A nameless village

Dilsher gave us driving directions. The route took us to Gushaini, where we crossed the Tirthan and took a road which wound high above the Falachan river. About a kilometer from the village which was our destination we found that the road was under repair. We parked the car and walked over the broken stones in the road bed. With the directions, and GPS, I know exactly where the village is; I can find it on maps and satellite photos; but I cannot find a name for it. It was definitely worth a trip, just to see what traditional houses and village layouts are in this area.

As you can see from the photo above (and detail in the featured photo), some of the houses are elaborate. This one had thick mud walls at the lowest level, and steep stairs to climb up two levels to the living space. The lowest level holds livestock, the next is space for feed, and the topmost level is for people. Wood is used extensively only in the area meant for people. I’d seen this kind of overhanging wooden box also in the divisional town of Banjar, where the lower floors were given over to shops. Now I saw where this construction comes from.

Not all houses are equally elaborate. You need space for livestock only if you own some; so the big house belonged to someone who was rich in this village economy. Other houses were smaller wattle-and-daub constructions, as you can see in the photo above. Mats are fixed on to wooden frames, and then covered with clay and painted. Interestingly, the house has two stories, and a balcony running across the front of the upper story. The two nearer structures are sheds to hold hay. Since this was lower, I could easily see the admirable slate roof. I was also quite impressed by the solar panel on top of the pole. Is the need for electricity small enough that a panel like this suffices?

I saw no signs of air conditioning; in this place you don’t really need it. Heating for winter would be an issue, but it wouldn’t be electrical heating. I didn’t see refrigerators, but satellite TV had arrived, as you can see from the dish in the photo above. All in all, the amount of electrical power needed per household would be small. I liked these two houses in completely different styles standing next to each other. The one with the upper floor box is unpainted; the one with the balcony is painted in bright colours. The man who you see here was friendly and curious about us. He gave us a little tour of his neighbourhood, trading question for question.

We did not go inside anyone’s house, so I never found out how the rooms are organized: is it one large living and bedroom? Or are these internal divisions separating kitchen, eating and sleeping spaces? The larger organization was clear. The center of the village was a large open square with an enigmatic temple which I have written about earlier. The village is laid out in a series of linked squares with houses around the open centers. The largest houses stand on the square with the temple; the further you go, the smaller the houses become. In a square adjoining the one with the temple I found a well and two children playing. In this photo they lean over the well.

You can see that the social organization is changing. There are new and fairly large houses at the periphery of the village; they climb up the surrounding slopes. The photo above shows one such house. The house itself looks different: the lower floor has windows, which means it is not used for cattle or feed. The roof is made of corrugated metal sheets, and the wood is painted. But perhaps the most striking non-traditional addition is the brick and mortar outhouse with a plastic tank full of water resting on its cast concrete slab of roof. This seemed like it was part of the government’s worthy push to add toilets to every house. The toilet blocks look identical everywhere in this country; they have been designed in Delhi. Fortunately availability of water is still not an issue here; I saw taps outside many of the houses.

The newer houses often use non-traditional materials. This one stood close to the entrance to the village. Again, I saw windows on the lower floor, indicating that all floors are used by people. This house was elaborate: it had balconies and a box just below the roof. I was struck by the use of corrugated metal sheets for the sides. They can’t possibly bear the load of the upper floors, so there must be another structural part of the wall. Is that a wooden frame or a thick mud wall? My reluctance to knock on the door of a stranger meant that I never found out. Of the many things which I did not know about this village, this was perhaps the least. The main thing that I should have asked the curious guide we picked up was the name of the village.

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.