Botanical Excursion to the UNESCO Heritage – Great Himalayan National Park, Kullu

The sprawling Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), a UNESCO Heritage entity is spread over an area of around 1171 km2 in Banjar Sub-Division of Kullu district in the north western Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The Protected Area (PA) was constituted in 1984 and was formally notified as a national park in 1999, an addition to a huge network of wildlife reserves found in Himalayan region in India and the neighboring countries.

GHNP was awarded the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2014, in recognition of its outstanding significance for biodiversity conservation. The park protects over a thousand flowering plant species, including many important and threatened medicinal herbs, 31 mammal species and over 200 bird species, as well as amphibians, reptiles and insects. It must be mentioned here, that four mammal species and three bird species are globally threatened, which include the elusive snow leopard, musk deer and the beautiful western horned tragopan (features on the logo of GHNP).

The bio-diversity rich Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) was accorded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2014.

A botanical expedition was undertaken across the GHNP to study and monitor the changes in the vegetation over the past decade or so. Such field surveys and botanical excursions are scientific surveys designed to explore and study the vegetation of a particular region, either as a specific design or part of a larger ecological study.

The survey team was led by Dr. G.S. Goraya and Dr. Gopal S. Rawat, reputed field botanist and ecologist who require no introductions. The other members besides myself, included Brij Bhushan, Bhanu Verma and Arun Kaushal, research staff from the ICFRE-Himalayan Forest Research Institute, Shimla. The GHNP field staff who guided and organized the facilities in the field were, Vinay Kumar, Nishant Negi and Bantoo Singh (passionate field functionaries of the department).

Trekker Team at Chhodwari Camp Site

On a beautiful summer day, 14th June, 2023 the trek began from Ropa. It began as a gradual climb upto the famous mobile point, where a roofed sitting set up is in place, that provides a much-desired rest with a splendid view down into the river valley. Along the path, the vegetation comprises of sub-temperate species, giving way to temperate forest as one climbs gradually. The forest undergrowth is dominated mainly by hill bamboo (Drepanostachyum falcatum). Just beyond the mobile point, we come across a small patch of the lesser-known tree species (LKTS), Carpinus viminea (khirki). Thereafter, is a descent towards the entry gate, and just before the gate lies the famous ‘Hippo’ point, amidst the crystal-clear waters of the rivulet. The trek ahead to the Rolla campsite is a level walk and keeps you beside the Tirthan riverside. However, it is beyond this point, we encountered a steep climb through the typical rich mixed temperate forest of devdar (Cedrus deodara), kail (Pinus wallichiana), fir (Abies pindrow), spruce (Picea smithiana), yew (Taxus contorta) along with their regular broadleaved associates. Most striking broadleaf was Acer villosum, not commonly met in other parts of the moist temperate region. The climb was a real gruel uphill, halting after a few steps towards the upper part, to regain our breath. It was made more difficult with the unseasonal rain, turning the narrow trail slippery. Finally, we are at the Shilt campsite (3200 m), greeted with the ever-warm welcome smile of Dr. Goraya and Dr. Rawat, who had reached before us. Here we also meet Ashutosh Sharma, the youngest member of the team, a promising plant taxonomist of the region, who is pretty elated about having spotted a ghoral nearby. It truly was a pleasant reunion, sitting and chatting around a warm bonfire in the shelter built by the park management. Along the steep climb, the forest is very thick, and one can barely see any landscape before reaching the top. It is only from the meadow at Shilt that you can enjoy the magnificent view of the surrounding mountains and peaks.

After a simple, but delicious dinner we get into our tents, the weather being very cold for this time of the year, makes us shiver inside. The sky above was clear displaying the bright stars across the sky, however, in the distance we could see occasional thunder and lightning.

Shelter at Shilt Camp Site

The next morning, we are greeted by wet weather, and decide to defer the start till the weather clears. Near noon time it is decided not to shift camp as the weather showed no signs of clearing. Instead, we decide to survey the kharshu oak (Quercus semecarpifolia) forest around Shilt. Regarding wildlife, presence of black bear, red fox, and leopard scats are encountered, along with the pellet droppings of ghoral. Towards the evening the skies open and the sun shines brightly, however the clear skies make it pretty chilly and cold at night. The eerie silence of the night is broken by the gushing waters of the Tirthan River down below, which flows along a deep V- shaped valley in the region.

Despite clear bright sky greeting us in the morning, we felt cold like being in early winters. After a cup of hot tea and biscuits, we make an early start towards our next campsite, that is Ghumtarao. From Shilt the trail takes us down to the next inspection hut at Chhodwari (3200 m). From Chhodwari the real climb begins, almost vertical, which ends only at the holy zenith, Rakhundi. The trail takes you through a rich undergrowth of hill bamboo (Thamnocalamus spathiflorus), great habitat for pheasants, which is justified by the great number of monals encountered. It is a slow walk uphill, encouraged by the grittiness of the senior citizens leading the pack, an exhilarating hike to the top, providing us with pristine scenic views at each step. On many an occasion, the sound of the river below is replaced by the shrill noise of the monal before its flight, from somewhere near us. The sky above had cirrus clouds moving in slow motion, changing various patterns of pastel in the sky. One must be observant enough to soak in the serenity and sheer beauty that nature has bestowed in this heritage property. It is here that you feel the true nature of the heritage status – it is simply out of this world.

Though we did not encounter any wildlife, there were many signs like fresh scats and droppings to show their presence. An interesting incidence was the presence of ghoral urine in the water we filled in our bottles from the stream below Rakhundi. Dr. Rawat, with his vast knowledge of wildlife, judged that the water we were drinking had contamination of ghoral urine. Since water was scarce at the top, many among us had no choice but to consume it in sips to quench the dryness in the throat. Reaching the treeline, the path becomes steeper and the final slow tread through an alpine meadow, leads us to the mighty Rakhundi top (3700 m).

The Jogini at Rakhundi Top

On reaching Rakhundi, we offer our obeisance to the deity (jogini), very sacred for the locals, and my personal advice to visitors to this region as the vibes you will receive at the place will match all levels of serenity and tranquility, thus providing a feeling of security and confidence for the journey ahead. The red flag fluttering in the wind above an ornamented metal mohra of the deity and other stone deities, provides a perfect setting for the protector of the park, as the locals perceive it. One must respect and pay homage to the rich local culture in these parts.

Rakhundi, is an important view point of the GHNP, and from here one can see about 60 – 65 percent of the park area. It provides a grand 360o view over the sprawling Tirthan valley and enchanting vistas of the panoramic view in all directions. Towards the north eastern direction, we could view the Tirth glacier, source of the Tirthan river. After relaxing at the meadow, we begin our slow gait downhill towards Ghumtarao (3540 m), the campsite for the night. The porters are lucky to encounter a group of thar as they near the campsite. As we approach the campsite, we find all the porters and the forest guards busy collecting chhakru (Silene vulgaris), the vegetable to be cooked for dinner. At dinner we relish the soup of chhakru followed by its cooked green vegetable with rice – truly a delicacy in the circumstances.

Ghumtarao Camp
Natures’ bounty – wild vegetable

The following morning, as usual we begin our early start after a hot glass of tea and biscuits. We follow a narrow slippery trail through Rhododendron campanulatum Krumholtz, and soon we are at the Patal meadow, where we stop to have our brunch of chapati with nutria-potato vegetable – a meal that has now become our staple diet. It is day three, but the enthusiasm and grit of our pack leaders Dr. Goraya and Dr. Rawat is something for us to take pride in. After Patal the trail becomes more difficult with snow banks accumulated in each nallah as we progress across each with utmost caution. A single mistake could take one deep down into the steep craggy cliffs and glacial moraines and, that could prove fatal. With caution we progress slowly and reach the pass providing us the first view of the Sainj valley below, where we celebrate with the sweetmeats brought by Dr. Goraya.

Team Motivators – Dr. G. Rawat and Dr. G.S. Goraya

We were of the opinion, that the difficult part of the trek was over, but to our dismay the path further became more treacherous as we had to cross several large bodies of ice mass. To add to our woes, the weather turned gloomy and it began to rain accompanied with icy sleet pounding upon us. It was on one of these that some of us missed our footings and slipped precariously on the snow mass, sliding freely to the bottom. Thankfully, it did not result in any real causality, though the moment left us shocked and stunned for a brief moment. We all gathered tother in solidarity and brotherhood to boost our moods, and then began our slow walk in the rain towards Shupa-kuni pass. By now almost everyone’s socks and shoes are drenched in rain, making it not so pleasant to walk.

Deceptive walk across the many snow banks.

Due to the rain, we stop briefly at Shupa-kuni to pay homage to the jogni – the deity that protects the alpines in these parts. Now starts are last leg towards Dhel thatch, the much-awaited campsite for the night. Enroute, we do find a number of indications of the musk deer presence in the form of their droppings at regular intervals. By the time we reach Dhel, the weather has cleared and sky is blue again. Dhel has a mobile point where all climbed one by one to call or message their near and dear ones. The supper at the nostalgic hut is a welcome meal of rajmah with rice and chapati, with the luxury of an onion salad and lemon.

As the next day dawns, the activity as usual, begins in the tent occupied by the senior citizens, who are first to freshen up, fold their sleeping bags and ready to move. The research team from HFRI gets active as well, and we all trek to the high-altitude transition zone (HATZ) global warming project site and conduct the field studies. Dr. Rawat and Dr. Goraya monitored the data collection and with their vast knowledge and experience, provided valuable suggestions for improvement in the methodology involved and, in the collection, and interpretation of data.

Dhel Camp Site

From Dhel we trek down a steep trail through moist temperate forest with the undergrowth rich with high valued medicinal herbs like nag chatri (Trillium govanianum), hathpanja (Dactylorhiza hatagirea), salaam misri (Polygonatum verticillatum), van lahsun (Fritillaria roylei), ban kakru (Podophyllum hexandrum), etc. Enroute, we collect some wild edible mushrooms like chhachi (Russula spp.) and bakra (chicken of the forest ‘Laetiporus’ spp.) and lingur (Diplazium esculentum). We finally reach the Sainj river below Shakti village, and after crossing the bridge, we head straight to the trekkers hut. Shakti and Maror are the remotest villages of Kullu District and probably are the original villages to be located inside a world heritage site national park. Dinner is in a pretty setting around a blazing bonfire and the menu comprising the days collection of lingri vegetable with chicken of the woods and chhachi fungi as a side dish.

The next day we begin our final trek from Shakti to the road head at Niharni, via Bah Forest Complex. The entire 15 km trek meanders up and down through the dense mixed broadleaved forest, besides the fast flowing and turbulent Sainj river. The forest being among the most pristine and uniquely biodiversity rich ecosystems in the region. Noteworthy, is the majestic Shakti waterfall, a few kms downstream between Shugad and Shakti villages. We finally arrive at Niharni a tiny sleepy hamlet with Majaan village perched above, as if watching over it. Niharni is the barrage site for the Sainj Hydro Power Project, and from here the road goes to Sainj, which meets the Banjar road at Larji, further merging to the National Highway (NH) 3 near Aut.

Shakti Falls (Photo: Bhanu Verma)–

GNHP is a UNESCO world heritage site and because of its unique protected status, not only are the rich flora and fauna of the park are undisturbed, but added is the pristine landscapes before one encounters in the park area. The park has magnificent meadows, hemmed in by conifer and broad-leaved trees, landscaped wide meadows with high mountains tipped with permanent snow overlooking it. The trek took us through dense forests, ringing with different bird cries, prominent being the shriek of the magnificent monals gliding across the landscapes. The varied landscapes in offer, serve as a perfect, undisturbed introduction to the wonders of trekking inside the rich biodiverse ecosystem of the UNESCO Heritage property of the Great Himalayan National Park.

Altogether it is a fascinating and exhilarating trek through dense forests with unique vegetation – took us to beautiful high and wide meadows, across numerous treacherous snow banks and glaciers, offering great vistas and also providing ample opportunities for observing rare wildlife. Such field surveys in the company of stalwarts like Dr. Goraya and Dr. Rawat adds vigor in the learning and understanding the ecology of plants in their natural habitat. This amazing trek across the park provided us an opportunity to soak in the beauty and breathe in the best possible fresh air. An opportunity to feel the energy being cleansed inside of you and also provides a once in a lifetime opportunity, to take back views of a lifetime, as a souvenir, to look back with nostalgia.

The trek team enroute Shakti. (Photo: Vinay Kumar)
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  1. says: Ash Virk

    ‘Botany simplified while trekking’…. that is what Dr. Jishtu does with his informative articles. They are a source of vast knowledge and actual ground onsite experience from very difficult terrains and remote parts of Himachal.
    Thank you Dr. Saheb, with the kind of dedication towards your work .. will go a long way in saving our ever depleting species of plants and flora including fauna who thrive on them.

  2. says: Dr. G. S. Goraya

    It indeed was an exhilarating trekking expedition! What else one desires on such treks… pristine landscape rich in biodiversity; challenging but doable walkways; some camping places; and likeable company. We had all these ingredients woven into one… and the result was ‘Wow, what a trek’! Thanks friends for making it educative, rewarding and memorable.

  3. says: Naveen Kohli

    Enjoyable account of the trek. It is so well and vividly described , it makes one feel as if one did the trek with the author. Amazingly beautiful photos of the pristine area of the park . Himachal is righty called the Land of Gods. It’s amazing. If I could I would love to do this trek but age prohibits. Loved reading the whole account of the trek.

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