Just as Chennai and its suburbs are recovering from incessant spell of rains, I am on my way to Puducherry for an extended weekend. Ready to precipitate anytime, dark grey clouds follow me as I drive south of Chennai along the Coromandel Coast on the East Coast Road (ECR) to reach the heritage town of Puducherry. The day is about to end as I reach my pre-booked accommodation at the coastal town that was once French India.
Even though, this is going to be my first visit to Puducherry, the allure of colonial era still retained by this town on the east coast of India has been stirring my imagination from much earlier. Not many places in India can cast as magnetic a spell on you; especially by sheer virtue of not only their geographical location or colonial antecedents, as this indistinctly populated, multicultural town located on a cyclone-ravaged coast of south India.
Having polished off a sumptuous evening meal at the popular South Indian restaurant Surguru, located just next to the multi-storeyed hotel where I am staying, I retire early, exhausted. I wish to devote the next two days in exploring the lanes and streets of the pleasantly peaceful and harmonious Pondy. In spite of the linguistic overabundance at Puducherry, home to natives from 55 different language speaking regions and that Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, French and English are the five official languages of this Union Territory, there exists absolute cordiality. Almost all streets of the town are dotted with precincts of a temple or a colourful church or a mosque. Many temples in this heritage city are multiple centuries old even as a few churches date back to the end of the seventeenth century. Irrespective of their origin or religion, people from all walks of life join the conversations and festivals which are recurring all through the year. For reasons like these, the town has been growing into a repository of art as well as culture.
Next morning, I pick up a city map from the hotel lobby and set out for a daylong excursion through the streets of oval-shaped Puducherry. When exploring the spirit of a city like Puducherry, it becomes all the more important to take a walk through the main streets of the town including the olden part and closely observe its architectural traditions. Over the course of next two days, I clock more than 20km of walking distance. The sunflower-coloured streetscapes of the town indeed have a unique appeal that enthrals the travellers. Even the numbering of houses is a peculiarity here; with odd numbers on the one side and even numbers on the opposite side, I face no issues in reaching the lesser frequented heritage destinations.
The prevailing architecture of Pondy town is an ensemble of French and Tamil houses. Intersected by a storm water canal, the town is bisected into French and Tamil quarters. Facing the sea, the French quarter, earlier called the White Town, has structures in the European classical style; whereas the buildings in the Tamil quarter, called the Black Town, are in the vernacular style of Tamil Nadu. Influenced by each other, today many structures – especially the newer ones – in both parts of the town are a harmonious blend of European and Tamil architectural patterns. A few NGOs are engaged in restoring the traditional houses, especially the Tamil ones even as the olden part of Pondy facing onto the Bay of Bengal retains much of its traditional French character. The 1.5km long chief promenade of the town, Goubert Avenue runs parallel to the sea alongside the French section.
In order to try and understand the evolution of streets and the important landmarks of Pondy, it becomes paramount to have some basic knowledge about the history of the town. An employee of the Legislative Assembly of Puducherry, Balaji, who is also associated with INTACH as a volunteer, is my associate and guide for the day. Initially, it sounds a little boring but as we proceed on the streets, making mental note of the landmarks we come across, curiosity increases manifolds. The town was previously called Pondicherry, the French interpretation of the original Tamil word Puducherry, which means a new village. Just a few kilometres from the town is the historical site of Arikamedu, where proof of trade with Romans that flourished in the first century exists. During those days, the trade included dyed textiles, pottery and semi-precious stones, many of which are on display at the Pondicherry Museum. Centuries later, Pondy became a part of the Empires of Pallavas, the Cholas and the Pandyas till fourteenth century; after which it came under the Vijayanagar Empire, followed by the Islamic rule. In sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the region was occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Danes for the purpose of setting up of textile trade.
The flourishing trade then attracted the French, who secured land for a trading post in 1674 from Ali Adil Shah II, ruler of Bijapur, who at the time controlled this part of Southern India. Pondy was then again occupied by the Dutch in 1693 after which it subsequently changed hands between the British and French no less than nine times in the course of the eighteenth century. The removal of fortifications as the British razed down many of Pondy’s finest buildings in 1761, led to flattened ramparts that form the boulevards of Puducherry today. During the French regime, which got established after The Treaty of Paris, the trading post grew into a prominent fortified town and an important port. By the end of eighteenth century, much of the old town of Pondicherry, as we know it today, had been laid out and rebuilt on its former foundations under the planning of Jean Law.
All the important streets from the Black Town lead to the Goubert Avenue, the main promenade through the White Town. A 284m long jetty, now abandoned, marks the southern end of the promenade. Now shifted elsewhere, a distillery earlier marked the northern tip of the promenade which is lined with flowery-coloured edifices and colonnaded balconies of the French quarter. Midway along a broad Marina – the Goubert Avenue – running beside the ocean, stands the 4.25 m tall statue of Mahatma Gandhi which is arced by lofty monolithic granite pillars that are more than 11m high. Built in 1836, the 27m-high Lighthouse, which is now abandoned, stands nearby. Balaji tells me that the road or streets are called Rue in French and Salai in Tamil; and most of the streets were initially named after French generals or commanders.
Facing the waves of the Bay of Bengal, the debris of the Town Hall, once known as Hotel de Ville and Mairie, lies scattered just next to the war memorial constructed by the French to commemorate the Pondy soldiers who died in the First World War. A favourite haunt of couples, the shady Government Park that has the famous Pondy memorial, whose pedimented facades are crowned by an urn, lies just behind. Along with this memorial which many consider an amusing surprise, a few columns that were brought from Gingee to Puducherry after the capture of its Fort in 1751 add colours to the Park. Being one of the most photographed landmarks, the monument is a revelation for it is built in commemoration of a harlot, whose charity had made the direct supply of water to the town possible.
The good thing is that most of the landmarks of the town are located almost adjacent to each other just as the numerous eateries, bakeries and café that dot the streets. The neo-classical Raj Niwas is towards the north of the park. Next door, on the other side of Rue Louis, is the Puducherry Museum where the management grants me the permission to make photos inside but without any use of flash. Apart from the findings of Arikamedu, the museum displays stone and metal sculptures from the Cholas and later periods. The upper storeys are stocked with furniture, paintings and other items assembled from various mansions in Puducherry. Many of such mansions and villas have now been converted into research institutions, department offices or hotels and guesthouses, etc.
Many, particularly the ones who are spiritually inclined associate Puducherry with Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It was here the nationalist Aurobindo did his integral Yoga as he prepared his literary and philosophical works. Preaching the widely accepted spiritual path, he started an Ashram here; which was subsequently joined by a French mystic, Madame Mirra Richard, later known as the Mother. Today, hundreds of devotees daily throng the ashram and the Samadhi that encloses the bodies of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The Aurobindo Ashram is inside the town but the Auroville Ashram, another global spiritual-attraction that warrants a separate weekend even for a layman visitor, is located a little ahead of the town towards north.
At the end of two days, from visitors’ point of view, here is my two cents: spread along a rocky seafront and offering a fabulous view from the seaside promenade, the town of Puducherry is in actuality a settlement full of history as well as culture and may not be a destination for a laid-back beach holiday. Most of the sandy beaches and beach resorts are located just outside the city. The best way to explore Pondy is on foot. For those who are foodie at heart, the town fits the bill. One can feast on freshly-baked French baguettes or croissants for breakfast; enjoy the variety of seafood or traditional South Indian meal or an assortment of Continental, Mediterranean or Middle-East cuisines. Thanks to the European influence, wine, beer and other beverages are served in most restaurants.
Not only just that but Puducherry has emerged to be a chic shopping haven as well. Be it art and craft, or artistic pottery, jewellery, handmade soaps, perfumeries, incense items, exquisite linens, cotton or leather goods, the town has just about everything including exhibitions, shacks, exclusive stores like Hidesign that originated from here and boutique stores like Casablanca, Kalki, La Maison Rose, Auroshikha, Amethyst and Pothis to name a few.
The town of Puducherry, formerly known as Pondicherry, is 170 km south of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Bengaluru is 317 km from Puducherry.
Best time to visit: Any time of the year
Travel Lure: Beaches, Heritage, Shopping and Spiritual Awakening
Having spent a rainy weekend at Puducherry, I decide to explore the vibrant Kanchipuram, the temple town of the coastal state of Tamil Nadu. It takes me just under three hours to drive down to Kanchipuram from the east-coastal settlement of Puducherry. Also known as Kanchi, Kanchipuram is one of the most colourful religious centres of south India. The town has more than 50 temples, many of which are multiple centuries old and are dedicated to different Hindu deities; primarily Shiva, the Goddess and Vishnu. Apart from the imposing temples that dot just about every corner of the city, Kanchi is also popular for its thriving silk industry.
The profusion of shrines also means proliferation of religious sanctities into the layout and planning of the city. The larger of the two, Shiva Kanchi – where most of the Shiva temples are located – occupies the western portion of the city and the smaller one called Vishnu Kanchi – where most of the Vishnu temples lie – is spread along the eastern fringes of the city. The religious festivals that take place in the city keep the administration occupied almost continuously all through the year. Noticing the lofty imposing ancient structures that appear to be blocking the streets of the town is a first for me. But then, even with all its historical temples, the current spread of Kanchipuram fails to testify the fact the city once served as the capital of the mighty Pallavas from seventh to ninth centuries and later continued to maintain its hold during the succeeding empires of Cholas and Vijayanagaras, etc. Before coming here, I actually imagined the city to be much larger than what I am seeing currently.
The shopping aficionado in me decides to first explore the silk products. I straightway head towards the Gandhi Street where most showrooms are located. Shops and shacks to suit all budgets dot both sides of the road. I end up buying a pair of dhoti, locally called waistie, for myself. Not only silk and cotton, the street also has a few restaurants which serve authentic local cuisine. I decide to have brunch at a local branch of the South Indian foods chain, the Saravana Bhawan. The restaurant is much larger and crowded (by locals) than what I had expected it to be. The thalis, which are most preferred items from its South Indian Menu, are almost instantly readied and served. My choice is a Tamil thali.
Having munched on a Tamil veg-feast, I now head towards the Kailasanathar Temple, which stands on the edge of an open space about 500m west of Shiva Kanchi. It is a thing of much curiosity to imagine why historically so many temples continued to be built in an around Kanchipuram. Legend has it that the city Kanchipuram – literally meaning a sacred place – gets its name from the Kanchi Tree that bears fragrant Kanchi flowers which are meant for Gods. The tree is said to be found only at the sacred place of Kanchi; and hence the uniqueness.
The ancient temple of Kailasanathar is protected by the ASI. A walled and fenced enclosure protects the temple premises from street walkers and stray animals. Just in front of the narrow passageway to the temple complex, souvenir and prasad selling shops dot the wide street. The temple appears to be a likely evolution of the seventh century panch rathas of Mahabalipuram. Started by the Pallava king Rajasimha, also known as Narasimhavarman II, in the late seventh century, Kailasanathar is the oldest standing building in the confines of the city; however, older temples still exist outside the settlement but within the district Kanchipuram. The temple, an ancient monument now, still attracts followers who throng the complex every year in the month of February, when a gala festival is held on the occasion of Mahashivaratri.
Minute designing must have gone into planning the temple which is constructed mostly out of sandstone. A rectangular wall lined with small shrines surrounds the main temple. One of the two opposite doorways; the one towards the west, is now blocked up. The inner sanctum of the temple houses a multi-faceted linga, with a Somaskanda representation carved onto the rear wall. An old man in white outfit asks me not to take any photographs inside the main temple, which is surrounded by a narrow passageway. The outer walls of the main shrine are raised on a square basement. Outwardly projecting shrines from the corners and in the middle of three sides are framed by columns with Tamil yalis towards the base.
The walls adorn different figurines and representations of Shaivism. In one of such representations, the Shiva who is flanked by Vishnu and Brahma is shown to appear out of a linga; while in the other, surrounded by Durga and Bhairavi, the Shiva is portrayed shooting arrows from a chariot. The figures are enclosed by columns donning sea creatures and crocos with decorated tails. The same scheme of figures adorns the pyramidal walls of the main shrine. The storeys of the pyramidal tower that rise above repeat the wall scheme below at diminishing scales, the capping roof is an octagonal dome. The top is decorated with an octagonal shaped dome. The small pillared outdoor hall next to the shrine was initially built as a separate structure.
It might be the oldest one in the town, but Kailasanathar is a fairly small temple complex. An unaware visitor might not take more than ten minutes to complete a visit. A walk through the passageway around the main shrine makes me wonder about the intricateness of craftsmanship. The circumambulatory passage comprises a display of various deities including multiple sculptures of dancing Shiva. The temple of Kailasanathar is a fine example of the might and beauty of the ancient Indian temples. Even though, the images of Shiva and other deities are mostly eroded and overlaid with coloured plaster that seems recent, a few paintings from the Pallava period still lay preserved on the interior of the shrine walls. The smaller shrines lining the compound wall of the temple complex; all have domed roofs with carved Nandis and elephants in the sitting posture.
Fine manicured lawns surround the temple compound from two sides. Just a few metres away from the main shrine in the green lawn is a seated Nandi on a low plinth. It is lunch time and the caretaker has gone out somewhere leaving the garden tap running. I still manage to make a few photographs as the sky gets cloudy. Quite uncommon of a touristy place, there isn’t any reputed restaurant, a café or a food joint outside the premises of the temple of Kailasanathar which is thronged by domestic travellers as well as foreigners. Having spent a couple of hours at the temple, before the clouds precipitate, I head towards the most imposing structure of the town.
Returning to the crowded streets of the city, I am on the street that leads to the Ekambareshwara or Ekambaranathar Temple, the largest in Shiva Kanchi. Straight ahead of me is the 60m lofty tower of slender columns, which stands in the middle of the street, and serves as the south-entrance to the main complex. This impressive seventeenth century temple has a later year’s pyramidal tower comprising nine stories mounting on granite walls. The imposing temple is also the site for the yearly festival of Panguni Utiram held every spring. Above, the clouds and sun are playing hide and seek. The temple adores a dull look as it darkens.
Just as I conclude making photographs of the tower, it starts raining incessantly. I take hide inside my vehicle and head towards another Saravana Bhawan outlet located nearby. Many cups of filter coffees follow as I prepare my travel notes before heading back to my place in the evening.
The town of Kanchipuram is 75 km from Chennai and 125km from Puducherry. Bengaluru is 300km from Kanchipuram.
Best time to visit: Any time of the year
Travel Lure: Heritage and Silk Shopping
As apparent from the title and book-cover itself, the book The Lost World of Ladakh is a collection of century-old photographs of the trans-Himalayan terrain of Ladakh. Tastefully captured by a talented amateur photographer, Claude Rupert Trench Wilmot who was an army officer stationed in India during the British regime in 1930s; the book comprises over 150 black and white photographs of the then Ladakh, when he undertook two different expeditions to the trans-Himalayan territory.
In 1931 and 1934, Wilmot travelled through two of the popular ancient trade routes leading to Ladakh; initially from Kashmir and then from the Kullu Valley. Those were the harsher times when the luxurious option of travelling on trans-Himalayan roads was non-existent. Like others, he travelled on foot with a retinue of servants and guides who carried his luggage and related paraphernalia on pack animals. Much unlike most other travellers of the initial quarter of the previous century, he remained occupied with making photographs and observing the lifestyle of the locals. He later provided informative captions with needed details of his photo records.
Wilmot had engagingly captured the life and times of the people of Ladakh, when the trade still flourished and Leh was the hub of trade routes between Tibet, Kashmir, Kullu and Yarkand. The photographs include portraits of locals, street photography, landscapes as well as some records from monastic ceremonies. The book, in fact, has been compiled by Wilmot’s relatives Nicky Harman as well as Roger Bates, who has digitised the old prints. Published first in 2014 as Volume 31 of Asian Highlands Perspectives, a journal that voices concerns of Tibet and allied geographies, this edition of the book was subsequently published by Stawa Publications of Leh, cultural and administrative headquarters of Ladakh. The edition of the book, which I received last month, has about 135 pages of pure trans-Himalayan love. The book is divided into two parts: the first half detailing the photographs from Wilmot’s journey of 1931 and the second part that showcases the 1934 expedition.
Just before summers of 1931, Wilmot set out on his first journey to Ladakh through the popular trade route – the Treaty Road – via Srinagar and Zoji La in Kashmir. At that time the route, at best a bridle path was passable only on foot. The current highway follows the same route for most part and was opened to vehicular traffic decades later. After reaching Leh, Wilmot made two side-trips, first to the top of the Khardung La on the Karakoram trade route, and then to the monastery at Hemis where he attended the annual Hemis festival as well.
Wilmot undertook the second expedition to Ladakh in the peak of summers of 1934. This time he got himself a new camera – a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex – and travelled south-to-north through the traditional Kullu Valley route to reach Leh. Just as in his previous expedition, this time as well he travelled on foot with pack animals as this route was made motorable much later in 1970s. Both his journeys were significant because of the priceless photographic record it created. Unlike today, during those times, the monks, pilgrims, merchants, peasants and nomads, etc. as documented in the book appear largely as they would have done for hundreds of years.
One thing that unmistakably comes out of the book is the expression of satisfaction and pride even in the otherwise poverty ridden faces of Ladakh. Like most travellers to that part of the trans-Himalayas, Wilmot is particularly enamoured by the streets of Leh bazaar, a thriving hive of not only commercial but cultural activities as well. During those times, travellers visiting Ladakh encountered considerable challenges; something which is made luxurious by present day’s wheeled travelling. Through his photo records, Wilmot has done a remarkable job in portraying traders, nomads, schoolkids, townswomen, herders, farmers and Buddhists monks, etc.
The Ladakh which Wilmot photographed has long since disappeared with the onset of modernisation of trade and transport apart from the political conflict that ensued partition. The book portrays a time when wandering monks, esoteric astrologers, masked dancers and elaborate turquoise headdresses were still common. In bits and pieces, the book brings out the lost folkways of Ladakh when it was still untouched by modernity. The tougher times of mountainous trade that lifted so many of Ladakhis above poverty might have gone but Ladakh still retains the charm that continues to attract travellers from far and wide.
The thing which I don’t like about this edition of the book is its designing. Given the greatness of the content, the layout as well as typeset of the book is actually very pitiful. It seems the local publisher assigned the job of designing the book to a newbie who didn’t even have an access to modern software except for MS Word. I seriously hope that the publisher would rectify this in the next edition. Anyhow, I’d still recommend this book to a devotee of trans-Himalayan travels. The book is currently priced at Rs 630 on Amazon.in
I pull up one of the spare chairs in the small patch of grass in the courtyard of the Forest Rest House at Dodra (2564m). The intriguing folkways of Kwar still occupy my mind. For me, there is a fresh excitement related to any trip in the Himalayas. For pure delight what can equal a day’s walk or trek out into a fresh landscape? With eyes shut I can conjure up a picture of every day’s journey I have so far made in this Himalayan sojourn; I can even recall every bend of the narrow lanes of Kwar. On such outings even the most common object is of fascination; every viewpoint, every plant, bird of beetle. And for this reason, it does not worry me if the locals stop and stare at the mad visitor in me.
It is a bright sunny day and the air is softly caressing the tall woods. The bubbling and loudly hissing sound of my portable electric tea kettle portends a warm morning. Mangal’s associate in the agriculture department who hails from Dodra is expected here anytime now. Just as Mangal in Kwar, he will guide and accompany me through this side of the valley. Dodra and Kwar do not have any of the clichéd tourist attractions to put it in the same bracket as other hill destinations. Apart from raw village life and folkways, what it offers is an uninhibited rendezvous with nature to fuel a process of self-discovery, oblivious of time.
Curled beneath the eastern ramparts of the Himalayan state of Himachal Praddesh, broods a hidden corner surrounded by unexplored forests in a lesser visited valley. The picturesque valley of Dodra Kwar lies folded between scenic Baspa Valley, the steaming jungles of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, the mountains of Kanatal above the Tons Valley and the heritage Valley of Pabbar. Remote and mountainous, local spirits and demons thrive even as the devtas are appeased by the blood of sacrificed beasts. The hidden valleys and forests of this absolute goldmine of flora and fauna, provides sanctuary to a fabulous array of exotic and alarming creatures. Specie that villagers fear the most includes the Himalayan Bear, which prowl along the wooded ridges and sometimes through their fields.
The FRH is located a little above the bus stop point of Dodra. The caretaker, who hails from Dodra, comes to the two-roomed hutment only when asked to do so. The key of the FRH remains with the owner of the only dhaba located at the bus stop down below. This morning when I landed at the dhaba for a cup of tea and to enquire about the whereabouts of the caretaker, the owner instead handed me a bunch of keys. I later gathered that this has been a normal practise here and whenever a traveling official or government servant needs a place to crash for the night in case of emergency, this coordination comes handy. Besides, the dhaba is the only place to get an easy meal in Dodra. The FRH has no kitchen of its own. The FRH at Pujarli as well as the PWD RH at Kwar both have working kitchens but the caretakers would still want you to eat outside. Here I am presented with no option but to eat outside.
I am particularly wary and mindful of my eating habits at Dodra primarily because someone at Kwar had warned me not to eat at any place or home except for this dhaba. As per the local lore in the valley, outsiders don’t eat in the houses of Dodra for fear of the food being poisoned to please the spirits. The man at Kwar (name withheld) told me that the incidents of poisoning one’s food (bish) occur only in the village of Dodra in the entire valley. Despite my obvious keenness, I do not discuss this issue with the dhaba owner, Rameshwar Negi, a local only.
The dhaba owner, an unruffled oldie also told me that a couple of school teachers, who were on their way to Shimla, had stayed here the night before to hitchhike up to Rohru, on the other side of the Chanshal. He adds that due to its remoteness and connectivity – despite the recently carved motorway – the Dodra Kwar region proves to be a nightmarish posting for the government employees of the state. In the bureaucratic parlance, a transfer to this region is oft-called a political punishment. During winters, to reach Shimla, the district as well as state headquarters for the valley, one has to trek till Naitwar to catch a transport till Dehradun in Uttarakhand. The bus then reaches Shimla via Chandigarh and Solan. Providing a connect between the Pabbar and Rupin Valleys, the Chanshal opens only for a few months after the snow is cleared off the Pass in summers.
After an hour of wait, Vikas is finally at the FRH. We then depart for the village. Now attached with the agriculture department on contract, Vikas has previously worked with a popular trekking agency active in the Rupin Valley. As we approach the narrow lanes of the village, Vikas introduces me to his former colleagues who are now engaged on the popular Rupin Pass trek that culminates at Sangla in the Baspa Valley. The trail is not only very scenic but is moderate on the activity scale. As we had seen this morning, while returning from Kwar, the character of the Rupin is more of the nature of a torrent than that of a large voluminous river. As it descends the slopes of Rupin, the river takes fall in several spots to reach the valley floor. As the river rushes over rocks with a clamorous noise, few of such falls are over 100 ft that exhibits heaps of white foam.
Not only among the current mountaineering fraternity but the Dodra Kwar to Sangla trail over the Rupin Pass has always been popular. Before the advent of the bridle path, the HT road through the Satluj Valley, many travellers and traders preferred to enter Kinnaur via the Baspa Valley. Traversing the middle Himalayas, this could be accomplished through a series of passes. Just as the pioneer explorer of Kinnaur, Alexander Gerard, preferred the Buran pass to crossover from the Pabbar Valley, Lady Canning, the then Vicereine of British India is said to have trekked over the Rupin Pass on her way to Chini in 1860. It has of course been a preferred route for local shepherds as well.
By now we are in the middle of the village Dodra. In comparison with the village of Kwar, the settlement of Dodra looks more rustic. Barring a few houses, most structures retained the traditional wooden design of the valley. With roof slates shining bright in the sun; from a distance, the entire village looks to be occupied by houses which are made of wood. Howsoever cramped though it may be, every structure seems to get its little patch in the valley under the sun. The small settlement of Dodra has more temples in comparison to a fairly large village of Kwar. We visit all the temples one by one. Just as the case in Kwar, I am denied an entrance inside the main temple.
On the other side of noon, a shift in the weather happens. The sun is directly above the valley; and we are in the midst of cold green woods below the village. The trees are increasingly moru oak, arising out of a sunless ground of dense foliage. The stillness of the forest seems held in a place by the unbroken, ceaseless chirping of birds. Tips of tall trees catch some sun. Filtered by their thick leaves, the light that falls on the ground is dark and green. Light is not favourable but I still make a few photo records.
If one comes to Dodra Kwar as a tourist to make merry or for luxurious vacation, he may well be entirely disappointed by the complete nonexistence of such options. Forget the social photographs. Of course, there are heritage temples but that’s about it. One could probably visit these and take a walk around the entire settlement in less than thirty minutes. Save for a single shop selling items of basic necessity, there is no bazaar or a café to hangout. But then what a casual glance would observe is its distinctive culture, belief and architecture. Having observed the geography, village life, architecture and costumes, etc. from close quarters in Kwar, I wanted to get a sneak into the temple life and structure. But then outsiders are seldom allowed inside. With separate temples meant for different castes, adherence to the caste system is duly observed.
The main temple of the village is Dodra Jakh. Just as Kwar, the cult of Jakh devta dominates this village as well. The Dodra Jakh devta is the collective chief deity of villages Dodra and Chohara. The devta spends two years in Janglik and Kinnaur and returns to Dodra in a procession, in which a member from each household participates, every third year. The Jakh is considered to be the supreme God of this valley, where nothing can be done without his consent. This is precisely why the concept of Devtantra was strictly observed for administrative as well as judiciary purposes till a few years back. Just as Prajatantra (the authority of the people) or Rajtantra (authority of the King) functions elsewhere, Devtantra (authority of the Gods) functions in Dodra Kwar. These days, the Devtantra is no longer observed for administrative or judicial issues but for social issues, it still calls the shots. In olden days, the Devtantra solved most issues and the system suited the people as well as the harsh terrain where it was always difficult to govern for any kingdom.
To conclude this series, I’d say that my sojourn in the remote valley of Dodra Kwar had almost all essentials of a Himalayan exploration and travels. Beautiful landscapes to mysterious folkways, food habits to house architecture, agriculture to adventure; just about everything qualifies for it be explored by intellectuals, adventurers and travellers alike with a much deeper interest. With this thought, I’d request each one of you to constructively devour Himalayan adventure, discovery and knowledge to realise love with your inner self. I have tried to sum up my sojourn in this hidden world to the best of my understanding. If you still have any query left in your mind, please feel free to ask. Email is the best way to reach me.
The village of Dodra is 21km from the crest of the Chanshal Pass and 22km from Kwar.
Best time to visit: Autumn
Travel Lure: Culture and sylvan charm
Accommodation: Very limited at Dodra
Already high from the impact of the raw folkways of Kwar, I was back at my room in the afternoon. The village was briefly blanketed by a cloud of mist in the morning today. Now with the clouds having boiled up from condensation, the valley wears a dreamy look as though it was kept under wraps in the morning. The cloud layer has completely vanished by now. A majority of the olden houses are built using deodar wood. With the lifting of mist, the already fresh air becomes filled with the resin smell of deodar.
Being the peak of grass cutting season, both women and men are working frantically with their short-handled sickle to cut grass for winter fodder. Up here, their schedule is busy at any time of the year but now they will soon have to start harvesting the kharif crop and simultaneously cut whole hillsides clear of lush grass. The tough season of winters is just around the corner. The overpowering scent of newly trimmed hay is the heady factor in making me feel that this is a place of pure unrestrained joy. As I lay down on the small patch of green grass in the courtyard of the rest house, the caretaker offers me some ginger tea. He is aware that I have missed today’s afternoon meal as well. Sipping the hot sugary tea and nibbling biscuits, I soak up the afternoon sun. A sense of contentment grips me.
There is something in the Himalayan air – especially in autumn season – which according to me is conducive to both passion and romance. The warmth of the bright sunrays turn my mind to journeys those taken and those never done. Thinking of my travel fantasies, this time my mind wanders to a road expedition along the ancient GT Road from Kolkata to Peshawar as well as the Great India Road Trip and an extended sojourn in the North East India. With me being lost in oblivion, my gaze suddenly catches on a bird of prey. A Himalayan griffon vulture is soaring high in thermals. I collect my camera kit and try in vain to make a photograph. The barrenness of the Rupin range overshadows the colour of the bird.
I try to make a sense of the geography of the valley. The river Rupin is not visible from the spot where I am standing. The level space at the bottom of the valley is inconsiderable; being usually not much broader than is sufficient for the passage of the river. On its both sides, the small level spots on the mountain faces are laid out into orchards. Generally, the arable land is scattered in narrow slips interspersed with incredible woods of pines and deodars. In between, the terrain is covered with green sward and countless varieties of loveliest wildflowers; there are clumps of forest and beds of juniper here and there, but the inclination is occasionally gentle, mostly ruled by sheer rocks which are exposed in most parts. The uppermost green belt forms the pasture lands, where shepherds tend their flocks in summer. These verdant meadows reach to above 4000m and are crowned by mountains covered with eternal snow or sterile peaked masses of granite. The snowline is not visible from the village clusters of Kwar as well as Dodra.
Cultivation is abounding and thriving with grains, vegetables, orchards or apricots and apples wherever a slant in the terrain is observed. Extensive orchards and fields are possible in the middle portions of mountain faces here; after which the mountains rise rapidly at an angle of 60 to 75 degree; and are thickly wooded. The forest belt on both sides extend to the treeline; but owing to the moisture content, such is the crumbling nature of the terrain in some parts, that prodigious masses every now and then give way with a horrid crash, overthrowing the trees and leaving nothing behind but a wreck of naked rocks, devoid of vegetation. Landslides and slips are very common and so is the availability of water. The pasturage here is not as abundant as on the right bank of the river a little downstream. Beyond the pasturage on the left bank towers the white summit of the stupendous Himalayas.
The scenery of this valley partakes in grandeur as well as beauty. From my vantage point, I can see the transition from the inhabited terrain to the forest line, from forest line to the tree line and from tree line to the snowline; the mountains of indestructible snow are invisible from here. What is most common is a solitary house with a small piece of cultivation or a few orchards attached; that seldom attracts the eye of the observer. As we had been observing for the past few days, people have devised their own pastimes on account of rigorous climate, mountain-locked isolation. They spend long wintery nights by relating traditional stories. Singing and dancing is the hallmark of almost all auspicious occasions. Locally brewed liquor finds its consumption to maximum on such occasions.
The plan for the day was to climb down to the village of Pujarli and hike back before the sundown. Mangal presents an excuse at the last moment and the caretaker has to hold the fort in SDM’s absence at the rest house. I immediately arrange my stuff and head towards the village of Pujarli. Returning from their primary school, a few enthusiastic school kids join me on the marked trail that begins just next to the rest house. Descending the slopes of Kwar, Kitrawadi is the first settlement that I reach where the kids bid me bye. I enter the premises of the main temple of the village. The vantage point offers a comprehensive view of the Pujarli flat ground along with the Kwar Jakh temples as well as the settlement. Cascading down the slopes, the blue-white waters of the Rupin adds to the beauty of the landscape. The entrance to the temple, marked by numerous trophies and game wins, is locked. With nobody in sight, I begin my descent towards the Pujarli flats.
The Gurkhas lost badly when they attacked the valley of Dodra – Kwar. The locals overpowered the armed Gurkhas and caught them off guard in their sleep at night. It is claimed that the armours of Gurkhas, seized that night, are kept on display at the Kitrawadi temple. For visitors and outsiders, entry inside the temple is seldom possible. With much ease I descend the narrow lanes of Kitrawadi to reach the Pujarli flats. A motorable track that branches off the Dodra-Kwar motorway just before Kwar, reaches the settlement of Pujarli. The picturesque little hamlet of Pujarli is situated on a slope with houses rising one above the other, and the Rupin valley head looming large over the horizon. Orchards are abundant here. The settlement is already full of afternoon hustle-bustle. With no local to give me a company, this time I am considered a total tourist. Curious eyes follow me till the temple complex.
As I reach the temple site, a young man, who was earlier sitting idle in the complex, comes forward and instructs me not to enter any of the three temples. “And you cannot get the permission either”, he adds. I ask for the temple priest and the maali, a conduit for the devta, the chief deity of Kwar Jakh. “No one is around at the moment”, he responds. Later, I gather that one has to prove his caste before entering the temple premises. Even Raja Virbhadhra Singh, the Chief Minister of the state, who enjoys considerable respect among the locals, pay his obeisance by remaining outside only. Whatever be the reason, the temple belongs to locals only. But it must be said that the temple architecture of Dodra – Kwar valley is a thing of beauty to behold. Perched on a platform, the exquisiteness and clarity of the wood craft can take one’s breath away.
The valley experiences very heavy rain and snow fall which forced the architects of the temple to construct wooden structures to protect the devotees from cold; the slanted roofs provide these intriguing structures with a long life. These temples are not only the focal points of its religio-cultural activities and beliefs of the peoples, but also the veritable repositories of the religio-artistic expression of the art of the people. The wooden carvings of temples are different than those of the residential complexes. The carvings on houses depict designs of flowers, branches, trees or birds; whereas, the carvings on temples showcases deity and devils, monsters, animals, snakes, war scenes, etc. With rich floral devices, elegant verandas and pierced panels, the temples are a true masterpiece of the local wood-craft. A small detached balcony adds to the perfection. Round it hangs a fringe of wooden drops, which often produces a soft jangling in the wind. As is noticeable in the newly constructed as well as under construction houses, the wood-craft is still alive and thriving in the valley.
The village of Pujarli is at a 2km of hiking distance from Kwar, which is 42 km from the Chanshal Pass. A narrow motorable road to Pujarli branches off the Dodra-Kwar motorway a few kilometres before Kwar. Separated by the Rupin, Dodra and Kwar are 22km from each other.
Altitude: 2400 m
Best time to visit: Autumn
Travel Lure: Culture and sylvan charm
Accommodation: Very limited at Pujarli