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Hidden paradise

Print edition : Feb 12, 2010 T+T-
The meadow in the centre of the village of Shangarh, en route to the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh. The temple of Siva and Shanchul, a local deity, is at the far end.-PICTURES: KANISHKA PRASAD

The meadow in the centre of the village of Shangarh, en route to the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh. The temple of Siva and Shanchul, a local deity, is at the far end.-PICTURES: KANISHKA PRASAD

THE Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a wildlife reserve in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, covering an area of about 754.4 square kilometres. Placed atop the gigantic fold mountains of the Tertiary Himalaya-Alpine System of Eurasia, the site of the continental collision of the Gondwanaland mass into the Asian mass, the GHNP shows the characteristics of all these geographic regions.

The GHNP is naturally protected by steep, snow-covered ridges on the northern, eastern and southern boundaries. It is contiguous with the Rupi Bhaba Wildlife Sanctuary in the south-east, the Pin Valley National Park in the north-east and the Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary in the north. It is rich in biodiversity and has one of the finest gene pool reserves of flora, fauna and avifauna. Its secluded location and poor accessibility have helped protect these from the dangers of unregulated tourism and development.

Apart from a wide variety of animal and bird species, the region hosts four amphibian and six reptile species. It has 183 recorded bird species, including 132 passerine birds (perching songbirds) and 51 non-passerine ones. It is home to five pheasant species, including the Western Tragopan, called the Jujurana, or the king of birds, because of the varied colours of its plumes. According to folktales prevalent in the region, the Creator assembled its plumes from the most beautiful feather of every other bird. The region is also home to 31 mammal species, including the endangered snow leopard, two species of bears, the Himalayan musk deer and the Himalayan tahr.

The GHNP is a major source of water for the rural and urban centres of the region; four rivers the Tirthan, the Sainj, the Jiwa Nal and the Parvati originate from glaciers in the park and come together to form the river Beas. It boasts two distinct climatic zones the temperate and the Alpine and ranges in altitude from 1,800 to 5,200 metres above sea level. It has 14 distinct forest types, including oak, conifer, bamboo and temperate pasture. Although forest cover is about 17 per cent of the land area on account of the high meadows and mountain peaks beyond tree lines, 832 plant species, including oak, pine, fir and cedar (deodar), are found here. The broad-leaf forests have horse chestnut and rhododendron.

There are about 9,500 people living in 141 villages in the park. Their livelihood requirements are met by farming and by gathering the 44 known medicinal herbs and some mushrooms.

This summer, I visited two of the three trekking points identified by the Forest Department as places from where one begins the ascent to the GHNP. Visits to the base camps themselves are very rewarding.

Aut serves as the base halt to access the three entry points to the GHNP. From here, Neulli is about 26 km, Bathad 37 km, and Ghushaini 32 km.

The journey to Neulli took about an hour and a half, past numerous damming and hydro-power projects along the river Sainj.

From Neulli, our team began climbing the mountain trail to the village of Shangarh, a trek of about 4 km. In about two and a half hours, we reached an open meadow surrounded by a ring of deodars and enclosed by high mountains that had still taller, snow-capped peaks behind them. The temple of Shanchul, a local deity, and Siva, was nestled in the meadow.

We had a home-stay with a teacher of the local school at the other end of the meadow. The small wooden cabin house with an open verandah gave us great views of the mountains. The concept of home-stay has been a success given the hospitable nature of the people here.

From Shangarh, which was in the buffer zone, we walked further into the GHNP to see the pleione orchids and other wild flowers scattered on the flowing greens of the mountain. The small wooden shrine-boxes dotting the village were proof of the skills of local craftsmen. After exploring this slice of the GHNP ecosystem, we made our way back to Neulli.

Three weeks later, we were on the Manali route again to explore Ghushaini in the Tirthan valley. Crossing a 2.6-km-long tunnel, we entered the main street in Aut. Our home-stay this time was, in most parts, accessible by road. The drive to Ghushaini, on a different route in our host Rajus jeep, was a pleasant experience. As we drove beyond the town of Larji we skipped the turn to Neulli and followed the path along the Tirthan river with its gushing, aquamarine green water.

All the way Raju regaled us with stories of the environment, of changing climate, of his battles against the damming of the Tirthan and so on. We arrived at his lodge or rather opposite it; the road actually comes to an end there and one has to cross the river on a rope trolley to reach the lodge. A few steps away from a sandy bank along the river and surrounded by orchards, the log cabin is nestled in one of the last nooks in the Tirthan valley. With no cellular phone service network and with limited access to the Internet, we found ourselves free, in a Buddhist sense, to be aware of the nature around us.

The Tirthan is now being developed for trout farming, both rainbow and brown trout varieties, and as a destination for tourism centred on fishing. Brown trout has to be caught using the more difficult fly fishing technique as against the spiralling technique used for the other. The regions of the river where this is permitted are controlled so that the fish population can be monitored. The Fisheries Department sells farmed trout as well.

From here, the entry to the GHNP is a further 8 km, but we were unable to visit it this time round owing to a lack of transport.

Kanishka Prasad is an architect, designer and photographer.