House on the hill
There are many reasons why there may be hill stations and hill stations but one Dalhousie, the retreat of a British Governor-General during his numerous survey of India trips in the Himalayas. For one, it continues to be as enchanting, story-book and idyllic, gift wrapped neatly between the Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges, untainted and refreshing in its originality. For another, it has an instant effect on the mind, taking away the dull distress of a barren city existence. Here, you don’t feel guilty of a return to innocence, childishly scampering along its green meadows, ruffling the dandelion along cobbled pathways and yearning to stir a broth in the red-roofed house on top of the blue hill. But most importantly, you know what contentment is in its tiny self-contained world, one that doesn’t need anything more than a checked table cloth, a pot of coffee, oven-fresh cake and a rocking chair on the porch. One that defines simplicity as the ultimate luxury.
This explains why despite belonging to the royal state of Chamba, the valley never did have a position of great importance. It became famous only when the British set their eyes upon it. In 1853, a tired and overworked Lord James Andrew Ramsay, the Marques of Dalhousie, was looking for some days to idle away when he chanced upon this beautiful unexplored spot on a ridge overlooking the plains. For a man who worked 16 to 18 hours a day, remaining at his desk even during lunch, and whose shortest workday would begin at half-past eight and continue until half-past five, the place had to have a magical spell to make him forget himself. He acquired land swiftly, buying out the four hills of Kathlog, Portreyn, Tehra and Bakrota against an annual payment of Rs 2,000 to the Chamba state. The man, who introduced modern connectivity as we know it, be it post and telegraph, rail and roadways, had not only found a way to stay unconnected and unwired, he knew it would be much-needed.
So Dalhousie, the neverland he created, outlived his legacy. In 1866, the British cantonment acquired the fifth hill, Balun, along with Banikhet and Bakloh lower down. By 1867, Dalhousie was an established sanatorium town. And by the 1920s, British officers and their families arrived here for their summer break, giving it a vibrant social calendar. However, the town never quite became as glamorous as Shimla which revelled in the power of the who’s who. But it had more spontaneous and passionate fun, its dances and picnics, its pantomimes, probably some gossip at the mall.
I get my first lesson in voluntary surrender as soon as I enter town. The city rush has clogged up the narrow roads and I suddenly find myself trapped between three Himachal Road Transport Corporation buses. Clearly, I cannot put my manoeuvring skills to good use here. So I do the next best thing, somehow drop my car at my friend’s place and decide to throw in my fate with local cabbie Swarn Singh. A seventh generation Himachali, not only does he know this town, he loves it like he owns it. So he will tell you how ill-mannered and illegal it is of tourists to litter the place with plastic waste; how outsiders can never become the insiders.
He takes me to St John’s Church, standing quietly in one corner of Gandhi Chowk, the first to be built here. You know nothing much has changed when you look through its stately windows and stained glass, when you walk up to the gravelly gates, when you feel reassured reclining against the grandfatherly stone walls. Though there are other churches in Dalhousie like St Andrews Church (commonly known as the Church of Scotland), they mostly lie in the shielded cantonment area. St Andrews was built in 1903 by Protestant Christians while St Patrick’s is the largest in Dalhousie with a seating capacity of 300. Constructed in 1909, the church was built exclusively from contributions made by officers and ranks of the British Army. At present, the church is managed and maintained by the Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar. The faith is intact.
Perhaps, it is this faith that has rescued many who have sought solace here. Be it Rabindranath Tagore who penned a few lines here (Guruji visited this place with his father in 1873, says Singh), author Rudyard Kipling, the Nehru family and even the Dalai Lama. Sensing that I need convincing beyond statistics, Singh drives me to Subhas Baoli, just a kilometre from Gandhi Chowk. History says Subhas Chandra Bose visited Dalhousie in 1937 and stayed here for seven months while recuperating from ill health. He visited this natural spring everyday to drink its water and get back his strength to fight the imperialists. Singh shows me the 82-year-old furrowed man who runs a tea shop today but supposedly fought alongside Netaji as part of the Indian National Army. He is a recluse, doesn’t talk much, says Singh. But in his own way he is keeping the interest in this memorial to his leader alive.
Interest in Dalhousie has also been kept afloat by Bollywood which finds its tranquil environs the perfect locale for any kind of human drama. “I remember driving a small girl called Esha with her mother Hema Malini years ago,” Singh reminisces as we pass through a group of students, mostly girls, on their way to school. “How much do they travel on foot every day?” I ask. “Around 10-15 km, depending on where their village is located,” replies Singh. But when the journey is picturesque, there’s no pain in the pursuit of happiness.
Our next stop is Panchpulla, just two km from the GPO Square. At one time, a river flowed under five bridges, hence the name. Right next to it is the samadhi of Ajit Singh, the paternal uncle of Bhagat Singh, who died here on August 15, 1947. He was in Dalhousie when he heard the news of an independent India. But he was so heartbroken by the Partition of Punjab that he died in his sleep the same night! It wasn’t the India he had fought for. At least, this town still fights for what he stood for. Co-existence and peace.
We are now nearing Khajjiar, a saucer-shaped plateau surrounded by dense pine and deodar and bounding meadows full of wild flowers in white, pink and yellow. It is one of the 160 places throughout the world to have been designated Mini Switzerland by the Swiss National Tourist Office. Khajjiar was officially baptised by the then Swiss Ambassador on July 7, 1992 and a stone from here is part of a sculpture in Berne, the Swiss capital. I for one think we must get rid of our obsession with Switzerland when talking of Himalayan oases like Khajjiar. For one, it’s vast, limitless, the hills seemingly retreating, nay pushed away by the earth beneath. This is what samudra manthan must have been like, when the sea was churned up by Gods and demons to reveal the flat depths of the ocean floor. Perhaps this is where the celestial event took place. Singh told me how Khajjiar once had an islet with a small lake surrounding it. The lake shrinks with each passing year, he tells me, pointing to the shallow pool it is today. “Our forefathers tell us at one time it reflected the clear blue skies,” he recalls. The sea has seeped within. On a clear day, Singh claims, you can even see Mt Kailash from the Khajjiar grounds.
Khajjiar is indeed blessed. Believed to be the home of the Serpent God, there’s a 10th century temple dedicated to him. Embossed by figures of the Pandavas, it is believed that the brothers stopped over here during their exile. The recent history of Khajjiar is linked to the Rajput rulers of Chamba, who may have used it as a strategic haven. Waves of Mughal invaders and Sikh kingdoms later, it finally passed over to the British whose soldiers probably rode out here on weekends and whose stately steeds fed on the green grass here.
There are many ride-outs outside Dalhousie. Like the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary, where a canopied road snakes away from the busy Lakkar Bazaar to the serene desolation of alpine heights. Check into the lovely pinewood chalets that are of British descent, having been around since 1925. With a patch of green encircled by happy sunflowers, the smoke curling out of chimneys and the mountains crystal clear in the morning light, there couldn’t be a better way to wake up to a new day.
I see the mist forming from far away, under the hills, shrouding the tiny wooden houses like a comfortable duvet. And then, because I am here, it spreads and starts coming on to me, even streaming in from the windows, almost baptising my senses for a truly divine experience. It’s just coffee, conversations and the vistas meeting into each other. Like when the sun drowns into the horizon burning up crimson in the sky, which pales out to a purple and ink blue. Or when the distant mountains play vanguard, their silver-tipped peaks bright arrowheads gleaming under drop-down stars. Then there are the creatures of the night, which aren’t threatening but make their presence felt. Like an owl spying in its frivolous flight, a snake hissing in a tree trunk, jungle rats screeching with the cicadas, dogs snapping at the rustle of leaves as air brushes past trees. There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep, tucked in quilt, moon teasing you from the window, comfortable pillows whispering lullabies, dreams inviting you to another world, a world very close to where you are right now.
The timelessness of Kalatop doesn’t put you under any pressure. You can do anything in the wilderness, bite into red cherries, squeeze into a muddy trail that slips down a waterfall, chase chickens in a barn, hear birds and animals as they fox you or just take the forbidden road in the hope of finding a lost tribe, maybe flower people eating exotic fruits and invoking the sun god with drums. Or may be some mountain spirit could deign to reveal itself to you. Possibilities all.
On our way back, Singh shows me the Bakrota Hills, hidden by rich deodar that even the sun can’t pierce through. Just below, in the covered valley, lies the village of Bhatri. Apparently, it’s the only village that the British couldn’t capture. Ever. It typifies the soul of Dalhousie, one that you cannot stake a claim to. Ever.
By air: Amritsar (the nearest airport) is well-connected to all major cities with regular flights.
By rail: Take a train to Pathankot and book a taxi from here. Most hotels organise pick-ups from Pathankot.
By road: Take GT Karnal Road from Delhi after crossing Azadpur Mandi-Badli bypass. Go straight on National Highway 1. Cross Panipat, Karnal, Pipli and continue till Ambala, Khanna, Ludhiana, Jalandhar. Get onto NH 1A towards Tanda, Dasua and reach Mukerian. Continue on NH 1A via Mirthal, Damtal to reach Pathankot. From here, take NH 20 and reach Nurpur. At Chakki, turn left on State Highway 33 towards Tunnuhatti, cross Banikhet and take a turn towards Dalhousie.
Courtesy: Exotica, the wellness and lifestyle magazine from The Pioneer Group, available in all rooms of select five-star hotel chains across the country