Chail, temple in the clouds

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Ever since we started planning our Himachal itinerary, everybody has been warning us that it would be quite difficult to travel there without a car. Yesterday, we got a taste of what they all meant ! The friendly Daily Needs owner informed us that there are no direct buses from Kasauli to Chail, our next HP destination. However, we could get one to Solan and another from there to Chail. This sounded easy enough. So we checked out of the lovely Hotel Alasia around 9:30am and boarded a Solan-bound private bus at 10am. It took nearly 1.5hrs to cover 30kms, stopping at several places to pick up more passengers. It dropped us off near an auto stand in Solan from where we took an auto to the ‘Old Bus Stand’. There we were told that there are no direct buses to Chail  and that we could get one to Sadhupul, some 17kms before Chail. So we did as we were told. At Sadhupul, we finally boarded a Chail-bound bus, which dropped us off in the main bazaar area of Chail at 2:30pm. It had taken us almost 5 hours to cover 75kms.

When we were dropped off at Sadhupul, the ticket-collector suggested that since the bus to chail would be at least half an hour later, we could get some lunch in the meantime. We took his advice and entered a small store-cum-restaurant that had about 3 or 4 tables with a few benches fitted snugly in a small, dark room. At first I was a little unsure but the place looked absolutely clean and warm. We asked what we could get for lunch and were given two choices: Kadi Chawal or Chapathi with Black Chana curry. Madhu ordered the rice plate while I ordered the chapathis. Both were freshly prepared and absolutely yummy! When we saw a lady order Samosa with chutney, we couldn’t resist ordering a couple of plates of that as well. Needless to say it was really good; in fact, Madhu said that it was probably the yummiest Samosa chutney he’s had. By the time we finished with some piping chai, our bus showed up. The whole delicious meal cost us just Rs.70!

Kasauli had looked and felt like a remote town away from the hustle-bustle of urbanity. chail But compared to Chail, it must be considered to be a well-developed town. The bazaar in Chail where the bus dropped us off, is nothing more than a village chowk with a few stores selling vegetables and household stuff, and a couple of Bhojanalayas (restaurants). At one corner of the street is a taxi stand operated and managed by a union. There were at least 10 to 15 cars parked but there was hardly any activity. I wonder if they ever get enough business! We were assigned a cab to take us to the Chail Palace Hotel, which is 2kms away, for Rs.60.

Built in the late 19th century by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, the Palace of Chail stands at the center of a 75 acre property. It’s said that the king wanted to make his summer palace on the highest peak in town. But a local sadhu who had taken up residence there refused to budge, because of which the palace was built on the 2nd highest peak in town. It’s an absolutely wonderful property with tall cedar woods surrounding the palace and other buildings. The property was handed over to the govt in 1972 after which HP Tourism converted it into a hotel. As our cab drove up to the palace’s entrance, we were charged Rs.100 per head as entry fee. This would later get adjusted against our room rent. The rooms within the palace were a tad too expensive but there were log cabins on the property that could have been had for less. However, we opted for their newly renovated sister property Hotel Himneel, which is half way down the hill from the palace.

Later, around 4:30pm we headed out to explore Chail and decided to start with the steep chail hike to the world’s highest cricket ground. It is 3kms from the hotel, on the other side of the bazaar. A lovely path through the cedar woods led us down from Hotel Himneel to the bazaar. I loved this walk and wished every trek we undertook would be this scenic. En route we passed some cottages, which are also part of the Palace’s property. These are given out to rent as well and are perfect for family vacations. As we walked down the path, a couple of monkeys stared at us benignly. But just as we passed them, they suddenly got aggressive and let out a growl of sorts. Madhu and I, out of pure instinct, growled right back and stood tall without backing off; this is what we’ve learnt to do with aggressive dogs. We also kept walking, not giving the monkeys any chance to attack. We’d read in the guidebooks that monkeys in Chail are quite aggressive and attack on a whim, so carrying a stick during long walks is a must. We were grateful to have gotten away unscathed.

A steep road at one end of the bazaar, from where the buses enter town, leads up to 3 of Chail’s chail must-visit places: the lovely Gurudwara Sahib, Sidh Baba’s temple and of course, the cricket ground. It was a back-breaking climb but exhilarating because of the lovely scenery around us. We stopped at the Gurudwara first. Built in 1907, it is over 100 years old but has been maintained beautifully. It has a Spanish Church-like architecture with its pale cream exteriors and red trim. As we walked in, the friendly priest warmly ushered us in, opening the side doors for us to enter (doors are kept closed because of the menace of wandering monkeys!). We removed our shoes, washed our feet under a tap in the side yard, covered our heads with scarves provided within the Gurudwara and entered the simple but elegant hall. It had pictures of the nine Sikh gurus along the sides of the walls. We loved the calm, serene atmosphere. The priest gave us some prasad and chatted with us amiably. He told us that the Gurudwara is now under the govt’s care and he has been posted by them to take care of the place. He’s been here for the past 12 years and has no complaints. Two of his sons work outside of Chail while his daughters are still studying in the local public schools. He was a very sweet person and we loved talking to him. He even offered some chai but we had to refuse as we needed to complete the rest of the climb and visit the other two places before it got dark.

After some more climbing, we entered Chail’s army cantonment area. This area houses the Rashtriya (Nchailational) Military School, one of 5 in India. Apart from the school, there were some residential quarters and administrative buildings. The path wound up in between these to the top of the hill. We passed a narrow dirt path that forked off to the right. A sign marked this road as one leading to the Sidh Baba temple. We decided on visiting it on our way back down; we were very keen on seeing the cricket ground first.

The world’s highest cricket ground at 7500ft above sea level was laid out by the  Maharaja of Patiala. Today, though, sadly, it serves as a playground for the military school with sections being marked for boxing bouts, basketball and volleyball. It’s a gorgeous ground but we were disappointed that we couldn’t enter it; we had to be content with taking pictures from outside. Right across from the ground is the residence of the school’s principal. It was a lovely one-storied structure with a large lawn in the front; the principal must have a good life!

On our way back down, we climbed up to Sidh Baba’s temple. Steep marble steps led up to it. chail Sidh Baba is the ascetic who refused to give up his abode for the Maharaja’s palace. The temple is a simple, traditional structure with 4 shikharas and a large, stone courtyard before it. It houses a 6ft tall idol of the Baba as well as of the other gods in the Hindu pantheon. There were a lot of monkeys around and their running on the asbestos roof of the temple created plenty of noise and was a little frightening.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the bazaar for dinner at one of the Bhojanalayas. Later as we walked back to the hotel in the dark, we took a wrong turn and ended up climbing higher up to the palace. With all the walking we’ve been doing, we are hoping to lose some of the flab we accumulated during the family breaks!

Today morning we slept in until late and got out for breakfast only at 10am. We decided to give chail the palace’s dining hall a try. It’s a large room that looks like any good, British-era, dining hall. There’s the quintessential fireplace with ornate, wooden furniture and chandeliers. We had porridge and scrambled eggs over toast, both of which were well-made. After the meal, we wandered around the lobby area taking a few pictures. The large, European paintings on the walls were surprisingly prints and not originals. The furniture was elegant and fitting. The paint on the walls looked fresh and well-maintained. We wandered out to the lawns at the right of the palace’s main entrance. This is a lovely space surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of Chail. We would have spent more time here but rain clouds started forming and soon it began to drizzle. We hurried back to Hotel Himneel and spent a leisurely hour on a dry bench under a large cedar tree. Residents of north India are lucky to have such lovely places as Chail within easy driving distance; they are great weekend spots to just relax and stay still for a while.

Later, after the rains subsided, we walked down to the bazaar for a light lunch. The only place that was yet to be explored was the temple, Kali ka Tibba, located atop Blossom Hill, a good 6kms from the bazaar. Earlier we had hopes of trekking up to it but with the bad weather, we weren’t sure if that would be a good idea. So we hired a cab from the taxi stand for Rs.300 (round trip) and it drove us up. The road started out to be relatively flat and very scenic. Madhu and I wondered if we had made a mistake by not walking up this lovely stretch. But later it started to drizzle again and the road got more remote, surrounded by thick foliage. Towards the end the road got very steep and we realized that it would have been a slow, torturous climb up on foot. The temple at the top, though, is totally worth the effort.

Built at a height of more than 7500ft, the temple, built completely of marble is a simple structure chail housing a large idol of Goddess Kali. It is relatively new, having been built just 5 years ago. But what makes the temple spectacular is its location. The view from here is absolutely breathtaking and we just couldn’t get enough of it. There were mountain peaks and valleys all around us. The rain clouds and roar of winds gave the place an unreal atmosphere. One could easily spend hours here reading a book or simply gazing out at the scenery. A pair of friendly dogs pranced about in the temple courtyard while a few men, including the temple priest, worked on a small patch of flower garden. Madhu who loves gardening felt that one couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting for the job. As we rode back down the hill, we felt that the 6km trek is definitely doable in good weather with the fantastic temple and its views as reward for the hard work.

Our stay in Chail has been relaxing and very, very pleasant. We can’t wait to see more of Himachal Pradesh. This state has already become my favorite of all those that we’ve visited so far in India. The people here are warm and the scenery spellbinding. The pace of life is so slow that Madhu and I feel truly relaxed for the first time.

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