Below and around me lay the village quiet and serene in the evening smoke rising form chimneys all along the slope. Looking down the valley, I could see the snow lingam of the Gosahl Cone, glowing with the last flush of sunlight on the opposite side of the valley, Karding and its monastery nestled in the shadow of the Nilburi peak. As twilight came on all was quiet save for the occasional gruff barking of a dog and the muffled roar of the Bhaga River in its cavernous passage. And then the shrill haunting notes of the gyadung began to float down form the monastery I was home at last.
In the summer of 1962 a restless young Indian administrator Manohar Singh gill made an arduous journey from the north Indian Plains to the farthest reaches of the Indian Himalayas the Lahaul and Spiti valleys and spent a year there living and working amongst the people Gill went on to a distinguished career in the civil services and government but the experience of the relentless beauty of these spectacular Himalayan deserts and the generosity of the people of this land changed him for life.
Part memoir, part travel book and part anthropology, Himalayan Wonderland is a Witty, opinionated account of Gill’s lifelong affair with this extraordinary region. The book however is much than one man’s account of a place it is a hopeful and enlightening view of the practice of administration and the joy of working with people.
Illustrated with more than forty photographs taken by Gill himself, and including details contour maps and information on tracking routes in Laharl and Spiti this is a remarkably illuminating and accessible account of this faraway land form the 1960s when few knew about the place to today’s unpredictable world of receding glaciers and lost cultures.
Manohar Singh Gill (b. 1936) is currently the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports Government of India and member of the upper house of the Indian parliament the Rajya Sabha. Gill was the Deputy Commissioner of Lahaul and Spiti in 1962 a time duty. He spent the last six years of his forty-years –long career in the civil services as the Chief Election Commissioner of India.
Gill has had a abiding interest in mountaineering and was the first civilian trainee of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Darjeeling. He has also been president of the Indian mountaineering foundation New Delhi and the Himalayan Club.
There is a romantic aura about far-away places especially if they are difficult to access. But the lives of those who inhabit our mountainous areas are far from romantic. The people are simple and sincere but every problem acquires a complexity because of the altitude the shortage of water and the lack of communication. As one who loves the mountains. I have deep concern for the and mountain people. In order to survive they must have great faith and fortitude. They are sturdy and hard working yet full of laughter an gaiety.
Shri Manohar Singh Gill’s book has awakened old memories of my own crossing of the Rohting with my father many years ago. I am sorry that lack of time prevented us from proceeding to Lahaul and Spiti and since then I have nursed a desire to go to this lovely part of our country. Shri Gill captures something lives and customs of the people and the difficulties of administration there. I hope that this book will kindle the interest of its readers and will urge them to get better acquainted with the people of Lahaul and Spiti and indeed those of all our hill areas.
When shri M.S. Gill first arrived in Lahaul and Spiti as a young IAS officer nearly fifty years ago it was still a region largely cut off from the outside world. His portrait of this land of rugged and pristine beauty and its remarkable people is rich in its accounts of history society and folklore and lyrical in its description of nature and landscape. It is also brimming with excitement and the challenge of bringing the fruits of modern development to this remote district.
This new edition which includes accounts of Shri Gill’s more recent visits to Lahaul and Spiti is enriched by his observations and reflections on the long-term effects of development on its culture and society including the dramatically visible impact of climate change on its great glaciers.
There is much in this book to interest anthropologists and historian’s mountaineers trackers and nature lovers. But above administrators and inspire them to take up postings in remote and so-called hardship areas as Shri Gill’s book so vividly demonstrates that even junior district officials if they engage deeply and closely with the needs and problems of the people can make a real and lasting difference and help transform lives.
I joined the Indian administrator’s service in 1958 and trained in the historic. Metcalfe House by the Jamuna River in Delhi. During training, I went to eastern India all the way to Dibrugarh and Digboi in Assam on what was called ‘Bharat Darshan.’ The highlight of my visit was Darjeeling where we got up early one morning and went to Tiger hill to catch a glimpse of Everest in the rosy-fingered dawn. When more exacting was a visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute set up by Nehru to celebrate Tenzing’s successful climb of Everest in May 1953. the institute was elegant and well located and Sherpas in Swiss stockings and mountain boots flitted about I was bewitched by the place and joined the Himalayan Club even as I began to read every book on the mountains I could find.
In 1960-61 as the sub divisional magistrate of Mahendergarh New Delhi, I Kept longing for the hills and finally ran off in March 1961 to Darjeeling to enroll in the HMI’s basic with young men form the armed forces in the glorious spring of North Sikkim, with none other than Tenzing for a teacher. In 1962, I managed to gain a posting in the border district of Lahaul and Spiti as deputy commissioner at the ripe age of twenty-six. My main qualification was stamina for hill walking and a passion to do so. Punjab was divided in 1966 and we became strangers to Lahaul and Spiti.
In 1971 I published an account of my Lahaul experience with vikas Publishing House; it was a quickie, but still had a remarkable response. In my pursuit of a serious career. I lost interest in the book for decades. Many asked me about reprints but I did not want one till I had re written it extensively.
In early 2009 the urge finally came and in got down to writing Parts of the old book have been re-written with additions drawn from my continuous association with Lahaul over the decades from my wife and I have made numerous visits there with our three girls. I am sure our affair with Lahaul will remain till the end Tshering Dorje the star of this book has always been in touch with me. As chief election commissioner and now as minister of youth affairs and sports I talk to him almost every week whether he is in kyelang or kulu. I remain committed to the welfare of the people of Lahaul and Spiti and have spared no effort in assisting them.
As a young officer in 1971 I asked Mrs. Indira Gandhi the then prime minister with some hesitation for a foreword. It came back promptly early written and with a clear expression of disappointment at not having gone to kyelang with Nehru who loved the mountains and always tried to steal a few days of rest there. Indira Gandhi did the same and the habit continued with Rajiv. I remember when I took a mountaineering team from Punjab to meet him he seemed excited yet pensive that he could not go on a trip to the hills.
After re-writing this book I sent a draft to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and asked her if she could writs a second foreword for me. She responded promptly and graciously. I can see from the last paragraph of her foreword that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi read through my draft her clear expression that young administrators should look to take adventurous posting in India remarkably varied landscape obviously refers to my strongly held view in this book. The fact is that most of our public servants even in their early youth look not for challenges but to the opportunity to water their careers and quickly reach urban fleche pots and if possible the world bank.
I am grateful to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi for her foreword and in do hope that my book will be read by the young and adventurous. My warm thanks to an old friend Harish kapadia for his valued assistance. I also must thank Gurvinder Singh ranndhawa Jasbir Singh Chopra and George Varghese for their Valuable assistance. Finally I wish to thank my publisher Penguin books India.
This book is my account of nearly a year’s in a little known valley in the inner Himalayas near the Indo-Tibetan border. Lahaul lies in the north-western part of India beyond the Great Himalayan Divide. The Great Himalayan Divide separates it from the district of Kulu. The mountain range is almost uniformly 18,000 feet or higher and the sole access to Lahaul lies over the 13,050 feet high Rohtang pass. To the west lies Chamba and Jammu province. Spiti in the east is separated from Lahaul by a high mountain rib running north from the main Himalayan range. The two valleys have a tenuous link over the Kunzam pass (15,055 feet).
Lahaul has a central mass of high mountains and cast glaciers. Peaks of 20,000 feet or more abound. The Chandra and Bhaga rivers rise on either side of the Batalacha pass (16,047 feet) or flow through narrow valleys on opposite sides of the central ridge to meet at Tandi giving birth to the Chandrabhaga which in the Punjab Plains becomes the Chenab River. The Chandra and Bhaga valleys are largely desolate in their upper reaches. Near the confluence there is cultivation on flats above the rivers and there are many picturesque villages. The Pattan valley beyond the confluence on account of its reduced elevation is richer both in crops and population.
These rugged valleys lie at a height of 10,000 feet to 16,000 feet above sea level. The summers are pleasant with rich crops lush green meadows and masses of alpine flowers not so the long winter. From the first snowfall in October-November to the month of May the valley is continuously under snow.
Kyelang gets about twenty feet of snow in the winter. The temperature falls to 13 degree or even lower. The Rohtang pass in then closed to the outside world and the valley must live on its fruits and vegetables. But the people have a cheerful happy attitude to life. They have achieved complete harmony with their harsh environment and display a wonderful contentment.
Since independence the Punjab government has done much to improve the lot of these fine people. Roads have been built water supply schemes laid and hospital and schools opened. Lahaul Spiti is now a separate district with headquarters at Kyelung. A council chosen by the people advises the administration on welfare and development schemes. All this is in sharp contrast to the British period when the valley was left to fend for itself.
I had always wanted to visit this strange and romantic land. Hikers and mountaineers spoke in glowing terms of its clear summer massive glaciers and challenging peaks most of them unclaimed. Fortunately the Government of Punjab gave me an opportunity to live for a year in this fascinating Shangrila. I was appointed deputy commissioner of Lahaul-Spiti in 1962, the second officer to be so posted since the creation of the district in 1960-61. Many officers and others have visited the valley in summer. Hardly any spent the winter there and certainly none have written of a winter in Lahaul. With no contact with Chandigarh save a wireless set and no work within the snow bound valley I was rich in time. This I invested in a study of the people placed under my charge. I took part in their festivals and fairs and tried to identify myself with their lives and longings.
All this I did primarily for the pleasure of it but I had another motive too. The setting up of a district administration with concentrated work on community development health and education was bound to have an impact on the people very soon. Apart from raising the standard of living and reducing the harshness of existence such contact was likely to change and modify the social values and customs of the people. Time honored traditions and values of the people of Lahaul before this finally happened.
The people of Lahaul Spiti have been kind and hospitable to me beyond measure. This book is an effort to pay back a little of the debt. I have tried to record everything as I saw it without any attempt to make comparison. I believe that the social system of a people is to a large extent the result of their environmental need. It evolved out of collective experience. There is an old Lahaul saying that no custom is bad if it leads a people to happiness. The Lahaulas have been well served by their customs and beliefs.
The first draft of the book was written in 1967. Over the years whenever I could arouse my interest in the manuscript I attempted to improve and re-write it. In this I have had valuable counsel from Dr. M.S. Randhawa who is ever willing and even anxious to help the new writer or the unknown artist. To Tshering Dorje I owe more than I would care to admit Major Haripal Singh Ahluwalia the Everest hero and jo Bradley of Cambridge University Press both in their own ways have been of immense help. I must acknowledge gratefully the valuable secretarial services of Sardar Chanan Singh Shri T.R. Vij and Shri Attar Singh.
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