A nice, strong brew and a view of the Dhauladhar Range: on an early March morning, Palampur, the tea town of Himachal, welcomed two tired souls with warmth and serenity. For us, it was a getaway from memories of trying time and personal loss. An overnight journey from New Delhi by the Jammu Tawi bound Rajdhani Express took us to Pathankot, and another two-and-a-half hours from there by road, to Palampur.
It was not easy to locate the accommodation—it was a Himachal government establishment, but not the well-known one, right at the heart of the town—Hotel Neugal lies just outside the main town, near the Neugal river. Originally it had started operating as a cafe, and most locals were still unaware that the place offered overnight stay.
After a couple of misadventures, we reached. The next challenge was to convince the manager to let two super-early birds enter without any additional charges: the stipulated check-out/check-in time was 12 noon, and despite our involuntary detours, it was just about eight in the morning. After a quarter-of-an-hour’s persuasion, he gave in, and we settled down. The first thing to register was the calm and tranquility all around, and the first day was whiled away in idle gazing and aimless strolling.
On the second day, we ventured the Kangra Fort, a hilltop fort built by the Katoch (a Rajput clan) kings. Throughout the Sultanate and Mughal eras in Indian history, the rulers of Delhi wanted to conquer this fort—the largest among the Himalayan forts. It braved numerous attacks and sieges until Jahangir finally captured it in the early seventeenth century. That was not the end though. The Katoch kings continued to fight for their ancestral rights and remained a menace to the Mughals. The fort was won back in the late eighteenth century.
Pass through the gate with leg first, not head—there might be an enemy waiting at the other side: pragmatic words pour into your ears in the voice of the present scion of the Katoch family as you stand in front of the main entrance. Relying on the audio-guide system is the best way to enjoy this fort. The area is huge, the signboards are scanty and often not clear, and the regular tourist guides will take you to the age of the Mahabharata and claim (with rolling eyes) that some ancient Katoch king who joined the Kauravas on the battlefield of Kurukshetra had built the fort. The audio-guide system is, on the other hand, comprehensive and to-the-point. It has clear point-to-point instructions, fact-based information, and if that sounds too boring, some riveting anecdotes.
Having a railway aficionado as a travel partner, and as life partner for that matter, has some unique benefits. On a trip—planned or unplanned—curated experience is guaranteed. This time it was the Kangra Valley Railway that connects Pathankot and Joginder Nagar. Unlike the other and far better known mountain railway of Himachal, this one offers no dramatic tunnels or spectacular arch bridges; but it has a life of its own. Winding past the Pong dam, through lush foothills, valleys, and meadows, it is just an integral part of the Kangra landscape. You would hardly meet any tourists on board. There is no system of advance reservation even. However, this route is widely used by the local people for daily commute, and therefore, the trains almost always remain crowded.
We did not think twice to try it for the Kangra visit. The nearest railhead to Palampur is a little over five kilometres from the town. However, regular bus service is available. At the other end, the fort is walkable from the Kangra station.
After an exhausting yet satisfying fort tour, an unexpected experience awaited us on the way back. At a place called Paror, we came across a village fair. The next day was the festival of Holi. As our train approached the Paror station, we saw people from various age groups thronging the place. The bursts of colours, excitement, and liveliness that marked the atmosphere compelled us to get down. Amidst bright, red-green-orange street food, thousand knickknacks, innumerable varieties of balloons and toys, and giant wheels that are trademark of any folk fair, there was a huge, cheering crowd. As we moved towards it, drum beats became louder. After a few more steps we reached the centre which was actually the ring area. A live wrestling match was going on—pure desi style.
The third and last day was reserved for a trip to Baijnath—a place which has acquired its name from a thirteenth-century Shiva temple. Shiva here is worshipped as the physician-god (Vaidyanath). The temple is one of the oldest in the region, with intricate stone carvings and a shroud of myths ranging from Vishnu–Shiva ego fight to a story of Ravana’s penance and divine deception.
Next morning saw us leave Palampur with refreshed energy and packs of tea. Here I will add this: I like my tea black and strong, and I am definitely not a health enthusiast. Still, the green tea of Palampur is worth trying.