Diwali in Dalhousie
Diwali; what comes into my head when I hear this word? Pollution, Smoke, Firecrackers and the resulting cacophony. The very reasons I avoid this festival by miles. And all of it is exacerbated in Delhi, hence, this Diwali I absconded more than 350 miles to Dalhousie.
Nestled amidst the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, Dalhousie is a quaint little town in Chamba district in the state of Himachal Pradesh with a population of about 8,000. It was founded by Lord Dalhousie, the British governor general in 1854, to serve as a summer retreat. It is evident from the architecture if one looks at the many buildings dotting the town from the colonial era. If it wasn’t for many of the modern establishments that have sprung up in the town, Dalhousie would surely exude an old-world charm.
It is a quiet hill station with no nightlife (unlike the nearby McLeodganj) and is perfect for those who’re looking for a break from the routine, change of environment, or just a place to lay back and relax. It offers one serene atmosphere and is perfect for leisurely long walks, and not to mention, great views of the mountains.
Usually when people visit Dalhousie they go to nearby places as well such as Khajjiar (which is called the Switzerland of India because of its unique landscape), Panchpula Waterfalls, or trek to Kalatop, DainKund and Ganji Pahadi by keeping Dalhousie as their base, but since my intention to visit Dalhousie was to relax, I didn’t go to any of these barring Panchpula waterfall which is at a walking distance from Dalhousie Mall.
Though direct buses ply between Delhi and Dalhousie, the convenient way (cheaper, comfortable, and often quicker) specially for backpackers and travelers is to take an overnight train from Delhi to Pathankot or Pathankot Cantt. station in Punjab, so that one can sleep straight in the night, and then take many of the frequent state transport buses leaving from Pathankot ISBT to Dalhousie, and enjoy the view on the mountainous uphill drive.
Or if one doesn’t want to switch modes of transport in the way, there’s always an option of direct buses from Delhi, though they’re not too frequent. Since I love traveling in trains, the former option was the best for my journey.
Getting around and exploring
The best way to get around Dalhousie is on foot, not only because the town is small and it’s not more than a handful of kilometers between its major spots, but also because that’s how one is able to soak in the serenity and the beauty it has to offer.
(Further, like in all hill stations I’ve seen till date in Himachal Pradesh, the taxi union has ensured that the fares are inflated. I don’t blame them, since that’s the source of livelihood of drivers in a town where little sources of employment are available, further life is tough at such high altitudes, and it’s not an easy task driving in the hilly terrain, also the nearest fuel station is in Banikhet which is around 6 kms away from Dalhousie. But unless you really need the taxis or are travelling in a group with elderly folks, you shouldn’t require them, not at least while navigating the town and nearby places. But when you have to go to places such has Khajjiar, Kalatop, DainKund etc. it’s hard to avoid them.)
While walking you can stop for a while and look at the valley below, breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the chill, all of which you’re denied in the city. Also observe the architecture of the old houses standing still from the colonial era, the slanted roofs of of all the buildings for the snow to drop off during the winter months, it’s a different world up there.
So Dalhousie is centered around its two main squares, Gandhi Chowk (also called GPO) and Subhash Chowk. Though the major action is at the GPO since that’s where the Mall is. The bus will drop you at the bus stop which is further away from both of these place. The options to get to either of the above Chowks from the bus stop is either by walk, or by the overpriced taxi. I took a leisurely walk from the bus stop to my hostel about 4.5 kms away.
The good part about the hostel was that it was not exactly in Dalhousie but about 3 kms from the GPO. Kind of secluded, in another village called Kholpukher, thus giving me additional peace and escape from even the tourists bursting firecrackers at the GPO. Also the way to get there was really picturesque, running through the forest by the valley with great views on one side. And in the night, the view of the night sky you got from there was breathtaking. Took me back to my undergraduate days when I was an amateur astronomer. However, one tiny inconvenience was that after dark, the path to get to the hostel from the Mall was infested with bears, and even the locals feared to tread on it on foot in the night, specially alone. I was not aware of it on my first night there and was at the mall taking pictures of the Diwali revelry. Only when I started heading over that pitch dark path, I was encountered by my dorm-mate from the hostel who knew about the bears and was waiting for someone to head there so that he wasn’t alone. So both of us walked in the darkness through the forest with the help of the torch light in the phone and continuously talking since signs of human activity usually keep bears at bay. What an experience it was. I have to mention, the valley looked beautiful in the night with all the lights from the houses below, and the sky exceptional in the pitch darkness of the forest.
On the same path lies Subhash Baoli. There’s an interesting story behind it. In 1937 while in the British Jail, Subhash Chandra Bose was diagnosed with Pleurisy and hence was released. he came to Dalhousie to recuperate. While there he used to go for walks on this road where there was this Natural Spring or Baoli at which he used to stop to drink water. Soon his health improved and he was cured and went back to fight the British occupation. The Baoli is still there and it has been turned into a monument in respect of Subhash Chandra Bose.
So at the town center, i.e. the GPO, you have the St. John’s Church. Built in 1863, it’s the oldest church in town and has quintessential British architecture. Adjacent to it is a library where books are kept detailing the history and geography of the region along with rare photographs of the town from the British era. Unfortunately, the church was closed during my stay there on all the days. The locals say that it’s up to the whims of the Father to open it, it appeared he too was on a holiday for Diwali.
About 2 kms from the Mall lies St. Francis Church on Subhash Chowk. Another British era Church, though luckily this was open for visitors unlike St. John’s. The 2 km walk from the Mall to the church is again pretty with great views of the valley, with the added attraction of the Tibetan Rock paintings. Now there’s considerable Tibetan population in Dalhousie with a Tibetan Phuntsok Ling settlement nearby and even an Indo Tibetan market at the GPO, so it is natural we would see some Tibetan influence in the town as well, and what better than these beautiful paintings of Buddha and the mantra of Om Mani Padme Hun.
St. Francis Church was the only Church I was able to see on my trip because of others being shut. Located right at the Subhash Chowk, it is one pretty colonial structure built in 1894 and surrounded by Deodar trees, not as aesthetically appealing as the St. John’s Church in the Wilderness of McLeodGanj, but it has its own charm. There was a wish box of sorts at the altar where one could write it and drop it in the box for Jesus to hear. I too wrote one and deposited it in the box, who knows, if Gods exist, they might listen. 🙂
On a hike that I took one afternoon on a secluded uphill road from GPO, took me to the Tibetan Phuntsok Ling settlement, where I got to meet a nice, elderly Tibetan gentleman and chatted up with him. It was mainly him asking me from where I am and what brought me to Dalhousie. I love to talk to the locals this way, even better when they’re chatty. 🙂
Talking about the Tibetan populace of the town, there exists an Indo Tibetan Market at the GPO with stores mainly owned by Tibetans selling knick-knacks.
About 3 kms from the GPO lies the Panchpula waterfall. One can take a leisurely walk along the narrow mountainous path to get there. Though not that big but worth visiting if you’re in town. At the waterfall one can find some activities conducted by the Himalayan Adventure club like crossing rope bridges etc. as well, I could see some tourists participating in them, specially teenagers. Also the way to Ganji Pahadi goes through Panchpula.
The location of the waterfalls is pleasing, it appears you’re surrounded by mountains on all four sides and you’re in the middle with the clear running water of Panchpula amidst the lush greenery. Be aware that you’ll have to climb a lot of uneven rocky steps to get to the waterfall from the road.
While I was there, it wasn’t as cold as I expected it to be. It went to about 11 degrees minimum in the night. However early mornings were chilly and the sun was mild, further the hostel had hammocks so sunbathing became my preferred activity in the mornings. Lying on the hammocks, surrounded by the hills, listening to radio from across the border. As FM transmission is line of sight, higher altitudes help in catching distant radio stations, and hence I could catch Lahore’s radio stations on my radio.
Some more aesthetically pleasing houses at breathtaking locations I encountered on my random hikes around the town.
In the end, I’d like to say that one thing I’ve always liked about the people of Himachal Pradesh more than anywhere else in the country, is that they’re so content with their lives. Unlike us city folks who are mostly unsatisfied with almost everything, the people of HP, I’ve observed, are always happy and cheerful, despite the hardships of living at higher altitudes in remote villages where it’s even difficult to get regular supplies. Wonder if the mountains are the source of their happiness. 🙂