In the summer of 1962, a restless young Indian administrator, Manohar Singh Gill, made an arduous journey from the north Indian plains to the farthest reaches of Indian Himalayas – the Lahaul and Spiti Valley – and spent a year living and working with the people there.
Gill subsequently became a distinguished civil service man and is today the country’s sports minister, but his experience of the beauty of the spectacular Himalayan desert changed him for life.
Part memoir, part travel and part anthropology, “Himalayan Wonderland: Travels in Lahaul and Spiti” is Gill’s opinionated account of an “extraordinary region” with a foreword by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
The witty travelogue-cum-document is a peep into the practices of administration and the joy one derives working with the “open-hearted” highlanders – especially during the 1960s when the vast northern swathe of Lahaul-Spiti, the high Himalayan valleys beyond Kullu and the 13,050-foot-high Rohtang Pass, was all part of Punjab.
It spans those careless years in the life of the sports minister when “work was more of an adventure than routine.”
The prose is lucid. And the chapters are crisp and vivid, bringing to life the exotic valleys, gushing rivers, the rainbow sweep of the Himalayan desert flanked by rugged hills that change colours with the crawl of the sun across an azure sky.
The book is redolent with the mysticism of ancient Buddhist faith and its numerous repositories – quaint stone and wood monasteries – and its austere practitioners dotting the terrain.
“It all began one August morning with summons from the chief secretary of Punjab… The telephone rang and I was told that the chief secretary would like to see me. Wondering what it could be about, I walked down to his fourth floor office,” writes Gill, a former election commissioner.
The then chief secretary, E.N. Mangat Rai, stood at the far end looking at a huge map of Punjab on the wall and with a pipe in hand.
“Would you like a change?” Mangat Rai asked the young IAS officer. “If I can get out of the secretariat, yes,” the young officer replied.
“The hills or the desert? I can give you a choice.”
“Any time, the hills.”
It would have to be the high hills – not the Kangra or Kullu districts with their wooded valleys, the trout and the tourist. Gill was put in charge of two districts – Lahaul and Spiti – as the deputy commissioner.
The reader is treated to a visit to the Karding monastery, founded in 1920 by Lama Norbu. It is now one of the biggest monasteries in the Bhaga Valley, inhabited by 30 nuns and Lamas, writes the minister.
Gill probes the local myths – and the pantheon of non-Buddhist gods and goddesses of the region.
In the last chapter, “The Reason Why”, Gill analyses the growth of the twin districts along the border with Tibet, their strategic political and social significance and the problems that decelerate development processes.
“Today, as the sports minister of India, I make sure that the young people of Lahaul and Spiti have equal opportunities to go on youth tours to different countries…No wonder then that when I am sick or in trouble, the Lahaul Lamas say their prayers for me,” says Gill.
The book was released in the capital Friday.