Written by Koumudi Mahanta.
Karsog is one of the numerous valleys in the North-Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. My roommate in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Neha, hails from there, and it was through her that I came to know about this beautiful town in the Mandi district of the State. Neha and I were roommates for a year, from the session of 2018-19. As a PhD student working on the impacts of climate change among farming communities in her home state, she would often mourn about the kind of damage that irresponsible tourism has done to several cities like Shimla, Manali, Dharamsala to name a few. She was thankful that her hometown was still among the few that has been left out of such damage. Whenever she went home during the holidays, she would ask me to accompany her. But only after I graduated from JNU that I, along with my friend Chinmoy, could visit Karsog valley and her home, in the month of February this year. In hindsight, I’ve not only been reinstated with a deep admiration for life in the mountains but also count my blessings for being able to go on a trip right before the pandemic struck. The visit to Karsog was unlike any of my previous ventures to the mountains over the last few years of living in New Delhi. It was as much about getting to interact with the locals, and answering questions about my own background, as much as I had questions for them.
On the night of 19th February, we took a bus from New Delhi to Shimla (Tutikandi) and reached there around 7 am on 20th. Buses from Tutikandi to Karsog are frequent, and we booked one leaving at 8:20 am. Karsog is 107 km from Shimla, and depending on the weather conditions, the journey takes about 4 to 5 hours. As it was the onset of spring, most of the snow had melted and only patches were left here and there. I kept gazing out of the window the entire time, taking as much as I could of the changing alpine landscape. Even Chinmoy, who’s been to nearly all the districts of Himachal Pradesh hadn’t taken this route before and was struck by the beauty of it.
Just before 2 pm, we reached Neha’s home in Kuti, a place in the outskirts of Karsog town. Neha was waiting next to the road and waved enthusiastically for the bus to stop. Upon reaching her home, I was suddenly reminded of my grandmother’s place in Dergaon, a small town in eastern Assam. I guess it was the overall vibe of her home, the netted double doors, the rectangular living room with twin beds on one end and so on. We’d already stopped for lunch on our way so instead had some adrak chai and siddu (a steamed Pahadi snack) that she had prepared.
Late in the afternoon, Neha took us to a temple uphill, through a road right next to her home. Himachal Pradesh is known as Dev Bhoomi (abode of Gods) for a reason. Almost every single village has their own local or clan deity whom the people refer to as Devta/Devi. The centuries-old Devta/vi institution (represented in the form of idols) is still maintained, especially in the upper parts of Shimla and in Kullu and Mandi districts of the state. Celebrations like the Kullu Dussehra, Mandi Shivratri etc which have now been accorded the status of International festivals, bears testimony to the unique socio-cultural identity of the people and their distinct way of life from mainstream Hinduism. This particular temple too housed the local Deity, belonging to the Shaivite sect. The temple was at the peak and from there, we could see the breath of the Karsog valley. Several almond trees were graced with pink blossoms, in a month or two, they would bear fruit. We saw a small orange farm a few weeks away from being harvested. On our way back, we took several detours. Neha introduced us to a few of her neighbours. Some of them called out from their verandas, while some others were doing chores in their yard. There were little children in the narrow lane, playing with cycle tyres. One family made us have chai and bhalla (a tea snack made of mung bean paste)
It was dark soon, and a light drizzle had started. The temperature had fallen much below, and we hurried downhill to get inside the house and be warm and cosy. Dinner was essentially Himachali cuisine, with kadhi, rajma-madra with rice and babru (a thick, fried bread made with fermented wheat). Ghee is used very generously in Himachali cuisine, over oil, as the climates require a lot of fat in the diet to combat the cold. We went to bed early that night, partly because of being tired from the journey, partly in anticipation of the following day.
It was Maha-Shivratri on the 21st, Neha was to take us to the Mamleshwar temple in Karsog town. Early that morning, we could see the mountain peaks in the distance covered with snow. I managed to take a few photos through the drizzle. As the family was observing their ritual fast, we had some snacks with chai and headed out. It must be obvious by now how crucial chai is in the mountains. Most people cannot go through the day without their regular dose of chai. At least Neha couldn’t. While we, on the other hand, didn’t want to.
Karsog town was about 4-5 km down the road, but we decided to walk, not via the main road, but through narrow lanes across the valley. Only that way we could have fully appreciated the several shades of emerald and green in front of us. We walked across fields of mustard, wheat, corn, brinjal, onions and other vegetables, through the backyards of several houses, irrigation canals and even through mounds of slippery mud. After a point, we reached a concrete bridge over a charming creek. From then on, the road was much less steep and we finally reached the Mamleshwar Temple.
Legend has it that it was the Pandavas, from the Indian epic Mahabharata, who built the first structure to this temple. It was while they were on their last phase of hideout after Bhim had killed the demon Bakasura. There was a huge grain of wheat, weighing as much as 250 gms kept on a raised pedestal inside the shrine. Devotees were offering milk and fruits on the occasion of Maha-Shivratri. There was a preparation of bhang thandai and bhang laced laddo in a community kitchen area. Neha met many of her old friends, classmates and teachers in the temple premises. After a while, we got hungry and went to eat samosas from a nearby hotel.
We roamed around the town market close to the temple for most of the afternoon. Almost everyone who spoke to us asked us ‘how is Karsog?’ ‘do we like it so far?’. These are some common courtesy for people in the mountains, but once you have lived in a city where you barely have time to listen to others, it seems as if these questions can come only from very kind people. They also recommended places to visit nearby during our trip, warning us that if Shikari Devi is on our list, now is not the best season to go. We took an auto back to Kuti just before it became dark. The fast was to be broken by a mutton curry that Neha’s dad had prepared. That was our last evening in Kuti, as the next morning, we went to Kanochha and took a bus back to Shimla in the afternoon. Her parents gifted us each a Himachali cap as souvenirs.
Neha’s dad who had retired from the Indian Army some years back, now teaches in a government school, some 30 km uphill from Kuti. While Kanochha, the village of their ancestral home, lies on its way. Nearly all of Neha’s uncles reside in Kanochha with their families, taking care of their farm and the livestock. After a heavy breakfast, we started from Kuti just after 7 am with Neha’s dad driving the car. We had worn extra layers of warm clothes, but as the car gained more height, I could feel colder and colder. But I hardly cared as I was too occupied gazing at the beautiful morning outside. The trees grew darker, the houses below looked like lego toys and dews drops over the pine trees appeared to be glistening in the faint sunlight.
The drive lasted about 40 minutes until we spotted one of Neha’s uncles. We got down from the car, said our goodbyes to Neha’s dad and followed her uncle who led the way. The main road was muddy and would have taken us twice the amount of time to reach the house, so he took us through a shorter trail through the wild. Leaving the warmth of the car had left me shivering and I was struggling to move my legs at first. Slowly, warmth returned to my body after some hiking through thorny shrubs, protruding roots and puddles of rainwater. But once we reached the farm atop, bright sunlight hitting my face, I was left with my mouth gaping. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a charming place like that.
The fields were yellow with mustard flowers, between them were several apple trees with empty branches (as it was off-season) and a pastel blue coloured double-storey house at the other corner of the plateau. Walking across the field towards the house, I noticed a host of butterflies and the buzzing of honey bees over the flowers.
Neha’s nephews, Kiran and Kishore were the first to welcome us. Her cousin asked us to go upstairs and sit near the fireplace in the kitchen. Neha’s aunt and sister-in-law were preparing babru and asked us to sit on the cot. They offered us chai, halwa made with homegrown pumpkins, and a lot of other snacks. Kishore, a ten-year-old, showed deep interest in the cameras (film and DSLR) that we were carrying.
After about fifteen minutes, Neha, Kishore, Chinmoy and I went on a short trek further up the peak. We met more people from the extended Chauhan family and threaded through the slopes. There was no clear trail as such, the grass was still damp. There were a few shacks left unoccupied which is where a Gurjar family (nomadic community) resided when they crossed this area. There was a rhododendron tree in full bloom. Kishore, who was leading the way, climbed up in an instant and started throwing plucked blossoms to the ground. Only the petals of the flowers are supposed to be eaten, which tastes sour. If you eat a lot at one go, it could leave your mouth dry.
The road upwards was very steep at a few points, with barely any rocks or roots to hold for support. Kishore had already started making fun of my cautious movements. I was wearing a pair of running shoes that were not the most ideal for such terrains. At one point, we had to move across the breadth of a hill, and I, in a rush of adrenaline, had increased my pace. I had almost placed one wrong foot that would have landed at the bottom of the hill. I don’t know how I managed to catch myself on time.
But on the next difficult phase of the trek, I had slipped and fallen some 10 feet below the rest, before I grabbed a hanging branch of a tree on time and clutched myself. It happened when we had to move downhill but had to crawl our way down, not stand upright. I had stood up briefly to adjust my position and right at that moment, slipped, even after one of them had grabbed the end of my jacket. That’s when we decided to go back and not take any more risks. Because one day of a daring adventure cannot be more precious than life itself. That experience taught me what level of concentration is required in adventure sports. You cannot let your attention divert for even a second, and even though you’ve got company, you have to constantly pay heed to your own movements.
We came back to Kishore’s house and sat outside on the verandah. Neha’s uncle (and Kishore’s grandfather) had gone to fetch the goats back from grazing. Kishore’s mom was preparing lunch for us. The little guy had a lot of questions, “how did you get the tripod”, “what are these lenses called” etc. He took a lot of photos from Chinmoy’s camera. We asked him about his school and he said it’s in Karsog, which meant he and his brother usually go to town on weekdays.
After lunch, Neha’s uncle came back with three mountain goats, each with thick horns and their height nearly four feet. I could have stayed in Kanochha for a while, a little longer at least than a few hours, but we had to reach Karsog in time to board a bus to Shimla that evening. So around 2 pm, we waited for a local bus to take us back to Kuti. Kishore stood on the verandah, clutching a wooden pole and waved at us, he clearly wanted us to stay longer.
Upon arriving at Kuti, Neha’s mom asked us how we liked it up there. She made us pack some snacks along, for us to eat on the bus ride. We thanked her for taking such good care of us and packed our rucksacks. One of Neha’s neighbours drove us to the Karsog bus stop and we booked a bus at 5 pm.
Neha, who had also come to see us off, was to stay back home for another week before returning to New Delhi. However, I’d booked my flight ticket home (Guwahati) on the 28th of February. So, that was the last time I met her in person. After I came to Assam, the COVID pandemic had started and I have been here ever since. Of course, we didn’t imagine all of this back then, so we thought this was goodbye for just a couple of weeks. As for bidding adieu to the mountains, I really thought I’d come back in the summers at least, if not this district then perhaps to some other. On our bus journey back to Shimla, the two of us discussed the best parts of the trip. We could again draw parallels between a few things about people from Himachal Pradesh and Assam. The most obvious ones are the relatively better position of women in the society (as compared to other parts of northern India), the tendency to focus on simpler aspects of life, being naturally soft-spoken and so on.
As a person from the north-east, I’ve seen how travel businesses/companies tend to fetishize, exoticize less known places there as “unexplored” “pristine” locations, terming it as a paradise waiting to be discovered. That holds true to for Himachal too. It’s not uncommon to find that phrase extended to remote valleys and towns in the state. I am glad to have learnt to move away from such constructions and denotation of places. I’ve always felt that only when we are responsible travellers, can we really have a genuine and authentic experience. The purpose of travelling is to make us learn, appreciate the diversity of humanity, and our world views. It is to open ourselves up to alternative ways of seeing the world, acknowledging that our way of thinking is just one of many that emerged from historical and cultural circumstances. Leaving behind the shadows of tall firs and deodars on the way, these were the thoughts that crossed my mind that evening.
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Koumudi is a postgraduate in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is keenly interested in pursuing a career in academics. In her free time, she likes to write on her blog, paint, read fiction and is currently teaching herself to play the guitar.
Visit her blog at alphabetspotted.wordpress.com.
You can also reach out to her on Instagram at koumudi.m.