Yonten asks, ‘Shubham; Lahaul chalega?’, and I take no time to nod my head and say yes! It is already chilly in Manali as we are in the middle of November. I have long suspected that while the Rohtang Pass officially closes on October 15th, it is kept open for much longer for the locals of Lahaul Valley. Yonten mutters the name of his village Sarang and informs me that we will also visit Kwaring, Kolong and possibly see the 108 room fort known as Khangsar Khar in Khangsar village.
I can barely believe my luck. I am a mere tourist in the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh and am almost on the verge of a totally offbeat experience. I am no stranger to Lahaul, having passed through the region on the Manali – Leh road to Ladakh earlier. The gompas around Keylong had fascinated me and Jispa had appeared like a fairytale village, back then in summer.
In my mind, I am wondering how will I be able to bear the cold of this region sandwiched between Rohtang Pass & Baralacha La. And amidst all the thinking, I had packed my bag and was ready to set off for the adventure. Who cares if it is already mid November and even Manali is quite cold!
Yonten broke the reverie and said, ‘I was just kidding. Who goes to Lahaul in the winters?’
But the heart wants what it wants; and once the seed was planted there was no going back! I pleaded with Yonten and he said ok, we will leave early next morning. He also said that my jackets won’t suffice for the cold across Rohtang Pass and said that he will also arrange for a jacket for the trip!
We leave from Manali at around 7 in the morning and park the sumo near the bus stand. While buses for all parts of Himachal are leaving from the bus stand, the Manali to Rohtang to Keylong road (Manali – Leh highway) has been officially closed on 15th October and buses don’t ply on this route thereafter. There has been little snowfall at Rohtang Top and therefore sumos, private vehicles and trucks still run at their own risk.
While I wondered about the practicality of waiting for passengers heading to Lahaul Valley, in no time the sumo was full. The carrier had been loaded with stuff mostly to serve during the long and hard winters of Lahaul valley. Among the products were cylinders, eggs, onions and a variety of vegetables to be used in the homes for cooking. Price per seat were at 500 Rupees for the short 150 odd km distance but nobody cared and everyone was more than happy to just be able to make this trip.
We started moving when the sumo could take no more passengers, and even the baggage space had been occupied by locals wishing to send products back to their homes in Lahaul Valley. There was no traffic on the road and no checking either at the check post near Marhi. It seemed that no one bothered about an outsider right now; it was a local sumo filled with Lahaulis.
Local Lahauli numbers blared from the audio speakers and in no time we were ascending the dreaded Rohtang Pass that was supposed to close any time now. For a brief while I tinkered with the ‘what if’ situation in case of sudden snowfall and closure of Rohtang Pass! In those days, I had heard of Saach Pass but didn’t know that there was an escape route via Udaipur-Killar-Kishtwar-Jammu in case the Rohtang Jot was closed.
I was soaking in all the stories narrated by the locals while some of them indulged in friendly banter. What was an adventure for me was a way of life for these Lahaulas (locals of Lahaul valley). The road was in perfect condition and after descending from snow clad Rohtang Pass we reached Khoksar and as always had our lunch at a dhaba here. It was freezing cold as a chill breeze blew across the valley, everyone had a black tea to keep themselves warm.
Progress was quick as we crossed some frozen waterfalls and Keylong town to move onwards to Jispa and in between there was Gemur (Gemoor). Somewhere between Jispa and Gemur, a road appeared on the left side of the main highway and we began our ascent. It was only around 2 pm and we found ourselves in one of the villages; the ladies had come to greet their husbands and assist in carrying the supplies back to their homes.
The jacket was indeed a godsend as a fiercely chilly wind blew even as the sun shone bright. I was surprised to see someone carried a Sony Bravia Television in the sumo to be installed for the home! When I asked the locals, they confessed that everyone is quite well to do in Lahaul Valley by dint of their hard work in cultivating top quality seed potatoes and a variety of vegetables during the summer season. Sony Bravia was the choice of television for many households here, this was a common thing!
Smiling Co-passengers in the sumo.
I took out my dslr and immediately that aroused a lot of interest among the locals; a few men and women queued up to be clicked! One of the fellow passengers invited all of us home for tea and we went up to the top most room of the house. The seating arrangement was very similar to a Ladakhi home and a tandoor bukhari occupied centre stage with a chimney letting the smoke out of the room directly through a pipe. The owner explained that the glass windows in the room aided in sunlight making it naturally warm and that each home in the Stod valley and all of Lahaul practised the same system with regards to the sunlight.
After a quick chai and random conversations, I was told that someone will be showing me the famous 108 room sandstone coloured mud fort of Khangsar. I was overjoyed, but first we must drop the other passengers as well. The entire landscape was barren and snow occupied faraway peaks. Waterfalls and most water sources were frozen already and regular sources of water that were in the sunshine were sought after by the villagers for their water needs.
After this, we reached Yonten’s village Sarang. As we were on a higher elevation than the rest of Lahaul Valley, the pristine waters of the meandering Bhaga river were visible on the right side of the valley as the river snaked through with much lesser water than in summer. As the sun began to set, the shadows lengthened and the villagers came back to their respective homes after collecting wood for burning; it was pin drop silence and I could only hear the mellifluous hum of Bhaga river in Stod valley.
Buddhist deities inside Yonten’s home; and dinner preparations in the other photograph.
We have been invited to a local’s home for a ceremony in Kwaring village which was in the opposite direction of the Sarang village. I am not too sure of the location, but memory suggests Kolong village came first, then Khangsar, then Sarang and Kwaring on the opposite side. These villages were all on the left bank of Bhaga river. On the right bank I could spot the Cave Monastery (Gompa) also called Tino Gompa or Dzong. There was also a solitary village to the right of the monastery located on the right bank of River Bhaga.
Traditional delicacies of Lahaul Valley to welcome us.
It was almost dark by the time we reached the house where the party of the ceremony was in full swing. The family seemed to be influential and the home seemed to be recently constructed with concrete and cement. A mud house was located nearby but like development has come to mean, every family was replacing them with concrete houses. It was quite cold as we stepped inside the house and were ushered into the drinking room!
Whisky seemed to be the popular choice for everyone and only one person was drinking arak (distilled form of barley liquor). Everyone was surprised when I requested for some chhang; they had automatically assumed that being an outsider I may not like their local drink. For which I told them, ‘I love the barley beer chhang, and also because it rarely causes a hangover next morning.’ This drew a round of applause (maybe because they were already drunk!) from the locals. Relatives had come from far and wide and I was very glad to have been a part of a local party in Lahaul.
After a glass (or two) of chhang, some arak was gulped down – all this while strange looking savouries and puris were brought to the table. The room was warm courtesy of the tandoor that was operating in the middle. I am not much of a drinker and the family realised this and brought me dinner early. It was a bowl of thukpa with dried churpi on the side. I relished a double round of the thukpa and Yonten indicated that we had a separate room to sleep in this very home.
Cute kids roamed around in the room and I clicked a few shots. It was a comfortable and cosy space to sleep, while the temperature outside must have been well into minus that night. Yet, the moon shone bright while we shivered when we wandered outside to pee before sleeping. An astonishing moment was when halfway through the party, an old man ‘dadaji’ got up and announced that he will now walk to his home. Someone said that he was more than 75 years old; I could only wonder how he would walk in the dark.
I slept soundly and woke up lazily the next day. Yonten informed me that we won’t have a chance to explore the valley because he had found a ride that wanted to reach Manali quickly. I was a little bit disappointed because I had not yet seen Khangsar Khar from the inside. I briefly toyed with the idea of heading to Ladakh because the road was still open; Baralacha La and Tanglang La were still open for vehicular traffic. And then I realised I had little cash on hand and my bag and other clothes were still in Manali.
Chhang and some local savouries.
Sometimes life does present us with these little dilemmas that don’t actually mean anything but I decided that I was better off getting out of Lahaul lest a sudden snowfall meant I would be stuck here for the entirety of the winter. We had a quick breakfast, and chai before moving out of Kwaring village. Like we had done while coming, we picked up passengers for Manali. Most came empty handed while there were few who wanted to sell some sacks of seed potatoes in Manali market.
The autumn colours between Gondhla and Sissu were a sheer delight to the eyes. As we gobbled up a tasty lunch at the dhaba of Khoksar, a fleeting thought cross my mind.
‘Is this a dream, or I really did visit Khangsar, Kwaring, Kolong, Sarang and perhaps other remote villages in the remote Lahaul Valley in mid November?!’
As the sumo crossed the snow clad Rohtang Pass, it felt more like a dream but years later – the camera pictures would tell me otherwise. Yonten, I hope you read this – Thank you so much for the incredible experience.
Where exactly is Lahaul?
Lahaul sub-division of Lahaul & Spiti district can be divided into the Chandra Valley, the Bhaga valley, Pattan valley and other high altitude regions that are mostly uninhabited.
Chandra Valley : The Chandra valley starts from the foot of the Baralacha pass and ends at Tandi. Batal, Chhotadara and Chhatru all lie on the Gramphoo to Kunzum La route and are a part of Chandra Valley in Lahaul.
Bhaga Valley : The valley comprises of regions onwards from Darcha town and is called Stod (s is silent) up to Keylong.
Pattan valley is very fertile and the most populous valley of Lahaul. It starts from Tandi and ends where river Chandrabhaga enters the district of Chamba, near Sansari Nallah and flows into Jammu and Kashmir as Chenab.
Lahaul and Spiti were merged to form a single district in 1960, with the district headquarters at Keylong.
Khangsar Khar in Khangsar Village
Some say that the Khar (Fort) of Khangsar is 300 years old, while history suggests it may be even older. It still stands tall and is a heritage palace made of mud and wood. Khangsar Khar has a total of 108 rooms spanning four storeys, and a story goes that the current heiress of the abandoned palace is said to be living in Ladakh currently. Khangsar Khar is said to have been the seat of the powerful Thakur family that ruled Kolong.
The most famous castle of Lahaul valley is Gondhla, famous for its seven storey (or was it eight?) stone and timber fort built in the early 18th century. Another prominent castle that (sadly) doesn’t exist today is the Gemoor Khar; the history and acclaimed visitors to that place deserves another post in itself.
A Brief History of Lahaul
According to various research papers, the first inhabitants of Lahaul were the Tibetan Khampas and Indo-Aryan nomads, who eventually intermarried and settled down in this fertile valley. This region may have been under the influence of Tibet during the 9th and 10th century. Ladakh eventually took political control of Lahaul and Spiti until the early 17th century.
Some parts of Lahaul; i.e. Pattan Valley, Chamba and Upper Lahaul came under the control of Raja of Kullu around 1680. I am not sure but some parts of Lahaul may have been under the administration of Chamba Kingdom. The Kolong Thakurs started becoming powerful during the rule of the Kullu Rajas.
Lahaul came under the control of the British East India Company in 1846. They transferred the local power to a ‘Wazir’ in return of allegiance. The first Wazir of Lahaul was the head of the Kolong Family. The Thakurs of Kolong are said to have helped the British in the wars and held supremacy in Lahaul Valley. The district of Lahaul & Spiti was formed after India became independent as a country.
Frozen waterfall near Rohtang Pass in November.
Must check this excellent post by Tarun Goel on Festivals of Lahaul Valley in Winters. Since the news of the Rohtang Tunnel almost ready to open has hit the news shelf, it necessitated the penning down of this post. Travel from Manali to Keylong will become an all weather thing and I can only hope we can somehow propagate Responsible Tourism in Lahaul Valley and Mr. Ravi Thakur’s vision is successful.
Memory is a funny thing. Once you have travelled somewhere, the words type themselves out as the landscapes play in your mind. Thank you Lahaulas for the hospitality. I would return to Sarang again next summer and stay in Yonten’s home for a day. I hope you make that trip to Jaipur soon and give me a chance to return the favour.
People who know me personally know that I generally keep the closest experiences to myself and can only share them when the heart is inundated. This trip to Lahaul was also a journey which would shape my life as a traveller. What are your memories that shaped your life? Share with me 🙂