It is already dark as I reach the village bus stand of Kwar (2419m). With no permanent shelter, the bus stand is actually a wider portion of the motorway just at the entrance to the main settlement of Kwar. I ask for directions to reach the PWD Rest House. A curious passer by tells me that the Rest House is located on the other side of the village. The only narrow street through the village that barely allows passage of a vehicle takes me to the Dodra – Kwar Sub Divisional secretariat where the Rest House is located. A portion of the Rest House is permanently allocated to the SDM as his residence. The SDM is on leave to celebrate the long weekend with his family. The caretaker has warned me not to indulge in any touristy clamour in the complex otherwise “SDM saab will cancel your booking”. “I am just a silent observer”, I assure him. Tired from the daylong drive and activities, I call it a day after munching on a simple meal of daal and boiled rice.
The sun rises in a clear sky next morning and by half past six; the face of the mountain across the Rupin is fully illuminated with the cheerful rays. On the other side of the valley, the village of Dodra looks like a tiny scrape on the green mountain face hanging below the Chanshal Pass. On the opposite mountain face, the fields appear to be bits and pieces of square that are sometimes red but mostly green. From a distance, the old wooden houses look like microchips placed in a brightly coloured canvas set in the rolling expanse of rocks. The soon-to-be-harvested Amaranth crop adds the fairylike redness to the green scape. As I lower my gaze, cubes of houses become clearer, colours glinting among the plethora of grey, white and beige, speckled with grass and cloths. In between, a spire or pole sticks out of the terrain like a needle. Around me, the moss, ferns, grass and wild flowers are a delight; and shine boundlessly in the morning sun. The morning breeze whispers and chucks itself among unswaying firs, chinars, deodars and walnuts; and only frail branches move. The wind brings fragrance of burning wood and that passes me in an instant.
By seven, Mangal, a young man who works with the SDM’s office turns up to meet me. Sent by the local patwari, whom I met at Dodra the previous evening, he has merrily agreed to take me through the settlement of Kwar. In his helpful company, walking with a backpack and a couple of camera bodies, I wouldn’t be considered an alien, I suppose. Walking up slowly through a settlement and enjoying my anonymity has always been a unique experience for me. Here, I am the only outsider in the valley. It is intensely cold as we begin and even a mild breeze makes us shiver. We hike up the narrow lanes of Kwar, greet every resident we come across and exchange notes, under the shadow of distant ranges in a cloudless sky.
The early morning cold lifts to reveal school-bound children, tight-faced in anticipation of a long day ahead. A few kids, boys mostly, are hesitatingly trudging ahead. Most shops on the street have old-style wooden door shutters that are closed at this early hour. The tea and vegetable shacks are just beginning to open for the day’s business. As warned by the caretaker of the rest house where I am staying, I place an order for lunch in advance. Rajma Rice he confirms! There aren’t many options to eat in the village so one has to really manage his meals by placing an order in advance. You’d be really unlucky if someone, mostly officials and employees on visit who come unannounced, drops in and ask for something to eat before you could get a chance. I was unlucky on two occasions when someone else polished off the limited food which I had ordered for myself. Before I realise, a few villagers are running towards the bus stand where the bus is about to leave for Rohru. The morning bus from Kwar will reach Rohru in the evening on the same day. The road has opened up many possibilities for the local people and likewise the valley is now more accessible to travellers like me. Fortunately, it has not yet taken a heavy toll on the dense forest cover, culture and peace.
The residents are already busy with morning chores; girls cleaning utensils, men tending sheep, boys carrying buckets full of water to store for the day, elderlies setting up the courtyards to dry their ration, nuts and fruits. Men and women from almost every house are off to their fields to get grass and forage for their cattle. Winters are just around the corner and they have to carry extra bulk on their backs to stock for the long season that is fast approaching. Everyone is curious to see a geared up visitor in their village. I do my best to maintain my anonymity. Even Mangal is very supportive. At every turn, he does his best to clear the air about my being and informs his village folks that I am just a travel writer who wishes to write a book on our village – Kwar. Almost everyone instantly acknowledges and agree to share notes. Girls are still shy. There is a hint of wood smoke in the air. With steam pouring out of spouts of kettles; the warm aroma of smoke and steam is mingling with the putrefied stench of rotting garbage and water in the drains. As the noon nears, house ladies, many of whom are now back from the fields, gathers at the community washing point to wash their cloths. This could be any village of the valley, Mangal acknowledges as we trudge ahead.
Not much has been written about the history and cultural aspects of Dodra – Kwar valley. The antecedents of the people of Dodra – Kwar are not available in any written records. Being the inhabited part of the Rupin Valley, a traditionally popular artery that connects the Baspa Valley and the HT Road with the Tons Valley and Dun Vale, the Dodra – Kwar villages were always circuitously connected with the outer world for a substantial part of the year. Yet the beautifully mysterious Dodra – Kwar villages remain almost unheard of outside the Himalayas and little known by those who are part of it. Much of this isolation is down to simple geography. The road may have connected the valley with the main circuit but various primitive traditions, beliefs and superstitions continue to survive and flourish. Folklores are held in awe. Local sources are largely a blend of myth and folklore and the early origins have to be gleaned from the larger story of other Himalayan kingdoms and its surroundings tracts.
With a temple at every village, Hinduism prevails almost in totality. Even though a substantial population is educated and serve in the state administration, animal sacrifices are still a common occurrence. I am particularly interested in observing their temples along with devtantra, traditional costumes, house architecture, life, culture, and customs and not to forget the strange dhaada marriage ceremony. Mangal tells me that dhaada marriages, in which the groom’s family forcibly runs away with a bride of their choice, are no longer a commonplace. The last dhaada happened four years ago. Women, of course, enjoy a better social status in this valley than in most places in India. They can wilfully marry or divorce and remarry without any social disapproval and generally hold their heads higher than conventional Hindu society would allow elsewhere.
Kwar, a village of three panchayats and a few hundred of houses is surrounded by a plenty of fruit orchards towering above a hospitable valley. Hiking up the narrow lanes of Kwar, we reach the courtyard of the Kwar Jakh devta temple. The houses in the valley are almost entirely built of wood, stone, slate and mud; and just as every house, the principal temple is also adorned with notable carvings on the wood. Mangal takes me to a few olden houses of the village. Now abandoned, these multi-storeyed houses belong to the early previous century. Typically five-storeyed, these imposing buildings owe their existence to the harshness of the terrain and the climate. As elsewhere in the valley, the houses are built using locally available materials like stone-filled solid platforms and there is an extensive use of wood. The height of these houses is anything from seven to ten metres above the base constructed on an elaborate, solid and raised platform. Mangal confirms that the sole purpose of these houses was safety and not much attention was paid to the comfort of the inhabitants. It is for reasons like these that people are increasingly abandoning such dwellings in recent times. The ground and the first floor are usually meant for livestock. Dry woods for winter fuel are kept on the top floor. The walls are made of stone without any mortar but the layers of stone are interspersed at regular intervals with wooden beams to provide bondage. The height of a storey is generally about a couple of metres and doorways are even lower. Small apertures, left in the walls, function as windows. Walls are mud plastered on the inside and sometimes have rudimentary drawings of birds, fruits and scenes reflecting everyday occurrences. Narrow verandas, running around three sides of the upper storey are a common feature. The main living room also functions as the kitchen. The thoughtful construction of such houses helps the residents to survive long harsh winters. With warmth trapped inside the structure, the residents don’t need to step outside during long spells of snowfall and can move freely between the floors.
Leaving elderlies to guard, the young residents have left their seasonal agriculture produce to dry in the courtyard before proceeding to their fields. Mangal helps me with local names of the grains that I am not able to identify. I buy a local variety of rajma along with a few kg of chollai and koda at market rates. Agriculture produce comprising indigenous super foods forms the basis of their nutritious and traditional diet. Given the limited ability to grow, procure and process foods at such an enclosed harsh terrain, the frugal nature of the cuisine is but logical. I am happy to have procured some of the food grains I asked. Popular grains include wheat, buckwheat, barley, peas, mustard, bathu, chollai, mandwa, china, ogla, chavru, maize and some varieties of rice, etc. Fafra is one grain which is loved by Himalayan Bears that roam freely in the forests that surround the village. Otherwise, fafra is mostly used to distil liquor at home by the villagers. On festivals and special occasions, villagers consume copious amount of home distilled liquor for days together which is a socially accepted norm here.
Mangal tells me that food habits of the locals are changing drastically with the coming up of road. Nowadays, land is increasingly devoted to production of cash crops like apple, almond and green peas. The government supported public distribution system had brought essential commodities, like wheat, rice, sugar, vegetable oil and pulses to the remotest village in the valley at much reasonable prices. I am a trifle disappointed to hear him say this. The next few days are devoted to exploring the lanes of Kwar, Pujarli and Dodra.
The village of Kwar is 42 km from the Chanshal Pass, which is nearly 50 km from Rohru in district Shimla. Separated by the Rupin, Dodra and Kwar are 22km from each other.
Altitude: 2500 m
Best time to visit: Autumn
Travel Lure: Culture and sylvan charm
Accommodation: Very limited at Kwar