Her brother went up to demonstrate. He covered the spout with his hand, and when he removed it, the water gushed out with a vengeance.
“See, Didi,” she continued. “A boy in my class did this, and Brahmani Mata slapped him so hard in his sleep that the marks were still present the next day.”
My little guides seemed so solemn that I could not, in all honesty, laugh at their fanciful thinking. After all, I was in Bharmour, where fantasy becomes reality. This ancient capital of Chamba is the abode of the semi-nomadic Gaddi tribe, the location of the Chaurasi or the 84-temple campus, and more importantly, the land of Shiva, known locally as Shivbhoomi.
Taking advantage of the sunny spring weather, I had headed out to explore the valley of milk and honey—the Chamba valley in the northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh. The area is underdeveloped, remote, and houses three of the Himalayan ranges—the Dhauladhars, the Pir Panjals, and the Zanskars. Three major rivers—the Ravi, the Beas, and the Chenab—run through the area, the Ravi draining most of Chamba. The landscape is characterized by snowcapped mountains, steep, narrow valleys, numerous crisscrossing streams, waterfalls and rivers, dense forests of pine, oak, and deodar (cedar), and heavily terraced land.
The road to Bharmour is always “Under Construction,” especially after such a long and cold winter. Not knowing any better though, I accepted a fellow traveler’s challenge: “Are you up for an adventure motorbike ride to Bharmour?” We headed out of the quiet hill station of Dalhousie early one morning for Destination Bharmour.
The ride was exhilarating. We zigzagged through dense deodar forests, the fresh mountain air whipping against our faces. Riding pillion, I could also partake of the magnificent view—through the dark-green foliage I caught glimpses of the white-headed Pir Panjals slicing upwards through puffy clouds.
Within an hour, we found ourselves in the everglade clearing of Khajjiar. Khajjiar’s claim to fame is that it is the 160th place to be termed “Mini Switzerland.” Fortunately, it has more significant claims as well. Near the lake stands a 12th century temple dedicated to the snake god, Khajjinag. The temple is a fine example of hill architecture—a gabled pent roof, with stone and wood structure. This is the only temple that houses the statues of all five Pandavas. Khajjiar’s festivals attract people from all over, some rolling their way into the temple when they become possessed by the aspect of the snake god himself.
We continued onwards, snaking our way downhill to the city of Chamba. Chamba was one of the rare kingdoms that was continuously ruled by the Rajputs from 6th century C.E. till Independence in 1947. The first view of the city reminded me of a picturesque European hamlet. The city is nestled comfortably in the valley and surrounded by a dense pine forest. In the center of the city stands the Royal Palace with its white façade and green roof. Alongside the city promenade, flanked with shops, flows the mighty Ravi. Situated at 3,071 feet above sea level, Chamba was undoubtedly much hotter than Dalhousie (6,690 feet). We made a pit stop here, refueled, renourished, and continued forward. Knowing that the road to Bharmour wasn’t the best, we wanted to make it there before dusk.
The path to Bharmour, though in hindsight quite treacherous, was 100 percent pure adventure. As the bike raced, so did my heartbeat. On one side towered the rocky Dhauladhars, and on the other a deep ravine through which the roaring Ravi flowed furiously. To add more danger to the mix, the one-lane road coiled its way up and down mountains, twisting incessantly all the way. Sometimes it disappeared under a layer of shale, rubble, or mud. A few times, my heart stopped for a second when we turned around a bend, and lo and behold, there came a large truck or bus hurtling towards us on this narrow one-lane highway. At other times, we had to squeeze through herds of sheep and goats making their way up to the highlands.
When we were alone on the road, though, the experience was nothing but divine. Bright skies provided a warm canopy, framed sometimes by a rocky cliff and vale, and at other times, by a forest of pines and deodar. The snowcapped Pir Panjals remained at a distance. The green-and-yellow terraced landscape dotted with slate-roofed houses added a splash of color. We climbed higher and higher for over three hours, until we thought we wouldn’t be able to go any further. The last six miles were pure hell. The bike spluttered, ready to die on us for pushing it so hard. At last, as we came around one bend, we saw the hamlet of Bharmour clinging to the sides the mountain.
According to local folklore, Bharmour used to be the garden of the goddess Brahmani Devi. One day, her son’s pet bird was killed by a local peasant. The boy, a bit too attached to his pet, died from grief. Brahmani, unable to live without her son, buried herself alive, and soon the trio began to haunt the local villagers. In order to appease the dead, the villagers beatified Brahmani and erected a temple at the site of her residence. Consequently, the entire area came to be called Brahmpura, or “the residence of Brahmani.”
Today, Bharmour is the land of the Gaddis who are known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle and rugged beauty. In the past, Bharmour used to be cut off from the rest of the world, and in the winters, the Gaddis used to leave these highlands for warmer climes. To this day, though many of the Gaddis have made their mountain residences permanent, the shepherds still travel up and down to access grazing lands for their sheep and goats. Walking through the winding lanes of the town, one cannot miss the odor of livestock.
Bharmour is known for its Chaurasi (84) temple complex and the annual Manimahesh pilgrimage. Legend has it that on his way to Manimahesh (Shiva’s abode—the Mount Kailash), Lord Shiva stopped by Brahmpura along with his 84 sidhas, who promptly set up camp and lit fires. Brahmani Devi was enraged by such desecration of her territory, and ordered Shiva to move on. After Shiva placated her, Brahmani allowed them to remain. The 84 sidhas, enamored with the place, transformed themselves into 84 lingas and took their residence in the Chaurasi (84) temple complex. Shiva granted Brahmani a boon stating that all pilgrims to Manimahesh would be expected to bathe in her pool as a gesture of their respect before they could pay homage to Shiva at Manimahesh.
Since the Manimahesh trail was still closed (it opens in July and August), we decided to explore the temple. The complex is spread across an open area covered with concrete, with the Panchayat (village government) building, three schoolhouses, and various shops bordering it. The entire village gathers here during the evenings—the crones sit around gossiping, while young girls and boys play tag and hopscotch, and skip rope. Everyone hangs out until the evening aarti (worship) before making their way back home.
I, too, decided to relax with the gods. After all, I was a bit dejected. The phone lines in Bharmour were down (which is the case 70 percent of the time) and the nearest cell tower was some 43 miles away in Chamba. This meant that I couldn’t reach my fiancé to assure him that I was safe and on the ground rather than six feet under. But the uninhibited and spirited children wouldn’t allow me to stay depressed. Two girls, Shikha and Puja, took me under their wing.
“Didi,” said Shikha. “Do you know how to play five stones?”
I nodded, and soon the three of us began to play this children’s game, giggling like 10-year-olds. After a few rounds, the game couldn’t hold the girls’ attention any more, and we proceeded to count the temples.
“Are you sure there are 84 temples?” I asked.
“Oh yes, Didi,” both nodded solemnly. “That’s why it is called Chaurasi—84.”
We started our tour by the bath tank, a small pool filled with rancid water. “This is where the men bathe. They then take this holy water to the temples and bathe the gods. Do you want to put your foot in?” Looking at the filth and hearing Puja say, “… you can even find frogs in here,” I decided to skip this experience.
“This water comes from Brahmani Mata,” said Shikha, pointing up into the Dhauladhars. She then led me to the fountain, from which flowed fresh spring water. “All this water comes from one little spot up in the mountains. It flows all the way down into Bharmour. And don’t try to shut her mouth. She will slap you in your sleep.” The water was cool and sweet tasting. Though not a superstitious person, I, nevertheless, chose to follow my young guide’s advice. When in Bharmour, do as the Gaddis.
We moved on to the Ganesh temple. Puja lifted up the covers to show Ganesh’s amputated leg. “The angrez (British) did this to Ganesh. Now, my father makes sure that no one will destroy or steal anything.” Puja’s father is employed as a security guard here, and spends his nights guarding the treasures of Chaurasi.
It was soon time for the audio version of the tour. The evening aarti began at 8. Bells began clanging at various temples. Each priest opened up his temple for worship. People moved from one temple to another, or paid respects to their favorite god(s). At the shikara-styled Manimahesh temple, the shivalinga was freshly washed and adorned with marigolds, while a saffron-clad sadhu (ascetic) with dreadlocks rang the bell with immense fervor. Worship was a family affair. Two young boys rang the bells of the Guru Maharaj temple, while a mechanical clanger accompanied them. In spite of the simultaneous ringing at different locations, the result was melodious. This entire spectacle is a daily occurrence. One would suppose that the enthusiasm would decline over time, but the Gaddis have come up with an appropriate solution. The role of the pujari (priest) is rotated among the different Brahmin families, keeping things new for all and this zeal for worship alive.
Though the evening worship was better than a Broadway show, the highlight of the tour was, no doubt, the Lakshna Devi temple. Lakshna Devi, a form of Durga who is depicted as a slayer of Mahishasura (the demon buffalo), is also considered by the Gaddis to be the writer of fate. The temple is built in a pent roof-verandah style with an antechamber replacing the verandah. Constructed by Meru Varman’s architect Gugga in the 6th century, the temple is constructed out of rubble and deodar wood. The wood masonry is a fine example of the Kashmiri and Gandhara schools of architecture. The entire façade, ceiling, and pillars are intricately carved, a testimony of Chamba’s fine workmanship. On either side of the entrance in the antechamber are two labyrinths etched into the stone.
“If you step on this,” warned little Shikha, “you will forget your way home.”
In face of such severe sincerity, I decided to keep my feet as far away from these mazes as possible. This Eden, though quite seductive, was not my idea of a lifelong residence. And the beautiful and charming Gaddis, though extremely hospitable, were not mine to call “family.” Tomorrow I would head back into the hustle and bustle of civilization, back to those I had left behind at home, back to a reality that I called “my life.” But today, while I shared a Cadbury chocolate bar with these two girls, I would relish this unique experience—a personalized tour of Chaurasi peppered with more enthusiasm and folklore than accuracy. After all, this was Bharmour, the land where fantasy blends into reality.
Rinoti Amin, a former Bay Area resident, works as an AIF fellow at Navrachna, an NGO based in Himachal Pradesh. When not working, she travels to the lesser known places in search of cultural misadventures.
* When to Go
The best time to visit Bharmour is in the summer and monsoons between May and August. The popular Manimahesh pilgrimage (known as the Chhari Yatra) begins in Chamba and ends at the Manimahesh Lake (13,100 feet) during the months of August or September. The starting point of the eight-mile trek is at Hadsar (12 miles from Bharmour). The lake provides a majestic view of the Mount Kailash (Manimahesh). This yatra also coincides with the Bharmour fair.
* Getting There
Bharmour is situated deep in the Chamba district of the northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh. It is about 43 miles from the city of Chamba, and a five-hour drive from the hill station of Dalhousie. The only way to get here is by road. Buses from Chamba operate regularly during the tourist season. Chamba is connected by road to most major cities in Himachal Pradesh and to Pathankot in Punjab. Private jeeps can also be hired. Tour operators in Chamba and Dalhousie can provide tourist information and amenities.
* Where to Stay
Bharmour is off the beaten track. There aren’t many tourist facilities. There are a handful of lodges. The best bet, though, is the PWD Resthouse. This old colonial bungalow has a dining room, sunroom, verandah, and eight decent rooms with attached baths. The tourist fee is $4. Home-cooked meals are available at a nominal rate. For a more cultural experience, you can also stay with one of the Gaddis families for a minimal fee.