Spiti Tales- A glimpse of Heaven

Warning – This post is image heavy.

Duly fortified after lunch,  we went out to explore the orchards around the hotel at Kalpa, Kinnaur.  This region is known for its apples, apricot, almonds, and chilgoza. Wherever we turned, there was something fresh to eat.  It was a pleasure to have the fruits without stickers.1

 

There were a lot of tourists and bikers staying at the hotel. The tourist season starts from March and in winter most of the hotels in the area remain closed as the temperature can drop to -15  degrees.  There are a couple of hamlets,  temples, and monasteries in Kalpa which are worth a visit but today  I want to do nothing but commune with nature.

Kinnaur Kailash Range Pc: Ajay

 

Kalpa is at a height of 2960 meters and I am gazing at mountains at 6000 meters. The majestic Kinnaur Kailash Range has  Raldang, Jorkanden, Kinner Kailash and a  17m rock pillar Shivling peaks. I couldn’t make out which is which.  All the peaks are enveloped in the clouds.  The glaciers stood out like thin white lines.

In mythology,  Kailash is the winter abode of Lord Shiva. In the month of August,  devotees take up a difficult trek to circumambulate the sacred mountain.

It was 18:30 and dark clouds were still hiding the peaks. I was content gazing at the vastness of the sky and the mountains. And then the clouds lifted and we could see a golden peak glowing with dazzling rays.

Glowing peaks and dark clouds

The next moments went by in a flash.I watched spellbound. The celestial light seemed to glow brighter each moment. It was a divine experience and words fail me.

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The ethereal display lasted for about 5 minutes and the clouds reclaimed their spot.

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All of us were in a euphoric daze. My friend was in tears. Someone said they could see Lord Shiva atop the summit. There must be an explanation for the sun rays lighting up that peak but today I am going to believe in miracles and don’t want to be rigidly scientific.  I don’t think my pictures do it full justice. The following images are from Ajay.

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After this soul stirring experience, I could see a change in the group.  Yes, the mountain has cast a spell on us.We became more open and friendly. What a special day this has been!

The next day we were up early and lined up in the balcony hoping to see the sunrise. Alas, the mountain was unwilling to take off the fluffy cloud caps.  I guess they were playing peekaboo.

Morning hues

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Hide and seek

I wish we had more time to stay and watch the clouds play.  Unfortunately,  we weren’t able to spend as much time here as I would have liked.  By 9:00, we were ready to hit the road.  Spiti is getting closer.

Leaving the blessed land of Kinnaur

 

 

Spiti Tales__ The Mountain Gods and Roads.

After enjoying the peace and solitude of the Goddess Temple, I went back to the hotel.On the way found this charming little cottage.

Ideal for a retreat

Exchanged pleasantries with a friendly village lady.  People in the small towns always impress me with their simplicity and kindness.

Always ready for a chat and a cup of tea.

A few backpackers and village folks were seen at the bus stop. The local men and women sport the traditional green cap known as “Thapang”.

The sullen looks could be due to the long wait for the bus Pc: Ajay

Today we are going to Kinnaur_ the winter home of Lord Shiva. Himachal Pradesh is also known as the ‘Abode of Gods”. There are more than 2000 temples and small shrines here. Each village has its own deity and festivals.

From Sarahan it takes 5 hours to reach Kinnaur and the drive is through the National Highway 22. Inspiring vistas unfolded and lively chats resumed.vista2

 

Our first stop was  Taranda Devi temple. She is the guardian deity of the mountain roads and this temple is maintained by the Indian Army. No vehicle passes by without stopping to take blessings from the Goddess. The views changed dramatically from this point.

Taranda Devi Temple. The brass bells are offerings from the devotees.

Taranda Dhank

Now we are going through one of the deadliest roads featured on the History Channel. Taranda Dhank is notorious for landslides, shooting stones and fatal accidents. The road is carved out of the massive rocks.

A cliff-hanging ride

The tension and excitement were palpable. But Deepak, our driver was cool. This young man was focussed on the road and negotiated the deadly curves and hairpin bends with remarkable ease. He wouldn’t talk much but could be quite stern if we tend to stay long for photo stops.

The iconic rock tunnel on NH22-Gateway to Kinnaur Pc: Ajay

Narrow roads, sharp turns, towering rocks, deep gorges Pc: Ajay

Rock art__ sculpted monkey. Pc: Ajay

 

Living on/off the edge Pc: Mangesh

Heart stopping moment

The rock umbrella

Driving on these roads is like being on a car rally minus the frills. One misstep could be fatal. Our drivers showed amazing skills, concentration, and attitude. They were always looking out for one another and also ready to help other drivers.  Road rage and risky stunts don’t exist in their rule book.  Deepak told us that the state road transport corporation has very strict criteria for selecting the drivers and rightly so. I can’t stop admiring our drivers and that tenacious bus and truck drivers who ply on this treacherous route every day.

Passed by the major hydroelectric project in Karcham and reached Reckong Peo__ the district headquarters of Kinnaur. Popularly called Peo, it is a bustling small town. The rocky terrains changed to lush green mountains with dense pine forests and orchards.

The Hydel plant on the Satluj Pc:Ajay

Reckong Peo town

From here the winding road climbed up and we reached the  Hotel Kinner Villa. After the hair-raising adrenalin packed drive,  it was like entering a magical world. The majestic Kinnaur Kailash was standing there in all its glory with the peaks hidden by the clouds.

The sacred mountain Kinnaur Kailash

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Light and shadow play

My room was on the second floor and from the balcony, I felt I could stretch out and touch the mountain.  I am going to put my camera away and soak in the views.

 

This post is dedicated to Deepak and his friends__ the unsung heroes of this odyssey.

May God be on your road every way you go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiti Tales, Bhimakali Temple- The Jewel in the Crown

I woke up to the sound of temple bells and devotional songs. The time was 5:30.  I went up to the roof of the hotel hoping to see the sun coming up the mountains but was greeted by the mist rising from the valley.

Good morning, Sarahan.

On a clear day, we can see the Shrikhand peak of the Himalayas. There was no point in waiting. So I  decided to go to the temple before the devotees start coming for the morning puja. There is a short path lined with apple orchards leading to the temple gate.

The Bhimakali temple is over 800 years old and is one of the 51 shakti peeths. It is dedicated to Goddess Bhimakali, the presiding deity of the erstwhile rulers of Sarahan.  The majestic temple complex is made in the traditional kath-kuni style using stone and wood which is suitable for the climatic conditions.

Bhimakali Temple

From the main gate, you enter a  large courtyard and the temple complex comes into view. It looked more like a castle. The heavily carved building in the front used to be the old palace of the ruling Bushahr family.  The temple resthouse, canteen, and administrative office are in this courtyard. It was slightly unnerving to see a gun- toting guard in this pristine environs and a grim reminder of the times we live.

The temple guest house and canteen

Exquisite wood carvings

The premises are kept very clean and one can feel a sense of peace and serenity all around unlike most of the temples which are always crowded and noisy. The present chief minister of Himachal Pradesh is also the king of the Bushahr dynasty.The signs of royal patronage are quite evident.

From the first courtyard, an ornate silver door opens to the smaller second courtyard.unnamed (11)unnamed (6)

Embellished with deities

The doorknob is a knockout!

A short flight of steps flanked by two tigers takes you to the main temple towers.

The old and new temple towers

The tower on the right is the old temple which was damaged in an earthquake and was deemed unsafe for regular worship. The new tower was made in 1943. Photography is not permitted inside the temple. The Goddess is enshrined in the top floor of the functioning temple.  From the windows on the top floor, I  could see the spectacular mountain range still covered in the mist.

There are three other temples in the complex dedicated to Lord Raghunath, Narasimha and Lanka Veer. Legends and mythological tales abound in the Bhimakali temple. It was surprising to know that human sacrifices used to be held here until the 18th century.

The Lord Narasimha temple

There is a  mini museum showcasing old utensils, weapons, musical instruments, and relics. Staff quarters of the temple priests are seen near the old tower. Each structure seems to blend with the surrounding mountains.

The slanting roof made of slate stones protect the structures from strong winds

Majestic snow-capped mountains, lush green meadows, orchards, and a temple with stunning architecture makes Sarahan the quintessential Himalayan town. The Goddess Bhimakali could not have chosen a better place to reside and watch over her devotees.

Spiti Tales-The Caravan starts

Soon after the Bhutan trip I started getting the  familiar  symptoms of  Wanderitis and began  searching for the next  get away. I didn’t have to wait too long.  Friends from Mumbai sent me the details of a group tour to Lahaul & Spiti and I signed up .

Spiti is  a least populated cold desert mountain valley   with surreal landscapes , high mountain passes, enchanting lakes and picture postcard hamlets  is cut off from the rest of the country  for almost eight months  during winter and is open from late July till October.Spiti means The Middle Land-the land between Tibet and India and is in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This terrain is noted for the most  scenic and the most treacherous roads and is prone for landslides.

The trip started from Chandigarh   where I   met the  fellow travellers coming from Mumbai. I was excited to meet my  four friends after almost two years . Six couples and  a family with their daughter and grandson(the youngest member )   completed the group .  There was no time for formal introductions . No worries,  I would be getting to know them in the coming days.  After a  quick lunch at a local hotel  we started for Shimla-our halt for the night.We were staying in a  hotel at Taradevi away from the  hustle and bustle of the city.

I am an insomniac  during travel and was waiting for the dawn to get out of the room.

Misty morning

By this time my roommate   joined me and we went  to   a small temple nearby.Two friendly mountain dogs kept us company.From the temple  we  spotted a quaint railway station.It was exciting to see the Kalka-Shimla  Railway-the narrow gauge railway  passing through 102 tunnels and 864 bridges   and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We waited for sometime but no train was in sight.

Taradevi Railway Station

I would love to ride a toy train

By 10 we were ready to to leave  and after a customary group photo  set off for the next  destination Sarahan.This is another thing I like about Himachal Pradesh. It  has such sweet sounding   districts and towns-Chamba,Kullu,Kinoo, Jipsa,Solan, Seoni,Tapri,Chitkul, Una and more.

The roads are pretty good and there was not much traffic.Breathtaking views, pleasant weather and  friends-I couldn’t have asked for more.

Leaving Shimla

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A special feature of this tour was   the  travelling kitchen . Arjun and his dedicated team   pampered   us with simple, wholesome , fresh and yummy food. It was  nice having the meals on the roadside and it reminded me of school picnics.

Food on the highway

Soon  Sutlej  river came into view and  the landscape  started to look different. Over the next two days  we saw different shades of Sutlej-the most sacred river of Himachal Pradesh.  We are now  in Rampur . From here onward one can see a lot of hydropower plants.

Roaring Sutlej

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Rampur town in Sutlej Valley

From Rampur  it  was 34 km to Sarahan. Pine and cedar forests gave way to lush apple orchards  and traditional houses made of wood and stone .  I was excited to see  the  fruit laden tress and  had a wild impulse to  pluck some.Himachal apples have a  fascinating history. They were introduced in the state in  1916 by an American missionary Samuel Evans Stokes  and  since then they have become the most important cash crop of the region.  Royal delicious,Red delicious and Golden delicious are the most common  types  grown here.  All of us feasted on the fresh and juicy apples and wanted to buy more. This would make an ideal gift from here.

Never seen so many apples on a tree

Red Delicious pc-M Kulkarni

Wish I could take it all  !

Sarahan is the gateway to Kinnaur_our next destination, and is at a height of 7850 ft.This was the summer capital of the  erstwhile Bushahr kingdom and is  steeped in mythology. The Bhimkali Temple   dominates the little town.

Sarahan and Bhimkali Temple

There are a couple of small shops and guest houses around the temple.By the time we reached the temple was closed.

Our hotel was a modest  one right in the centre of the  town and very close to the Bhimkali temple .It was a long day and tomorrow is going to be another long one.Time to hit the bed.