On my first visit to Shangarh, I had noticed a shining temple on the opposite mountain and my curiosity knew no bounds when the locals said that it was the Manu Rishi Temple in Shanshar. At that time, (way back in 2017) it was assumed that Shanshar is a village. I was aware that the road to Shanshar was ahead of the diversion to Shangarh but was told by the locals that the road to Manu Rishi temple is in very bad shape. Therefore, even though I was very keen on seeing the ancient pagoda style temple perched cliffside on a stunning green meadow; a combination of incorrect information and bad roads ensured that Manu Rishi Temple remained unvisited inspite of me returning almost a dozen times to Sainj Valley.
I remember eating a meal of rajma chawal in Neuli because of the uncertainty about the road to Shangarh and even noticing that the road continued straight. However, like all things in life happen when they are supposed to be – the visit to Manu Rishi Temple in Shanshar only fructified when a special visit to Sainj Valley was planned and the stay was arranged at the Ropa Rest House before Neuli.
Penelope Chetwode in ‘Kulu : The End of the Habitable World’ writes : ‘Near the head of the Kullu Valley, 14 km from Sainj Village. The only five-tiered pagoda temple so far recorded in H.P. first noticed and photographed by H. Lee Shuttleworth in about 1918. All five of the receding roofs are tiled, whereas in most pagoda temples the top circular roof is of cedar wood. The pitch of the roofs is very steep and the large stone tiles rest on wooden planks which are kept in position by iron pins which protrude through both the tiles and the planks.
An open veranda runs round the garba griha with 12 square pillars in groups of three. They have scroll capitals with confronting bird panels beneath them, but more crudely carved than those at Nithar Dhana and Mandoli. Beautiful graba griha doorway with seven receding lintels and six ditto jambs. Writhing nags and many panels of deities including Durga wearing a crinoline. Well carved floral ceiling panels above main veranda outside garba griha doorway. The temple is dedicated to Manu Rishi, but the stone image slab in the best pahari tradition in the sanctuary appears to be of Shiva.’
We left at about 8 am from Dobhi and immediately got into a long-distance bus. It was the Bedi Travels Manali to McLeodganj bus and we asked for 2 tickets for Aut after confirming that the bus had no long stop in Kullu Bus Stand. The bus kept making random stops but we still made it to Aut just before 10 am. As soon as we got out of the bus, a sort of traffic jam had started building up in Aut. Jita was buying some mangoes and in the meanwhile I ended up asking for aloo paranthas for breakfast at the usual dhaba. It turned out to be a forgettable affair as the son of the owner wasn’t quite adept in the kitchen.
When a Sainj bound bus did not appear even after finishing breakfast, we walked briskly to the Aut bus stand (Yes, there is a bus stand in Aut just a short walk from the main road) where we were told that it was better to wait on the highway itself as the Kullu to Sainj bus was about to come. I had already spoken to the caretaker at the GHNP Ropa Rest House and he had confirmed the availability of a room. Once the bus came, we reached Sainj in quick time and in random conversations with the locals names of hitherto unknown scenic villages came up. It was quite hot in Sainj and there was no bus headed to Neuli. Our plan was to first put the bags in the rest house and then head to the Manu Rishi Temple in Shanshar.
I took the opportunity to ask around the bus stand in Sainj for timings of buses from Sainj to Shanshar and also from Sainj to Raila. I got conflicting answers and a small mafia sort of setting (taxi guys) seemed to be emerging. The time was past 12 noon and Jita spotted a tourist trying to book a taxi to Shangarh (in the absence of a conveniently timed bus); we stood on the road and the taxi guy asked us to pay INR 50 each to be dropped in front of the GHNP Ropa Rest House. We happily agreed and were content when a room was allotted to us at the rest house.
At first, we thought of quickly going back to the road to try and find a ride to Shanshar but a quick calculation suggested that we were better off having a proper lunch before leaving for Manu Rishi Temple. In the meanwhile, someone told us that there’s an annual Fair called ‘Shanu Mela’ to be celebrated later in the evening at Manu Rishi Temple! We were ecstatic with that piece of information and figured that there will be many locals headed to Shanshar to celebrate the festival. At the GHNP Ropa Rest House Canteen, the cooks confirmed that rajma chawal can be quickly made on order and that is exactly what we wanted.
The rajma chawal turned out to be legendary and the staff also served local onions in salad. We ate like hungry beasts and then stood on the main road with our daypacks, waiting for a ride to Shanshar. A few locals were chit-chatting outside the rest house gates and they told us that the next Sainj to Shanshar bus is scheduled at 2 pm. Like always, I preferred hitching a ride rather than get a seat in the bus and luck soon smiled on us and a pick-up camper stopped. It was only going a few kilometres but we didn’t mind and were pleased to get going. The weather had suddenly become cloudy and the heat had all but disappeared.
We were dropped past Neuli at a turn on the road to Shanshar where a road diverted for Niharni (base for the trek to Lapah). There was a small shed adjacent to the road where we confirmed with someone about both the roads. The road seemed to be newly tarred and a lady appeared from somewhere with her grazing goats and sheep who told us that there’s a lake on the road to Niharni (if we were wondering where to head). We walked on the road to Shanshar and were in constant awe of the greenery and wildflowers growing on the side of the road. It soon started drizzling and after crossing an uphill hairpin bend on the road, we found an empty tin shed for shelter in the rain.
It was a vantage point where we could see the vehicles coming from down and were able to hitch another ride in the open carrier of a pick-up camper that seemed to be a milk vehicle going by the number of milk cans in the back. This one turned out to be an eventful ride as we were also joined by school kids. The newly laid out road was the chief orchestrator in the fun with the surreal landscape of the green Shanshar Valley getting even more pronounced in the rain.
The camper guy seemed to be high and would increase the speed as soon as he saw other people on the road (many young guys and girls were dressed in their finest and heading to the Shanu mela). We had to cling to the iron bars with the numerous hairpin bends and the adrenaline rush with the local kids made us shriek in delight at the speed! It was a continuous steady drizzle and since everyone was heading to the Shanu Mela, we were dropped at the exact point near Manu Rishi Temple. The school kids were quite excited in showing us the first sight of the five-tier pagoda style temple from one of the hairpin bends.
The drizzle had abated for a bit and it was a brief but slippery climb to reach the Manu Rishi Temple. The Shanu Mela Annual Fair preparations were in full swing and a handful of shops were being set up. There were two stalls selling knick-knacks which mostly seemed to be cheap plastic products while the food stall that was setup in a cemented structure had the maximum popularity. There were four deities with their palanquins in a space for devtas and the Manu Rishi Temple stood tall on the edge of a cliff. Just as we were about to start composing the frames for dslr photography, it started raining.
We waited for a while under a tree in the temple courtyard hoping that the rain would stop and that the weather would reveal blue skies and the mountains. In the meantime, a knowledgeable local also told us the names of the four deities. They were : Mata Shatrupa Shanshar Kothi (Gaon Mahel Patni), Manu Rishi Shanshar, Kasu Narain Banaugi, Jagthamb Bagishadi. Once the rain relented for a bit, mist was floating around the valley and we took the opportunity to click a few photographs from different angles. We even climbed a bit higher up from a staircase that led to a vantage point of the deities and the temple with an ethereal light in the background.
There were all sorts of locals gathering in the small meadow of the Manu Rishi Temple for attending the Shanu Mela Fair. Young kids ran and played, and even old men and women from the entire valley could be seen greeting each other. The fair was also an opportunity for the youth to mingle and we could see some shy glances being exchanged!
As the rain got heavier, we had to put our cameras back in the bags and hope that we had got the photographs that we wanted! The aroma of freshly fried hot pakoras was tantalising and we ended up relishing the crunchy ones for 10 Rupees each. After some time the rain relented and as the clock struck 4 pm, we were expectant of the local folk dances and the procession of the deities. However, someone told us that the time for the festivities is slated for the evening and that prompted us to have a quick look at the temple and then try and head to the ancient towers called Talyara Kothi.
We were told that the steep stairs served as a shortcut to get to the road from where Talyara Kothi was around 30 minutes walk. I was hopeful of finding a ride and therefore we chose to get to the main road and start the walk. Within no time, we got a ride in a truck but that only dropped us about 1 km ahead. Some school-kids indicated the way to a shortcut and we ended up reaching a different old stone structure where the inhabitants showed us the twin towers called Raghunath Kot of the Talyara Kothi from afar. One of the towers had received a fresh coat of paint and was refurbished.
As it had started drizzling again, we had began to think about our plan for return and realised in the absence of a bus service, we better leave before it gets dark.
We started on our walk back to Manu Rishi Temple and decided that if the festivities had begun, we would take a quick look and then start our journey back to the Ropa Rest House. At about 5 pm, we didn’t hear the sound of trumpets and noticed that the crowd had started swelling going by the number of cars parked on the road and locals arriving by the bus load. Someone gave the information that the performers have not yet arrived and are late resulting in the delay.
The distance from Manu Rishi Temple in Shanshar to the Ropa Rest House was about 8 kms and since everyone in the valley was headed to the mela, there was a slim chance of finding a ride on our return. A number of well dressed locals were curious why we were returning when the real fun of the fair was just about to start! One of the ladies informed about a recent homestay in Shanshar and that we could stay there if we wanted. I was aware of one Sapna Homestay in Bagishadi village but that was much farther away and it was easier to stay at the Ropa Rest House and make day visits to Shanshar and Raila.
We thoroughly enjoyed the walk as it gave us a chance to really enjoy the landscapes of the lush green Shanshar Valley and also because we were able to see numerous tiny villages scattered in the distance. The walk also made us more aware of the fact that Shanshar was used to denote the entire valley. We ended up hitching a ride that dropped us a few kilometres. After the first vehicle dropped us, we immediately got another ride that dropped us in Neuli. The rest of the 2 odd km distance from Neuli to Ropa Rest House was covered on foot. On the way, we stopped at the Shangarh cut to chat with the wine shop guys and noticed a number of signboards advertising stays and cafés in Shangarh!
All in all, Shanshar Valley turned out to be much better than we expected and I am already thinking it could be the next hit offbeat destination in the evergreen Kullu Valley.
How to reach Manu Rishi Temple, Shanshar?
Buses run from Sainj to Shanshar, roughly after 1-2 pm in the afternoon and there are multiple buses. These buses make a return journey from Shanshar to Sainj only next morning. So, its better to make plans for a stay if you are travelling by bus as it is near impossible to make a day trip due to the bus timings.
Homestays in Shanshar
A few homestays have come up in the valley and as tourism grows with the recently tarred road, you should be easily able to find a homestay in Shanshar Valley in the coming times.