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How To Destroy Beauty

Omkar Goswami


In the 1970s, Himachal Pradesh could boast of some of the most beautiful Himalayan hideaways in the world. There was Manali, almost at the top of the Kulu valley, with a pristine Beas flowing twenty miles from its source, where one could walk, enjoy the views or take off on some of the most magnificent Himalayan treks in India. There was Dharamshala in Kangra, nestled below Mcleodganj, the headquarter-in-exile of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. There was Kasauli, at the foothills, less than 40 kilometres from Kalka — a quaint little town that existed in a  19th century colonial time warp. And there was Dalhousie in Chamba, established in 1854 by the British, which became the summer retreat of Lahore’s landed and wealthy.


That was then. Today, barring Kasauli, the hill stations of Himachal are a mess. My favourite, Manali, is a total disaster. The Beas is polluted beyond redemption; the approach to Manali on both sides of the river is over-built by horribly bright pink coloured cheek-by-jowl hotels with their glitzy signs; there is filth everywhere; and traffic jams abound as cars and busloads of tourists disgorge themselves for a couple of days at a time to quickly tick-off the “places to see”, play their boom boxes as loudly as they can, eat as much street food as possible, chuck garbage everywhere, and return satiated with their group photographs and their Kulu socks and topis.


If Manali is bad, then Dalhousie is a horror. I have gone there twice with my wife Radhika, whose history is entwined with the place. Both her grandfathers built their summer houses there in the 1930s to escape the heat of Lahore; and from her early years, Radhika spent every summer gambolling in and around Dalhousie.


Dalhousie always had high risks of destruction. It is only 90-odd kilometres away from Pathankot and, therefore, in high season, becomes a convenient weekend sojourn for the many thousand Punjabi families who have a car or an SUV. It is also culturally considered as Punjab’s exclusive summer playground, which carries with it additional baggage of noise, merriment, shopping, eating and drinking. So, the stretch of lower Dalhousie from Gandhi Chowk to Subhas Chowk (the erstwhile Post Office to Charing Cross) is so badly built up that you can see neither the snow clad peaks on the one side, nor the deodar filled valleys on the other. Every square inch is taken up by terribly constructed holes-in-wall that pass off as hotels, restaurants and shops. Rickety hotels are now being constructed literally on no land, by building on concrete platforms jutting out on to space  that rest on stilts driven into the hills. Once plentiful, water is in such short supply in Dalhousie that every abode in the lower and middle reaches need water tankers each day. Garbage is thrown out of hotel on to the hillsides and overflows on to the streets and gutters, making it a paradise on earth for the warring troupes of rhesus monkeys and langurs.


From ten in the morning, carloads of tourists, their stereos reverberating with “balle-balle” music, snake their way up to Bakrota in upper Dalhousie en route to picnics at the reserved forest at Kala Tope, Dainkund or the alpine glen at Khajjiar. The reserved forest is hardly reserved at all. A beautiful three kilometre walk along a deodar, fern and lichen lined pathway can now be travelled by taxis after paying a minor bribe to the gatekeeper. The daisy filled hills of Dainkund now host wrappers, empty cans, plastic and booze bottles. And Khajjiar, once a beautiful alpine bowl amidst majestic deodars, now has ugly red-roofed buildings that pass off as hotels and restaurants.


The only area worth staying in is the upper reaches of Bakrota. But not for long. Estate agents are rapidly flogging off plots at atrocious prices. Soon there will pink hotels there as well, and the remains of Dalhousie will be gone forever.   


A succession of uncaring, myopic and avaricious governments in Shimla have destroyed most places of beauty of Himachal. Little do they know that they have killed the goose that laid so many golden eggs. One day they will. But by then it will be too late.


Published: Business World, July 2005


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