Folklores and legends state that Pangi valley was so remote that the Raja of Chamba paid ‘funeral expenses’ to the officials proceeding on their way for duties here. The reason for the same was that there was no surety of their return, whether they will return dead or alive. It is also said that criminals were sent off to Pangi as punishment.
Normally reading paragraphs like the above should send shivers down the spine. I wasn’t on a punishment trip and had in fact voluntarily decided to head to Pangi Valley (Cheeky me!) The rains had bade me goodbye in Bairagarh and the pleasant weather was proving to be good company. After making my way across the Saach Pass in a shared taxi, I had reached Killar. To be frank, I had not liked Killar one bit. There was no feel of a mountain town and ugly concrete buildings could be seen everywhere.
After a 60 Rupee thali at a Bhojnalaya near one of the hotels / guesthouses in Killar (also Killad), I decided to walk to the bus stand and figure out if there was a possibility of going anywhere prettier for the night. Over conversations, I sat at a Nepali dhaba which was very close to the bus stand at Killar.
The clock showed it was around 4:30 pm but the day was sufficiently bright and I wasn’t duly worried about where to go next. I was loitering around the bus stand when a stroke of luck made me meet a stranger who suggested that I take the 5:15 pm bus. I asked him where it went; to which he replied
“It goes where you want to reach.”
A closer perusal of the board divulged the name of the destination, it was a uniquely named village – Sural Bhatori. I quickly rushed to the Nepali dhaba to ask and confirm if there was a homestay in Sural Bhatori. The locals informed me that there was no homestay in the village but there was a Forest Rest House (FRH) where a stay could be arranged. The distance from Killar to Sural Bhatori was said to be around 20 kms and I thought with the long days I could take the risk. I was also told about a beautiful old monastery close to Sural Bhatori.
I was the first person to sit in the bus (best decision in hindsight); the driver and conductor instantly became friends with me and told me to not worry with regards to the stay. Ticket : 45 Rupees to happiness! The roads of Pangi Valley are crazy and numerous times I thought the bus would crash into a mountain or fall into the ChandraBhaga river below. It was pretty cold even in July as Sural Bhatori is perched at approx. 3000m.
We entered the lush green Sural valley after the bus took a right turn from the main Killar-Kishtwar road. I later realised that Pangi Valley’s inhabitants were a mix of Hindus and Buddhists. Bhatori was the name given to the (usually highest area) of the village with a Buddhist population. So, apart from Sural Bhatori there are many other Buddhist settlements like Hudan Bhatori, Parmar Bhatori etc etc.
Also check : A Stroll in Bhangarh’s Gorgeous Ruins
Locals kept thinning out of the bus as the bus laboured along the dirt road to Sural village. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes with the splendid show of nature’s beauty in this valley. The lush greenery coupled with snow on the mountaintops, and a pristine stream of water flowing through the valley. Wildflowers bloomed even as the sun was setting. I dare not try clicking a picture from the moving bus, there was no chance if truth be told.
It was almost dark when the bus finally halted for the night at Sural Bhatori. I had asked the locals for help with the caretaker of the Forest Rest House or PWD Rest House but I had a big surprise waiting for me. As soon as a local came to know of my predicament, he immediately came to me and invited me to be his guest. Even the bus driver and conductor stayed at his place for the night. I hesitated for a moment but my doubts were put to rest when I entered his home and saw a small kid playing.
My host’s name was Sonamjeet and he had a Buddhist name as well. He said that it was a common practice in the valley for someone to have two names in the face of the lower Buddhist population. It was startling for me to see that the Buddhist locals had given themselves local Hindu names (I couldn’t quite understand the reason behind it.) The bus driver, conductor and Sonamjeet were all making merry drinking Arak (potent distilled local liquor) and were goading me to drink some as well.
The locals spoke about a road (National Highway) that has been sanctioned from Pathankot to Leh, which will pass through Saach Pass and Sural Bhatori. I wondered about the impact of the same and the decades it would take to turn this treacherous stretch into a National Highway.
I helped myself to a glass and quite liked the taste of it. Sural village was proficient in the cultivation of potatoes, rajma and vegetables. I devoured rajma chawal and the green vegetable curry with chapatti. Sonamjeet told me the monastery is only a 15 minute walk away and is tucked away in a birch forest. The bus driver told me that they will leave at sharp 7 am and that I should be in the bus if I didn’t want to get stuck in the village!
Although I would have dearly loved to stay in Sural Bhatori, there was no explicit invitation for the same. It was an early night for me as I had to wake up at 5 to walk to the monastery.
First sight of the morning as I opened the door of Sonamjeet’s home felt like a dream. Dazzlingly green mountains were flanked by snow and sunrise was around the corner. A thick layer of cloud dominated the landscape as I set off with dslr camera in hand after my morning ablutions. The birch trees shined as I walked through the dense forest (bhoj patra trees).
I finally spotted an old structure at the end of the birch forest. There was another building behind the monastery which seemed like the monks quarters. The monastery was under renovation but my request was accepted and the Lama ji was ok with a rare visiter seeing it. He also showed me the bark of a birch tree and gave some in my hand to be used as paper for writing (as the ancient times.)
Read : Aimless Wanderings in Almora
History and origin of the monastery of Sural Bhatori was not known to the monks, but it seemed like a very old one looking at the bodhisattvas and thangkas. The main Buddha figure was different that so many other monasteries I had seen and actually appeared to be scowling.
After losing my heart to the bright red fluttering prayer flags in the fragile landscape, I gingerly made my way to the bus stop. The driver was about to leave; I rushed to collect my bag and said my heartfelt goodbyes to Sonamjeet and his family.
As I type this, I realise one thing. I’ve left a piece of my heart in Sural Bhatori, in its incredibly scenic environs, pleasant feel, mystical monastery and ‘The Goodness of Strangers’ – Sonamjeet.