The story of a treacherous Himalayan road, and a pitstop named Mangalore

A fearless driver on a mountain road is a foolish driver.
The story of a treacherous Himalayan road, and a pitstop named Mangalore
The story of a treacherous Himalayan road, and a pitstop named Mangalore
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By Sudarshan

For the present-day traveller who wishes to go off the usual touristy track, the journey on the old Kullu-Shimla route via the Jalori Pass should be a good one.

All one needs are a good driver (NOT a fearless driver, because a fearless driver on a mountain road is a foolish driver), a good camera, good vehicle, a can of extra fuel, and of course, a love for the mountains.

Before the present motor road from Bilaspur to Shimla was made after Independence, the Shimla-Kullu bridle path was the quickest means of travelling between the two places. The path was beautiful yet treacherous, and people worked their own jugaad to get by.   

Most travellers on that route had to walk it or ride it, and rough it out during the nights on some bug-ridden dirt floor, and live off the hospitality of any acquaintances en route, and carry or cook their own grub. But not the British.

A Note on Begar

The British, naturally, travelled in style: on ponies or palanquins, with teams of porters and mules to carry their luggage, and went from stage to stage.

Stage? No, not that stage with the loudspeakers; the Brits estimated that a begari villager (here, forced labour for which the government had fixed a nominal amount) acting as porter, could travel 20 miles (32 Km) a day. So, they had rest houses located 10 miles (16 Km) apart – give or take a mile or two. The logic was that a begari took your stuff from the stage near his home to the next stage (10 miles) and went back (10 miles).

The route from Kullu to Shimla has these rest houses at the 10 mile stages. The villagers hated the begari system, and since this was a well-travelled route, the people living near this “highway” were an especially discontented lot.

Old travel guides advised European travellers to not abuse the system and carry a supply of coins as extra payment to the begaris. I recall reading one such travel guide published in 1911.

Assistant Commissioner of Kullu, AFP Harcourt, gives the porterage rates for the year 1870. In his book “The Himalayan Districts of Kooloo, Lahoul and Spiti”, he records for a 10-miles stage the rate is three Annas (16 Annas made a Rupee). As for food, the begari had to make his own arrangements.

When a sahib checked into the local rest house, a local village official variously known as the Numberdar or Lambardar, had to immediately report to him and ask him how many begaris he needed for the onward journey. It was his duty to round up the requisite number of men from the village. One assumes the Numberdars did not score too highly on the popularity charts.

The three or four Annas per day pinched hard, especially when the villager would be busy in his fields or circumstances made it difficult for him to make the return journey on the same day – effectively halving his daily earning on this particular begar.

Harcourt in his book airily refers to begar labour in the context of building the Manali-Lahaul road by the PWD as follows:

“… nor is [begar] in my opinion, a bad political measure to now and then exact from the [peasants] something that will suffice to show there is a paramount power whose will must be obeyed”.

Strangely, no Indian nationalist leader took up the poor hill man’s cause to give him relief from this form of slave labour.

One person who was outraged by this custom and tried to end it was, strangely, an American named Samuel Evans Stokes Jr. (16 August 1882 - 14 May 1946).

He was a Quaker and had come to India as a missionary. He bought land in Kotgarh (Shimla district), introduced apple cultivation in the area –  thus changing the local economy forever –  married a local woman, became influenced by Hindu mysticism, and changed his name to Satyanand Stokes.

He was a follower of Gandhi for some years but drifted away. Apparently, even Gandhi didn’t take up the begaris’ case and Stokes enlisted the help of his friend CF Andrews. Together they wrote and lobbied and shamed all and sundry high officials including the Viceroy, and finally managed to get the begar system ended in the 1920s.

Travel by the stages

Although the British have gone, the government rest houses in these stages are still around, and popular in the tourist season.

The one near the Jalori Pass (elevation 3,120 metres), Shoja, is popular with the Page 3 crowd so it has to be booked well in advance.

Another such stage was at the tehsil town of Banjar. The rest house there is picturesquely located. But the desi travellers of the past, hillmen mostly, didn’t stay in the rest houses. They rather avoided staying in Banjar because of a lack of facilities and preferred to go further ahead to Manglore.

Mangalore? Karnataka!??

Mangalore is a village on this highway, a few kilometres along the road from Banjar. It is located on the banks of the Tirthan rivulet, a tributary of the River Beas. The Tirthan is a stream of clear water, fordable in parts (except in the monsoons), and is a popular haunt of anglers fishing for trout. Weary travellers would find a veranda to sleep in and a handy supply of water and firewood for cooking nearby.

The village is actually located on the right bank of the Tirthan, but now that the motor road goes along the left bank, a rapidly growing settlement is coming up there as well.

The World War

The Shimla-Kullu road up to the Jalori Pass is the lifeline of this area. It was merely a beaten track, like most hill roads of the time, until 1912. That year, it was properly surveyed and made to look like a real road for the PWD by Chief Engineer William H. Donald, albeit as a mule track. By the 1940s it had become good enough as a motor road, because World War II had given one inestimable gift to the mountain areas: the four-wheel drive Jeep.

It wasn’t before long, that intrepid drivers tried to earn a quick buck on this route with their war surplus Jeeps. The MLA of Kullu, Raja Rahgubir Singh of Sangri was also interested in making the road motorable, leastways up to Ani, where he owned considerable property (Ani lies on the other side of the Jalori Pass). The road therefore got widened at the narrow points and rough patches, where the mules had no problems, and were smoothed somewhat for wheeled traffic.

Despite all this the drive from Banjar to the Jalori Pass was not for the faint hearted, or for the inexpert driver.

A driver who had done this route many times once told me that a few kilometres out of Banjar you had to put the Jeep in four-wheel drive, select the Low ratio, put it in first gear, and keep the first gear engaged for the next 14 kilometres. If the radiator boiled over it was your hard luck; you couldn’t stop to cool off unless there was someone with a big rock handy to put behind the wheels. If the vehicle started rolling backwards you either braked hard before it picked up speed, or else you had to be prepared to jump clear.

If the drive on the Banjar-Jalori was tough on the vehicle, the drive down could be tough on the driver, especially in the colder months before and after the snow blocks the pass. Moisture on the road’s surface freezes at night. Since this portion is on the mountain’s North slope, it doesn’t thaw before noon, if it thaws at all. Going downhill on such a steep slope and treacherous surface can be a nightmare. You are quite likely to skid, and since the road was too narrow, it was too easy to skid right off the road into the deep abyss. This meant that the descent also had to be made in four-wheel drive. If the vehicle still skidded a counter-measure is to accelerate a bit. But again, how do you accelerate on an already alarming descent?

Shraddha Devi, the late Rani of Sangri told me that one of her drivers used to carry a sack of sawdust and a five-litre can of kerosene in the jeep. On the doubtful patches, he would spread sawdust on the tracks, sprinkle it with kerosene and light it up. He would drive across before the flames had died down.

Now that the jeeps had opened up this road, a hardier band of drivers came with their trucks to earn some money on this route. Their trucks were petrol-engine Chevrolets of the 1940s mostly, with bodywork specially made in Jalandhar to specifications: not one extra inch jutting out! And in some cases, the chassis was also shortened.

They carried goods but passengers were also welcome. The passengers had to adjust themselves on the sacks and boxes and try not to sit on the driver’s cabin lest low hanging branches swatted them on the heads. These drivers soon attained the status of folk heroes.

(When I was in Class 1 of the village government school, all the self-respecting hill boys in my class – myself included – wanted to grow up and become truck drivers; at least three of my classmates became truck drivers, one became a van driver in the Health Department and one became a bus driver in Himachal Transport Corporation).

One of this doughty band who steered his way into legend was Milkhi Ram. His truck had been pieced together in the scrapyards of Punjab. Someone once told me that there were bits of Chevrolet, some pieces of Dodge and some odds and ends which properly belonged on a Ford. Thus, the bitter motor industry rivals in the US happily co-existed on the chassis of Milkhi’s truck.

Milkhi regularly ferried goods and passengers across the Jalori Pass to Ani when even Jeep drivers had a tough time on this road. Milkhi Ram’s gear box must have been badly worn as it got disengaged on the Jalori climb one day when he was carrying sacks of maize, and of course, the usual complement of passengers.

His “cleaner” couldn’t find a solid enough rock to place behind the wheels, the rocks being too small and of soft slate. When his efforts to re-engage were unsuccessful he ordered everyone to jump off. So when Milkhi himself tried to jump clear from the passenger side (the driver’s side had the deep gorge below), he wasn’t quick enough and went down with his truck.

Local folk songs celebrated Milkhi for years afterwards – but the newer generation hasn’t heard of him.

The steep gradient of the Jalori road has now been softened somewhat by adding a few more kilometres to it and metalling it. Now all types of vehicles cross it when it is open, except, of course, the huge articulated trucks or oversized luxury coaches.

This road, after crossing the Jalori Pass, goes steadily down to Ani, and thence to Luhri where it crosses the River Satluj in to Shimla territory. After that one follows the Hindustan-Tibet road to Shimla, immortalised by Kipling and other writers.

One such writer who ought to be better known is Penelope Chetwode. She was the daughter of a Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army, Field Marshal Philip Walhouse Chetwode. She had travelled on this road from Shimla to Kullu in the 1930s in her youth with all the trappings of a “Jangi Laat’s” daughter.

She could not work Kullu out of her system and returned in 1964 to retrace the journey. She hired a couple of mules at Shimla and travelled easily by the stages, observing every little thing. She put it all down in a charming book “Kulu The end of the habitable world”. She returned again and again, In April 1986 when she was on the Jalori on another of her treks, she went to a small temple near the Pass at a place called Mutisher. There she rested her head on the stone steps and quietly passed away. She was cremated on her favourite mountains by her companions and local villagers

Today this route isn't all that dangerous. If not a petrol pump, you at least get a mobile signal almost everywhere. The road is tarred, the rest houses are clean, and now many villagers have rooms to let out to tourists under the "Home Stay" scheme. However, driving on a frozen road is still a test of skill. One can now travel and perhaps meet the old ghosts who once trudged here.

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