The majestic KULLU VALLEY is cradled by the Pir Panjal to the north, the Parvati Range to the east, and the Barabhangal Range to the west. This is Himachal at its most idyllic, with roaring rivers, pretty mountain villages, orchards and terraced fields, thick pine forests and snow-flecked ridges.
Known in the ancient Hindu scriptures as Kulanthapitha, or “End of the Habitable World”, the Kullu Valley extends 80km north from the mouth of the perilously steep and narrow Larji Gorge, near Mandi, to the foot of the Rohtang Pass – gateway to Lahaul and Ladakh. For centuries, it formed one of the major trade corridors between Central Asia and the Gangetic plains, and local rulers, based first at Jagatsukh and later at Naggar and Sultanpur (now Kullu), were able to rake off handsome profits from the through traffic. This trade monopoly, however, also made it a prime target for invasion, and in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Kullu rajas were forced to repulse attacks by both the Raja of Kangra and the Sikhs, before seeing their lands annexed by the British in 1847. Over the following years, colonial families crossed the Jalori Pass from Shimla, making the most of the valley’s alpine climate to grow the apples that, along with cannabis cultivation, today form the mainstay of the rural economy. The first road, built in 1927 to export the fruit, spelled the end of the peace and isolation, prompting many settlers to pack up and leave long before Independence. The population expanded again in the 1950s and 1960s with an influx of Tibetan refugees.
In spite of the changes wrought by roads, immigration and, more recently, mass tourism, the Kullu Valley’s way of life is maintained in countless timber and stone villages. Known as paharis (“hill people”), the locals – high-caste landowning Thakurs, and their (low-caste) sharecropping tenant farmers – still sport the distinctive Kullu cap, or topi. The women, meanwhile, wear colourful headscarves and puttoos fastened with silver pins and chains. Venture into the lush meadows above the tree line and you’ll cross paths with nomadic Gaddi shepherds.
Most tourists make a beeline for Manali after a gruelling bus ride from either Leh or Delhi. With its vast choice of hotels and restaurants, there is something here for everyone. Still an evergreen hippy hangout, it’s India’s number-one honeymoon spot too, and is also popular with outdoors enthusiasts taking advantage of the fine trekking opportunities. Few travellers actually stay in Kullu town and the only real attraction is the annual Dussehra festival in October. Flights from Delhi to Bhuntur, just south of Kullu, offer a welcome but weather-dependent alternative to the long overnight bus journeys. To the north, Naggar’s castle, ancient temples and relaxed guesthouses make a pleasant change from the claustrophobic concrete of modern Manali, as do Manikaran’s sacred hot springs, up the spectacular Parvati Valley.Read More
KULLU, the valley’s capital since the mid-seventeenth century, became district headquarters after Independence. Despite being the region’s main market and transport hub it has been eclipsed as a tourist centre by Manali, 40km north. Kullu is noisy, polluted and worlds away from the tranquil villages that peer down from the surrounding hillsides, even though a bypass now diverts some of the traffic from the centre. Kullu makes a handy transport hub if you’re travelling onwards to the Parvati Valley, and there are several temples dotted around town, some of which provide fine valley views. In October, when the entire population of the valley comes to town to celebrate Dussehra, the city takes on a life of its own.
Stacked up the lush, terraced lower slopes of the valley as they sweep towards the tree line from the left bank of the Beas, NAGGAR, 6km from the main road junction at Patlikuhl, is the most scenic and accessible of the hill villages between Kullu and Manali. Clustered around an old castle, this was the regional capital before the local rajas decamped to Kullu in the mid-1800s. A century or so later, European settlers began to move in. Seduced by the village’s ancient temples, peaceful setting and unhurried pace, visitors often find themselves lingering in Naggar – a far less hippified village than those further north – longer than they intended. Numerous tracks wind up the mountain to more remote settlements, providing a choice of enjoyable hikes.
Naggar is a very pleasant place, often sadly overlooked by travellers making a beeline for Manali. The relaxed atmosphere, refreshing elevation, stunning views and a variety of interesting sites combine to make it an excellent spot to while away a few days.
Manali and around
Manali and around
Himachal’s main tourist resort, MANALI, stands at the head of the Kullu Valley, 108km north of Mandi. Despite lying at the heart of the region’s highest mountain range, it remains easily accessible by road from the plains; after one hour on a plane and a short hop by road, or sixteen hours on a bus from Delhi, you could be staring from your hotel veranda across apple orchards and thick pine forests to the snowfields of Solang Nala, which shine a tantalizing stone’s throw away to the north. Manali has become increasingly popular with domestic tourists (five million annually), giving rise to an eclectic mix of honeymooners, holiday-makers, hippies, trekkers and traders.
The Manali that lured travellers in the 1970s has certainly changed, although the majestic mountain scenery, thermal springs and quality charas can still be enjoyed. Old Manali retains some of its atmosphere, and the village of Vashisht across the valley, with its increasing choice of guesthouses and cafés, has become a popular place to chill out. For those preferring to venture into the mountains, Manali makes an ideal trekking base for short hikes and serious expeditions, and countless agencies can help put a package together for you. The relaxing hotels in Manali’s cleaner, greener outskirts, and dozens of sociable cafés and restaurants ranged around a well-stocked bazaar, provide a welcome relief from the rigours of the mountain trails.
Manali’s main street, the Mall, quite unlike its namesake in Shimla, is a noisy scene of constant activity, fronted by the bus stand, several shopping markets, travel agents, and a line of hotels and restaurants. It’s a great place to watch the world go by – locals in traditional caps, Tibetan women in immaculate rainbow-striped pinafores, Nepali porters, Buddhist monks, the odd party of Zanskaris swathed in fusty woollen gonchas, souvenir-hunting Indian tourists and a curious mix of Westerners.
Manali’s days as an authentic pahari bazaar ended when the mule trains were superseded by Tata trucks, but it’s still great for souvenir shopping. Woollen goods are the town’s real forte, particularly the brilliantly patterned shawls for which Kullu Valley is famous. Genuine pure-wool handloom shawls with embroidered borders start at around Rs500, but those made from finest pashmina cost several thousand rupees. Shop around and check out the fixed-price factory shops to get an idea of what’s available: the government-sponsored Bhutico on the Mall opposite the tourist office, the Bodh Shawl factory shop just off the Mall south of the bus stand and The Great Hadimba Shop & Factory next to the Manu Temple in Old Manali are recommended; the NSC (New Shopping Centre) market near the bus stand also has a good selection.
Elsewhere around the bazaar, innumerable stalls are stacked with handwoven goods and pillbox Kullu topis. Those with gaudy multicoloured up-turned flaps and gold piping are indigenous to the valley, but you can also pick up the plain-green velvet-fronted variety favoured by Kinnauris. Manali’s other specialities are Tibetan curios such as prayer wheels, amulets, dorjees (thunderbolts), masks, antiques are genuine, but it takes an expert eye to spot a fake. The same applies to silver jewellery inlaid with turquoise and coral, which can nonetheless be attractive and
Manikaran and around
Manikaran and around
A short distance beyond Kasol, clouds of steam billowing from the rocky riverbank herald the Parvati Valley’s chief attraction. Hindu mythology identifies MANIKARAN as the place where the serpent king Shesha stole Parvati’s earrings, or manikar, while she and her husband Shiva were bathing in the river. When interrogated, the snake flew into a rage and snorted the earrings out of his nose. Ever since, boiling water has poured out of the ground. The site is also venerated by Sikhs, who have erected a massive concrete gurudwara over the springs.
Boxed in at the bottom of a vast, sheer-sided chasm, Manikaran is a damp, dark and claustrophobic place where you’re unlikely to want to spend more than a night. Most of the action revolves around the springs themselves, reached via the lane that leads through the village from the footbridge. On the way, check out the finely carved pale-grey stone Rama temple just beyond the main square, and the pans of rice and dhal cooking in the steaming pools on the pavements. Down at the riverside Shiva shrine, semi-naked sadhus sit in the scalding waters smoking chillums. Sikh pilgrims, meanwhile, make their way to the atmospheric gurudwara nearby, where they take a purifying dip in the underground pool, sweat in the hot cave and then congregate upstairs to listen to musical recitations from the Sikhs’ holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. If you visit, keep your arms, legs and head covered; tobacco is prohibited inside the complex.
Dussehra in the Valley of the Gods
Dussehra in the Valley of the Gods
In the Kullu region, often dubbed the “Valley of the Gods”, the village deity reigns supreme. No one knows how many devtas and devis inhabit the hills south of the Rohtang Pass, but nearly every hamlet has one. The part each one plays in village life depends on his or her particular powers; some heal, others protect the “parish” borders from evil spirits, summon the rains, or ensure the success of the harvest. Nearly all, however, communicate with their devotees by means of oracles. When called upon to perform, the village shaman, or gaur – drawn from the lower castes – strips to the waist and enters a trance in which the devta uses his voice to speak to the congregation. The deity, carried out of the temple on a ceremonial palanquin, or rath, rocks back and forth on the shoulders of its bearers as the gaur speaks. His words are always heeded, and his decisions final; the devta-oracle decides the propitious dates for marriages, and for sowing crops, and arbitrates disputes.
The single most important outing for any village deity is Dussehra, which takes place in the town of Kullu every October after the monsoons. Although the week-long festival ostensibly celebrates Rama’s victory over the demon-king of Lanka, Ravana, it is also an opportunity for the devtas to reaffirm their position in the grand pecking order that prevails among them – a rigid hierarchy in which the Kullu raja’s own tutelary deity Rama, alias Raghunathji, is king.
On the tenth day of the new, or “white” moon in October, between 150 and 200 devtas make their way to Kullu to pay homage to Raghunathji. As befits a region that holds its elderly women in high esteem, the procession proper cannot begin until Hadimba, the grandmother of the royal family’s chief god, arrives from the Dunghri temple in Manali. Like her underlings, she is borne on an elaborately carved wooden rath swathed in glittering silk and garlands, and surmounted by a richly embroidered parasol, or chhatri. Raghunathji leads the great procession in his six-wheeled rath. Hauled from the Rupi palace by two hundred honoured devotees, the palanquin lurches to a halt in the middle of Kullu’s maidan, to be circumambulated by the raja, his family, and retinue of priests. Thereafter, the festival’s more secular aspect comes to the fore. Folk dancers perform for the vast crowds, and the maidan is taken over by market stalls, sweet-sellers, snake charmers, astrologers, sadhus and tawdry circus acts. The revelries finally draw to a close six days later on the full moon, when the customary blood sacrifices of a young buffalo, a goat, a cock, a fish and a crab are made to the god.
Kullu’s Dussehra, now a major tourist attraction, has become increasingly staged and commercialized. Book accommodation in advance, and be prepared for a crush if you want to get anywhere near the devtas.