4am in the morning is no time to arrive at any destination, especially not when you are in the mountains. When our bus rolled out at 8:30 pm from Shimla, I already knew something like this was bound to happen. Shimla to Manali is an 8 hours journey. Kullu is just 45 minutes before Manali. After travelling through endless winding roads I was fast asleep. At wee hours in the morning I was wakened by the bus conductor. The bus had stopped at a station. It was dark outside. The wind was cold. “This is Kullu,” he said. I was the lone traveler who got down at kullu. The rest were bound for Manali.
It was a small stop. All the shops were closed. I had nothing else to do but wait for the dawn to set in. All I knew about the place was from ‘Google earth’, but in the darkness even that knowledge shrunk considerably.
Though I meant no disrespect to the locals I hardly felt safe with all my cameras and laptop by my side. Some travelers slept on the benches with no cares. I kept awake and watched the sky go dark blue from black then finally whitish blue. Around 5:30 am I began to see the hillocks surrounding Kullu valley. The mountains were much closer than I thought they would be. In the darkness I had imagined a vast plain but it turned out to be nothing more than a small valley carved out by the Beas River flowing through it.
I stopped at Kullu for the temples and apple orchards. Some would stop for river rafting and fishing. Otherwise Kullu valley does not even come close to Manali in terms of its scenic beauty. Kullu is your ordinary town surrounded by majestic mountains. It’s the mountains they pride about.
Kullu, the town itself is not interesting enough to make you stay. So I hired an Auto Rickshaw for sightseeing around kullu. After five minutes I knew I had made a mistake by hiring the only Auto I came across. It made weird farting noise as we began to ascend a gentle slope. As we stopped at a petrol pump, the jolly driver pointed towards a gigantic mountain and said, “That’s where we are going.” It was like mocking the mountain.
Kullu is 1,220m above the sea level. And we were to climb 1800m to reach the Jagannathi Devi temple near Bekhli village. It was not long ago that they constructed the small but well maintained road. Before that the locals did most of the selling and buying on foot.
Cool morning breeze blew down from the mountains. We drove up the dark road surrounded by pine trees on all sides. It was a genuinely pleasant morning and a great ride.
When we gained some height we stopped at a view point. The town was still asleep. There was a certain bluish veil still cast over the town. The sun was still lurking beneath the great mountains.
After almost one hour we first came across an apple orchard. Raindrops from the previous night rain perched on apples and glistened in the early morning sun. My first sight of apple on trees! One of my many wishes on this trip was to pick apple from the tree and bite deep into it, but it was too early in the morning, so I kept that for another day.
We made calculated stops to allow the engine to cool down. But it bought me some time to wander around and take in all the beauty. After almost 90 minutes we reached Jagannathi Devi Temple. It is believed to be 1500 years old. A legend goes that once a shepherd boy saw two girls dancing to the tune of magical flute and he got hold of one of them. The goddess revealed her identity and agreed to settle in the village at Bekhli.
There was not a soul there when we reached the temple. The main temple is made of woods with intricate carvings on it. The deity of the temple is known as Bhuweneshawari, believed to be sister of Lord Vishnu.
The view of Kullu valley from here is priceless. You could see the sleepy town tucked between mountains on all sides and fed by the Beas River. The size of the mountain overlooking the Jagannathi Devi Temple was imposing. It is here the Bijli Mahadev temple is located. Most temples are built on top of mountains. Thought they give great view, it was difficult to traverse from one to another. In olden times Kullu was known as ‘Kulanthpitha- the end of the habitable World’. It was not surprising to learn that. You could see mountains tossed without end; surging beyond your view. In the far distance you could see snow covered mountains glistening to the morning sun.
The climb down was easy and quiet. On the `way we met some local women with traditional bamboo basket on their backs. They wore traditional attires and coy smiles. I was wandering what was on their back. The driver looked back and said, “Nashpati… waiting for the ride to town,” as if he read my mind. He stopped the Auto just in front of them and engaged in frivolous talks while I snapped a shot or two. When I asked if he knew them, he just smiled stupidly and said, “Whodoesn'tknow me. Who doesn’t know a driver?” He knew the mountains well; by names I never could familiarize myself.
The Autowala took me across the bridge and we drove through the other side of Beas River than made a crossing again to Bhuttico factory. Unfortunately both the factory and the stores were closed. It is popular for woolen shawls and clothes and you could see their shops expanding even in Manali and other places. On our way back to town we followed the river upstream. The Beas River here is more tamed and gentler than in the upper reaches where the currents are turbulent. Adventure stores along the banks of the river offer- river rafting and kayaking facilities. Fishing is another popular sport here.
On our way back to the bus stop we stopped at Raja Rupi and Raghunath Temple. Raja Jagat Singh relocated his capital to the present location in 17th century. Raja Rupi is the King’s palace. The monarch family still lives in the house. Though the house looked charming against the backdrop of mountains, it would be invasion of privacy to just barge in without prior permission. The Raghunath temple was built by Raja Jagat Singh in the 17th century. He sent his senior courtier to Ayodhya for a statute of Lord Raghunath to atone a great wrong he committed. The temple was built to house this statue.
Kullu is most popular for the Dussehra festival. It is here that the town looks most vibrant. It is celebrated in the month of October at Dhalpur Maidan. This tradition traced back to 17th century when King Jagat Singh installed the idol of Lord Raghunath at Raghunath temple. The State government has declared it an international festival. It is celebrated with much gusto for a week.
I came back to the bus stop around 9am. Within 3hours I had been to one of the highest peaks around Kullu. I had seen much of Kullu I needed to see. I had one of the most pleasant rides. And I got the first feel of how the mountains were going to look like on as I journeyed further north towards Manali and Rohtang.
I sat on a bus bound for Manali. The Beas River will lead me there.