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A snake shrine at Triund. Photographs by Bibek Bhattacharya/Mint
A snake shrine at Triund. Photographs by Bibek Bhattacharya/Mint

The snake lakes of Dhauladhar

The Himalayan range that towers over Dharamsala is home to a chain of high-altitude lakes sacred to the Gaddi people of Kangra and Chamba

Once, somebody I know dropped a ring in the lake," said Sridhar, pointing to the vast body of water we were sitting beside. “A month later, he got it at Kuarsi village"—this time he pointed the other way, down the valley. “But that’s some 6,000ft down the valley," I exclaimed, incredulously. “How’s that possible?" Sridhar looked unperturbed. “People say there’s a surang, a tunnel, inside the lake," he explained, taking a deep drag on his beedi and exhaling a whiff of blue smoke. It was immediately seized upon by the vicious wind and blown away across the rippling lake towards the gigantic granite wall of the Dhauladhar ridgeline. “Maybe it flowed down the Kuarsi nala and ended up at the sacred pond in Kuarsi," he finished. “This kind of thing happens all the time," piped up his friend Sounkhi. “The snake gods have many tunnels that go through the mountains."

I turned away from Sridhar to look at the lake. In the low light of an overcast sky, the lake had turned ink black. On the far side rose slab upon slab of grey granite, into a peak shaped somewhat like a hooded snake. British climbers and surveyors in the 1930s had named it Camel Peak. Sridhar, my Gaddi guide, insisted that it was the likeness of the snake deity, Indru Naga.

We were sitting beside Nag Dal (dal means lake in the Western Himalayas), a vast high-altitude lake situated in a hanging valley on the crest of the Dhauladhar range. While the view to the south, towards the Kangra valley, was blocked by the jagged ridgeline rising some 700m above us, the northern view presented a picture-perfect Himalayan vista of the Ravi valley and the distant Pir Panjal range. The lip of the hanging valley ended in a massive jumble of giant boulder slabs, and then the ground fell way into the green alpine valley of the Kuarsi nala, as it descended some 3,000m through meadows and pine and rhododendron forests.

The giant wall of the Dhauladhar range in Himachal Pradesh is one of the most stunning sights in the Himalayas. Although of modest altitude compared to other Himalayan ranges—the highest Dhauladhar peak is less than 5,000m—the true drama of the range lies in its sudden uplift above the rolling highlands of the Kangra valley. The range sweeps up an astounding 12,000ft from the valley floor, creating a barrier wall in that is striking to look at. The Dhauladhar also acts as a watershed ridge between Chamba’s Ravi river system and Kangra’s Beas river system.

Looming over the hill stations of Dharamsala and McLeodganj, the Dhauladhar is a popular trekking destination, especially to the high spur of Triund and the trail that leads across the Indrahar Pass (4,320m) into the Chamba valley. I had been on Dhauladhar trails on quite a few treks before I heard of a practically unknown trail connecting a series of huge high-altitude lakes on the crest of the range. These lakes, known only to the Gaddi people of the region, are dedicated to the various snake deities who form a vital part of religious practices in the Kangra and Chamba valleys.

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Nag Dal with Camel Peak in the background.
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Nag Dal with Camel Peak in the background.

The Gaddi tribals of these valleys are well-known Shiva worshippers. Like many other Himalayan tribes, they are primarily transhumant in their livelihood practices. The annual round involves taking their goats and sheep up and down the Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges, sometimes heading as far north as Zanskar and as far east as Garhwal. Moving from camp to camp (gots), they open the high trails at the beginning of spring and keep them open till the onset of winter in October.

The most popular festival is Shivratri, when Gaddi men and women from the Kangra valley cross the many high passes that dot the range and meet up with their kinsmen in the neighbouring Chamba valley for a pilgrimage to the holy Manimahesh lake in Chamba. Shiva is said to reside on the 5,653m peak near the lake, the Manimahesh Kailash. However, there is another pilgrimage that’s closer home, and no less spiritually important to the Gaddis—a trek to the Nag Dal, Lam Dal and other high-altitude lakes of the Dhauladhar.

“Oh, we go quite a few times in the year," says Manu Hiyunri, a Gaddi who runs a trekking company called Manu Adventures out of Bhagsu, a small village above the popular tourist destination of McLeodganj. “We don’t always do the whole parikrama (sacred round)," he says. “Sometimes we climb up to the Minkiani Pass and go to Lam Dal, sometimes via Indrahar Pass to Nag Dal." Although these pilgrimages are undertaken ostensibly to pay respect to Shiva, the real recipients of the Gaddis’ worship are the powerful snake deities that are said to reside in these lakes. As Sridhar observed next to Nag Dal, “No endeavour is possible without the blessings of the Nag devta."

Snake worship, or ophiolatry, is the basic form of religious practice that forms the bedrock of all central and western Himalayan cultures. It’s especially big in the Western Himalayas, particularly in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. They are said to control the weather, agriculture and safe passage across the high Himalayan ranges. Ranging from Kinnaur and the Shimla region, all the way through the Mandi district and Kangra and Chamba valleys into Lahaul, Jammu, and the Kashmir valley, snake gods hold sway at their holy lakes. In some regions, like the Kullu valley, they’re called Narains, while in other regions like Shimla, they’re called Rishis or Rikhis. In the high Dhauladhar, they’re just called Nagas. And the most important one here is Indru Naga, lord paramount of the weather, and resident of Nag Dal.

Sridhar and Sounkhi rest near Nag Dal.
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Sridhar and Sounkhi rest near Nag Dal.

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The Himachali archaeologist and folklorist, O.C. Handa, writes of Indru Naga in his book Naga Cults And Traditions In The Western Himalaya: “According to the popular belief in the area under the command of Indru Naga in Kangra, a good harvest depends on the kindness of this Naga deity. If displeased, Indru Naga can cause hail and drought that may cause the crop to wilt."

I was reminded of this passage as the weather deteriorated steadily that evening at Nag Dal. A friend and I were doing a ridge traverse of the Dhauladhar, connecting the Indrahar and Minkiani passes, in the middle of the monsoon. It’s hardly the perfect time to be there. The Dhauladhar is the southernmost of the main Himalayan ranges in Himachal Pradesh. The Shivalik highlands of Kangra aren’t high enough to hold the monsoon clouds from the nearby Punjab plains at bay. As a result, the Dhauladhar faces the full brunt of violent monsoon storms. It’s no wonder that the Dharamsala area is one of the wettest regions in the Himalayas, receiving up to 3,000mm of rainfall between July and September.

We had reached Nag Dal on the fourth day of our traverse, and already we had been subjected to lightning strikes, heavy rainfall, hailstorms and freezing night temperatures. Indru Naga was certainly stirring. As heavy clouds bubbled over the Dhauladhar wall and the rain sent us scurrying to our tent, Sridhar and Sounkhi retreated to their cave camp.

These are a common sight, creations of the unique genius of the Gaddi herdsmen. The Dhauladhar is a realm of boulders, and some house-sized ones get jammed against other giant rocks or outcrops to create spacious “rooms" where herdsmen and their flocks can gather. These are kept impeccably dry through a system of canals dug by the Gaddis that run around the rear of the caves where water might drip. Huge roaring fires bounce heat off the containing walls of the boulder caves and everybody inside, from herders to sheep and furry, bear-like dogs, remains perfectly toasty. As the storm thundered and grumbled around us and the rain fell unrelentingly, I felt miserable in my tent, hearing the sounds of Sridhar and Sounkhi singing scraps of old Bollywood hits and local folk songs to each other over dinner.

A flock of sheep and goats at Laka Got below Indrahar Pass.
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A flock of sheep and goats at Laka Got below Indrahar Pass.

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Many years before the traverse, when I wasn’t fully aware of the region’s folk culture, I had actually visited the wooden temple of Indru Naga in Kuarsi. Situated in a wooded grove above a steep gorge carved by the Kuarsi nala as it rushes to meet the Ravi, I had spent the night on a balcony at the temple. The main shrine, bristling with trishuls, chains and snake carvings, was much the same as ones that can be seen up in the mountains, at passes, grazing grounds and even in Gaddi homes. Only this was on a massive scale. The image inside the shrine was wrapped in a red cloth, its features invisible. The priest at the temple, a retired army man, told me it was a devi temple.

It was much later, in Handa’s book, that I read about the temple’s provenance. Apparently, Indru Naga wasn’t from the Kangra region. He had come there in a magical chest with the king of Suket, a former princely state in Himachal’s Mandi region. The raja of Suket was intrigued by Gaddi shepherds returning home to Chamba before the onset of winter. He wanted to know more about them. So he followed the Gaddis incognito back to their home region of Gadderan in the Chamba valley. With him was his family priest, a man called Dhanda. Neither was aware that Indru Naga had magically latched on to the chest.

The homeward-bound Gaddis followed their regular route down the Beas valley to Palampur, and then across the Dhauladhar to Chamba. Every night, the king and his priest would do their evening puja. And everywhere they stopped, Indru Naga passed some of his magical powers into a local cult object. A big temple to Indru Naga was established at each of these points, including at the village of Kuarsi. Sridhar completed the story for me.

“You see," he ruminated, “Dhanda drowned in Nag Dal while he was taking a bath. The magical suitcase drowned with him." “Is it still there now?" I asked him. “No," he replied, “it’s gone off to nagalok." A Glossary Of The Tribes And Castes Of The Punjab And North-West Frontier Province (1911-13), by D.B. Ibbetson and Edward MacLagan, records a variation of the tale: “The Nag’s disciple, Dhanda, was drowned in Dalnag, and his idol was also cracked in its temple. In one of its hands it holds a trident, in the other a chain, with which the chelas beat themselves."

A few days later, we stumbled down to the gigantic Lam Dal, at the end of a 12-hour hike across interminable boulder fields and wind-haunted passes. We needed to camp as the light was gone. Sridhar refused to do so. “We’re near the head of the Naga!" he exclaimed, “We can only camp near his feet." A sharp and short argument followed, at the end of which he changed his mind, saying it wasn’t that big a deal. In fact, he said, he wanted to show us something the next day.

In the morning, as we started walking along a high ridge by the lake’s shore, he pointed towards the lake and said, “Look! There’s the Nag devta." Ice-melt was pouring into the lake, a dark grey tide fanning out into the lake’s sky blue water. As it spread, it took the shape of a gigantic hood, like a legion of serpents dancing in the hanging valley.

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