A breath of fresh air. A place where time stands still. This was our temptation before we decided to set out on our trip to the Kangra valley. Pragpur is India’s first Heritage village and is nestled in the Kangra valley surrounded by the imposing Dhauladhar range. It’s also the perfect base to explore Kangra, Jwalaji, Chamunda, Ranital, Chintpurni, Palampur, Dharamsala and McLeodganj. So we packed our bags, called a cab and proceeded to the Railway station to catch our train. The train, Himachal Express, goes from the Old Delhi railway station to Una, a town about 60 kilometers from Pragpur, our base for 3 days. Una is the nearest station to Pragpur. The other nearby stations are Pathankot and Jalandar. We must warn you about the Old Delhi station though. It is by far the filthiest station we have ever seen and also the most chaotic. After waiting in our scheduled platform for an hour we realized that the train had already arrived in a different platform and no one had cared to make an announcement. Thankfully a helpful couple pointed us to our train in time. The train itself was comfortable, with the air-conditioning set to a good temperature and clean sheets and pillows were provided. We left Delhi at 11 pm.
At 7:30 am we reached Una. Judge’s Court, our heritage hotel in Pragpur, had organized a car for our pick-up. Pragpur is about an hour and a half from Una. We drove past the foot hills and reached Pragpur around 600m in the hills. The Judge’s Court, is a Country Manor and has a Raj flavour to it. The staff was extremely courteous and showed us to our antique room complete with a fireplace and dim incandescent lighting. It was very cozy.
It was Saturday, our first day at Pragpur and what better way to explore the valley than by foot. After a good continental breakfast, delicious apple jam, we set out on our supposed 8 kilometer trek to Chamba Pattan on the Beas river bank.
We explored Pragpur, India’s first notified heritage village, walking through the lazy yet buzzing market place, the ornamental tank, and past 200 year old buildings. We then walked through the village of Muhin, lost our way, adding an extra 3 kilometers and arrived at Garli, another heritage village, older than Pragpur. The grand but deserted buildings gave us a good peek into what might have been a very sophisticated and charming village a few decades ago. As we walked through these villages what struck us most was the number of schools and healthcare facilities in the area. Himachal Pradesh has the second highest literacy rate in India and one of the best states for healthcare. We were very impressed.
We continued through Garli and past tinier hamlets and reached Chamba Pattan. A small village on the banks of the river Beas, this was a perfect picnic spot. Thanks to the staff at Judge’s court we had our own hamper of sandwiches and cutlets. We spent a few hours walking by the river, soaking our tired feet and chasing pigeons. We paid the local boatman a few rupees to ferry us from bank to bank as he shuttled the locals across the river. It was then that we realized how diverse India can be. 24 hours before, we were trapped in stressful concrete buildings, breathing processed air, and bustling through traffic with half the vehicles following neither the rules nor the emission standards. And here we were finding total repose in the middle of nowhere.
We returned to Pragpur, changing buses at the village of Bani. The trip cost us 10 Rupees for the two of us as opposed to the 100 it would have cost if we had taken a cab back. And we had the opportunity to stare at the man who refused to stop staring at Shwetha. Other than him, the villagers are very friendly and warm people. The sun sets by 5:30 pm and the whole place is shrouded in a misty blanket. The evenings can get quite chilly so taking woolens in winter is advisable. Tired from our mini adventure we spent the rest of the evening relaxing at the Judge’s Court, sipping masala tea, playing with the resident dog Toddler and having a four course dinner with Daniel and Maddie’s family. He, a Canadian, is a consultant with the World Bank and she, from Ivory Coast, is a human rights specialist. Dinner at Judge’s court is a grand affair with the band playing the state anthem. Dinner is generally served on the lawns and Toddler welcomes a crumb or two. We had a delightful evening discussing the privileges, troubles and responsibilities of being pale skinned in a dark skinned land.
We woke up fairly early, 6:30 am on a Sunday morning, to the birds chirping. This was such a welcome treat from the booming door bell noise we wake up to every morning. We strolled down the cobbled streets to the ornamental tank.Karthik and I found plenty of subjects for our respective PADs.
Our day was planned for us. We were on our way to Kangra fort about 40 kilometers from Pragpur.
Set in the hills, this was a much contested property, changing hands multiple times through the Muslim invasion, Hindu Stronghold, Sikh warriors, and the British revolution. The path leading to the top of the fort is winding and steep.From the fort one can see the most magnificent Dhauladhar mountain range, towering mythically over the lower foothills of Himachal. This view of the snow capped peaks is truely breath taking. We got very philosophical looking at the formidable mountains. It is no surprise that Himachal is so rich in spirituality and religion.
From the town of Kangra we proceeded north to Dharamsala, 20 kilometers, and a thousand meters higher, into the mountains. Dharamsala is now a busy, expensive, commercial town, having been taken over by the exiled people of Tibet. We proceeded further north through the strikingly different cantonment area, past the church of St. John, (Lord Elgin is buried here) and to Mcleod Ganj. It is a spiritual paradise where Buddhism prevails and the Dalai Lama is larger than life. We intended to stop here but first we had to trek up to Bhagsunag falls, 2 km away in the tiny settlement area of Bhagsu. The climb was quite steep and there was a danger sign put up by the authroties but this didn’t prevent the numerous tourists from making their way up. The water was cold, the air was chilly, and the few tourists and monks were all lost in the wilderness of the surrounding forests and mountain goats.
As we descended into Mcleod Ganj and arrived at the Namgyal monastery, the main prayer hall and teaching center of the Dalai lama, a certain inner calm and peacefulness descended upon us. We walked around the hall, praying, we turned the chanting wheels, praying and we saw the large Buddha idols and we prayed. We prayed for peace, having heard the day before of the violent and imprudent loss of life in the Delhi bombings. We then ate lunch at Chonor house, Richard Gere’s resting place when he comes to heighten his Buddhist sensibilities.
From Mcleod Ganj, we went to the Norbulingka Institute, set in the remote village of Sidhpur, on the Yol road from Dharamsala. It is a registered trust set up by the Dalai Lama for the preservation of Tibetian Culture in both its literary and artistic forms. The Losel Doll Museum is a must see. The dolls are both an ethnographical record and a work of art but the shops were too expensive to buy any souvenirs. Being uneducated about the details of Tibetan art, we preferred the cheap bargain permitting bazaars of Mcleod Ganj than the expensive ‘Fixed-price’ policy of the shop at the institute.
We returned again to our quiet backyard at the Judge’s Court for another hot cup of tea, some samosas and an interesting discourse with Anne, a South African, on a 3 month pilgrimage through India, about the progress and future of the Tibetan people in India. Are they living on a daily basis, learning their art and culture and selling their crafts or are they getting equal opportunities to become doctors and engineers? Are they even interested to build a career? For dinner, we had the pleasure of exchanging travel views of India, and also tangentially the state of breweries and liquor laws in the different Indian states, with Ulrich, a chemical engineer who was a consultant with United Breweries in the ’80s and his wife Marianne, both from Denmark. Another enriching day.
Our last day at Pragpur, also the day of Diwali, our first and very important to our married life. So we decided to go the religious way and visit the Shakti temples, heavily loaded with legendary folklore. We started with Chintpurni about 27 kilometers from Pragpur, where a winding road goes up to the temple dedicated to Bhagwati Chinmastika or Chintpurni – the goddess who grants all wishes. People from Himachal, Punjab and Haryana frequent this temple and given the family holiday and that it was a Monday we had a relatively easy access to the idol. It can be thronged in the weekends.
We wound our way to Dada Siba, a temple built in 1813, with wonderful Kangra paintings that are now in the process of being restored by INTACH. There’s a superb view of the waters of the Beas Dam as you bump your way over the dry river bed leading to the shrine. The restoration of the paintings is under way and it is said that most of the paintings have a feminine touch to them. The idol itself had a very calming face. It was here that we saw the thinning line between rural and urban India. Restoring the murals in this unknown temple village were a bunch of girls, gossiping in impeccable English, singing the latest Bollywood track and yet painting with skill that has been lost for decades.
From Dada Siba we went to Chanaur, an even smaller village, with a temple that is said to exist from the times of the Pandavas. The temple is unknown but the water mills, are famous. Tourists always come to see the simpler but ever more fascinating things. Channeling the water from the Beas the locals have setup numerous mills along the village to grind corn and wheat. Bring your corn and see them give you a good demonstration of the process. We then paid homage at the temple and continued on our own pilgrimage.
We reached our last stop, Jwalamukhi or Jwalaji temple. There is no idol, just a flame lit from an unknown, ever-quenching source of natural gas. People come from all over to witness the power (shakti) of this flame. The temple complex now houses newer temples, the most popular of them all, the Tara Devi mandir on top of a hill.
We had lunch at the River View Resorts which offers a magnificent view of the river Beas. We returned to our village, blessed and happy. We rested for a while, and around 6:30 in the evening left for Una ready to catch our train to boring, congested, spoilt Gurgaon. This trip combined the solace of the hills, food for the mind and soul, and a flavour of the Raj era. Overall a refreshing getaway which transports you away from the mundane pace of urbane life.