Centred around the exuberant hillside of Rajgarh tehsil (1580m) in Sirmaur district of the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, where many of the finest fruits of European orchards are cultivated, my latest spontaneous escapade combined all the indispensable ingredients of hillside travelling – views, heritage, culture, spirituality, wildlife, food, lounge, treks and trails.
Coming from Chandigarh; the state highway to Rajgarh via Ochhghat and Giripul branches off the NH 22 at Solan. The market of Rajgarh is about 100 km from Chandigarh and nearly 40 km from Solan. Thanks to my birder friend, Sarabjit Singh who has been a regular into the area, the information I needed for Rajgarh valley was organised easily. The hilly tract of Sirmaur spread from Shimla-Solan in the north-west to Garhwal-Dun Valley in the east and located north of the Ganges has always been historically significant. Over the past thousand years, the administration of Sirmaur changed hands several times among the local chieftains, Thakurs, Rajputs, Mughals, Gurkhas, Sikhs as well as the British; leaving tales and a rich history behind. During the freedom movement, the region also figured in the popular Pachhota movement. A place of note, the fort of Raja Sirmaur at Rajgarh unfortunately got destroyed in an accident in 1960. As of now, a majority of the residents are from the Khash Rajput Clan of Rajasthan and are occupied with cultivation of fruits and vegetables.
Popularly known as the Peach Bowl of Asia, the credit for which largely goes to the first government of the state led by Dr YS Parmar, the valley of Rajgarh is nevertheless still struggling to find a permanent place in the circuitry of “tourism”. The fruit cultivation in the valley did necessitate the state government to construct a network of metalled roads connecting the major settlements. However, to me, the only downside of venturing into the area was to deal with potholed (although wider) roads. Curving on the wooded mountain faces, the motorway looked pretty to eyes but only from a distance.
Leave aside the bumpy roads and look for apricots and peaches which are abundant round every inhabited spot; or plethora of cultivated berries, pears, mulberries and a variety of nuts often the only occupation of local populace. The wooded crags are the favourite haunt of birds of prey while other species nestle on the tall trees; and at the slightest panic, myriads of small fowls rush out of the shrubbery adding to the animation of the scene by their hurried flight. The traditional slate-roofed hutments, a highly picturesque traditional architecture, heighten the beauty of the landscape. As we climb higher towards Nohradhar, pines give way to deodar as the Himalayan shrubbery dot the hillside.
The lush green valley is not only visually appealing but also serves to be a good place for trekking and ridgetop camping. The stretch of the Giri River near Giripul, a little before Rajgarh, is popular for angling activities. A few enterprising locals have recently set up paragliding as well as rock climbing craft and services in the valley. Of late, several excellent camps and properties have come up in the vicinity of the settlement of Rajgarh cashing in the growing accommodation needs. Unlike the northern Himachal, the valley is accessible throughout the year. Nonetheless, visiting Rajgarh after the monsoon season has its own visual charm when the valley adorns a vibrant cover with the forests getting thicker and greener. Moreover by that time the maddening traffic driven by the seasonal peach season gets off the road; as also the marketplace hustling with hullabaloo of traders and cranking sound of diesel engines.
It was late-evening already when we reached the market of Rajgarh before last week. A cool darkness had descended upon the street as I asked for directions to the Forest Department Rest House, a two-room basic affair. Apart from a plan to climb the Churdhar Peak, the highest peak of lower Himalayas, we had not figured out what to do with our time in the valley. We had already visited the Dolanji Menri monastery on the way from Solan and planned to go to an all women enterprise at village Bhuira the coming morning.
The FRH is a couple of kilometre away from the market. Next morning, we again descended to the market for fruits-breakfast. Like elsewhere in the Himalayas, the material impact of globalisation was well appercipient. Next to a matchbox-shaped fruit-shop, menfolk dressed in kurta pyjamas sipping their morning teas stood chatting with each other; womenfolk in salwar-suits that looked inspired from Punjab while the younger ones wore jeans casuals as their eyes remained glued to flashy mobile screens. Collecting some more fruits in a newspaper-packet, we left for Noradhar; intending to visit a popular fruit processing unit at village Bhuira on the way.
What started as a kitchen experiment in her modest farm house at village Bhuira, today Linnet Mushran’s small-scale food processing unit successfully sells more than 27 varieties of Jams, Chutneys, Preserves, Jellies as well as Marmalades and employs over 100 women. Hugged by a wooded cover of tall deodars, her humble acre-large orchard that spills with a riot of flowers and at the same time commanding a sweeping view rippling up to Chail mountains was truly an idyllic setting for an enterprise like hers.
Linnet was out of town when we reached the manufacturing unit of “Bhuira Jams” but her staff took complete ownership of the operations and more than made up for her absence. Donning white hair caps along with plain colourful jackets, her staff was devoted to the roles assigned to them by Linnet when we reached there. The lady in charge showed us around. The campus was well maintained and flawlessly clean. We were allowed to take a look at the processes of jam making through a large windowpane. Available at most leading grocery stores pan India including the likes of retail brands such as Fab India, appreciatively the Bhuira products are available at a discount where they are born. I bought a carton full of available varieties.
Down below towards the left, an olden temple-like structure caught our attention. We decided to make a visit to the tiny settlement where the temple was prominently noticeable. Driving through a wooded cover, we turn up on a dirt track which led to the settlement. A few minutes later, we were inside the courtyard of the stone and wood temple that was dedicated to Shirgul devta, the lord of Churdhar and the chief deity of the valley. The tower-styled main temple was built, employing the traditional Khasha architecture, on a raised platform. The doorway had numerous coins nailed on its frame; said to be signifying the answered prayers. The residence of priest, who was out of station that day, was at the back of the temple.
An hour later we were on our way to Noradhar, the base to climb the Churdhar peak. On the way we drove through some real lush green terraced fields. The bumpy ride to the base took about an hour at a leisurely pace.
Average Altitude: 1600 m
Best time to visit: Autumn to Spring
Travel Lure: Bird-life, Wooded trails and other similar soft adventures
Accommodation: Limited but usually available