Saturday, December 6, 2014

Enchanting Himachal – Visiting Chowari Jot

Enchanting Himachal – Visiting Chowari Jot
Panoramic view of Chowari Jot
         We started from Chamba early in the morning sans B’fast, as we were to reach Dalhousie, which is 56 Kms. away after visiting Chowari Jot.  On the way we got the B’fast packed and headed upwards towards Chowari Jot.  ‘Jot’ in the local dialect refers to a high mountain pass and the name Chowari is based on the name of village on the way towards Kangra, as Chowari Jot is the pass that connects Chamba & Kangra Districts of Himachal Pradesh.  The other route to reach Kangra from Chamba is via Pathankot.  However, the Chowari Jot is only accessible during the summers as being perched at an altitude of 2300 meters above sea level, it is receives copious amounts of snow during the winter season and is closed for vehicular traffic.  From Chamba one reaches Gete village, wherefrom the road bifurcates towards Chowari Jot and Khajjiar.  Even the route for Dalhousie through Khajjiar (about 56 Kms.) gets blocked during the winter months and the vehicles from Chamba have to traverse all the way back upto Banikhet to reach Dalhousie.

As the road meanders towards Chowari jot from Chamba
            Chowari Jot is therefore, a strategic mountain pass of the region and after reaching Gete village, we took the road towards the Jot, which is further 11 Kms. from this point and the total distance from Chamba to Chowari Jot is 22 Kms.  The road from Gete village onwards gets fairly steep as the pass is perched atop the hillock.  However, the local villages perched atop hills & vales below offer interesting sights and gradually as one heads upwards, the vegetation too changes from Pines to Deodar trees and flowers like Daisies start appearing by roadsides.  The Government has constructed small huts atop numerous hillocks that mark the Chowari Jot top, in order to encourage tourism.  However, it does not appear to have taken off, as there are hardly any eating joints or any such other attractions catering to tourists atop Chowari Jot.  Moreover, local herders were found grazing the cattle inside the designated picnic spot, which were found loitering & littering dung all over.  It is not for the Government only to prepare the infrastructure, but local participation by residents is also a must to make an idea a success, which would finally have helped the locals economically, in case the tourists arrived at the destination.  However, in the present conditions, I do not think foreign & economically sound tourists would enjoy the destination.  Moreover, as the Dian Kund of Dalhousie is connected to Chowari Jot through a trekking route, this spot could have been converted into a adventure sport destination also.  Since we were carrying our B’fast, we did not mind this little debacle and had our B’fast at a clean spot.
Daisies galore at Chowari jot
Panoramic view of Pir Panjal ranges from Chowari jot
Close up of the mountain ranges from Chowari jot
            Chowari Jot offers spectacular views of the Himalayan vistas across a 180 degree angle and the entire Dhauladhar Ranges, Pir Panjal Ranges and the mighty Zanskar Range is also visible from the spot.  However, as it had not rained and there was considerable dust in the air, the view was not all that clear but from the strategic location it can be easily assumed that this spot would offer a spectacular view for the mountain/Himalayas lover on a clear day.  We shot photographs and also a video of the destination and my son, being a bit overwhelmed by the sights, decided to take a shot from a vantage point.  No sooner had he perched himself for the shoot, that he scampered down at break neck speed with a Ram in hot pursuit.  It was only that he had crossed me that the Ram stopped and walked away.  We spent some quality time amongst the Daisies at Chowari Jot and for a nature lover, the place would remain ensconced in one’s heart for long. 
View of theKangra side from Chowari jot
            During our return leg, the driver purchased some local sweetmeat (locally known as Barfi in Hindi) prepared from condensed milk produced locally by slowly heating milk with sugar over a long duration.  My wife too purchased a pack for consumption and thus, ended our visit to the famed Chowari Jot.
Video of the destination -

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Enchanting Himachal – Visiting the temple town of Chamba

Enchanting Himachal – Visiting the temple town of Chamba
(A photo essay)
Bird's eye view of Chamba township
Chamba is the millennium town of Himachal Pradesh, having completed a thousand years of its existence.  Nestled on the banks of Ravi River, at an altitude of 996 meters above mean sea level, it is a picturesque little township.   Chamba town was founded by Raja Sahil Varman in the beginning of 10th Century. In the genealogical rolls of the Chamba Rajas, a reference occurs of place, which was adorned with highly fragrant Champaka trees and guarded by Goddess Champavati.  The other legend goes that Chamba was named by its founder after his daughter named Champawati.   The town stands on a plateau on the right bank of the Ravi River, with the entire township having been built around a central Chowgan.  Chowgan is the Persian name of Polo, being of Sanskrit origin, meaning 'four-sided'.   Initially the five Chowgans were a single patch of meadow, but gradual encroachment and access roads has now divided it, as can be seen from the bird’s eye view of the township.  Having been established in the 10th Century A.D, in order to commemorate the event of its competing a 1000 years of existence, the Government of Himachal Pradesh had organized a festival from the 14th to 20th April, 2006 and had also constructed a traditional gate at the Chowgan.
View of the other side of Chamba township from Chamunda temple top
Small villages on spurs surrounding Chamba township (shot with 500mm lens) 
Forest fire over hills across Chamba
The millennium festival commemorative gate at Chamba chowgan 
Panoramic view of chowgan in Chamba
Shopping stalls around chowgan in Chamba
Akhand Palace in Chamba - now a degree college
As the sun sets across the Chamba township
Chamba at night - check out the forest fire in the background
            Chamba town has a number of temples, Palaces and other iconic buildings. The singularly attractive objects of interest are the old temples, which exhibit architectural beauty of design and execution.  The main amongst them, being the famed Laxmi Narayana Temple, which is the main temple of Chamba town, having being built by Sahil Varman in the 10th century AD. There are six other temples within the complex, mostly dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, with one amongst them being dedicated to Lord Hanuman.  The temples are dedicated to Radha Krishna, Shiva Temple of Chandergupta and Gauri Shankar Temple is amongst them. The ancient temple of Vajreshwari is believed to be 1000 years old and is dedicated to Devi Vajreshwari-Goddess of lightning.  The main idol or statute of Lord Vishnu inside the famed Laxmi Narayan temple is said to have been sculpted out from unique and costly marble sourced from the Vindyachal ranges and as per the legends, it is stated that the King lost six of his sons while seeking to transport this piece of marble and only the seventh & youngest son was able to execute the task.  Apart from this main temple complex, the other old temple is that of Hari Rai temple, which is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and dates back to 11th century A.D and purported to have been built by King Salakara Varman, as is mentioned in a copper-plate inscription of the 11th century.  The statute inside the temple is made of ‘Asta-dhatu’ (a mixture of eight metals), in ‘Chaturbhuj’ (four armed) form.  An interesting anecdote is associated with this temple, during the early 1970’s the statute of this temple was stolen and was recovered after a period of two months, just as it was to board upon an Airplane from Bombay (now ‘Mumbai’).  The other main temple is the Champavati temple built by King Sahil Varman in honour of his daughter by the same name, situated just behind the Police Post near Chowgan, but I did not visit the temple because of intense heat during the day.  Though as per the information, the temple exhibits the Shikhara style of architecture and it has a huge roof in the form of a wheel. The walls are adorned with stone sculptures and the presiding deity of the temple is Goddess Durga, also called the Mahishasura-mardini (Slayer of demon Mahishasura) is worshiped in this temple.
Panoramic view of Chamunda Devi temple
The sculpture of tiger in the forecourt of Chamunda temple
Finely carved wooden panels inside the Chamunda Devi temple
Ancient sculptures outside the Chamunda temple 
The Shivalaya outside the Chamunda temple
The famed Sui mata temple in Chamba
Closeup view of Queen Sui mata in the temple dedicated to her
            Apart from these temples, which are situated right in the Chmba town, there are two other important temples situated a little away from the main township.  The most important one amongst these is the Chamunda temple, perched atop a spur on the ridge known as Shah Madar overlooking the Chamba township.  The temple pre-dates the existence of the Chamba township and is dedicated to the fierce form of Goddess Kali, known as the Chamunda.  The ancient origin of this temple can also be inferred from its style of construction, whereas all other temples in Chamba region are built according to the north Indian ‘Nagara’ style, this particular temple is the only one constructed atop a square platform with wood with garbled roof (single storey) in this region.  The inside of the slate roofed temple is a display of exquisitely carved wooden pillars and roof tiles, displaying figures of Gods, Goddesses and other human and celestial figures.  The statue inside is probably made of ‘Astha dhatu’ (mixture of eight metals) and glitters in the obeisance of her devotees.  There is also a small Shiva temple in the precincts of the temple as well as an old Peepul (Ficus’) tree.  Just outside the main temple gate hangs a huge brass bell alongwith many other smaller bells, an inscription found at the temple site states that this bell weighing 27 ‘Seers’ (an old system of weight in India) and costing Rs.27/- was donated by one Pandit Vatradhara on 2nd April, 1762.  During the ancient times access to this temple was very difficult, however, during the 18th Century (1762) Raja Umed Singh built a stairway from Mohalla Sapri in Chamba running 378 steps to the temple top.  Presently a motorable road runs right upto the temple gate through the Chamba Jumahar Road at a distance of 3 Kms. from Chamba.  However, devout pilgrims prefer to walk up the stairway, as it is believed that the worship is accepted by the Goddess only through this access way.  A fair in held in the temple complex, when the sister of the presiding deity Mata Chamunda Devi, known as Barari Mata visits her for a period of one week during the monsoon season. 
The famed Bhuri Singh museum in Chamba
One of the bronze sculpture's in the Bhuri Singh museum
One of the jewelry item's displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
One of the painted panels displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
One of the painted door panels displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
One of the stone sculptures displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
One of the famed Chamba paintings displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
Another of the stone sculpture displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
Another one of the stone sculpture displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
A  stone panel displayed in the Bhuri Singh museum
Hand painted gold leafed Ramayana in Bhuri Singh museum
An ancient stone edict displayed in Bhuri Singh museum
An ancient copper edict displayed in Bhuri Singh museum
An ancient copper edict displayed in Bhuri Singh museum
(to read the contents please right click to display the photo in a new tab)
The craftsman of Chamba at work
Located on the same Chamba Jumahar Road is the Sui Mata temple, the legend about this temple is that there was intense scarcity of water in the Saho village situated nearby.  King Sahil Varman got an aqueduct built to provide solace to the parched villagers, but try as he may, the water failed to pass through the aqueduct.  As all his engineers & other knowledgeable persons failed to provide any solution, the King turned towards his Priests, who after consulting the celestial stars etc., informed the King that the spirit of the water stream from water source was required to be propitiated with Royal blood.  The King immediately made preparations for sacrificing his son to propitiate the Spirit.  Hearing this, the Queen Sunaina Devi approached the King to spare her son and instead sacrifice her.  The King after consulting the Priests agreed and the Queen was buried alive and from that day onwards the water flowed through the aqueduct and continues to flow till this day.  In order to honour the supreme sacrifice made by the Queen, a temple was constructed at the site known as the Sui Mata Temple and an annual congregation takes place here during the monsoons every year.
The famed Hari Rai temple in Chamba
Presiding deity of Hari Rai temple in Chamba
Panoramic view of the Laxmi Narayan temple in Chamba
The presiding deity of Laxmi Narayan temple in Chamba
Lord Hanuman temple in Laxmi Narayan temple complex in Chamba
Sculpted panel outside the Laxmi Narayan temple complex in Chamba
Thunder goddess or Vajreshwari devi inside Laxmi Narayan temple complex in Chamba
            A yet another place of interest in Chamba town is the Bhuri Singh Museum at Chamba which came into existence on 14th September, 1908. It is named after Raja Bhuri Singh who ruled Chamba from 1904 to 1919.  Raja Bhuri Singh appears to have been a great philanthropist, who donated his family collection of paintings etc. to the museum. The other most famous item of the region is the embroidered Chamba-Rumals as their drawings are made by Pahari painters, though the embroidery is done by the household ladies.  Other than this is the famous Chamba Chappal for ladies, which too is beautifully handcrafted and embroidered.  The entire market area catering to all these items including the temples are situated around the Chowgan and during the evenings, it appears that the entire Chamba town descends for walks, meetings & eating.  We too enjoyed the evening out in the Chowgan in Chamba, having some fresh fried fish, Kulfis, softie’s et al.  That is a pen portrait of Chamba town for you.

Here is a link to the video for the destination

Friday, October 3, 2014

Visiting Holi & Laake Wali Mata temple

Enchanting Himachal – Visiting Holi & Laake Wali Mata temple
River Raavi flowing along the road to Holi
            As we intended to visit Holi, the day after we had visited Hadsar, we got up in the morning, a wee bit leisurely and after having a sumptuous B’fast started away for Holi.  We had to retrace back our steps upto Kharamukh, which is about 14 Kms. from Bharmour.  After getting down to Kharamukh, we took the road towards Holi, which is situated at a distance of 24 Kms. from Kharamukh.  As the gradual ascent started, the scenic beauty of the destination became apparent.  The road was narrower, with the tarring missing from road at many a spots.  We passed by many small villages like Suai, Channota Khas, Lamu, Greema etc. and finally reached Holi after two hours drive, with usual photography breaks in between.

As we leave the entry gate of Bharmour - headed for Holi
Bridge across Raavi River at Kharamukh - birds eye view from road above
Struck in unusual kind of traffic jam - blocked by flock of sheep -
trade mark of the region associated with the Gaddis
Villages perched along the Raavi River Valley
Another pristine view of Raavi River Valley
The green tunnel - trees along the road to Holi
            The route to Holi is a very scenic as the entire road traverses along the banks of Ravi River, with occasional glimpse of snow clad Dhauladar peaks as a backdrop.   One comes across villages perched atop the ridges or clinging onto the mountainside, albeit precariously, with fruit trees and small patches of cultivated lands interspersed.  Most of the village homes appear to have been constructed in a traditional manner, using wood and slate tiled roofs.  Once in a while, the road gets blocked by a herd of sheep & goats being tended to by the Gaddis, making their way towards the higher mountain slopes.  As the schools start a bit late in the morning in these regions, we also came across batches of children cheerfully walking past, headed for their schools.  In all it is a slow paced but immensely peaceful and endowed with scenic beauty akin to what one used to seeing in photographs of Switzerland or Kinnaur region of India.  Holi is perched at an altitude of 2250 meters or about 7500 feet above mean sea leave with the backdrop of the beautiful, snow clad Talang Pass and other snow adjoining mountains. It is a place for doing nothing but rejuvenating and relaxation, if one is able to get the booking of PWD/Forest Rest House, which is located in a very strategic point on a ridge, it is the place for imbuing the scenic beauty of the place. Holi is also the base for some of the high altitudes treks, such as Talang Pass (4643m), Waru Pass (3850m) and Kalah Pass (4720m).  Whereas, Talang Pass is one of the most difficult passes on the Dhuladhar range, considered so because of its high altitude and almost vertical climbs. The pass normally opens towards the end of July.  An interesting incident occurred here in Holi and I would like to share with the readers, as I was busy photographing the Talang Pass with my son, an ageing local peon or chowkidar from either the PWD Rest House or some nearby Government Office, who was thoroughly drunk, right in the morning, appeared and started a conversation with me, which I could not follow because of the dialect.  My driver spoke to him in the local dialect and he was gone for a minute and then back in a jiffy, with a bottle of chilled cold drink and would not let go of me till I had it and I had to finally relent to his wishes.  Later when I enquired from my driver as to what he had told the poor soul, he informed me that he had merely told him that I was a very senior officer and he should not be disturbing me, but he himself was flummoxed by the response of the character.  Initially I felt bad as the poor soul, as he refused to take any money from me, but then I resigned to the Hindu belief that maybe he had a debt to repay from some past birth/rebirth cycle and he had  repaid the same it in this manner.
Typical slate tiled roofs of village homes
Panoramic view of the Talang Pass as viewed from Holi
Extreme close up of Talang Pass from Holi 
Holi township viewed from PWD Resthouse
Raavi flowing by - headed beyond Holi towards Laake Wali Mata temple
Mountain stream flowing by
            Having enjoyed the scenic beauty of Holi, we proceeded further ahead towards La’ake Wali Mata, which is a famed pilgrimage for the locals and lies at a distance of 3 Kms. ahead of Nayagran.  Nayagran has regular bus service from Chamba & vice versa and is a fairly big village.  The term ‘gran’ is a convoluted form of ‘gram’ or ‘gaon’ in Hindi meaning a village, as per the local dialect.  There is nothing much to see or do a Nayagran, but as you go beyond this point the road gets very narrow and passes through dense Deodar (Cederus Deodara) forests, with the Gaddis tending their flocks of sheep & goat, getting them ready for the difficult crossing across the Jalsu Pass.  The road ends at the site where the La’ake Wali Mata temple is located, as the semi finished dirt track has sunk beyond this point.  The La’ake Wali Mata temple is strategically placed on top a spur atop a ridge, overlooking the Ravi River valley deep below and the Dhauladhars ranges in the backdrop.  The temple is dedicated to a form of Goddess Kali, as assumed by the Goddess to slay the demon who tormented the people of the valley, as Bhramari Mata (Bumble Bee form),.  There is a ‘Jatar’ (meaning procession) organized by the local Gaddi community during the month of August every year that attracts lots of locals seeking blessings of the reverend La’ake Wali Mata. The procession is said to be one of the most colorful gatherings of local people.  Most of the treks across the Dhauladar from Chamba to Kangra start from this point onwards.  There is the temple priest cum shopkeeper named Sh.Thakur Chand who informed me that treks across Jalsu Pass to Baijnath in Kangra passes through this region and there are some very beautiful meadows like Channi (8 Kms. from the temple) and Yara Got (12 Kms. form the temple) that make up for some soul rejuvenating treks.
Deodar trees jutting on to the road and then making 90 degree angle on way to
Laake Wali Mata temple
The temple dome of Laake Wali Mata temple
The presiding deity of Laake Wali Mata
Sh. Thakur Chand the Priest of Laake Wali Mata temple
River Raavi flowing through a deep gorge - as viewed from Laake Wali Mata temple
Jalsu Jot or Pass, is one of the Eastern most passes of the Dhauladhar perched at an altitude of 3450 meters above sea level.  Its gradient is gently sloping trail towards the Northern side, it is one of the most extensively used shepherd routes by the Himachali Gaddi tribes. Gaddies of Bharmour especially the resident of Holi valley, who used to undertake this trek, whenever they waned to visit Kangra District, instead of embarking upon the long detour through bus route. Some local peoples are known to complete this trek in a day from Nayagram to Baijnath. This route is not as popular with tourists as some other Dhauladhar passes. The rolling grasslands with vegetation extending deep into the trail, sprinkling of conifers, rhododendron bushes and the beautiful yellow grass flowers offer a colorful experience which few other passes can match.  Like other Dhauladhar passes, Jalsu forms the boundary between Chamba and Kangra districts but unlike other Dhauladhar passes, its beauty is not in the bareness and rockiness but in the variety of vegetation it supports and colors sprinkled by mother nature on either side of the pass. The trek route is also not treacherous, as the entire route is interspersed with people & habitations in form of shepherds, shopkeepers, tourists. The famed Pir Panjal ranges are also visible from atop the pass, but the perspective is completely different from the other points. Being a popular shepherd trail, one can do without camping equipment and complete the trek without carrying any food for most of the journey. This trek starts just after the Laake Wali temple, with a trail descending down to the Ravi River and then leads across the River towards the higher mountains. 
Here the road ends - view from the road end head of Laake Wali Mata temple
The Himachal Government is envisaging the construction of a Road tunnel through Dhauladhar ranges, as the Holi (Chamba)-Uttrala (Kangra) tunnel project, which would reduce the road distance between Dharamsala and Chamba by almost 200 kms., through the proposed Road tunnel running through the Dhauladhar ranges, the reduced distance would be merely 65 Kms.  However, this project is still on paper stage only, despite being envisaged way back in 2012.
Here is the link to the video for the destination - Holi 

Here is the link to the video of Laake Wali Mata temple