Monday, May 3, 2010

Glorious sunrise, riot of rhododendron colours

Rajesh Singh

Determined to keep an arm’s length from crowded Shimla on a recent Himachal Pradesh trip and yet stay close to the queen of hills, I settled for Shoghi, some 15 kilometres before the state capital on Chandigarh-Shimla highway. The Internet had helped me locate hotel Sunrise Villa, and the Villa’s website through various descriptions and picturesque images persuaded me to book a room for three nights and as many days. I fell for the temptation, not least also because the tariff was an enticing Rs 900 per day. Until now, my acquaintance with Shoghi was minimal, having passed through the non-descript town on earlier occasions without a second glance out of the car window.

It is natural to be dismayed on first seeing the ‘hotel’, because it is no hotel at all. Sunrise Villa is a house with a few rooms on the ground and upper floors. There is no reception, butler or room service. Located on a steep little hill some two hundred metres from Shoghi town, the Villa is an example of the entrepreneurship of a middle aged resident who decided to make a few extra bucks out of the tourist inflow. He seems to be doing well, for, when I arrive, work on the upper floors is in full swing. Before this summer end, Aggarwal, the proud owner, says he would have as many as ten fully functional rooms.

A help soon appears as I dislodge from the taxi with belongings. He is butler, cook, gardener, sweeper and man Friday for the Aggarwal family, and shares his duties with another cheerful employee. The owner and his wife are at the doorstep. After the customary greetings, tea arrives. It is four in the evening and the weather is pleasant. In three hours time, a chill will begin to set in. I take in the surroundings before me.

The initial disappointment over the `hotel’ is quickly dispersed as I am face to face with a breathtaking, unhindered view of a valley dotted with small villages and terraced fields and surrounded by pine trees. Far beyond is a range of hills, and they appear far enough to seem like a different world. The following day I will travel to two of them – Chail and Kufri. Birds glide across, piercing the silence with their calls. To my left, on top of a hill is the Tara Devi temple. From this distance, the temple appears to be precariously poised and in danger of toppling over with a strong gust of wind. Do not leave the place without a visit there, my hosts tell me. I promise not to do so.

Meanwhile, I soak in the wonder of Nature. A short seven-hour drive away, while Delhi sizzles with temperatures hovering around 42 degrees, here I am in the lap of heaven, reaching out to a shawl to keep me warm! As the trees get enveloped in darkness and the birds settle on the thick foliages around, the stillness creeps into your bones. Deep down, the houses are lit, and look like tiny stars scattered in the valley. It’s only 8 pm and the world I am in is preparing to retire for the day. After a piping hot dinner that includes vegetables grown in the Villa backyard – with every serving supervised by the lady of the house who insists on enhancing the quantity every time I protest at being over-fed – I wonder why the place should be called Sunrise. Be up and out of the room by 6.30 in the morning, she responds.

After a fitful sleep, with the ceiling fan switched off, I am up at 6 am. I eagerly await the arrival of the morning tea – which thankfully Mr Aggarwal had informed would be served in the room. But before that was the 6.30 am appointment. As I gaze at the far away hills and take in the chirping of various birds – one had a cry that rent the air for a full five minutes before the exhausted avian took a break – the sun slowly emerges from behind the hills. Like a child up to some mischief, it first peeps out tentatively, and seeing the coast clear emerges fully, rising as if from somewhere beneath. Streaks of orange light spread on the sky as I watch enthralled. The sun is now rapidly coming up, and will rule the sky until it retires for the day somewhere behind me. Time to move on – for tea, then stuffed parathas for breakfast, and a trip to the hills yonder.

One of the problems of describing breathtakingly beautiful places like Kufri or Chail is that words fail you. Although I am told the two hill resorts are absolutely splendid in the winter, they are still wonderful in summer. A short horse-ride later at an altitude of more than 8000 feet in Kufri, I am transported to a large plateau that houses the Temple of Four Great Snakes including the Shesh Naag and a medley of open air restaurants. Glum-looking yaks are lined up to entice visitors to be photographed atop the animals. A few yards away, tourists have a merry time getting ready for a photo-op, dressed in ‘traditional’ costumes provided then and there. All around us are mountain ranges that will be enveloped by snow in the winter, as the ground beneath our feet also would be. The horses are superbly trained; I am certain they can lead the tourist to the destination without any human supervision.

Chail does not any more find mention in the record books as having the highest located cricket ground on earth. The ground is still there but competitive cricket in no longer played. The expansive space is now home to students from the nearby Rashtriya Military School, who practice drills and sundry sports.

Also close by is the famous Palace Hotel, once home to the Maharaja of Patiala. It is said that, after being expelled by the British from Shimla, Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala decided to create his own capital for the summer. The picturesque Chail was (and is) perfect. Amid deodar forests, it had (still has) a great view of Shimla and that is where the palace came up. Today it is a hotel attracting entry fee from non-resident visitors.

Mesmerizing that the two hills are, the journey itself to reach them is no less ecstatic. The roads are lined by the stiff pine (Chir and Indian Cedar) trees. Considered as most sacred by Lord Shiva, the Cedar is also appropriately called Deodar – from ‘Dev’ (God) and Daru (tree). Botanists refer to it as Cedrus deodar, thus retaining the divine in the species. The tree is the source for a variety of applications, from perfume to medicinal. Its wood once upon a time served to make sleeper berths in Indian trains.

The stern-looking Chir too belongs to the Pinaceae family. An evergreen fixture in the Himalayan region, its leaves are like sharp needles that are used in cattle sheds and for packing fruits. Pinus Roxburghii, for that is what botanists call it, also provides timber for construction of houses and furniture.

And then there are the ubiquitous rhododendron trees in full bloom all along the way. Loaded with red flowers, they dazzle the voyager with their bright contrast to the green pine trees alongside. Locals call the flower baras, which is used to make squash, jam and jellies. You can even chew the petals, for they have a nice flavour.

Discoveries never end in such places – at least for an ‘urbanite’ like me. My taxi-driver and self-appointed guide, B D Gaarg suddenly stops on the way, skips out of the vehicle and plucks a bunch of flowers. Only a while ago, he had made a similar halt to reach out to a rhododendron branch and bring in a fistful of the red beauties. The new acquisition, he tells me as I take the bunch, is called kachnaar. Hold on, I interrupt excitedly, there is an old Hindi song: kachchi kali kachnaar ki…Gaarg smiles and adds that the flower buds have many culinary uses; they are for instance used in raithas.

As I wind up for the day, I wonder why people should live anywhere else in the world, away from the Himalayan region and the tree of Gods. Maybe because so many of us do not deserve that honour, because we are bent upon destroying what nature has given us to appreciate and enjoy. One need not look beyond Shimla to understand that.

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