, and must be treated so) — and marveled how this dictum seemed to be followed in its truest sense wherever we went.
The morning was covered with a thick mist and too chilly for city-bred folks like us. From an elevation of 9,000 ft, life looked surreal; the clouds changed patterns every moment. Thirty minutes into our journey, we reached Karcham in the Rupin Valley. The stretch of gravel-filled roads was mostly occupied by hundreds of well-coated sheep being herded by shepherds and sheep dogs. The deodar pines stood tall on the rocky cliffs, pointing heavenward, and sometimes acting as direction markers. On the other side, the vast expanse of the valley narrowed as the boulders concealed the gorgeous blue-green Baspa River. Rupin, a few kilometers from the Sangla Valley, is a pastoral wonderland inhabited predominantly by yaks and cattle.
The boulders, filled with lichen and moss, created unique dimensions and geometric patterns. Two chalet-like eating joints facing each other offered distinctive local food. If one served dal, chawal, roti and sabzi, the other offered delicacies made from a local grain called Ogla. I can’t say if it was the fresh air or the altitude, but my appetite seemed to be growing without bounds. Ravenous, I sat down to a sumptuous meal of dal-chawal. A lone bus connected the next village with Rampur, hundeds of kilometers away. It arrived with its parts rattling over the noise of its engine. Jumping out of my Sienna, I hopped onto the bus for the next 10 kms of my journey to Chitkul. Along with people, my fellow passengers were sheep, bales of grass and bags of potatoes! I could barely rest my bottom on the seat as the bus rattled on.
Wooden houses spread across a vast valley, a bone-chilling cold, a lone water tap, and a signboard showing the 625-strong population of the town — these welcomed me to Chitkul, the last village on the Indo-Tibet border. As I got off the bus, I wasn’t sure if I should put my left foot forward or my right one, since vital elements from both seemed to be missing after the harrowing bus ride. I mused sadly that I had worried so much about not being thrown off the bus that I had missed the opportunity to take in the colors, sounds and smells of the pines and the meadows.
Alighting, I saw against the majestic backdrop of the valley a blue board with the Hindi words “Hindustan ki aakhri dhaba” (The Last Dhaba in India)! Wanting to have a hot chai, I sat down, and was offered hot Maggi noodles and a cup of locally brewed chuli (wild apricot liquor). You bet I was game for it! We befriended Ghanshyam, an energetic local, who volunteered to take us around the mesmerizing landscape. Energized by the chuli, we headed out for a long hike along the meadows while the spirited Baspa flowed along the rocky boulders. The Glacier Mountains stood towering above us and a few ponies crossed our path. The river was icy and a few seconds into it, my leg felt like it didn’t exist. Being an avid bird watcher, I was thrilled to see a rare Himalayan tree creeper, some delicately colored finches, wagtails, babblers and bush chats. But alas, I missed my date with the Himalayan golden eagle.
Here, too, the villagers welcomed us with warmth. Beyond the mountain was Tibet. Our agile guide, Ghanshyam, took us along paths we would have been nervous to cross and often pointed out to us the rare medicinal and sacred plants of the valley. As the day wore on, the silence of the valley, the soothing music of the river, and the vast expanse of the meadows cast their spell on us. Philosophically, I mused about where I fitted in this magical landscape. The night was studded with brightly lit stars and yet the sky was uncluttered, and it seemed to be that I was in a fairyland.
My journey back home was filled with nostalgia for the place of enchanting memories that I had left behind. Nobody wanted to talk and our hearts were heavy with the thought there was no escape from the so-called comforts of our civilized life.
Alas, here I am, back in the (un)civilized environs of my city life. However, I draw comfort from my memories of that place where I once was, where time stands still and life moves at a totally different pace! If you are tired of the city and even if you are not, I strongly recommend that you plan a trip to the majestic snow-capped Himalayas and view life from there!
D. K. Bhaskar is a photojournalist and writer based in Augusta, Ga.
Sangla can be reached by road from Shimla. The 10-hour drive is through picturesque areas like Kufri and Narkanda. The road gradually winds down till Rampur. From Rampur the road narrows down at times into difficult terrain.
Nearest airport: Shimla. Be prepared for uncertainties like flight delays and cancellations.
Accommodations: Sangla village (alt. 8,700 ft) has no fancy five-star hotels. A few homes converted into lodges and a government-run PWD rest house are your best options. Nearby Basteri has a well-maintained Banjara camp run by an ex-army Major, with Swiss-style tents with attached baths and bonfires in the evening.
Best season: This is part of the greater Himalayas, which remains cut off by heavy snow in the winter. April to October is the best season. However, landslides are not to be ruled out.
More information on the region
Rivers: The brownish Sutlej, and the emerald-green Baspa.
Fishing: Baspa River for trout.
Heritage Buildings: Kamru Fort and temple, Sangla
Fairs & Festivals: Recong Peo Phulaich Festival (August-October)
Monasteries: Monasteries at Kalpa
Petrol pumps: Rampur, Jeori, Recong Peo
Adventure: Trekking, mountaineering, bird watching.
1. Sarahan – Sangla
2. Sangla - Rohru over Bhuran Pass
3. Kinnar Kailash from Sangla,
4. Chitkul - Charang Thangi
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