Exploring Sissu, Unearthing Lahauli Culture and History
28th November 2019
For long I had wanted to travel slow to Leh by road, exploring the little villages that fell on the Manali- Leh Highway but one thing came after another until the weather prevented me from chasing my dreams. It was one chilly rainy Bir evening when I was sitting curled up under a blanket, finishing some pending work that an email popped up telling me how I had won a 2 nights’ stay at a hostel in Leh. I took this as a sign from the Universe, boarded an overnight bus to Manali, spent the next night in a shoddy hotel room right next to the ISBT and caught the 6 am bus the next morning heading to Keylong, the mid-point of the Manali to Leh journey.
The first village in Lahaul from Manali is Khoksar, a small place where people only come to register themselves at the police check post before heading on to their journey further. After the registrations were done and all passengers were climbing back into the bus, the conductor sipping a cup of tea considered me and then asked, “aap kaha jaa rahe ho?” (where are you headed?) “Sissu”, I replied and he looked at me funny. As it turned out, not many could understand my weird obsession with wanting to explore this remote region that no one pays enough attention to. The conductor told me I’ll be better off in Keylong since it’s the administrative capital of Lahaul and a bigger town with ‘proper facilities’. When he couldn’t change my stubborn heart, he just shrugged and got into the bus himself.
About two hours after departing from Khoksar, the conductor asked me which side of the bridge I wanted to get off at. Confused and clueless, I told him I just want to find a homestay. I was informed that Sissu lives in two parts, separated by a bridge in the middle. I asked him to drop me off as soon as the village begins and told him I’ll figure the rest out myself. With a 15 kilos rucksack and a 5 kilos backpack, I was the only one who got off at this unseeming little village and the bus rumbled on ahead leaving behind a huge cloud of dust in my face. In the middle of the afternoon, I couldn’t see a single soul out on the road and so I decided to test my luck at the first homestay I saw. I entered, knocked at several doors inside and called out hello a few times to no response. Then a gentleman appeared out of nowhere and informed me the owners aren’t accepting any guests since the season has ended. He then told me I’ll probably have a tough time finding a place to stay since most places are either shut or not accepting guests.
What's In Here
Finding a home during offseason: Sissu version
Hungry and tired from having to lug around 20 kilos in the mid-noon heat, without having any luck with the past few homestays, I finally reached the other side of the bridge and was walking past a big vibrant monastery of some sorts until I saw the board “Triveni Guest House” hanging on its wall.
Without much hope, I went in but could thankfully cop myself a beautiful mountain view triple-bed room overlooking the Plm Dhara or the Sissu Waterfall complete with an attached shower and a working TV at just 500 rupees a night! Travelling in offseason? Yes, please!
After I washed up, I finally went downstairs to grab some lunch and here I was introduced to Dadu, an ancient man who claimed to be a hundred years old, with pale blue eyes and hand-knit socks on his feet. Dadu is the owner of Triveni Guest House and was pleasantly surprised to see a young girl travelling solo during the offseason. His trouble with hearing did not keep him from making conversation and asking me about myself and then proceeding on to telling endless tales of Lahaul, of Sissu and of his youth.
Of museums and Lahauli culture
Later that day as I was making my way back to my room after an evening stroll, I ran into Gaurav, the manager who introduced me to a young man who I quickly presumed to be from the city owing to his fluent English. Uday was Dadu’s grandson and the Chief Medical Officer who was recently posted to Sissu, his hometown. Though a Lahauli himself, he had spent all his life growing up in cities- first Shimla then Delhi- but soon decided it was time to head home and explore his cultural roots. Gaurav and Uday invited me to the museum that Dadu had lovingly built to help travellers learn about the culture of Lahaul. We were one of the very first people to step inside this little room that immediately took us back a few centuries. With ancient farming and hunting tools, and utensils and traditional clothes, I couldn’t stop gaping at all the little things that Dadu had preserved for so many years and decided to display them intricately in that little room.
I saw the utensil used for making butter tea and barley wine, I saw grain bags made of animal hide so weather and rodents couldn’t get to it. There was a richly decorated royal looking men’s coat just casually hanging in a corner that had coins for buttons. I saw saddles for horses and I also saw a dusty old black and white picture of Dadi and Dadu with the royal family of Spiti and then another picture of a gorgeous eight-storey fort. I wondered out loud where it is, and if I could visit it and as it turned out, Dadu is a descendent of the family that used to rule a neighbouring village many many many years ago. Uday was himself interested in going and seeing the place so the evening eventually ended with a sunset run to an ancient fort known as Gondhla Fort in which only six of the eight storeys survive today.
Gondhla, a historic 8-storey wooden fort near Sissu
Gondhla is a tiny hamlet situated by the banks of the Chandra River some 15 kilometres from Sissu towards Keylong on the Manali- Leh Highway. The history of this massive wooden fort, the only fort of Lahaul, goes way back. While some say the fort was built 20 generations ago from the present Thakur, Fateh Chand, Lahaul and Spiti district officially claimed that this fort dates back to the 1700s and was built under one Raja Man Singh of Kullu who married into the Gondhla family to strengthen and expand his territory.
The Fort is sadly no more accessible and I heard that it may be being sold off to somebody who is planning to turn the fort into a museum. I would’ve wished for a restoration project but well, who am I to wish…
A hanging glacier and its falling chunks…
As we were driving back to Sissu from the fort, Uday suddenly pulled the car over to the side of the road and asked me to get off. We went over to the edge, and in front of us, across the river, stood a massive hanging glacier on a mountain so big that I had to strain my neck to see the peak. I was then told that huge chunks of ice break off from this glacier and fall below creating a loud sound and a dramatic phenomenon.
I later realized that this was the exact same spot that also made an appearance at the very beginning of the Ronny and Barty video “Let’s Talk About Lahaul“. After I reached my room that late evening, I spent about an hour trying to find why this happens or what the name of that mountain or glacier is, but to no avail. I guess some things are better left unexplained!
And before I knew it, my first day in a strange land with strange people had successfully come to an end and I slept well in a strange bed, not knowing what the next, strange day had in store for me.
A twenty-something solo adventurer, Avantika finds comfort in learning about various cultures, its people and listening to age-old folk tales. When not on the road, she can be found cuddled up with her dog in her room, with a book in her hand.