India // Himachal Pradesh //

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.