Road Where History Speaks

The following post is a lead article by me that was recently placed in The Tribune. Hope you enjoy the read.

It is the India of the mid-1800s and Lord Dalhousie is appointed Governor General.  He introduces India to its first railway, lays out its first telegraph line, establishes its postal system and starts the Public Works Department. Amidst all this reformation, he anoints Shimla the Summer Capital of the East India Company. Not much later, thwarted by climate-induced ill-health, he is forced to move camp to Chini (present day Kalpa in Kinnaur) upstream of the Sutlej. Its strategic location in the then princely state of Bushahr, on an offshoot of the ancient Silk Route widely used by traders from Central Asia and China, does not escape him. Soon after, he orders the construction of the ambitious Hindustan-Tibet Road through a region dubbed by awestruck 19th century travelers as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Mouthed famously by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim in his turn-of-the-century novel by the same name. At last they entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of a mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains.  “Surely the Gods live here!” said Kim, beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep and dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. “This is no place for men!”’

Time Stops Here Not much has changed for 21st century Kinnaur. Tucked away in the northeastern edge of Himachal Pradesh, rubbing shoulders with Tibet, this high altitude Himalayan district faces splendid isolation in the heartless winter. Despite the erosion of geographical seclusion (as a direct consequence of the historic Great Road, today, motor able and known to us as the National Highway 22), Kinnaur still presents an idyllic picture of life above 12,000 feet. Shattered every now and then by the man-induced wrath of nature. Crisscrossed by the formidable albeit magnificent Zanskar, Dhauladhar and Greater Himalaya ranges, Kinnaur is bestowed with innumerable peaks, valleys, glaciers and deep gorges carved out by the Sutlej and its tributaries. The capricious Sutlej announces its thunderous presence in India a short distance from Shipki, the last village on the Tibetan side, before lashing through to the plains of Punjab. Snaking along, above, and across this redoubtable river are the many treacherous footpaths trod by  traders, surveyors and travelers of yore; ferrying goats, wool, borax, spices, opium and espionage between Rampur on the left bank of the Sutlej, and the tent-city of Garu in China. Accessed through the Shipki Pass at 16,000 feet, ancient traders thought nothing of marching for over a month to participate in Rampur’s annual Lavi Trade Fair; a vibrant tradition that continues, centuries later, come November.

Commercial Route It was Lord Dalhousie’s visits to Bushahr that led to the re-examining of possible commercial routes as envisaged during the Gurkha wars. Through the treaty of 1815, the hill states had bound themselves to constructing roads within their territories when called upon by the colonial government. Following the ceding of free land by the states of Patiala, Baghat and Keonthal, the first lap of the Hindustan-Tibet Road from Kalka to Shimla commenced in the year 1849. Soon after, hunting and sightseeing trips along this road became the main attractions of the Shimla season, but the Governor General found the hill station over-rated. Terming it ‘merely a suitable eyrie from which to watch the newly annexed plains that stretch below’, he preferred instead to conduct his official duties out of Chini. The dry weather, and possibly, the unmatched view of the Kinner Kailash bathed in moonlight, placed him a mere forty-six mail hours, or four marching days away from the Summer Capital. In a private communication to a friend, Lord Dalhousie dreamily shared, ‘I returned to Simla by the new road, which I commenced one year ago, and which when it shall be finished will not be surpassed, I flatter myself, by any mountain road in the world’. In practice, regrettably, he could not convince the Board of Control in London, already reeling from the Punjab conquest, about the low cost of construction, despite pressing forced labour into use. Consequently, while the Cart Road between Kalka and Shimla would proudly ferry wheeled traffic by the 1860s, the road beyond Shimla would remain a small cut bridle path, never more that 7-8 feet in width. It would zigzag through Theog, Narkanda and Kotgarh to Rampur, across the Wangtu Bridge to culminate at Chini.

Broader NH22 Today, a newer, broader NH22 has replaced the bridle path; essentially following the same route till Wangtu. Hereon the highway meanders along the left bank of the Sutlej towards neighbouring Spiti. At Khab (confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti rivers), an off-shoot ascends to Namgea, a couple of hours run from Shipki Pass and the India-Tibet border beyond. This new alignment of the highway has placed Chini on an ancillary road through Rekong Peo, Kinnaur’s modern-day capital; an ugly, congested township with no saving grace but for the marvelous views of Jorkanden, the highest peak of the Kinner Kailash massif.  What’s more, two hydro-electric power projects straddling the Sutlej, Nathpa Jhakri and Karcham- Wangtu, have forever changed the character of this once serene landscape. Continuous construction and plying of heavy trucks over the years has resulted in deplorable road conditions. Not too long ago, a section of the NH22 was featured in the History Channel’s ‘Deadliest Roads’ series for its hazardous driving conditions. Proving emphatically, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even a hundred and fifty years apart.


 Mythology Rules

Kinnaur is a land seeped in mythology, nurtured and contained, no doubt, due to the inaccessibility of the region. Ancient Indian texts considered the mystical Kinners (people of Kinnaur) as supernatural beings, halfway between humans and gods. The Kinner Kailash range is purportedly the mythical winter abode of Lord Shiva. The Pandavas, too, chose Kinnaur to spend their last year of exile in. A number of ancient structures, as well as prevailing social traditions, such as polyandry, are ascribed to their presence in this high-altitude region.

Visible from across Jangi, on the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road, is a hamlet called Moorang, the name indicating a place where three water channels meet. Remarkable for the strikingly beautiful mountains surrounding the village, as much for a distinct mud structure crowning a rocky hilltop in the foreground. Silhouetted against the sky and the snowy peaks, it is an antediluvian structure of indeterminate architectural style and age. Known simply as the Pandava Fort, it is supposed to have been built by them during their stay here; it presently houses Ormig Devta, the reigning deity of the village.

Hungary to Kinnaur

Philologist and Orientalist, Csoma de Koros is widely acknowledged as the founder of Tibetology. An interest he stumbled upon while trying to trace the origin of, and establish a connection between, the Magyars and the Uyghurs of Central Asia; believing they shared a nomadic ancestry. In 1820, he sailed for Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt before joining, at Beirut, a caravan for Baghdad. The Central Asian war forced him to move south towards Peshawar, from where he accompanied French officers Jean-Francois Allard and Jean-Baptiste Ventura to Lahore. He planned to visit Yarkand, using the commercial routes over the Karakoram via Leh, but had to abort plans due to the dangers involved. It was during this period that he met William Moorcroft, a British officer, who presented him a copy of Alphabetum Tibetanum, supposedly the first book on Tibet, an absolute terra incognito, thus far. Hoping, clearly, to discover new sources about the history of ancient Hungarians in there, he decided to learn Tibetan, using Persian as an intermediate language.

Csoma would spend the rest of his life involved in one way or the other in Tibetan studies. In 1825 the government of India granted him a modest monthly stipend of fifty rupees, and in return he promised to produce a dictionary, grammar, and short accounts of Tibetan literature and history. While in Zanskar, he amassed a huge collection of Tibetan manuscripts, retiring with them to a cottage in the village of Kanum on the Sutlej River in Upper Bashahr from 1827 to 1830. He spent those years under extreme privation while immersed in the study of the Tibetan language under the tutelage of Lama Sans-rgyas-phun-tshogs. It was here, in an almost-forgotten hamlet in Kinnaur, that the first ever Tibetan-English dictionary, comprising over thirty thousand words, was compiled by Alexander Csoma de Koros, an accidental student of the subject.



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