Palampur is a beautiful hill station in the Kangra Valley. It is considered to be the Tea capital of North-west India. Palampur was once a part of the old kingdom of Jalandhar. The town gets its name after the word Palum which means a lot of water. As Palampur is nestled below the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas, many streams of water can be found here flowing from the mountains towards the plains.
Palampur is located around 30 km from the town of Dharamshala. We went here in the last week of September this year as part of a trip to Dharamshala. It took us around one hour to get here from Dharamshala. Other options to get here are to take a flight to Gaggal and then do the one hour drive to Palampur or take an overnight train from Delhi to Pathankot and then do a three hour journey by road.
The tea bush was introduced here from Almora in 1849 by Dr. Jameson who was the superintendent of botanical gardens. When tea started thriving here, the town became a hub of European tea estate owners with the exception of the famous Wah Tea Estate which was owned by Nawab Muhammad Hayat Khan and his descendants till India gained independence. Since then Kangra Tea has been known at an international level.
The Kangra earthquake of 1905 destroyed most of the buildings here. The buildings had to be rebuilt using different materials and style of construction. In 1927, the railway line was laid for the hydroelectric project at Jogindernagar. In 1947, Sobha Singh who was a renowned contemporary painter moved to the nearby village of Andretta and made it his home. He painted world-famous paintings portraying Punjabi culture. His works of art can be seen at the Sobha Singh Art gallery in Andretta. The famous Irish theatre artist Norah Richards moved from Lahore to Andretta and settled here. Today her estate has been renovated and maintained by the Punjabi University in Patiala.
In 1983, Manisimran Singh who is the son of noted Potter Gurcharan Singh and his wife Mary Singh moved to Andretta and started the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. The society runs three-month long pottery courses and people from all over the world come to learn pottery here. Their production studio makes earthenware which is sold at various outlets across India. Andretta has become a popular tourist destination now.
Darang Tea Estate Homestay
The Darang Tea Estate is a family run estate and more than 150 years old. The estate is located in the Darang village which is midway between Dharamshala and Palampur. The Bhandari couple Neera Aunty and Naveen Uncle run the charming homestay in the estate. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the stay here has been our best experience as compared to any hotel/resort/homestay. The stay was just perfect in every way. Though we missed Naveenji during our trip, Neeraji was the absolute perfect host one could wish for.
The place transports you back in time. We stayed in the room in the main house. The 200-year-old house, the furnishing, the antique curios, the old clock hanging on the wall, the photos of the family from the black & white era to now, the little book shelf with its wonderful collection especially of kids books, the dining table, the flooring, the baked mud brick walls, every single thing was just perfect. The room while being as old and well placed like the rest of the house had every basic amenity a modern-day house should have.
The grounds of the homestay with the garden & vegetable patch, the fruiting trees, the birds and butterflies was a delight to walk around in. The little ‘machaan’ and the swing were a big hit with our little fellow. The tea estate itself is quaint and picturesque and the walks here with Neeraji and the dogs (Casper, Diana and Brandy) will remain memorable.
Food and service at Darang can give the best of hotels a run for their money. Neeraji and her cook serve up such a feast every single time. The ‘patrode’, the arbi fry, the kurkure bhindi, the tilwale aalu, the baked cauliflower, the soya keema dish, lovely salads and raitas, the homemade jams, chutneys, pickles, kulfi, the milk and malai from their own cows. All this was topped up with Darang’s own Kangra tea many times over through the day.
The ever-present but unobtrusive Jeevana ‘didi’ ensured that service was always absolute top-notch. All this with Neeraji being always around to ensure that everything is perfect. The many conversations with her over tea about the estate, the local people, the birds around the estate, helping us think through what places we should visit, made for that perfect experience. Our son got pretty attached to his ‘ajji’ (grandma in Kannada) and became her little assistant for feeding the dogs and walking around with ‘chalo chalo’ like she does with the dogs :) That brings to the dogs themselves. Casper & Diana the labradors and Brandy the pug. Like Neeraji likes to say, a lot of the reviews on tripadvisor are more about the dogs than the rest of the homestay. This is not without reason. They are the most delightful dogs and dog lovers will absolutely love spending time with them. Casper with his ever abundant enthusiasm, Diana with her stately charm and Brandy with her huffing and puffing around!
Given the time of the year we visited, we probably didn’t quite get a full view of either birds of the place or the views of the Dhauladhar that one can expect to get at Darang. We did catch a few birds and a little of the view though. The photos clicked by Naveenji that Neeraji showed us tells that we absolutely need to go back here during the winter/spring.
Bir is a village located to the South-East of Palampur. It is midway between Baijnath and Jogindernagar. It is popular as the Paragliding capital of India. Bir also has a Tibetan settlement and is therefore a centre for meditation and spiritual studies. There are many Buddhist monasteries and a large Stupa here. Bir is the landing site for paragliding while the takeoff happens from meadows at the neighbouring village of Billing which is 15 km away and at an elevation of 2400 metres. Collectively the two have come to be known as Bir-Billing! The Paragliding World Cup was held here in 2015. We went to the landing site to watch the landings and it was a lovely experience. We couldn’t do the paragliding itself due to the little one. But he was super excited to watch and wants to do paragliding sooner than later!
Palpung Sherabling Monastery
The Sherabling Monastery is a large monastery in Bhattu village near Bir (some locals refer to it as the Bhattu monastery). This is the monastic seat in exile of the Tai Situpa lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism which originated in the twelfth century. The original Palpung monastery is in Derge town in the Kham region of Tibet which is in present day Sichuan in China. Palpung means the glorious union of study and practice. The temple has been historically associated with the Karmapas. The 12th Tai Situpa, Pema Tonyo Nyinje fled from Kham region to Bhutan followed by India at the age of six where he received his formal traditional training under Rangjung Rigpe Dorje who was the 16th Karmapa. At the age of 22, he set up his seat in exile in the Sherabling Monastery.
Today the monastery is huge and houses around 750 monks. It also offers the traditional Kagyu three-year retreat for both monks and nuns in the premises. In addition to the retreat centre and the monastic college, there are buildings housing old age home, hospital, relic temple etc. The path leading to the monastery is beautiful and passes through Pine tree lined woods.
The Baijnath Temple is an ancient temple built in the early thirteenth century dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is located in the town of Baijnath which gets its name from the temple. It is 16 km from Palampur on the highway to Mandi. Here Lord Shiva is worshipped as Vaidyanath which means ‘the Lord of Physicians’. The two inscriptions which have been placed at the entrance of the temple indicate that a Shiva temple existed here even before the current one was constructed.
The temple is a beautiful example of the early medieval North Indian Nagara style of architecture. The Swayambhu (self-manifested) form of Shivalinga is enshrined in the main sanctum outside which an idol of Nandi (the bull who is Lord Shiva’s vehicle) has been kept in a small shrine. The outer walls of the temple have been carved with beautiful images of Gods and Goddesses. The temple attracts a large number of pilgrims and tourists from all over. On a clear day, the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas can be seen in the backdrop of the temple.
As per legends, Ravana worshipped Lord Shiva rigorously for a long time in Kailash in order to attain invincible powers. He then offered all of his ten heads in a havan kund (ceremonial fire). Pleased by his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before him and restored all his heads. He then bestowed him with powers of invincibility and immortality. On attaining this boon, Ravana requested Lord Shiva to accompany him to Lanka. Shiva agreed to this and converted himself into a Shivling. He asked Ravana to carry it with him and not to place it on the ground anywhere along the way as it would stay where it was placed. Ravana started going towards Lanka with the Shivling. Upon reaching Baijnath, Ravana wanted to answer nature’s call and started looking for someone to help him hold the Shivling. Lord Ganesha appeared in the form of a shepherd and offered to help Ravana who went to relieve himself. Lord Ganesha had requested Lord Vayu to make Ravana feel the urge to urinate. He purposely put the Shivling on the ground before Ravana could come back. Thus the Shivling got established in Baijnath in the form of Ardhnarishwara (God in the form of half male and half female).
During Dussehra festival, an effigy of Ravana is built and then consigned to flames to commemorate the victory of Rama all over the country. The festival of Dussehra is not celebrated in Baijnath town as a mark of respect to Ravana’s devotion towards Lord Shiva.
The history of the Baijnath temple is not very clear. The inscriptions at the entrance state that the temple was built in 1204 by two brothers named Manyuka and Ahuka in devotion to Lord Vaidyanatha. A Shivalinga known as Vaidyanatha already existed at the spot without a proper enclosure. So the present temple and porch in front of it were constructed. The temple was renovated in the late eighteenth century by the Katoch Maharaja Sansar Chand as per inscriptions on the wooden doors of the main sanctum. The 1905 Kangra earthquake damaged this temple too and it was repaired after the incident. Today the temple is a protected monument with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The Taragarh Palace is a beautiful heritage hotel in Palampur. It is located amidst lush green forests and tea gardens. The European style palace was built in 1931 by the Nawab of Bahawalpur as a summer residence and christened as Al-hilal which translated to the crescent moon. It was bought by the royal family of Jammu and Kashmir in 1951 for the dowager Maharani Taradevi who stayed there for many years. In 1971 it was converted into a heritage hotel by the royal family. We went here for lunch and were taken around the estate by the waiting staff of the restaurant. Food was pretty good and we tasted the local speciality Teliya Mah which is a slow cooked curry made using whole green gram and spices.