Sarahan-The temple town for the Pilgrim and the Traveller

Sarahan temple town

I travelled to Saharan with my mom in the winter of 2007. A devote and a non-believer we both found our own meaning in this small Himachali hill town.

As you wind your way up the hill it is easy to mistake the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation Hotel as the famous Bhimakali temple of Sarahan built as it is in its crude imitation . You can see it hanging precipitously over you but there are more bends in this hill road before you can see the real thing.

Sarahan, like most small hill stations in Himachal is a pilgrim town – an overgrown village really- where life revolves around its local God. The temple that enshrines the deity is ancient so are the myths and legends that keep changing depending on whom you talk to. No one minds the daily loud chimes of the temple bells mornings and evenings and my mother who is traveling with me as a pilgrim sighs out aloud on hearing the first distant bell. Sarahan however has something for both the pilgrim and the traveler. I don’t share my mom’s passion for the Sarahan God but am intrigued by the history, the unique landscape, and the views.

Sarahan has an unusual landscape. It is not really a plateau. It is a huge piece of relatively flat landmass jutting out from a steep hillside. From the highway you cannot imagine that a town exists up here with flourishing apple orchards, a revered temple , rich history and hill folklore. Most tourists just pass it by as they cannot see it from the highway and move on to what they can – the mountains of Kinnaur that lie up ahead. But once up here you are rewarded with great views and culture unique to this part of Himachal. Sarahan overlooks a steep valley and you can see Satluj flow in its crevice. Up in the skies looms the Srikhand Mahadev mountain snowcapped and majestic. Though only 5227 meters high , the close proximity to the 2150 meters Sarahan town gives it a skyscraper imminence.

It is early evening by the time we arrive at this strange landscape and without `freshening up’ in our hotel rooms my mom and I get down to what we came for. My mom head-covered dashes straight to the temple for the evening aarti while I fix a wide angel lens on my camera and look for a vantage point.

I realize the best place to shoot the entire Sarahan Town along with the Srikhand mountain is to climb the hillside. A narrow path leads up the hill and disappears after a few meters. I am in someone’s apple orchard . The owner is in the distant pruning his apple trees and on noticing me he gestures animatedly. At first I think he is shooing me off but soon realize he is urging me to climb up higher. “ Go on top near that pine tree. Better picture from there’’, he shouts in his sing song Hindi. Apparently he is used to footloose travelers like me tramping his orchard beds for a better shot. It has not exhausted his patience but he is a willing conspirator. This is just as well. Sarahan like most Himachali villages has the simplest of folks. They are not only ready to help you execute your whims on the journey but enthusiastically partake in them. Sarahan is an apple-growing region and most of the people work in their orchard. When not in the orchard they bask in the sun around the Temple complex discussing local politics.

The famous Bhimakali temple is located in the middle of Sarahan. It is a twin tower structure with an Indo-Tibetian architecture, the roof distinctly pagoda shaped. One of the towers is a new temple reconstructed recently over a much older temple that was so old and worn that it would have collaged sooner than later. Bhimakali is regarded as the reincarnation of Goddess Durga. The temple gained notoriety for human sacrifices in the 16th and 17th centuries but animals are still put to the knife on Dusherra to appease the gods. Like most temples this one was also patronized by the local Rajas before Independence. The rulers of Bushahr State – a relatively wealthy and pro- British state in Himachal, picked Saharan as their summer capital. Palaces of the Bushahr rulers with beautiful Himachali architecture stands in all towns they ruled. An empty palace stands in Sarahan too. It is now owned by the heir and former Chief Minister of Himachal (now Steel Minister) Virbhadra Singh. The gates to the palace are open to everyone except on days when Virbhadra Singh,who is still treated as loyalty in these parts, comes to pay a visit.

Apart from this temple and the palace a small attraction for bird lovers here is a tiny aviary tucked amidst the pine trees some distance from the palace. Apart from the regional birds of Himachal including the state bird monal, there is the endangered western tragopan. A captive breeding programme to restore its population runs from this aviary.
Sarahan is small and a two-day trip is good enough for both the pilgrim and the traveler. My mother with her assortment of temple offering and me with memory cards full of pictures are both satisfied as we turn the bends again making our way gingerly down to the highway.

How to Get here:

Sarahan is 564 km from Delhi and 174 km from Shimla. The best way to get here is to first reach Shimla- by road, or train (till Kalka), or air (Chandigarh is the closest airport)- and then travel to Sarahan by road. From Shimla, taxis or jeeps can be hired and a bus service is available for the 6-hour journey. If driving in from Delhi, one can break journey in Shimla.

Please check more about my journey on my website: www.sanjayausta.com

Sanjay Austa is an award winning photographer based in New Delhi. He started his career as a journalist and the switch to photography was gradual. His photographs and his choice of subjects however reflect his journalistic pedigree. His first assignment took him on an adventurous two-month expedition to Kanchenjunga, where he documented the Indian Army’s climb to the summit. From the Wild in the African Savannas to the life in the Arctic he has since then shot myriad subjects in diverse geographical climes. He however has a penchant for human-interest issues which are published regularly as photo-essays in the Indian and the International Media. His photo-feature on the 1984 anti-Sikh Delhi riots was exhibited in California and UK by various human rights groups in 2009 and 2010 respectively. More recently he has done four picture books on World Heritage Monuments for Penguin Books. He has been awarded the prestigious Karamveer Puraskar Award (2010-11) given for his photo-essays on social and cultural issues. Contact : 91-9810672755 e-mail: [email protected]

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