My destination for the day is Keylong and although I made an early start this morning it has not been enough. I check out of my Manali hotel at seven but the earliest bus to Keylong leaves only at nine. The journey through Rohtang Pass is full of starts and stops. Perhaps frustrating at times but mostly it is a beautiful slow journey winding between the mountains of the region. I had imagined Rohtang Pass to be a flat high altitude pass hemmed by a string of peaks on both sides. It is nothing like that. The pass climbs up and down the slopes of mountains with many sharp bends. The road is narrow and with traffic in both directions there are frequent jams. A lorry’s broken axle delays us for an hour at the start of the pass on the Manali side.
When we resume the ride through stunning scenery I pray that we would stop somewhere so that I could take pictures. My prayers were answered at the perfect spot with a full view of the mountains. The evening light falls sharply on the rugged brown slopes while patches of snow on higher slopes and pointed peaks bring out a contrasting radiance. A shepherd drives his flock of about a hundred sheep across our path towards lower slopes. I make a sketch of one of the peaks in view. There is no hurry and it does look like we will be here for more than an hour. Apparently, blasting is going on and traffic has been temporarily stopped. When the blasting is done, green signal is given to vehicles in both directions at the same time. This results in a jam that delays us for another hour. How typically Indian! Everything is done with haste and misplaced enthusiasm without proper planning.
I had imagined Gramphu to be a considerable settlement of the region. Going west from Gramphu is the road to Keylong. Going east, one enters Kunzum Pass for Spiti Valley. The truth is that Gramphu is hardly a village. A little beyond Gramphu is Khoksar, a settlement that has a little more to itself. We stop here for a late lunch. Indeed it is five in the evening for this late lunch. Everyone is hungry. Rohtang Pass has been quite a energy sapping drive. There are no restaurants to speak of in Khoksar. I sit with others in a roadside shed with no frills. Rice is served hot and rajma daal that comes with it is superb. There is cleanliness in this place. Rice is scopped with ladles or plates, unlike one restaurant in Chamba where the fellow used his bare hands. Others in the shed are eating sheep mutton, a certain delicacy of the place.
At six in the evening, I reach Gondhla, a village with an old castle. Delays in the journey mean that I have stay the night at Gondhla. Exactly where, only time will tell. I am not worried. Anything will do. For now, I saunter downhill with my backpack in search of the castle. I pass a Buddhist monastery. Next to it some workers are painting brightly a chorten. I see the castle standing magnificently against a backdrop of mountains to the south and the west. The castle is in a dark silhouette, backlit under the glare of the setting sun. The entire green valley to the west of the castle is bathed beautifully in evening light. Some cabbage fields are planted neatly with young apple trees but it would be a few more seasons before they stand yielding good fruit.
It is more the setting than the castle itself that gives it a romantic edge. The castle stands on a hillock with rocks and roughly cut stones strewn about the place. These must have been part of extensions or outer walls that are no longer standing. It is a unique structure that stands in eight levels. It is more like a tower, like in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. It was built by Raja Man Singh of Kullu at the end of the seventeenth century and occupied by the local thakur. It is in the traditional style of Kuth-Kuni construction meant to withstand earthquakes. What is unique in this castle is that structurally there are no diagonal or vertical beams of wood, just horizontal beams packed in between with stones without use of mortar.
It is getting dark now. I have to think of finding a place for the night. I am keen to do a more detailed study of the castle in the morning and perhaps a pencil sketch. There is a PWD Rest House near the castle but I can’t find anyone around.
‘You can check at the BSNL telephone exchange. The manager must be there,’ informs me a man carrying a pail of water.
I find the manager chatting with the BSNL guy. For these guys living away from their families, Gondhla is quite a remote place for a job. They have only each other for company. In winter, the place is completely cut off from the outside world. The PWD man explains to me that he gets paid only twice a year, once for seven months of summer and then for five months of winter. No one comes into the Lahaul Valley after September. Not even a fly, he says. Local buses ply about the valley though.
‘We have two rooms at the Rest House but both are taken up for the night,’ tells the manager. ‘Actually, the rooms must be booked in Khoksar.’ He ponders for a while and adds, ‘If it okay, you can stay in my private quarters.’
That’s all the invitation I need. I walk with him to his quarters. There are no government quarters here and he rents the room at Rs. 500 a month from a local villager. Around us are fields of potato, peas, cabbage, carrot and radish. Almost within touching distance are the mountains to the south and their snow-covered tops. Ramlal makes a welcome tea for me. As I sip my tea with the view of the mountains around, he cleans up and makes my bed. He will sleep on the mattress on the floor while I am to take the cot. The sun is setting behind the line of peaks to the west. The clouds catch the warm light. The sky blushes. The peaks are transformed into silhouettes and the slopes stand flattened into dark forms.
To the east, a full moon rises slowly. It hovers for minutes over the tip of a peak. It then climbs a little rocky slope to the next peak. It would do this through the night, hovering, climbing and hopping from peak to peak as it makes it way to the west. The dark bluish sky of the night is the background in which the moon makes its journey. Mountain snow gathers a new dazzle in the mellowed light of the full moon.
The house in which I am staying is flat roofed. It is common way of construction in these parts. Sloping roofs are not used. Hay is stacked on the roof. Ladders from ground level often give the only access to the roof. Such roofs are best for winter when many inches of snow are common.
‘How long have you been here?’ I ask Ramlal.
‘Eighteen years,’ he replies. It seems an age. He reads my eyes and continues, ‘My family is in Kullu. It is only a day’s journey. I visit them often.’
‘It’s still quite a journey across Rohtang Pass,’ I tell him. ‘It has taken me nine hours to get here from Manali.’
‘In four to five years we will have a new tunnel that avoids the high altitude route. The tunnel will start at Solang and will exit near Gondhla. Sonia Gandhi inaugrated the project recently. Work is going to start soon. This will cut down travel time by many hours. Actually it is meant for the army. China border is not far away and India wants to avoid Kargil like surprises in this sector.’
Ramlal excuses himself for a few minutes to make a prayer. He reads from a book and burns an incense stick. In a strange act, he covers his head with a towel and prays under it for a few minutes. He sways back and forward as he recites remembered verses. Later he explains to me that he does this everyday to appease the Shani god. Worship of Shani is common in Himachal Pradesh. I remember passing a roadside temple dedicated to Shani in Kangra.
‘I have two sons, both in college. One is in the Arts, the other in Science,’ Ramlal chats as he prepares dinner for both of us. He cooks up a tadka of potato, brinjal, onion and tomato. The stuff is just superb and I have four rotis along with it. I drink water piped from the mountains. Ramlal says the water is clean and can be drunk directly.
I don’t think much of the moths hovering in the room but Ramlal is bothered by them. After some minutes of idle chat, we call it a day. Sometime during the night I am woken up by Ramlal’s snoring. I look out of the window to my right. The peaks and high ridges are bathed in moonlight. Stars are many but they are flooded out by the bright night. The view is superb and I don’t even have to lift my head from the pillow.
It often doesn’t rain in these parts but tonight there is a light drizzle. The fact is that locals have planted many trees and plants. The valley is being cultivated during the summer months. Ramlal says that light rains are more common these days than before.
In the morning, I take a turn about the village of Gondhla. I pass a school. I walk around cultivations of cabbage and potato. One old man informs me that peas are harvested in August and potatoes in October. Many potato fields are owned by companies, perhaps Lays or Uncle Chips. I witness the sale of homemade ghee. The stuff is thick and solid. An old woman with drooping earrings scoops out ladlefuls of ghee on to weighing scales. A young man collects the same while an old man looks on without interest. I admire the local buildings and their construction. I return to study the castle. Apparently, the owner of the castle is still around and upon request, key to the castle can be obtained. I searched around casually but cannot not find the owner. The castle stands in a dangerous state of disrepair. I wonder if getting in is really safe. Although there is a little door and a staircase on the southern side, the access is overgrown with weeds. It is not a castle for tourists. It is a romantic ruin in a state of natural decay. This is exactly why I like it so much.
The castle stands straight and tall. At its top is a jettied balcony supported on brackets, at places decorated with horns of sheep. The southern side has projected balconies and gables on two levels. Many wooden boards are missing, the parapets gone and the balcony floor fallen. Recessed windows break the monotony of the castle, particularly on the southern and eastern sides. The walls are packed with flatly cut stone blocks wedged tightly together between the horizontal wooden beams. After 300 years, the structure which appears at a glance to be of primitive construction, is still standing.
I return to my room, pack my stuff and thank Ramlal for his hospitality. I take a picture with him and promise to send it to him when I return home. He wants to make me some lunch but I decline. I would like to get to Keylong as early as possible. I walk up and wait by the road for a bus. I know though that getting a bus will be difficult. Like yesterday, Rohtang Pass is sure to delay proceedings.