Kullu -Manali Bhunter Airport ,  A historical profile

Surprisingly, very little has been written about the historic Kullu (Bhuntar) airport situated 10 km downstream on the right bank of the River Beas at Bhunter . An enterprising Britisher named Duff Dunbar built a suspension bridge to connect the town to the left bank way back in 1875 and Col. Rennick established several large fruit gardens and the Garh Tea  Eastate  between Bajaura and Bhuntar . (The Garh estate is now owned by Harbans Lal Vaidya whose father Lala Hira Lal Vaidya hailing from Mandi bought it in 1920). Another adventurous British Officer, Mr. Grant Goven conceived, developed and acquired the site of the present airport between these two landmarks .Here he laid a grass surfaced runway in1929. The arrival of the very first aircraft aroused a great deal of excitement among the people. Old timers recall instances of some people rushing to Bhuntar with offerings of fruits and flowers to the wonderful “Vimana” .This airstrip was used by the aviation clubs of Patiala and Jullundhar (now Jalandhar). The elite membership of which, including Jimmy Johnson’s father, were Col. CR Johnson, several other British and Rajas of Punjab. On several occasions, in those days the grass airstrip used to look like a picnic spot. A game of cricket or motor car racing on it was a common occurrence. A rare photograph of British engineer Donald (who constructed the Mandi-kullu road in 1929) seated in his historic Chevrolet car with a club aircraft in the backdrop needs to be traced out.

Then Punjab Govt. Constituted a State Level Tourism Advisory Committee under the chairmanship of the then Chief Justice, GD Khosla, who persuaded the Punjab Chief Minister, Sardar  Partap Singh Kairon to start a bi-weekly air service between Chandigarh and Bhunter. In October 1958, Kairon Sahib  himself landed here for the inaugural flight .These Indian Airline flights were ridiculously cheap at 78 rupees for a one way trip offering 50% discount for student on presenting on a concession card. This practice continued till 1969. These days the Delhi-kullu flight costs a fortune, billed as the highest in the country for a similar trip . The kullu district was formed in 1963 with Sardar Gurdarshan Singh as its first Deputy Commissioner. Other young Sikh Deputy commissioner who served in the nearby tribal district of Lahaul and Spiti, Mr KS Bains (who established Lahaul Potato Growers co-op. Society) and Mr. MS Gill (past Chief Election Commissioner) who enjoyed a good clout in the CMs office, played a crucial role in maintaining regular air service at reasonably low costs till 1966, when mountain region of Punjab were merged with Himachal Pradesh State and the airfare  climbed upwards never to come down. Old timers, connected with this air field, proudly recall how they used to be party to a couple of undisclosed trips of Nehru, Gandhi and Kairon familiar to the valley. These visit were invariably followed by the national press that gave them a world wide media exposure.

The early Indian Airlines piston-engine DC-3s (better Known as Dakotas) used to land on the grass surface. These flights were restarted in the seventies. Later on safe-landing of bigger aircraft like the turboprop Avros was made possible by providing a 3500 ft .long tarmac runway. The present Kullu Airport Terminal building and Indian oil corporation Depot were added on 7th sep. 1974 and further expansion is going on these days. This airport stands prominently in the aviation map, due to its strategic location on the Chandigarh-Manali-Ladakh route.

After the eruption of terrorism in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in 1988, Kullu Valley experienced a sudden boom in the tourism sector bringing in hordes of private airline companies vying with each other. Vayudoot, Raj Air, UP Airways, Jagson Airlins and Archana Airways all had their operating base here with offices in the airport complex itself. Vayudoot had played a crucial role in the promotion of aviation based tourism in the initial years. Now in absence of any tangible competition from other players Jagson airlines alone has kept  the fly  flying. Raj Air’s 50 seater Ahmedabad-Mumbai- Kullu which was a instant secess unfortunately close down in just 3 months. Like wise Archana Air’s effort to launch Dash A 300, 50-seater met a similar fate due to technical reasons.

The future of this airport should not be sealed here itself by declaring it unfit for expansion on technical grounds. The Ministry of Civil Aviation seems to be taking extraordinary steps to provide event of human error. At present the airport does not ever have runway lights. The demand to increase the runway length is pending with the government for a long time. In fact , the final answer lies in construction of an  international airport  in this part of the country. Unfortunately, no suitable site is available here and it is virtually impossible  to tame the fury of neighbouring Beas.

Landing at Bhuntar airstrip requires a high degree of expertise in precision flying which envisages negotiating a fairly narrow valley, not more than 1000 meters wide, between towering mountains on either side, when ace-pilot Mehar Singh (of Leh- Ladakh Dakota landing fame) first brought a Dakota aircraft to land on this airstrip in the spotless white pilot’s uniform landed his 45 seater Indian Airlines aircrafts  on the kuccha strip amidst a cloud of dust. Like any other dare-devil operation, where the going is good everything looks glamorous but one mishap mars all the good work done. Kullu airpot has seen very few incidents of mishaps during its eight decades of existence. These include two air-crashed involving club aircraft in 1965 and 1969. Another crash involving the then Punjab Governor Surender Nath Malhotra took place on the 9th July 1994 and a Czech-made Archana Airways passenger aircraft has also crashed here against a mountain enveloped in thick clouds.

This historic airport seems to be receiving a serious attention of the ministry of Civil Aviation commensurate with its status as the most strategically located airbase. At present it lacks the optimum crisis management facilities. The demand for subsidizing the airfare at par with other sectors, provision of modern aircraft landing systems, industry from time to time. The load of air traffic has increased manifold due to its being the most convenient air base for military helicopter based operations. Himachal Government has its own twenty seat helicopter for civilian use. Overcrowding on the runway is a frequent scene.

Many aviation experts have opined that Sundernagar area is most suitable for development as an International airport. Construction of smaller airport in Spiti at Rangrik is another demand of the  industry as well as the tribal people so thst highland tourism of this mystic mountain destination gets a boost and progresses on the lines of tourism in the near by Leh- Ladakh.

Old Manali

Manali village down the ages

Manali Village Down the Ages

Manali village now popularly referred to as old Manali is perhaps, as the name suggests one of the oldest settlements of the area locally called the upper valley .This conjecture gets further support from the fact that Manali town, a later development, has usurped  the name from this village and forced it to take on an epithet to preserve its separate and older identity. The comparatively large
mass of fertile land on the right bank of river Beas marked by the Manalsu river on the southern end and the S
olang river on the northern end is home to several villages ; starting with Old Manali and moving in the northerly direction you have Goshal, Shanag, Burua and Majhach. Old Manali  the southernmost village, on the left bank of Manalsu, is separated from the other villages by a rock cliff,called Fishna pot, opposite Bhang. This rock obstacle had, in fact, prevented the coming up of the vehicular road that presently connects  old Manali with these village . The main habitation of the village is concentrated in the south western part of the village and it has a vast expanse of fields and orchards, called Manali-ri-ser, which extends down to the banks of the river. Old Manali with a population of about 1800 is one of the biggest villages of the upper valley.

The present day old Manali, criss-crossed by a narrow network of lanes and by lanes, is a crowded place with new and old buildings jostling for space. Most of the houses are along the narrow vehicular road that climb up from the Manalsu Bridge and terminates at the Manu Temple. This majestic temple renovated in the eighties is the seat of Manu Rishi, the sage who gave the socio-religious laws to the country and importantly enough, its name to this place-the name Manali has descended from manuallaya, meaning abode of Manu The mythic association of the place is with the seventh Manu, Vaivasvata, who after the great deluge set foot on this Himalayan  territory to start the post-delusion human civilization. However, the founding of the temple here, obviously, came much later and has an interesting legend attached to it ; it is believed that  a mendicant sadhu, while passing through the village, asked a village maiden to milk a heifer which to everyone’s surprise yielded milk. He subsequently led the village to the discovery of buried stone idols around which the earlier small chalet type temple was erected.The present temple has been built around the sanctum sanctorum of this very temple. Interestingly this important god of the village is never ceremonially taken out in the form of a rath (palanquin) as is the custom with regard to all other gods and goddesses  of  the valley. Although the frame work of the rath exists it is never decked ceremonially as it is believed to be hugely unwieldy and the bearers find it impossible to handle. The close association that  the god enjoy with the  nearby goddess, Hadimba, has evolved a custom whereby the masks of Manu are carried on the rath of Hadimba. This fact can be observed at the time of offering animal sacrifices to Hadimba; the masks of Manu, a saga who does not accept such sacrifices , are covered on all such occasions. All the other masks representing Manu are kept im the village Mandhr located in the central part of the village . Only once a year, on the occasion of Phagli, are these masks brought out in the sun for display and worship, otherwise they are kept wrapped inside the Mandhar. Manu devta is  worshipped by the people here because he had freed them from the threat of Tundia Raksh, a demon, who constantly terrorised and gobbled them up. According to the prevalent legends, Manu with the help of Shandil Rishi was able to overpower the demon, and to further ensure lasting peace, struck a pact with him. Tundia was not to attack the people of region in return for which he was offered a village belle as a bride. This was a happy settlement for the villager but not for Timber Chachki, the maiden so betrothed. To forestall any curse from the maiden the rishis made her their foster sister, and promised her hat each year, for a full period of eleven days, she would be granted a grant reception and offered royal hospitality by the villager. In this story lies the origin of the festival of phagli which is celebrated each year starting second Sunday of the month of Magh, provided itfalls on a odd date, if not, it is pushed ahead to the third Sunday. During this period one strange custom is the burning of human hair; this is presumably done to appease the cannibalistic instincts of the demons accompanying Timber Chachki

Several other minor devtas that find a place of worship in the village are:Dhaani devta, Chebbu Deo, Patal Deo, Jhomta Deo etc. It might come as a surprise to many that the village to has an association with vashist Rishi, the saga after whom the village Vashist is named, In the midst of the lower habitation of the village is a wide open space called Bosht-e-saw, meaning place of Vashist. According to a legend, the sage had first chosen this village as a spiritual abode for his meditations and attainment of higher goals. The villagers each evening would fill up his alms bowl kept outside his huold-manali-barn-houset. Once it so happened that an ignorant villager put some mutton into that bowl. The Rishi was enraged and there and then left the village; striding over the wide stretch of fields, Manali-ri-ser , her crossed the river Beas and founded his abode in Vashist village. He cursed the villagers saying : for the gift of flesh and bones/you’ll be visited by sand and stones. It is believed that the floods that followed soon destroyed much of the Manali-ri-ser and also increased the gulf between the banks of the river, at this point, to unbridgeable proportions.

The old Manali village of a few decades ago, marked into three distinct habitation clusters with large open spaces in between was certainly more picturesque in terms of setting then: The cliffy hillock facing log hut area on the opposite bank of Manalsu, was virtually bereft of all the buildings that now cling to its south-eastern slope. Atop this hillock in times of yore stood a fort of the rulers of the region; thought now an uneven  flat it is still referred to as garh, which in the local dialect means fort. There are several sports here which are marked as holy because of their association with many of the village deities particularly Veer Devta. These places, therefore, are often visited on many festival and other such occasion like Mundan- the ceremony of offering the first crop of a child’s hair. However, the main public gathering here takes place on the occasion of the phagli. The use of the stones and slabs from the fallen fort being a taboo, even a minor excavation here throws up these remains, in ample measure, as evidence of the ancient fort. On the eastern slope of the garh earlier stood a comparatively smaller cluster of houses called barheta; this predominately harijan habitation, enjoyed a place of vantage, next to the rulers, possibly because one of the later rulers came from their community. He was called Muchaini, because of his long moustaches and had forcibly occupied the throne after killing the then ruler, Rana Jhina.

The other two clusters of habitations were the Ujjali Behr meaning upper habitation and the Bunnali Behr, meaning lower habitation. The Manu temple was at the north-eastern corner of the ujjali Behr whereas the Mandhar was nearly at the intersection of the two Behrs . However, the growth and development of the past few decades have filled up all the in-between vacant spaces and the openness of the past has been replaced by claustrophobic closeness. Now with the opening of the road to village Goshal and beyond, a fresh area for new constructions has opened up along this road; as a result the village is expanding in the easterly direction, towards the banks of the river. This movement of taking the habitations close to the proximity of the rivers is a recent development as the cautions earlier settlers kept their dwelling at a safe distance from the river. In old Manali too the ancient trend was no different; there are scattered remains of habitations that existed in the higher slopes, whether these were common dwellings or sanctuaries or plain hide-outs is anybody’s guess. The remotest of such locations is Mangan Kot; it is situated on a high hill, deep above the forests the north of the village.In all probability it was the sanctuaries of the rulers  who ruled from the Garh; legend has it that the fatally wounded folk hero, Rana Jhina died on the way to this hideout where his consorts had already taken shelter. Another interesting story about the place is that it is now the abode of Joginis who cannot withstand the slightest of defilement; in the event of any such occurrence taking place, even though accidently, it is immediately followed by purifying showers. Whenever long spells of drought  threatened the inhabitants of the area it was the accepted practice to intentionally defile the place to induce rain; it is a common belief that the method never failed.

Talking of the earlier times the most scenic part of Old Manali was the area around the Govt. School. This area across the old bridge over Manalsu (not far from the present one) was then a grassy Knoll bisected by a sinuous water channel dotted with petite water mills. The place because of this association is still called Gorat Aage; gorat in the local dialect stands for water mill hence the name-Mill point. The amazing pristine beauty of this spot has been captured by many Bollywood films in their dance and song sequences; two such films that come to mind are Himalaya Ki god mein and Geet. The scenes from the films are stark reminders of the price that development extracts. Presently, with the amount of shopping and eating options available, it is the hub of tourism activities. The village is a well Known haunt of the foreigners and is highly popular with the Israeli backpackers who when the season comes calling descend in droves. The extent of importance that it has for Israelis can be gauged from the fact that a seasonally functional Chabath house-Jewish prayer centre, with a visiting rabbi, too has been established here this was recently in the news on account of being one of the possible targets identified by Headly during his diabolical mission in the guise of a tourist.

Old Manali offer a truly strange and fascinating contract of colour, culture and cuisine that can never fail to attract curious eyeballs: the locals in their caps and pattoos– their traditional attire go about their tasks rubbing shoulders with the visitors in all kinds of outlandish wear; the houses exist cheek by jowl with the hotels; you have here the swelling concrete structures squeezing out the vernacular built Kath-Kuni houses; traditional farming practices, cattle and sheep rearing here goes hand in hand with cyber cafe and the business of money changing; What to speak of eateries: there are German bakeries, Chinese food joints and restaurants that offer local dishes, Jewish and European food-in fact you name it you have it; You have colourful shops selling handicrafts and artefacts of the widest possible ethnic range along with dresses of all hues and makes. The unique ambience that all this creates with may be some hidden attractions have made Old Manali a must visit place for not only a special kind of tourists but all other as well. One other striking feature about the village is its demographic homogeneity and the exceptional unit of the populace; only true born natives make up the population, mainly because they are all averse to thought of selling land. However, this may not hold true for long as the rising wave of commodification of land may not be easy to resist and this has already starting with regard to peripheral holdings. Never the less  when it comes to collective matters the village stands as one; as the common saying goes each Manala, meaning a villager of Old Manali, stands for shot (60)  Manale meaning the whole village-one for all and all for one-what an expression of unity! Manali perhaps, must be the only village where volunteering is the accepted way of life; on all occasions of marriages and other public feasts no outside help is ever engaged; the cooking, distribution and washing is all undertaken by teams of village volunteers; whereas the cooking and distribution of food is taken care of by the men folk, the women look after the washing and distribution of plates and glasses. And all this is done in eco-friendly manner as the disposable plates and glasses are not the preferred things, though sadly use is slowly stepping up. The women folk in the village enjoy a status of equality unlike elsewhere; when it come to celebration time they can be seen publicly enjoying their drink or two.

This being my maternal village, during my student days, I used to visit it frequently for no rhyme or reasons; but over the years my visit have become few and far between and somehow I have failed to notice the transition . In many mindscape the picture of ‘Old’ Manali is so deeply etched that whenever I see the changed face of the village the old inerasable impressions return to haunt me.