BHUNTAR, HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA.
From obscure origins to a thriving town, explore the metamorphosis of Bhuntar, Himachal Pradesh, India.
The market place in the town of Bhuntar (see Farbound.Net chart your exploration, Bhuntar, Himachal Pradesh, India) buzzes with life on a warm summer day. Voluble conversations and mild arguments are frequently and rudely interrupted by a cacophony of screeching tires, noisy bus engines and blaring horns from vehicles.
People talk about the weather, the prices, farms, orchards, movies, personal dilemmas, politics and tourists. Taxi drivers at the taxi stand indulge in idle chatter and jokes, while waiting for their numbers to be called out. There are not many planes landing at the airstrip and many will be sorely missing out on the extra fares.
Bhuntar ahead. The bypass road on the left was built to ease traffic congestion that would normally occur on busy days. The road on the right is the original National Highway 21.
Close by and unaffected by the recent termination of air traffic, conservatively dressed locals mingle with the more modern generation at an unhurried pace browsing stores and items for purchase. Their sweaters and traditional woolen jackets induce no show of surprise or comments from the bystanders in t-shirts and jeans.
The Himalayan weather can be unpredictable and a sudden thunder shower can eclipse a bright sunny day within minutes. Everyone, up here, knows that.
Besides, most will be getting back to homes high up in the surrounding mountains where the temperature is a whole lot cooler – a few will be walking back on foot with heavy bags strapped to their backs, and up steep and slippery mountain trails.
A lady constable directs traffic during an exceptionally busy day. Lacking traffic signals, it falls to the local constabulary to ensure lesser jams and accidents at crossings.
Summers are usually warm with direct and strong sun rays making deep tans quite common. In winters, the mercury can dip below freezing, though snowfall is rare in the area: when it does occur, it’s a recorded cold winter.
The previous day the town was practically deserted.
Sunday is a holiday and finding supplies can be difficult. But come the weekdays and the alleyways erupt into life with frenzy; transforming the sleepy town into a whirlpool of activities and business transactions.
On busy days, shutters will stay open till past eight in the evening; confectioneries and local eateries will be serving customers by the hour – a healthy sign indicating a healthy growing town.
There is no certainty roadside villages will grow-up into towns and then into cities. Vital factors are important for the transition. Bhuntar, has been lucky till date. It had both the open space and the advantage of location.
On its left bank, the road wends through picturesque settings and small homesteads to the holy sites of Manikaran and to the adventure spots of Khirganga. In the opposite direction, fall numerous other small hamlets. Bhuntar is the closest town for an assortment of supplies and the main access point.
Shops line both side of the narrow strip of road that runs through the market. Buntar is one of the largest supply centers in the valley.
In the early days a pedestrian rope bridge connected both banks and you could walk across and take a bus in either direction. Today, there is a motorable metal bridge (reinforced by the army, after the floods in the 90s) that let vehicles drive through; the rope bridge has given way to a more sturdy cable fastened suspension bridge. Houses have sprung up on both banks. The little village has come a long way.
There is no rule suggesting villages have to develop into towns. Some have even disappeared from the face of the earth.
Bhuntar’s origin is an obscure one, and there is a difference of opinion whether the village actually existed in antiquity. The area has been linked to Manu, the progenitor of mankind in Hindu mythology. However, there is no mention of the name in other sources related to Manu. What is quite possible, though, is that the area could have been sparsely populated by one of the many indigenous tribes that is said to have inhabited the region of Himachal in Vedic chronicles or by later immigrants who swept into the valley.
Road side eateries like the one in the photo are popular in the area. Vegetarian dishes are normally on the menu but some do take to serving mutton or sheep meat curry with rice, cooked in the local style.
Till back in the 50s, there was no road so to speak of. Reaching the area where the town now stands would have taken you a good part of the day and a tiring journey across mountainous country.
Bhuntar then, if the village did exist, would have been a small cluster of shelters huddled together against the cold and the wilderness. Its inhabitants: mostly farmers, weavers, herdsmen. Contact with the outside world restricted to visiting traders, wandering ascetics, and occasional adventurers.
The National Highway 21 built after independence, set the transformation in motion. The road brought in the supplies, the tourists and the settlers. Things didn’t change overnight but they did change. Gradually people realized the benefit of living close to the highway; more homes, sheds and shops emerged on either side. By the time the airport was built, Bhuntar was well on its way to becoming a recognizable landmark on the map.
The sturdy cable attached suspension bridge (mostly used by pedestrians) and the reinforced metal bridge for vehicles farther down allow people to cross over to the left bank. Bhuntar is the main access point for places like Manikaran, Kasol and Khirganga on the other side of the river.
If the National Highway 21 put the area within reach,the Airport turned it into an important destination.
Now, it is one of the busiest towns in the valley and a major transit point for passengers and cargo. An ordinary day will witness a rise and fall in crowd levels till the onset of dusk; coming to a halt only when the last bus leaves for its destination. A bypass was built along the side to ease traffic congestion that had become frequent on the narrow strip that dissects the town. Another was cut out close to the river to help vehicles coming in from the left bank.
Fruit vendors near the bus stop cater to tourists, bus passengers and local residents. Variety has doubled over the years.
The old local shops are actually residential houses with the front end or ground floor fitted out for commerce.
And sometimes, shopkeepers will leave their stores open and unattended to take care of their daily household chores upstairs or in the back. It is all a part of the charming hill culture and sort of like shopping in your neighborhood. People know each other by face and customary greetings include asking about one’s health and family.
Shoppers stop by at the local mobile phone shop. One can find nearly all the top brands on the counter.
Big city fancy stores like specialty joints, multiplexes and malls have yet to make their presence felt. McDonalds, Domino, KFC, Pizza Hut and Subway is unheard of. Home delivery is more of a favour than a value added service. But this, in no way implies their kind will not be there in the future. Sooner or later, some enterprising young mind is bound to hop down to the city and return as a franchise. Young people often tend to do that. They leave to work and stay in cities, then come back to start trends or expand the family business.
In small hill towns demand grows once supplies start pouring in. Yuppie favorite Jockey did pretty well with its range of undergarments and night suits. Advertisement hoardings are predominantly in English, though the local residents communicate in a mixture of Hindi and Punjabi, or broken English when dealing with foreigners.
Language doesn’t seem to influence buying decision. Availability and shopkeepers do. None the less, English is well understood and the public school educated can speak the language as fluently as their counterparts in the Indian cities.
Mechanic shops and automobile service centers are quite common on the highway. This one is situated right on the way to town and can’t be missed.
Home stay options abound in and around the town and budget hotels can be found on both sides of the river. But surprisingly the majority of Indian tourists continue on to Manali or Manikaran.
Construction projects nearby make for a good source of income for residents with extra homes or space – workers and engineers acquire homes in the vicinity on rent, sometimes for the entire duration of their projects. The 3 kilometer long tunnel at Aut, and the ongoing Hydro power project by GreenInfra have been two noted contributors to boosting income levels.
Indian tourists largely skirt the town in favour of Manali and the snow points. A shame really, considering the outlying regions near the town is quintessential scenic countryside, ideal for short hikes and trips; or visiting the Tibetan monastery (situated above the colony of Sarabhai) and temples dating back to the 9th century.
Local villagers lend a hand in repairing a broken parapet on the left bank. Hill communities are close knit and helpful.
Foreigners on the other hand are a more common sight, preferring the natural and uncrowded experience. Kasol on the left bank (accessible via Bhuntar) is a hotspot for western travelers and base for organized treks into the Himalayas covering the Pin Parvati Pass.
Yet, inspite of repeatedly missing out on a large chunk of the Indian tourist rush, that majorly thong the valley during the heat waves down in the plains, the town has expanded steadily. Reaching city level is the next inevitable phase and a few look forward to it.
Quintessential scenic countryside, surrounds the town and is ideal for short hikes and treks. Foreigners are more common. Indian tourists prefer the crowded streets of Manali.
More modern facilities will do the populace good. But at what cost?
The beauty of a hill town is its scenic settings and way of life. Sacrificing that in the bargain would be like losing its identity. Not many want that and it remains to be seen if Bhuntar will be able to make that transition without giving up its irreplaceable traditional roots and scenic surroundings. Perhaps, wishing for a local shop style McDonald outlet isn’t a bad idea after all.