Driving up for hours, I looked forward to the pristine air and lush outdoor adventure playground that Himachal Pradesh promises to be. Usually the route is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but construction work on the road had left it particularly dusty.
I was on an impromptu three-day weekend break from Chandigarh to Kandaghat, via the interlocking chain of mountains that make the valley of Dharampur, with only one thing on my mind—a temple hike. It was more a test of my waning muscles than faith. With considerable time lost to rubble and a veil of dust, I decided to choose a hotel close to the highway to settle for the evening. A crisp December nip in the air was reassuring that the Himachal I had imagined was still intact.
Kandaghat is delightfully elusive on the travel circuit of the state, and as an additional boon, it has two exceptional hikes to Skanda Mata temple and Kali ka Tibba. I was determined to do both over the weekend.
Much to the relief of my guide, Narendra, I did not oversleep and was ready in my hiking shoes at dawn. The origin of the Skanda Mata temple is a bit hazy, but a fresh coat of paint and repair in 2004 has made it a shining beacon on the hill it is perched on. The first 10 minutes of the 3.5km hike was on the concrete highway and then we took a steep trail cutting through the hill. In the first half, the trail was made of gravel and then it transformed to dry earth with a little grass on the sides. Climbing at a comfortable pace behind Narendra, we seemed to be walking towards the sky, with the temple nowhere in sight.
After a steep 50-minute walk, Narendra pointed to a white speck against the azure sky and announced that it was only 10 minutes to summit. My flushed face must have made him utter an encouraging lie, as it was still 20 minutes before I slumped on the first step to the temple, sweating, panting with a wide grin on my face. The temple is dedicated to Skanda Mata, a reincarnation of goddess Parvati and mother to Lord Kartikeya. The goddess is especially commemorated on the fifth day of the Navratri festival. We spent a while inside the temple, looking down at the village, which looked like a far-away Lego set sprinkled on the green hills. As expected, walking down was even more difficult, with the gravel-strewn path offering an undesirable speed to my feet.
Back at the hotel, I sank in a chair, refusing to move for the rest of the day. I had no desire to scale another mountain the next day and it was decided that instead of another hike, we would drive to Kali ka Tibba.
The base point for Kali ka Tibba is a popular tourist spot called Chail, 30km from Kandaghat. From here, the temple is a few kilometres ahead. There are shrines dedicated to Hindu gods Ganesh, Shiva and Hanuman on the premises, with the main temple dedicated to goddess Kali. While the temples are not spectacular, the panoramic view from the hilltop is outstanding.
From here we made our way to the neighbouring Chail Palace. Dating back to 1891, this palace was the royal resort of maharaja of Patiala. It is a hotel now with modern amenities like an in-house restaurant, refurbished rooms and manicured gardens but has distinct heritage interiors. Grand chandeliers and carpets add to the palatial feel. We spent some time in the massive lawn, soaking up the winter sun.
As the evening approached and I settled into bed, the effect of my earlier, seemingly easy, trek started showing up. I winced to move my aching legs, and promised to myself that I would be back to the hills and hiking more often.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets at @Amrita_Dass.