Saturday, November 23, 2002
S I T E S  A N D  S C E N E S

Savouring Marhi’s mystique
Roshni Johar

In winter temperature dips to -35° C  in Marhi
In winter temperature dips to -35° C in Marhi

IT’S the magical charm of mountains that lures one to go beyond Manali to Rohtang La. Every traveller who goes to this high mountain pass must tread upon Marhi, about 10 km before Rohtang, nestled at 11,220 feet.

Marhi means graveyard. Interestingly, Rohtang La signifies "a heap of bones." History informs that soldiers of an entire battalion of Maharaja Ranjit Singh led by his commander Zorawar Singh died at Marhi due to a snow storm, while returning from Lahaul on the other side of Rohtang. As per one belief, the soldiers blinded by heavy fog, fell down from a cliff. Others say that they were stranded here and were buried under an avalanche. Rajinder Kumar Boudh of Marhi’s Chamba Dhaba claims that he has numerous rusted swords and daggers belonging to these soldiers. They were excavated while the foundation of his house was being laid 10 years ago.


All vehicles come to a screeching halt at the windswept Marhi, which has around 10 eateries serving Indian and Chinese food. You can get on hire woollen caps and socks, non-skid rubber shoes and overcoats. A 10-year-old temple dedicated to Kali, which is also worshipped by Buddhists, and a small PWD Rest House completes Marhi’s picture.

In winter, with temperature dipping down to minus 35 degrees celsius and snowfall rising higher than 20 feet, all activities come to a standstill. Even wind velocity measures put up by the Avalanche Study Centre get blown away. The owners of eateries close their business to idle away the winter days at lower heights. All of them jointly run one dhaba, sharing expenses and profits.

But what is worth noting is the yeoman service rendered by them. Rajinder Kumar discloses that innumerable tourists are stranded here after September due to snow. Rescue operations undertaken by him involve trudging for long distances in snow to fetch stranded tourists to Marhi. This may take hours due to poor visibility caused by fog and snow. To provide them first aid is a skilled job. "Heat should never be immediately given in such cases as it damages the skin. First the casualty should be wrapped in blankets and then they should be treated with hot water," says Rajinder Kumar, who has many letters of appreciation, including one from Khalsa College, Mumbai, for saving a group of stranded students. But for Good Samaritans like Rajinder Kumar, many would have met a snowy grave here.

Strangely the authorities have turned a blind eye to this serious problem. Marhi’s PWD Rest House, manned by a caretaker, is virtually of no use in any emergency, as help (and permission for it) is required from their office in Manali. There is not a single rain or snow shelter for lakhs of tourists who make a beeline for Rohtang via Marhi. The authorities must also provide underground snow shelters and stock them with medicine, food and blankets. Also, there is no petrol station or repair facility on the way. God forbid if a vehicle breaks down. The motorist will have to go back to Manali to get a mechanic. One reads painted on rocks, Puncture Marhi mein lagaaye jaate hain. The road, an important link to the tribal areas of Himachal, is very narrow. It is hazardous for two vehicles to cross each other. When the road from Kinnaur gets blocked, this road is the only lifeline to the interior areas.

With the coming of summer, the army starts clearing roads buried under 30 feet of snow with aid of ice-cutters. Gradually, Marhi limps back to a few months of normalcy.