Rustic Retreat: Shangarh

Rustic Retreat: Shangarh
The Shangarh hills. Credits: Harshit Rakheja

Located in Sainj Valley, this rural hamlet is a hidden gem

Harshit Rakheja
May 01 , 2023
07 Min Read

For my late-November winter sojourn in the hills, the Himachal off the tourist handbooks wouldn’t have done. It needed to be more off-the-grid, rustic, but most of all, homely. 

My search put us in touch with the host of a wooden cottage on the banks of the Sainj River. It fulfilled my expectations regarding the budget and that the whole property, with its porch and master bedroom and an attic hidden below the gabled roof, would be a private little nook for my partner and me.  



The cottage is one of just four or five houses in a small hamlet named Ropa, a half-an-hour drive from a mucky town called Sainj. We alighted on the side of a narrow road running alongside the waist of the mountain it was scaling. The Sainj River flows over huge boulders on the other side, and there’s an old-style wooden bridge, antique for it creaks and groans and sways if the walkers’ steps aren’t in sync. Our caretaker’s wife and sons generously carried our luggage across while my partner and I moved gingerly, hands clasped around the bridge’s railing. Once on the other end, we walked along the boundaries of houses built in the Kath-Kuni way of architecture.

We arrived at our cottage around noon on the third day of the fourth week of November – peak off-season. My partner and I spent the next hour taking turns to pose on the little footsteps that led into the porch and down from there to the river banks. Our luggage waited outside the front door, waiting to be unpacked. Sometime in between, we lounged on comfy mudha chairs and gorged on omelettes and parathas — our first meal of the day — cooked by our caretaker’s wife. Soon though, by around 3 pm, the sun’s warmth dissipated, and the temperature plummeted, keeping true to the climes we had reached. Once inside, we barely left our room, and our hands lay buried inside the warmth of our blankets.

Afternoon hours in Shangarh 

Reaching Shangarh

To reach Shangarh, we drove uphill to a vast undulating meadow where the grass had turned a crisp, golden brown due to the winter season’s dryness. Shorn of the irritating throng of tourists that fills such Himachali meadows, Shangarh had mostly locals sprawled on its grass, chatting up their friends, the young adults smoking, and the kids chasing the pahadi dogs whose luscious coats of fur glistened in the sunlight. 

Shangchul Mahadev Temple

Looking into the distance from the meadow, as one scans Shangarh’s cute, gabled, Kath-Kuni skyline, a wooden tower rises above the rest. This is the Shangchul Mahadev Temple, named after the local deity. Previous visits to Himachal and my interaction with the locals have taught me that you’d probably be able to get around ten different folk tales out of the area’s inhabitants about how the place came to be named, the story behind the biggest temple, and other legends. In Shangarh, besides the place having a mythical connection to the warring families in the Mahabharata, I also learnt that the local deity is believed to be the protector of couples who are shunned by society and face threats to their romantic union. Knowing about the local deity’s predilection, I would have surely loved to pray to this divine, progressive Himachali lord striving to protect love in an age of communal strife. Alas, tourists aren’t allowed inside the towering temple in Shangarh, as decided by the locals who reside around it. Only members of the highest caste within the local community are allowed inside. The locals are careful not to word this reason in as many words. Instead, they politely inform visitors that no one can enter the temple because the ‘devta’ resides inside. “So why are ‘human’ clothes drying on the wooden balustrades of the temple’s first storey?” I wondered. Mr Durga, who had driven us to Shangarh, explained that the reason was casteism and little else. “Koi devta bhakt ko nahi kahega ki mandir ke andar mat aao (No God would refuse entry in a temple to their devotees),” he said matter-of-factly.  

I believed what Mr Durga told me, for I had visited similar tower-like temples in other parts of the state, one among them being the Shringa Rishi temple near Jibhi, where tourists are allowed inside to pay obeisance to their devta there. But nevertheless, I’d say I’m wise enough to keep an open mind that there might be more reasons for the restrictions imposed in Shangarh and elsewhere in Himachal by locals than I could gather on my first visit.  

Raila Towers

Distances between tourist attractions and habitable spots are great in Sainj Valley. The cheap state transport buses are few and far between, leaving visitors at the mercy of private cabbies charging Rs 1,500 for even the nearest spot. But as the road winds upwards and the journey, as a passenger, starts feeling tedious, one realises that it must be even tougher work for the drivers. So I started justifying the trip’s price to myself as the car trudged along the winding roads, rickety and pockmarked in several places. Our driver Mr Meher Chand Thakur, a lanky gentleman with the archetypical ‘Thakur’ handlebar moustache, doubled up as a guide during the long journey, enthusiastically pointing at development works such as hydel power pipelines and dams that were mere specks in the distance to us. All the while, his car’s stereo was tuned to a loop of Himachali pop songs – 10-20 minute medleys of various genres: they’d start with an upbeat tempo and, out of nowhere, break into a Bollywood qawwali-ish redo before returning to the hook.  

We reached Raila to visit the 400-year-old twin towers, designated temples but built as fortifications by rulers in olden times. Their small, squarish windows would allow the soldiers inside a better vantage point to ward off the enemy. Presently though, most such structures – another one being Chehni Kothi in Jibhi – are religious shrines, with the locals believing them to be the residences of their deities. Again, only an upper-caste person from the family of priests in the community can venture inside, perhaps once or twice a year, for the most special rituals. 

Here, our driver to Raila, Mr Thakur, told us that there are 27,000 places of worship in the state, and the deities number a little more than that, with each village having its separate protector! He also explained that the God in a Himachali village isn’t necessarily imagined as a metaphysical or abstract presence but as an exalted ‘human’ of the community who’s always there and needs to be taken care of, fed, nurtured, obeyed, and prayed to.  

How to Reach: One can take an overnight bus from Delhi to Manali and alight at Aut. From here, one can hail a private taxi at Rs 1000-1500 to reach Ropa via the main town of Sainj. From Ropa, where the Airbnb mentioned in the piece is situated, private taxis can be hailed at Rs 1500-2000, including the return journey, to reach nearby tourist locations such as the Shangarh meadow, the twin towers of Raila and the Barshangarh waterfall.  

Best Time to Visit: From March to May if you want to visit during the tourist season. From October to December is the off-season, when there aren’t many tourists in the region owing to the onset of the harsh winter season there.  

Cottage mentioned in the piece: 

ALSO READ: Shimla: Into The Woods

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