We also visited the Nyingamapa Gompa & Gadhan Theckchoking Gompa- Tibetan Monasteries, which are both done in bright colors with mammoth statues of the Buddha enshrined.
Nearby, we shopped a bit and I couldn’t resist the woody fragrance of the Potala Palace incense sticks. The shops here are glutted with Tibetan handicrafts and Chinese herbs.
NOTE: It’s advisable to shop near Vashisht Springs, as the rates ‘were’ slightly cheaper. However, be warned, that you may not find the same stuff in all areas of Himachal Pradesh. Some curios are found only in Manali. But, for Tibetan artifacts, Dharamshala is a better stop.
After a brief afternoon siesta, we re-visited Hadimba Temple and drove to Manali Mall area for a shopping spree. Laden with Kashmir Kurtis and Salwars, I was satiated for the day -having swooped down on the prettiest of things that caught my attention. A beautiful moss green sari with traditional Kashmir embroidery found its place in my wardrobe.
Note: very close to the temple are numerous shops selling Kurtis and other knick-knacks. But, the ones that are sold in shops at the Mall area are of finer quality.
23rdOctober ’08 Day-4 Rohtang Pass
We were warned about the hectic pace of the day. Two other honeymooning couples joined us in the Qualis. En route we halted at a shop, where a very charming Tibetan woman rented out rain-coats and gumboots. There was something about the lady. Unlike other Pahadi women, she wasn’t fair, but she was beautiful, with a flawless complexion & her smile…her smile had the power to light up any weary soul! I had half a mind to request her to pose with me but dismissed the thought. I wish I had. Her seraphic smile only mirrored her inner bliss. Perhaps it has something to do with the place.
We went our way. Hawkers selling saffron pursued us till we bought a small box full.
NOTE: It’s advisable to rent raincoats. I’m sure none wants to remain in wet clothes, caused by melting snow.
So, swathed in layers and layers of clothes, we finally reached Rohtang Pass, only 45 kilometers from Manali, but which took us 3 hours to reach, thanks to the hilly terrain.
Rohtang La (Pass) on the eastern route of Pir Panjal Range connects Kullu with Lahaul and Spiti Valleys. At the foot-hills we could trace the flow of water that remained frozen!
Some straddled grazing steeds, while many nimbly raced uphill. I, preferred to plod on my own. Many times our feet sunk in and I was reminded to follow my guide’s foot-steps. Ambareesh had already begun his first skiing lessons!
The brilliant rays of the sun were matchless against the stillness of snow-white stretches! I had the presence of mind to wear my goggles. Rohtang Pass is covered in snow throughout the year, come shine, come rain.
Suddenly, some ice crept into my boots and for a few moments, I thought my toes may need to be amputated! I found a slab of flat rock, (thank God for small mercies), shook off the snow from my boots and rested awhile, only to find specks of snow on my neck -hurled at me..
Atop the mountain, were natives making Maggi and piping hot chai, which remain hot only on the stove. Within seconds of holding the glass, it would turn cold! Hats off to the striving men, who pushed us as we skated, and the magi & chai walas, who have to daily make this laborious journey to Rohtang Pass!
Experts will gladly teach you to ski for a small fee, of course. But it’s worth the trouble, for the merriment that goes with gliding along fluffy white snow is immeasurable. We played for about 3 hours and by 4 pm, the hawkers began to pack! Post-October, none stays back after 4 pm!
24th October’08 DAY-5 Kullu Valley and Manikaran
We drove down to Kullu Valley (Kulantpitha-meaning ‘the end of the habitable world) and along the way, stopped at a divine temple of Chaamunda Devi. It was a simple yet strikingly beautiful temple, with the idols sculpted in marble. The temple is dedicated to the 3 deities-Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga. The smiling faces of the Goddesses were so assuring that they evoked a divine ambience, and the prevailing silence was so soothing, that it was indeed hard for us to leave the precincts.
We shopped for shawls in the Kullu Shawl factory. Our next halt was at Manikaran, famous for its hot Sulphur Springs! Nestled in the Parvati Valley, Manikaran is a pilgrim spot equally popular amongst Hindus as well Sikhs.
Here’s where the Beas River gushes forth blowing hot and cold! The river changes temperature, where it’s boiling hot in one place and just a few feet away, icy-cold!! It’s simply remarkable to see the natives cooking ‘dal’ and rice grains by merely putting a potful of grains or tying grains in a muslin cloth and dipping them in the boiling hot springs. Voila, you have cooked food in minutes! What a way to save fuel!!
Who said there’s no free lunch?
We stopped to pray at the Shiva and Ram temples and the Gurudwara here. Who said there’s no free lunch? As is the custom, we saw people flocking to the Gurudwara for free lunch (Langar)!
NOTE: Although all gurudwaras provide free lunch, it’s advisable for one to donate a decent sum, as your humble contribution does make a difference.
Last on our day’s plan was ‘Angora Rabbit Farm’. Honestly, driving for about 20 minutes just to see the caged rabbits was a waste of time. Moreover, I didn’t relish the idea that these creatures are perpetually trapped, so that man could chop its fleece to warm himself! The lady cage keeper, when questioned by me, claimed that this breed of rabbits doesn’t know how to live in a forest and thus preferred to be caged!
Each time we crossed the connecting bridge, we couldn’t help alighting to capture the beauty. The bridge with the babbling Beas below is a spot favored by tourists who love to catch snapshots of the scene yonder!
Frolicking like a cheerful maiden, as she gushes forth striding over the numerous pebbles, the Beas River certainly seemed to keep us company wherever we went, and yet, she charted her own course, unmindful of where she left us, for so sure was she that, wherever she went, we would have to keep pace with her. One moment she seemed to be lost, and as we held our breath in hot pursuit, she’d emerge with the same force, from nowhere!
25th October’08 Day-6 Palampur (with our friends)
On 25th October, we reluctantly drove to Palampur-a good 6 hours drive. Driving via Mandi, the fascinating magic of Himachal again began to unfurl. Rugged hills dotted with majestic pines are a constant here. The Beas too disappeared suddenly, but our driver assured us that there was more to Himachal.
We reached Palampur at sundown. Palampur – a valley sprinkled with terraced tea gardens bordered by the mighty Dhauladhar Peaks.
We were eager as there were stories to be recounted and exchanged, with our friends. Nothing beats a vacation that has thrilling tales to regale. We stayed at our family friends’ native home. They live in the opposite complex back in Mumbai.
The cold weather notwithstanding, we managed to visit the village Shivji temple. Except for the occasional sound of a passing vehicle, this peaceful town echoed with sounds of silence!
26th October’08 Day-7 Neugal Castle, Baijnath Temple, Chamunda Devi Temple, Dharamshala
We woke up and were led by our friends to the terrace of their house. There before our eyes lay the most spectacular scene-the snow-capped Dhauladhar peaks! Imagine! You look out of your windows only to be greeted by tall titanic snow-clad peaks! Awestruck, I couldn’t resist gaping at the breathtaking beauty before me!
Our first visit for the day was to Neugal castle, a quaint yet charming wooden house which is built as an eatery. The green of the lawn broke into a riot of colors, been fed with the waters of a narrow brook. Marigolds in flaming orange, snow-white roses and yellow pansies vied with each other. At the backdrop was the magnificent snow-capped Dhauladhar!
The children enjoyed splashing water and sullying their pants in wet mud and we let them be.
Next was the Bundla Mata temple & aloft a hill -the Khakni Mata temple, which was under renovation. Simple pleasures of life are the things that truly endear. A flock of sheep was being herded by the native Gaddi women. Don’t sheep and mountains often go together?
A visit to Palampur is incomplete without a visit to the famed Baijnath temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva as the healer or physician (Vaidyanatha). Within, is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas. The shikra is a typical North Indian one and the temple is known to have been built by Pandavas, during their exile!
Interestingly, this is one place where Dusshera is never celebrated, as Ravana is known to have meditated upon a Jyotirlinga here. Our friends pointed out to the exact spot where Ravana had meditated.
Dotting the fields were houses with roofs plastered with ‘slate like’ slabs, rendering a unique and romantic look!
Whenever we traveled, the rain Gods always chose to shower on us! Our first trip after marriage, to Kodaikanal, was marked with heavy showers in Cuddalore & Tanjore during late April! All our subsequent vacations were marked with rains & this trip was no exception. By 3 pm, the car screen had tiny droplets of ice. We got off at Chamuda Devi temple-Dharamshala, when we experienced the slight blizzard. It was freezing outside.
I had no choice but to murmur ‘Rain Rain go Away’, perhaps for the first time in my life..
Chamunda Devi Temple
24 kms from Kangra Valley, on the banks of Baner River, is the splendid Chamunda Devi temple, with the 16 incarnations of Devi adorning the walls of the sanctum santorum. Legend has it that this 700 year old temple is the spot where the demon brothers Chanda and Munda were slain by the Goddess.
Sporting a beatific smile, the Goddess seemed to radiate a certain glow!
Stalls selling books, handicrafts & images of the deity will take up some of your time & it’s worth your while.
I find my match!
During a trip to Goa, I had found a stunning necklace, strung in round Fuchsia Pink stones. For a year I couldn’t manage to find matching earrings. In a nondescript shop in Dharamshala, I found an exact match.
Tsuk la khang monastery
We drove to McLeod Ganj. The place, throbbing with shops selling curios & gimcracks, is quite touristy. With the Deodhars soaring to touch the skies, the peeking peaks of snow-cloaked Dauladhar, and monks draped in burgundy robes, Dharamshala is indeed a sensational place to be in!
The Namgyal Monastery is where His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides & we longed to catch a glimpse of His Holiness, but were informed that a written permission was needed. While returning, we spotted a troop of police with rifles and I suppose the seer was out on some mission.
The Tsuglagkhang lies opposite the private residence and enshrined within are the huge golden colored images of Shakyamuni, Avalokiteshwara & Padmasambhava! The temple complex itself is immaculate & the prayer halls vast, resounding with a divine quietude. Some statues were encased in glass, while others looked resplendent in gilded metal. Freshly cut flowers placed in ornate vases and butter lamps & incense, cast a celestial ambience & we couldn’t but sit in quiet contemplation.
Those who spoke, spoke in hushed tones. Encased in glass were a thousand scriptures-treasure-troves of Tibetan secrets-Tibetan Tantra, medicine, astrology, black hat etc!!
We drove through the Khotwali Bazar, lined with book-shops & shops selling fascinating Tibetan wares like Thankas, prayer wheels, incense, wall-hangings, wind-chimes and feng shui objects.
Note: It’s wise to park your car closer to the monastery & walk down to finish your shopping. Dharamshala is a shopper’s paradise, so don’t fail to indulge!
We were told about the great artist Mr. O.P Tak’s residence! It was a humble cottage adorned with murals hand-painted by the Master himself. The minute details of flora, fauna and women were so intricately done, that his attention to detail was amazed us. Mr. O.P Tak showed us those paintings that were patronized by star hotels and galleries.
Kangra miniature paintings depicting kings, queens, lovers, flowers etc are simply marvelous, so do visit his modest gallery, which boasts of only the bare minimum essentials apart from his paraphernalia. Because the enthralling visual treats are gems hidden in files and newspapers.
We returned to Palampur for the night.
Note: Dharamshala certainly merits a few day’s stopover. You will not regret it.
27th October ’08 Day-8 Dalhousie
The next morning, we bade good-bye to our friends. Exchanging notes have to wait till we reach Mumbai.
We reached Dalhousie by 1 pm. As we drove to this ancient British hill-station full of colonial facades, ‘Dauladhar Inn’, ‘Dauladhar Palace’, ‘Vatika Resorts’ etc were the banners on view. The most striking feature however is the distinct Victorian styled architecture sprinkling the landscape.
The biting cold was a bit scary. We checked in & lunched at a Gujarathi Hotel! The Kanda Poha wasn’t as tasty as it is in Amchi Mumbai, but the lemon tea was refreshing.
That evening, I again shopped to my heart’s content. ‘Little Lhasa’ in Gandhi Chowk sells wares made by Tibetan refugees. Kullu shawls, Kashmir Kurtis, Tibetan handicrafts, wooden trays et al , found their way into my bag.
28th October’08 Day 9 Khajjiar, Chamba
The Dauladhar ranges clad in snow followed us all through our journey to Dalhousie and even in and around Dalhousie. The ridge at Subhash Baoli offers an unobscured view. And for this reason, we preferred walking the entire stretch.
The tall fir trees looked so majestic-, like a young maid back home after a clandestine meeting with her lover, her overcoat dripping wet with drops of rain-water!
While maneuvering our way to Khajjiar, the next morning, there was a certain joy that we couldn’t comprehend. As we meandered, surrounded by soaring Pines, Firs, Deodars, Oaks and Rhododendrons, we suddenly felt diminutive. The heady scent of Pine mingled with the silence of the woods creating an unusual mood that was simply numinous, mysterious..
While engaging in small talk with our driver, he mentioned one thing that I can never forget! “Madam, Khajjiar aisi jagah hai, jisme aap bilkul kho jayenge. Jee kabhi bharega nahin.” And how absolutely right he was!! His exclamation had at first seemed quite hackneyed.
This saucer shaped emerald mead enveloped by Cedar trees with a lake in the center, looks all the more enchanting when dotted with fluffy white grazing sheep.
Believe me, you will not be able to tear yourself from this place! Silent with only muffled voices of tourists, this is a place where time stands still! Khajjiar is a soothing haven, a paradise into which you’d retreat even years after you get down to Earth!
In the immense plains of Khajjiar, Zorbing is a sport that many indulge in. My son and I were game for it. So we walked into a huge transparent rubber ball that was rolled over the meadows with our limbs strapped inside. With each movement the ball made, I had several near-death experiences! My son’s pleas for help and my earnest request made the guy stop zorbing us around. It took us a few minutes to find our semblance, for even minutes after you land, you’d feel giddy.
Caveat: Zorbing is meant only for the intrepid traveler.
Photographers followed us and we got several clicked, attired in Himachal costumes.
Even today, the sound of the word ‘KHAJJIAR’ evokes quiet mirth and peace!
Before we bade adieu to Khajjiar, I stopped to soak in the spell-binding beauty and lushness and let my eyes lurk at every nook and niche of Khajjiar. And even to this day, like the press of a button, the scene flashes before my eyes, unfailingly.
28th October’08 Chamba
Terrace Farming is often practiced in Himachal Pradesh, owing to the undulating natural tapestry. Terraced slopes have a distinct charm of their own.
Diwali! And Chamba was crowded. Chamba situated on the banks of Ravi River is a charming little town that’s sparsely populated.
Named after Princess Champavati the daughter of King Sahil Verman, Chamba also boasts of the Champavati Temple. The temple’s Shikara and profuse stone carvings will keep you glued to your camera.
The temple’s gabled roofs (wooden roofs) against the backdrop of the Shah Madar hill ranges looked splendid and remote, archetypal of abodes that abound hills! However, this is one of its kind in Chamba, because all other temples in the region are built of stone.
Do visit the Lakshminarayan Temple which dates back to the 11th century! The Lakshminarayan Temple is another stunning masterpiece with some of the finest wood carvings, dating back to the 8th century! It is a group of 6 temples, each built in the Shikhara style, with profuse stone and wood carvings.
The antediluvian feel of the temples can be quite profound, given the remoteness of the place, the cold weather and absence of devotees.
Note: People may dissuade you from visiting these temples, but believe me, travelling to these temples steeped in history, will surely be an intriguing experience!
We drove along the bridge that spanned across Ravi River. This patch of teal of the seemingly placid river from up above made us halt for awhile. This was the tranquil part of the river. Our driver assured us that we would soon be dipping our feet into its waters.
Post lunch, as promised we halted at the banks of Ravi. Gosh! We had stepped onto a carpet of white & grey pebbles in all shapes and sizes. The gurgling Ravi lay beyond this stretch of pebbles.
It was cold and the only way to tread further was to step barefoot on the pebbles. This was COLD STONE THERAPY! Nevertheless, we walked the mile, for the gushing river had already cast its spell on us.
The river rushed swiftly, spraying its cold waters on the banks. Grey clouds cast their shadows over the scene and the winter sun peeped through the veil of clouds to witness the spectacle!
Wary of the force, I perched myself on a rock and dipped one barefoot into the water! Good Lord, It was icy cold!!
The silvery waters matched the silver lining of the clouds above and we lingered soaking in the wondrous scene.
It was perfect; idyllic…I cupped my hands into the waters and drank to my heart’s content. Refreshed instantly, I sipped more. Those exhilarating moments are still entrenched in our memory.
The driver had to remind us of the approaching dusk and so unwillingly we retreated into the cozy confines of the waiting car. Gazing longingly at the flowing river as long as it was in sight, we proceeded.
Adjoining was a lovely patch of green sprinkled with marigold blossoms. A babbling waterfall cascading on pebbles completed the picture. The sun cast its golden glow on the horizon and we sadly but gratefully packed off.
29thOctober’08 To Vaishnodevi Shrine
Overnight we decided to visit Vaishnodevi! Boarded a bus to Pathankot, reached the same afternoon, had our grub and took a van to Khatra (near Jammu). We reached Khatra around 7 pm. After a sumptuous dinner at 10 pm we commenced our trek to the shrine!
We thought bravely but foolishly that the 14 km ascent would be over in a jiffy!! We clambered uphill maintaining a continuous speed for a couple of hours, resting in between for Limca! En route were shops selling holy books, photo studios showcasing nymph like Kashmiri damsels. There were mules carrying old and young alike!
Shouts of ‘Jai Mata Di’ greeted us everywhere, binding pilgrims from all walks of life. An instant camaraderie prevailed, erasing the consciousness of caste and creed. We were Hindus first!
Come nightfall and the view of the valley from the top cast another allure. The valley scintillated with thousands of lamps.
Note: Helicopter service is available albeit during the day. So, it’s wise to journey during the day in case you plan to fly. And to think that it takes just 10 minutes to reach the shrine where it took us the entire night! But shouldn’t journeys spell of adventure? Nevertheless, we were the lucky few who got to attend the first Aarthi of the day for a full 1 hour, just outside the Devi’s abode!
30th October’08 Pindi Darshan
We managed to catch 40 winks and reached the temple gates exactly at 5:45 am! At 6 am sharp, the bells chimed and we got Darshan of the Holy Goddess-Vaishnodevi. Getting a glimpse of the 3 stone idols venerated throughout the country, seemed an overwhelming feat! The Pindis were emplaced within a cave. The hymn ‘Aihiri Nandini’, in praise of the Goddess, rent the air and the North Indian style of the hymn sounded a bit different to our ‘South Indian’ ears.
Nearby was another majestic statue of Mahishsuramardhini beaming in brass! Her radiant smile spelt nothing but benevolence! A visit to Vaishnodevi definitely merits a revisit, but more on that later.
Refreshed and certain that our wishes would be granted by Vaishnodevi, we started descending, which took more than 5 hours!
We were tired, sleepy and drained. Sleep overcame us even in the rickshaw that took us to the room. We dined, hit the sack and slept like babies. Just imagine we hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours!!
30th October’08 To Amritsar
Next morning saw us boarding a bus to Amritsar. We reached Amritsar at 5 am.
As a kid I had visited this shrine and recounting my experience to my son made the journey more memorable. We spent a brief minutes, as we had a train to catch that would transport us back into reality-Mumbai.
Best Time to Visit: While tourists head for the hills to escape the sweltering heat of the plains, we preferred the start of winter. December & January are the best time to witness snowfall; January being the coldest month of the year.
But if you prefer to have a private communion with Nature or desire family-time then early winter is the right time.
This is one place that remains etched in my memory and into which I often delve as a means of escapism. Not that I’ve not peeked into other snowy peaks, but the sublime magic of Himachal is simply out of the world! It’s as if Nature has reserved the best and bestowed her best bounties here. While Himachal’s bucolic beauty is breathtaking, it’s the charming ‘feel’ that captivates, enchants and binds us in its spell.
It was indeed a phenomenal trip & even to this day, if there’s any place I yearn to spend a few days in, it is only Himachal Pradesh. ..
As we trundled past hills and vales, there was only one song that echoed in the inner recesses of my mind…Bharat Vyaas’ wordings…
“Haree haree wasundharaa pe neelaa neelaa ye gagan
ke jis pe baadalon kee paalakee udaa rahaa pawan
dishaayen dekho rangabharee, chamak rahee umang bharee
ye kis ne phool phool pe kiyaa singaar hai
ye kaun chitrakaar hai, ye kaun chitrakaar
ye kaun chitrakaar hai.. ..”