Kullu valley has often been called the most beautiful on earth and is celebrated as the ‘Valley of the Gods’. About a km wide and 80 km long, it lies between the Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges and cradles the river Beas. As you travel north from Mandi to Kullu the river roars in a torrent through the deep gorge near Aut; and soon the barren, rocky terrain gives way to the lush green valley and its breathtaking landscapes. There are pine forests and alpine meadows, gurgling rivulets and fruit-laden orchards. And the colours change with the seasons as orchards of apple, apricot, peach and cherry or wild giant, red rhododendrons and blue iris burst into bloom.
Situated at the northern end of the Kullu valley, Manali (1915 m), is famous as the ‘queen of the hill stations’. It offers spectacular views of snowcapped peaks and wooded slopes, and lies by the Beas river whose tumbling, sparkling waters add to its special magic. Manali is an ideal base for excursions to the hot sulphur springs of Vashisht and Manikaran, high altitude lakes Chandratal (Lake of the Moon) and Surajtal (Lake of the Sun)(both 4800 m), the Solang valley and its splendid ski slopes, Beas Kund (the source of the River Beas) and the Rohtang Pass (3980 m) which is the gateway to the remote Lahaul & Spiti valleys. Manali is also the start point for exciting treks and mountaineering expeditions to several nearby peaks.
Some 15km south of Manali lies Naggar which commands spectacular views of the valley. This is where Devika Rani, the celebrated Indian actress from the days of silent movies, lived with her Russian husband, the renowned painter Sveteslav Roerich. Their house is now a gallery where some of his paintings, as well as those of his father Nicholas Roerich, are exhibited.
Further south, near the beautiful Chandrakhani Pass (3660 m) which provides striking views of Deo Tibba peak (6001 m), lies the mysterious village of Malana (2650 m). Its 1000-odd inhabitants speak a distinctly different language, have their own quaint customs and traditions, remain isolated and aloof, have their own laws and do not accept the authority of the district administration. It is widely believed that the original settlers in the village were of Greek origin – soldiers from Alexander’s army who stayed back, married local women and gave rise to this unique society.
The town of Kullu is famous for the grand style in which the Dussehra Festival is celebrated in October. The idols of the gods and goddesses from all the village temples in the valley, are carried in processions in gaily decorated palanquins to the Maidan to pay homage to the presiding deity, Raghunath ji (Lord Ram), whose idol is installed there. A fair springs up and the festival is celebrated with a great deal of singing, dancing and merriment. After a week of festivities the deities are returned to their respective temples.
The festival is also a good occasion to see the people in their colourful dresses and to buy their handicrafts – especially the famous shawls, blankets and carpets of Kullu which are traded at the fair. The soft, fine woollen shawls are made from the wool of domesticated ‘pashmina’ goats or wild goats. The wool is collected through the summer from the high mountains where the wild goats shed their soft fleece against thorny shrubs and sharp rocks. Then the whole winter long, when they are snow bound, the locals weave their lovely shawls.
Dharamsala is the main town in the Kangra Valley which lies between the Shivalik hills and the foothills of the Dhauladhar range. Uphill from Dharamsala is McLeodganj, which was chosen by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as his home and as the headquarters of his Government in exile when he fled from Tibet in 1959. He chose it from all the places that India offered to him because it was a ‘dharma chakra’, an area blessed with a positive energy field. More than 3000 Tibetans now live here and it has come to be known as ‘Little Lhasa’. The Namgyal Monastery surrounded by a row of prayer wheels, was built after His Holiness came to Dharamsala. It is a replica of the Tibetan monasteries left behind. Visitors come there from all over the world and many report that after their visit they feel revitalised and rejuvenated in a special way.
The little town of Masroor, 15 km south of Kangra, is the site of one of Himachal’s little known treasures. Fifteen richly carved, monolithic, rock temples, built in the 8th century, stand on a hillock framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range. Similar to the rock-cut shrines at Mahabalipuram in TamilNadu and Ellora in Maharashtra, these are the only monuments of this style in northern India.
Rich in wildlife including the rare snow leopard, ibex and musk deer, the beautiful Chamba Valley lies in the northwest adjoining Jammu & Kashmir. It has a splendid artistic heritage – fine temple architecture, attractive embroidered ‘rumals’ and beautiful miniature paintings.
A favourite destination for tourists here is Dalhousie (2039m) – a quaint, quiet and charming hill station with stately groves of oak and deodar and forest trails which overlook wooded hills, waterfalls and rivulets. It was established in 1854 by the British Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, and is easily accessible by road from Pathankot (90 km).
The Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba has examples of the exquisite miniature paintings typical of this region. Bharmaur is a fascinating little town renowned for its cluster of 84 temples which are noted for their fine workmanship.