Himachal Pradesh was my backyard when I was growing up in Chandigarh. A chill in the air would make us run to the rooftop to see if it has snowed in Shimla. And if we need to pack ourselves in woolens. When I reached university, we did enough driving trips to Kasauli and around including trekking trips at timber trail. Since it was a stone’s throw away distance, I never ventured beyond Shimla. It remained a state more or less unexplored. Even though I grew up in the foothills of Shivalik ranges of the Himalayas that dominate the state.
At the beginning of the year, I had decided to explore either Himachal or Uttarakhand. As luck would have it, I found the perfect company in fellow traveler and writer Alka Kaushik. We were off to explore the Kinnaur & Lahaul and Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh. I hardly knew anything about these districts except that they are followers of Buddhism primarily. I was keen on exploring the ancient temples both for their Pahadi architecture and uninterrupted traditional practices that they continue to follow. We discovered much more than I had set out to explore – will sit down and write about all of that. To begin with, here are some of the first impressions of this lovely hill state.
Happy & Prosperous Himachal
Himachal Pradesh is a happier state of India. Rich in nature and with a fairly small population, everyone has enough for their needs. In the days that we spent in the state going around Kinnaur, Spiti & Lahaul – we found people happy and smiling. No one cribbed and no one was begging. People we met at tea stalls and in other public places invited us home, sometimes to their villages located many kilometers away. They wanted us to see their villages when we told them we are out to explore the state. Literacy levels are definitely high.
At many places, we were told that Himachal has now left Kerala behind. I came back and checked, well as per 2011 census Kerala is still up there followed my many North Eastern states. But yes the state has made great progress in literacy in the last decade and you can see that when you interact with people.
Since the state is reasonably prosperous, the migration out of Himachal is very low. In fact one evening I tried thinking about the number of Himachali people I have met outside the state. And I could mostly remember my fellow students at Panjab University Chandigarh. We met many big and small entrepreneurs who had studied in Chandigarh or Delhi but have come back to the state after finishing their education. How many states in India can boast of low migration because there is enough to employ the citizens within the state? To add to this the society is primarily agrarian.
Telecommunications was extremely good till Kinnaur and in Spiti, only BSNL worked. Landlines are totally extinct and people seem to have forgotten that they existed ever.
Throughout the trip, we found the minimal use of plastic bags. Everywhere we found cloth bags that can decompose easily even if they are thrown as such. In small villages like Nako, youth clubs take ownership of keeping their villages plastic free and clean. I saw a volunteer pick up the garbage and put it in dustbins as he took me around for the village walk. The eco-consciousness of Himachali’s added a layer of joy to this travel as you feel hopeful – if they can do, so can the rest of India.
We found no large and ultra-luxury hotel chains in this region. While the whole place was geared up quite well to host tourists with homestays and small guesthouses. We stayed in some of the best hotels served by Banjara Camps. And most survived on electricity provided by the state electricity boards. Most did not use generators and the ones who did use generators, used it very judiciously. All water heating was using solar heaters and a lot of lighting was using solar lanterns.
The government seems to be working
I know it sounds oxymoronic, but in the state, there are government efforts that are hard to ignore. In the smallest village with a population of even 100, we found a primary school. In slightly larger villages there are high schools though I wondered if they had enough children in the village to attend school. Most remote villages like Tabo and Dhankar we saw helipads. We were told that in the case of emergency people are evacuated for a nominal fee. Going by the standards of government services in the rest of the country, this was a pleasant discovery. Outside each village, a board announces the name of the village, its population and other vital statistics like height at which it is located. Where else in the country do we see this?
Almost every home has a solar heater provided at subsidized rates by the government. Bringing down the need for electricity drastically in the cold environment.
Look at the issues that Government advertisements talk about…
Read my First Impressions of following countries:
Learning from the Locals
I observed and learned a few things from Himachali’s. Everyone wore layers of clothes, including a layer of warm clothing like a coat. Or wrapped around the shawl even when the sun was shining brightly. They always cover their head with a cap or a scarf. No, there is no cultural or religious significance (that shows in their choice of colors of style and you will read in my subsequent posts). This is to protect the sensitive parts of the body from temperature changes.
Everyone walks at a slow rhythmic pace like a horse. In fact, when people saw me climbing at a speed and then stopping to catch my breath, I was repeatedly told – walk like a horse – short rhythmic steps at a steady pace – irrespective of incline you are on. After hearing it a few times, I sat back and observed how the Himachalis walk. Yes, they all took small steps and yes there was a rhythm that their feet followed. No wonder they walk so much without getting tired or without exhausting themselves. Is that not how we need to move too in life – slow & steady, enjoying the rhythm of our pace and steps.
One of my main motives of traveling through the state was to explore the ancient Pahadi temples both for their architecture and their relevance in the lives of local Himachali people. I ended up discovering so many temples with different types of architecture related to well-known and not so well-known mythological tales. Temples had the unique Pahadi style yet some of the iconographic features were so common. And related to other styles that you can never set them apart. A perfect example of having one’s own identity while being a part of a family.
I saw a lovely confluence and Hinduism and Buddhism in all temples in Himachal. They exist as one faith there.
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No fear of Death
On those most treacherous roads on the earth, Death could have been a moment away. At lots of sharp turns, river crossings, hiking paths, stone driveways – death was never too far, but it did not scare me at all. For what could have been a better death than merging with the mighty Himalayas or let one of the torrential rivers take you along or maybe let glaciers hide you for centuries to come. But no, I had to live to tell you these stories, so I am back but it was one place where I was not scared of death, not for a moment. I was scared of many other things but not death, it must have been an impact of Himalayas I guess.
The World must be Small Place
In the Spiti valley, we were more or less alone all the time. Villages were far apart and when we did reach the villages, population wise they were smaller than the societies we live in. In Chandratal, the remotest part of Lahaul & Spiti I met an ex-colleague from Infosys who was a part of biking group. After ages, I ended up getting some corporate gossip about common people we knew. The World must be a very small place.
Rajma Chawal is the staple diet. You will get it in all places – by the roadside, at college canteen, at guesthouses, and at homes. Interestingly they call Rajma – daal. I enjoyed this simple North Indian dish after a long time.
Sparrows and Crows are found at all altitudes. We did not see too many birds throughout our 1200+ km’s route. But sparrows and crows were in abundance no matter what the altitude was, no matter it was a valley or a peak or even a riverside.
Video of Drive to Chandratal, Spiti Valley
Watch my video in HD mode, get a feel for the glaciers, terrain, landscapes, treacherous roads and Chandratal, the blue lake.
Kinnaur, Lahaul & Spiti are best seen and experienced in their unique landscape that changes with each twist and turns off-road and river. I will take you through each of them as I write this series on this unique region of India. Dominated by ancient temples and monasteries as much as by rivers that feed the plains of India.
Recommend you to read the following places to visit in the state on my Travel Blog.
Apple out to prosperity – Story of Himachal Apple.