“We’ll take a 10-minute break here,” announces Doreen, our tour organiser and manager, as our convoy of 3 vehicles comes to a halt.
‘Here’ is somewhere on the road to Kalpa from Sarahan. It’s 10.30 am on a cold September morning and our 3rd day in Himachal Pradesh. As the rest of my group disperses to stretch their legs or use the washroom, I notice our drivers lock the vehicle with what seems like undue haste and almost sprint towards a temple that we have just passed.
That is when I notice many vehicles stopping and their drivers, and sometimes also the passengers, getting out and entering the temple. Curious to know more about this temple, I make my way towards it as well.
“What is this temple?” I ask.
“This is the temple of Tarandaa Devi,” Pawan replies. “She is the guardian deity of the road, us drivers, and all those who travel on this road. It is she who protects us and keeps us safe from accidents on the road.”
“The temple seems like a recent construction. Is it new”?
“Well, the construction is new, but there has always been a temple here. And the Tarandaa Devi idol is hundreds of years old.”
“Do you always stop by to pray here?”
“Always. No matter how rushed or how late, I always stop here. Tarandaa Devi has protected me and my family for many, many years. I was born in a village close by and have a very close association with this road — the NH22.”
“Really? Tell me more about it.”
And over the next few days, in bits and pieces and fits and starts, Pawan told me about his association with the NH22 or National Highway No. 22.
Pawan’s father was the contractor for constructing major portions of the NH22. This meant that Pawan and his siblings practically grew up on the road or in a village located close by. Pawan narrated how the road was built by widening an existing stretch or creating a new one by literally gouging the road from the rock face. Men would suspend themselves on ropes to do this; at some places the rocks were blasted with dynamite to create a way.
Road-building was dangerous with many workers losing their lives or forced to retire due to injuries. Pawan watched his family’s fortune grow, only to see it all disappear towards medical expenses for treating his mother after she was injured during a road blast.
When he was younger, Pawan vowed to stay far away from the road, but family responsibilities and financial compulsions forced him to become a driver. “The road is my home now,” he said. “Especially the NH22 and the Hindustan Tibet Road. Once you drive on these roads, you can drive anywhere else. The concentration, discipline and skill required to drive on these roads are qualities that only mountain drivers possess.”
Along the way, Pawan also shared how increasing traffic and development had changed the region around the highway. While the NH22 had brought about connectivity and resulting economic boom, it had also brought in large hydel projects that were changing the environment and the ecosystem. Frequent landslides, river pollution and silting were becoming more common in the region.
“Did you know that this road is considered to be among the world’s 10 most dangerous roads?” Pawan asked.
“No !” I exclaimed, not without some amount of trepidation. “Aren’t you worried when you are out driving on these roads?”
“Of course, I am worried. But I have Tarandaa Devi’s protection with me all the time. And I always say a prayer each time I pass a roadside shrine or temple. I always drive carefully and never lose my cool. Driving on these roads is all about cooperation and there is no scope for one-upmanship or road rage or overtaking or showing off. You will always find us helping each other out; that lessens my worry.”
And I did see this in action during all the times we were held up due to a landslide and waited for it to clear or the time we were stranded in Sangla. The drivers of all the vehicles on the road shared information and helped the more nervous drivers cross tricky stretches.
I travel well and am a very relaxed traveller. I also don’t suffer from travel or motion sickness of any sort. But travelling on the NH22 or the Hindustan Tibet Road was a different experience. While I did not feel sick, I was keenly aware of every hairpin bend, every twist and turn of the road, every time we encountered bad roads…
Perhaps, it was because of a heightened sense of the story and history of the road. Or perhaps, I was just a little bit nervous. Or excited about seeing the Himalayas for the first time. I’m not really sure which. I’m also not sure if I should be really analysing the road trip so much. 🙂
But what I’m sure of is that I thoroughly enjoyed the road trip and a large part of it due to Pawan’s confident driving. In fact, when Pawan invited me back to Himachal for the Kulu Dussera, I said it would do it only if he would be the driver and share all the local tales with me ! 😀
PS: According to Wikipedia, “National Highway 22 is a 459 km National Highway in Northern India that runs from Ambala through Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh up to Khab on the Chinese border. It is also known as Hindustan Tibet road.”
I always assumed that the NH22 was the erstwhile Hindustan Tibet road. But while searching for some background information on the internet, I came across an article by Devil on Wheels who says that both the roads are different and are not to be confused with each other. You can read that article here.