Path Less Taken
The Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh is a magical land for adventure seekers and off-beat travelers. While most tourist guides and conventional travellers pick up spots which are common in guidebooks and informational website, the real charm of discovering the valley lies in taking the path less taken. Keeping this in mind, my brother and I planned a road trip to explore Kullu and some of its not-so-obvious spots such as the Great Himalayan National Park, Serolsar Lake and the Towers of Banjar Valley.
Our Drive To Aut
I vividly remember the morning of the day we took off for Tirthan Valley. As we sat eating breakfast, a cousin dropped by to give us a download of his recent trip to the valley. He had spent a lot of time on the Tirthan river-side (that is how the valley got its name) and he shared with us his wish to visit the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) someday where the glacial origin of the Tirthan lies - the Hanskhund cold springs.
Being men of the mountain, we are most at home there and so as we bid him goodbye, I promised him that I would take him along for the extensive GHNP trip I had planned on taking soon. Later in the day, we commenced our trip to Tirthan Valley from Bakloh.
The plan was to halt at Aut in the Mandi District of Himachal Pradesh for the night. After reaching Nurpur, we followed NH 154 and traveled for 250 km. The journey went smoothly, we played our favourite songs and admired the ever-changing flora & fauna and the mesmerizing beauty of the mountains whenever we had to pass through one. A good tip is to keep oneself hydrated as the altitude keeps changing from
relatively low-lying towns to steep ascents.
It was 11 pm when we reached our destination and we managed to find a small cottage to check into. The place did not have a catering facility but since it was dark and with lack of other options, we decided to stay there. My brother and I love last minute plans as it adds an element of anticipation to the trip but
whenever we travel in larger groups, we book all our stays in advance. Also, whenever we go for such trips, we usually carry a mobile kitchen and dry food supplies with us.
I wasn’t feeling like much of a chef that night, so I settled for cooking Maggi with eggs. While I tossed up our quick dinner, my brother enjoyed some soothing music with drinks. The long & winding road trip had got to us, so we got a very sound sleep that night and woke up the next morning refreshed.
I opened the window and was pleasantly surprised to see a wonderful scenery outside. There was fog all around and the rays of the sun beautifully kissed the blue waters of the Beas river. We were fortunate to be able to drink our morning tea while viewing this scenery.
Onward To Tirthan
My brother rustled up a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, butter and bread. Soon after we started our journey to Tirthan valley by proceeding towards Largi Dam situated on the Beas river. In the absence of Google Maps, the best way to stay on the route is to follow the road alongside the Tirthan river (also known as the Parvati). We came across a magnificent waterfall on the way and surprisingly it did not have a name; but I made sure to put a marker on it so that I can come back to this place again.
Overall, while it was a single stretch of road, the greenery of the plains, the vast landscape and the river which seemed to journey alongside us, made for some great view. Also, as I often tend to notice the small stuff along the way, we ended up stopping at an apple garden, chatting with a family that stayed in the orchard and stopped by a few local shops for exchanging small talk.
Tales Of Gushaini
A little before Largi, a lone traveller who wanted to go to Banzar, asked us for a lift. Luckily for us, he was aware of the roads and could help us with the directions in the absence of net connectivity. He doubled as a treasure trove of interesting trivia about the region. He told us that on the way to Gushaini, there is a road which leads to the village of Sanchi (stretching for about 25 kms) via Naglari.
Sanchi is the starting point for the trek towards Lambri Hills. Due to numerous hikers being attracted to the trek, a camp has been established there for their convenience. I made a mental note to check this out on another trip.
For the rest of the trip, we connected by singing some local folk songs and after travelling for about 25-30 kms, we reached Banzar where we dropped off our fellow-traveler. We then headed to Gushaini via Naglari, to make our way to the ‘Great Himalayan National Park’- a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Given the vastness of the park and the variety in terrain, it makes for a perfect trekking canvas for the experienced and the novice, alike. However, for us, it was to be a short visit given that we had to move ahead on our trip. I remembered some of the earlier trips we had taken here with small groups with everything from meals & activities planned. On one such trip, we also camped out in the forest. We parked our car at a spot in Gushaini and walked for about 10 kms as there was no motorable road. We experienced the beauty of a gorgeous waterfall in the village of Rolla, about 4 kms from Gushaini. My brother just then realised that it was getting late, so we quickly made a return to our car, to proceed to Jalori Pass.
It soon turned dark. At about 10PM, we reached a tunnel near Largi Dam and my mobile phone switched off. We were a bit worried and so stopped near a small tea stall to recharge the phone. I thought it would be a good idea to also enquire about guest houses or accommodations nearby as we were already weary from the long day. As luck would have it, I fortunately met the owner of a guest house located nearby and he invited us over. I was also relieved to know that they served food as neither of us was in a mood to fire up the stove and cook dinner.
The place was cosy and clean. As soon as we checked in, we had a quick bath and went to the common dining area for dinner which was home-cooked. I cannot stress enough, the pleasure that a well cooked and warm meal can bring at the end of a long road trip and this did just that. Dinner was delicious meat gravy with rice; cooked so well that the meat fell off the bones. The taste was enhanced by the local ingredients that were used and we thanked our stars for making us run into the owner of the guest house.
The Legend of Serolsar Lake
Owing to tired bodies and a late dinner, sleep got the better of us and we woke up late in the morning. The caretaker made us a breakfast of pakodas (deep fried fritters) accompanied by tea and we started our journey to Jalori pass at 11 am. In fact, we intended to get to Serolsar Lake and were using Jalori pass as a marker. We continued on the same road upto Banzar market and reached a place called Ghiyagi. Although the road till there was narrow and dangerous, we enjoyed the journey as it closely lined the foothills of the mountains. We decided to have our lunch at Ghiyagi.
At the dhaba (restaurant), a driver who was accompanying a family, informed us that the road ahead up to Sohja is a kachha road and in a bad state; and moreover, there is no petrol pump on the way. While my brother was confident that we would get through with the petrol we had, one can never be too sure when undertaking trips to such remote areas. So we topped up the tank - adventure and thrill should be balanced with a realistic view of risks in such scenarios. We reached Jalori Pass sooner than we expected, at about 3 pm and a guide informed us that Serolsar Lake is accessible only on foot from that point. With our car parked in a safe spot, we picked up our backpack and essentials and trudged along to the lake. While the distance was only 5 kms, it took us about an hour and a half to get there.
For those keen on knowing, there are no restaurant/hotel/cottages near the lake but an arrangement of temporary huts for those wanting to stay the night. There aren’t any shops too and a few tea stalls are strewn along the way. To enjoy the lake peacefully, it would bode one well to carry food and other items of comfort. As for my brother and I, we stopped by at a dilapidated tea stall for some warm tea and hookah and spent an easy 2 hours there discussing the lake, its legends and Budhi Nagin with the locals.
Serolsar Lake (also Serol Sar) lies right in the middle of the alpine forest, is pristine in appearance and is said to have medicinal properties. The water is so clear that local residents believe that even if a leaf fall into the lake, it is immediately picked up by a bird. Interestingly, no satisfactory geological study has ever been done to calculate the depth of the lake accurately. This made me wonder if it had to do something with the legend of the Budhi Nagin (old snake goddess).
Budhi Nagin is the mother of all Nag (Snake) deities such as Shesh-Nag, Kamru-Nag, Mahu-Nag, Ghunda Nag and other Nag Lords of the Himachal state. The temple of Budhi Nagin is a holy spot and is located next to the lake. It is said that the Serolsar Lake is very deep and that Budhi Nagin herself lives in a golden palace at the bottom of the lake.
One day, a long time ago, as the legend goes, a Brahmin from the nearby Shoja village came to the lake and drowned himself. Budhi Nagin saved him and allowed him to stay in her palace for three years. After three years, the brahmin returned. His friends and family had, by then, assumed that he was dead and were surprised to see him. He was repeatedly asked where he had been for three years and he reluctantly revealed the truth. The moment he did so, he died and any of his descendants who tried to visit the lake thereafter met with accidents on the way and perished. Incidentally, the brahmin’s house in Shoja village still exists.
It is also said that the Pandavas visited the Serolsar Lake during the Dwaparyug period of their exile and planted rice as a form of sustenance. Not indigenous to the area, one can, even today, see the rice plants next to the lake. The locals narrated a lot of other interesting stories and before we knew it, it was 6:30 pm and was turning dark.
We decided to go back to the village of Banjar as the road for our next day's journey bifurcated from there. Our plan was to head to Chehni Kothi, located in Banjar district as the guest-house we stayed at the previous night was nearby, we checked ourselves in back again. Dinner was rice, dal and fried chicken, just what we were yearning for.
The Towers of Banjar Valley
We woke up early the next day, got ourselves a quick breakfast of roti and piping hot kaali daal (black pulse) and made our way to the Banjar market at about 8 am. Our plan was to visit the legendary towers of Shringa Rishi and Chehni Kothi. These were fortified towers built to play the role of garrisoning stations by King Dhadhu in the 17th Century. From the market, we followed a supposedly motorable road for 10 kms and reached a large gate declaring the names of the temple and marked the end of this short but uncomfortable drive.
We parked our car outside and started on this trail which passed through dense apple trees, bushes and flowering plants. The trails was very narrow and steep in certain parts. We finally reached the Shringa Rishi temple after what seemed like 5 kms.
As we caught our breath, we overheard a tour-guide telling a group about how these towers stood the onslaught of large earthquakes and given the tower's height they played a crucial role in providing vantage points for the security of the villages.
Due to their location and structure, they also were used for storing grains and supplies. Hence these towers were not just places of worship but doubled up as multi-purpose buildings. We moved past these ancient gates and walked some more till we reached other structures. The main temple structure itself was tall and could be accessed via weak wooden stairs. It seemed only the priests did this to offer prayers. Always in for some adventure, my brother and I walked right up and it was surely worth it!
The village itself was beautiful, surrounded by apple trees and the villagers were very friendly. Thankfully, we had taken a hint from a fellow traveler during our last trip to Kullu and decided to stay with a local family in Chehni village for a reasonable sum of INR 700. It was worth it, ending our trip in the arms of these mountains, taking in the cool breeze and talking late into the night. It won’t be long before I head to this magical valley again.