Himachal Pradesh was the last leg of our tour during the Puja vacation. We had a few choices to pick from as our destination after Amritsar. While I had a liking for Dharamshala, Runa was keener on Dalhousie. At the end, we included both in our itinerary. Though it became more hectic, with one day to spend at each of the places and involved long journeys everyday, it was worth to explore or at least touch upon as many more places as we could in the short trip.
From Amritsar, we started early for Dharamshala. We thought the more than hundred kilometre stretch till Pathankot would be an easy ride as it is a national highway, but the road was full with potholes and we experienced a bumpy ride throughout. To add to our woes, the weather was playing foul and there had been constant drizzle and sometimes outpouring rain as our companion of the journey. The car was moving more slowly due to the rains and the temperature dropped substantially due to the chilly wind.
After we reached Pathankot, there was less than a hundred more kilometres to traverse. As we were moving up towards Dharamshala, the weather was becoming colder. Soon we reached Lower Dharamshala and found all the shops and offices closed. It turned out to be some holiday due to Balmiki Jayanti. The Kangra Art Museum located in the heart of the town, Kotwali Bazaar, was also closed. We also went past some kind of war memorial just before we entered the town, but did not bother to stop by. As we drove towards McLeodganj, our driver showed us the Dal Lake but there was no water at all and he explained to us that some kind of construction work was going on in the lake. I must also mention here that somewhere I read about an Anglican church called church of St. John in the wilderness, built in the mid nineteenth century and comprising a memorial of British Viceroy Lord Elgin, being located between Forsytheganj and McLeodganj. During our journey I noticed a graveyard and a little walk into the woods must have taken us to the church. But ignorance of our driver on there being any church coupled with the bad weather restrained me from pursuing. We had our hotel booked at Naddi, which is further up than McLeodganj and our driver advised to stop by the Dalai Lama Temple en route. Though it was late afternoon by then and we were starving, we decided to comply as it seemed difficult to get down in the evening in such weather.
We drove past a couple of monasteries but our driver told us that he was taking us to the main monastery, Tsuglagkhang, also known as Dalai Lama’s Temple. Ever since McLeodganj became the official residence of His Holiness Dalai Lama, a large Tibetan community has made this place their home and the place is often referred to as Little Lhasa. His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising in Tibet against communist China and was offered refuge by the Government of India in Dharamshala and later on he set up there the Government of Tibet in exile. It was not any special day, so we did not have any chance to get a glimpse of Dalai Lama. I think, the fact that in some of his interviews he had hinted of him being the last Dalai Lama (though that has not been his consistent view), and the possible shift in diplomatic relationship between India and China raises some uncertainty on the future importance of the place, though it may well continue to be a centre for Buddhist culture and tourism.
When we got off near the Tsuglagkhang temple complex, it was still drizzling and it was very cold. The first thing that caught my attention was a signboard pledging the release of Gendhun Choekyi. On May 14th 1995, HH Dalai Lama recognized him, then a 6 year old kid, as the 11th Panchen Lama and on 17th May, he along with his family was taken in by the Chinese government as political prisoners and till today no one knows their whereabouts. The place was nearly deserted and we were not sure which way to proceed. A Tibetan woman who was selling momos showed us the way and soon we reached a memorial pillar made of black stone commemorating the Tibetan martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the Tibetan cause. We took a narrow lane from there to reach the temple complex. I believe there must be some other entrance since that lane was too narrow to be fit for entering a temple complex of such significance and visited by a multitude of devotees.
To our utter disappointment we found the complex almost empty barring a couple of monks, meditating in front of a wooden structure lit up with innumerous candles, and most of the temples were also closed. So all we could do was to peek inside the temples and catch some glimpses through the glass windows. After a few minutes a monk arrived and let us enter one of the temples, named, probably, the Kalachakra Temple. There was a fearsome image of Kalachakra embracing Visvamata. There was probably also an image of Avolokitesvara. I must confess that I do not have any knowledge of Buddhism but what baffles me is that apart from some of the images, like probably Shakyamuni, I have witnessed some really intimidating images in some of the Buddhist monasteries that I could not quite correlate with the peaceful and tolerant picture that comes to mind when one thinks about the Buddhist religion. Please forgive me for my ignorance if I have just said something stupid. I pledge to do some research the next time I plan to visit a monastery.
Before going to our hotel, we made another brief halt; this time at the Bhagsu Nag Temple which is a Hindu Shiva Temple. This place was also deserted at the time we visited and we had to remove our shoes to enter the temple and walk on the wet (from rain) marble floor barefooted. That sent us shivers through our spines. There is nothing much to describe about the temple, but it is indeed a well-known one. The temple is patronized by the Gurkha Rifles and the temple holds special significance amongst the Gurkha community. A picturesque waterfall is located at a couple of kilometres' walk from the temple. But due to the bad weather, we went only as far from where we could have a look at the waterfall from a distance.
By the time we finally reached our hotel, we were literally starving and the first thing we did was order a sumptuous lunch. The hotel had an exquisite location with the snow capped Dhauladhar range rising just from behind the hotel. The hotel personnel informed us that snow was not very common at that time of the year and the peaks had been covered with snow only for the last couple of days. So it must have been our good luck.
After a very late lunch, I ventured out to have a closer look at the mountain range. The rain had stopped by then and the weather looked much better. However, the others were too much tired and I had to go out alone. I took a narrow trail that went down from the hotel and walked gently for about half an hour with no one in sight but only the majestic mountains accompanying me. I had to stop at last as the road ended abruptly into some private property guarded by locked iron gates. I was wondering how wonderful it would have been if we could have stayed at the beautiful bungalow that stood on the other side of the iron gates. With no other way around, I had to return back. By this time the sun had started setting in, bestowing an orange-ish tinge to the snow capped mountain range.
I came back to the hotel after having a lovely cup of tea at a small tea stall just in front of the hotel. The slow setting of the sun was a treat to watch from there and when I was back at the hotel, the mountain range was engulfed with a blue-ish cover of night.
My room had a good view of the mountain range but it was still better viewed from a common balcony which was located just beside my room. After dinner I locked my room and went to that balcony (which usually remained closed due to the strong chilly wind) to see the elegant effect of moonlight on snow (it was close to a full moon day) and while I was unmindful, someone closed the door of the balcony and locked it from the other side. Thankfully, I was carrying my mobile phone with me so that I could call up Runa and Abhishek to come to my rescue; otherwise I would have frozen in the cold.
I woke up early in the morning but there was no sunrise point as such there and when the sun came out finally, or was rather visible from the place, it was well into the morning. However, I could observe, with joy, the change in colour of the mountain range, as time went past, from sleepy blue to foggy white and then shimmering in the bright sunlight. As the sun was slowly coming up, its rays first lit up the peaks and gradually the whole range was incandescent with dazzling white snow. We took the same trail that I had pursued the earlier day, but this time only for a few yards until we reached a view point, took some quick snaps and then checked out of the hotel, bidding goodbye to the lovely little place called Dharamshala.
The next place on our Himachal itinerary was Dalhousie, but we thought of visiting the Kangra Fort before that. We researched the place from the list of places of interest near Dharamshala and it seemed to be a good option and feasible too since it was only 20 kilometres away. However, our driver grumbled at the prospect since it would be a little detour for him. Now this is the problem that I have faced a few times now. Even when one has a private vehicle booked for the entire trip, the drivers are reluctant to deviate even a little from the itinerary that is proposed at the beginning. What’s the point in having then a private vehicle at all? Thanks to the efforts and negotiating skills of Runa (and a call to the tour operator in Amritsar who booked the car for us) the driver at last gave in to our wish and sped off towards the Kangra Fort. I remember him showing us the picturesque cricket stadium of Dharamshala from a distance but quite not recollect if it was on that day or the previous one.
The fort was built by the Katoch dynasty rulers and its origin can be traced back to the ancient Trigarta kingdom. A bulletin outside the fort informed us that the fort was taken in by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1009 and was captured by Muhammad Bin Tughluq in 1337 and again in 1351 by his successor Firoz Shah Tughlug but it was not until 1662 that it was permanently triumphed over, when after a fourteen month’s siege, it was conquered by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Following the Mughal decline, Raja Sansar Chand II was successful to recover the ancient fortress of his ancestors in 1786. But after he came into conflict, first with the neighbouring hill chiefs, then with the Gurkhas and lastly with Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, he was compelled to surrender the fort. The fort remained with the Sikhs till 1846 when it was made over to the British along with the surrounding hills.
We walked along the passage that started from the initial arched gateway and after passing through some other gates and some flights of steps, we finally reached the top of the fort. From my experience at some of the other forts around India, I would say it is not that gigantic as some of the others and less tiring but in the Himalayas, it is probably the largest and certainly one of the oldest in India. Along the way, I noticed some defaced images of what seemed like Hindu goddesses that may have been vandalized during the Muslim period or it may have been ruined in the course of time as well (I heard the place suffered some serious earthquakes) and at the top there was a wall still engraved with beautiful sculpture and design. Alongside there was a temple where prayers were being offered. Surprisingly, it was a Jain Temple of Sri Adinathji. I wonder whether the Kangra rulers belonged to the Jain sect.
Before leaving, we visited the ASI maintained museum that is located within the fort complex and which houses figures of deities dating back to the 9th century, coins, paintings and even stone tools from the Paleolithic age.
We reached Dalhousie in the late afternoon and checked into our hotel near the Gandhi Chowk which hosts a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. After a very late lunch (on the second consecutive day) we went out to have a look around the town. This time round, Runa accompanied me but Abhishek and Rishi stayed back exhausted from the day’s toil. Our driver first took us to Panchpula, which was supposed to be some kind of spring or waterfall and a picturesque spot as had been described in the tourism website. However, it did not seem to attract any appeal at all, may be due to lack of water. What attracted us more was a Kashmir handloom store and the invitations from its salesmen to have a look at their “Chingu” blanket. It is a special kind of blanket made of Pashmina wool. At the very onset the salesman declared that they do not actually sell Chingu blanket but rather lease them for five years and at the end of five years their men would collect them from our homes and would refund us seventy percent of the cost of blanket. Not only that, they would also offer us five more free gifts along with the blanket at no extra cost. The funny way in which the salesman kept repeating “not only these, we will offer you yet another gift” and showed us the gift (ranging from blankets made of rabbit wool to shawls and bed-covers) reminded me of the hawkers who sell ten combs for rupees ten or five pens for rupees five in the local trains and show them to the passengers one by one. The salesman explained to us that these “Chingu” blankets are actually made up of coarse Pashmina wool and only after some use they would be fit for weaving the famous Pashmina shawls. That is why they would be collecting them back at the end of five years. The reason for this is that the earlier method of collecting Pashmina wool by killing the animals is banned and now only coarse wool is available which is cut off from the animals. We left the shop buying not the “Chingu” blankets but some shawls as gift items.
Next, we went to the Subhash Chowk where a statue of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose is located. Netaji had spent some time in Dalhousie back in 1937 recuperating from ill health and during his sojourn drinking water from a nearby natural spring helped him recover. It is now known as Subhash Baoli. The disappointment at Panchpula along with some not so good review of the Subhash Baoli in some tourist websites restrained us from going over to there. Instead, we went to visit St. Francis’ Church. It is a century old, catholic church which bears the old British style of architecture. But, frankly, there is nothing much to mention. That is why we did not bother to visit St. John’s Church which has a similar architecture and is located near the Gandhi Chowk.
Our driver had taken a break of thirty minutes after taking us to the Subhash Chowk, but we did not take as much time to visit the church. We spent the remaining time helping ourselves with some lovely momos and hot coffee from a nearby cafe. It felt nice to have something hot in the cold weather.
After an uneventful evening and night, we checked out of the hotel in the morning and headed towards Khajjiar.
Khajjiar is about 22 kilometres away from Dalhousie. En route we stopped at a view point to take some snaps of the beautiful valley and the snow capped mountain range. There was one road spiraling off towards the wild life sanctuary at Kalatop. Our driver mentioned that the road to Khajjiar usually remains closed in the winter due to heavy snow.
We reached Khajjiar just after noon and decided to have lunch first. This was the first time in three days that we were having lunch at proper time. The Chinese food at the nearby restaurant was mediocre but one could try to enjoy them forgetting the Chinese names and rather treating them as Indian dishes with a few uncommon spices and sauces.
Khajjiar is a mesmerizing glade with a circumference of about 5 kilometres surrounded by thick deodar forest and has a small water body in the centre. Perhaps at some point of time boating was done but the pool was not in a good shape then and the water oozed out into the nearby grassland had resulted in a marshy surrounding. Though the place attracted an abundance of tourists, it was big enough to allow one to be just with oneself and find one’s peace, especially at the farthest corners where there were very few hawkers to bother. There were a large number of hawkers infesting the frontal part of the glade ranging from people selling food items to photographers and even men offering horse rides. The unusual part was that every horse had a name imprinted on its neck or back and the names varied from Shan to Badal to John to Sikander etc. etc. Runa posed for one of the photographers in ethnic Himachal attire and even Abhishek joined her for a couple of snaps sporting a round Himachal cap. While they were waiting for the photographs to be delivered, I went for a leisurely stroll across the ground. It was in fact much bigger than I had anticipated at first and by the time I completed my circumambulatory, it was very tiring. A few groups were playing cricket in the middle, so I had to keep a cautious eye so that I did not get hit by the odd ball. The other amusing thing I noticed was these large air-tight plastic spheres which comprised small inner spheres in the centre through which people could somehow snuggle in and remain there in suspended position such that they were able to breathe free in the void of the inner sphere, and then they were rolled on and on. I was wondering how much they were enjoying their roller-coaster ride.
We left in the late afternoon bidding goodbye to the charming glade of Khajjiar where supposedly the summer camp scenes of the Bollywood blockbuster “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” was shot and our next destination was the town of Chamba. I had read in some travel posts about a gigantic Shiva statue in the vicinity and since I had inquired about it from our driver earlier, he made sure to halt there on the way. Some Jagadamba temple was being constructed at that place, but the main attraction was the 81 feet high statue of Lord Shiva which looked like it might be made of copper. The massive statue in front of the snow capped mountain range had a fantastic effect.
Chamba is a former princely state and dates back to 6th century. The 24 kilometres’ distance from Khajjiar was covered in less than an hour’s time. Once in the town of Chamba, we first visited the Bhuri Singh Museum named after Raja Bhuri Singh of Chamba who ruled during the early twentieth century. The museum was inaugurated in 1908 with J. Ph. Vogel as the founding curator. The museum exhibits murals, painted doorways, wood and stone carvings, paintings, photographs and portraits, war-drums, masks and scriptures among many other items. Some of the artifacts are from the Rang Mahal and the State Kothi of Bharmour. There is also specimen of the famous Chamba Rumaal. I also noticed a sliver “hawda” and large cannons. There were stone tablets with inscriptions in Sharda, Bhoti and Takri scripts and paintings from the Basohli, Kangra and Guler school of painting styles.
Not far from the museum is located the Laxminarayan Temple Complex, the oldest temple in Chamba. Actually at first we could not really make out the way in the middle of the market and entered a narrow by-lane following the direction of a little girl. But then somehow we found our way and reached the entrance of the temple complex. The complex housing six "sikhara" style main temples dedicated to either Shiva or Vishnu and several smaller shrines was founded in the 10th century by Sahil Verman. The main idol of Lord Vishnu is made of a rare marble and has a radiant appearance. Wooden “chhatris” and tiles adorn the top parts of the shrines, perhaps to ward off the snow. It was a great photo opportunity to capture all the six "sikharas" in a single photo frame, but the obscure location of the temple coupled with the unhelpful light and shade of the evening (and also perhaps my limited acumen as a photographer) restricted me from taking one.
We spent some time in the market afterwards enjoying tea and sweets and when we returned to our car finally, we found our driver very worried. It appeared that he had called Runa’s mobile phone a few times but she had left it in the car itself and blissfully forgotten about it. The cause of his worry was that we were getting late for our journey to Pathankot from where we were to catch a train and we found out that we had miscalculated the distance of Pathankot from there. Thankfully, we reached the Chakki Bank railway station (located outside the town of Pathankot) well before the scheduled time, though we had to travel a fair bit after sundown. The tour had come to the end. We would be taking the overnight Jammu Rajdhani to New Delhi and a flight back to Kolkata. We would be going back to the usual, mundane, regular, boring life and what was more agonizing was that I would have to resume office the next day itself. I hoped that I would be able carry the image of the beautiful tranquil Beas flowing between mountains, viewed from the last tea break on our journey, for a long time even after I come back home.
P.S. – The Jammu Rajdhani was my worst Rajdhani experience but the new airport in the capital was awe awakening and as good as any of the airports I have seen abroad.