A paradise called – The Baspa Valley

June 30, 2014

It was yet a couple of hours to dawn when I waved goodbye to Sindbad and his family as they started on their long journey back home at that unearthly hour. I watched them go for sometime until the headlights disappeared into the darkness. It was going to be a long and gloomy drive. The towering Raldang peak seemed to glower menacingly under the moonlight from across the torrential Sutlej annoyed at Sindbad for having abandoned his ‘voyage’ into the high mountains. But our mid-eastern adventurer had really been left with no choice but to set sail for home. ‘Begum’ had taken a nasty fall the previous evening and needed medical attention. As I wearily made my way up the wooden staircase back to my room I couldn’t help thinking that the adventure holiday had been jinxed from the very start.

It had started as an ambitious trip across Khardung La (world’s highest motorable pass at 5602 m) to the silver dunes of Nubra and the apricot orchards of the enchanted Turtuk. And then over Chang La to reach the sparkling icy blue of Pangong!

This was, however, not to be and we settled for a round trip across the lunar landscape of the inaccessible Spiti Valley. It was to be a parikrama of sorts- where we would drive in from Manali negotiating the noise and the slush at Rohtang to leave the Leh-Manali Highway at Gramphu. To drive along the scenic Chandra river crossing the snow bound Kunzum La (4500 metres) to reach the quaint little monastery towns of Kaza and Tabo. We would then proceed through the picturesque lakeside Nako village and the Army base at Peo to reach the apple town of Kalpa (Chini of the yesteryears). On our way to Chini we could consider a halt at Kanum that was made famous by the Hungarian traveller Alexander Csomo De Korros who lived like a monk in the Kanum monastery for three long years (1827 – 30) and left the western world a dictionary of the Tibetan language and an impressive work on Tibetan grammar. It would be a short drive thereafter to the enchanting valley of Baspa for taking a well-deserved break at the Banjara Campsite at Sangla. The drive back home through Shimla would have a one night halt in the temple town of Sarahan.

‘We are in the third week of June and are tempting the rain Gods,’ the Scribe cautioned us, true to his habit. But this time round I had Sindbad’s enthusiastic support for any kind of adventure and I chose to ignore Scribe’s customary round of warnings.

Even this new plan got nixed due to a delay in the opening of the road through Kunzum La. It had snowed heavily the previous winter and GREF was working behind schedule!

With a heavy heart we now reworked the entire road trip to enter Spiti via Kinnaur – a not so scenic but all-weather route. This route had its own hitches as a part of the Hindustan Tibet Road was obstructed due to falling boulders at Tapri, ahead of the bridge at Wangtoo and traffic was being diverted to a steep and narrow link road that went all the way up to Urni and then descended all the way back to meet the riverside highway at the bridge across the Chooling Nallah. The traffic was being operated one-way at a time by the Kinnaur police through the Tapri–Urni-Chooling Nallah stretch and we had to reach the diversion point at the prescribed time as per the schedule given on the BlogSpot of Kinnaur police. “I told you so,” grumbled  the Scribe when I informed him about this new problem. Leave is difficult to get by in his line of work and the prospect of wasting it while stuck in a road jam on a one way link road was definitely getting his goat!

It’s a good 500 KM drive from Delhi to Sarahan, the Gateway to Kinnaur and we decided to break journey at Shimla. Shimla, the Queen of the Hills, the charming Summer Capital of the Imperial India has weathered badly with age and the decades of neglect. Ugly scars of concrete today cut savagely through the once pristine landscape. The towering pines and deodars look haggard under the pall of vehicular smoke, their heads hung in shame, mute witnesses to the onslaught of development. The old lady smiles weakly through the shroud of gloom and urban squalor – desperate to rediscover her lost magic – the spell that she would cast on the first time visitor. It’s a losing battle.

Shimla in Colonial Times- The Viceregal Lodge and Boileaugunge from Prospect Hill

Shimla in Colonial times- The Viceregal Lodge and Boileaugunge from Prospect Hill (1890)

But seen through the kaleidoscope of childhood memories – Shimla continues to fascinate. Happy memories of a year spent in an idyllic cottage overlooking a wooded valley in the Shimla of early 70s. It all comes rushing back to me every time I take that bend from where the city suddenly becomes visible. As if it was only yesterday.

We were staying at ‘The Yarrows’, the home to the National Academy of Audit and Accounts since 1950. One has to take the narrow lane that falls sharply to the front of Hotel Cecil and halts at the imposing gates of The Yarrows Estate. The Yarrows, dates back to the mid 19th century and was a colonial style bungalow set on a thickly wooded spur overlooking a narrow valley and the Shaily Peak in the distance. The bungalow was owned by the Rajah of Nahan and was rented out annually to the visitors.

With the coming up of Shimla as the summer destination of the British, the ‘native’ Princes were encouraged to buy bungalows and estates and help in setting up a city to the taste of the British rulers. The Rajahs not only bought properties for their own use but also as investment and these were let out annually to the British tenants. By 1885, the Indian Princes owned 34 properties in Shimla. Raja of Nahan, with his 14 prized estates was the most prominent landlord. His properties included Bantony, Torrentium, Retreat and The Yarrows.

The earliest photograph of the ‘Yarrows’ was taken by Samuel Bourne, the famous British photographer in 1865.

The Yarrows from Peterhoff, Samuel Bourne (1865)

The Yarrows from Peterhoff, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Samuel Bourne established the ‘Bourne and Shepherd’ at Shimla which was India’s premier photographic studio of the colonial times. Bourne made three major Himalayan photographic expeditions from 1863 to 1866 – the first to Chini, the second to Kashmir and the third to Gangotri Glacier through the Spiti Valley. He is famous for the 2200 photographs of the Himalayas and other places in India, the original glass negatives of which were lost in a tragic fire in Calcutta in 1991.

The first written mention of The Yarrows can be found in Henry Benedict Medlicott’s ‘Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India’ published in 1865. Medlicott was a famous Irish geologist who coined the term ‘Gondwana’. He surveyed the southern Himalayan region and wrote in his memoirs, “Under that portion of the Simla ridge known as Boileaugunge, on one of the northern spurs,about 600 feet below the house called the Yarrows we find a limestone and a grit conglomerate…”

The Yarrows (1865)

The Yarrows (1865)

The bungalow was let out to the Imperial British Government that ran its Finance Department from the place in 1875. Edward J. Buck writes in his book, Simla Past and Present (1904), “For the present convenience and speedy despatch of public business the Imperial departments are now located in four great buildings all within a few hundred yards of each other, but thirty years ago the wheel of the Government machinery certainly moved with much less speed than they do to-day. A map of Simla issued by the Surveyor General’s Department in 1875, indicates that in that year the offices were located as follows- the Home office was in ‘S. Mark’s,” the Finance in ‘The Yarrows,’ the Public Works in “Herbert House,’ the Foreign in ‘Valentines’, the Military in ‘Dalzell Cottage,’ and the Revenue and Agriculture in ‘Argyll House’.”

The bungalow was then occupied by Sir George Tomkyns Chesney who started his career as a second-lieutenant in the Bengal Engineers in 1848 and rose to the rank of General. He is known for his work on administration in British India, Indian Polity (1868) and a short story, The Battle of Dorking (1868). General Chesney was a famous resident of Simla and was the President of the prestigious United Service Club in 1888 and again in 1890.

Sir George T Chesney, Indian Civil Servants, Bourne and Shepherd (1890)

Sir George T Chesney, Indian Civil Servants, The Viceregal Lodge, Simla – Bourne and Shepherd (1890)

A news report published in the Spokesman Review on January, 29, 1900 read as follows- “… Yarrows, formerly the abode of the late Sir George Chesney, but recently tenanted by the prime minister of the Nizam of Hyderabad – a magnificent personage, who dispenses hospitality in right regal fashion.”

Sir Viqar ul-Umara, Amir-e-Paigah was the Prime Minister of Hyderabad who occupied ‘The Yarrows’ for some years. He built the magnificent Falaknuma Palace as his residence at Hyderabad. The construction took 9 years and was completed in 1893. This palace was given to the Nizam, Asaf Jah VI. He now built a new home for himself, now in the European style – the Paigah Palace.

Yet another occupant of the Yarrows was the Surgeon-General Robert, sometime around 1899.

In 1908, the Indian Meteorological Department shifted its Head Quarters from the ‘Constantia’ that was acquired by Lord Minto, the Governor-General to accommodate the YWCA, to the Yarrows Estate. The Yarrows was by now in a dilapidated state and IMD shifted to the Kennedy Estate.

The old bungalow was pulled down and a beautiful new cottage was built at the site in 1913 for Sir George Rivers Lowndes, the Law Member in the Imperial Legislative Council of the Viceroy. It was designed by the famous British Architect Sir Herbert Baker who designed the famous North and South Block Buildings of the Secretariat on the Raisina Hill at Delhi. Baker described the Yarrows in his book, Architecture and Personalities (1944) as follows- “ …a pleasant diversion from my Delhi work was building a house for Sir George Rivers Lowndes at Shimla. A long, low hall looks through mullioned windows over the lawn and garden through majestic cedar trees to the autumn gold foothills and the Himalayan snows beyond.”

The Yarrows, Simla (1913)

The Yarrows, Simla (1913)

Sir Herbert Baker, the British Architect of 'The Yarrows'

Sir Herbert Baker, the British Architect of ‘The Yarrows’

Sir George Lowndes retired from the Imperial Legislative Council in 1920. ‘The Yarrows’ seems to have served as the residence for the Member Law for sometime as it was occupied by Sir Brojendra Lal Mitter, Member Law in the Imperial Legislative Assembly around 1929. He later became the Advocate General of India from 1937 to 1945.

‘The Yarrows’ then got its last famous occupant, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It was at the gates of Yarrows that Jinnah received Mahatma Gandhi in the September of 1939 from where they drove down together to the Viceregal Lodge to meet Lord Linlithgow. Jinnah continued to visit his summer house in Shimla right uptill the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947.

In 1950, this charming estate was handed over to the Indian Audit and Accounts Service and it now became the home for the National Academy of Audit and Accounts. Over the years, two hostel blocks were added to the estate. The first was ‘The Glen,’ a rather plain-looking structure that has obscured the lovely views of the valley and the mountains beyond that so fascinated Sir Herbert. Later came the more regal looking ‘Cedar,’ complete with a large and very European cobblestone courtyard! An impressive stone plaque engraved in gold announces the heritage building’s 100 year history.

Where does the name ‘Yarrows’ come from? It has been suggested by some that ‘The Yarrows’ is named after the plant ‘Yarrow’ that grows wild like a weed and bears minute daisy like white coloured/ pale lilac flowers in cymes. This hairy weed-like plant has traditionally been used to prepare formulations to treat wounds and staunch bleeding.

Yarrow - The Plant

Yarrow – The Plant

Others attribute the name to William Wordsworth who was fascinated by the river ‘Yarrow Water’ that flows through the ‘Scottish Borders’ in the south-east of Scotland and is famous for trout and salmon fishing. The river flows out of St. Mary’s Loch, 45 miles from Edinburgh and journeys eastwards through an idyllic valley, past the impressive ruins of the 15th century Newark Castle, till it joins the river Ettrick Water. Wordsworth first wrote about the river in 1803 in his poem ‘Yarrow Unvisited’. He then journeyed down the length of the river and published ‘Yarrow Visited’ in September 1814. He published a third poem about the river “Yarrow Revisited’ in 1838.

Yarrow Water - The River

Yarrow Water – The River

A third theory links the name to the ‘Loch of Yarrows’ in the County of Caithness in the Scottish Highlands near the estuary town of Wick. The Hill of Yarrows overlooks this lake and is famed for the archaeological remains from the Neolithic and Iron Age including burial chambers and tombs. Situated on the shores of this Highlands Lake is the picture-perfect North Yarrows Cottage – a traditional 18th century Caithness ‘Croft House’ complete with its own boat, a dog-kennel and falconry mews! The cottage faces the icy blue waters of the lake with a backdrop of the Yarrows Hill. Was the architect of ‘The Yarrows’ a Scotsman from the Highlands? Did he yearn for his homeland and name the estate in Simla after the hill, loch or even the shepherd cottage? We shall never know!!

North Yarrows Cottage

North Yarrows Cottage

‘The Yarrows’ is a symbol of intense pride for the officers of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service and one has only to visit this fairy tale destination to know the reason why! The original colonial-age look of ‘The Yarrows’ has been preserved with a passion. ‘The Yarrows’ has easily the best kept garden in the whole of Shimla with a lush green lawn, lovely flower beds, a riot of floral climbers and the majesty of the towering deodars.

The Yarrows (2014)

The Yarrows (2014)

Cedar, The Yarrows Estate 2014

Cedar, The Yarrows Estate (2014)

Sindbad was to join us at Shimla the next day. And there he was – hanging precariously out of the Crow’s Nest on the high mast, enjoying the sharp bite of the icy squall tearing into his face, the sails billowing noisily around him and the bow crashing against the violent waves. There was anticipation written all over his face. He had set sails for the ‘Land of the Lamas’ this time and there he hoped to find the magic cure for his restless mind that drove him from home, friends and family on one adventure after another.

It is a  150 KM drive along the Hindustan- Tibet Road from Shimla to Sarahan.  The construction of the ambitious Hindustan – Tibet road from Kalka to Shimla to Khab (on the confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti Rivers) was started by the British in 1850-51. It took a decade to complete the first leg from Kalka to Shimla and to make the road usable for wheeled traffic. A tunnel was constructed through the ridge between Sanjauli and Dhalli to take the mountain road northwards to Narkanda and the Kinnaur Kingdom of the Bussahir Rajas.

The construction of the Sanjauli Tunnel was started in 1850 under the command of Captain D. Briggs, an engineer in the British-Indian Army. The 560 feet long tunnel was carved out through a ridge of solid rock with the help of 10,000 prisoners and 8000 workers. This ambitious tunnel is said to have been the first of its kind to be built in British India. The dank, unlined interiors of this lengthy tunnel would get completely enveloped in darkness after sunset. Each evening, six lanterns would be lighted inside the tunnel for the late-hour travellers. Their faint glow would do little to dispel the darkness and the long shadows would only add to the eerie atmosphere of the tunnel. The coolies and mule drivers would shout and whistle hysterically to ward off the ghosts and evil spirits that inhabited the dark interiors of the tunnel.

Lord Kitchener was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India in 1902 and he took up the beautiful Wildflower Hall, a bungalow located inside a thick pine and cedar forest at Chharabra as his weekend retreat. He would cross the Sanjauli-Dhalli Tunnel on horseback whenever he visited his summer home from Snowdon, his official residence at Simla. One such evening when he was returning from the Wildflower Hall his pony is said to have slipped, trapping his leg under its weight. A Goorkha porter is said to have heard the General’s shouts for help. The shadowy outline of the Lord and the fearsome echoes of his cries for help, however, proved too much for the poor, superstitious hillman who took it to be a phantom. The man turned back and fled to safety ignoring the loud curses of the indignant Chief that followed him. It was only when word reached one Mr. Jenn, a European gentleman, that the livid General was finally rescued. The embarrassing tunnel incident had left him with a fractured ankle and a bruised ego!

Lord HH Kitchener (1902)

Lord HH Kitchener (1902)

The new road followed the ancient ‘caravan route’ for the most part and joined the famed ‘Silk Route’ that was used for trade between China, Persia and Europe. Wool, livestock, dry fruit, precious stones and spices were some of the commodities traded along this spectacular road. Mule trains would leave the Sanjauli Bazar and cross the tunnel to reach Dhalli.

Sanjauli Bazar, Simla (1890)

Sanjauli Bazar, Simla (1890)

It was a long and weary journey thereafter through the villages of Fagu, Theog and Matiana for reaching Narkanda (Nagkanda). Fagu, Matiana and Narkanda had  ‘Staging Bungalows,’ resting places for the travellers moving along the road.

The road to Tibet forks into two some kilometres beyond Dhalli, with the main highway continuing along the ridge through the Shimla Reserve Forest. A smaller road branches out  for Mashobra (Mahasu) town and Naldehra that lies beyond. We halted at a roadside Punjabi dhaba at this point for a quick ‘rajmah-chawal’ meal. Beyond this point lies the ‘Potato Country’ with potato being grown in terraced rows on steep slopes by the hill people. Potato is planted in the month of May allowing the plant to grow to a few inches by the time the rains arrive in end June. Rain water is harnessed for the potato plants by the low earthen ridges along the terrace boundaries. The potato crop is harvested in the month of October. Potatoes from this region cater to the demand from Shimla and the Northern Plains that lie beyond. The pahari aloo from the hills is popular all over the North sells at a premium in the urban mandis.
Having crossed the turn for Kufri one reaches Fagu, a small misty village located at 2500 metres amidst terraced potato fields and apple orchards. The village experiences heavy fog and offers beautiful views of the distant peaks, the terraced fields and the valley below. Himachal Tourism has built a pleasant hotel, The Apple Blossom, in a picturesque location.

Road between Fagu and Theog, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Road between Fagu and Theog, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Theog is the next major destination along this road. Theog was a part of the Sainj Riyasat, a minor Princely Hill State that was made a feudatory of the Keonthal State of Jubbal by the British after the end of the Goorkha War. The Thakur rulers of the Riyasat claimed descent from the Chandel Rajputs of Jaipur and resided at their rather impressive wooden palace at Sainj.

Palace of the Thakurs of Sainj Riyasat

Theog (1890)

Theog (1890)

Modern day Theog is a fairly large town that caters to the needs of the surrounding hill villages.

We were, however, driving hours behind our planned schedule and could not afford the luxury of checking out any of these historic palaces. We drove without a stop till we reached Narkanda, a small town located at a height of 2700 metres surrounded by a thickly forested area. Some 5 KM from the town is the Hatu Peak, which at 3400 metres is the highest point in Narkanda. The peak has a quaint little temple made of wood and stone with ornate carvings and slate roofs dedicated to the Hatu Mata.

Temple on Hatu Peak

Temple on Hatu Peak

Narkanda forests from Hatu Peak

Narkanda forests from Hatu Peak

Hatu offers uninterrupted views of the distant snow clad ranges of the Higher Himalayas. The Himachal PWD has built a small rest-house near the temple. Narkanda is a popular transit point for the tourists heading for Kinnaur and Spiti and has an impressive PWD Circuit House and a nicely located but rather shabbily maintained HPTDC Hotel, The Hatu.

The Hatu, Narkanda

The Hatu, Narkanda

Samuel Boune’s pictures of Narkanda dating back to 1865 is the earliest photographic record of the place.

Narkunda dak bungalow & village, Samuel Bourne, 1865

Narkunda dak bungalow & village, Samuel Bourne, 1865

Narkunda Forest, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Narkunda Forest, Samuel Bourne (1865)

A forest road leaves the National Highway at Narkanda to head for the apple towns of Kotgarh and Thanedar. The kutcha road passes through an enchanting deodar forest and rejoins the Highway at a point some distance short of Rampur. Banjara runs a transit camp at Thanedar with beautiful log huts located within an apple orchard.

Banjara Log Huts at Thanedar

Banjara Log Huts at Thanedar

We, however, did not take the forest road and continued along the Hindustan-Tibet road. The road descends sharply after Narkanda passing through Kumarsain before entering the Sutlej Valley. The historic town of ‘Kumharsain’ is believed to have been established by Rana Kerat Singh sometime in the 10th century AD. The dynasty ruled this modest hill state till 1914 when it became a part of the Simla district. Originally a feudatory of the Bushahr State, Kumarsain gained its independent status as one of the Protected Hill States in 1815 after the British victory in the war against Goorkhas. The Ranas resided in a sprawling wooden palace – The Hira Mahal – made of deodar wood. A late 19th century painting by BH Baden-Powell shows a carved pillar of the palace.

Rajah's house at Kumharsain, Baden Henry Baden Powell 1872

Rajah’s house at Kumharsain, Baden Henry Baden Powell 1872

Over the decades, this age-old home of the Ranas fell into a state of neglect and got crowded in by ugly concrete buildings.

Hira Mahal , Kumharsain - before the fire

Hira Mahal , Kumharsain – before the fire

Hira Mahal, Kumarsain

Hira Mahal, Kumarsain

This centuries old structure was finally lost to a devastating fire in 2007. Kumharsain is known for the Koteshwar Mahadev Temple located at Mandoli village. Koteshwar Mahadev is the ruling deity of Kumharsain and is believed to be an avtar of Lord Shiva. The deity is brought out every four years from the cave shaped temple  when it meets the other local deities. The occasion is marked by a colourful fair and the local ‘Naita’ dance. The Seema Sashastra Bal runs a training centre at Kumharsain.

Having descended into the Sutlej valley, one now drives along the mighty river till one reaches Rampur, the capital of the erstwhile Bushahr (Bussahir) State and historically an important trading town for the Kinnauris with traders coming through the high mountain passes all the way from Ladakh and Tibet. Bussahir was one of the 28 Protected Simla Hill States – petty Princely States that came under the ‘protection’ of the British Empire after the British evicted the Goorkha invaders in a protracted war for supremacy in the Himalayan Hills that ended with British victory led by General David Ochterlony in 1815.

James Baillie Fraser a Scottish traveller, writer and artist presented a fascinating account of his journey through the Himalayas to the source of Yamuna and Ganga. Equally famous are his watercolour depictions of the Himalayan landscape.

James Fraser - the 19th century Scottish traveller and artist

James Fraser – the 19th century Scottish traveller and artist

James came to India in 1814 in search of opportunities for trade and decided to join his brother William who had been appointed the Political Agent in the British War against Nepal. The year was 1815 and the British campaign against the Gurkha invaders had reached its decisive last phase. These were tumultuous times for the Punjab Hill States that had been left devastated by the rapacious invasion and rule of the Goorkha raiders. Undeterred by the uncertainty of the times James embarked on his journey into the mountains. The Tramp reproduces some of his descriptions of the Bussahir (Bischur) State which he reached on the 13th of June 1815:

Rampore, the capital of Bischur, has far juster pretensions to the appellation of a town than any of the miserable villages through which our route has led: it was once a flourishing place, and the entrepot for the merchandize brought by the traders of Hindostan, and for the produce of Cachemire, Ludhak, Bootan, Kashgar, Yarcund &c. In the days of its prosperity it may have contained three or four hundred houses and a large bazaar, well filled with the commodities of these various countries. For this commerce, the passage of the river Sutlej through the hills forms a convenient channel and the road which is now very difficult might be much improved without incurring any extravagant expense. There is no ghat practicable for the conveyance of merchandize through the Himala range between that at Budreenath and this of Rampore; and doubtless it was this circumstance principally that gave to Rampore the importance it acquired, and made it to the westward, what Sireenuggur was to the eastward, a depot and mart for the products of the abovementioned countries. When the Sikhs were a more predatory race,wandering and unsettled,this route to the Trans-himalayan countries was much followed and prosecuted through the hills to Nahn, the Dhoor and Hurdwar. Since the rise of that nation under Runjeet Sing, the roads from Ludhak, through Cooloo and Chamba, direct to Umrutsir, are in general use.

Much was told us of the splendour of the late rajah and his court, and the opulence of the place in former times, till the struggle with the Ghoorkhas first impoverished and distressed the country; and soon after the death of the rajah the finishing stroke was put to the destruction of the capital by the sudden and unexpected arrival of a Ghoorkha force, from which the young rajah, with his mother and attendants, barely escaped, flying to the recesses of Kunawur, and leaving the accumulated riches of the capital a prey to the conquerors. At this time, by far the greater proportion of the houses was in ruins and the rest very thinly inhabited. The bazaar, which formerly was a tolerable street, and where the remains of good shops and large houses may still be traced, at present contains only the booths of a few poor Bunyas, miserably supplied, and everything bespeaks wretchedness and poverty. So little encouragement is there now for the traders of the low country to bring their goods hither, that the most common luxuries, the produce of the plains, are often not to be had. We could not procure sugar … Rampore is a place of considerable sanctity. It possesses severaltemples for Hindoo worship, of tolerable construction, viz.one to Maha Deo, to Nersing, to Gonesh, to Hoonoomaun and smaller ones to inferior deities. … To officiate at these shrines are a sufficiency of Brahmins and a host of byragees,gosseins, sunyasseas and other descriptions of fuqeers and mendicants; indeed they are the only people who seem to have escaped the desolation, and yet inhabit the place. The houses of priesthood were neat and comfortable and their persons and circumstances were apparently thriving.

There are two royal residences in Rampore: one appears to be far more ancient than the other and was lately occupied by the dowager Ranee, with her family and court. It is built on a rock overhanging the river, somewhat as a strong hold; but in the interior is like most other hill-chieftains’ houses, containing a square court, around the interior of which small apartments are ranged in the Hindostanee fashion, chiefly open to the court, except those intended for the women, which are closed by screens of wood, finely cut into flowers and various figures, so as to partially admit the light without exposing those who are within: in the centre of the court there is a holy pagoda. The second palace is a more modern structure, and though considerably more elegant and better built and finished than the other, it does not depart much from the usual style in the interior dispositions. It stands at the north side of an inclosure that extends about 150 yards along the highest stage or terrace of the projection on which the town is built, and though not more than half that breadth, stretches quite to the foot of the lofty precipice that frowns over the place. The terrace itself overlooks the whole town and the river which flows around it. The building is a square, the front of which, looking to the southward is very highly ornamented with rich carved work in wood; in the centre above the entrance, projects a small balcony, in which the rajah sat and showed himself to the people; the other three sides are rather plain, and with their slated penthouse roofs, which do not project far above the walls, bear a great resemblance to those parts of a common English house which are least exposed to public view. There are no towers at the corners of this square, as in most other hill castles, nor much to give it a resemblance to the usual fashion of the country: from the left or east side of the front a projection runs out of three stories; the two lower are open in front, exposing the interior; the uppermost is shut in with carved wooden screens of trellis-work, and the whole front of this projection is most richly ornamented in a similar manner. This wing was chiefly appropriated to the use of the Zenana. On the opposite side, also projecting forwards, was placed the summer-house in which we took up our quarters; and this though small, was exceedingly neat and well ornamented. Another small building in the same line… a shrine to some deity, projected to a length that corresponded with the extent of the left-hand wing. The space between those two rows of buildings in front of the main body of the palace is paved as a court. Above the summer-house and behind the palace several venerable peepul-trees extended their shade… Both these palaces are built … of dry stone bound with wooden beams… roof… slates were large, of a deep purplish blue and placed with utmost regularity; each cut square and the joining covered with a long piece like an isosceles triangle with its base upwards and the apex cut off below; rows were thus formed and kept accurately straight… carved ornaments in wood, the pillars, the screens,the cornices … covered the front… wood used was wholly fir…the screens…ornaments.. were imitations of similar works in marble… the palace in Dehlee. The interior.. suites of small closed and open apartments all looking into the court at the centre …In the inclosure…several small houses … offices… quarters for the attendants of the Royal family … houses of the wuzeers are mostly in ruins… houses of the Brahmins…alone preserve … appearance of comfort

The town of Rampore by James Baillie Fraser - 1820

The town of Rampore by James Baillie Fraser – 1820

… a singular and dangerous kind of bridge … jhoola… At some convenient spot, where the river is rather narrow and the rocks on either side overhang the stream, a stout beam of wood is fixed horizontally upon or behind two strong stakes…driven into the banks on either side of the water; and round these beams ropes are strained, extending from the one to the other across the river, and they are hauled tight and held in their place by a sort of windlass. The rope used … two to three inches in circumference… collection of ropes is traversed by a block of wood hollowed into a semicircular groove large enough to slide easily along it and around this block ropes …forming a loop in which the passengers seat themselves, clasping its upper parts with their hands to keep themselves steady; a line fixed to the wooden block at each end and extending to each bank…to haul it… jhoola at Rampore …formidable…river tumbles beneath…ropes … thirty to forty feet above it … span…ninety to a hundred yards…

As a brief interlude we may look at some of the sketches and photographs of the Jhula Bridge retrieved by the Tramp from old books to make the readers understand why the jhula inspired so much of awe if not outright terror amongst the travellers from the West who were not accustomed to this Kinnauri mode of river crossing.

Crossing Sutluj by Jula Rope Bridge, Chegaon - Sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Crossing Sutluj by Jula Rope Bridge, Chegaon – Sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Jhoola Bridge at Poo

Jhoola Bridge at Poo, Trans-Himalaya (Vol. III), Sven Hedin (1913)

 

Jhula, Four Months Camping in the Himalayas WGN Van der Sleen 1929

Jhula, Four Months Camping in the Himalayas WGN Van der Sleen 1929

We may now continue with Fraser’s narrative-

Bischur is governed by a rajah … under him the different districts…regulated by hereditary chiefs… assumed the title of wuzzeer.. the archives and records of the state as of rajah’s family, were entirely destroyed by the Ghoorkhas… Rajah is descended from… Raajepoot family…from Chittore …late rajah dying left two Ranees; one daughter of the house of Sirmore, by whom he had no issue; the other was relation of the Dhammee Thakoor… and by her he had the present young rajah and a daughter…wuzzeers rule entirely… ranee possesses a jagheer… The rajah and his mother, as well as the Sirmore Ranee at present reside at Seran where they came on their return from Kunawur after the discomfiture of the Ghoorkha forces. He is said to be eight years of age, of good natural abilities…his education is much neglected…

The Bussahir ‘Kingdom’ was restored to Mehendra Singh Teeka (the child prince referred to by Fraser) by the victorious British Government through a ‘Sunnud’ dated November 6, 1815 and an extract of the same is reproduced for the readers to give a taste of those times of British supremacy-

The overthrow of the Goorka power in these Hills having placed the countries freed from it at the disposal of the British Government …confirm to Mehendra Singh son of Rajah Ooqui Singh and to his descendants the Raj of Bussahir the same in extent and boundary as on the death of his father in A.D. 1811 on the conditions… Bussahir shall pay in zeghundee,namely, as a contribution towards defraying the expense of the force maintained by the British Government for the preservation of the safety and tranquillity of the protected Hill states, the annual sum of fifteen thousand culdar rupees… in three kists or instalments…In the event of war the troops of Bussahir willcooperate with the British force…Bussahir will furnish beegarahs, when called on,for the construction of roads throughout their country.

Rampur despite its stuffy climate, congested lanes and squalid buildings is a town with a rich history that invites the seeker to explore it. The Tramp would have loved to look for the carved, wooden palaces of the Bussahir rajas, the Buddhist-style temples and the terrible jhoola bridge across the Sutlej that inspired the many interesting accounts of the town by the different Europeans who travelled through Kinnaur in the 19th century. To make a ‘discovery’ of something novel, a tiny scrap of history that might have missed the eye of a Fraser or a Gerard. Then there was the Colonial-style Padam Palace that was completed in 1925 during the reign of Raja Padam Dev Singh which definitely deserved a visit. But the sun was already down and we were driving behind schedule as usual. The final 16 KM run up the hill road to Sarahan from Jeori left  us exhausted and we tumbled into our beds at The Srikanth, yet another HPTDC Hotel at a prime location with rather poor  maintenance.

The Srikhand, Sarahan

The Srikhand, Sarahan

Sarahan was the summer capital of the Bussahir Rajas. The original wooden palace that was sketched by James Baillie Fraser in 1816 or by W Simpson in 1860 no longer exists – it having been replaced by a more recent structure in the 20th century.

The Bussahir Rajah's Palace Serahn, on the Sutlej, W Simpson 18th June 1860

The Bussahir Rajah’s Palace Serahn, on the Sutlej, W Simpson 18th June 1860

 

Seran Raja's palace by James Baillie Fraser 1820

Seran Raja’s palace by James Baillie Fraser 1820

The historic, Bhima Kali Temple, with its prominent twin towers styled like the Chinese Pagodas and built in the traditional wood and stone Kinnauri architecture, however, stills stands proud giving this small hill town its unique character. The Temple finds a mention in the report dated 30th April, 1859 by the Commissioner of the Cis Sutlej States deputed for pacifying the insurrection against the Bussahir Raja led by his illegitimate brother Meean Futteh Singh. The Commissioner wrote-

At Surrahun in Bussahir, there is the temple of the national goddess, called Bheemakallee. A large portion of the oil, wine and corn received from the country, is consumed in the daily sacrifices to this deity. A goat is killed on the average every day, and offered upon the shrine. Nothing is done by the Raja or the Wuzeers without consulting the oracle of Surrahun, and whenever any compact is made, the members thereof are sworn to observance at the feet of Bheemakallee. The maintenance of this temple is more expensive than the cost of the Raja’s own household. The idol is rich in ornaments and has a full treasury, supposed to contain about 40,000 Rupees, while the Raja’s own Exchequer at Rampoor is usually empty. On great occasions, such as the birth of an heir, or the marriage of the Raja, treasure can be obtained from the temple; but for ordinary expenses, even for the discharge of the British tribute, the priests refuse to give up a single rupee.

This medieval temple of the Bussahir Rajas does inspire a shiver when one learns of its gruesome history. The temple deity was offered humans in sacrifice till as late as early 19th century until the British over-lordship was established with the eviction of the Goorkha usurpers in 1815. The hapless victim would be drugged and paraded in chains, dazed by the overwhelming clamour of cymbals and drums to be beheaded at the altar of the ruling deity. And before we sit in judgment over the Kinnauri people for pursuing such ghastly traditions- The Tramp would like to remind his readers that as per a conservative estimate some 10,000 widows were burnt alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands in India every year till early 19th century before the British decided to intervene!

Bheemakali Temple, Sarahan

Bheemakali Temple, Sarahan

It was raining lightly as we started from Sarahan at dawn and crossed the ITBP jawans toiling their way up the steep hill road on a cross country run. It was a beautiful morning and as we hit the highway at Jeori we were spell bound by the sheer grandeur of the Kinnaur landscape. Huge mountains of sheer rock with near vertical cliff sides. One marvels at the ingenuity of the road engineers who have cut through the vertical rock to carve out the famed Hindustan Tibet Road that snakes up the Satluj valley. The Satluj for its part adds to the ruggedness of the landscape as it dashes down the narrow valley with a force that inspires fear. Kinnaur or ‘Koonawur’ as our colonial masters called it is best described in the words of Captain Alexander Gerard, the famous British explorer who surveyed the Western Himalayas and the Sutlej valley in three successive mountain expeditions during 1817 to 1821. He produced one of the first detailed maps of the region.

Map of Koonawur by Alexander Gerard

Map of Koonawur by Alexander Gerard

The indefatigable Gerard criss-crossed this inaccessible land undaunted by high mountains and treacherous mountain passes as he penetrated into the bordering Tibetan region. A man of scientific temper he maintained a systematic record of the barometric and temperature readings with the Long./Lat. bearings and estimated elevations with precise trigonometric measurements. He made notes on the geology of the region he traversed and also of the people inhabiting these remote regions. His hand written diary notes, maps and observations formed the basis of the ‘Account of Koonawur’ published in 1841 two years after his death and a little passage is being reproduced to get the flavour of Kinnaur-

Koonawur, called likewise Koorpa, is the tract of country belonging to Busehur, which lies on both banks of the Sutluj … It runs in a N. E. and S. W. direction, and the habitable part seldom exceeds eight miles in breadth. It is a secluded region, rugged and mountainous in an extraordinary degree. It is terminated on the North and N. W by mountains covered with perpetual snow, from 18,000 to 20,000 feet, above the level of the sea, which separate it from Ludak … A similar range of the Himalaya, almost equal in height, bounds it to the South ; on the East it is divided from the elevated plains of Chinese Tartary by a lofty ridge, through which are several highpasses ; and on the West lies Dusow, one of the divisions of Busehur.

Koonawur has seven large divisions termed Khoond, each of which contains three or four lesser portions named Ghoree, comprehending a few villages; many of the latter consist of five or six distinct parts, and the houses of the principal residents have names which are common to their owners.

Gerard estimated the population of Kinnaur in 1817 at less than 10,000 spread over a vast area of 2100 square miles. The thin population was ascribed largely to the inaccessible and inhospitable terrain – ‘the greatest part of Koonawur is occupied by vast chains of snowy mountains, inaccessible crags or impenetrable forests.’ The hill people practiced Polyandry and celibacy (amongst monks and nuns) which further depressed the population. He then described the Sutlej Valley-

The largest valley is that of the Sutluj, through which the river of the same name flows; its length within Koonawur, following the sinuosities of the stream, is about 80 miles, and its general direction is N.E. and S.W. The level space in the bottom is inconsiderable, being usually not much broader than is sufficient for the passage of the river … The right bank … is for the most part very abrupt for the first 2,000 or 3,000 feet, with here and there level spots laid out into vineyards ; at the height of from 7,000 to 9,000 feet are the villages, and arable land which extends to 10,000 or 11,000 feet, and is in general scattered in narrow slips interspersed with gloomy woods of oaks and pines. From this elevation upwards, the ground is covered with green sward and countless varieties of the loveliest flowers, of which thyme of many kinds is most plentiful; there are clumps of forest and beds of juniper here and there, but the inclination is gentle, and rocks are not so frequent as below. This belt forms the pasture lands, and here in summer shepherds tend their flocks. These verdant meadows reach to about 14,000 feet, and are crowned by mountains covered with eternal snow, or sterile peaked masses of granite. The left bank of the river … contains more plain land near the stream, and the villages are commonly situated only a few hundred feet above it; here are extensive vineyards and thriving crops, diversified with orchards of apricots and apples. These arable spaces that occur only in distances of 6 or 8 miles, vary from a hundred yards to ½ or ¾ of a mile in breadth, after which the mountains rise rapidly … and are extremely precipitous and sometimes thickly wooded with pines and birches. The forest belt on this side extends fully 800 feet higher than on the other ; but such is the crumbling nature of the granite in some parts, that prodigious masses every now and then give way with a horrid crash, overthrowing the trees and leaving nothing behind but a wreck of naked rocks, devoid of vegetation. The pasturage here is neither so abundant nor so luxuriant as on the right bank of the river. The limit of forest on this side is 12,500 or 13,000 feet, above which the gravelly granite soil seems unfavourable to the development of plants or even grasses, which in small tufts reach to 1,000 feet higher. From 14,000 to 16,000 feet are barren crags terminated in tall steeple-formed points, too abrupt for snow to rest upon; and beyond these, tower the white summits of the stupendous Himalaya.

The scenery of this valley partakes more of magnificence than of beauty. Here everything is on the grandest scale, fragments of fallen rocks of immense bulk, hurled from the peaks above, and vast impending cliffs fringed with dark forests, and topped with mountains of indestructible snow, appear on every side ; a village perched amongst the crags without a single patch of verdure around, and now and then a more populous place environed by fields and orchards, or what is most common, a solitary house, with a small piece of cultivation or a few vineyards attached, but seldom attracts the eye of the observer. The character of the Sutluj is more of the nature of a torrent than that of a large river, for its fall in several places is 100 or 150 feet per mile, and it rushes over rocks with a clamorous noise, and exhibits heaps of white foam.

Gerard describes Rampur and Sarahan as follows –

Rampoor… is the capital of Busehur, is a poor looking place, consisting of about one hundred houses, and situated upon the left bank of the Sutluj. It contains seven or eight shops, but few articles of any kind are to be got; neither shawls, Putoo, nor Chowries are procurable; blankets are scarce and of a bad kind… From the small size of the valley which the town occupies, and the ruggedness of the mountains in the vicinity, it could scarcely ever have been larger, but I understand it carried on a much better trade before the Goorka invasion than it does at present. The houses are generally large, well built of stone, and slated like those of most villages in this part of the country. The slates are large, of a brownish colour, very thick, and form heavy roofs; those upon a few of the houses are cut oblong and laid on regularly, which has a neat appearance, but by far the greater number are all manner of shapes and sizes, piled upon one another with the utmost confusion and disorder. The heat here is very great … in June it is much higher. This arises from the low and confined situation of the town, all the surrounding hills being high, with large quantities of bare rock, attract and retain heat a long time. There is a fair here in January, and another in October. Under the Rajah’s palace, which is at the northern angle of the town, there is a Jhoola or rope-bridge across the Sutluj which leads to Kooloo.

Of equal interest is the travel account of Constance Frederica  Gordon-Cumming– travel writer and landscape painter who travelled through India in 1867. She travelled along the treacherous Himalayan tracks carried on her dandie for the most part, by her merry band of bearers drawn from the short but sturdy hill-men, escorted by her blue-eyed Shikaree, Nanko. Sleeping in tents or dak bungalows. Stopping to paint the beautiful landscape she traversed.

CF Gordon-Cumming (1893)

CF Gordon-Cumming (1893)

Constance describes her journey from Kotghar to Thanedarh to Rampore talking about the Hindustan-Thibet Road that was still under construction in 1867, Rampore the Capital of Bussahir State and Shamsher Singh, the Rajah of Bussahir. Kotghar was the last British outpost with a Christian Mission Station. The area was known for its tea gardens at that time (apple orchards have completely overwhelmed the landscape today).

Kotgurh Mission Station from Narkanda, Sketch by CF Gordon-Cummings 1867

Kotgurh Mission Station from Narkanda, Sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Constance left Kotgarh, proceeding along the road to Thanedar to make a sharp descent of 5000 feet thereafter to reach the Satluj Valley. She then took the Hindustan – Tibet Road that was being constructed by the British along the Sutlej. This is what she wrote-

Rampore … the capital of Bussahir… stands on the brink of the river… the city of Rama… One of the largest fairs of the Himalayas is annually held here, and all the treasures of Thibet, Yarkand and all those far away districts are brought here to be exchanged by the merchants from the plains for such simple products of civilization as may find use among men whose requirements are so few. It was therefore necessary that whatever road was made to the frontier districts should pass through the city;and as the old native path was merely a track, winding among difficult and dangerous cliffs-sometimes by natural ledges, sometimes over a bit of plank, bridging some frightful chasm, and often so steep that no beast of burden larger than a goat could clamber up –it became a question of very difficult engineering to make such a road … at any point of which two laden ponies should be able to pass one another in safety. It was also necessary that the road should be constructed below the ordinary limit of snow, which is estimated at 12,000 feet above the sea level; and so it was found that by generally following the course of the river some of the most overwhelming difficulties would be avoided. There was formerly, however, another road of English construction… It commanded distant views of far-away snows, and carried you up into a region of silence; whereas by this new road you seem never to escape from the noise of the waters, or from the steep precipitous cliffs which hem you in. The old road formerly ran from Narkanda to Serahan, which is two marches beyond Rampore, keeping a high level the whole way, and altogether avoiding this dangerous hot valley. There were good dak bungalows at intervals all along the road… Since this new road to Rampore the old one has been allowed to fall into disrepair, and is now impassable…at length we caught sight of the town of Rampore, with its jula, or rope bridge, its temples, and all its quaint hill houses, with its overhanging upper storeys and balconies of carved cedar wood. The foreground was peculiar, having great gallows beside the river where the Rajah of Bussahir hangs malefactors…

Rampore - a sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Rampore – a sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

The Rajah himself is a very contemptible mortal, being a youth of semi-English upbringing. His education seems to have been entrusted to a Baboo, who taught him good English and the abuse of strong liquor, which he at once demands from all travellers who he honours with a call, occasionally prolonging his visit for so many hours that his forcible removal becomes necessary. One of his great topics is English guns and gunmakers; and every gentleman whom he visits is invariably requested to sell his favourite rifle or his travelling clock, a negotiation which is generally closed by the fumes of brandy obscuring the princely intellect. His picturesque palace is perched on a rock overhanging the river, and just opposite is his zenana, the balconies of which are entirely closed in with carved wood. He generally, however, prefers living in his summer palace at Serahan, much farther up the hill. All the houses in this part of the country are more or less alike. A square base of stone acts as granary and stable for cattle. A staircase outside leads up to an overhanging balcony which surrounds the wooden dwelling-house. Perhaps a second still wider storey is above this.The roof is peaked,and slated with large slabs of grey shingle or slate, or even of cedar wood. All the gables are elaborately carved with hanging ornaments of wood – arabesques or curious heads. Hot air was blowing down the valley like the blast from a furnace …

Yet another foreign traveller to pass through Bissahir was Victor Jacquemont,  French botanist who came to India in 1828 to collect plant and animal specimens for Jardin des Plantes, a famous botanical garden of Paris that was established by the bank of Seine in the 17th century. He halted at Sarahan in July 1830 on his way to Ladakh.

Victor Jacquemont

Victor Jacquemont

He described his brief encounter with the Rajah in a letter to his father at Paris written on the 15th of July 1830 from Chini. His account smacks of colonial arrogance but is undeniably witty. This is what he had to write-

…on my arrival at Seran, the summer-residence of the Rajah of Bissahir, the sovereign came in all haste to pay me a visit and make all kinds of offers of service. I had a draught on his treasury, the amount of which it was not convenient for me to receive immediately; and another on one of his subjects who was absent. The amount of both will be paid on sight, in the Rajah’s name, whenever I may think proper to demand it; his little Chancery has written to all the chiefs in the Upper Country, and to the Lamas of Ladak, to comply with all my desires. I hope then to penetrate as far as the platform. The Rajah, besides, has given me … the highest in rank among his servants, to serve as interpreter and to give orders everywhere in the name of his master, whom nobody here contradicts…A story-teller might find something superb in the visit of the Rajah, with his fan in his hand, during a furious hurricane, which threatened to overturn the tent in which I was expecting him and his viziers.. His court and people assembled to shout God save the King, after their own fashion  . .. I regretted the weight of my own grandeur, which did not permit me to return the King of Bissahir’s visit, for I was anxious to see the interior of what is called his palace… It was the Rajah’s place to come with all the pomp of his royalty, and to consider himself honoured at my allowing him to take a seat before me and at my shaking hands with him. The Rajah of Bissahir reigns over a degree of latitude, and two or three degrees of longitude; and although the greater part of his dominions lies buried under the eternal snows of the Himalaya, although nine-tenths of the rest are covered with forests, and the remaining tenth nothing but sterile, arid pastures or naked rocks he has a revenue of a hundred and fifty thousand francs a year, without pressing on his subjects, who are the most wretched in the world. His nuzzer, or offering, consisted of a bag of musk in the animal’s skin, a rarity indigenous in his mountains… The only thing I gave him in return was a lesson in geography, of which he stood in great need. He leaves the trouble of knowing it to his viziers, and passes his time with his Cashmerian slaves, whom he fattens in their cage, and who are probably not very handsome…

Victor Jacquemont was destined never to leave India. He died of cholera at Bombay in 1832, at the age of 31. The French botanist was definitely one of the more illustrious guests of the Rajah of Bissahir and has several plants named after him such as ‘Betula jacquemontii’- the Himalayan White Birch.

 

A decade and a half later Bissahir received its most impressive visitor. Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Waldemar of Prussia came on a tour of India in 1845, accompanied by, amongst others, his personal physician and childhood friend Dr. Werner Hoffmeister who chronicled most of the Prince’s visit through letters written home. The Prince landed at Calcutta and travelled through Patna, Kathmandu, Benaras, Delhi, Naini Tal as well as parts of the Himalayas and Tibet.

Prince Waldemar of Prussia

Prince Waldemar of Prussia

He halted at Sarahan as a guest of Raja Mahendra Singh of Bussahir in August 1845 and Dr. Hoffmeister’s account of the same is reproduced for the readers:

… an ambassador from the Rajah of Bissahir, leading an elegantly caparisoned horse, which he had been dispatched to offer to the Prince for his entry into Seran. His Royal Highness however begged to decline making a public entry, or being received with any ceremony. A “Deval” and the Palace of Rajah of Bissahir- his summer residence, were the first features of the town of Seran which caught the eye as we descended to it. The temple is an extensive edifice, surrounded by a gallery immediately below the overhanging roof; beside it rises the actual “Deval”, a tall, white, tower-like structure, terminating in a truncated cone; it stands between the sanctuary and the abode of the Rajah, which is a simple and unpretending fabric, two stories high. Behind this range of buildings lies concealed the group of lowly dwellings, dignified with the name of Seran,- in reality, a miserable village, composed of a few half-ruinous, one-storied houses. Tents were ready pitched in this place … to accommodate us… We had scarcely established ourselves in our tents, when the Rajah sent a liberal supply of fruit for our refreshment- beautiful forced mangoes, grapes, and unripe peaches, as hard as apples, for in this state it is the custom to eat them here. At the same time he announced his intention of waiting upon the Prince the following day… The following morning (the 25th of August) His Highness the Rajah kept us all very long waiting; noon had already arrived, when we at last heard the sound of trumpets and of drums, announcing his approach. The Sovereign appeared on foot; a small, decrepit man, clothed in violet-coloured silk, with morocco-leather boots of the same colour, and a huge and most unshapely cap of gold tissue: he was led forward by the Vuzeer (“Bujeer”) and another exalted dignitary, both arrayed in white… Our camp-beds, with Indian shawls thrown over them, served as divans, on which the Rajah and his suite immediately reclined. Our interpreter … translated questions and answers at a brisk rate, and the conversation flowed on with vivacity and zest; for the aged Rajah, however dulled and enfeebled in his outward man, displayed no lack of life and quickness in his mind and language. Among the presents was a piece of Russian leather… several singular weapons… webs of silken and of woollen stuffs, musk bags and the highly-valued Nerbissi root… After dinner the Prince returned his visit. The Vuzeer came to conduct us to the palace. Passing through a half-dilapidated gateway, surrounded by an eager throng of inquisitive spectators, we entered the great court, over which was spread a baldachin. A grand yet simple entrance leads into the interior of the palace, an edifice distinguished by the severe and unadorned style of mountain architecture. Three elegant silken sofas were placed in a circle; behind them and on either stood hosts of courtiers clad in white, with drawn “Khukries” (short sabres) in their hands: a few only were marked as heralds by the insignia which they bore, – the long gilt staff separating at the top into two curved points. The counter-presents now offered…the Rajah… conversed for a long while with the Prince, and expressed a great desire to obtain information concerning the position, size and state of our native land … He refused, through the medium of his “Bujeer”, to allow us to see his palace …granting us permission to be conducted round its outer gallery.”

The Prince was an observer in the First Anglo-Sikh war witnessing the battles at Mudki, Ferozeshah and Sabraon. During the Battle of Ferozeshah, some four months after he wrote the above account, Dr. Hoffmeister got killed on the battlefield. The Prince of Prussia visited Sarahan in the time of Raja Mahendra who was succeeded upon his death in 1850 by his son Shamsher Singh who ruled the Bussahir State for 53 years –  initially from 1850 to 1887 when he abdicated in favour of his son Raghunath Singh. He took to the throne a second time at the age of sixty in 1898 after the death of Raghunath and ruled his impoverished mountain country till his death in 1914. Shamsher Singh was known for his eccentric ways that intrigued (shocked?) many a British traveller that passed through Kinnaur in his reign. Many anecdotes have been written about encounters with this colourful man The Tramp cannot resist reproducing some of the more interesting ones.

The Commissioner of the Cis-Sutlej States who rescued the embattled Raja during the popular uprising in 1859 described him in the following words-

The Raja, Shumshere Sing, is a youth of about 25 years of age. He is short in stature, not above 5 feet 2 inches in height, stoutly made, with broad Tartar features. He speaks and writes English pretty correctly, for, in his pupilage, he was educated by a Bengalee Baboo, selected by Mr. Edwards. I think that many of the vices now displayed in the Raja’s character, may be attributed to the influence of this tutor. The Raja does not want intelligence, but he is most irresolute and fickle. No dependence can be placed upon his word. It is impossible to fix him for a moment upon any definite policy. He will assent readily to any scheme that is proposed to him, and the next hour at the instigation of others, will adopt as readily the reverse. He has now accepted, with profuse thanks, the plans I have formed for a better administration of his country. He expressed himself equally delighted with entirely different measures proposed by Lord William Hay. In short, he is utterly incapable of forming or adhering to any policy. He is at the mercy of the last speaker- a man unfit for the responsible position to which he was born. To this grievous defect, he adds the vices of drunkenness and debauchery; not that he is an habitual drunkard, but his excesses are notorious and frequent … there are good points in his character … he is good-tempered, kind to his subordinates and not the least vindictive or cruel.

Sven Anders Hedin was a famous Swedish geographer and traveler who explored the western highlands of Tibet and the Trans-Himalayan region becoming the first European to reach the sacred Manasarovar Lake. He halted at Sarahan and Rampur on the 9th /10th of September 1908 on his journey back to Simla along the Hindustan-Tibet road. He writes about his encounter with the ageing Raja and his impressions of the Beshahr capital.

We crossed three side valleys and a small pass before we reached the rest-house of the village Sarahan. Here I was surprised by a letter written in English from the Raja of Beshahr, Shumshir Sing by name, who in polite terms asked if he might pay me a visit. I should think so! A Raja asking for an audience! “Your Highness will be heartily welcome,” I wrote back. And His Highness came, but not a highland prince with light elastic gait. He was a shrivelled old man, who, from age and infirmities, could no longer stand on his feet, much less walk, but was carried on a litter by turbaned servants. They helped him to an easy-chair in my room and then a very singular conversation began. The noble prince was almost stone deaf and I had to yell into his ear to make myself audible. His English was not easily comprehensible to any one who can hear as well as I can. But for all that we chatted away, both at the same time, and before I had thought of giving directions to Gulam my guest gave his own orders. “Bring me some tea and cake, and put tobacco before me, for I will smoke a pipe.”
Meanwhile he looked round at all the trifles lying about and without a change of countenance, and without speaking a word, put two of my last pencils into his pocket. No doubt it had become a habit of his to plunder the visitors to the bungalow in this harmless fashion, and I would willingly have given him a whole cart-load of pencils if I had been able. “How old is Your Highness?” I asked. “Forty-nine years,” he answered boldly, and without a moment’shesitation,though he must certainly have seen eighty springs pass over the lovely country of Sarahan. “How old is Your Honour?” he asked me. “Forty-three,” I replied. “Then I am three years older than you.”“Just so,” I answered, for I would not make a fuss about a paltry difference of three years, when he himself had so coolly taken off some thirty years.Thereupon this remarkable visit came to an end. My offer to return his visit was decidedly refused. Early next morning the old Raja was announced again,but I sent word that I unfortunately could not see him and made off quickly with my pencils.
…the large village of Rampur on the Sutlej … air was damp, warm and close as in a conservatory … Sutlej foams some thirty yards below the village … Beshahr is a poor state … revenue is… thirty thousand rupees… little left for the …Raja who is so fond of pencils… Yet the Raja could afford to live in Rampur in a palace called Shishe Mahal, or the Glass Palace, a commonplace building in debased oriental style, with coloured glass windows,badly painted portraits of the owner and other princes, and cheap showy knick-knacks on the walls and in the verandahs. The court bears the pretentious name of Top-khanehor Artillery Court and two old rusty muzzle-loaders actually stand in it. All bears the imprint of decline, decay and bad taste… little else to see in Rampur…a bridge over the Sutlej, a bazaar street with shops and workshops… a post-house, a school and two Hindu temples,which contend successfully with a Lamaist monastery for the souls of its inhabitants … the last monastery on the road from Tibet…

The Tramp now reproduces an account by an unknown traveller of his encounter with Rajah Shumsher Singh that was originally published in the London Daily Mail and was published again by the Australian Town and Country Journal in June 1904 to amuse its readers.

An Indian Rajah

You may have been to Simla, and if so, you will know that all the surrounding country is split up among numerous small rajahs, whose, territories constitute what are officially termed tho Punjab Hill States. They are queer little kingdoms -a narrow green valley and a fringe of lofty mountains. Their rulers are equally queer. They all lay claim to the royal blood of India, that of the Rajput race, and look down from the mighty grandeur of their thrones on the home spun clad rugged hill folk over whom they rule. It was in one of these States, namely, Bushire that I met the subject of this article. Turning a sharp corner on the hill road, I suddenly came upon his capital, wedged in between two hills. A very dirty place it was, but tho rajah, although he had a palace there-a wooden affair, conspicuous with gilt and glass-lived two marches further on, and I admired his sense in doing so. I left the capital, Rampur, and proceeded to where tho monarch ruled, a place called Sarahan. Before I left Rampur I received a most affectionate letter from the rajah. He addressed me as his very dear and esteemed friend, and expressed a very delirium of joy at the prospect of seeing me. I reached Sarahan dead tired-it was a very hard march, up and down, and I felt glad that I was not an official in this Rampur rajah business. The next morning, after a free interchange of letters at intervals of twenty minutes, commencing at 6, a special courier came to announce the immediate arrival of his highness. The inevit able hubbub of conversation heralded his arrival, and I hurried out on to the verandah to greet the rajah. I saw a mob of frieze-dressed hill men, wearing “Dolly Varden” hats, four of whom were carrying a litter on which their sovereign lay. The litter would have disgraced a Liberian Republic volunteer ambulance corps. His highness got out, and carefully kicked off his shoes, displaying a pair of regulation army socks-a touching tribute to the King Emperor’s forces. He was a tiny man, not more than 4ft 10in, and wore a cheap tinsel Hindoo cup, and a red velveteen robe that needed a wash badly. He came toddling up to me, addressed me in perfect English, and seemed delighted to see me. I regarded him curiously. He was now an old man. In his younger days he was what the Arabs politely called “The Father of the Bottle,” and had a reputation for oppression. I produced some whisky, and pressed it on him, when, to my astonishment, he refused. True, the hour was 8.30 a.m., and the month June-but, in view of his past foibles, his refusal astonished me. I then discovered that the passion of his old age was jam, eaten preferably with a spoon from the pot. Sweet biscuits were also a joy to him, and tea as provided by the sahibs, and not as sold by the local bunnia (shopkeeper). The old man was very deaf, and conversation a, difficulty. He gave me a nasty shock. Ho was examining a rifle, and I happened to be looking away for a minute. When I again turned to him I saw that he had produced a cartridge from his pocket, and had put it into the weapon, and was holding it point blank to the door, where a gaping crowd was gazing at us. Rajah or no rajah, that was too much for me, and I snatched the rifle from him. He picked it up a few minutes later, and tried the same thing again. Then I did my best to get rid of him. The tea and jam were packed away, and his highness, seeing nothing forthcoming, rather sullenly went off. That was the last I saw of Shumsher Singh, Rajah of Bushire, who still rules his State and screws the taxes. There are funny stories about him-of how one sahib fed him, a high caste Hindoo, on the best of Chicago tinned beef, and how another humorous sportsman, in answer to the inevitable question which the rajah always asks, “What is the time by your honour’s watch?” promptly answered 5, instead of 10 o’clock. He has a fair revenue, as his State is large, and stretches up to the Thibetan frontier. The scenery is fine., the deodars wonderfully grand. His forests are leased to the Imperial Government, and all that Shumeher Singh has to do is to sit in what he terms his “camp palace” and draw the revenue from his overtaxed people.

TO BE CONTINUED

References:

  1. Architecture in the Himalayas, William Simpson
  2. Account of Koonawur in the Himalaya, Alexander Gerard (1841)
  3. From the Hebrides to the Himalayas; a Sketch of Eighteen Months’ Wanderings in Western Isles and Eastern Highlands; Constance Frederica  Gordon-Cumming (1876)
  4. Journal of a tour through part of the snowy range of the Himala mountain and to the sources of Rivers Jumna and Ganges; James Baillie Fraser (1820)
  5. Trans-Himalaya Vol. III, Sven Hedin (1913)
  6. Letters from India, Vol. I; Victor Jacquemont (1834)
  7.  Four Months Camping in the Himalayas; WGN Van der Sleen (1929)
  8. Simla Past and Present, Edward J. Buck (1904)
  9. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India, Henry Benedict Medlicott (1865)
  10. Memoirs of an Octogenarian, Sushama Sen (1971)
  11. The Magic Mountains: Hill stations and the British Raj, Dane Keith Kennedy (1996)
  12. Imperial Simla, Pamela Kanwar (2003)

Filed in: Beyond Morni

About the Author ()

An environmental enthusiast who loves tramping through the hills in search of the picturesque.

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