Sarahan-The Temple Town for the Pilgrim and the Traveller, Himachal

Sarahan temple town in Himachal Pradesh. (sanjay austa austa)

Sarahan temple town in Himachal Pradesh. 


I travelled to Saharan with my mom in the winter of 2007. A devote and a non-believer we both found our own meaning in this small HImachali hill town. (Published first in the  Deccan Herald 2010)

As you wind your way up the hill,  it is easy to mistake the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation Hotel for the famous Bhimakali temple  built as it is in its crude imitation.  You can see it hanging precipitously overhead  but there are more bends in this hill road before you can see the real thing.

Sarahan, like most small hill stations in Himachal is a pilgrim town – an overgrown village really- where life revolves around its local God. The temple that enshrines the deity is ancient so are the myths and legends that keep changing depending on whom you talk to. No one minds the daily loud chimes of the temple bells mornings and evenings and my mother who is traveling with me as a pilgrim sighs inwardly in her serene way  on hearing the first distant bell. Sarahan however has something for both the pilgrim and the traveler. I don’t share my mom’s passion for the Sarahan God but am intrigued by the history, the unique landscape, and the views.

Sarahan,  has an unusual landscape. It is not really a plateau. It is a huge piece of relatively flat landmass jutting out from a steep hillside. From the highway you cannot imagine that a town exists up here with flourishing apple orchards, a revered temple , rich history and hill folklore. Most tourists just pass it by as they cannot see it from the highway and move on to what they can ; the  Kinnaur mountains that loom up ahead. But once up here you are rewarded with great views and get a taste of culture, unique to this part of Himachal. Sarahan overlooks a steep valley and you can see Satluj flow in its crevice. Up in the skies ahead is  the Srikhand Mahadev mountain snowcapped and majestic. Though only 5227 meters high , the close proximity to the 2150 meters Sarahan town lends  it a skyscraper’s grandiosity.

It is early evening by the time we arrive at this strange landscape and without ‘freshening up’ in our hotel rooms my mom and I get down to what we came for. My mom head-covered dashes straight to the temple for the evening aarti while I fix a wide angel lens on my camera and look for a vantage point.

I realize the best place to frame the entire Sarahan Town along with the Srikhand mountain is to climb the hillside. A narrow path leads up the hill and disappears after a few meters. I am in someone’s apple orchard . The owner is in the distance pruning his apple trees and  noticing me he gestures animatedly. At first I think he is shooing me off but realize he is actually urging me to climb up higher. ” Climb up to  that pine tree. Better picture from there’’, he shouts in his sing- song Hindi. Apparently he is used to footloose travelers  tramping his orchard beds for a better shot. It has not exhausted his patience but he is a willing conspirator. This is just as well. Sarahan like most Himachali villages has the simplest of folks. They are not only ready to help you execute your whims on the journey but enthusiastically partake in them. Sarahan is an apple-growing region and most of the people work in their orchard. When not in the orchard they bask in the sun around the Temple complex discussing local politics.

The famous Bhimakali temple is located in the middle of Sarahan. It is a twin tower structure with an Indo-Tibetian architecture, the roof distinctly pagoda shaped. One of the towers is a new temple reconstructed recently over a much older temple that was so old and worn that it would have collapsed sooner than later. Bhimakali is regarded as the reincarnation of Goddess Durga. The temple gained notoriety for human sacrifices in the 16th and 17th centuries but animals are still put to the knife on Dusherra to appease the gods. Like most temples this one was also patronized by the local Rajas before Independence. The rulers of Bushahr State – a relatively wealthy and pro- British state in Himachal, picked Saharan as their summer capital. Palaces of the Bushahr rulers with beautiful Himachali architecture stands in all towns they ruled. An empty palace stands in Sarahan too. It is now owned by the heir and  Chief Minister of  Himachal,  Virbhadra Singh. The gates to the palace are open to everyone except on days when Virbhadra Singh,who is still treated as loyalty in these parts, comes to pay a visit.

Apart from this temple and the palace, a small attraction for bird lovers here is a tiny aviary tucked in the folds of the mountainside , some  distance from the palace. Apart from the regional birds of Himachal including the state bird monal, there is the endangered western tragopan. A captive breeding programme to restore its population runs from this aviary.

Sarahan is small and a two-day trip is good enough for both the pilgrim and the traveler. My mother with her assortment of temple offering and me with memory cards full of pictures are both satisfied as we turn the bends again making our way gingerly down to the highway.

How to Get here:
Sarahan is 564 km from Delhi and 174 km from Shimla. The best way to get here is to first reach Shimla- by road, or train (till Kalka), or air (Chandigarh is the closest airport)- and then travel to Sarahan by road. From Shimla, taxis or jeeps can be hired and a bus service is available for the 6-hour journey. If driving in from Delhi, one can break journey in Shimla.


4 Responses to “Sarahan-The Temple Town for the Pilgrim and the Traveller, Himachal”

  1. Mukul Sheopory says:

    Beautiful article Sanjay! Conjures up memories of my trip to Sarahan with my brother’s family. The beauty of the view from Sarahan is matched only by the simplicity of it’s residents. Just like the orchard owner aided you in getting your perfect shot, we encountered the maali at the Aviary. After chatting for a bit he realized that we were travelers and invited us to his home for some tea. We did not burden him with our hospitality but were touched by his kind offer. It really showcased the generosity and kindness of Himachalis and made me realize how lucky I was to have lived in Himachal and in their midst for a decade as a kid.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thank you Mukul. I remember you had gone there. I am not undermining the naturally hospitable Himachali, but one reason for their kindness and generosity is due to abundance of time to indulge in such goodness. Its sometimes the cities and the hectic pace of our lifestyles that make us forget these small gestures. A Himachali (yours truly included) would just not have the time living in a big city to offer anything to a stranger.

  2. Lovely write-up on Sarahan, Sanjay! Very inspiring.

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