Some people consider the Kulu Valley the most beautiful on earth. The original name for the ancient Rajput kingdom that occupied the valley of the Beas River was Kulanthapitha, meaning 'the end of the habitable world', and hence Kullu. The River Beas, rising near the Rotang Pass which separates Kulu from Lahaul to the north, flows south and across northern Punjab to join the Indus in Pakistan.
The distance by road to Kulu from Chandigrah is 270 kilometer (168 miles) and by one of the frequent buses it takes about 12 hours. A car journey is quicker and there are also flights from Delhi, Chandigrah and Shimla to Bhuntar, ten kilometers (six miles) south of Kulu. One of the interesting stops en route is the old hill-state capital of Mandi. In February and March the whole town is decked out for the Shivaratri festival (the wedding of Shiva and Parvati). Passing Mandi, the road winds through the Mandi-Largi gorge to the beginning of the Beas Valley. Never more than several kilometers wide, the valley stretches north for about 80 kilometers (50 miles). The industrious people who work the fertile terraced land are devout and friendly and, undoubtedly, one reason why the area is so attractive. The men wear the distinctive Himachal cap, while the often beautiful women wrap themselves in layers of homespun wool, secured with silver pins and jewellery. Kullu, at 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) is one of the most enjoyable Himalayan towns; Manali is even more attractive!
Perched above the Beas, Kulu get crowded during the Dussehra festival in October. The statue of the presiding deity, Raghunathji, is brought down into the valley from the Raghunathpura Temple above Dhalpur and joins a procession with almost 200 other deities. Carried in palanquins and accompanied by drums and trumpets, the gods are escorted by the villagers to the grassy maidan (open grounds) beside the river south of the town. The Raghunathpura Temple is a five-minute walk from the town. The path there continues up the hill past some small family workshops where the embroidered Kulu shawls are produced on wooden hand-looms. About 40 minutes away from the temple, the trail reaches a ridge. The views are worth the climb, and another 45 minutes of climbing leads to the small Vaishno Devi Temple.
Each village in the valley worships its own deity. These are taken out and carried about during festivals other than Dussehra, and village families can even take them to their homes on special occasions. The dominating influence of the deities on the villagers' lives has given the area the name 'valley of gods'.
A road leads to the hot springs of Manikaran, 45 kilometers (28 miles) into the Parvati Valley to the northeast of Bhuntar. As with most of the Kulu area the Parvati Valley is full of bountiful orchards producing many varieties of apples and pears.
The 42-kilometer (26-mile) drive from Kulu to Manali passes lush fields, productive orchards and villages, each with an interesting wooden or stone temple. The main road follows the west bank of the Beas, while a rougher road runs along the opposite bank. Halfway along the main road at Katrain, the valley widens slightly. There is a trout hatchery nearby for restocking the river. (Fishing permits are obtainable from the Tourist Offices in Kulu and Manali.) On the eastern bank, high above the river, is the attractive village of Naggar, at one time the capital of the valley kingdom before Sultanpur, as Kulu was then known, became the raja's capital. The misnamed Naggar Castle is now a well-run Himachal Tourism guesthouse and has a commanding view of the valley. The Russian émigré artist Nicholas Roerich, who died in 1947, made Naggar his home for many years, and his house above the 'castle' is now a private museum. Near the fort are some interesting stone temples.
Twelve kilometers (eight miles) north of Naggar, the village of Jagatsukh was an even earlier capital for the Kulu rajas.
Beautifully situated at 1,800 meters (5,900 feet), near the head of the valley and surrounded by mountains, the small town and older village of Manali is the focal point for most visitors to the valley. The houses of Old Manali are mostly made of timber, stone and mud. The new town has grown up downstream from the old village, where most of the activity takes place and where the Tourist Office and the bus station are located.
The year starts with the skiing season in January and February. The facilities in nearby Solang Nulah, 13 kilometers (eight miles), are limited, but a chair-lift give access to some higher slopes. Cross-country routes are being developed, and skiing above the Rohtang Pass is possible as late as May. In spring the snows begin to melt, turning the streams into small torrents, and the area is at its most colorful. The summer months of May and June are the most popular, but July to September are best for high-altitude treks over the Rohtang Pass and on to Lahaul, Zanskar and Ladakh. The post-monsoon days of October and November are clear and allow wonderful views from the higher ridges.
Whether staying at Kulu or Manali, the area is best explored on foot. The immediate surroundings of Manali offer many short walks. The wooden Dhoongri Temple with its four-tiered pagoda roof is concealed in the deodar wood a couple of kilometers away. The temple's goddess, Hadimba Devi, plays an important part in the Kulu Dussehra festival. A local festival takes place each May. A three-kilometer (two-mile) walk north from the village on the opposite bank leads to the hot sulphur springs at the picturesque village of Vashisht.
Beyond Manali the road crosses the Rohtang Pass (51 kilometers, or 32 miles) at 3,915 meters (12,845 feet) into the barren region of Lahaul. The pass acts as a barrier to the monsoon and the area is similar to the Ladakh region further north. The main town is Keylong, 117 kilometers (73 miles) from Manali. It is now possible to travel all the way to Leh by bus, a further 360 kilometers (225 miles) away, with permission obtained locally.