I heard the name ‘Chitkul’ from a friend of mine in Kolkata. For some reason, the name stuck in my head and the place became my dream destination. So, recently, when I managed to get four days off, that’s where I headed.
I did the entire journey by bus, from Delhi to Shimla and Shimla to Chitkul via Rampur, where I stayed the night. You can hire a car from Shimla all the way to Chitkul, it will certainly mean less exertion, but then you will be exchanging the enjoyment of people-watching for the sake of comfort.
Taking public transport may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is nothing like it for getting bites of local wisdom. For instance, this is what I learnt on the bus about Shushang Khadd, a tiny stream that runs across the road — Chinky, one of my co-travellers, told me that if any snake, lizard or scorpion tried to cross this stream, it would be struck dead by the goddess Chitkul Mathi, who protects villagers.
As the bus moved on, we came to a place where the mountain rose on one side and a steep gorge dropped away on the other side. At this time, you begin to see the beauty that lies even in the dangerous side of nature.
There is one negative aspect of taking public transport — you cannot stop for a while where you want to. And on this trip, there are several places where you will want to stop.
At dusk, we reached Chitkul. I did not know where I would be staying, and I was not worried. Such is the beauty of the place that it drives out such dull, practical thoughts out of your head. Well, there was a guesthouse around, and they had room for the night.
Chitkul is the last village of Kinnaur district on the Indo-Tibet border where you can go without permit. Beyond this, habitation is almost nil, and you need a government permit to venture further.
The next morning, I set out to explore the village, which is 10,000 ft above the sea level, situated right next to the Baspa river. The village was rather empty. Only children and elderly people were at home, the rest having left for farming activities. The houses are made of wooden planks, with slate roofs, though the school and the army barracks have tin roofs, and these are becoming popular among villagers.
A milestone at Chitkul says Population 610, something I have never seen before. The people here live by farming and practise Buddhism. But what they really worship is nature.
At Raksham, a village of breathtaking beauty, 10 km away from Chitkul, some locals called out to me and asked where I was from. One man, a local teacher called Hishe ji, filled me in on local beliefs. In the village, so sparsely populated that it feels like a vast cathedral of silence, religion is not just limited to rituals; here, humans live with nature, not against nature as most urban people do.
Buddhist flags have been put up on the bridge across Baspa leading to Raksham, and the local people believe these flags look after the well-being of all life, including that of the river. Being in touch with nature is important, as the land can be unforgiving, burying the villages in five or six feet of snow in winter.
Stones carved with religious chants are piled in the middle of the road. People believe that going around this pile of stones is as good as sitting and reading the chants, but no one passes it from the right side. Everyone goes from the left side going to work, and comes back again from its left side — this makes it a full circle.
Night was falling fast, and after a long, long time, I saw a bright collection of stars, a pleasure seldom available in the city because of the light pollution.
The following day, I made my way back to Shimla to catch the overnight bus to Delhi. As we left Himachal behind, I hoped it would not be long before I could commune with nature in person again, not just through the pages of a newspaper.