It’s easy to get philosophical, if not spiritual, when in Himachal Pradesh. Nature is what nature does. It makes even the most tone deaf among us sing paeans to the divinity one experiences in witnessing overwhelming natural beauty, delving into that heightened sense of emotional gratification one feels when real time experience matches fantasized expectation.
Five days of living with the majestic Dhauladhar range of mountains in the Kangra valley region of Himachal Pradesh and I knew I didn’t experience even a fraction of what this amazing state has to offer.
The reason I chose to visit the Kangra region as my initiation to Himachal was this wonderful homestay opportunity with a native family in Baijnath that would effectively allow me to pretend I always lived there.
It was in a cluster of houses separated by impossibly narrow lanes bordered by gutters carrying gushing mountain waters, a veritable maze that within walking minutes takes you as suddenly to the bus stand or bustling market or the single-track-no-platform railway station, as it suddenly widens your eyes to take in the beautiful vista of snowcapped mountains and swaying green fields.
Rose laden creeper shrubs everywhere are as ‘so what?’ to the locals as are the stunning mountains surrounding them. And a visiting family member among them is as welcome as a friend of a friend’s relative’s cousin thrice removed.
So besides being famous for the 13th century Baijnath Shiv temple (the myth surrounding the Shivling in the temple varies depending on who you ask), the town is just 14km from Bir and Billing, the paragliding capital of India.
Of course I had to do it. Paraglide, that is. One of those moments of my life when I really lived it up, literally! Sitting in the lap of the most benign of winds, surrounded by the imposing closeness of the Dhauladhars, looking at the red and blue roofed miniature looking houses in the greenest of valleys almost 10,000 feet below, it was 30 minutes of sheer joy.
What was unexpected though was the ride from the pickup point in Bir to the mountain top that is Billing – a steep 14km of hold-on-to-dear-life wild ride in the open back of a pick-up truck on the roughest of two-way mountain drives with some of the blindest of twists, guaranteed-to-kill drops and the most spectacular of views, driven at break neck speed by an unassuming maniac. Having survived that drive the actual jump off of the mountain with the glider felt a piece of cake.
The locals don’t do it – they think it’s the madness of outsiders and foreigners. They’d rather you visit the many temples dotting the plains and the mountain tops, not to leave out the holy Babaji who rarely “comes out”, “never speaks” and is assuredly 140 years old. Himachal is not called ‘Dev Bhoomi’ (Land of the Gods) for nothing, literally and metaphorically.
So, in deference, I did. Visited temples, that is. I also visited the ubiquitous Tibetan monasteries, which invariably are set in the most scenic of locations. And couldn’t help asking “Why?” Hindu temples are not able to maintain the same levels of cleanliness that these monasteries are able to do. Well, I guess that’s a sensitive subject.
To each of the places I visited – Barot Valley, Dharamshala (cricket stadium), McLeodganj (Naddi viewpoint), Palampur (tea gardens), Bir/Billing, Bhattu (monastery) and more – the journey was as exhilarating as the destination itself, reinforcing the organic bonding I was born to cherish with the mountains.
However, the conflict of emotions that arose from time to time was whenever I passed through the popular tourist locations where commercial construction – ugly, even to the non-discerning eye – proliferated the pristine mountainsides. These mushrooming multi-storied structures, mostly hotels, are undoubtedly in violation of norms, but hey, that’s the value we as a country place on our natural wealth.
The highlight of the trip for me – besides the paragliding adventure of course – was the authentic Himachali food I gorged on at the amazing Heritage Village resort in Palampur. Reaching the place itself, at the bottom of a steep valley, the last stretch of which is rough, unpaved road worked up an appetite which was more than satiated not just by the food, but also by the friendly couple who owned the resort, not to mention the god awesome views all around.
In sum, the only takeaway from this visit was the wonderment whether it is the beauty of the place that makes the people there so good or whether it is the good people there that make the place more beautiful. In these valleys, they make simplicity as a way of life, believable.
Well, leaving my spirit behind to linger on the snowcapped mountains a while longer, physically I did return home but with the promise to go back not just one more time, but season after season…