Occupying the northeast corner of Himachal Pradesh, Kinnaur is a region of high mountain ranges, enclosing the narrow valleys of the Sutlej and its tributaries. In the south, The Dhauladhars, ascending eastward to meet the Greater Himalaya, divide the Sangla valley of Kinnaur from the Uttarkashi district of Uttaranchal and Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh. To the east, the vast reaches of Tibet lie across the Zaskar Mountains. Between the Zaskars and the Dhauladhars, the Greater Himalaya passes through the heart of Kinnaur and the Srikhand mountains screen of Spiti on the northwest and along a short stretch on the southwest mark the border with Kullu.
The River Sutlej, entering India from Tibet at Shipki la, pierces through a seemingly impregnable series of barriers in its tumultuous journey to the plains of India. Dropping almost 2000m over 100 odd kms, as it traverses southwest through Kinnaur, the River pays scant regard to the impressive credentials of the Zaskar, Greater Himalaya and Dhauladhar Ranges. The Sutlej forms a narrow, steep sided valley which tapers into more gradual slopes, part way up the high mountains on either side. Villages are located either on these gentler slopes or in the valleys of the more substantial tributaries joining the Sutlej in the course of its journey through Kinnaur.
Kinnaur finds a fit expression in its abundant delicacy “The Pine nut”, like the tasty kernel of the nut, it may take some effort to get to the core of Kinnaur however once you are there, the experience is truly rewarding. Legend has it that Kinnaur with all its beauty and splendor fell from the clouds to take its place in the Himalayas. The place and its people find mention in many ancient Hindu texts. The ancient people of this land were Kinner and Kirats tribes – also referred to as “Gandharvas” in Vedic literature. About 2000 B.C a branch of the Aryans, called “Khashas”, penetrated the Himalaya through the Kashgar and Kashmir and dominated this whole area. Later, in the 13th and 14th centuries, “The Bhutias” came from Tibet to the region.
Due to its proximity to Tibet the lifestyle and religion of inhabitants have been influenced by Buddhism, though majority of the people practice Hinduism, Buddhism is prevalent in Northern and Central parts of Kinnaur. Imposing monasteries at Morang and Namgia have beautiful sculptures and wood carvings. The people are god fearing and honest. Some places in Kinnaur practice polyandry. Polyandry may have been a natural societal response, to limited arable land and the multifarious occupations of the men folk.
Every September the Kinnauris celebrate “Phulaich” – the festival of flowers which is the time the whole region is colorful and one of the best times to visit.
Sangla – An 18 kilometer winding road from Karchamm through some spectacular cliffs leads us to Sangla village. The Gerard brothers, the first outsiders to set foot in the Baspa Valley in the first quarters of the nineteenth century ranked it as the most beautiful of all Himalayan Valleys. Later visitors have been almost as Lavish in their praise. Flanked by the Kinner Kailash peaks on all sides, Sangla is a base for many high altitude treks in the region, and also the end of the famous Kinner Kailash Parikrama pilgrimage. Chitkul the last village in India bordering Tibet is a beautiful drive of 21 kms from Sangla. Other interesting sights include The Kamru Fort, Rakchamm village, Batseri village and the walk to Sangla Kanda.
Kalpa/Reckong Peo – This region of Kinnaur is known as the Sairag region and for a long time “Chini” in this area was the only place in Kinnaur of which the outside world had some knowledge perhaps due to hard Dalhousie’s two summer visits as Governor General of India in the middle of nineteenth century and a mention in Rudyard Kiplings “Kim”. This region offers some of the most dramatic scenery in the Himalaya. Here the Kinner Kailash range appears to spread itself out for the admiring gaze of the visitor. Not so close as to induce claustrophobia, yet almost to hand, the Mountains rise majestically from the river bed up through orchard forest and glinting glaciers to rocky pinnacles and snow-capped tops. The semicircle of peaks includes Raldang, Jorkanden and Kinner Kailash. Close to a saddle on the northern shoulder of Kinner Kailash, one can pick out the 17 – meter rock pillar of “Shivling”, changing colors with the movement of the sun. The ‘Kandas’ meaning pastures above Kalpa are too beautiful and a great way to experience pasture country is a night camp out there. Reckong Peo has a monastery of the Mahabodhi society and was constructed specially for the Dalai Lama to perform the Kalchakra ceremony in 1992. Next to it is a 10m statue of standing Buddha, visible from a considerable distance. Chini too has a Bodh Temple visited by outsiders from the antiquity point of view.
Nako – Nako is a most picturesque location by the side of a small lake. The flanks of the Reo Purgyal 6816 mts, the highest in Himachal, descend in gradual, rounded slopes till they meet the green of the irrigated fields. Here the gradient becomes even gentler, easing into numerous glacier-created hollows on the hillside, before descending sharply to Spiti. In one of these dips is the Nako Lake, with the village clustered on a little rise to the west. Nako’s temple complex, also credited to Rinchen Tsangpo, has four, crumbling, stone walled, flat-roofed shrines. Age and neglect are their strongest features despite recent attempts at preservation. Tattered “Thangkas” and damaged frescoes are sad testimonials to a proud past, when a better preserved temple, ranked high as a place of worship. One of the temples is dedicated to the local deity Purgyal representing the spirit of the mountain. The main Hall, the Lhakhang Cenpo, is located at the western end facing east. Large clay images of the five Dhyani Buddhas occupy pride of place while sundry other idols are arranged on the walls in the style of Tabo “Dukhang”. Vanishing murals of different “mandalas” are just about decipherable. The three halls also contain clay figures and wall paintings of obvious antiquity. An unusual fresco, above the doorway in the southern temple, depicts a personage of importance; bestride a white “kyang”, the Tibetan wild ass.
A track from Nako winds to Tashigang monastery, which is a walk of four hours from here. Tashigang is a veritable treasure house of artifacts. The small complex was built in the seventeenth century by craftsmen displaced in the wake of the war between Ladhakh and Tibet. It is called the Tashigang Monastery to differentiate it from the better known Tashigong Cham in the Indus valley in western Tibet. Tashigang is the seat of an incarnate Lama, “The Urgial Tulku Rimpoche”, now resident in Jangi and Burche (near Wangtu). The chief image at Tashigang is a small mud idol of Mila Repa with turquoise coloured hair, ensconced in a glass-fronted cavity in the chest of a large Sakyamuni clay image. Legend says that the hair on the Milarepa figure grows back if trimmed! Around the Altar and in an inner room, is a mélange of clay idols, bronzes, exquisitely carved figures on wood panels, religious artifacts and symbols. Many of these have come from Tibet, brought by refugees’ crossing over at the time of the Chinese take-over in 1960. An hour’s walk beyond Tashigang is the cave temple of Somang, where a levitating Lama is said to have meditated in the 1980’s.