THE KULLU VALLEY in central Himachal Pradesh, watered by the Beas river, has long been a site of human habitation. In ancient Sanskrit texts it is referred to as Kulantapith, or “end of the habitable world” – an apt description when one compares the lush fields and apple orchards of this 80-km (50- mile) long valley with the desolate expanse of Lahaul which is separated from it by the Pir Panjal Range. The local name for Kullu is the “Valley of the Gods” – its alpine setting is the gathering place for 360 gods from different temples in the region, who congregate here for the famous Dussehra festival.
Unlike British-built hill stations in the Himalayas, Kullu remained unknown to the outside world until it was “discovered” in the 1960s by the flower children, who were enchanted as much by its hillsides covered with marijuana plants (Cannabis sativa), as by its gentle beauty, superb mountain vistas and amiable people. The men of Kullu Valley usually wear the Kullu Valley usually wear the distinctive Kullu topi, a snug woollen cap with a colourful upturned flap. The women weave thick shawls with striking geometric designs on their borders, and few visitors can resist acquiring these attractive products, now a flourishing local industry. Equally attractive are the village houses, their slate roofs rising above green meadows. Kullu, the district headquarters and the largest settlement in the valley, is located on the right bank of the Beas. The town’ chief attraction the 17th-century Raghunath Temple, dedicated to Rama and Sits, whose richly adorned images lead the processions at the Dussehra festival. Also worth exploring is the Akhara Bazaar, at the northern end of the town, famous for its handicrafts shops, selling shawls and traditional silver jewellery. At the southern end of town is the large green open space called Dhalpur Maidan, where the colourful Dussehra festivities take place.
A number of temples, all with superb stone carvings and impressive images, lie in the vicinity of Kullu town – the Vaishno Devi Cave Shrine is 4 km (2.5 miles) to the northeast; Bekhli, 5 km (3 miles) to the north; and the Vishnu Temple at Dayar, 12 km (8 miles) to the west. The huge, pyramidal Basheshwar Mahadev Temple at Bajaura, 15 km (9 miles) to the south, has superb images of Vishnu, Ganesha and Durga. However, the most famous is the Bijli Mahadev Temple, dedicated to the “Lord of Lightning”, 14 km (9 miles) to the southeast. Located on a high spur on the left bank of the river, opposite the town, this temple has an 18-m (59-ft) high staff, which periodically attracts lightning during thunderstorms especially in the monsoon. This is regarded as a divine blessing, even though it shatters the Shivalinga in the sanctum of the temple. The stone fragments are then painstakingly put together again with a mortar of clarified butter and grain, by the head priest.
ENVIRONS: Jalori Pass, about 70 km (44 miles) south of Kullu, on the ridgeline forming the divide between the Beals and Satluj rivers, offers two beautiful walks through dense, high-altitude oak forests and meadows. The first walk goes through a path with gentle gradients to the tarn of Saryolsar, 5 km (3 miles) away. The other walk, up a neighbouring hill, leads to the picturesque ruins of a fort occupied by the Gurkhas in the 19th century.