Saturday, December 15, 2001
S I T E S   A N D  S C E N E S

The river that can win a thousand Oscars
Raaja Bhasin

The bridge over the Baspa, a side stream of the Sutlej
The bridge over the Baspa, a side stream of the Sutlej

THE 1,600-km long Sutlej river has its source in a lake known as the Rakshasa Taal, literally ‘the lake of demons’. On the western highlands of Tibet, some 300 km east of the Indian border, its waters are a mere 2 km away from its famous twin, the fabled tarn of Mansarovar, which is also referred to as Ma-fa-mu and Mapan Lake. At a height of just over 4,500 m, these lakes rest in the Nagri prefecture of Chinese-controlled territory and geologists surmise these to have been one vast inand sea till the movement of the Himalayan tectonic plates created a land division between them. A narrow stream still connects the two. In its icy aridity, vegetation is minimal around the lakes, but they host a sizeable body of bird life.

The peak of Kailash — regarded as one of the mythological abodes of Lord Shiva — towers over the lakes. Both Mansarovar and Kailash are sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists and a pilgrimage to these is said to absolve sins. Many devotees, especially Tibetan Buddhists, circumambulate the mountain and the lake and the more devout prostrate themselves after every step. An alter ego to this aura of holiness, the Rakshasa Taal is said to have got its name from the legend that the demon king, Ravana, once bathed in its deep blue waters. Interestingly, while a dip in the Mansarovar washes away one’s sins, a similar plunge in the Rakshasa Taal is regarded to be a sin in itself!


While pilgrims and visitors from Tibet visit the lakes regularly, an expedition from India — with permission from the Foreign Ministry — goes to Mansarovar only once a year.

Starting as a small brook that traces its way over arid plateaux and miles of scree, the Sutlej takes a course west and is known as the Hsiang-ch’uan river, or the Tibetan, Langquen Khanbab — ‘the river that flows out of the elephant’s mouth’. Brushing by the pass of Shipki La, which was the last point on the Indian side of the fabled old Hindustan Tibet Road, the steadily widening stream enters India through the mountains of the western Himalayas. Now known as the Sutlej, its icy waters race down the Zanskar mountains, a sub-system of the Himalayas, and hurtle into the Spiti river at Khab. The cliff above the confluence tells the story of the creation of the Himalayan mountains. Fresh rock smothering more venerable masses give a graphic description of the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates and of how the Himalayas came into being as a result of a collision between a chunk that had broken away from Gondwanaland in the south and collided with the Laurasian land mass.

The Sutlej in Kinnaur
The Sutlej in Kinnaur

Past Khab, and determinedly gathering allies from scores of streams of glacial melt, the Sutlej slices through the forbidding mountains of the Greater Himalayas. Skirting the massif of Kinner Kailash (another one of Lord Shiva’s mythological abodes), it races to Karcham, 60 km downstream. Here, it is joined by the Baspa river which, in turn, flows through one of the most picturesque valleys of the tract. From Karcham, the Sutlej displays only anger and venom and is at its most merciless for the next 30-odd km. It is also on this stretch that dozens of streams and waterfalls poke and prod and seem to further anger this restless river.

It is between Karcham and Rampur, the seat of the erstwhile princely state of Bushair, that one of Asia’s most ambitious hydel projects, the Nathpa Jakhri Hydel Project is under way. A run-of-the-river project, this is supposed to generate 1500 MW of electricity and is expected to be commissioned by the year 2002. The project was expected to be ready earlier, but flood waters destroyed a considerable body of equipment, thus delaying the project.

This flood, which is regarded as the worst in 18,000 years, caused the Sutlej to rise by an astounding 45 feet on August 3, 2000. The severest damage was along the 300-km stretch between Namgia and Tattapani villages the latter is famous for its hot water springs famed to have therapeutic powers, but may soon be submerged by the waters of the Kol Dam. Most of the Hindustan Tibet Road — the lifeline for these areas — was swept away by the flood, entire villages and their population were submerged, cattle and livestock destroyed and practically all the bridges washed away. An event without precedent or parallel in recent times, the area has still not recovered from the shock.

After Rampur, having taken all the debris and rock that would care to join its normal, if stormy passage, the Sutlej allows the terrain and wider valleys of the Lower Himalayas to curtail its impetuous nature. Pictures of little hamlets, terraced fields and orchards now line the river banks. There are thick woods of cedar and spruce whose rich green provides a perfect foil to the river waters. The warmer valley floors, like the stretch near Tattapani, has little date palms that make cameo appearances. These palms are regarded as a throwback to millions of years ago when this area held the vast Sea of Tethys, and when these river banks may well have been beaches.

Rampur became the capital of Bushair when its princes decided to relocate from Sarahan which lies higher on the hill and holds the famous Bhimakali temple complex and its wood and stone structures are easily the most resplendent example of the area’s traditional architecture. Rampur is the largest settlement along the Sutlej’s mountain route and has a population of about 5,000. The position of the town was decided by placing three identical oil lamps, diyas, with identical wicks and an equal amount of oil on three possible locations. These were lit in the evening and the one which was found to be still burning at dawn was accepted as the site of the new town. The exact date of its founding is not available but this could have been anywhere between the early seventeenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries.

Rampur was a major entrepot along the old trade routes. The Lavi Fair — which is still held every November — was the time when produce from the hills like borax, livestock, wool, shawls, semi-precious stones and dry-fruits like apricots, raisins and the chilgoza, which is unique to this part of the world, would be sold and bartered for products from the plains.

The rapid flow of the Sutlej along this stretch, precluded the use of the boats made of hide, which were used to cross its waters in the plains. There were a few sangahs, like the one at Wangtu, which were ingenious log bridges, but most of the places were connected by spans. A rope and winch system with a crude saddle that dangles precariously over the churning river, these spans are still in use and ferry both men and material between one bank and the other.

Like rivers elsewhere in the world, the Sutlej’s waters have often acted as a boundary between warring states. For example, it was often treated as the defining line between Bushair and Kullu in the hills while in the Punjab, it was accepted as a boundary between growing British expansion in the Indian sub-continent and Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Not quite as devastating as the recent cataclysm, a huge landslide dammed this river for 40 days in 1782, near Sunni in the erstwhile princely state of Bhajji. While hardly a trickle escaped this body of boulders and mud, the people waited with bated breath for the dam to burst. The greatest damage was anticipated at Bilaspur which lay down stream and its ruler, Devi Chand, posted men with guns at regular intervals along the river with orders to fire when the flood came. Upstream, the dammed waters flooded low lying settlements and fields and when the gathering waters exploded through the debris, Devi Chand’s palace was swept away, though most of the town was saved.

Today, the old town of Bilaspur has been submerged by the waters of the Bhakra Dam which irrigates and feeds hydel power to a considerable chunk of north India. The Bhakra Dam is regarded as one of the world’s highest gravity dams and rises 225.5 m above its lowest foundations. Work on the dam began under the supervision of the famous American dam builder, Harvey Slocum, in 1955 and was completed in 1962. Incidentally, Slocum had no formal training as an engineer but his designs had been proved successful. This dam now feeds electricity and water to several states of north India. Its reservoir, the Gobind Sagar, is 90-km long and encompasses an area of approximately 170 sq km. As far back as 1962, the sagar was declared a Water Fowl Refuge and even today plays to a variety of water and shore birds. Fishing is a regular activity and 51 species and subspecies have been recorded. The varieties found include Labeo dero (Gid), Tor pitutrta (Mahsir), Mystus seenghala (Singhara) and mirror carp and allied species.

Bhakra is the point where the river enters the immense plains of north India. Irrigating vast areas and with a considerably greater measure of stability, the Sutlej drains over the Indian border into Pakistan where it joins the Indus and finally pours into the Arabian Sea. And the way great rivers are supposed to — especially those that promise adventure and whose actions and moods could win a thousand Oscars — the Sutlej also traces its route from an arid treeless countryside, through deep boulder-strewn gorges, along thick woods and past fields and towns. It also touches a wealth of architecture and varied cultures. Along its floor have marched armies in search of plunder and fresh conquests, traders who have dared its treachery and ascetics in search of the real truth. And the Sutlej’s waters still assuage the thirst of the followers of almost all of the Indian sub-continent’s major religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam.