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.