A unique blend of mysticism pervades the magical Sangla and Kalpa Valleys of Himachal Pradesh
This is a two-part account of a road trip in the Kinnaur and Spiti regions of Himachal Pradesh. For a journey through the surreal Spiti Valley, click here.
It is 9 AM and there is a massive jam on the streets of Shimla. An angry traffic constable shouts at a car that has stalled at a green traffic light. Children in school uniform skip along, even as the tailing Maruti suddenly surges ahead on a hairpin curve. Office hour, mumbles our driver apologetically. We raise our eyebrows in surprise – who knew that people in India’s erstwhile summer capital also struggled with such trivialities like work and traffic!
It takes us nearly an hour to join National Highway 22 and another couple before we meet the river Sutlej, the Red River that originates in Tibet. For the next nine days, we will chase some of India’s holiest rivers as we drive along what is considered to be one of the deadliest roads in the world. We pay tribute to Gods residing in ancient monasteries and temples, trek to remote villages and shimmering lakes and send a postcard from Asia’s highest post office. From lush valleys to stark mountains, we experience a whole spectrum of colours and sensations, but there is one thing that remains unchanged – the endless hospitality and cheering warmth of a people that brave some of the harshest environs to be found of the face of the earth.
How Green Was My Valley
The first leg of our journey meanders across Kinnaur district, home to some of the loftiest and holiest peaks of the Himalayas, most notably Kinnaur Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. Endless apple orchards dot lush valleys, apples, apricots and pine nuts play hide and seek with oak and willow trees and happy smiling faces peep out from charming hamlets. But the most fascinating part about Kinnaur is the unique fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism that unites the sacred monasteries and holy temples of this land of myriad languages and ethnicities.
And the mountains swallowed us….
Our first stop is the small town of Sarahan, gateway to Kinnaur and home to a beautiful temple dedicated to the Goddess Bhima Kali. Formerly the private property of the royal family (whose scion Virbhadhra Singh has been the Chief Minister of Himachal for over two decades), the original temple was made entirely of wood in the pagoda style and is rumoured to be the spot where the nose of Sati fell when Vishnu unleashed the Sudarshan Chakra upon her corpse.
The pagoda style wooden Bhima Kali Temple in Sarahan
A fantastic drive through rolling hills peppered with deodar trees and rocks jutting onto the road takes us to Karcham, the meeting point of the Sutlej and Baspa rivers. Leaving the Sutlej, we make our way towards the picturesque Sangla valley. Snow capped peaks and gurgling streams loom ahead of our hotel in Rakcham, while a thick carpet of pine and birch – resplendent in the yellow and green of autumn – keeps us company for the rest of the day.
The magnificent Sangla Valley
The highlight of our stay in Sangla is a trip to Chitkul, the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border with breathtaking views of the towering mountains. Walking along the Baspa river, we are captivated by the sight of students marching in the compound of the Chitkul High School, which has 26 students on its rolls. Wonder how the kids manage to tear themselves away from the brilliant sights all around!
Further along is a bunch of people building a road, an all too common sight across Himachal. We strike up a conversation with a smiling woman over a bar of chocolate.
“I am from Kathmandu”, she says.
“What made you come all the way here?”, I ask.
“We need money, but family honour prevents me from working in my village. Here, thousands of miles away from home, no one cares what I do – as long as the money arrives at their doorstep at the beginning of each month. “
Same story everywhere.
Trekking along the Baspa River in Chitkul, the last village of India
After a brief halt at Recong Peo, the headquarters of Kinnaur district, we head towards Kalpa, located at the base of the Kinnaur Kailash range. Apples, pears and apricots abound, but it is the chilkoza (pine nut) that Kalpa is renowned for. The village itself is a charming mix of the old and the new – houses made in the traditional Kinnauri style of stone and wood share space with their more recent cemented counterparts.
Kalpa is home to an ancient Buddhist monastery (one of the 108 holy monasteries built by “Lohtsawa” Rinchen Zangpo in the trans Himalayan region to spread Buddhism ) and a beautiful wooden Hindu temple adorned with dragon engravings. Goddess Kali is equally revered by both Hindus and Buddhists, and the sight of a monastery sharing space with a temple is not an uncommon sight in this land where Hinduism and Buddhism readily mingle.
Kinnaur Kailash Peak, home of Lord Shiva
A perfect model in Kalpa village
The landscape undergoes a marked change as we make our way to Nako – the giant mountains now appear to be made almost entirely of loose boulders. The numerous power plants that have accompanied us all the way from Shimla – drawing the last drop of water from the heart of the mountains at great risk to this fragile ecosystem – are no longer visible. Neither are the apple orchards and the sky hugging deodar trees.
Blue above, blue below : Nako Lake
Traditional Kinnauri House
But there is one thing that remains unchanged – the appearance of a tiny temple or Buddhist prayer flag as we turn a remote corner. People in this area display an unwavering faith in God, and for good reason – in a land where one loose step can send you spiraling down tens of thousands of feet, who else to trust but the Unknown?
Danger at every bend in the road
Next week, we make our way to the barren and stark land of Spiti, about which Rudyard Kipling says in Kim:
At last they entered a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here. Beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. This place is no place for men.
The author undertook this trip with Ecosphere, a social enterprise that aims to conserve the fragile ecosystem of the region, as part of a fixed departure tour organized by them.
All images are the property of the author. Please do not reuse in any manner without prior written permission. Images taken with Nokia Lumia 1520.