Himalayan Journal vol.05
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (Lieut.-Colonel B.E.M. Gurdon)
    (HELLMUT DE TERRA Tale North India Expedition)
  7. KULU
    (A. P. F. HAMILTON)
    (Captain G. C. CLARK)
    (G. A. R. SPENCE)
    (Lieut.-Colonel KENNETH MASON)
  14. NOTES



Any one who has stood on the 'Ridge' in Simla will have noticed the range of snow-clad mountains to the north, but few, probably, know that these mountains lie, for the most part, in that small corner of British India called Kulu. These mountains, which, as seen from Simla, terminate with the great snow-capped dome of the Deo Tibba (20,410 feet above sea-level), at their northern extremity, are some seventy-five miles from Simla as the crow flies. The administrative tract of Kulu extends from the Sutlej in the east to the Beas in the west, comprising the two tahsils of Kulu and Saraj, but this paper deals only with the former, Kulu proper.[1]
The country forms the greater part of the catchment area of the head waters of the Beas river, one of the chief tributaries of the Sutlej, and though generally spoken of as the Kulu 'valley' is, in reality, a wide triangular tract, with the Beas valley running up the western side of it, the apex of the triangle being at Larji, the southernmost point of it, where the Beas turns west and runs out of Kulu into Mandi State. To the east of the Beas, and forming the greater part of Kulu, lies a wide area of mountainous country enclosing several rivers, tributaries of the Beas, the largest of which is the Parbati. The Beas valley runs almost due north and south in Kulu, and, were the view not obstructed by the wooded range of the Dhauladhar where it passes through Suket State, it would be possible to look right into it from Simla.

Kulu lies between the Great Himalayan and Dhauladhar ranges and is almost entirely enclosed by them. The northern and eastern boundaries are formed by the Pir Panjal branch of the former range, and on it lie numerous peaks of over 20,000 feet; this range separates Kulu from Lahul and Spiti, both of which are in the Kulu subdivision of Kangra. Near the head of the Kulu valley a lofty and precipitous ridge takes off from the Pir Panjal and runs south until it joins the Dhauladhar range almost opposite Nagar; this ridge separates Kulu from Bara and Ghota Bangahal, also part of Kangra district, in which lie the head waters of the Ravi river. The rest of the western boundary of Kulu is the Dhauladhar range as far as the Dulchi pass, and thereafter the Beas river, both of which divide Kulu from Mandi State.

The Pir Panjal range throws off, in a southerly direction, several great spurs into the central and eastern parts of Kulu, the first of these, starting near the Hamta pass, runs south-westerly for nearly thirty miles, dividing the Beas from the Malana and Parbati valleys, and ends in a high escarpment above Bhuin at the junction of the Beas and Parbati rivers; a short but very precipitous spur, ending opposite Jari, divides the Malana and Parbati streams. The country to the south of the Parbati consists of a ridge, about sixty miles long, which has its origin in a knot of high mountains overlooking the Sutlej river; this ridge runs in a general westerly direction forming the left wall of the Parbati throughout its length. At a point south of Pulga it throws off a branch south-westwards to form the left bank of the Hurla river, which joins the Beas a few miles below Bhuin.

The scenery of Kulu is very varied; on the whole it is more Alpine than Himalayan, but some of the side nullahs are typically Himalayan with their streams foaming over continuous cataracts and waterfalls, enclosed between great cliffs and almost impenetrable forest. The scenery of the Beas valley differs so much from that of the rest of the country that it deserves to be described separately. At its southern end is Larji, 3,160 feet above sea-level; here the summer heat is great and the vegetation typical of the foot-hills; a few palms are to be seen and the hill-sides are sparsely covered with grass, euphorbias, and a few scattered wild olives and long-needled pines. A few miles above Larji the valley widens out and the road passes through rich cultivation; here the beauty lies not so much in the mountain scenery as in the pleasant aspect of the fields and villages with the blue Beas winding its way placidly between them.

Throughout the greater part of its length the valley is wide and open, so unlike most Himalayan valleys. Another great charm lies in the abundance of the alder-trees which fringe the river and often form extensive groves either along the banks or on the islands formed by the branching of the stream. During the hot weather they afford pleasant shade for the traveller on the road and for the trout lying in the deep pools under the river bank. Locally alder-trees are of considerable economic importance, providing both timber and fuel for the valley villages which are far from the coniferous forests high up the mountain-side. The scenery is restful rather than grand: the wide valley with its villages and cultivation, gradually rises on either side to moderate or easy mountain slopes on which are dotted hamlets with their surrounding of terraced fields and groups of oak and apricot, and often of walnut and elm. Between the villages tongues of deodar and blue pine often stretch down from the great belt of coniferous forest above; this belt extends almost unbroken between elevations of 7,000 and 11,000 feet. There is a wealth of forest scenery in Kulu; from the alders along the valley one passes up through blue pine and deodar to the virgin forest of spruce and fir, dark and gloomy in appearance but lit up here and there with patches of maple, walnut, horse chestnut, and other broad-leaved trees. Above this the forest gives way to open grassland-locally known as thach, bright with flowers after the melting of the snow- or perhaps to park-like scenery in which scattered birch-trees and clumps of rhododendrons are often conspicuous. Here and there from the valley road glimpses may be caught of the peaks and perpetual snows of the great ranges, and from more than one place on the road above Sultanpur the white cone of the Gephan or Gye- phang (19,259 feet) in Lahul can be seen over the rampart of the Pir Panjal range at the head of the valley. It is not until Manali, forty-six miles from Larji, is left behind that grand mountain scenery begins to take the place of the soft wooded slopes.

The scenery of the Parbati valley and its numerous branches is grander and wilder than that of the Beas. The valley is narrow and frequently shut in by great cliffs, and in the lower part, especially, the forests are surmounted by rocky peaks and crags. But there are many beautiful wooded and cultivated spots where the ground is more favourable; they do much to soften the general ruggedness of the country and are in strong contrast to the towering precipices and gorge-like side nullahs which are so frequent in this valley. In the upper reaches, that is from above Pulga, the scenery is of a more generous nature, and those who are prepared to go beyond the beaten track will be well rewarded for their labours when they find themselves in some glorious alpine pasture, high above forest and precipice.

Before the coming of mechanically propelled transport to Kulu, the traveller from the plains usually entered the valley on foot by way of either the Bhabu or the Dulchi, two low passes over the Dhauladhar range, from Mandi State[2]; now the quickest way is to take the Kangra Valley Light Railway from Pathankot (N.W.R.) and then motor from the railhead to Sultanpur, a short two-days' journey from most parts of north-western India. From Simla, ten easy stages, by Narkanda and across the Sutlej valley, bring one to Larji, and two miles farther on the Simla road joins the motor road which enters the valley by way of Mandi State. The next stage, Bajaura, 3,000 feet, is twelve miles from Larji; there is nothing here of interest except a fine old Hindu temple of the orthodox type. Ten miles on is Sultanpur, the tahsil head-quarters. There is a bazaar of considerable size here and most stores and provisions are obtainable. The maidan here is a fine level stretch of grass of considerable size; it is the scene of the celebration of the Hindu feast of Dasehra when all the gods of Kulu and Saraj meet, two or three hundred in number, each with its own band, to hold high revel for several days. Above Sultanpur (4,000 feet) there are roads up the valley on both sides of the river, but that on the right bank is the better, and is motorable under normal conditions as far as Manali, another 24 miles.

The next stage beyond Sultanpur is Katrain (4,800 feet) where the bungalow is pleasantly situated on a high terrace overlooking the river. From here a road crosses the Beas valley and passes up through a steep shady lane for two miles to Nagar, the ancient capital of Kulu. Nagar (5,780 feet) is beautifully situated on a spur and commands a wide view both up and down the valley. The old castle, now converted into the court-house and civil rest-house, is a fine building of age-darkened timber and stone; it is believed to have been the seat of the Rajahs of Kulu for over sixty reigns before a.d. 1660, when the capital was transferred to Sultanpur. In 1857 the building was reconstructed and taken over by the British as the head-quarters of the subdivision. There are eight Hindu temples at Nagar, some of great age; one of them, a little above the village, in the forest, has a pagoda-like roof; this style of roof is also found in Kashmir and Nepal, but there are only three others in Kulu; at Dhungri, near Manali; at Dyar, on the left bank of the Beas, opposite Bajaura; and in Sundar forest, not far from Kaisdhar forest rest-house. The commonest type of hill-temple, found in every village, is a simple rectangular building of wood and stone with a pent roof of slates or shingles; there is generally a veranda and a certain amount of carving and ornamentation. These temples are associated with Nag and Devi worship and are often very ancient. There is a remarkable hill-temple, that of Bijli Mahadev, which stands on the head of the bluff overlooking Bhuin; the temple building is interesting, but the special feature is a tall staff, some sixty feet in height, which stands close to the building and is visible from Sultanpur. This pole is supposed to attract the blessings of heaven in the form of lightning and is probably a survival of the Buddhism which existed everywhere in the valley in the seventh century a.d. The temple is within easy reach of Borsu forest rest- house, opposite Sultanpur.

There are several European residences in Nagar, including those of the Assistant Commissioner and Forest Officer. It is twelve miles on to Manali; from Katrain the road follows close along the river through beautiful scenery, while the road from Nagar, on the left bank, passes for the greater part of the way through villages and terraced rice-fields. Manali (6,200 feet) is perhaps the prettiest spot in Kulu. The soil is rich and fertile; rice-fields border on some of the finest fruit orchards in Kulu, where almost every kind of English fruit does well. All around are splendid plantations of deodars, in one of which is situated the Dhungri temple, the best example of the pagoda type in Kulu; the temple is surrounded by a grove of magnificent deodars of great height and age. Manali is a suitable starting-point for shooting trips up the Solang, Manalsu, and Hamta nullahs, but travellers who intend to cross the Hamta pass are advised to take coolies from Jagatsukh, a large village on the left bank of the Beas; from this village, also, one starts for the Jagatsukh nullah, where fair sport is to be obtained. These four nullahs are well known to sportsmen, but the Solang is undoubtedly the most picturesque, the forest and mountain scenery being glorious; at the end of the valley stands a towering cliff which culminates in a sharp, snowy peak (19,450 feet), which has been compared by General Bruce to the Weisshorn.

Six miles above Manali is Kothi civil rest-house (8,500 feet) and two miles farther on, at the foot of the Rohtang pass, there is a small Public Works rest-house called Rahla. The Rohtang pass (13,050 feet) is the point where the Kulu-Leh road crosses the Pir Panjal range and enters Lahul; the ascent is extremely easy, and from Kothi or Rahla it is well worth while making a day's excursion to the top and back. From the top of the pass a splendid view of the peaks of Lahul across the valley of the Chandra river (upper reaches of the Chenab) may be obtained. Here, at last, is to be seen the grand mountain scenery of the Great Himalayan range, a wild and awe-inspiring country when compared with the wooded slopes of Kulu lying immediately behind one. The Beas river rises on this pass and tumbles down through broad alpine pastures and forest- girt gorges of some depth, the fall being 6,000 feet in the first nine miles. Below Kothi the river plunges into a chasm the walls of which are often not more than twenty feet apart and the depth as much as a hundred feet; for a great distance it races through this almost subterranean passage until it is joined by the Solang stream coming in from the west.

There are dak-bungalows or civil rest-houses at all stages up the Beas valley, and at Manali there is also a forest rest-house; permission to occupy the first two classes is obtained from the Assistant Commissioner, Kulu, and the third from the Divisional Forest Officer, Kulu.

The route up the Parbati valley begins at Bhuin, three miles above Bajaura, where the Beas is crossed by a large suspension bridge. At Bhuin, as at all other stages up the Parbati, the rest-house belongs to the Forest Department. The first stage is Jari (about 5,000 feet), thirteen miles from Bhuin. Across the valley are great quartzite cliffs, scarred with many landslips, which guard the entrance to the wild Malana nullah. A path from Jari leads to Malana, a distance of eight miles, through great gorges and over many a boulder-bed, finishing up with a 2,000-foot climb up a steep rocky ridge on the top of which the village is situated in a wide stretch of cultivation overlooking the river. The upper part of the valley contains some of the finest alpine pastures in Kulu and is a pleasing spot in June when the ground is carpeted with pink and mauve primulas. At the head of the valley is a great glacier which falls in a sweeping curve from the southern flank of the Deo Tibba. The people of Malana are not of the same race as the Kulu people; they speak a different tongue, have their own customs, and keep entirely to themselves; several theories have been put forward as to their origin, but there is good reason to believe that in times past they came over from Kanawar, a part of Bashahr State, in the Sutlej valley. There is an all-powerful deity, Jamlu, in this valley and it is advisable to get on good terms with him if one wants help from the villagers. Malana may also be reached from Nagar by a foot-path which crosses the Beas-Parbati watershed behind Nagar by the Chandra Khanni pass (11,617 feet). The path above Nagar leads through forest to open park-like country, and from the summit almost the whole of the mountain scenery of Kulu is spread before one in a single panorama. It is worth while camping near Phulinga village on the way up, and in the autumn excellent pheasant-shooting is to be had here. From Malana village one can either drop down the nullah by the path described above to Jari or cross the stream and the ridge facing the village and so down by Rashol into the Parbati valley, ending up at Kasol rest-house. This stage is only six miles direct from Jari, by the road which follows the river closely and passes through forests of deodar and pine. Looking up the valley from the Kasol bungalow the eye is at once caught by a great wall of grey rock on which are set several fine aiguilles, the highest just over 18,000 feet, which look as if they would provide excellent climbing; the best line of approach would probably be from behind, up the Tos Nal. The Garahan Nal joins the Beas at Kasol; the nullah is a long one but is uninteresting and not much good for sport. Pulga, the next stage, is eleven miles from Kasol; the road passes through Manikaran, famous for its hot springs and baths; many devotees of the Hindu religion come here from the plains to find in the water a cure for their ills; unfortunately the water has practically no medicinal qualities. The hottest spring has a temperature of 20i° F., the boiling-point for the altitude, and the natives cook rice in it. A mile or two farther on, below Uchich village, the road passes just above the open shaft of an old silver-mine. In the past several silver-mines were worked in the Parbati valley, and on account of the presence of this metal the whole of this part of Kulu was called Rupi, a name still in common use. Most of the mine-shafts were filled in and hidden at the time of the Sikh invasion, about 1810, and have never been reopened. Kulu, and more particularly Rupi, is believed to be potentially rich in minerals; minute quantities of gold have been washed out of the Parbati sand, and in addition to the silver, veins of copper, lead, manganese, antimony, and iron ores have been discovered, but the country is too isolated and the labour difficulty too great to make their working possible. Pulga (7,000 feet) is the last bungalow in the main valley; here also the mule-road ends, but a branch road suitable for mules runs up the Tos Nal for nine miles to Buda Ban where there is a little one-roomed rest-house. There are some fine views to be had round Pulga, and behind the bungalow, some 2,000 feet up, there is a wonderful amphitheatre of alpine pasture, backed by high peaks, called Swagani Maidan. For the mountaineer before proceeding farther, it would be a good plan to climb the prominent point opposite the bungalow over the road on the right bank; from here at a height of some 11,000 feet a good view of many of the Parbati peaks and a general idea of the country can be obtained. The main valley continues for another thirty miles or so and terminates in the Pin-Parbati pass which leads over to the Pin river in Spiti. The path goes by Nadaun village on the right bank then recrosses to the left bank and passes the hot spring of Khirganga situated in a grassy opening in the forest, an ideal camping-ground. Nowhere is the path difficult, and above the tree- line the path follows the bottom of the nullah until Man Talai, at the foot of the pass, is reached.

The Pin-Parbati pass has not often been crossed by Europeans; it is not difficult in fine weather but it involves tramping over miles of glacier and camping on it for a night. The height of the pass is 15,754 feet according to the Survey of India map. Beyond it the route down the Pin river into the Spiti valley can be followed or, as an alternative, one can cross over the Bhabeh pass and drop down into the Sutlej valley, to the Hindustan-Tibet road. The passage of the Pin-Parbati requires careful planning and it would not be easy to get coolies; the Barsheni villagers are more enterprising than those of Pulga and would be more willing to come, but they would have to be well paid.

The Tos Nal, some twenty miles in length, is worth exploring. There is fine forest and mountain scenery for the first twelve miles; the path is easy all the way, and at the end lies the Sara Umga pass, leading over by way of the Bara Shigri glacier to the Chandra valley in Lahul. Little is known of this pass as it is not used now; it cannot be less than 16,000 feet and is said to be difficult. The ancient trade- route from Ladakh to Rampur-Bashahr in the Sutlej valley almost certainly crossed this pass, coming from Phuti Runi in the Chandra valley, thence down the Tos Nal to Pulga and across the upper reaches of the Hurla, Sainj, Tirthan, and Kurpan rivers to Rampur. In the angle formed by the Tos and Parbati rivers is a great mass of unexplored peaks, at least four of which are over 21,000 feet, the highest being shown as 21,760 feet, the loftiest point in Kulu.

South of the Parbati is the Hurla Nal, a wild and rocky glen with extensive virgin forest, difficult of approach, in its upper reaches. There is a forest rest-house at Garsa, eight miles from Bhuin. This nullah gives excellent pheasant-shooting and is said to be good for butterflies, which is not unlikely since it exhibits a great variety of vegetation.

The climate of Kulu is delightful, especially in the spring and autumn. In June the lower end of the valley can be hot, but there is always a good breeze. Heavy showers may be expected in April, especially in side nullahs. It is unfortunate that Kulu is not beyond the reach of the monsoon which lasts roughly from the middle of July to the middle of September. Snowfall is heavy; light falls may be experienced at high elevations in late October, but heavy falls are unusual before December. On northern aspects snow may lie as low as 8,000 feet in April. At Nagar the average annual rainfall is 49.4 inches, but at Manali it is rather higher.

There is excellent trout-fishing to be had in the Beas and several of its tributaries. Ever since the first stocking in 1909 the number of fish has rapidly increased and there has been a tendency towards over-stocking. Below Bhuin only mahseer of small size are found, and trout-fishing is not really good between that village and Sultanpur, though there are some good pools, since netting is permitted over a stretch of about two miles at and above Sultanpur. It improves higher up, and good sport can be had from three miles above Sultanpur up to Manali. Above the Nagar bridge there is a tendency for fish to be larger in size but rather fewer in number. There are many good camping-sites along the right bank of the river, and those who intend to spend some time fishing are advised to bring tents, as accommodation in the rest-houses is limited. The best months for fishing are March, April, and May, and from mid- September to the end of October, but in March the weather is often unpleasant for camping, while towards the end of May the water is liable to become too thick for fly-fishing as the snow begins to melt rapidly at high elevations; when the water is too heavy in the main river it is worth trying the side nullahs, such as the Phojal, Sujoin, and Ghakki. There are few trout in the Parbati; the water is colder and less clear than that of the Beas since it has its source in great glaciers and ice-fields, but trout have been taken as far up as Kasol. Fishing licences are obtained from the Assistant Commissioner, Kulu.

Shooting in Kulu is carried on under very pleasant conditions, but big heads cannot be expected. There are ibex in most of the nullahs towards the north of the Beas valley, but heads of forty inches and over are very rare. Bharal are scarce except in the main Parbati valley, but here even the heads run very small, and anything over twenty-two inches would be exceptional. Tahr are fairly plentiful and are to be found in all side nullahs of the Beas, Parbati, and Hurla valleys where there are rocky cliffs. Gooral abound everywhere. Red bear can generally be found but are more rare than they were; black bear and leopard are common, and can be shot without a game licence. Serow are more difficult to find here than in the Kumaun and Garhwal hills as they keep to the densest forest in remote side nullahs. Snow-leopards are occasionally heard of, especially in the upper reaches of the Parbati valley. Small game shooting is good; the best chukor country is in the Parbati valley, and pheasants-monal, koklas, kalij, chir, and tragopan-are to be found wherever the country is suitable, but the two latter species are not common. Duck and woodcock are sometimes seen during the winter in the Beas and Parbati valleys. Snowcock, or ramchukor, are common at high elevations, but snow-partridge are rare.

Shooting licences are obtained from the Divisional Forest Officer, Kulu. April, May, and June are the best months for big-game shooting; during the monsoon nothing can be done, but October is quite a good month.

Kulu cannot boast any giant peaks, but the mountains afford endless scope for the trained climber and there is much unexplored country. Only one high peak is known to have been climbed, the Solang 'Weisshorn', which was conquered by General (then Major) Bruce's Swiss guide, Fuhrer, in 1912. General Bruce also attempted Deo Tibba, but he unluckily met with an accident and the attempt was given up; this mountain and the neighbouring peak Indra Killah, a peculiar rock pinnacle, near the head of the Hamta pass are still virgin peaks. South and east lies a great mass of glaciers and peaks waiting to be explored and climbed; the main lines of approach are easy, and it would be difficult to find as good climbing anywhere else within such easy reach of the plains. Kulu men, though excellent on rock, are not used to snow and ice, and the climber will have to rely entirely on his own skill and experience when tackling high peaks. The best season for climbing is before the rains; in September and October it is quite possible, but conditions are less pleasant. During the rains any one lucky enough to have the time to spare should go on into Lahul where conditions for climbing are even finer than in Kulu, for the monsoon does not penetrate into Lahul.

One need not be a mountaineer or a shikari to enjoy a trip to Kulu. Those in search of a quiet holiday will find all they want to satisfy their interests. Lovers of nature can find no pleasanter country for their pursuits; bird-life is well represented and there is a great range of species. It is not necessary to be an expert in botany to enjoy the beauty of the flowers; it is enough if one has seen the upland pastures at the end of June of July when the ground is bright with primulas and irises of many shades of purple and blue, with anemones, gentians, potentillas, and in a few places, such as the Rohtang pass, the beautiful blue poppy.

The artist and the photographer will find a wealth of subjects for their skill alike in the scenery and in the villages and the people themselves. It is not easy to say whether spring or autumn is the more beautiful season: in the spring the lights are softer, there is the fresh green of the alders in the valley and of the wild pear, apricot, walnut, and elm trees round the villages, while the snow gives a greater contrast, showing up the forest and the valley. But the autumn colouring is more brilliant; field and forest show wonderful tints of brown and gold and the browning grassland relieves the monotonous effect of the green of the rains. In the fields the wonderful rose-madder of the ripe sariara (amaranthus) crops may make a beautiful picture against the dark deodar forest, backed by early snow on the high ranges; while the roofs of all the houses are bright with the amber of the Indian corn spread out to dry in the sunshine.

There are those who say that Kulu is spoilt by the coming of the motor; they are surely wrong. Nature is still supreme, the forests, the mountains, the rivers are there just as they were centuries ago, and those who know how to appreciate the beauty of the hills will have eyes for nothing else.

[1] See Survey of India maps 52 H and 53 E, scale four miles to an inch. Mr. Maclagan Gorrie's paper that follows deals with the Saraj tahsil.

[2] The Goralotinu pass (13,578 feet) between Chota Bangahal and Kulu is much used by shepherds and is easy; so also is the Kali Hain ('black ice') pass (15,700 feet). The passes at the heads of the Manalsu and Solang nullahs (16,000 feet odd and 16,890 feet, respectively) are difficult. The last three lie between Bara Bangahal and Kulu.