Picturesque devotion

Picturesque devotion

Temple Town

Picturesque devotion

Indo-tibetan: The Bhimakali Temple in Sarahan. Photo by authorYou can see it hanging precipitously over you but there are more bends in this hill road before you can see the real thing. Sarahan, like most small hill stations in Himachal is a pilgrim town — an overgrown village really — where life revolves around its local God. The temple that enshrines the deity is ancient, so are the myths and legends that keep changing depending on whom you talk to.

No one minds the daily loud chimes of the temple bells mornings and evenings and my mother who is travelling with me as a pilgrim sighs out aloud on hearing the first distant bell. Sarahan however has something for both the pilgrim and the traveller. I don’t share my mother’s passion for the Sarahan God but am intrigued by the history, the unique landscape, and the views.

Culturally unique

Sarahan has an unusual landscape. It is not really a plateau. It is a huge piece of relatively flat landmass jutting out from a steep hillside. From the highway you cannot imagine that a town exists up here with  flourishing apple orchards, a revered temple, rich history and hill folklore. Most tourists just pass it by as they cannot see it from the highway and move on to what they can — the mountains of Kinnaur that lie up ahead. But once up here, you are rewarded with great views and culture,  unique to this part of Himachal.

Sarahan overlooks a steep valley and you can see Sutlej flow in its crevice. Up in the skies looms the Srikhand Mahadev mountain snowcapped and majestic. Though only 5227 meters high, the close proximity to the 2150 meters Sarahan town gives it a skyscraper imminence. It is early evening by the time we arrive at this strange landscape and we immediately get down to what we came for. We head straight to the temple for the evening aarti while I fix a wide angel lens on my camera and look for a vantage point.
I realise the best place to shoot the entire Sarahan town along with the Srikhand mountain is to climb the hillside. A narrow path leads up the hill and disappears after a few meters. I am in someone’s apple orchard. The owner is in the distant pruning his apple trees and on noticing me he gestures animatedly. At first I think he is shooing me off but soon realise he is urging me to climb up higher. “Go on top near that pine tree. Better picture from there,” he shouts in his sing-song Hindi. 

Apparently, he is used to footloose travellers like me tramping his orchard beds for a better shot. It has not exhausted his patience but he is a willing conspirator. This is just as well. Sarahan like most Himachali villages has the simplest of folks. They are not only ready to help you execute your whims on the journey but enthusiastically partake in them. Sarahan is an apple-growing region and most of the people work in their orchard and when not in the orchard, they bask in the sun around the temple complex discussing local politics.

Himachali architecture

The famous Bhimakali temple is located in the middle of Sarahan. It is a twin tower structure with an Indo-Tibetian architecture, the roof distinctly pagoda-shaped. One of the towers is a new temple reconstructed recently over a much older temple that was so old and worn that it would have collaged sooner than later. Bhimakali is regarded as the reincarnation of Goddess Durga. The temple gained notoriety for human sacrifices in the 16th and 17th centuries but animals are still put to the knife on Dusherra to appease the gods.

Like most temples, this one was also patronised by the local kings before Independence. The rulers of Bushahr State — a relatively wealthy and pro-British state in Himachal, picked Saharan as their summer capital. Palaces of the Bushahr rulers with beautiful Himachali architecture stands in all towns they ruled.

An empty palace stands in Sarahan too and is now owned by the heir and former Chief Minister of Himachal (now Steel Minister) Virbhadra Singh. The gates to the palace are open to everyone except on days when Virbhadra Singh, who is still treated as loyalty in these parts, comes to pay a visit.  

Apart from this temple and the palace, a small attraction for bird lovers here is a tiny aviary tucked amidst the pine trees some distance from the palace. Apart from the regional birds of Himachal including the state bird monal, there is the endangered western tragopan. A captive breeding programme to restore its population runs from this aviary.

Sarahan is small and a two-day trip is good enough for both the pilgrim and the traveller. My mother with her assortment of temple offering and me with memory cards full of pictures are both satisfied as we turn the bends again making our way gingerly down to the highway.

Travel tips

Sarahan is 564 km from Delhi and 174 km from Shimla. The best way to get here is to first reach Shimla by road, or train (till Kalka), or air (Chandigarh is the closest airport) and then travel to Sarahan by road. From Shimla, taxis or jeeps can be hired and a bus service is available for the six-hour journey.

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