Ruffled by the lower ridges of the Shivalik Range in the far south, cut through by the Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges in the northwest, and dominated by the great Himalayas in the north and east, Himachal Pradesh (HP) is India’s most popular and easily accessible hill state. Sandwiched between the Punjab and Tibet, its lowland orchards, subtropical forests and maize fields peter out in the higher reaches where pines cling to the steep slopes of mountains whose inhospitable peaks soar in rocky crags and forbidding ice fields to heights of more than 6000m.
Together with deep gorges cut by rivers crashing down from the Himalayas, these mountains form natural boundaries between the state’s separate districts. Each has its own architecture, from rock-cut shrines and shikhara temples to colonial mansions and Buddhist monasteries. Roads struggle against the vagaries of the climate to connect the larger settlements, which are way outnumbered by remote villages, many of which are home to seminomadic Gaddi and Gujjar shepherds.
An obvious way to approach the state is to head north from Delhi to the state capital, Shimla, beyond the lush and temperate valleys of Sirmaur. The former summer location of the British government, Shimla is a curious, appealing mix of grand homes, churches and chaotic bazaars, with breathtaking views. The main road northeast from Shimla tackles a pass just north of Narkanda, then follows the River Sutlej east towards Sarahan, with its spectacular wooden temple, before entering the eastern district of Kinnaur, much of which is accessible only to those holding Inner Line permits. Kinnaur becomes more austere and barren as it stretches east to the Tibetan plateau, its beauty enhanced by delicate timber houses, temples and fluttering prayer flags.
Another road from Shimla climbs slowly northwest to Mandi, a major staging post for the state. To the north is Himachal’s most popular tourist spot, the Kullu Valley, an undulating mass of terraced fields, orchards and forests overlooked by snowy peaks. Its epicentre is the continuously expanding tourist town of Manali – long a favourite hangout of Western hippies – set in idyllic mountain scenery and offering trekking, whitewater rafting and relaxing hot springs in nearby Vashisht. The sacred site of Manikaran in the Parvati Valley also has hot sulphur-free springs.
Beyond the Rohtang Pass in the far north of Kullu district, the high-altitude desert valleys of Lahaul and Spiti stretch beneath massive snow-capped peaks and remote settlements with Tibetan gompas dotting the landscape. Permits are needed for travel through to Kinnaur, but Ki, Kaza and Tabo have unrestricted access, as does the road through Lahaul to Leh in Ladakh.
Visitors to the densely populated Kangra Valley west of Manali invariably make a beeline for Dharamsala, or more properly McLeod Ganj, whose large community of Tibetan exiles includes the Dalai Lama himself. Trekking paths lead north from here across the treacherous passes of the Dhauladhar mountains into the Chamba Valley.
Finding guides and porters for treks is rarely difficult. The season runs from July to late November in the west, and to late October in the north and east. In winter, all but the far south of the state lies beneath a thick blanket of snow. The region north of Manali is accessible only from late June to early October when the roads are clear. Even in summer, when the days are hot and the sun strong, northern Himachal can be beset with chilly nights.
The earliest known inhabitants of the area now known as Himachal Pradesh were the Dasas, who entered the hills from the Gangetic plain between the third and second millennium BC. By 2000 BC the Dasas had been joined by the Aryans, and a number of tribal republics, known as janapadas, began to emerge in geographically separate regions, where they fostered separate cultural traditions. The terrain made it impossible for one ruler to hold sway over the whole region, though by 550 AD Hindu Rajput families had gained supremacy over the northwestern districts of Bharmour and Chamba, just two of the many princely states created between the sixth and sixteenth centuries. Of these, the most powerful was Kangra, where the Katoch Rajputs held off various attacks before finally falling to the Mughals in the sixteenth century.
During the medieval era, Lahaul and Spiti remained aloof, governed not by Rajputs, but by the Jos of Tibetan origin, who introduced Tibetan customs and architecture. After a period of submission to Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti came under the rajas of Kullu, a central princely state that reached its apogee in the seventeenth century. Further south, the region around Shimla and Sirmaur was divided into more than thirty independently governed thakurais. In the late seventeenth century, the newly empowered Sikh community, based at Paonta Sahib (Sirmaur), added to the threat already posed by the Mughals. By the eighteenth century, under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikhs had gained strongholds in much of western Himachal, and considerable power in both Kullu and Spiti.
Battling against Sikh expansion, Amar Singh Tapur, the leader of the Gurkha army, consolidated Nepalese dominion in the southern Shimla hill states. The thakurai chiefs turned to the British for help, and forced the last of the Gurkhas back into Nepal in 1815. Predictably, the British assumed power over the south, thus tempting the Sikhs to battle in the Anglo-Sikh War. With the signing of a treaty in 1846 the British annexed most of the south and west of the state, and in 1864 pronounced Shimla the summer government headquarters.
After Independence, the regions bordering present-day Punjab were integrated and named Himachal Pradesh (“Himalayan Provinces”). In 1956 HP was recognized as a Union Territory and ten years later the modern state was formed, with Shimla as its capital. Despite being a political unity, Himachal Pradesh is culturally very diverse. With more than ninety percent of the population living outside the main towns, and many areas remaining totally isolated during the long winter months, Himachal’s separate districts maintain distinct customs, architecture, dress and agricultural methods. Though Hinduism dominates, there are substantial numbers of Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, and Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur have been home to Tibetan Buddhists since the tenth century. This may explain why the state has traditionally been a stronghold for the more inclusive Congress Party, although recent years have seen the BJP make some gains.