Snow in Himachal isn’t just a tourist draw, but also a path to acclaim
Tucked away on the snowy slopes of Himachal Pradesh, a cluster of nine villages has produced 50 international skiers, including six Olympians.india Updated: Jan 25, 2018 09:34 IST
On January 9, Aanchal Thakur, a 21-year-old from a village on the outskirts of tourist hotspot Manali, made the country proud with a maiden ski bronze at a world-class competition in Erzurum, Turkey – more than 4,000km from her native place.
Till Aanchal’s feat – a third-place finish in Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup – the only recognisable face in Indian winter sport was luge exponent Shiva Keshavan’s, who will be competing in his sixth Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, Korea this year.
While the country now knows about Aanchal’s achievements, what is not known is that she is carrying forward a tradition of nine villages, including Anchal’s village Burua, dotting the rugged terrain of Himachal Pradesh. The cluster of villages, about eight kilometres from Manali on the way to Rohtang, has produced 50 international skiers, including six Olympians. Since 1992, when two skiers from Palchan village competed in the Winter Olympics for the first time, athletes from this part of the country have not missed a date with the quadrennial event, barring the 1994 Games.
Palchan, a village of around 90 hutments, has produced 22 international skiers, including two Olympians, and inspired more than a thousand households in the other eight villages to dream of international glory.
Like a duck takes to water, it’s natural for youngsters here to pick up ski boards and hit the snow-covered slopes. Every house has a ski blade – new or old depending upon the financial status of the family – and the ‘art’ is being passed on from one generation to another for the last three decades.
Aanchal’s achievement, thus, was an event to be celebrated wholeheartedly. “On her return from Turkey, people from the nine villages turned out in huge numbers to welcome Aanchal back. “I’d never seen such a huge gathering here except during political rallies. Anachal’s medal will make the sport even more popular,” said her father Roshan Lal Thakur, who is also the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI). secretary-general.
Limited resources and lack of infrastructure make Aanchal’s achievement even more spectacular. “There is only one slope – in the Solang valley – where all the skiers train. But that too doesn’t conform to international standards. We can achieve much more if the government upgrades the slopes. We also don’t have snow cannons to maintain them,” added Roshan Lal.
“For around four months (mid November-mid March) the area is covered in snow and the only outdoor option for children is to hit the slopes,” said Nanak Chand, the first winter Olympian from the area, who is an assistant commandant with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
Nanak Chand has been witness to a revolution in the region. He and his contemporaries used to strap shaved and smoothened wooden planks with rubber straps on to their shoes. Now, children go for modern skies because they are durable and superior.
“Our parents had limited resources. There was hardly any known source to procure original ski blades. So, we made wooden skies,” recalled Chuni Lal Thakur of Palchan, who represented India in the 1992 Winter Games and coached the national team from 2005 to 2010.
It was Harnam Singh, the Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (Manali) director who spotted village kids skimming down the slopes on homemade skies in the 80s. Impressed with their innovation, he arranged some ski blades and the rest is history.
“Our achievements today are because of Harnam sir. Had he not introduced us to the modern ski blades, the area would not have turned into the ski nursery,” said Roshan Lal. But it was not until 1989 that the skiers competed in the national championship, held in Solang. The very next year, Nanak Chand and Bhagh Chand (from Palchan) and the Negi brothers – Murli Dhar and Roshan of Vashisht village – were picked in the national skiing team for the second Winter Asian Games in Japan.
The true moment of glory for the villages came in 1992 when a two-member Indian squad, comprising Nanak Chand and Chuni Lal, was selected for the Winter Olympics. Since then, hardly any team has left Indian shores without skier from these villages. During the 1998 Winter Olympics, no skier from the region qualified but luger Shiva Keshavan from Vashisht village was holding the tricolor high.
“While Palchan has produced 22 international skiers, but as we step out of Manali, no one knows about our achievements,” said Nanak Chand. Oblivious to that fact, the ‘elders’ continue to bring up the new generation. Hira Lal of Burua village is one such example. His maternal uncle, Roshan Lal, coached him and the boy went on to represent the country at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Now, Roshan Lal has taken Hira Lal’s children – Himanshu and Aanchal – under his wings.
Slowly but certainly, the action has shifted from Palchan to Burua village, with 14 skiers competing internationally and the latest stars being Aanchal and Himanshu. While Aanchal was the country’s lone participant at the 2012 Youth Winter Olympics in Austria, Himanshu competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and is in contention for a 2018 Olympics berth.
The success stories have also given locals from Palchan, Solang, Kothi, Ruwar and Kulang an option to look beyond their small land holdings to earn a living. Resources dry up during harsh winters and livelihood is at the mercy of nature, so the next best thing is to turn to skies.
Nearly 50 per cent of the families in the region earn their living from leisure activity and sport. Kiosks dotting the mountain road rent out ski gear and blades to tourists and provide them with guides, while ski instructors help them learn the rudiments.
While some are happy earning a living on the slopes of Solang, others have moved out. “Nearly 90 per cent of the households in Palchan have seen someone or the other either competing or going as coaches abroad. Our children are now more aware about education, which once used to be the privilege of a few, because they travel abroad,” said international skier Sanotsh Thakur of Palchan.
It’s an irony, then, that the region continues to be promoted as a tourist destination by the state and the bigger picture – of making it a premier winter sports academy and competitive international destination – is being missed.