Healing Hills Of Himachal

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 42 No. 10, October 2022

By Divyakshi Gupta

Slow living in Himachal was never part of my plan last year, but it happened to me at a time I needed it most. It made me live closer to nature, the way locals do. It was a paradigm shift: co-existing with nature, I was learning and unlearning every day.

An 11-year-old girl ambled carefree over pebbles on the banks of the Yamuna. The river meandered placidly through the hills she had grown to love. Vacations at her grandparent’s home in the quaint town of Paonta Sahib, in southern Himachal Pradesh, was her ‘escape’ from city life. The place reminded her of the enchanting forests in Enid Blyton’s books: dense woods, a gurgling river, towering trees, and the anticipation of adventure around the next bend.

Two decades later, the same girl sat by the gushing Parvati river. Clouds enveloped the mountains ahead of her as she watched the river in spate. This was her ‘corner’ where she found calm.

I am that girl and this is my story of how nature helped me heal in the hills.

Omi Aunty stands among her prized lilium blooms at her home in Jia village, Kullu. The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a massive blow to the floriculture sector in Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Divyakshi Gupta.

Farm To Table

I was living with a local family in the idyllic village of Jia in the Kullu district, on the banks of the Parvati river. Every day, my landlady Kamla Aunty and I would go for long walks around her home, quietly observing the varied natural and cultivated flora in the region. “Don’t touch that,” she would warn, “That is bichoo buti,” referring to a bush of stinging nettle, which causes a severe itch. We would cross farms full of local squash, zucchini, broccoli, and beans, and walk under lush trees of walnuts and apples. Behind the family’s house were their orchards of persimmon, pomegranate, and plums.

During the months I stayed with them, I learned about seasonal and local eating. Milk and milk products were courtesy of the Sindhi cows in our backyard, vegetables were from their farms, apricots and marigosa plums were plucked and eaten from the orchards, and I learned to cook local dishes – rajma, steamed siddu (a local dish made with walnut paste and poppy seeds), pahadi kadi, sepu wadi (lentil dumplings), and traditional chutneys of apricot, walnut, and loquat.

Eating processed foods naturally declined and with it reduced the general waste that was normally generated in my city-bred lifestyle.  Most of the kitchen waste was used for composting or as cattle fodder. I could see just how easy it was to live a nearly minimal-waste lifestyle in the village. With all this clean eating, my body was thanking me too.

The Parvati river, a major tributary of the Beas river, is fed by melting glaciers and the Southwest monsoons. Photo: Public domain/Parthiv Haldipur.

The Healing Power Of Forests

During walks with my mother at summer vacations in Paonta Sahib, she would ask me to breathe deeply to take in the forest fragrances. “You won’t get them in the city”. Inhaling deeply, I would try to store all the different scents in my mind: sweet honey-like, earthy, damp, mossy. This was when I first hugged a tree. It felt like a strong, sturdy friend.

An hour from Jia, I was walking alone in the forest of Kasol, following the sunlight streaks brightening patches of the dark forest floor. Seeing the mesh of blue pine trees, that childhood memory of hugging trees came back in a flash. I had been prescribed breathing exercises for my pounding headaches. I sat on a mossy rock and began breathing, taking in the fragrances – the strong, cologne-like scent of deodar, the heady fragrances of wild berries, and other smells that I could neither recognise nor describe.

While scientists around the world talk about forest bathing or Shinrin-Yoku, some claim trees have pranas that heal; I can vouch for that. Forests make me feel better. While birds chirped, I walked over dry leaves and hugged a giant oak tree, felt its bark, and breathed deeply into it. It did not need to hug me back but it felt so comforting, like I was hugging a happy, healing memory.

What do forests and nostalgia have in common? They both heal. I took  another deep breath before leaving, the same words echoing in my mind, “You won’t get these fragrances in the city.” Definitely not.

Home to three Himalayan ranges, Himachal Pradesh is ecologically rich and is world-renowned for its serene beauty, unique culture, and its myriad hiking trails and trekking routes. Photo: Public domain/Henrik Johansson.

Dev Vans And Gifts Of The Forest

I am grateful to Kamla Aunty for many things. Bringing me to Kandhi in Himachal Pradesh is one of them. Roughly an hour and a half from Kullu, the lesser-known Kandhi hilltop offers the best of both worlds: a stunning valley view with Kathkuni-style houses perched on terraced farms, and a dense forest full of towering deodars and pines.

This place is known only to locals; no wonder it is so pristine. No forest walk here is complete without receiving gifts from the forest – Rubus ellipticus, the wild, orange tangy berries (known as Himalayan golden raspberries); the wild ferns growing in abundance (locally known as lingdi); and wild strawberries that glisten brightly in the greens.

If lucky, we would spot and collect morel mushrooms, one of the most expensive and exotic mushrooms in the world, locally known as guchhi; sometimes a porcupine quill; and sometimes fresh rhododendron flowers to make chutney.

Thirsts were quenched with natural sources of water, pouring through wooden logs, and delicious, hearty local meals were cooked over a wood fire at the Kandhi hilltop campsite.

Locals here are known to worship trees as part of their culture. Conservation practices are followed by them as much as they are followed by the Forest Department. Tinkle Bhat Thakur, a forest officer, explained how Dev Vans, or Sacred Groves, are patches of forests protected by locals and are considered sacrosanct. Entry to these is restricted and some prohibit even the passage of axes, saws, and other equipment. Most locals worship even lone trees and consider them to be the abode of devtas or spirits such as Jogini Mata.

Some Dev Vans one can visit are in Barshangarh, Shangarh, and Raila in Sainj Valley. The Forest Department too has very strict regulations for timber distribution, including the axing of only dead and dry deodars.

A close friendship between the author and a local family allowed her to visit the beautiful Jia village and taste fresh, homegrown seasonal produce, such as these lush plums. Photo: Divyakshi Gupta.

Living My Floral Dreams

It was just another day’s excursion with Kamla Aunty. We were headed to Sainj valley to meet her relatives.

Rains made the drive both dreamy and difficult. Mist engulfed us as we drove past overflowing streams amidst zero valley-visibility. That was when I spotted them. First a couple, then a bunch and as my eyes widened with awe, an entire carpet was unveiled as the mist cleared. It was a carpet of purple irises on either side of the road leading to Badshangarh in Sainj valley.

Flowers in Himachal had the remarkable power of uplifting my gloomy spirits, be it wildflowers or cultivated flower farms that smelt like a natural perfumery.

One of my favourite places in Jia village was Omi Aunty’s farm. She lives in a tiny wood house nestled in her huge farm where she cultivates vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Small champagne grapes dangled on her front gate as she excitedly invited me to take home a bunch of the first lilies that bloomed. A month later when I visited her, I was greeted with thousands upon thousands of blooming lilies. The whole place was fragrant, like a perfume shop. Nature can surely heal. This overwhelming ocean of pink was proof of it.

Broccoli fields in Jia village, Kullu. Agriculture provides direct employment to 71 per cent of the population in Himachal Pradesh. The author was impressed by the minimal-waste lifestyle of villagers. Photo: Divyakshi Gupta.

Something in me changed after this slow-living experience in Himachal. The changing seasons taught me that nothing is permanent and that change is the only constant. The lilium blooms and other seasonal flowers taught me to cherish the good moments as they bloom and perish in the blink of an eye and the gushing Parvati river taught me to move on despite adversities. Nature is not only the best teacher, it is also the best healer. 

Destination tips:
Best valleys to visit in Himachal if you are a nature lover: Kullu, Parvati, Tirthan, and Sainj.      
Best time to explore these gems of Himachal: March-May: For meadows full of flowers. May-July: For seasonal fruits like apricots, plums, and pears.
Local souvenirs to bring back:
1. Pickles like fern, mushroom, and persimmon
2. Jams like apricot and plum
3. Produce like rajma and walnuts


Divyakshi Gupta is a freelance travel writer, blogger and content creator who loves documenting architecture, doors, road trips, culture and heritage, and offbeat destinations and perspectives. You can read her stories at www.quirkywanderer.com and follow her on Instagram.

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