Early morning drive from Shimla to Charabara. We begin the Hike around Shimla From Charabara, take a plunge down and a climb back through the picturesque Mashobra valley which is mirrored by the tall Shali Peak (3200m). The route holds thick woods where practically every tree of the region grows – Himalayan Cedar (the almost legendary ‘Deodar’), Spruce, Oak, Rhododendron, Horse-Chestnut, Birch and Pine. Depending on the time of year, a variety of wildflowers grace the hillsides – the rhododendrons flower a dark red in spring, summer has banks of roses, daises and buttercups, the monsoons speckle the luxuriant grass with lilies-of-the-valley and peonies. Through the year, flitting butterflies stab quick flashes of color. The trail crosses picture-perfect hamlets where the word ‘time’ seems to mean only the seasons and the passing years – and where life has followed a steady pace for centuries. Trace fast flowing streams, cross a ‘sacred grove’ whose majestic trees have stood undisturbed for centuries, watch village craftsmen at work, listen to legends that seem as old as the hills – and in a single day, take a lifetime’s memory of some of the marvels that the lower Himalayas hold.
There are two start-options – one can walk down from Charabara to Mashobra Bazaar (30 to 40 minutes) or drive down to the Bazaar (20 minutes) and then start the hike.
Through woods of Himalayan Cedar and Spruce, the path to Seepur takes a steady dip down the valley. Past fields and orchards and wood and slate houses one arrives at the glade of Seepur – which the vicerene Lady Lytton called a “tea-cup shaped valley” and was popular for midnight picnics in the days of the Raj. Several slim streams fed by fresh-water springs nurture the soft grass of Seepur. The glade is held sacred to the local deity, Seep who ‘visits’ the spot at select times of year. Shaded by colossal Cedars, a delightful little temple built in the local style with stone and wood, rests on an edge. Smaller shrines merging with the woods are also there. This is the site of an annual fair held over the second weekend of April – and is a time for local matchmaking.
From Seepur the decline eases out to the tiny village of Shali, which holds a dozen charmingly rustic structures – and is probably named in honour of the facing peak. Here, the hike-path that snakes along the hill holds a bifurcation, and along a mild incline the route takes a right. This also marks the end of the descent. The view on the facing hill has terraced fields and age-old villages. Along the narrow path, the only sounds one is likely to hear are of one’s own breathing and the crunch of boots over scattered cones. The silence only punctuated by the song of a Himalayan Thrush or Barbet.
After Shali comes the home of the deity Seep at Deothi. Local legend has it that the deity was brought with the erstwhile rulers of the Koti state – in whose former territories the hike lies – when they migrated here from Kutlehar, which lies north-west. The temple was first established in the village of Nehra. This tract was then ruled by mavis, local strongmen who wished to share in the worship of Seep. When this was refused, the mavis started desecrating the temple. ‘Speaking’ through his worshippers, Seep declared that he wanted to move from Nehra and a day would come when a long line of ants would march through the village and where they finally circled a mound, was where he wished to reside. The ants came and circled a mound in what is now the village of Deothi – and where Seep was ceremoniously installed. The identity of this local deity has steadily been merged with that of Lord Shiva, the destroyer in the Hindu trinity. Styled as a tall gabled mushroom and belonging to an architectural genre unique to this part of the world, Seep’s temple rests at the edge of a small spur and is surrounded by other structures that ‘belong’ to him – a storehouse, a pavilion and a room for folk musicians.
Cameo appearances of pomegranate trees and tumbling streams that come close to becoming waterfalls, fresh water springs embellished with utilitarian stonework and a little bridge mark the passage to Mulkoti. Walls of shale and quartzite, now reduced to rubble, hold the remains of the little fort of the Raja of Koti where, centuries ago, the Koti rulers first established themselves.