The last lap

The road from Chandigarh to Kullu passes through the Aut tunnel. We didn’t need to do that. At Aut, we turned left instead, and passed over the barrage on the Beas, just downstream of the junction with the river Sainj, with the famous Larji barrage. We’s climbed steadily since we passed Mandi, and we were already at an altitude of 1 Kilometer above sea level. At these places the roads are not always open. You can come to a halt while an earth-mover pushes a fallen boulder away from the road. I took the featured photo at just such a stop.

A few tens of kilometers before we had passed a section of the road which was being widened and relaid. The look of an industrial wasteland created by a combination of earth-movers, road rollers and sundry other equipment can be impressive, but does not stop the traffic. I’d taken a photo as we whizzed past. To travel to a time table is to miss opportunities to take photos. This was one such place. I could have easily spent fifteen minutes at this point taking photos.

I got an opportunity as we moved into the Tirthan valley. The Tirthan river falls into the Sainj just beyond the Larji barrage. As soon as we entered this stretch of the road, we passed an earth-mover at rest. I got the photo which you see above as we passed by. At the forced stop a few kilometers on, where I got the featured photo, one of these machines was at work clearing the road. I suppose that these things are parked at various points along the road, so that they can quickly reach where they are needed.

The photo which you see above illustrates one of the confusing points about the topography of these rivers. This is the junction of the Sainj and Beas. I would normally have expected that the straight channel is the Beas, and its tributary, the Sainj, comes more or less at a right angle to fall into it. Here, it seems that the Beas takes almost a right angle turn. I suppose this is due to a convention by which the bigger of the two streams which join at a confluence gives its name to the river downstream of the join.

Once we had passed an altitude of a Kilometer, the lifestyle of people clearly changed. I began to see structures similar to those in the photo above. The shed on the roof of the house stores hay and cut grass for cattle in winter. I’d earlier seen these sorts of structures in the eastern Himalayas. I took it to mean that there can be some snowfall in this region, so that storing cattle feed becomes important in winter.

You can see another specialty of houses in this region in the photo above: the roofs tiled with thin sheets of slate. I looked around and began seeing slate in the rocks surrounding us. The other main rocks here seemed to be quartzite and gneiss. I guess that the presence of so much metamorphic rock should have told me something about the geology of the Sivaliks range of mountains that we were in. But I’m a dud at that; I just enjoy the view.

As we climbed up the Tirthan river valley, the vegetation changed. We stopped to admire a Jacaranda tree in bloom. The Family and I were reminded of our trips through Bhutan a decade ago. The Young Niece had not seen Jacaranda before, and was quite thrilled with the bright purple flowers. The Lotus said that he hadn’t expected the area to be as beautiful as it looked. I could agree with that. Once off the Kullu highway, there were few other people on the road. We seemed to have left the haphazard growth of villages behind. There was a sense of peace that descended on us, in spite of the fact that all our phones were running out of charge. But there were few junctions on the road, and the GPS was not really needed.

The road rose and fell. At one point, when the road had come down almost to the level of the river, I saw this beautiful house near the road. In the golden light of the setting sun, it looked perfectly peaceful. We could have stopped and looked for a place to stay the night. But Dilsher from our hotel sent us a message saying that they were waiting for us. So we went on.

We stopped briefly for tea. It was our first halt since lunch, more than four hours before. The temperature had changed completely. We were now at an altitude of 1.5 Kilometers above sea level. The heat of the plains had vanished from my memory. I put on a sweater as I got off the car. We sat on a terrace at the level of the road and had our nice warm tea with some biscuits. As you can see from the photo above, this was just the upper floor of a house. You could climb down from stairs from the road, and the main part of the house was downslope, with a nice vegetable garden opening out in front of it, above the river. Dilsher called, and I said that the GPS showed we were less than half an hour from the hotel.

We climbed higher. Eventually I found that the road would climb to an altitude of almost 2 Kilometers, and our hotel would be in a valley whose bottom was 1.8 Kilometers above sea level. The terrain had changed again. We went past Gushaini, a village which straddled the confluence of the Falachan and Tirthan rivers, crossed the Tirthan river, and branched off along the Falachan valley. The surroundings looked quite different again. We were still in the Shivaliks, of course, but in its upper reaches. The vegetation was a mixture of middle altitude trees.

As we climbed, the vegetation changed. I took a photo of the hillside covered with a single variety of trees, with electrical lines threading through them. The only trees which I have seen before outgrowing its competition at similar altitude are Chir pine. So I thought that’s what I was looking at. But now, looking at the photo above, it is clear that these are not chir pine. Pines, firs, spruce and oak are among the main trees which grow at this altitude. I’m almost as bad at identifying trees as I’m at geology, so I have absolutely no idea what these trees are.

We were almost there. Just before the batteries of my phone drained out, I took a photo of the sun setting into the Falachan valley. Fortunately, we reached our destination before sunset. We marveled at the 100 meter slope we had to climb down. Dilsher in person was quite as welcoming as he had been on the phone. I congratulated The Family for finding a wonderful place. It took us a day to realize that the distance from Chandigarh to the hotel, which we had taken about 11 hours to cover, could be done in around 7 hours. Soni had driven very carefully, and we were happy with that. But as we sat next to the river and drank a tea, I couldn’t help feeling that if he had kept to the average time on these roads, I might have had time to stop for better photos.

Advertisements

The Exquisite Punakha Dzong

If there is only one Dzong that you have time to visit when in Bhutan, there is no question that it should be Punakha. The wonderful location at the confluence of the Po Chhu (Papa river) and Mo Chhu (Mama river), the beautiful Jacaranda and Magnolia trees surrounding it, the exquisite woodwork and paintings (featured photo), and its renowned history, make this undisputedly the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. Don’t take my word for it. The present King was married in this Dzong, and all the kings have been crowned here.

Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 at a site where an older and smaller Dzong stood since 1326. Construction was completed in 1638, and the gold dome was added in 1676. In the second courtyard (dochey) I saw several buildings with beautiful paintings. The one above shows a monk with his left hand, holding a lotus, extended in a gesture that wards off evil (karana mudra). I liked the painting because of the detailed study of black-necked cranes at the monk’s feet. I’, not able to identify who this could be. I guess he is a monk and not a celestial being by the fact that he has a halo, but it is brown in colour.

To reach this place we had to climb a steep set of stairs. It seems that this is protection against invaders as well as flood waters. Entrance to the main buildings in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan The ladder that you see in this photo is apparently pulled up at night and the door behind it is locked. The ladder is so steep that I had to hold the handrail to climb up. The height is a protection against floods. Since Po Chhu is snow-fed, melt-water often floods in early spring. Even so, the Dzong has flooded several times in its history. The waters eventually cross the border into India and feed the Brahmaputra river. We spent a long time in the halls around the second dochey, admiring paintings and statues.

Mural in Punkha Dzong, Bhutan The two images here were taken because the light was good. They depict celestial beings of great power. This is clear from the green halos that surround their heads. Apart from that I’m clueless about who they can be. They are neither the Sakyamuni (since they do not hold a begging bowl) nor are they depictions of the Maitreya Buddha (since their feet do not rest on lotus flowers).

They are not Avalokiteshwara (since they are looking forward), nor are they Tara (since they are male). They do not hold a sword, so they are not Manjushri. They are not surrounded by flames, so they cannot be Mahakala or Vajrapani. Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan Both are bearded, so they could be Padmasambhava. But I have no idea whether the Guru is depicted holding a musical instrument, as the one on the left does, or a prayer wheel, like the one on the right. The identified images of the Guru that I have seen show him with the Sakyamuni seated on the crown. That is not the case here. These could be someone else, but I like to think of them as the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas.

View of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This was the second time we visited the Punakha Dzong. Both times we arrived in May, and found the Jacaranda in bloom. The beautiful purple colour looks wonderful against the white walls of the Dzong. It would be nice to come back here in another season to see what it looks like.