Teenagers Vinnet Sharma, Rajat Thakur, Versha Thakur and Russhel Kanwal make the four-member national skiing team for the junior Asian Championship to be held in Iran from February 18. Of the quartet, three — Vinnet, Rajat and Versha — are from villages situated about 10km from Manali, towards the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh.Last year, around 40 skiers from the country had participated in various international tournaments and coaching programmes, of which more than 60% were from isolated areas near the resort city.
The remote villages of Manali are not only nurseries for the sport but are also making the country proud. Believe it or not, a radius of five km around Manali houses 38 international winter athletes, including five Olympians.
Palchan, a small village of 80 families, has 20 internationals, including three winter Olympians — Nanak Chand, Chuni Lal and Santosh Thakur. The nearby Solang village has three internationals. Ruwar, one of the five villages that come under Palchan panchayat, has one international.
Vashisht, which is the hometown of four-time winter Olympian, Shiva Keshavan, has three more international skiers and Burwa, one of the bigger villages in the region, has 10 internationals, including Olympian Hira Lal and youth winter Olympian Aanchal Thakur.
“As duck takes to water, youngsters take to skiing here,” says Palchan's winter Olympian Nanak Chand, an assistant commandant with the ITBP posted in Kullu. “Between mid-November and mid-March, the area is covered with snow and children here have no option but to take to winter sports. For them, ski blades are like any other toy,” he says.
Every household has a ski blade, new or second-hand, depending on their financial status. The art of winter sport is passed on from one generation to another and, for the past two decades, competitive skiing has acquired a new meaning.
Today, the village-folk have high-end ski blades, modern ski attire and snowboards, but this revolution didn't happen overnight. It started with shaved wooden planks and rubber straps to fasten them to shoes.
“When we were kids, our parents had limited resources. There was hardly any source to procure original ski blades. So, we had to make do with homemade equipment,” says Bhim Sen Panchani, 41, a resident of Burwa village.
“Now, every household has good ski blades. Even I am planning a new one for my son, Naresh,” he adds
In the 1980s, the then director of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports in Manali, Harnam Singh, spotted villagers using homemade skis. Impressed with their innovation and dedication, he arranged some branded ski blades. And, the rest is history.
“What all we have achieved in skiing today is because of Harnam sir. Had he not taken the initiative to introduce us to modern ski blades, the area would not have turned into a ski nursery,” says Chuni Lal Thakur from Palchan, who represented the country in the 1992 Winter Games.
Palchan, the trendsetter
After Harnam introduced the locals to modern ski blades, it was in 1989 that they first competed in the national championships, held in the Solang Valley. The very next year, Nanak Chand and Bhagh Chand (Palchan village) and the Negi brothers — Murli Dhar and Roshan from Vashisht village — represented the country in the Winter Asian Games in Japan.
The mountain village’s moment of glory came in 1992 when Nanak and Chuni Lal competed in the Winter Olympics. Since then, hardly any team has left Indian shores without Palchan skier being part of it. “Our village has produced 28 international skiers, but no one outside Manali knows about our glorious achievements,” says Nanak, the first skier from the village to represent the country.
Palchan’s skiing story has inspired a whole generation. Hira Lal from Burwa got motivated and made it to the 2006 Winter Olympics. Hira’s maternal uncle, Roshan Lal, currently the secretary-general of the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI), coached him. Even Roshan Lal’s daughter, Aanchal, has participated in the Youth Winter Olympics held in Austria recently.
Spreading the sport
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute has not just given a boost to the sport in the region but also helped popularise it in the country. Every year, around 1,500 youngsters from across the country visit Manali to learn the basics of the sport. “We have different ski-learning courses ranging between one and two weeks,” says instructor Dicky Dolma.
“This year, we have procured 60 pairs of grass skis which will be used during off season. This will help local skiers continue with their sport during summer,” said Dolma, a former international who also became the youngest woman to scale Mount Everest in 1993.
Besides Manali, Himachal has many more virgin ski slopes. “There are excellent slopes in Dharamsala, Chamba, Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti, but because of inadequate government support, the sport has not flourish in these areas. It’s time the state government initiates development of ski sports not just in Manali but also in other parts of the state,” says Rupesh Kanwal, who is helping the sport grow in Narkanda village, around 60km from Shimla. The village has produced a number national champions, including international sisters, Russhel and Mishael.
No government support
Despite producing 36 international skiers, including five Olympians, the sport is neglected by the Himachal government. Even four-time Olympian, luge ace Keshavan, who recently won the Asian crown, has yet to get recognition.
“Many youngsters have stopped skiing because it does not give them monetary benefits or government jobs. If the government provides jobs, there will be better results,” says international skier Bhagh Chand Thakur, an assistant commandant with the ITBP.
“We have only one slope at Solang Valley and that too not conforming to international specifications. If we want good results, the government will
have to upgrade it and maintain it as per international norms,” says Roshan Lal.