A long weekend looms in Shimla. It’s best to leave the town to the invaders: increasingly numerous, sometimes dirty, badly behaved tourists.
How many houses and streets does it take before a town begins to be called a town? How many mazes of little streets and meeting squares, old houses and new? How many feet, yards or kilometers. It is not relevant, as long as a place gives you enough to feel pleased about and enough to explore so as to go away feeling refreshed and energised.
My weekend is spread in a sort of back and forth tap-dance between Chindi which I chose as my base and Karsog. Having all of two days, exploration needed to be put in some order. On arriving in Chindi and after some debate with fellow travelers and locals, the truth dawned. Two days are simply not enough to explore this sweet little bowl of apples. There is much to do and see here, although not in the way that will appeal to rubbernecks! If you go to Chindi or Karsog, expecting fancy eateries dressed up in local “colour”, souvenir shops selling knick-knacks, little flea markets, heritage homes or organised hikes and treks and tours, then you’re doomed for disappointment. You won’t find any of those. Instead what you will find is stunning scenery and wonderful examples of human devotion embodies in plaster, wood and stone. There are any number of cottages rendered charming with their slate-covered roofs and their lime-coated walls. The area is clearly not heavily populated. There’s a little hamlet only every other five kilometers and even so, the hamlet may consist if no more than a few small huts. The monsoons have covered the mountainsides with gorgeous shades of jade, olive, lime and chartreuse.
A walk through the forest reveals to the untrained eye at least half a dozen types of mushroom, from grey and bulbous to skinny crimson and flat-topped taupe. Wild flowers of many shapes, sizes and colours pop out of the earth, cling to tree-trunks or nestle under rocks. Birds create a mad carousal of sounds and a fiesta of colours. Think of every colour on the palette, and to that add a few dozen you’ve never seen before. Butterflies, ladybugs, grasshoppers buzz about in the most business-like fashion. Gnats and mosquitoes use the occasion to make a tasty breakfast at your expense. Toads croak languorously. Resin drops fall into little metal cones soundlessly, their amber at once absorbing and reflecting the dappled sunshine. What a treat a forest walk can be in this region, in this season!
Karsog abounds in temples. You do not have to be a religious person. In fact, you do not even have to be a Hindu to appreciate the beauty of its multiplicity of shrines. If you do not believe in a Higher Entity, a Supreme Soul, or God, all the better. This will equip you to appreciate the fact that art often springs from deep wells of ardour. It ill befits us to mock this ardour, whether romantic, or pious because it produces colossal mausoleums like the Taj Mahal, or smaller tabernacles. Pangna catches your eye for its colossal 60-foot structure. Mahu Nag for the verdant valleys which sprawl out at the deity’s feet. Kamaksha Devi awes with its splendid layers of carved wood roofing. Shankar Dehra is tucked into the a hill-side, all turquoise and cerise with funny, ladle-shaped antennae like adornments on its roof. Each temple is like the other, and yet, totally nonpareil. The deities are wrought in styles that are almost pagan. An air unsullied by urban greed and hypocrisy surrounds them. There are no overweight disciples begging relief. There is silence and true piety. And above all, there is natural beauty no matter where the eye turns.
The logistics of visiting and staying here are fairly simple. You drive from Shimla via Mashobra, Basantpur and Tattapani. Frequent breaks are strictly advised because the countryside is sure to take your breath away! Lonely goatherds. Little girls studying under a tree. Schoolboys chucking stones into a brook. Curious cattle. Creeks babbling in a distance. As per the Biblical injunction, ask and you shall receive. The PWD guesthouse is basic, but well-located. The HPTDC Hotel was rated 7.5 on a scale of 10 by my well-travelled friend. Both places serve basic, but delicious, vegetarian fare. The weather is pleasant in August, tending to get warm towards mid-day. And you won’t see many (any!) tourists!!
Dear distracting town, farewell. I shall return!