Tag Archives: Himachal Pradesh

Garli: Mansions in the Mountains

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Amid gabled roofs, Gothic windows and English weathervanes, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go walkabout in the surreal heritage village of Garli in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh

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A Shiva Shambhu or wandering minstrel in a red and black turban adorned with feathers walked in sounding his bell just as we were being ushered into Chateau Garli with drumbeats, tilaks and a shower of flower petals. For a moment no one was sure whether the itinerant was part of the arriving group or the welcoming party. And then as suddenly, like a mirage, he vanished into the afternoon haze.

Though the harsh sun had obscured the surrounding Dhauladhar range, Garli’s presence here seemed equally surprising and incongruous. We looked around in disbelief at the European style mansions with gabled roofs, Gothic windows and ornate weathervanes wondering how such a place could exist deep in the heart of Himachal Pradesh. It was only after the refreshing mint cooler went down our parched throats and the drumbeats stopped we knew it was real.

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In a dark sunless room, with the only light emanating from a red chandelier, our host Yatish Sud and his friend Atul Lal retraced the story of Garli. The mint had been replaced by hops but we swear the surreal setting made Yatish seem like a character in a Quentin Tarantino flick narrating a fantastic tale. The story went like this…

The 52 clans of the hill community of Soods, who find a mention in the Rig Veda with reference to a sacred fire, were driven out of Rajasthan after successive Muslim invasions. They escaped with a band of professionals – cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, craftsmen – and settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away and set up a trading town. The location was protected as well as auspicious – surrounded by mountains and the snowy Dhauladhar range on three sides with the Beas river on the fourth and at the tri-junction of three powerful Shakti peetha shrines –Jwalamukhi, Chintpurni and Brajeshwari.

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Over time, the entrepreneurial Soods became treasurers to the Kangra royal family and as contractors, helped the British build Shimla. The great fortunes they amassed was put back into their hometown and the buildings drew heavily on colonial influences, a touch of Rajasthan and all the finer things that money could buy – Belgian glass, Japanese tiles, fancy chandeliers. Ummm, but haven’t we heard that story before!

In a pattern uncannily similar to the opulent havelis of Shekhawati (set up the mercantile community of Marwaris) and Chettinad (the bastion of the Chettiars), Garli too prospered in the same timeframe. Between 1820 and 1920, the construction frenzy reached its peak, spurring an unstated rivalry to outbuild thy neighbour. And then, by the 1950’s it was all gone.

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“How?”, we chimed. “We’ll continue that on the evening walk”, winked Yatish and led us to the dining area where hot lunch awaited us. After a terrific North Indian meal, we were ushered to our heritage room where we lay down with the looming danger of missing our tryst with the evening. The four poster bed, the paintings on the wall, the colourful embroidered bedspreads, the vibrant windowpanes and antique furniture really transported us to another era. Each of the 19 rooms in the mansion was unique and distinctive. But sleep be damned, we couldn’t wait till evening for the rest of the tale…

A quick round of masala tea and we were ready for our heritage walk through town. Scattered amidst living dwellings with heaving clotheslines and aam papad drying on charpoys were empty majestic homes that held steadfast against time. Some withering edifices lay forlorn and besieged by neglect. In the snaking alleys, one could sense an eerie silence emanating from the empty halls and corridors of run-down mansions.

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“That one with the murals is Rayeeson wali kothi, the one with the uniformed soldiers is Santri wali Kothi and that’s Nalke wali kothi! “Why?” “Oh that’s ‘cause it’s got a public tap in front of it!” There are nearly a hundred mansions marked out on the illustrated map so you could go gallivanting on your own. In market lanes, we discovered the progressive town-planning, water and drainage system that the early Soods had incorporated nearly a hundred years ago!

They established a school for boys in 1918 and a specialized women’s hospital in 1921 (the girl’s school didn’t come up until 1955)! The foundation stone for the Garli Water Works was laid on 8th February 1928 and a new road was built for the Governor of Punjab to come for the inauguration. The water works used imported copper pipes from London and wonder of wonders, it still worked!

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. Pots of water were left at every few paces thoughtfully for the public to help combat heat and thirst. Before the advent of electricity, niches in the wall exteriors held lamps to illuminate the path for the pedestrian.

The humanitarian spirit and thoughtfulness was apparent even at Chateau Garli where the compound wall actually curved around a well. In 1920, when Yatish’s grandfather Seth Melaram Sud struck water while building the house, he decided that the natural resource was public property and moved his walls so that the village folk could fill their pots freely! The practice continues to this day. So how did it all go bust?

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The story goes that in the bygone days, the licentious ones left their families back in Shimla and snuck away to Garli for a secret rendezvous with their paramour or another man’s wife. Some say it was the curse of a wronged woman that brought about Garli’s downfall. By the 1950s, the whole place was abandoned and left to ruin.

“Even our haveli was not too different. My grandfather was orphaned very early in life and was taken care of by Atul’s father. I was the first to come back and then Atul followed. It took years of restoration. The annexe in front of the swimming pool was once a cowshed. We built it like the older structure.” The result was spectacular and seamless…

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Yatish then bundled us into his open jeep for a crazy off-road drive. Recklessly ignoring concerned locals crying “Agey raasta nahin hai…(There is no road ahead)”, we drove down a steep incline, bounced along unpredictably before rolling into the vast expanse of weathered boulders covering the banks of the River Beas. We made it in time to watch the big red sun take its final bow for the day from the horizon.

After a quick stop at the ancient Kaleshwar Mahadev temple we went for a cuppa at Naurang Yatri Nivas, a rustic style country lodge restored by Atul and his wife Ira. The elaborate brick structure was built by Rai Bahadur Mohan Lal for the stay of the Lt Governor of Punjab so he could attend his daughter’s wedding.

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Subsequently it became an accommodation for travellers and merchants who came to Garli for trade. In disuse for almost a quarter of a century, it took 30,000 litres of water, 250 kg of washing powder, 75 iron brushes, 18 people and 15 months to restore it to its former glory.

Returning to the luxury of Chateau Garli, we nibbled on juicy grilled meat and snacks followed by butter naans dunked in mutton gravy. The next day after breakfast local ice-cream man Satpal Sharma ji tinkled his bells to sell his family’s best kept secret – Malai barf! The creamy kulfi-like dessert with an unchanged 40-year old recipe was served on a sal leaf and priced at only 30 bucks a serving. To Yatish, it was “the taste of nostalgia”.

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Thus fortified, we set off for Pong Dam to witness the massive swathe of wetlands. In the distance, herds of bovines grazed and wallowed in the slush. In winter, thousands of migratory birds come visiting from Central Asia, making it a birding haven.

The Dada Sibba temple nearby has a rich treasure of 200-year-old mural art on the walls. Unusual images of Krishna, Shiva and Parvati made us linger and absorb the genius of unnamed artists who helped evolve and define the Kangra style of painting.

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We drove to the famous 8th century monolithic Masrur rock-cut temples where architectural virtuosity was on full display. Despite being weather worn, the delicate carvings, motifs and expressions were unmistakable. Our guide, like many we had met earlier in other towns and villages across India, claimed that the temples were ‘built overnight by the Pandavas’.

It was too hot for Kangra Fort so we headed back for a swim in Sud’s tempting pool, which boasted a funky underwater sound system! The party was on… and didn’t stop. Around midnight, Yatish mischievous asked, “Ok, who wants to come for an open jeep ride into the wilderness. Last week, we spotted a leopard, right on the road!” We dove right in and the adventure continued. Onion-like, the little town of Garli peels away its layers one by one, to reveal its many hidden secrets.

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Discover This
Garli is best discovered on foot. Start your heritage walk from Seth Melaram Sud’s residence, formerly UCO bank and presently Chateau Garli towards the Beas. Walk by the taal (lake) past spectacular buildings – Kanya pathshala, Mohan Nivas, Govt Girls’ High School, the tall gates of Saraswati Vidhya Mandir and the green gabled roof of the Civil Hospital to Naurang Sarai. While returning, take the left from the Govt Hospital and the right from Kanya Pathshala for scenic viewpoints.

Continue on the main road past Bhagwan Niwas and Peerewalan to the market. To its right lies the Garli Water Works while a left turn from Minerva School leads to Bishnu Nivas and the ‘House with the brick jali’. And for those who are interested, there’s also The Hidden House and a Mystery House, besides several ruins!

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NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Road: Located 4km from its twin heritage village Pragpur, Garli is 60km from Hoshiarpur, 70km from Dharamsala and 186km/4hr drive from Chandigarh via Ropar, Anandpur Sahib and Nangal.

By Air: The nearest airport is 47km away at Gaggal in Dharamsala or Bhuntar (85km) near Kullu.

By Train: The nearest railway station is Amb, 25km away though one can travel to Una or Hoshiarpur, which have more train connections. From Delhi, one can take the Kalka Shatabdi to Chandigarh and drive to Garli.

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Where to Stay

Chateau Garli
Mohan Niwas, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 94180 62002, 98104 35554 www.chateaugarli.com
Rs.5000 onwards

Naurang Yatri Nivas
Opp Senior Secondary School, Village Nahan Nagrota, VPO Garli, Tehsil Rakkar, Dist Kangra
Ph 01970-245096 http://www.nyngarli.com

Banta House homestay
Near Garli entrance, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 8459220851

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When to go:
Garli is great all year round, though summers can get pretty hot. Time your visit to catch a local festival like Hola Mohalla at Mairi, 15km away or the century old wrestling festival and 3-day fair Maidan ka Mela at Garli in September.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Discover India magazine. 

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Garli: Chateau Charisma

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover old world romance and architectural gems in a heritage village in Himachal Pradesh

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If it wasn’t for the summer heat and pahadi drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a faraway village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli with blues skies broken by white clouds and gyrating weathervanes, utterly besotted and bewildered by its beauty. The arterial road running through the pahadi town was lined by heritage buildings on either side though the summer haze obscured the snow-capped Dhauladhar range.

Garli in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley wears its European influences with an air of nostalgic élan. In the 16th century, the area came under the rule of the Jaswan kingdom. The brave princess Prag Dei put up a stiff resistance against a band of marauders terrorising the valley and Pragpur was established in her honour. Its sister town Garli is peopled by the 52 hill clans of the Sood community, who originally lived in Rajasthan but were driven out by the Mughals.

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Around 19th century they settled around the hamlets of Garli and its more famous architectural twin town Pragpur four kilometres away. The site was chosen carefully at the tri-junction of three Shakti temples – Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi and Brajeshwari in Kangra to receive auspicious astral influences. They came here with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen and other professionals to set up a trading township.

As treasurers of the Kangra royals and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods amassed great fortunes and love for European style is so evident in Garli. The town is a haven of sprawling ancestral homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Today, most are however in need of care and renovation. Some of the houses seem to be in a state of decay and the sleepy town does wear a tattered cloak of neglect and abandonment.

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Giving credence to this is a legend of a young bride who was wrongly accused of adultery by the villagers years ago. Angry at the slur to her reputation, the helpless girl cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. Surprisingly enough, over the years people started moving out and by the 1950s, apparently most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned. Thankfully, a few, like Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected.

Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish have painstakingly restored their mansion, constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud, into a boutique heritage stay. Each of its 19 rooms holds memories of another time – colonial furniture, mellow lights and crystal chandeliers contrasting sunlit coloured panes spilling rainbow reflections onto the floor.

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Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the large swimming pool. The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls and windows were hand-painted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a classy, personal touch to the interiors. The acute gabled roofs, long windows and pillared verandahs of the main building flowed seamlessly to the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed.

Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, the annexe with its colourful windows transforms into fairytale castle at dusk. Each of the rooms are dressed with antique furniture like four poster beds and baby cribs, which accentuate its old world charm. Beside the pool, a mud-plastered counter was lined with brass pots and a traditional chulha (earthen oven) where food was prepared by local staff.

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Lunch was a lovely Kangra dhaam (meal) featuring a fixed menu of traditional Himachali delicacies like mhani, a preparation of black chana with jaggery and amchoor, siddu, the local steamed bread, mah ki dal, khatta (tangy curry) and meetha (sweet). After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk around Garli.

Meandering cobbled alleys were lined by copper-toned mud-plastered homes, brick houses with slate roofs and lovely balconies, wooden balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson wali kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, Santri wali kothi was dominated by two turbaned plaster sentries on the parapet wall while Nalke wali kothi had a public tap in front.

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries in town where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. On the town’s eastern end on the road to the Beas stood Naurang Yatri Nivas, a charming rustic style country lodge renovated by Yatish’s friend Atul Lal. In market lanes we discovered the progressive town planning, water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago.

The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921 and a girl’s school by 1955. All of these, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, are still operational! The waterworks was inaugurated by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab on 8th February 1928 and a special road was built for the purpose. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead.

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Homes had wall niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians in the old days. Pots of water were left thoughtfully for people to help combat heat and thirst. Such generosity of spirit was apparent even at Chateau Garli. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the house, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well came outside his boundary and village folk could fill their pots. The practice continues to this day.

As Yatish drove us around local sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with Kangra paintings and 8th century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized hospitality was not new to the Suds, it was an age old tradition.

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VITALS

Accommodation
Chateau Garli has 19 heritage rooms and suites between its main house and the annexe and serves robust, home-style meals including Indian, Chinese and local Kangra fare. Each room comes with AC, coffee maker and wi-fi besides a common swimming pool with underwater speakers!

Chateau Garli
Ph +91-1970-246246, 94180 62003
http://www.chateaugarli.com
Tariff Rs.5000 onwards).

Getting There
Garli is 4km/10 min east of its twin village Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is 45km/1 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186km/3 hrs from Chandigarh and 425km/7 hrs north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb, 16km/20 min away, connected by Himachal Express from Delhi, which reaches at 8am. Regular buses ply to Garli from many cities in Himachal like Pathankot (120km), Kullu (180km) and Simla (180km).

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/mountain-stay-chateau-garli-for-himachal-heritage-and-kangra-khana/

Naldehra: Curzon’s retreat

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Golf, river rafting, hot water springs, heritage walks, local cuisine… there’s a lot to do around Lord Curzon’s favourite haunt Naldehra, as ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find out

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The clouds hung low over Shimla, where houses perched on the mountains like mushrooms on a giant dunghill. At least, that’s how it looked after 200 years of unbridled development. Drawn by its cool weather and pleasant surroundings, the British elite trickled into Shimla between 1813 and the early 1830s, helping it evolve as a centre of education, entertainment and high life. Viceroy John Lawrence shifted India’s summer capital to Shimla in 1864 and it remained so till 1947. In the pre-independence years between April and October, the British Empire – stretching from Aden to Myanmar, nearly a fifth of the human race – was governed from these heights.

Today, the bustling capital of Himachal Pradesh seemed to split at its seams, as we turned left from the only traffic light in town and continued 22km north to the laidback retreat of Naldehra. Smitten by the undulating grassy meadows fringed by tall cedar trees, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905) devoted much of his time here. This scenic spot was Curzon’s favourite campsite and he even renamed his youngest daughter Alexandra as Naldehra – a rare departure from the norm of naming places and sightseeing spots after British officers and their families. Curzon set up India’s oldest golf course here, also one of the highest 18-hole golf links in the world. Its undulating terrain made the Par 68 course one of the most challenging in the country.

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We swung up the slope of the Chalets Naldehra driveway and a lift transported us to the upper level. Beyond the manicured lawn and a pretty garden, Finnish log cabins stood at multiple levels, each unique in design. Set on a 2-acre property owned by the enterprising father-son duo Yatish and Amish Sud, it was originally a personal holiday home close to the golf course that had now become a resort. Every chalet, named after historic people from the region, sported nameplates – F Younghusband Chalet was named after explorer, adventurer and friend of Lord Curzon Sir Francis Younghusband. The Gerard Chalet celebrated brothers Patrick and James Gerard, early explorers who mapped the hills. Captain Kennedy Chalet was dedicated to Charles Pratt Kennedy, the first Political Officer to the Hill States, a Scotsman who built the first pucca house in Shimla – Kennedy House. Sir Henry Collet Chalet hailed British botanist and army officer who authored ‘Simla Simlensis’, a handbook on the flowering plants of Shimla. Local historian Raja Bhasin, who authored the fascinating book ‘10 Heritage Walks in Shimla’ was responsible for the nomenclature and we hoped to go on a heritage walk with him.

Our room was scented with pinewood and the balcony offered a view of cedar forests and troops of curious monkeys. We really needed the nature hike after devouring all the food! The snowy peaks stood in a ragged line like tardy students at the morning assembly. We could have sat at the viewpoint for hours but chose to take a diversion and trudge up to the Naldehra golf course. There, the old temple of Nanahal Dev (or Mahu Nag), the paramount deity of the region, stood by the greens. Tourists rode horses to the sightseeing points while the adventurous tried the zipline. Some were content to pose in Himachali costumes. Even the zipline gear was up for a photo-op! By evening, we were back at Chalets Naldehra perched on the revolving restaurant, 360˚ Top of the World, the first and only one of its kind in Himachal Pradesh! Like Piz Gloria atop Swiss peak Schilthorn, made famous by James Bond, the small octagonal restaurant seated 20 and was a great place to unwind and enjoy a delicious meal with laser lights, sunset views and starry nights.

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Chalets Naldehra was also perfectly placed for excursions. A long winding 25km downhill drive past rolling countryside took us to the River Sutlej cutting swiftly through gorges. White water rafting was conducted along a tame 5km section of the river. However, the rapids were so mild, they didn’t even merit having names! Starting near Sunni, the biggest thrill was a customary dip at the waterfall gushing down from the pumphouse. Serious rafting enthusiasts undertook daytrips to tackle Grade II-III rapids that began further upstream. The trip culminated at the hot water springs of Tattapani.

Tourists had circled out the therapeutic sulphur springs with stones and pebbles. Hot water bubbled forth on the right riverbank, prompting people to cool or warm their heels, take dips, mineral baths and even indulge in mud slinging! Sadly, Tattapani faced imminent threat of being submerged by reservoir waters of the Kol Dam by the end of the year. The historic Shiva Gufa (cave) was just 5km away at Saraur but we continued 40km to Mahunag instead.

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The temple of Mahunag, amid forests of pine and deodar, was believed to be the embodiment of Raja Karna. As per legend, during the Mahabharata war, as Karna lay bloodied on the battlefield, Krishna lamented that the sun of magnanimity was setting. Arjuna was amazed that Krishna was praising Karna before Dharmraj Yudhishthir, the epitome of justice. To prove his point, Krishna disguised himself as an old Brahmin and went to Karna. Claiming to have heard of his large-heartedness, Krishna asked for alms. Having nothing on him, Karna slammed his jaw on his shield, dislodged his gold tooth and offered it to him. When the Brahmin rejected his bloodied offering, Karna summoned his last ounce of strength, shot a varunastra arrow into the earth, cleaned his gold tooth in the fountain and offered it anew to the Brahmin. Pleased, Krishna revealed his true form and Karna lay down his life at his feet. We marveled at the legend as much as the ornate wooden door, silver-plated entrance and the strange stone idol of the guardian deity Jallah Maharaj.

There were several Mahunag shrines dotting the region, as we discovered on our leisurely morning hike to the charming 500-year-old village of Kogi. As the sun lit up the village, the beauty of Naldehra’s surroundings came alive. The ancient temple of Nanahal Devta (Mahunag Mandir) with beautiful woodcarvings lay in the heart of the village. Despite the garish renovation job in 1994, the tower shrine retained a rustic charm. The typical Himachali village had homes covered by slate roofs and horses tied in open sheds below.

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For a taste of typical pahadi cuisine we dropped by at the Grameen Bhandhar Naldehra, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it eatery cum store. Run by local women who man the adjacent Himachali Craft Centre, the intriguing menu sported items like Babru, Khairu and Siddu. They sounded more like thugs rather than dishes! Siddu, a steamed dumpling was eaten with spicy, mint-chili chutney and hot ghee. Curries like khatta (tangy) and meetha (sweet) paired well with rice.

Just 11 km from Naldehra was the country’s first private apple orchard set up by Alexander Coutts, tailor to former Viceroy of India Lord Dufferin. Established in 1887 as Hillock’s Head in Mashobra, the farm generated 90 English varieties of apples, pear, plum and ornamental plants. It gained fame as Coutts Garden and new apple varieties like Yellow Newton, King of Pippin and Granny Smith were introduced. Raised as a Research Station by ICAR in 1953, it served as the Regional Horticultural Research & Training Station and Centre for Excellence for sustainable apple farming since 1985. The station helped Himachal Pradesh become the ‘Apple State of India’ with over 238 varieties of apples. Spread over 64 acres at a height of 2286m, it housed rare trees and flowering plants with an uninterrupted view of the Himalayas.

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Equally nice was the drive along meandering mountain roads and swathes of forest towards the Himalayan National Park at Mahasu massif. The snowy slopes of Kufri (16 km from Naldehra), a winter sports capital in its heyday lured skiers to carve the snow. Today, it bore the brunt of mass tourism as scabs of shanties dotted the hill. A steady line of mules, yaks and horses wound up the slushy narrow roads bearing tourists who thronged the little hamlet for resplendent Himalayan views. Few visited the high altitude zoo at Kufri, home to rare antelopes, wild cats and Himalayan birds.

Since Raja Bhasin was out of town leading a tour, we grudgingly returned to Shimla for a heritage walk, albeit with Amish Sud in tow. A quick cuppa at Wake & Bake Café on the Mall and we were good to go. Walk No.1 from Scandal Point to Viceregal Lodge took us past several colonial and historic landmarks – the 1883 built General Post Office Building, St Andrew’s Church that was now a library and college, Bantony Castle, residence of the Maharaja of Sirmour slated to be a museum, the Railway Board Building, Gorton Castle (currently AG Office) whose upper storey burnt down recently, the 1862 building Knockdrin or the Chief of Staffs’ residence and the Central Telegraph Office.

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All around us there was a buzz in the air. Locals thronged Lakkad Bazaar for provisions. Rosy-cheeked schoolgirls chatted animatedly in chorus. Nostalgic old men ambled down Mall Road recounting the years of their youth. And the words of F. Beresford Harrop from his 1925 ‘New Guide to Simla’ rang true, “The transmitters of gossip are ever at work and savory and unsavory secrets of our society are flashed to the uttermost limits of Simla with all the speed of wireless.”

FACT FILE

Getting there: Take the Kalka Shatabdi train from Delhi to Kalka (4 hrs) and take the narrow gauge Kalka Shimla Heritage train (5 hrs). If you’re in a hurry, drive 99km from Kalka to Shimla (3 hrs), from where Naldehra is another 22 km.

Stay at Chalets Naldehra http://www.chaletsnaldehra.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 9 August 2014 in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu.

Sweet Valley High: Spiti

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Isolated and hard-to-reach, Spiti saves its best for the intrepid few who brave its weather and terrain, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY on the Spiti Left Bank Trek to Himalayan homestays and Tibetan monasteries

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We were suitably dizzy and wobbly-kneed after 4 days of trekking and breathing rarified air in a near lunar desert landscape. So before we smiled and swooned at the doorway, our host intuitively thrust two cups of a pale orange brew into our hands, saying ‘Drink, drink’. With beggarly desperation and gratitude we complied and almost felt lightbulbs switch on inside us! In a matter of minutes, with the swagger of Asterix or Popeye, we felt ready to conquer Komik, the highest village in Asia and the rest of the Trans-Himalayan belt, thanks to a strange brew masquerading as a welcome drink.

The tea was made of Seabuckthorn or ‘tirku’, a Wonder Berry known to possess a host of medicinal properties that can combat over 300 diseases, including high-altitude sickness, a problem not uncommon when you are in the attic of the world. Wedged between Tibet in the east and Ladakh in the north, Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh is a creation of nature’s most dramatic accident. Millions of years ago, two great continental shafts crashed against each other and thrust the earth up to form the Himalayan Range and also caused the draining of the ancient Tethys Sea that separated Europe from Asia.

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The event changed the map of the world forever and laid bare several buried secrets about this planet. The birth of the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black and Aral Seas and the very existence of rare open-air fossil sanctuaries allude to this truth. Besides stumbling upon fossilized marine life in the Himalayan region and the magical elixir in seabuckthorn and its cultivation, we were in for a whole tectonic shift in perspective about the uniqueness of this valley unknown to tourism till as late as 1992.

A 10-hour bus ride was all it took to obliterate the tourist frenzy of Manali and transport us to this realm, 4400 m above sea level. With Kaza as our base, we covered Kye Gompa, the largest monastery in Spiti valley and walked past quirky signs to Kibber, touted as the highest motorable road in the world.

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At the Spiti Ecosphere office in Kaza, we learnt about the Spiti Left Bank Trek and high altitude homestays of Langza, Komik, Demul, Lhalung and Dhankar. From the office window, Norbu had pointed to a speck of a village that seemed vertically above Kaza. “That’s Komik… where you will go…on foot… from another route’, he said slowly, pausing at key points as if negotiating tricky crossings on a trek. It only looks daunting. Believe me, coming down is fun,” he said cheerfully.

Tsering Angdui, our guide smiled and said “I knows a short-cut.” Thus persuaded by an enthusiastic guide and charmed by far-flung hamlets bearing musical names, we set off on our walking holiday across the mountains.

Goodbye Ginseng, Hello Seabuckthorn

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In this desolate landscape irrigated only by the melting snow water, villagers grow barley and peas in the fields, while seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhammonides) grows wild, thriving by the riverside in sunny arid zones. Unaware of its economic potential, locals used this remarkable shrub as fences and exploited it as firewood, leading to its rapid depletion. Things changed when ‘Nono’ Sonam Angdui, the King of Spiti approved a conservation proposal by MUSE (later Ecosphere).

Under the aegis of The Spiti Seabuckthorn Society, a community livelihood initiative empowering village women to create producer groups for the commercial usage of tirku through viable conservation methods. The initiative currently involves 33 groups from 27 villages and over 500 members.

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With time, seabuckthorn has evolved from the fence to defense. Given its unique composition of minerals, vitamins and amino acids and additional anti-cancer, anti-ageing and anti-radiation benefits, seabuckthorn juice was developed by India’s Defence Research Development Organization for army troops facing extremely low temperatures in Siachen.

The multi-vitamin drink called ‘Leh Berry’ has been discontinued, but in Spiti, the berry is used to make jam and juice concentrates, available by the brand name Tsering (Tibetan for ‘blessings for a long life’). The dried and shredded berry peels also make energizing tirku tea. Seeing its instant restorative effect, we understood why.

Komik Timing: Asia’s highest village

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Our co-ordinator Nawang Tandup took us on a tour of Komik – a wide, open bowl of green fields and brilliant blue skies with a ring of tall snowy peaks in the periphery. On a bare patch of land, an old man clicked and urged his belligerent yak as he tilled the soil in slow meditative rows. The village, located in a depression, is believed to look like the sunken ‘eye of a snow cock’, hence the name ‘Ko-mik’. We trudged towards the old Sakyapa monastery and were awed by its setting. Two majestic mountains, one shaped like a reclining tawny lion and the other akin to a headless eagle with outstretched wings poised for flight, provided the perfect backdrop to the ancient monastery. A monk explained that the monastery fulfilled an age-old prophecy that it would be established at the exact spot where a headless eagle and lion would be seated side by side.

At night in our homestay, we curl up in the kitchen covered in warm handwoven rugs with dainty Chinaware in the shelves as Tsering Angdui enthralled us with more Spitian lore. “Remember we visited the ruins of a monastery in Hikim on our way to Langza yesterday? The monks were forced to abandon the place because the water source ran dry following an earthquake. Yet, in one of the caves thereabouts, a monk has been meditating for months with no food.” Dinner is a simple spread of hot thukpa, momos and thick bread. As our host ushered us to our bedroom upstairs, his berry-cheeked child sprang up and flung her notebook aside before rushing off ahead of us. The kid has spread an oversized blanket for us but it felt like we were in a glass bubble on the moon.

“I was the first to build a room upstairs with glass windows on three sides. They called me crazy but I did not want to break the view. Now, others in the village are copying me!“ our host confessed. It was freezing cold but snug under the softest faux mink rugs we stared at the ghostly stretch of the Himalayas silhouetted in an endless arc and a curtain of stars hanging low overhead.

Langza’s Fossil Sanctuary

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The last few days flashed past our eyes – lores of the princess and the moon linked to the peak of Chocho Khang Nilda, seeing the khutung (room) at Tashigang where the Dalai Lama had stayed after his exodus from Tibet through treacherous passes past the Khanomo peak and trekking to the homestay in Langza, where Angdui gave us a crash course on indigenous plants and survival tricks in the high mountains. He plucked a small tuft of grass, brushed the root, peeled a layer and bit into its cottony base. “This is good. When you are hungry and have no food, eat this. We know what to eat and what not to, otherwise you die,” he said simply.

But we hadn’t come to graze; we wished to see Langza’s fossil sanctuary. Over the years, the open sanctuary suffered much damage by curious visitors and locals who found it lucrative to sell fossil stones as souvenirs or sacred objects. With a vow not to touch or steal them, we reached the protected riverbed where a bit of the history of the world lay buried under the dark, damp layers of rock. The fascinating reality of the Tethys Sea unfolded when Angdui identified and opened the geode shaped rocks to display fossilized marine lifeforms preserved from a bygone era. George, a researcher we had met in Kibber had been frequenting India thanks to his obsession with fossils. He told us about Langza and Gette being the best places to see fossils.

“But they are so rare today. Everyone… visitors and local children rob them with impunity. Handling fossils requires tremendous skill,” George rued, before adding, “It’s such a shame because they break the fossils in the wrong direction and throw them away. Such precious records are irreparably damaged or gone forever.” Today conservation efforts to prevent illegal pilferage of fossil stones have prompted training locals to make replicas in stone. 

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We had the option of continuing from Komik to Demul to meet Amchi Chundui, a traditional practitioner of Tibetan medicine (amchi) who took people on guided walks that shed light upon the medicinal and curative powers of endemic plants. Since he was travelling, we decided to return to Kaza via the ‘promised short-cut’. The steep descent was nothing short of a 4km adrenalin rush. The narrow slippery footpath full of loose rock, shale and sheer drops is not recommended for those with weak hearts or vertigo issues. But the adventurous can get lucky with glimpses of lammergiers soaring between the cliffs and herds of Tibetan blue goats hoofing the sheer cliffs with swift agility, grace and precision.

We practically slid down the mountainside and reached Kaza in an hour. A short bus ride took us along the Spiti river to Sichling from where we trekked 8km uphill to Dhankar, the extraordinary old capital of Spiti before heading further to the bustling town of Tabo. Plans to go to Giu to see a mummified monk and the backpacker haunt of Mud enroute to Pin Parvati Pass were quashed by a landslide. We were forced to beat a hasty retreat to Manali, barely a day before the pass, Kunzum La, was closed indefinitely due to bad weather.

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Our narrow escape only highlighted the fragility and unpredictability of this treacherous yet breathtakingly beautiful Himalayan region. The genuine warmth and hospitality of people in Spiti and spirit of endeavour had enabled them to convert traditional crafts like pottery and weaving to commercial products like bags, rugs, shawls and handicrafts, besides manufacturing seabuckthorn and organic products. Voluntourism and responsible travel offer tourists a chance to be part of something meaningful – helping with village chores, farming, building solar baths and greenhouses and herding cattle to prevent livestock depredation due to manpower shortage.

Carbon neutral trips, wildlife trails and conservation programs organized by Spiti Ecosphere have helped generate valuable tourism money. Herders who hunted down the Tibetan wolf, long held as the farmer’s enemy, now act as its custodians of nature, often doubling up as wildlife guides.

Box – Dhankar

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Perched on a 1000-foot-high rocky spur overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers, Dhankar was the old capital of Spiti. Literally translated as ‘citadel on a cliff’ (Dhak–cliff, Khar–fort), Dhankar is crowned by a precariously balanced fort, home to the erstwhile royal family. The village has remnants of an old palace, a prison and a cave that provided safe sanctuary to all the village folk, during war besides a museum showcasing its historic past. Peppered with brutal accounts of war and pillage and descriptive anecdotes about sacred placid lakes on high-altitude treks, we learnt of how the women of Dhankar, known for their beauty lured the enemies and pushed them over the precipice to their deaths. How Dhankar’s brave horsemen rode the finest swiftest Tibetan steeds through this rugged terrain and how their festivals and annual fairs display their horse-riding skills and unique culture.

Occupying the steep southern slope of the village is the Dhankar Monastery. One of the five major monastic centres in Spiti, it was founded between 7th and 9th centuries and belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Vajrayana Buddhism. A maze of multi-storeyed buildings, the monastery’s sunless chambers are decorated with exquisite thangkas and wall murals depicting the Buddha, Tsongkhapa and Lama Chodrag. In another crumbling home left to wither by time, apathy and vandals, we watched an American Professor of Asian History and Ancient Buddhism, document every inch of flawless wall art, in photographs. “This will all vanish soon. All this priceless art…There’s no one to take care of it”, he observed darkly. Though listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the World’s Hundred Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Watch program, Spitians believe that even on Doomsday when all the monasteries of the world collapse, Dhankar would still be the last to fall.

Fact File

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Like its better-known neighbour Ladakh, Spiti was part of the Western Tibetan Zhang-Zhung civilisation, and retains a strong Tibetan influence. Most locals are Buddhists and followers of the Dalai Lama. Isolated and hard to reach, Spiti is home to rare flora and fauna – the endangered snow leopard roams the Pin Valley area, along with the Himalayan wolf, blue sheep and ibex. And while Spiti’s geography and climate attract adventure seekers, the stunning landscapes and panoramic views appeal to all.

When to go 
Spiti is a cold, harsh desert environment, but during the tourist season (May-October) plenty of welcoming guesthouses and tiny wayside restaurants open up. In the third week of August each year the Ladarcha Mela festival is held in Kaza to mark the end of summer; so that’s a good time to visit.

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How to get there

By Air: The nearest airport is Bhunter, 50 km from Manali.

By Road: From Manali, Kaza the district headquarters of Spiti is 213 km away. After Rohtang Pass, the road turns right at Gramphoo and reaches Kaza via Chhatdu, Batal, Kunzum Pass and Losar. Chandertal Lake is a small diversion off this road. HPTC buses leave from Manali bus stand every morning, traversing the distance in 10 hrs. The road continues past Kaza to Tabo (40km) and Recong Peo.

Things to do

Treks and homestays 
If you’re in reasonable shape you can’t do without long rambles in the area. And by visiting or even staying in local homes, you can experience life in some of the world’s highest and most isolated villages.

Mountain biking
With roads that vary from freshly laid asphalt to loose rock, as well as spectacular vistas, Spiti has a lot to offer adventurous mountain bikers. Those who come without their own bikes can hire them.

Yak safaris
The stretch between the villages of Komic and Demul is famous for yak safaris. The yaks are locally owned, clean (as far as yaks can be!) and well looked after. Since they are available only at specific locations, and have other duties in addition to ferrying tourists, safaris need to be planned and booked in advance.

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Tourist information 

Spiti Ecosphere, Kaza 
Run by Ishita Khanna, Ecosphere is the best place to start a Spiti adventure, be it trekking, homestays, yak safaris, white-water rafting or eco-sensitive tours and voluntourism projects.
Ph 01906-222-652, 9899492417, 9418860099 
info@spitiecosphere.com www.spitiecosphere.com 

Spiti Holiday Adventure
Ph 01906-222-711, 222-634
loteykaza@yahoo.co.in

Where to stay

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Delek House & Restaurant
New Kaza, near Post Office (01906-222-348/ 94184-48485).  This small hotel, with trees on one side and Spitian mountains on the other, is new and slick. Located in New Kaza, away from the hustle and bustle of the market, Delek House is ideal for peace and quiet. Owner Phunchog Negi has designed the rooms in warm rust, orange and red, and there are great views of the Spiti river.

Dewachen Retreat
Tabo (01906-223-301/223-318/94183-63999/ 94182-8975/ashok80_thakur@yahoo.co.in) Modern style meets old-world ethnic Indian decor. The family suite is the best room in the house. Views from room balconies are stupendous, with the Tabo Monastery as backdrop. A laundry service is available. Guests can enjoy buffet meals in the dining area.

Dhankar Monastery Guesthouse
Dhankar. No phone. Friendly monks run the show here with the help of locals. Their guesthouse is new, with fresh upholstery and simple furniture. Besides the rooms, there is a spacious dormitory on the top floor with large windows facing the valley.

Sakya Abode
New Kaza (01906-222-256/94185-56213/94187-57496) Situated just 50m (164ft) from the Kaza Monastery, this is the only hotel in Kaza built in the local architectural style. Rooms are clean and have basic furniture. Attached bathrooms are reasonably well equipped, with shower and hot water. Sakya is justly famous for its delicious kyu (vegetable barley stew).

Hotel Spiti
Sarai Rangrik (94184-39247/www.spitiholidayadventure.com) Eight kilometres outside Kaza, in Rangrik, Spiti Sarai is known for its excellent hospitality, accommodation and food. The hotel is set amid green fields, and rooms are spacious and well furnished. Owner Ramesh Lotey is extremely resourceful and always around to assist, and staff are knowledgeable and helpful.

Hotel Trojan
(Parasol Camps & Retreats) Tabo (94182-08975/94188-44772/www.himalayantrailsindia.com) Built in traditional style, Trojan tries to be eco-friendly. Tibetan carpets adorn the floors of all rooms, which are decorated with souvenirs from different parts of India. Food includes both Tibetan and European meals. Manager Lama Dechan is also a monastery guide and a fount of information.

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Time Out Explorer, June-August 2012.