Much before, a part of it got the prestigious world-heritage tag, this hauntingly mesmerising valley of gurgling crystal waters, apple orchards, sleepy hamlets, psychedelic birds, trout fish and adventurous treks, invited me to witness its mind-clearing calm.
It’s a land of a pristine river, a pond with intriguing fable, of clan deities and beautiful architecture. It’s dotted with tiny villages where womenfolk laboriously weave their own gorgeous woollen wraparounds. Butterflies and flowers are bountiful here, and peace so near at hand, that one need not strain to hear bees humming or birds chirping.
One April evening, after rigorous five years of no-break work life in listless Delhi, I finally decided to hang my boots – only for five days, and I headed with a group for a 14-hour road journey to the Himalayas. I boarded the bus from Delhi at around 5 pm and just when the eastern sky was beginning to brighten in the morning chill, the bus halted at the non-descript Aut on Manali highway.
From there, my tastefully and ecologically done cottage-resort was 2 hours away at a height of about 6,000ft. I covered the distance by a car. In that tranquil morning hour – our surroundings looked remote, rustic and dreamy. Enchanting peaks gheraoed us.
My company, to say the least was interesting. I was surrounded by professional photographers and birders. All others were shouldering heavy equipment, lenses and tripods. I was an odd one out, with a tiny point-and-shoot with which I hoped to improve my photography skills.
And was I gung-ho about the whole trip, you bet!
Anyone would love this aspect of the property where I stayed in Banjar Valley. It is located near village Bhiyar where motorable road ends! Hence, to go further up you need to use your legs. No vehicular commotion anywhere in the vicinity – only enticing jungles surround you.
I assembled many unforgettable memories – snow, fresh garlic shoots and mint ready to be plucked, apple flowers in full bloom, lady birds, wooden-stone houses, exotic flowers, festive procession, and the river!
Trek to Centuries Old Fort
The first day was spent trekking for three hours to reach the village where stands curiously-built Chaini Kothi at 7,000ft. Our guide-come-porter and his dogs accompanied us on this trek. The Kothi’s complex has a courtyard, storehouse, temple and a 45m high tower. Its two top floors fell during an 18th century earthquake. Stones are used to build its base column. The structure also features beams made of deodar wood. On its fifth floor, images of some goddesses are kept.
In the middle of tall mountains and single storey village homes, stood this high man-made wonder. Its very steep and narrow steps made of a single tree trunk need a mention here. The stairs are so constructed that they stand somewhere at 70 degrees angle and it seemed an uphill task to climb them. So I dared not even try!! According to the villagers, some 1500 years ago, king Rana Dhadhia built it and hence Chaini Kothi is also called a fort.
In the vicinity I saw beaming faces of village children excitingly playing cricket, with a wood log acting as their bat. While my co-trekkers took turns playing with them, my eyes were drawn to the humble village homes, where firewood and coal was used to cook meals and a cute little window hung on the top of each house, the kind we see in children’s drawings.
Those kids’ innocent blue-brown eyes and pure smiles travelled back with me as memories. Remote and isolated as the village was, to my surprise, its villagers put a lot of emphasis of education.
Bang in the middle of the village I chanced upon their local deity’s temple. The idol was sitting in a window-size wooden shrine, upon a well-like round wall. After praying I headed back for the resort.
Gushing, Shouting, Icy Tirthan
I sat on the water’s edge on the round and smooth rocks, letting my feet feel the river. The freezing waters belong to Tirthan after which this valley is named. I crossed the river sitting in tiny metal box that was pushed and pulled manually from the two ends. That day I learnt a whole new meaning of the term adventure!
I sat at river beach, hearing water jumping and hitting the rocks, spotting fishes of varied sizes and seeing some local youth diving head down in the river – those images created a permanent room in my memory. When river turned orange with setting sun’s rays it was time to part with it.
To the Pond of a Mysterious Spirit
Unlevelled terrain of what is called Jalori pass does not make for an easy trek. Very narrow pugdundee and loose earth at some places are so dangerous that one is in danger of slipping off into the deep valley below. I lost my balance at least thrice and was short of crashing down but for our porter. Jhalori pass is at 10,800ft height and connects Kullu valley with Shimla. People who live by jungles say they talk to you. But here deodar, rhododendron and pine forests were lost in uncanny silence.
My four hours trek culminated at a fenced pond called Sareul. Local fable is that goddess of ghee called Buddhi Nagin protects this pond and appears sometimes in the form of a bird. Probable presence of this denizen of forest accentuated my thrill of going up there!
Awestruck by Vivid Weaves
Most people come here seeking adventure or leisurely decadence. While in a village, I saw a woman weaving. I tried striking a conversation with her out of curiosity, but she was too shy and engrossed to engage in any talk.
What I found out courtesy my porter, that in various villages of Tirthan, there are magnificent weavers keeping alive their heritage of spinning yarn on a spindle. Every other house has a loom on which they weave handloom shawls etc with sheep wool.
That woman was weaving a pattoo. It is their traditional dress that is thicker and longer than a shawl and is draped like a sari over kurta-pyjami. These women weave it mostly for personal consumption and not for commercial end. With much hope I asked my porter how much one pattoo costs and probably sensing my inclination of buying one, he quoted an astronomical 20k! The zeal went out of me…
Sparks Flew upwards to Merge with Moonlit Sky
That night like two others before we sat by the fringe of forest warming ourselves over bonfire. The sparks from crackling flames went up to merge with the moonlit sky. Lines between magic and reality blurred while I kept staring cluster of stars rather too long.
That night half an hour after hitting the sack, I heard scratching and witchy laughing noises outside my window. My heart came to my mouth as screeching wolfy noise kept repeating for what felt like eternity. I couldn’t gather my wits to go out and see what it was and to make it worse my roommate was stoned!
Somehow I got out of the bed to wake her up since she knew that place like the back of her hand. After minutes of bewilderment, and trying to call help with no-network phone, finally she guessed what it was and pulled the door. Our dear friends were standing out, they couldn’t stop laughing and we figured out they had plotted that dreary act for some fun. How mean, I say!
My Parting Gift and a Regret
Just when we were waiting for our return bus at Aut, we started hearing drums and other instruments and singing people. We were lucky enough to witness the religious procession of a local deity. The elaborate idol was made of heavy solid silver covered with garlands. Not much do I remember about this procession but it was a nice experience.
Well the regret is that I didn’t wake up at cold pre-dawn hours to go to the UNESCO Great Himalayan National Park. But I am hopeful of returning one day soon.
Tirthan is in Kullu district of Himachal, India