“Have you had Himachali apples?” the three women ask. “They’re really good, you know. The best.”
I am at Sarahan in Himachal Pradesh walking around and exploring this pretty little town, when I meet the 3 women and get into a conversation about apples with them.
“I know. I’ve had them in Mumbai,” I smile.
“Oh Mumbai,” the first woman says in a dismissive tone. “After all the travelling the apples do, they won’t taste the same.” The other two women laugh.
“Yes, they won’t,” the second woman insists. “You must have Himachali apples here. In Himachal.
“Would you like some apples?”asks the third woman.
“Sure,” I say. “I’d love to have an apple.”
Within minutes, I am biting into an apple that one of the women gives me. It is fresh and juicy — a little sweet, a little tart — just the way I like my apples. And the women are right, the apple tastes like nothing I’ve had before. “They’re perfect,” I say to the women.
That is the cue for the women to give me more apples and before I know it I am clutching a paper bag full of apples and saying thanks and goodbye to the 3 women. They refuse payment from me and say that my appreciation is payment enough and send me on my way !
Our group had arrived in Sarahan that afternoon from Fagu and once we had checked into the pretty HPTDC hotel, The Shrikhand (see photo on the right), we set out to explore the town.
Sarahan was once the capital of the former Bushahr kingdom. It is also home to the Bhimakali Temple, one of the 51 Shakti Peeths, and the primary draw for tourists visiting the town. The principal deity of Bhimakali Temple is also the presiding deity to the Bushahr rulers. The Bhimakali Temple is the focal point of the town and wherever you are in the town, the temple roof is clearly visible. But more about the temple later in the post.
At first glance Sarahan looks like just another ordinary, but pretty, little town full of apple orchards, little tea and parantha shops, etc. But this “ordinary-looking” town hides a rich mytho-history stretching back to the Puranans and older. Located in Shimla district at a height of 2163 m above Mean Sea Level, the river Sutlej flows in the valley below. The sacred Shrikhand Mahadeo and many other snow-covered peaks lie in the distance across the valley.
The lovely and leisurely walk takes us through the town, past the Bhimakali Temple, little houses, the school ground… and then we take a winding trail that leads us away from the town. In no time, I am trailing behind my group as I get busy exploring every rock formation I come across, the interesting vegetation, the scenery… and stopping to chat with friendly locals, like the 3 women mentioned earlier in the post. You know how it is, right? 🙂 The next few photographs present a small selection of my impressions from that walk.
It is almost sunset when our group makes its way back to Sarahan. We take a different path into the town and that’s how we end up visiting Shanti Kunj, the palace of the Bushahr king. Though there are no kings today, it is still home to the descendents of the royal family, and today the palace belongs to Virbhadra Singh, son of the last Bushahr king and also the current chief minister of Himachal Pradesh. The palace, which is entirely made of wood, is not open to the public, though visitors can walk around the well-maintained grounds.
A little distance away from Shanti Kunj is another wooden palace, which is the home of the crown prince of the Bushahr royal family. This palace too is not open to the public, though like Shanti Kunj, one can walk around the grounds or the porch and peer into the windows and wonder what the rooms would be like. 🙂
Like any other spot in Sarahan, the Bhimakali Temple is clearly visible from both the palaces. And in the light of the setting sun and framed in the arches on the Palace’s porch, it is quite a sight to behold.
The Bhimakali Temple Complex houses many smaller temples, in addition to the main wood and stone temple structure built in the traditional Himachali architectural style. In fact, the only temple that is not built in the local architectural style within the complex is the Narasimha temple, which has a temple spire, quite typical of Hindu temples elsewhere in North India. But even that temple has an overhang laid with slate tiles typical to the region.
To enter the main shrine, not only do the shoes have to come off, but also the socks. I can’t tell you how painful the walk was across the cobbled courtyard on that cold and chilly evening in my bare feet !
Apart from basic boards announcing the names of the various temples in the complex, there is no other information available. When I asked the lone priest at the main shrine for more information on the temple, he only glowered at me and waved me on without saying a word ! 😦
I am treated to my first Himalayan and one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen that evening. Next morning, I am up before sunrise and delight in seeing the sun coming up and lighting up the entire valley from the balcony of my hotel room. Once the sun has fully risen, I set out for a walk to the sound of temple bells and birdsong.
I walk past the Bhimakali Temple, passing devotees returning from the morning darshan.
I pass photographers with their gear, probably hoping to get some birds on camera.
I pass local people heading off to work and exchange greetings with them.
I hear bhajans being played in the shrines that I walk past, but none surprise me more than hearing Prathama Tula Vandito, a Marathi film song dedicated to Lord Ganesha !
Like the previous evening’s walk, this one too is leisurely and relaxing. Soon it is time to retrace my steps back to the hotel and rejoin my group before we leave for our next destination — Kalpa. But a tea shop that I pass entices me with its aroma of freshly brewed tea and I decide to stop for a cuppa.
Over a cup of hot, ginger tea, I listen to the conversations of local people who drop in to say hello to the women who run the tea shop. There is talk of falling apple prices and tourist footfall, forthcoming local elections at Sarahan, preparations for winter, some local gossip… All in all, very quiet and peaceful.
As I pay for my tea and take my leave, the women ask me, “So, what do you think of our Sarahan?
“I think it is a very serene place,” I say.
“That it is,”they beamed with pride.