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
Next morning, I take it rather easy initially but as I leave the Rest House, I gingerly manoeuvre my vehicle to climb the narrow dusty bumpy motorway to Chanshal (3784m). The air outside is fresh but every descending vehicle, load carriers mostly, whips a cloud of dust along. It is already nine. The sun beams are streaming onto the Pabbar valley which is now enclosed by high hills. The road changes bank at village Tikri. After the Tikri bridge, the narrow paved but potholed road steadily climbs for the next 10 km to reach Shiladesh, where multiple marketing agencies are working day and night to make the best out of the remaining few days of the apple harvesting season. Until few years ago, the tarred road existed up to Tikri but now Shiladesh is the point after which it’s all stony but slight wider. The settlement of Larot is still couple of kilometres away. I take nearly two hours in reaching Larot (2620m) from Sandasu. But that’s okay, taking notes and making photo-records does take time. Being a travel writer is totally different than being on a holiday.
By writing about the rarer corners of the Himalayas, travel writers are somewhat responsible for taking the veil off a secluded land. More writing means more advertisement. The Himalayas offer thousands of kilometres of rugged kutcha tracks for rallying through its valleys, forests, along its mighty rivers and over its famous passes. The concern of vehicular exhausts polluting the virginal peace of the mountains is a sour matter. But then there is a lot to be said regarding the use of a vehicle to reach the lesser visited portions of the Himalayas and get an access into the hidden cultures and geographies. Responsible travelling requires us to have a heart with respect to every aspect of environmental health. This calls for a special empathy for the ecosystem as well as the cultural traditions that have grown out of it. Visitors and locals grow together and a sense of this living relationship is what Himalayan travel ideally ought to inspire. This thought makes me even more responsible as I negotiate the slopes ahead.
Just a kilometre ahead of Larot is the teashop at Shagulta. The wanton destruction of hills is yet to reach in this area. The pit stop marks the end of habitation as the road enters a dense forest belt. Hereafter, the road length to Chanshal is spanned over 15km of forest and meadow drive comprising 13 hairpin bends. My vehicle is in first gear ever since I crossed the bridge at Tikri. With not a single trace of civilisation around, I am elated to feel the old world charm of a Himalayan drive as I enter the magnificent forests of Chanshal. The climb is steep. A Tata Nano (sounding like a tractor) is struggling hard to climb. The driver stops to let its engine cool after every bend. I am a trifle surprised to notice logging and cutting of trees in this notified dense forest cover. A worker informs me that the cutting and felling of trees is very selective and is being observed by the concerned departments of the state government.
I stop to savour the view of the valley I have just crossed. Water is oozing out of the mountain face and cascading down in the form of small streams. Topped with some icy peaks, the Sangthar Ghati and Durgi Ghati Range is in full view. The mountains and sky are playing out the overtures of a perfect landscape. The stunning panorama of the glorious array of snowy and rocky peaks surrounding the Sangthar and Durgi Ghatis with dense green valleys below under a deep blue sky is heavenly to say the least. The overpowering scent of dense forest is the heady factor that gives me pure and instant untrammelled joy. In addition to the peaks, the pulsating blueness of sky and the wildly intoxicating tang of fresh grass is the benison of hillsides of energetic alpine foliage shining bright under the sun. Rarely has my soul experienced such a sensually unrestrained pleasure. Six kilometres before the pass, I leave the treeline to enter a vast grassy wind-swept face of the Chanshal Range.
With a few more photo-halts, I am atop the pass after driving for about five hours from Sandasu. Once again, I get down from the vehicle. The panoramic display of the icy Himalayas is truly captivating. The sweeping mountainscape encompasses magnificence as well as beauty. Here everything is on the grandest scale, fragments of fallen rocks of immense bulk, hurried from the peaks above, and vast impending cliffs fringed with dark forests, and topped with mountains of indestructible snow, appear on two sides; vast meadows spread on rounded ridges encircled by verdure, and marginally populous villages encircled by fields and orchards towards the valley floor that hardly attracts my keenness which, at the moment, is devoted to minutely observing the Great Himalayan Show.
Some emergency equipment of road workers is parked near the crest of the Chanshal Pass (3784m). Despite the fact that I am venturing into a relatively unknown territory, I am in no hurry to descend the pass which has been infamous for landslides. With every passing hour, the intensity of sunlight changes enabling me to capture different perspectives of the same landscape. Later in the day, I begin my descent towards the Rupin Valley. The motorway becomes slightly narrow. The shaded patches on the road are still slushy. A teashop welcomes me to the treeline. Ahead, the road passes through a dense forest before reaching village Dodra. It is getting dark but I still opt to continue with the same pace. As I exit the forest belt, I wonder over the amount of Himalayas, the pass has induced in my senses a while back. The green valleys full of floating mist, white clouds against a crisp blue sky, the eternal snow of the Himalayas, smoke drifting up from the valley floor, the smell of logs and fresh-cut wood, the resinous smell of the conifers, the damp smells of foliage in the forest of Gods; everything is going to be forever etched in my mind.
The Chanshal Pass is nearly 50 km from Rohru in district Shimla. The distance between Chanshal and Kwar is 42 km. Separated by the Rupin, Dodra and Kwar are 22km from each other.
Best time to visit: Autumn
Travel Lure: Panoramic views and sylvan charm
Accommodation: Very limited at Kwar, Dodra, Larot and Chirgaon
The last week of September found me driving up the slopes of Chanshal Pass (3784m) in eastern Himachal Pradesh. Keen to explore the settlements and folkways of the enigmatic Dodra Kwar villages, I set out for a sojourn in the beautiful Rupin Valley. The road to the Rupin over the Chanshal is very recent and was made operational less than a decade back. Lunching at the HPTDC Rest House of Rohru, the waiter unconcernedly informs me of the road condition and distance between various settlements on the way. Even though, he hails from Chirgaon, the last major settlement after Rohru (1560m) on way to the Chanshal but has never been to the hidden Dodra Kwar cluster. His advice ‘don’t underestimate the surprises on the way’ proved very encyclopaedic and the first difficulty I find myself dealing with is finding a bed to crash anywhere alongside the road.
For the next 14 km, the road follows the right bank of the Pabbar upstream as the river cascades down the broad valley. Eager to get away from the traffic and noise of Rohru as quickly as possible, I rush towards the Chanshal hoping to find some accommodation at Larot, the last village on the way. Unable to establish any contact with the caretaker, I still have the scenically perched Forest Rest House in mind. “Just go and get the possession of the room”, the Rohru DFO had advised me over the phone today morning. Repaired in patches, the road to Chirgaon is potholed as well as narrow with some exposed sections. Descending from heights, trucks and pickups overloaded with apple boxes make the traffic movement onerous. I make steady progress till the narrow one street market of Chirgaon where a bottleneck has halted the traffic completely. A pickup carrying apples has broken down in the middle of the road. Daylight has started to fade as the vehicle gets towed away. Just a few meters ahead of the market, another traffic jam, under the watchful eyes of Himachal Police, on the bridge above Andhra Khad – a tributary to the Pabbar – has added to my misery of not finding a suitable accommodation before the day is over.
“Time is running out, wise to arrange something at the first available opportunity”, I tell myself. The road condition has started to become progressively worse after Chirgaon, the last village en route to the Rupin Valley where the mountain-luxuries of supplies, fuel pump, tyre and vehicle mechanics, etc. are available. Meandering along the Pabbar on the same bank I reach Sandasu (1770m), a small settlement just 2 km ahead of Chirgaon and located on the opposite bank. Compared to the number of houses in the village, I am rather surprised to see an elaborate colony of government offices and a hospital on the right bank of Pabbar. A ray of hope flashes in my mind. Next minute I am standing in front of a HPSEB field hostel by the road. The local BDO, his reader as well as the caretaker of the Rest House are sipping tea in the courtyard. Some minutes of negotiations and a room is made available for me. Given the area and terrain I am in, the room is a total luxury. The bathroom even has a bathtub! I settle for a homely cooked simple meal in the evening. The caretaker hails from a nearby village and has been working with the same property for over four decades now. He is able to clear the air about the road condition ahead and confidently tells me that just three hours to the top.
The last few years has seen an increase in the traffic to the Chanshal. The decade old road has been a boon to the residents of the Rupin Valley. The residents, especially farmers, of Dodra – Kwar could now transport their produce to Rohru in the valley of Pabbar which is fairly accessible through roads. Before the advent of the road, it took three days of hiking for the residents of Dodra – Kwar to reach the road head at Tikri. Even now the Rupin Valley remains cut-off from Rohru in winters as the road opens only for a few months after the snow is cleared off the Chanshal Pass. The near 50 km climb to the 3750m high pass is formidable. Given the remoteness of the region, reaching the Chanshal is considered as an achievement in the motor-biking and adventure lovers’ circles.
After several months of planning and dreaming, I was finally on my way to get an access into the mysterious world of Dodra Kwar. Even though, the valley falls directly on the traditional Sangla – Rupin Pass – Netwar trail that links the Baspa Valley of Himachal Pradesh with Tons Valley of Uttarakhand, the region remains a mystery to the outside world. Legend has it that the valley was once a part of the kingdom of Tehri and was presented in dowry to the King of Rampur Bushahr. The villages, their temples and many unique houses are remarkable example of art and wood craft that still flourishes in the region. The valley is famed for the countless wild flowers as well as medicinal herbs it offers. Streams, wooded forests and fauna add to the natural beauty of the valley enclosed by high hills and rocky peaks. The road connectivity is very recent and the region still retains much of its pristine beauty.
It is for fascinating reasons like these that I have the feeling of contentment of finally being on the road to climb the Pabbar Valley. This blog series is an outcome of my travels to the enclave of Dodra Kwar villages, a hidden pocket which is absolutely full of history, interest and significance. The following posts are an endeavor in capturing the aura, beauty and rawness of Dodra and Kwar. I hope you’d enjoy reading about my journey and experience it through my eyes.
Rohru is a small town situated by the river Pabbar in Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh. Rohru is nearly 112 km from Shimla via Kharapathar and Hatkoti. The Chanshal Pass is nearly 50 km from Rohru in district Shimla. The distance between Chanshal and Kwar is 42 km. Separated by the Rupin, Dodra and Kwar are 22km from each other.
Average Altitude: 2500m
Best time to visit: Autumn
Travel Lure: Heritage, panoramic views and sylvan charm
Accommodation: Very limited at Kwar, Dodra, Larot and Chirgaon; HPTDC at Rohru
Sparrows are busy playing Catch and Escape in the balcony and performing acrobatics outside the window of our room. They seem to be doing everything on the move including feeding, biting and even making love. The sporty chirrups of the sparrows have filled my ear with wonder. I wake up rubbing my eyes and immediately step out of my bed to slide the curtains and catch the morning rays of the sun. It’s cold outside and standing in my boxer shorts, I watch in awe as the morning sun rose to shower the wide Himalayan valley with its golden hues.
I open the balcony door and let the morning chill visit the interiors of the room. The breeze in the pines and deodars hums and moans, but in the apple orchards it rustles and makes cheerful conversation. The glowing green and rusty red apples make for a cheerful sight immediately below the balcony. With sunlight filtering in through the trees, the fresh smell of moss and moisture permeates the air. With the dusty drive of the previous day behind us, I feel totally rejuvenated. The sun is about to light up the valley below me. An occasional leftover of the cloud from previous evening, glitters to make the skyscape even more surreal. Splashing water from a nearby creek looked like an explosion of diamonds in the morning light. Except for the sound of water, everything was silent and peaceful.
The sun is rising behind the rocky peaks in front of me, slowly painting the valley in hues of pink, magenta and red. Sitting there in the cold morning, warming my hands in my armpits, I feel a spiritual closeness with the Himalayas. I thank the powers that are responsible for allowing me to witness this grand spectacle of nature. The golden rays are swathing over the Apple Valley. Kharapathar (2615m) may not have been the perfect choice to witness this morning manifestation of a dream, as there are places more lovely elsewhere in the Himalayas, but in many ways it suited us as a brief stopover on our way to the mysterious Rupin Valley.
Without giving any serious trouble of driving up from the plains, Kharapathar has instantly transported us into the solitude of the mountains. The hillside may see a lot of snowfall in peak winters but in October it has a mix of wild flowers, apples and massive pines and deodars to charm the visitor. Lush forests, encompassing landscapes, refreshing walks and hike trails, all within a couple of hours drive from Shimla! Compared to what we experienced in the previous spring season, the room we had been allotted at the HPTDC property this time had rather a spooky atmosphere inside. The drip of water in the bathroom, fungus infected curtains, dampness on the walls, inky carpets and light cunningly kept low so as to hide everything from the visitors. We were a happy lot still. Normally, I would stay up into the early hours, reading and planning next day’s advance but then this time we were very particular to get up early. And that decision clearly shaped our daily routine on this trip to our advantage.
Only basic items are available from the elaborate restaurant menu card of the HPTDC. After breakfast we leave for the hike to Giri Ganga temple (2836m). We are very keen to complete the hike this time as previously our march up the hill was stopped by large amount of winter snow which was yet to melt. We park our vehicle mid-way of the 7km narrow and kutcha motorway, to the Giri Ganga temple site, which leaves the Hatkoti-Kharapathar highway slightly ahead of the HPTDC property. On our return we discover that the point where we had parked our vehicle was precisely the same site from where we took a u-turn on our previous attempt.
The trail passes through a densely wooded Deodar forest that is swarming with active birdlife. Hearing a monotonous squawking ‘pee-ouh, pee-ouh’, I spot a barbet. The Great Barbet is one of those birds which are heard more often than they are seen. It keeps to the tops of high trees, where it is not easily distinguished from the foliage. Unlike most other birds, barbets are noisy all the year round. The familiarity with the call reminds me of my occasional evening walks at Sukna Lake in Chandigarh. Up here in the mountains, legend has it that the bird is a reincarnation of a money lender who died of grief at the unjust termination of a lawsuit. Consequently, a barbet’s call continues to be interpreted in many ways.
The hike to the temple site is more rewarding than the site itself which is dotted with a few modern but displeasing constructions and garbage dumps alongside the stream. The river Giri (also called Giri Ganga) originates as a small stream just below the Kuppar peak and subsequently pours its waters into the mighty Yamuna upstream of Paonta Sahib after passing through Chail and Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh. Literally meaning the fallen Ganga, legend has it that the Giri was formed after sages brought Ganga jal here from Haridwar. Therefore, today, the site is considered to be as holy as Haridwar.
We planned to be back at the base before the end of the day. At the hotel, a group of travellers from West Bengal was anxiously waiting for us to return and hear our stories from the day. I patiently recollected every required detail of the hike to their utter satisfaction and pleasure. “Prefer to take a walk and carry enough water and supplies to last half a day”, I suggested. The shaded walk and gradient is quite easy on the knees and not strenuous at all. The olden temple complex comprises three shrines and a cottage. Positioned inside the small water pond, the conical shaped main shrine is dedicated to Goddess Durga. Facing each other, the other two shrines are placed above this pond. One of these shrines has the idols of Rama, Laxmana and Sita. The other one has a marble Shiva Lingam inside it.
Later that night, the calm of the starry Himalayan sky invite me to the balcony for a mug of chamomile. I sit back and observe the nightscape. Over the years, the night has become my friend. On one hand, it gives me privacy; on the other, it provides me with limitless freedom. The night sky full of countless twinkling stars, a near full moon at one end, rocky shadows and ice reflections – something a dreamy nightscape is made of. No emotion or expression could do justice to the feeling of contentment in the complete embrace of the Himalayas.
Next morning, we plan to visit the Jubbal Palace on way to Rohru, our motorbase to climb the Chanshal. The receptionist tells me that a landslide has blocked the highway to Rohru via Hatkoti. We will have to take an alternate route which is a bit narrow and bumpy. It is also the end of apple harvesting season in the valley which means there will be load carriers too on the narrow link road to Rohru. The Kotkhai and Jubbal valleys are one of the few valleys of Himachal Pradesh that produce good quantity of apples.
The red roof of the newer Palace is visible from the balcony of HPTDC property. We reach the older Jubbal Palace (2037m) first. Now in a total dilapidated state, the Palace still houses the royal family temple which is entirely made of wood. A delegation from Chaupal, a constituency earlier represented by the Raja of Jubbal in the Himachal Vidhan Sabha, has come to visit the temple premises. The temple priest is totally reluctant to allow them an entry. The group heads towards the newer Palace to meet the Raja. We too join their company albeit in parallel.
Claimed to be founded around 1100 AD, the Jubbal State lies east of Shimla between Sirmaur and Rampur-Bushahr in a very beautiful and well wooded valley. In the nineteenth century, the royal family derived their income largely from the sale of timber helping the Raja become the richest of the hill chiefs with a house ‘Hainault’ in Shimla. Before 1918, the ruling family used the title of Rana after which the British conferred the title of Raja to reward their loyalty towards them. The new Palace of Jubbal (1931m) designed by a French architect in 1930s, is situated a kilometre ahead of the original one. I park our vehicle just at the entrance to the grand Palace. The entry inside is very restricted and even the delegate from Chaupal, Raja’s voters, couldn’t get an access. We spend a few more minutes in making a few photographs and leave the premises to reach Rohru just in time to secure a late lunch.
The hill-station of Kharapathar is 77 km from Shimla via Theog and 23 km from Hatkoti. The distance between Hatkoti and Rohru is 11 km. The approach from both sides is fairly easy. The road distance between Kharapathar and Giri Ganga temple is 7 km. The Jubbal Palace is nearly 10 km from Kharapathar.
Average Altitude: 2000m
Best time to visit: Spring and Autumn; avoid apple harvesting season
Travel Lure: Heritage and sylvan charm
Accommodation: Very limited; HPTDC and a few homestays
Chail is one of my favourite weekend destinations. I first discovered the sylvan charms of Chail while pursuing post-graduation in communication studies from Panjab University in the City Beautiful Chandigarh. Back then, we would often make weekend trips to Chail on our motorbikes. I vividly remember the first spicy smell of pine trees and the scent of those charming wild roses as we rode from Chandigarh to climb the higher foothills.
Just before the current monsoon season, I was in Chail again on a weekend to escape the summer heat of plains. Sitting in the courtyard of the decrepit Junga Palace while sorting out my knickknacks to gear myself up for the day’s hike to the cooler environs of Chail, I ruminated about my earlier escapes from Chandigarh on weekends. I remember how beautiful Chail looked; how cool and scented after the heat and dust of the plains. Wild flowers, chirpy birdies, pine needles and wood smoke; Lovely!
One of the memories for which I consider myself to be fortunate is that I have been visiting Chail from the days when just a few vehicles travelled to this part of the Himalayas. Minus any fuel fumes, no loud bangs, blaring horns or screeching tyres, no SUVs or transport trucks belching reeking clouds of diesel exhaust, and pedestrians walking carelessly, it was total peace. It was wonderful. Those were the days that continue to inspire me for weekend outings.
The settlement of Junga, an erstwhile princely state, is surrounded by green hills with Shimla in front. The green environs of Kufri are to the northeast and the rich Chail Wildlife Sanctuary is towards the south of Junga. The rich forest cover comprises trees of kail, deodar, pine, cheel and ban, etc. The settlement of Junga is the midpoint and a popular stopover on the traditional trail between Shimla and Chail. With the advent of roads in the area, the trail is, however, seldom used these days except possibly by herders, runners or for soft adventures, which is what we planned to do.
Starting from Junga at breakfast time, we planned to reach Chail by evening tea time. The length of the trail from Junga (1560m) to Janedghat at Chail (2224m) is a little less than nine km. Having packed our lunch and some fruits in our day backpack plus two litres of water, full of energy we left for Chail. It was a sunny day and in the initial hour of walk we were sweating profusely. The trail passes through some quaint hamlets and then proceeds on to the densely forested slopes of the Chail Wildlife Sanctuary. The shade of wooded ridge after the second kilometre gave us some respite from the heat. The entire hillside of Shimla including the neighbouring Shoghi was clearly visible. Not only the capital Shimla but the picturesque settlement of Junga with several interesting olden buildings and structures can also be plainly seen from the ridge we were skirting.
Owing to its proximity and richness, the forests of Junga we were passing through used to be one of the preferred hunting sites for the officers in Shimla during the British rule. During those times, Junga, the capital of the erstwhile Keonthal state surrendered many villages to form the present station of Shimla. The gazetteer adds that the chief of Keonthal used to be called a Rana but in the mutiny Rana Sansar Sen behaved most loyally giving shelter and hospitality to many Europeans who fled from Shimla when it was feared that the Gurkha regiment stationed there had become disloyal. The title of Raja was conferred on him in perpetuity for these services.
Once a retreat of a few solitude loving British officials, hunters and explorers, the hillside we were walking through is fast turning into a preferred holidaying destination. Although devoid of any snowy view, the Chail Widlife Sanctuary is truly a walker’s paradise. The wooded charm of this region will be a pure delight for a birding enthusiast. On my walk, I spotted 27 different species of birds and pheasants including a lifer. As we gained height, the weather became cooler. All the seven hills of Shimla including the tall red statue of Lord Hanuman atop the Jakhu hill were clearly visibly from the trail. We lunched at one of the several meadows we crossed on the way. It took us nearly six hours at a leisurely pace to cover the distance between Junga and Janedghat, a popular trailhead located three km before the hiker’s paradise of Chail.
The route we took was part of the centuries-old Shimla-Chail trail and was much frequented before the roads forayed into the lush green hills. The trail, mostly unmarked in the confines of the sanctuary, climbs over 700 m to reach Chail, once the summer retreat of Maharaja of Patiala and now spread over a cluster of three popular hills Pandhawa, Rajgarh and Sidh Tibba. Today, the sleepy hillside of Chail stands as a faint reminder of the times of how the salubrious environs of Shimla would have looked before the British forayed in.
Offering a peaceful vacation, Chail does not have a Mall or a shopping arcade; though a huddle of shops that double up as a bus stop include grocery and vegetable vendors, dhabas and chemists. The chief heritage attraction of the town is the HPTDC run Palace Hotel. The hillside became accessible to visitors after the Patiala royals handed over the 75-acre property, where Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala spent six months in a year, to the government in 1972. The Palace is popular with honeymooning couples and weekenders who hop in for a day or two of princely excitement. On weekends, it would be nearly impossible to get a foothold in the Palace. On weekdays, enjoy the tranquillity of the surroundings and countryside.
Ever since its inception, the palace is said to have reverberated with the sounds of partying and merry-making. The gazetteer notes that couples drank from sidecars and smoked cigarettes leaning against staircases while listening to tunes played on a grand piano. Inside, the peeling, water-soaked walls; worn, musty carpets; dilapidated woodwork and furniture; dusty chandeliers, etc. might add to the disappointment but on the positive side, the exteriors are, however, surprisingly well kept. Sitting on the white-painted wrought iron benches in the lawn, muse over the gossips and stories of the Palace and hear innumerable accounts of Maharaja’s personal life.
Another attraction, Sidh Baba Ka Mandir is placed atop a ridge sandwiched between Rajgarh and Pandhawa hills. Part of the army cantonment area, the temple is built near the cricket stadium. The site is nearly 4km from the market square and is surrounded by a dense cover of woods. One more temple of repute is the Kali Ka Tibba, located a little further; six km from the market. The prize catch would certainly be the evening view from the Kali Ka Tibba – with foothills on one side, sinking down in line after line until beyond them you could feel the plains stretched out; and on the other, the Churdhar; as also the high Himalayas.
The hill-station of Chail is 25 km from Kandaghat on the Kalka-Shimla highway. Chail to Kufri on the Shimla-Theog highway is 31 km. The approach from both sides is fairly easy. The road distance between Junga and Chail is 21 km.
Average Altitude: 2000m
Best time to visit: Round the year, avoid holiday seasons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views, heritage and sylvan charm