Arki : Himachal Pradesh’s Sunny Place
We got into a unique situation this trip. Because of the paperwork that has to be done in Bombay, we have to be back there by Apr 13th. So we pre-booked our return flight from Chandigarh to Bombay for Apr 12th night. After touring Naldehra, we had hoped to continue northeast to Thanedar and from there to Sarahan – that would have completed our tour of Shimla district – before heading back to Chandigarh for the flight. But when we looked at the map on the night of the 6th, we realized that the distance between Sarahan and Chandigarh was almost 300kms. In the plains, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, but here in the mountains, traveling is painfully slow. It would take us an entire day to get to Chandigarh even if we hired a cab for the ride. This meant that we would only have about 4 days to tour Thanedar, hike to Hatu Peak and tour Sarahan; it was definitely not enough! So we decided to keep them for our next visit to HP and instead headed to Arki on 7th morning. It lies to the west of Shimla in the Solan-Sirmour district, bringing us closer to Chandigarh, rather than away.
We got to Arki just after noon and checked into the village’s only known hotel: Palace Retreat. It’s a heritage property built in the same complex as the fort and palace that rise above the village. Situated in the Shivalik hills (foothills of the Himalayan range) at 4100ft above sea level, Arki is much warmer in temperature than the hill towns that we were at for the past few days. So when our car dropped us off at the palace, the afternoon heat completely engulfed and smothered us. We felt drowsy and lethargic. After lunch we drifted off to sleep and ventured out only after 5pm, when the weather cooled ever so slightly.
Arki, meaning ‘sunny place’ (and quite rightly so!) was the capital of the former princely state of Baghal, which gets its name from the leopards (Bagh) that roamed freely in the hills back in the day; not sure if the same can be said of it today, though! The rulers of Baghal built a fort atop the area’s gentle hills and also a royal palace. The original palace was built in the area where Arki’s bazaar stands today. But when it started sinking due to erosion, the royal residence was moved to the fort in the late 18th century. Apart from this fort and the palace within its grounds, Arki has a couple of interesting temples to explore.
Parts of our hotel belong to the original fort complex, while some parts have been added over time. Maybe it’s because of this, but the whole place has a haphazard feel. It would have been nice to have a map of sorts that could point out the original parts of the complex from the newer ones. It would have also been nice to know what purpose each section of the palace or fort served. When the hotel manager walked us around, we could only gape at the pretty structures without really knowing what they were! Today, descendants of the royal family continue to live in a separate wing of the complex. Fronting this wing is a beleaguered garden, which must have looked great in the days when it was watered and maintained well. However, bougainvillea plants are thriving here and they lend a colorful backdrop to the austere architecture around.
The most famous aspect of Arki’s palace is its beautiful Diwan-i-Khas. When we stepped into the narrow, arched hallway, we were stunned by the colorful paintings that covered almost every inch of its surface, except, of course, for the floor. Parts of the paintings have been damaged with time but most portions of it still look intact. The colors looked lovely. On closer inspection, though, the quality of the paintings didn’t match that of the paintings we’ve seen in the wonderful palace of Bundi – those were spectacular!
The Diwan-i-Khas is on the upper floor of the 2-storey palace and has arched windows, which open out into the courtyard below and the valley beyond. Since the windows are not protected from outside elements, the hallway is dirty and poorly maintained. Moreover, the neighborhood monkeys, of which there are plenty, must have a good time frolicking in here; they are probably the main reason for the filth around. We were saddened to see this and wished the hotel management or the royal family did something to maintain the place better – after all, visitors to Arki are here mainly to see this property and its paintings!
Monkeys are everywhere in the fort complex. They don’t seem as aggressive as the ones we saw in Chail but their numbers is intimidating. As we walked around, we felt like we were being watched by them at all times. The fort is not huge so we were able to finish our tour in just a few minutes. The manager suggested that we visit the hotel’s greenhouse, which is just about a kilometer downhill and west of the fort. It produces most of the vegetables required by the hotel’s kitchen. This sounded interesting so we took his advice and walked. The greenhouse is right by the road but at a lower level. It had gotten quite dark by the time we got there and with no street lights, we couldn’t locate the path that would lead us down to it. So we turned back, hoping to return some other time. Later, we sat on the terrace of the one-storied hotel and sipped on chilled soft-drinks, while soaking in the peaceful village atmosphere; it was lovely!
Today morning, after an early breakfast and armed with wooden walking sticks, we started our 2km uphill climb to Arki’s famed Luturu Mahadev temple. One of the hotel staff walked with us to show us the start of the narrow, dirt path that ran up the hill towards the temple. If he hadn’t pointed it out to us, we would have never found it on our own. Even though it was just about 9am, the air was thick with the morning heat. The path was strewn with thorny shrubs, dry plants and plenty of cacti. The foliage was very atypical of Himachal; it looked more like that of Maharashtra. The sticks aided us in climbing up the steep, rocky path and it also helped in pushing aside the thorny shrubs that came in our way. The hotel manager had mentioned in passing that they would also be useful in warding off snakes that may show up to sunbathe in the morning heat; I tried not to think about that¦
The narrow trail brought us to a concrete, wide road that went further uphill. It led us to a parking lot; people driving up from the village have to park here and then continue on foot using the concrete steps that snaked up into the hill by it. As we walked up these, we realized that we preferred dirt trails over steps; somehow they seem less strenuous. The climb was steep and we took several breaks. Benches were provided next to the steps at regular intervals; we probably sat on all of them.
Luturu Mahadev temple is a pink-and-white, 3-storied structure that doesn’t really look like a temple, except for a Shikhara that rises atop it. I wasn’t very impressed with its facade and kept hoping that at least its interiors would make the climb worth the effort. When we finally got to it, steep marble steps led further up and behind it to a cave at the top. This cave is the actual temple and not the pink-and-white structure, which is probably where the priests live. We were quite relieved by this, especially since the cave-temple has a wonderful atmosphere, making us completely forget the hard climb up to it. As we walked in, a young priest went about his morning rituals, cleaning and decorating the tiny worship area. The ceiling of the cave slopes in to the wall at the back, almost creating a triangular-shaped space within. A small opening in the ceiling allows natural light to float in, giving the place a dreamy, unreal feel. We sat quietly on mats and watched the priest, who ignored us completely, go about his work; these were probably some of the quietest and most peaceful moments ever¦
The climb back down was definitely easier and we made good time. We passed the parking lot and found the dirt trail that would lead us back down to the hotel. However, somewhere along the way, the trail vanished before our eyes! We found ourselves surrounded by shrubs on all sides with no visible or clear path. I wanted to retrace our steps back but Madhu knew that the trail was somewhere close by and we could get to it by continuing downhill. So we did just that, pushing aside thorny plants with our sticks and squeezing past large cacti that seemed to be everywhere. We got to a point where we could see the trail clearly ahead of us but the only way to get to it was to slide down a steep, short slope and hack our way out of some thick shrubbery. I really didn’t want to do this but knew that we would only waste more time by turning around and probably get more lost. So we forged ahead and after some sliding and beating down some thick shrubs, we emerged on to the trail, suffering some minor scratches and pricks along the way.
After a hot shower, lunch and a much-deserved siesta, we headed out in the evening to explore Arki’s bazaar and Luturu Mahadev temple’s twin, Muturu Mahadev temple . The hotel manager pointed out to some steps that led down from the fort to a path that cut past some homes to the bazaar below. This is a shortcut; if we had taken the road from the hotel to the highway below and backtracked to the village, it would have been a long, boring walk.
Arki’s bazaar is small and colorful with many utility stores on either side of the narrow roads. What I liked most, though, is how clean and neat the place looked; it was beautiful! Some of the homes looked really old with carved wooden doors and windows. They gave the streets a quaint, vintage feel – we loved it! The bazaar led us downhill till we neared its end. Here we asked a lady for directions to the temple. Instead of just telling us where to go, she sent her little girl (probably around 8 to 10 yrs old) to lead us there .
If Luturu Mahadev was built on the highest point possible in Arki, its twin, Muturu Mahadev, quite interestingly, has been built at the base of Arki’s hills. The little girl led us to the head of a set of steps that worked its way down to the temple. We thanked her profusely and headed down. I wondered if the descent would be as long and steep as the climb up to Luturu; thankfully, it wasn’t! The temple at the base is not as nice or interesting either. Its facade is plain, white and boxy. This has been built against the hillside so the ceiling and back wall of the temple is the rock that juts out from above; the rock has been painted white as well. It was quite dark within so we could only peek in from the outside. We spotted a stone lingam and some pooja items around it. The temple premises were a little wet and damp because of a rush of water that spilled out from a couple of spouts – not sure where the source was! The whole place was deserted so we didn’t stick around for long.
Arki is a great place to relax and has just about enough stuff to explore as well. The weather wasn’t particularly pleasing at this time but I’m sure it’s nicer during the winter months. It hardly feels or looks like Himachal, though. We felt like we were in a hill station of Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. I guess, we’ve come to identify Himachal by its lofty heights, cool weather and absolutely beautiful Deodar trees; none of this exists here, which was a little disappointing.