Shoja

The distance between Jalori pass and Gushaini is not large, but the roads are narrow and hug the mountains above the winding courses of the Tirthan and Banjar rivers. We drove quickly through the town of Banjar. We had a glimpse of shops fronting narrow roads. A few turns, and the road had left the town behind. We wanted to stop for chai, and Soni decided that Shoja is the best place for a morning’s cuppa.

Shoja turned out to have all the charm that Gushaini and Banjar don’t. The Young Niece oohed and aahed about the view, so I walked with her a hundred meters along the road to the end of the town and took the featured photo. We’d been seeing these terraced fields near every village, but this was the nicest view of that we’d had. The clumps of chir pine (Pinus roxburghi) and banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) salted through the fields, clouds descending from the mountain tops, and the beautiful light were something to enjoy in silence.

When we walked back our chai was ready. I gulped down my glassful and wandered up the road to take a few photos of the town. The tailor was already at work at his pedal operated sewing machine. The booth behind him must be the trial room. I was surprised that the village is large enough to support a tailor full time. I guess its main earnings are from farms and orchards. Tourism may bring in a little money, since there are possibly some home-stays and a hotel in this village. It looked very clean and more prosperous than Gushaini, but that may just be because it hasn’t grown haphazardly.

By now everyone had finished their tea, and we all walked back down the road to take another look at the farms around the village. I got another shot of the slopes and the farmhouses nestled in the fields. There are several interesting small walks around this village, but I had one planned at a higher altitude. We piled back into the car and drove on to Jalori pass.

A small town in the hills

If Gushaini is a large village, then Banjar is clearly a town. It’s not just the size, other cues kick in too. For example, there were policemen trying to prevent people from parking on narrow stretches of road. The Family wanted to look at a shop we’d been hearing about: it sold shawls and other traditional woolen clothing made by a cooperative of local weavers. Soni was waved on by a policeman immediately after he deposited us at the shop. I walked along the narrow main road at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights. The bright pink hair dresser’s salon was called “New Honey”!

Banjar is built on a slope above the Banjar river, so the main street is rather narrow. The beautiful old wooden houses are now squeezed between brick and mortar construction. I admired the carved wooden panel just below the box windows of the first floor. The new construction always leaves me wondering about the economics: in the plains there is an economy of scale when you use construction material which is widely available. These bricks have to be shipped up to the hills, increasing their cost. So why don’t people continue to use wood? Has the cost of wood increased in recent times? Is that just a question of supply not keeping up with demand?

Just because houses are made of bricks does not mean that the local style has died out. I stopped to look at this three-storied building. The ground floor is a nondescript shop with rolling steel shutters. The upper floors are dazzling gems. Look at the reproduction of wooden carved panels in plaster and cement, and the closed windows which are transplanted from the traditional architecture. I found the upper floors to be quite a statement.

It was a Thursday and I was looking for interesting doors. I found a set in this row of shops. Steel cupboards are quite the rage here. Unlike the old times, these come in interesting colours. I liked these two: one with doors painted the same pink as the hairdresser’s cabin, the other a lovely bottle green. The series of shops has the look of hasty municipal construction. The concrete slabs of the floor and ceiling quickly cast, the walls thin, the doors made of prefab panels which don’t quite fit. The private houses here are built with care, so the town corporation is probably run with a small budget.

Himachal is known for its fruits. Mid-May was too early for cherries, but apples and peaches were in evidence. But the fruit of the season is mango, and that does not grow in these hills. They have to be trucked up from the plains. Everything else looked local and fresh. I wasn’t really checking; Dilsher’s cook, Ram, was doing a wonderful job. The district of Kullu has five divisions, and Banjar is big enough to give its name to one. The route from Shimla to Kullu over Jalori pass travels next to the Banjar river until it falls into the Tirthan. As a result, Banjar is an important town, with a large market, and some low-end hotels for travelers who might be stuck for a night when the pass is closed in bad weather.

Lack of space has an interesting effect on the buildings in Banjar: spiral staircases. All new houses seem to have these curled ribbons of masonry tacked on to the outside. The stairs in traditional houses are more like steep ladders. They don’t bother locals, who are used to such slopes everywhere. The more gentle stairs here are wonderful for city people like us. I think this is also something that people of Kullu can grow to like. I would guess that if I were to come back here ten years later I would find these spiral staircases on almost every building.

There was a temple festival on in Banjar. Apparently villagers carry their local idol across the valleys to another temple once a year. That week the villagers of Bathad had come to Banjar. I kept an eye out for the festival, but the only thing I spotted were the special sweets on display in this shop. The shopkeeper was clearly unhappy when I pulled out my camera after inspecting the sweets. The festival takes place in a field well away from the main road. The morning’s rituals were over, and the evening was far away. We decided to give it a miss. Soni was happy to go; he did not like policemen.

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