Atal Tunnel and the Lahaulite snowmen of yore

Atal Tunnel and the Lahaulite snowmen of yore

Atal Tunnel, Rohtang - File photo

KL Noatay

With the opening of the Atal Tunnel, the Lahaul valley is bound to become an extension of Kulu-Manali. The development makes me nostalgic about my two-year tenure in the tribal area from 1964.

In the ’50s, Lahaul-Spiti was part of Kangra district of east Punjab. It was constituted as a separate district of Punjab during the early ’60s. Government employees earned 100% remote locality allowance there. Moreover, emoluments for six winter months were disbursed lump sum in advance every September-October.

Kuluvi officials would do their best to avoid a posting to Lahaul-Spiti. Punjabis, however, opted for it and undertook the tenure for monetary savings. There were no helicopter flights then. Electronic exchange of information not known in that epoch, monthly accumulation of postal dak at Keylong and Manali, even during winter, was around a quintal or so on either side. Evenly packed in dak-bags, each weighing 10 kg, it was exchanged up and down between Keylong and Manali by man-pack — at least once a month. Two or three Lahaulite youths were hired as special winter dak porters. Well-equipped with snow-wear, each porter would generally take three or more bags, which meant nearly 30 kg or so of backpack, depending on an individual’s carrying capacity. They would leave Keylong at 3 am, cruise some 14 km snow-bound trek up to Gondhla by 8 am and rest. On the following morning, they would likewise trek the next 14 km up to Teling (opposite Koksar); again between 3 am and 8 am and rest. On the third morning, starting again in the wee hours, they would cross Rohtang before twilight, to be at Manali by noon. They followed the same itinerary while returning with dak-bags. They took all care to move only under clear sky and not in inclement weather. A round trip took them a week to 10 days. The Deputy Commissioner was empowered to fix rates for any task like this and the portage for a 10 kg dak-bag between Keylong and Manali, one way, was Rs 60. Thus a porter carrying three bags either way used to earn about Rs 360 in a round trip.

Gold cost about Rs 150 a tola (10 gm) then, and the porters made a handsome earning out of their exacting venture. There was no untoward incident during two winters of this mode of movement of dak during the winters of 1964 to 1966. The post-Atal Tunnel generation of Lahaulites might perhaps find it difficult to believe how daring snowmen their elders used to be!

Though Spiti, having its headquarters at Kaza, is clubbed with Lahaul (constituting the catchment of Chandra and Bhaga, or the Chenab river) for district administration, geographically it constitutes the catchment of the Sutlej. All communications therefrom were accordingly wireless-based, sans any exchange of post-bags, unlike that between Keylong and Manali.

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