Chitkul: The Village on the Edge of India
For the intrepid traveller, this is as offbeat as it gets. Chitkul village is literally the last inhabited village in India on the Indo-Tibetan border. And, at 11,320 feet above sea level, the vistas are jaw-dropping.
Nestling lazily on the banks of the Baspa river in Kinnaur district, and only a stone’s throw from the Hamdri hills in Himachal Pradesh, Chitkul is a postcard come to life. Framed by the Himalayas and set into a valley is a smattering of quaint wooden homes of the 650 people that live here.
Spend some time in Chitkul and you will wake up to the clearest blue skies you have ever seen, crisp morning air and the twitter of birds. Stay a little longer and you can take in a breathtaking sunset as an ochre sun slides behind the snow-capped Himalayas in a blaze of glory.
Like every other village in Himachal, Chitkul too has its mystic story. Locals believe that the resident deity of the village, Mathi Devi, decided to make this remote village her home after a long trek from Vrindavan in the plains. It is believed that the Goddess and her family endured a gruelling journey from Vrindavan to Chitkul, making their way through Mathura and Badrinath. After deploying her nephews and husband as guards in various regions in Himachal Pradesh, Mathi Devi finally decided to settle in Chitkul.
It is also believed that after her arrival, the village started to prosper, which made her an important deity here. According to folklore, the presiding deity of the neighboring village of Kamru, Lord Badrinath, is her husband and the Nag Devta of Sangla and Shamshare Devta of Rakhcham, both nearby villages, are her nephews.
– This story has been passed across the centuries through an oral tradition, thanks to the gorkchs, traditional oracles and local storytellers who specialize in legends and other narratives. Each year, during local festivals the gorkchs tell tales of yore, celebrating the Goddess and the legends surrounding her.
Unique Hilly Architecture
The best way to explore Chitkul is on foot so that you can twist and turn along the paths that weave through the village. The layout of Chitkul is typical of the region – a clustered hillside village pattern, with narrow, steep and meandering footpaths connecting each household with public places. These are the main village thoroughfares. Some pathways are made of concrete or stone, while a few of them are made of mud or grass, just wide enough for one person to walk.
Chitkul Fort towers over the village. Although popularly referred to as a ‘quila’ or ‘fort’, it is actually a shrine. A three-storey, tower-like structure, it is built in typical pahadi (hilly) style. The base is made of solid, locally available stone, while the upper three storeys are made of alternating layers of stone and wood. There is a small shrine on the top-most storey, which is surrounded by wooden balconies on all four sides.
Another stand-out in the village is the main temple of Mathi Devi. The locals say it is around 500 years old.
The Mathi Devi temple is an architectural gem. Recently restored, the older wooden roofs have been replaced by stone. As with the fort, this temple too is a combination of wood and stone and is a perfect example of the unique Kinnauri /pahadi style of architecture. Set in the middle of the village, the temple has intricate wooden carvings and a distinctive roof profile.
The most iconic feature of Chitkul is its old, wooden houses, which represent the finest example of the vernacular style of architecture. The homes exhibit a wide variety of styles. In fact, no two homes are the same in scale or detail even though they are close together. They orient in different directions in relation to the road, pathway and slope. Many take advantage of the sun and the view, and turn their houses towards the horizon, facing the sacred peaks.
Construction materials vary as does the basic house form. Stone and wood are the common traditional materials but new homes often use concrete. Originally, roofs were covered by wood, which was replaced by local stone and now tin sheets. Despite this multiplicity, Chitkul reflects the Kinnauri vernacular style architecture.
Travelling to Chitkul is a daredevil act as you have to pass through one of the most dangerous mountain roads in Kinnaur district. It is extremely steep, narrow and rough. Moreover, all roads leading to Chitkul are closed from November to March due to excessive snowfall.
Despite the challenges getting here, tourism is creeping into Chitkul. Many who make it this far are drawn by the quietude and natural beauty of the place but the Instagrammable and selfie possibilities that Chitkul presents could entice another type of tourist. So, before things change too much, escape to this land of the Gods on the very edge of India. You can’t get further away than this.
Shabbir Khambaty and Swapnil S Bhole are practicing architects from Mumbai. After graduating in 2004, they have been involved in research projects as well as interesting architectural projects and those involving interiors. They have been conducting research in Himachal Pradesh since 2003 and have documented 27 villages including temples, forts, palaces and residences, to date. They also teach at architectural institutes in Mumbai.