Looking down on creation

Standing amid the vast silvery expanse of Rohtang Pass is a dream come true for every tourist to Himachal Pradesh, reports Usha Bande after a visit

A view of the snow-clad Rohtang from Madhi
A view of the snow-clad Rohtang from Madhi.

The HP Government resthouse at Madhi stands isolated as there is scant habitation and no vegetation at this height
The HP Government resthouse at Madhi stands isolated as there is scant habitation and no vegetation at this height.

Rocky terrain en route Rohtang
Rocky terrain en route Rohtang

AT 13,400 feet, the pass commands a breathtaking view of the valleys on either side and as one gasps for breath one wonders why it is called a pass at all for it does not have that narrowness associated with one. It spans a kilometre in width and overlooks the gigantic meadows that accentuate the sense of height. Rohtang splits the awe-inspiring Pir Panjal range in Northern Himalayas. On one side of the pass is the picturesque Kulu valley. On the other is the rugged terrain of Lahaul. This pass, joining the two sides, has made communication between Kulu and Lahaul a possibility.

Legend has it that for long the people of Lahaul thought that there was no existence beyond the high ranges of Pir Panjal and for the people of Kulu valley theirs was the land’s end. Many stories and myths are linked with the creation of Rohtang that defy reason but are all the same nearer the heart of the people. According to one version, the people of Lahaul heard from the winds and the birds, stories about the existence of a prosperous land beyond the Pir Panjal range. They propitiated Lord Shiva who smote the mountain range with a whip with such severity that the rocks crashed and a terrible wind started blowing; and then there followed an impenetrable darkness and an impregnable silence. At this moment, the pass was created. Lord Shiva went away but the wind continued to stay. Till date, the pass is lashed by stormy winds.

Another story has it that a king, Gyapo Gyaser, came on his flying horse and reaching the Khoksar ranges he gave a powerful blow with his magic whip to make his way across. The mountain cleaved to let him pass. In both the stories, whipping seems to have produced great stormy winds, which the people of Kulu and Lahaul say, shows the might of Lord Shiva and King Gyapo, respectively. The weather has not changed since and powerful hurricane wind starts blowing atop Rohtang around noontime every single day. Anything moving on the pass is likely to be blown off.

A mist may rise any time, reducing visibility to near zero. That is the reason why tourist traffic starts moving down to Manali between 12.30 to 1 p.m. and tourists are warned to keep timings. Call it a natural geographical phenomenon or freak of nature or the might of the Creator, but one thing is certain that it is not within human limits to dare the wind. That is the reason why no accommodation facilities are available at Rohtang.

The drive from Manali to Rohtang is an unforgettable experience. The 52-km-long metal road is a feat of engineering and one cannot but appreciate the Border Roads Organisation for their hard work in making and maintaining the stretch that has made the journey to Rohtang possible for an average tourist. As one crosses Manali, the scene seems to be changing with every turn. And every time you look out, a breathtakingly beautiful panorama opens before you. The vast and open Beas valley, the gurgling streams, the apple orchards and the expanse of lush green meadows soon change to formidable heights, deep gorges and unfathomable valleys. Soon, you reach Rahla waterfalls. Stopping there, you can enjoy the force of the water cascading down with full vigour. The air is now sparkling clear and the sky deep blue. En route, you can see tiny hamlets and the orchards that are left behind. To keep you company, the colourful flowers peep through the mountainsides — the deep mauve and bright yellow wild flowers, the exquisite ‘gora’ bushes with shell pink flora and some white daisies delicate and uncertain whether to bloom at this height or not. The picture of nature is just superb, the colours are bright and the lines of scenic beauty etching out in just perfect contours. As the height increases, the greenery dwindles. You cross Madhi and an intimidating feeling engulfs you as you enter a crystal fairy palace. It is, indeed, an ice-wall through which the road passes.

Short of Rohtang, there are several stalls giving coats, jackets and snowshoes on rent to prepare you for the cold up on the pass. A welcome service, indeed.

And once you are there you are atop the world. The crystal white beauty, the mile-long expanse, the unknown terrain beyond and the awe of the mysterious just baffle you. For the tourists, playing in the snow is a wonderful experience. Despite the dizzy feeling and shortness of breath, they seem to be bent on having maximum fun. To one side of the cliff is an igloo-like structure. It is the source of the Beas, one of our mighty rivers that starts its odyssey as a non-descript trickle. A beautiful glacial lake called Sarkund, and also Dashair, lies at 500-600 feet above the pass. Its water is supposed to have curative value but reaching there is not easy and a tourist cannot make it because of constrains of time as he has to leave before the stormy winds start lashing the pass. But the locals brave this treacherous trek to bathe in the lake on auspicious days.

Coming down Rohtang, all through the hairpin bends and stomach-churning heights, stopping at Madhi is soothing. Madhi has several dhabas that offer snacks and lunch and it is not a bad idea to taste kadhi-chawal if you can withstand the journey downhill. With a hot cup of tea in your hand, looking at the Beas flowing like a ribbon affords a space to speculate and live through the experience of Rohtang. Here, the Beas is just a tiny stream, unpolluted and sparkling, curving its way down soon to become a might river. There is a small HP Government rest house nearby, standing on a barren stretch.

Rohtang may be an exhilarating experience but with its hazardous climatic conditions it is not visitor-friendly for it remains closed for a major part of the year and is open to tourists only between May and August. For the rest of the time, blizzards hold sway and the temperatures are below freezing.

For the people of Lahaul, however, Rohtang has been a blessing. It lies on the old trade route to Central Asia and has served as a gateway to Lahaul and Spiti via the Baralacha Pass, to Ladakh and Tibet. Traders from Ladakh and Tibet have passed along this route with their mules, stacked with salt and borax, mined in the inner Himalayas. Even today, they bring wool and woollen blankets, asafoetida (heeng, in Hindi), aromatic roots and precious stones — tiger’s eye, lapis lazuli, amber and turquoise for which the region is known. They return with tea, sugar and foodgrains as the spring heralds mild weather to cross the pass.

On your way to Rohtang, amid other things you may notice the nomadic shepherds, the Gaddis, with their flocks of sheep and the fierce Gaddi dogs trekking slowly towards their destination. And as a lilting tune on a flute vibrates through the fresh air you are just filled with inexplicable happiness, a sense of gratification.