To go on a pilgrimage is to repeat a set of familiar rituals. These are actions that are deemed auspicious, or seem propitious; actions that re-enact a known causality of effort and reward. When I am on a “pilgrimage” to Kangra in Himachal Pradesh, I too enact a set of rituals, the chief one of which is waking at dawn as the bus I am travelling in trundles through the rolling foothills of the valley. Sometime after crossing the Pong reservoir, as the pre-dawn light breaks over the wide horizon, if you are awake and sitting on a right-hand side window seat, you suddenly see something that takes your breath away. In the distance, a ghost landscape of shadows and ground mist is broken suddenly by the appearance of a gigantic wall topped in places by what look like serrated teeth; an immense barrier on the horizon, stirring to life as the dawn broadens its glow. The Dhauladhar.
When I was first struck with a case of Himalaya fever, some 25 years ago, I had dreamt of visiting every nook and cranny of the curving 2,300km-long range. Although there were no “blanks on the map” left any more, I pictured myself as an explorer, like my idol Eric Shipton (who had coined the phrase), crossing passes and climbing peaks, not to feed any sense of conquest, but just to sate an endless curiosity to see what lay around the corner. Pretty soon came the realisation that this probably wouldn’t be possible. Sometime later, I decided to make the Dhauladhar the chief area of my explorations. Over the years, even though I have trekked in regions as varied as the Khumbu in Nepal, Changthang in Ladakh and Chamoli in Uttarakhand, it is to Kangra, and the Dhauladhar, that I keep returning.
Through the 20 months of the covid-19 pandemic, beginning from the first lockdown in March 2020, the one nagging regret at the back of my mind was the extent to which I ached for the mountains. I had great dreams of bringing in my 40th birthday in the Himalaya this year but the second wave put paid to any such plans. Travel was unthinkable for much of 2020 and 2021, and still seems somewhat risky now. But with infection rates low, and being fully vaccinated, I decided in early October that the time was right to return to the mountains. I didn’t want to take on an overtly strenuous trek. I just wanted to gently re-introduce myself to the Himalaya, and, for this, there was only one place to go: back to the Dhauladhar.
The white ridge, as the name translates to, isn’t actually white most of the year. It becomes so only once the first proper winter snowfall occurs around end December. By the following April, it’s mostly gone. The Dhauladhar isn’t white, but the titanic blocks of granite that make up the range take on various colours through the year, sometimes changing hue multiple times a day. Between 2008-14, I had visited the range countless times, sometimes for treks lasting over a week, sometimes on quick weekend jaunts, and each time the Dhauladhar looked different: a brooding, moody black during the monsoon, bedecked with cloud banners; a luminous, blinding creamy white in clear weather; blood red during winter sunsets, fading to pink as the sun set over the horizon. And, boy is it dramatic! The range is not high as Himalayan ranges go, less the 5,000m at its highest point. But the way it sweeps up from the Kangra Valley in one sheer swoop of 12,000ft of rock, really takes the breath away.
If the Dhauladhar and its valleys and passes are dear to me, so is the Gaddi community that lives there. I have been fascinated with them ever since my first visit, with their mysterious folklore, their pragmatic yet warm ways, and their utter lack of pretence. So before the trip, I called my friend Manu Hiyunri. The 42-year-old has been organising treks for me for the past 11 years. In 2010, Hiyunri’s trekking business was a fledgling operation, run out of a small office in the village of Bhagsu, 2km above McLeodganj. These days, he’s one of the most successful and respected trek operators in the area, running a smooth operation employing dozens of guides, and building up a network across the state.
“Manu bhai,” I say, “it’s been eight years, it’s time again for you to set me up for a few days of hiking.” “Don’t worry bhai, just get here,” he says on the phone. And there I was, but Manu was in Manali, on a small holiday of his own with his family. Left to my own devices on the first day, I began a slow, and somewhat cathartic, process of reacquainting myself with McLeodganj. It was the Dussehra long weekend and it seemed that a large part of north India had relocated there. Masking and social distancing was lax, though the Tibetans and the Gaddis assiduously wore masks. Stung by nearly two years of zero tourism, the locals were trying their best to be helpful and accommodative of tourists as brash and loud and mindless as ever.
Horrified, I walk up to Dharamkot, a quiet village above Bhagsu, traditionally the haunt of pranic healing-seeking hippies and young Israelis on long-term visas. But compared to the tourist bustle of Bhagsu and McLeodganj, Dhramkot wears a ghostly look. There are more homestays now than I can remember, but most are deserted. The proprietor of my homestay, a young Gaddi woman called Nisha, says that foreign tourists had started drifting away from Dharamkot even before the pandemic. “Hopefully, they will return,” she says, “Indian tourists don’t want to come this far up.” Lucky for me, but unfortunate for her business. My next door neighbour though, a Taiwanese seeker who’s been learning the tabla for three years, and into day-long meditation to tanpura trance music, brings back memories of the once and future Dharamkot.
A day later I am off for my hike, climbing up to a high camp, about a 1,000ft below the main Triund ridge. A few years ago, the state government had banned all camping in Triund, when the ridge-top was being inundated with tens of thousands of tourists every day. These days, there’s strict monitoring on the old Triund route from the Galu Devi temple above Dharamkot. Local police and forest guards check if guides are licensed, and confiscate any liquor or wireless speakers. So the action has shifted to a route that was once deemed risky, a nearly vertical climb up from the Bhagsu Nag waterfall, first through tight thickets of gnarly oaks and then up a sheer windswept ridge to the high camp. It was on this climb that I was exposed to the horrors of the speakers, as scores of young thrill seekers huffed up the trail or hobbled down it, blaring the kind of music more suited to Delhi malls. I ask my guide Ranjit, a quiet man in his early 30s who hails from the nearby village of Kareri, about this speaker epidemic. “Kya kare,” he shrugs, “that’s what they want these days. And we need the business.”
At the high camp, I find out how this new tourism works. Hordes of unfit young people ascend the trail from Bhagsu, spending the night in a small village of tents on the exposed ridge. They spend the night drinking and playing music, often with a bonfire blazing. The next day they descend, their hangovers intact, for more masti in McLeodganj, while boasting about their “trek”. Meanwhile, Triund and the upper Dhauladhar are reeling under acute water shortage. The pressures of tourism and climate change in the form of erratic winter snowfall have sucked the local natural springs dry, and the whole high mountain economy now runs on bottled mineral water, ₹50 a bottle. Later, when I ask Manu about these “trekkers”, he gives a wry smile and says, “When these guys return from Triund and tell me that they have just come from a trek, I tell them, gently, that what you did was a picnic, not a trek.”
Two nights later, and 1,600ft further up from the ridge of horrors, the scene is quite different. “I am telling you, even the prime minister of the country has never breathed air as fresh as I have, nor drank water as cold and pure,” says Lekhram, as he takes another long, hard pull on his biri. The 67-year-old shepherd from a village near the Gaggal airport is spending the last of the autumn days with his enormous flock of sheep, before they descend to Dharamsala for the winter. He waxes lyrical on the joys of living in the open mountains for months on end. It’s 9pm, and following our dinner of enormous helpings of dal-chawal, we are huddled around the hearth fire, deep inside the confines of an old tea-shop called the Snow Line Cafe, 3,200m up on Laka got in the Dhauladhar.
Outside, the giant ramparts of the main range rear up in a sheer up-sweep of rock, towering a further 1,000m over the hanging valley of Laka. Old Scottish and English colonial army officers had explored and mapped the Dhauladhar at the turn of the 20th century. The peaks still bear the names they gave them: Mon, Camel Peak, Two Gun Peak.
They may not have mapped the range on paper, but all the trails and tracks in the Dhauladhar, much like in the rest of the Himalaya, are made and maintained by sheep and goat herders of the local hill communities—in this case, the Gaddis. According to available historical records, the itinerant sheep-herding Gaddis have been living in the valleys of Chamba and Kangra, on either side of the Dhauladhar, since at least the 12th century. In high alpine areas like Laka, far above the villages, Gaddi shepherds maintain grazing grounds, called gots, that also function as staging posts and camping sites for their flocks across the Dhauladhar, Pir Panjal and Bara Bangahal ranges. From the onset of spring till the first snows of winter, you will find Gaddis dressed in rough homespun woollen jackets and breeches in all sorts of inaccessible, vertical cliff-faces of these ranges, sheltering in natural caves with their sheep and huge bear-like dogs. No trekking in the mountains would ever be possible without the shepherds maintaining the routes, setting up little cairns as way-markers, puzzling out trails in a vast amphitheatre of boulders.
I speak to Lekhram about the Lahesh cave, a few hundred metres above Laka, often used by trekkers as a base to climb up to the famous Indrahar pass. “Ah yes, Lahesh,” says Lekhram, “It’s so old. We have been using it for time beyond recall.” Earlier that day, during a lung-busting hike up to Lahesh, Ranjit had told me the same thing, that the Gaddis have been using caves like Lahesh to move from Chamba to Kangra for centuries. “My great grandfather, who’s nearly 100, tells us of hearing from his own grandfather how Gaddis from Bharmour in Chamba would walk to Dharamsala, which had the biggest market in the region, by crossing the Dhauladhar.” People would walk from Bharmour, in the foothills of the Manimahesh Kailash range, crossing the Ravi river to the village of Kuarsi on the northern face of the Dhauladhar, and then up to the high got of Chhata. The next morning, they would cross Indrahar and descend all the way to Dharamsala, a height gain of about 2,000ft followed by a descent of about 12,000ft in one day! On their return journey, they would stop at Lahesh.
In 2011, I had been to Kuarsi, home to a gorgeous old wooden temple to Indru Naga, one of the presiding snake deities of the region. The Indrahar pass is named after this deity, who is believed to control the weather. Indeed, despite the Gaddis’ intense reverence for Shiva, the community’s true religious totems are snake deities like Indru and Bhagsu. You will find little hooded snakes and clusters of trishuls at every shrine in the area, even at the passes. In villages like Kareri, or even in distant Andretta near Palampur, village and forest shrines come adorned with granite slabs with circular carvings of coiled snakes that look like large versions of ammonite fossils.
My original plan was to explore a seldom-traversed forested ridge down from Laka to the forest shrine of Guna Devi near the village of Naddi. Ranjit asks me to reconsider this line of descent. It’s a rough shepherds’ track that hasn’t been used in a long while, he says, and we may have to make the trail in places. Which is fine, he adds, but it’s a forest that’s teeming with black bears, who are not afraid of humans because they rarely see any. Then he pauses, and asks me if I am carrying a Bluetooth speaker. I am mortified. “No!” I say vehemently. He shrugs and says, “Oh well, we could have then played some music to keep the bears away.” Damn, I feel, maybe I should have brought a speaker.
Ultimately, I decide not to brave the bear forest. When a local advises you against a course of action, you listen. Besides, to stay on in Laka another day would mean another day of rambles and climbs, watching sheep, chatting with shepherds, and enjoying another clear, full moon night, wrapped up in blankets, in the presence of the granite eminences. And so I spend the days, walking up golden oak and dwarf juniper clad ridges to precipitous pinnacles crowned by mysterious shrines, helping collect fallen firewood and glacier-melt water for Raja, the quiet proprietor of Snow Line Cafe, tracking monals in the forest and sharing notes with Ranjit about the high-altitude lakes dedicated to the snake deities on the other side of Indrahar.
We share our experiences of river crossings during high monsoon, while he tells me funny stories about how the villagers of Kareri helped an adventure reality TV crew pretend that they were living on their wits in a remote forested ridge above the village. “They wanted to film the ‘survivalists’ catch and eat a wild goat. So we bought a normal goat, slightly large, and then let it loose in the forest. Then we caught it for them, and hid from the cameras as they pretended to catch an already captured goat.”
By the time I descend to Dharamkot, a few days later, I realise I am no longer trying to relive my memories of the range. Instead, I am reacquainting myself with the mountains and the people in the here and now, renewing my contract with the place, as it were. Back in Bhagsu, I find that Manu is back from his holiday. So we spend a night reminiscing about old times over chilli chicken and whisky, talking about how our lives have progressed since our first meeting over a decade ago. The next day is his son’s 11th birthday, so I drop in at his place before catching the bus back to Delhi. The place is teeming with cute Gaddi kids, high on sugar from the birthday cake. I meet Manu’s mother, his wife, all the extended relatives. The children dance to Rihanna. Then someone starts playing haunting, plaintive Gaddi songs of love and longing. Everyone gets into a circle and starts dancing, swaying their arms and stepping in languorous time. I join in. It’s perfect.