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. The 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.
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 Leh or Delhi. With its vast choice of hotels and restaurants, there is something here for everyone. Still an evergreen hippie hangout, it’s India’s number-one honeymoon spot, and is also popular with outdoors enthusiasts taking advantage of the fine trekking. 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.
Known in the ancient Hindu scriptures as Kulanthapitha, or “End of the Habitable World”, the Kullu Valley for centuries 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.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.
The Parvati Valley
The Parvati Valley
Hemmed in by giant-pinnacled mountain peaks, the Parvati Valley, which twists west from the glaciers and snowfields on the Spiti border to meet the Beas at Bhuntur, is the Kullu Valley’s longest tributary. It’s a picturesque place, with quiet hamlets perching precariously on its sides amid lush terraces and old pine forests. Though the landscape around Jari has been scarred by the ugly Malana hydro project, there is strong local pressure to at least camouflage the site. Visitors to the valley are an incongruous mix – a combination of Western hippies (especially Israelis) and van-loads of Sikh pilgrims bound for the gurudwara at Manikaran, 32km northeast of the Beas-Parvati confluence.
Hindu mythology identifies Manikaran as the place where the serpent king Shesha stole Parvati’s earrings, or manikara, 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, it’s 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.
To make the most of Parvati’s stunning scenery you’ll have to hike. Two popular trails thread their way up the valley: one heads north from the fascinating hill village of Malana, over the Chandrakhani Pass to Naggar; the other follows the River Parvati east to another sacred hot spring and sadhu hang-out, Khirganga. The trail continues from Khirganga to Mantalai with its Shiva shrine and over the awesome 5400m Pin-Parvati pass into Spiti. This serious snowfield is riddled with crevasses and takes several hours to cross.
A guide is absolutely essential. For more than a decade the Parvati Valley has seen the mysterious disappearance of at least twenty travellers. Most of the vanished have never been found, including the Israeli who went missing in the most recently publicized case in July 2009. Several theories have been put forward to explain these disappearances, from drug-related accidents on the treacherous mountain trails, to attacks by bears or wolves or foul play by the numerous cannabis cultivators in the region; some even claim that the disappeared may have joined secret cults deep in the mountains. Most likely, however, they were victims of bandit attacks, motivated solely by money, with the wild waters of the River Parvati conveniently placed for disposing of bodies. Individual travellers should take heed and only use recognized guides on treks across the mountains.
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 is the most scenic and accessible of the hill villages between Kullu and Manali, roughly 20km from each. 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.
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 (more than five million annually), and now greets 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 number 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. As well as treks around Manali you can also explore the Kullu Valley.
Famous for its sweeping valley views and sulphurous hot-water springs, the ever-expanding village of VASHISHT, 3km northeast of Manali, is an amorphous jumble of traditional timber houses and modern concrete cubes, divided by paved courtyards and narrow muddy lanes. It is the epicentre of the local budget travellers’ scene, with a good choice of guesthouses and cafés. The tranquil and traditional atmosphere is only interrupted by the occasional rave that takes place in the woods, or if the weather is poor, in one or two obliging hotels.
The only place for a hot soak is in the bathing pools of Vashisht’s ancient temple, which is far more atmospheric anyway. Divided into separate sections for men and women, they attract a decidedly mixed crowd of Hindu pilgrims, Western hippies, semi-naked sadhus and groups of local kids.
Vashisht boasts two old stone temples, opposite each other above the main square and dedicated to the local patron saint Vashishta, guru of Raghunathji. The smaller of the two opens onto a partially covered courtyard and is adorned with elaborate woodcarvings. Those lining the interior of the shrine, blackened by years of oil-lamp and dhoop smoke, are worth checking out.