Summer is synonymous with vacation, isn’t it? It’s also synonymous with the lovely hills. What better way to escape the hot and sultry weather than to drive up to the hills? I happened to take a weekend getaway to an old British era small town nestled in pine knolls and rhododendron forests. It’s a good idea to break free from the humdrum of daily life and find refuge in calm, peaceful green environs breathing in lungfuls of pine-scented air.
Hill stations in India are laced with intriguing history and frivolous gossip. A century and half ago, a famed Scottish engineer, frustrated over his failure to dig a train tunnel in lower Himalayas, shot himself dead. Today, a kilometre-long tunnel, a picturesque railway station built in charming Scottish architectural style and a small village nestled in a valley have kept his name alive. That’s the story of Barog, a less-known getaway in Himachal Pradesh.
The hill state has been a convenient and favourite destination for me on most weekend getaways. Its proximity to the national capital makes it a favoured vacation spot for North Indian tourists. Himachal is loaded with extraordinary natural beauty and stands true to its name which means “in the lap of the Himalayas”.
Of my many visits to Himachal, the most cherished was the one to Barog, named after the Scottish official, Colonel Barog, who failed to dig a railway tunnel here due to an error of exactitude — the two ends he started digging on two sides of the hill did not meet eventually. The tunnel later completed is the longest one on the Kalka-Shimla rail route and also the straightest tunnel in the world. It has also earned the tag of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A train ride through this tunnel is a huge crowd puller here. While the buses, emitting noxious fumes, belch and roar their way to Shimla with obstructed views due to annoying advertising hoardings, the train to Shimla mutters gently to itself as it climbs through unspoilt forests with verdant views, crosses magnificent bridges, and makes a gentlemanly break for a mid-way meal at Barog station, a fine example of British Raj hill architecture. There is nothing as mesmerizing as the Barog railway station where the moonlight disappears down the valley, mountains magically vanish into fog and visitors are compelled to fade away into nature’s poetry. It is like having a cake with a glistening cherry on it for it is a place where nature’s heart beats stronger amid the hills. Besides the regal Scottish style railway station here, there is not much for sightseeing in this small town. But a trek down to the railway station and up to your hotel offers you beautiful scenes you would like to capture with your camera. That’s not all. The Barog railway station is famous for its absolutely lip smacking aalo-puris with tangy mango pickle!
Close to Barog is Solan, the whisky town. The famous whisky brand a favourite with all the baddies is made by the Kasauli distillery. Staying committed to its geographical origin it’s a smooth single malt named “Solan No. 1”. Solan No. 1, at one point in time, used to be the best selling Indian whisky for many years, till the winds of globalization as a part of IMF’s reforms package swiftly blew across the continent. Today it is struggling against hostile bigger competitors but as a consolation, it remains to be the only malt whisky made in the Himalayas.
If malt is here, can beer and ale be far behind? Hell, no! In the late 1820s, Edward Dyer moved from England to set up the first brewery in India (later incorporated as Dyer Breweries in 1855) at Kasauli in the Himalayan mountains. The Kasauli brewery launched India’s and indeed Asia’s first beer, Lion, which was in great demand by the thirsty British administrators and troops stationed in the sizzling heat of India. Lion was much appreciated as a beer, and one famous poster featured a satisfied British Tommy declaring, “as good as back home!”. The brewery was soon shifted to Solan, as there was an abundant supply of fresh spring water there. The Kasauli brewery site was converted to a distillery, which Mohan Meakin Ltd. still operates. Abundance of mushroom farming and the mushroom research centre situated at Chambaghat has also earned Solan the sobriquet of “Mushroom city of India”. Solan is also popular as the “City of Red Gold” for bulk production of tomatoes in the area.
The little hamlet was born nearly a century and a half ago, in 1847 by the East India Company by securing free of cost five villages from the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala.
One can also take a detour to the little-known military town of Dagshai which is home to a deadly cellular jail. Nestled among emerald green deodar forests and pine knolls lays Dagshai, a quaint little garrison town in the foothills of the Himalayas. Located on top of a high hillock, that stands sphinx-like astride the Kalka-Simla Highway at a point close to the industrial town of Solan, the little hamlet was born nearly a century and a half ago, in 1847 after the East India Company secured free of cost five villages from the erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala. The name of these villages were Dabbi, Badhtiala, Chunawad, Jawag and Dagshai. The cantonment was named after the last named village, as it was the largest in size and apparently strategically located. As legend has it, the name Dagshai was derived from Daag-e-Shahi. During the Mughal times a Daag-e-Shahi or a royal mark was put on the foreheads of criminals and sent packing to the then Dagshai village. That was that.
Apart from the geo-economic significance of this little hamlet, the British were enamoured by its beauty and pristine environment. It was built by the British as a sanatorium for patients ailing with tuberculosis. The fresh, clean, pine-scented air was seen as a ready remedy for tuberculosis patients overlooking a valley. In 1947, the British were sent packing home and Indians could finally breathe lungfuls of fresh Himalayan air. After all, they were free!
That apart, Dagshai is a cosy little hamlet, home away from home, where time stands still. Looking at the elephantine forest cover, it comforts your mind that planet earth is safe and in no immediate trouble. As you scamper about winding roads, with hairpin curves that magically fold back into the clouds through tunnels of pine, oak and cedar, even the most outlandish thought of a distressed planet evaporates like the mist in the gentle wind. For all nature lovers, this little settlement beckons! Apart from the jail, there are around 20 luxurious British-era villas spread around the cantonment. An immediate thought that crosses my mind after ambling about these beautiful villas is that it they would look perfect pictured on English butter cookie and biscuit tins. Very old churches flash old wooden crosses, weathervanes and assorted biblical memorabilia. There’s also a graveyard with graves that date back to the early 1800’s. The aura is spooky and mendacious. I scurry along.
But, at the end of the day, Barog trumps Solan, hands down. Solan is an industrial town, gobbled up by the urban sprawl, where noxious fumes and chemical irritants emanating from factories and industrial houses choke the atmosphere. The greenery is missing. You feel as if you’re trapped in a heat island. So, the best bet would be to get your chilled beer and head back to Barog — an escape from all the madness and dirty air. Long, unending walks through virgin forests are soul-satisfying. The porcelain silence and crisp air — at any time of the day — provide the perfect setting for meditation or yoga. And for the writers and poets, the barbets and Himalayan thrush are perfect company.
Till then, three cheers!