Himalaya · India · Life · Photography · Travel Writing

Life in Chitkul


Solo Himachal Bus Trip

The bus stop is located in front of the HPPWD guest house in Chitkul – and it is a welcome place to disembark if one is weary and looking for accommodation. It was therefore quite a dampener that the door was bolted and the building appeared deserted.

Therefore, I was forced to spend my first half hour in Chitkul surveying accommodation options – including the two hotels built on land leased from the locals by Bengali entrepreneurs and catering largely to Bengalis during the Puja season. I almost decided to stay in the Shahensha hotel that promises the ‘best view’ – of what it doesn’t say – till I noticed that the paint was peeling off the walls and what remained was a ghastly green tint.

So, taking a second chance, I walked back to the PWD guest house to find the chowkidaar indulging in his favourite pastime. This was an eye opener. Raising Negi has a military background and ruddy cheeks so characteristic of the hill folk, but he wasn’t getting drunk silly in the middle of the day. Instead, he was knitting a cap.

But of course I entered my name in the register.

The bathrooms were filthy but Mr negi was able to get water (after some struggle with the frozen pipe outdoors) and supply enough in a bucket for them to be useable. Around half past three in the afternoon, I commenced my aimless wandering in the village of Chitkul.

It was too early in the season for Chitkul to be full of visitors and the lanes were quite empty of people and most of the doors were closed – there was snow on the ground as well.

My first stop for the day was the ‘devi’ temple in Chitkul – it wasn’t locked and I entered through this exquisitely carved door.

The temple itself was closed though but the courtyard had a decorative pavilion and an ancillary building (I reckon for storing the ‘palkhi’ or the palanquin of the goddess as well as the associated musical instruments). The deity of Chitkul – devi – has great significance not only amongst the locals of the valley area but even for those attempting the kinnaur kailash parikrama. It is the only non-buddhist deity they must pay obeisance to.

I shot this video that should give you a three sixty degree of the surroundings as well as a good look on the temple itself.

The temple has some interesting decorative elements that reminded me of Tibetan influence – such as dragons carved on these panels in the ancillary building –

And these stone panthers on all four sides of the pavilion.

The temple appeared new and the front was decorated by lions made of some kind of polished metal. No one was about and some utensils used for ceremonies – such as this brass pot – seemed left behind hurriedly by those who had left the temple unattended.

With no one to explain anything, I walked out and to the second attraction of chitkul – the tall, disused tower. Many websites describe this as the fort of chitkul – perhaps due to its outward resemblance to the Kamru fort, while some others say it’s a house (which it most certainly is not, comparing it with the houses around it). I think it’s at-least a watchtower, with windows up on the story where people could live when it snowed all over and get a commanding view of the valley.

Given the altitude of chitkul, it’s no surprise that water is sourced from snow-melt. The water is channelized through cemented, open drains and the locals have learnt to work the flow to their own advantage. I noticed this as I followed the sound of a bell tolling continuously – it was emanating from a small hut like structure. Inside, was a prayer wheel that turned from the water flowing below as this short video will tell you –

I next wanted to get to the Buddhist temple, which is mentioned on a few sites and given the prayer wheel, I reckoned should be nearby. Sadly, it was closed– my only consolation was a picturesque lock of a small store room nearby.

This high up in the Himalayas, the houses are uniquely designed to withstand the long, terrible winters. The basement of each house is open and made of stilts – useful for keeping livestock in the summer. The boundary walls are made of stone while the roof is slate – now rapidly replaced by corrugated tin. A separate annexe building, contiguous with the main house is where the animals would climb in when the stilted basement gets filled up with snow.

I also came across a large quantity of logs of Himalayan Birch – Betula Utilis – known in Sanskrit and Hindi as Bhurja. A tree native to the Himalayas – it grows amidst conifers and the bark peels off easily and is called Bhojpatra. It was on this paper that some of the greatest epics of India in Sanskrit were written. Kalidasa, regarded as the greatest Sanskrit poet, ever, mentions the usage of Bhojpatra in 4th century AD. Till the introduction of paper by Akbar the great in sixteenth century, this natural paper was in widespread usage. In Chitkul, these logs were going to be used as firewood.

I then wanted to walk towards the ITBP camp that is the last point in the valley to which civilians are allowed to venture. As I was to start in that general direction, I looked up to find a man looking at me from a rooftop. He wasn’t wearing the usual kinnauri dress – but western clothes instead – and his hair was dark blonde. Turned out he was from Switzerland and was backpacking across India – I shall call him ‘L’.

After some small talk, we decided to walk together to the ITBP camp. The conversation proved an interesting diversion from my usual chat with the sundry bus drivers, conductors, home stay owners and wait staff that I had until then. We largely discussed the differences between the Indian democratic system and the Swiss, direct democratic system. Somewhere during the conversation he mentioned that chitkul was the one place through his six months of travel that reminded him most of home. The altitude, the snow, the forests, everything was ‘right’ – just a bit more raw – but he felt at home there. I was freezing already.

On the way to the ITBP camp, we crossed a party of perhaps fifteen men, carrying back the goddess to the temple of chitkul.

As they passed us by, I got some shots – the first man is carrying a gong, the second a ceremonial drum, third a ceremonial metal goglet; the one next carries a bell and the last one carries a whisk made of decorative clothing. The men wore traditional kinnauri clothing for most part – a thick woollen jacket, woollen trousers, kinnaur cap and were quite drunk by the look of the whites of their eyes.

They had freshly sacrificed a goat; cooked and washed it down with a local brew, sang and danced around the mobile temple – all in honor of the goddess. A man was carrying back what remained of the poor animal.

After this momentary shock to the senses, we focused again on the view of the Baspa River. In the golden hue of the fading sunlight the snow clad mountains around us were a very pleasing sight indeed.

Some distance from the ITBP camp, we turned back towards the village and walked back. I couldn’t help but click some more photos.

As darkness fell, L and I scouted for a place for dinner. This early in the season – the choice was easy – there was only one ‘dinning place’ open in town. The cook initially claimed he was from Nepal. I pressed him a bit to explain his name ‘damru’ to me – he confessed he was from Bihar, but would tell anyone who cared that he was from Nepal so people would eat his Chinese food without a fuss. He shouldn’t have bothered with the charade, it was excellent stuff.

Sleep didn’t come easily as the curtains turned out to be in tatters when I tried to close them at night – this resulted in a cold, cold room. Luckily, there were two thick quilts as well as a room heater.

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