I am approached by a sun burnt white man, a huge backpack resting on one of his shoulders as I am waiting for a bus to take me to the town of Kullu. “Namaste!!” He greets and whispers questioningly “Charas milega?” (Can I get some charas?) Never before in my life have I been looked upon as a drug peddler and user in a space of one hour. Just a while back as I was sipping chai, in a road side stall a local approached me. “Hello my friend!! How are you?” he said with a strong north Indian accent that he tried to westernize miserably, “You want a nice hotel? After 2 days, a party here. Charas? You want anything you tell me. I help you” I declined his help and I could not offer any assistance either to the westerner.
“Funny place, this town of Kasol” I thought. I had spent close to two days in all here. One day after the Saurkundi Pass trek and one after the Saar Pass trek the reporting base camp was situated just outside the town. I loved the place. The town lies on the banks of river Parvati and is surrounded by the Great Himalayan National Park – a coniferous forest that is home to animals like Himalayan Brown bear, musk deer along with numerous species of insects, plants and flower. There is nothing much to see or do here except sitting by the banks of the river and hearing it roar or hiking up the forests listening to the sounds of the wild. Or climbing the various peaks or mountain passes of the Parvati valley which are multiday affairs in which case you would not be staying in Kasol
The town is a backpacking haven for westerners. People with dreadlocks or faded tattoos or gaudy attire or all of them are a common site. The Israeli population makes up a majority of these travelers so much to an extent that there is a Jewish religious center on the outskirts which offers food and an Israeli atmosphere. Signboards on shops in Hebrew are very common and every once in a while there is the restaurant or a hotel with psychedelic wall hangings and Israeli music blaring through its speakers on to the narrow road along this settlement. The food is westernized to a great extent where wooden oven pizzas, falafels and burrekas take up a lot more space on the menu than the Indian cuisine. The western food is not authentic while the Indian food has been tweaked to suit the western palette. The food therefore, although not terrible, leaves much to be desired. One of such eateries is a place where Indians are not welcome. So much for this restaurant that goes by the name ‘Free Kasol’
And despite the continuously pot smoking westerners shouting ‘Boom Shiva’, racist eating joints and not so good food I loved this place. I don’t know why? But then this is not the first time I have loved a place like this. Gokarna and Hampi were similar in their clientele as much as in what they had to offer. Large number of foreigners, Israelis, beautiful landscapes but nothing much to see or do in town and religiously significant holy places - I saw a commonality between them and Parvati Valley.
The Parvati valley lies among Dhuala dhar range of the Himalayas near which lies the Pin Parvati glacier the source to the river Parvati after which the valley is named so. The river in all its might flows eastwards as numerous streams with names Tosh nala, Pulga nala join it before the river meets the Beas river near town of Bhunter. Kasol is just one town that is famous for its western backpackers scene with restaurants and hotels. But lots of travelers these days has started making their way to the villages Tosh, Pulga, Kulga that lie further in the interiors.
Further east to Kasol lays the holy town of Manikaran. A pilgrimage site as much for the Hindus as for the Sikhs and famous for the hot water springs that are believed to have healing properties is a crowded and noisy town with narrow streets lined with shops that sell everything ranging from offerings to the Gods to souvenirs to take back home. And legends and mythology that accompanies such sacred shrines are present here as well. The Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak the founder of Sikhism came here along with the disciples. While the Hindu mythology tells this to be place where Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati spent a few thousand years. Goddess Parvati lost here oranaments of precious stones here and when they were not found, it resulted in Lord Shiva turning extremely angry. The Serpent god Sheshanag then hissed giving rise to the hot water springs precious stones akin to which the Goddess lost, shot up from the earth.
But Manikaran is not the only place with legends. Malana that lies to the west has equally interesting history that continues even today. Supposed to be one of the oldest democracies in the world, the people here believe themselves to be superior to the outsiders. While some say that the citizens are descendants of Alexander’s army, there are others who believe that the history of the time goes back to the pre-Aryan times of their deity Jamlu rishi. Whatever may be the belief or the true history the Manalnis hold fast and strong to their beliefs, customs and values and outsiders who visit this village have to be extremely careful not to offend the village, the customs or the God and incur the wrath of the residents (as well as of the diety who they believe can be only appeased by a sacrificial slaughter of a lamb by the visitor)
Add all this history, legends, myths and the very spiritual nature of Himalayas, to the present day charas and hashish production (that many believe is the best in the world) a few parties (or music festivals as they are called) and you have a place that is bound to lure the backpacker looking for some fun. The murder or disappearance of a westerner or a few in recent times, unfortunate as it is, has made the valley only more sinister.
Nevertheless Parvati valley is something that needs to be visited to experience the aura and mystique that surrounds the place.
PS : Photo Credits to Hemant Shriyan, a friend of mine from Sar Pass trek!