In 1993, having slogged quite a bit in the Personnel Wing of the department, we decided to take a break and a holiday. We had covered most of the hill stations by the 1990s but we had not been to Manali. I had heard about Kulu and Manali when I was still in the College. As the trip was difficult not many would attempt it. We had a family friend who used to be a very good artist. He was most probably from Karnataka but was trained in Santiniketan when Tagore was around. He was so intensely influenced by Bengali culture that he would wear nothing other than hoti and kurta which Bengalis call Panjabi. Having heard about the colourful Dussehra of Kulu he decided to take a trip and came back and told us about the beauty of the place. This must have been in very early 1950s.
Since then Kulu Valley was on my mind but could never make it – even when I was in Chandigarh. This time we decided to spend a week there and in order to have more time there we did not take the surface route. Indian Airlines had introduced a flight from Delhi to Bhuntar which is about 10 kilometres away from Kulu. We took this opportunity and flew to Kulu, Of course, the flight was risky as the plane after leaving the plains of Punjab had to fly between two hills.
Occasionally the hillsides came pretty close to the wing tips even though it was a small turbo prop plane. Obviously the passage chosen by the pilot was narrow and perhaps was tricky. But the flight was uneventful though not devoid of anxiety.
Kulu is a temple town and was known as “Dev Bhoomi” (God’s own land). There are temples from where one can get a panoramic view of the valley. There are numerous temples that crowd around the place – some are in the valley and numerous on the hillsides. But we were not really interested in temples and hence we pushed off straight towards Manali. On the way, however, we stopped to take a look at the trout farm. Trouts were introduced here by the British and they flourished here as well as in Kashmir. I therefore saw a trout for the first time after leaving Kashmir five years ago. I had even had a piece of grilled trout along with friends. The farm seemed to be doing well and it had a burgeoning population of the fish.
Manali town turned out to be haphazardly built overgrown village. It is here you see the effects of unplanned urbanization. And yet it is full of foreigners, especially Israelis. One would come across foreigners almost everywhere. I came across a white man getting a haircut and a shave in high noon by the side of what might be called a main road. The barber had nailed a looking glass on a tree trunk and had placed a chair in front with a small table by his side for keeping his instruments. A typical rustic setting that one comes across in rural India.
There was nothing much to do in Manali except enjoying the very pleasant climate. We made a trip to the river side, the river being Beas, one of Panjab’s five rivers. On another day we walked up to the Circuit House near which there was a dense growth of trees. Manali seems to have lost a lot of trees and hence this place near the Circuit House has become a sight to be seen. The place, indeed, looks quite bereft of trees.
We had to do the very popular tourism sight of Rohtang Pass. One cannot really go across this more than 13000 ft high pass. It is open only up to a point for tourists who want a little feel of the Alpine climate and snow laden mountains. But we came across snow fields, small though they were, very soon after we left Manali. The winter had been harsh and snow was littered all around even in late April. Himachal Tourism has provided certain places on the way for fun and frolic for children. The Pass was closed and naturally we could not approach it. Now the road through Rohtang is an alternative route for Leh but one can face a traffic jam right at Rohtang because of heavy traffic of Army vehicles, commercial heavy vehicles and tourist vehicles. And one has to obtain a permit to travel on this road to Rohtang. Tourists get the permit for only a day.
We also took a trip to Naggar, a town on the north bank of Beas River a short distance away from Manali. It used to be the capital of Kulu State at one time. It has a castle built by the former king which is now converted into a heritage hotel. Devika Rani and her husband Svetoslav Roerich had a house here which is now a Museum. It mostly contains his landscapes. He was known also as portrait painter and his portrait of Nehru is hung in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament.
From Naggar I could see down below a temple in the valley. The temple was like any another temple but smaller in proportion. What was peculiar about it that it was made of slate grey stones. On the way I had seen several structures – domestic and commercial – of this grey coloured slate stones. Construction of houses with these stones would not perhaps present many difficulties but to erect a temple, complete with its pointed spire, must have been very a labour intensive process hundreds of years ago.