The journey from Narkanda to Recong Peo is a long one. The road hugs the rugged cliffs and drops down to a great height into a narrow valley that is more like a gorge. Mountains fold upon mountains. The slopes are barren except for some scattered trees. In this harsh, lifeless and inhospitable terrain, the Sutlej flows and with it brings the only source of life to this region.
The Sutlej is one of the important rivers of Himachal and gathers into itself the flows of many tributaries. The Spiti river joins it on the right from the Spiti Valley where I am headed once I leave Recong Peo. The river eventually joins the Indus in Pakistan. Rampur is an important town of this part of Himachal and it owes its existence to the Sutlej.
The flow of the Sutlej is quick and constant, with waters rising with every passing day of summer and with the melting of snow and ice of the higher slopes. The flow in its many eddies and currents is largely muddy and this is no more apparent than at the point where a tributary Nogli joins the Sutlej. Nogli has a clear crystal flow, the last of it before it becomes the muddy self of the Sutlej. This may very well have to do with the fact that river brings a lot of debris downstream from Karchham. Karchham is the place where the Baspa river joins the Sutlej from the right bank. At this place, the Karchcham-Wangtu hydro-electric project is ongoing. The entire route along this stretch is dusty and the river muddy.
For two days I have followed the Sutlej upstream. The bus is crowded. Except for the crush of gravel and the rumble of the wheels, there is a poetic silence. Occasionally we hear the speak its unvarying monologue. It does not care for an audience. The sun glitters on the flow of the Sutlej. The cliffs stand witness to the momentous journey from its high source to the wide ocean. The river meanders between these cliffs in a vast landscape where our significance as humans stands diminished.
Sometimes the road leaves the high cliffs and comes close to the river banks. The right bank on the other side is always steep and rugged. The left bank is sometimes gentle. Green pastures support villages and livestock. Nirath is one such village.
Nirath is home to a beautiful Sun Temple of red sandstone. When I arrive in the morning, I was told that the temple will open only in the evening. I had just missed the morning puja. Anyway, I was allowed to enter the inner courtyard. A North Indian shikara tops the main shrine with a lion projecting out from each of the four sides. Carved wooden pillars and cornices decorate parts of the temple. Motifs of flowers and flower buds are beautifully carved on wood. Aedicules in walls have deities that are stone-like but really of red sandstone blackened by years of worship and offering. A four-armed deity with an elaborate head-dress stands over a cow. The sculptures and carvings lack refinement. They are simple and animalistic, pointing to some tribal tradition.
It is difficult to date this temple without the aid of guides or books. One of the caretakers of the temple ventured to give his explanation. He dates it to at least 4000 years old. His logic is that Mahabharata itself is 2500 years old and this temple is from the time of Parashurama, who came long before the great epic. It is somewhat hard to believe, particularly of a sandstone structure that tends to weather more easily than granite.
The entire village is quiet and remote. It is only the road and the river that links to civilization as we know it. Within the temple courtyard, the flow of Sutlej lulls to a silence. Only a light breeze ruffles the leaves. Even the temple bells dared not disturb the antiquity of the place.
At Dutt Nagar is the Dattatreya Temple. I noticed two temple buildings within a large courtyard overgrown with weeds. The courtyard is enclosed by stone walls. One of the buildings is in a bad shape but it is nothing like I have seen anywhere before. It is a mix of wood and stone. Wooden beams and pillars form the structure and these are infilled with stone blocks to make the walls. A beautiful roof covers the building with stone tiles. The gables are have little windows and shutters. Built in three levels, a little staircase links the first and second levels. From ground level, a stone staircase leads to the first level. Part of the second level is an open hall supported with carved pillars. Wooden pendants hang from the eaves in rectangular notches. These dance lightly in breeze.
While I was engaged in studying this building and making a sketch of it, three curious children gathered around me. I made further drawings of images (in stone or wood) in the main temple next door. Door carvings indicate pastoral themes such as a farmer taming a bullock. The temple itself was closed. The children derived pleasure in knowing that something so familiar to them is of interest to an outsider. It gives them perhaps a greater sense of pride of little things in their village.
This was once the capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Rampur Bushehr. The clearest visible sign of the kingdom and its capital is the Padam Palace built about a century ago by Padam Singh. While I was in town, the town had just celebrated the previous night the victory Congress candidate Veerabadra Singh in the recent General Elections. He happens to be the only Congressman to have won in the state of Himachal Pradesh. It is customary and a mark of respect by the locals to refer to Veerabadra Singh as Raja Saheb. He is the son of Padam Singh; and although India’s princely states are no more, it is far more difficult to remove the sentiments from the common people. They are still royalty but in a more democratic way.
Padam Palace is in a mix of English and Indian architectural styles. The ground floor is of stone with a corridor of bays and stone arches. The upper floor is far more interesting with its intricate woodwork in Indian style. Yet the overall structure of gables, roofs and eaves are reminiscent of Elizabethan architecture in the manner of Little Moreton Hall. This distant resemblance is created by projections from the corridor. These projections are continued to the upper floor as well. Thus the two wings from the central entrance are broken in their continuity by these projections which make the building a little less serious and formal. Two towers frame the building.
The windows are glazed with coloured pieces of glass. There is a V-shaped doorway in this building, quite unique in my experience. It’s a set of 4 doors that form a V-shaped triangle when seen from the outside. The outer doors open outwards and the inner doors open inwards. It gives greater security. Perhaps it serves to form a temporary waiting area before visitors are ushered into the main hall.
Other buildings in this complex are interesting too. There is a Buddhist temple opposite the bus station. It has 108 prayer wheels installed around the outside wall of the main shrine. Next to it is a Hindu temple with admirable carved wooden ceilings.
Standing in a crowded bus, I willingly eavesdrop on the open conversations of my fellow passengers. One lady who has been involved in campaigning for Veerabadra Singh was excitedly relating her experience. Another relates of the chores pending at home and the things she had bought at town. One woman at the window is vomiting. Suddenly, there is a tap on my shoulder and someone says, “Doodwalle ko do” (Give it to the milkman). I pass the bus ticket that I have been handed to the next guy en route to the milkman. The milkman returns with his fare. I fill my role in between. The conductor returns with the change. I fill my role once again.
Once in Sarahan, having passed some military checkposts, I saw from the warm comfort of my room the glow of sunset tinging the line of snowy peaks, high cliffs and ridges of the Shrikand Mahadev range. The clouds took on the same sunset colour of the hour. As the hour receded into darker shades, the silhouettes of peaks appeared. They looked to stay with me through the night as the stars appeared above and beyond.
Sarahan is famous for the Bheemakali temple. It is a beautiful structure in wood packed with carvings. As a visitor you are given a chance to climb up to the higher levels through narrow creaking stairs. Door plated in silver and decorated with themes from Hinduism welcome you. The goddess is enshrined in a silver canopy and every object used for worship is in gleaming silver.
In a manner similar to the building I saw at Dutt Nagar, the temple is built of wooden pillars and beams. The walls are infilled with neatly cut stones. Interestingly, the higher levels extend over their support below. Both first and second levels are jettied in this manner. The eaves of the elegant sloping roofs follow this pattern in their projecting eaves. The jettied levels are understood when you walk through the corridors on the inside. The corridor on each level goes right around the building. When light filters through some open window shutters, the feeling is surreal. The corridor is almost like a balcony since windows are continuous. These windows are framed by cusped arches that define the very beauty of the temple.
I stayed at Saurang Inn, owned by a 70-year old man. He has been running this hotel for 3 years now. He has just opened it for the year after some renovation and I was his first customer. His main occupation is apple farming in a village nearby. He says that each tree can give about 25 baskets, each one containing 100 fruits. It appears that global warming has affected him as well. There has been very little snow last winter. The roots are all dry and he expects very little yield this year from this apple orchards.
This old man was extremely sociable and full of stories. Recong Peo is a place which had no radio when he was a boy. Today things have changed. His children are educated but jobless. It is likely that they will help him run the hotel in the near term.
He wore a style of cap that is commonly worn everywhere in Himachal Pradesh. It is a grey cap with a green band that folds up in the front. This green band, covering about 250 degrees of the round cap, is lined in red. The lining may be simple uniform stitches or some elaborate design. It is the band that adds value to the cap. Authentic ones are in pure wool but fake ones are stuffed with paper to fool tourists. A cap generally costs Rs. 300, the green band costing about Rs 60 plus charges for labour. There seems to be no standard in the manner in which the cap should be worn. Perhaps, that standard is now lost or corrupted. Some wear the band at the center. Traditionally, the men are supposed to wear it left to right and the women right to left.
Of course, all through my journey in the valley of Sutlej, I have been observing all kinds of headgear. Other than the Himachali cap, women workers commonly wear a head scarf that goes around the head and forehead, and knotted at the back. They come in various colours and patterns. But there is nothing more culturally typical of the region than the Himachali cap.
From Kalpa, I could see Kinner Kailash. I had been previously mistaken it to be a mountain. In fact, it is nothing more than piece of vertical rock that people consider to represent the linga. It is said that the rock changes colour with the hour of day.
The best thing about Kalpa is to walk by age-old architecture of stone and wooden buildings. This to me represents the spirit of Kalpa. This may very well be lost in a few years. Already newer buildings are replacing the old.
There are no trains here, only buses; and there is only one route following the Sutlej up its left bank. Buses from Shimla to Recong Peo are common. Some terminate at Rampur. Recong Peo to Kalpa is a short bus ride.
I stayed at Sarahan last night where I could have hot bath after three days. The room cost me Rs. 250 with a great view of the snowy slopes of Shrikand Mahadev. Tonight I am at Recong Peo at the Saurang Inn paying Rs. 300 for the room.
The standard roti, dal, rice and rajma. Vegetable fried rice can be ordered at the HPTDC at Sarahan for Rs. 68. At Recong Peo, I tried thukpa for the first time, which is nothing more than noodle soup with shreds of cabbage, chilli and spices.
I tried to do a half-day trek at Sarahan but the guide said that it would take the whole of next day. He was also completely drunk that evening.