Ferns, mosses, lichens, fungi…

My trip to Himachal in September last year was a trip of many firsts — the first time I saw the mighty Himalayas, the first time my under-graduate and post-graduate classes on Himalayan Geology came alive, the first time I saw apples on trees, the first time I tasted a yellow plum, the first time I saw the confluence of two rivers … and so much more.

It was also a trip where an old interest in the plant life around me got rekindled. It started of slowly enough with the magnificent trees in the region grabbing my attention: the pines, the deodars, the fruit trees. Then it was the flowering shrubs that my attention shifted to, especially the wild rose plant that I thought was a pomegranate plant ! Go ahead and laugh. You have my permission :-P

Wild Rose, Himachal Pradesh, Fagu, Travel, Himalayan PlantsSoon words like bryophytes, pteridophytes, angiosperms, gymnosperms, mycota… were floating around my head, dredged up from some corner of my brain, courtesy college-level Botany. And slowly, with each passing day, other plants came into focus, especially the non-flowering variety of ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi. (Strictly speaking fungi are not plants, but since they were considered to be part of the Plant Kingdom in the recent past, I have included them here.)

And before I knew it, I was traversing the fascinating world of ferns, mosses, lichens, fungi… and then some more.

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Charming Chail Palace

Chail (pronounced as Chaa-il) was the last destination of my Himachal trip. Our group stayed at the Chail Palace, the former residence of Bhupinder Singh, the former Maharaja of Patiala, and now part of the HPTDC group of hotels. The Chail Palace has an interesting history. It was built in 1891 after Maharaja Bhupinder Singh got expelled from Shimla. The brief story goes something like this:

Apparently the Maharaja was having a good thing going with a top ranking British official’s daughter/wife. (the accounts differ whether it was the daughter or the wife). As a result of this indiscretion, the Maharaja was expelled from Shimla. Furious, the Maharaja decided to ‘cock a snook’ at the British and build a grand palace at a location that would be visible from and higher in altitude than Shimla.

That location was Chail, a tiny village in the Shivalik Hills and across the valley from Shimla. How this particular location was picked is another interesting story and that was narrated to us by Jagat, a waiter at the hotel.

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The Sacred Spaces of Devbhoomi

I first came across the term “Devbhoomi” on the day I flew to Chandigarh to begin my Himachal Trip. The airline’s in-flight magazine had an article titled “10 things to do in Devbhoomi”. Now, I detest anything that talks about top 10 or 5 or 21 or any number for that matter, for they never make sense to me. I almost always skip such articles in question.

But the name Devbhoomi, which means land of the gods, intrigued me and I read on.   The article wasn’t particularly good or the “10 things to do” even half-way interesting for me. But the article did reveal one interesting fact: Devbhoomi is how the local Himachalis referred to their state, their land. Though this established that ‘Devbhoomi” was not a marketing gimmick like another Indian state’s claim of being “god’s own country”, I remained a little sceptical.

And over the 10 days that I spent travelling in Himachal Pradesh, I tried to understand why the locals referred to their land as Devbhoomi. Each day of my stay there brought in new insight, a new understanding… through visits to sacred sites, listening to narrations of folk tales and legends of sacred spaces from the locals, and experiencing nature in its elemental form. Every glimpse, every experience of a sacred space was an appreciation of the tangible and intangible meaning of Devbhoomi.

I am going to attempt to put together all those experiences here in this blog post. Let me begin this journey of the sacred spaces in Devbhoomi with the roadside shrines.

Sacred spaces, Roadside Shrines, Temples, Himachal Pradesh, Travel, Devbhoomi, Taranda Devi

Roadside Shrines in Devbhoomi. Clockwise from top left: Snakes on the temple spire; a gigantic Hanuman idol on the NH22 near Rampur; and the Taranda Devi temple

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Stranded in Sangla !

On the morning of September 21, 2013, I woke up to the sound the falling rain. When I stepped out of my room, this was the sight that greeted me. It is here that I will request you to backtrack a bit and read my previous post, if you haven’t read it already.

Sangla, Bad Weather, Kinnaur, Baspa Valley, Himachal PradeshI was at Sangla’s Kinner Camps in the Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh. Our tour group had arrived here the previous afternoon and we had had a great time exploring the neighbouring Batseri village and walking along the River Baspa till rain forced us to return. Though we were a little concerned about the sudden change in weather, we were also quite sure that the next day would dawn bright and sunny.

Bright? Sunny? It was dark, grey and cold and I could actually see fresh snowfall on the distant peaks. As I stood there wondering about the weather, Doreen, our tour organiser and manager, came around to ask us to be packed and ready to leave. Since the weather forecast was not encouraging, Pawan, our driver, had suggested that we leave Sangla at the earliest. The next hour was a rush as we packed and got ready to leave. While we had a hurried breakfast, our bags got loaded into our 3 vehicles.

As I got into my vehicle, I noticed that Pawan’s normally relaxed and mischievous face wore a worried look and I soon realised why. The road leading from Kinner Camps to the main road was not tarred or metalled and what was a passable dirt track had turned slushy with the rain. And combined with a very steep ascent, the ride to the top could be a tricky one.

It was a silent group that got into the vehicles and the only sounds were that of the falling rain. With a prayer on everybody’s lips, the vehicles took off. The first two vehicles made it to the top without any incident.

The third vehicle got stuck.

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The calm before the storm at Sangla

“Ready?” Pawan, our driver asks, smiling mischievously at me.

I am sitting in the front seat with Pawan and have a view of the road from the front windshield and the side window. I visibly gulp at the steep descent in front of us. We are in the Sangla Valley, just past the town of Sangla in the Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh, and have to negotiate that steep descent to reach Kinner Camps, where our group will be staying the next two days.

I look back to see the reaction of my travel companions, but there’s none — they’re all snoozing. I don’t blame them for it has been a tiring journey from Kalpa. A distance of 40 km has taken us almost 4 hours over impossibly bad roads, and past huge thermal power plant projects with the River Baspa as an almost constant companion.

Sangla Valley, Kinnaur, Himachal

Clockwise from left: Bad roads on the way to Sangla; a large thermal power project; and the River Baspa

I nod nervously at Pawan and he takes off and within minutes we are at the entrance to Kinner Camps, which is at the end that descent. After thanking Pawan, I get out of the vehicle to find that my legs feel a little shaky. That’s when I realise just how nervous I was during the ride. Though I consider myself to be a good and hardy traveller, 5 days on the Himalayan roads have made me look at road travel in a new light. Respect.

We are welcomed by the staff of Kinner Camps and led straight for a sumptuous lunch. By the time we finish our meal, our bags have been unloaded and waiting outside our rooms.

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The trek to Dalhousie’s Cottage

“Would you like to visit Dalhousie’s Cottage?” asked Prithvi.

It was our first tour group’s first evening at The Hotel Grand Shangri-La, Kalpa and we were having dinner. Prithvi, the Managing Director of the hotel, was offering suggestions with regard to places we could visit.

“Dalhousie? As in Lord Dalhousie?” I asked.

“Yes, the very same. His cottage is about 8 km from here,” was Prithvi’s reply.

“But what was Lord Dalhousie doing here? I mean, he has a place named after him, Dalhousie, in another part of Himachal Pradesh, right? Or is this the Dalhousie you’re talking about? I’m a little confused now,” said someone from my group.

“Dalhousie, the place, is quite different from what I’m talking about. This is a cottage that Dalhousie built for his stay whenever he came to this region. Kalpa was his favourite hunting ground, you know,” Prithvi said.

“Hunting, as in, shikaar?” asked another person.

“Yes. Kalpa used to have a lot of wildlife, including snow leopards and Dalhousie was particularly fond of hunting them. He used to sail up the Sutlej and then set up camp in the area. The cottage was built later, when his wife came here. Local legends say that she had an incurable disease and was dying..”

“She must have had TB,” piped up another voice from our group.

“So, would you all like to visit Dalhousie’s cottage tomorrow? It is a nice level walk on winding roads and under beautiful trees… It is only after we cross Roghi village that the climb begins — just the last 2 km, in fact. Those who cannot do the climb can stay back and rest in the village,” Prithvi said most persuasively.

Our group didn’t need much persuasion and there was a resounding yes from all of us and next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set off for the trek with Prithvi leading the way.

Kalpa, Trek to Dalhousie's Cottage, Travel, Himachal Pradesh, Kinnaur

Walking past brightly painted hotels in Kalpa. The yellow one in the background is called “Hotel Apple Pie” !

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