Twilight came, all mist and deserted hillside, and our driver, an accomplished mechanic, finally gave up. A brief conference between my parents resulted in us deciding to stay at a small, dim town we had just passed. Palampur, my father said.
Many years ago in the good old days when Shimla and Manali were considered the ultimate in Himachal hill stations my family, including a pre-teen me, was driving up to Kullu from Pathankot. We had been singularly unlucky since the start of the trip, the car (a sturdy Ambassador) had been hiccupping and belching smoke from almost the moment the road began climbing.
The town had been in the midst of a power cut when we had driven through, and was still dark when we trudged back. We managed to find rooms at the local rest house, and went to bed by candlelight.
The next morning was what inspired me to return to Palampur 20 years later.
We woke up, had a quiet breakfast in our rooms, and then walked out to see rolling hillsides covered with tea gardens. A dense green carpet, all neat furrows of what looked like a springy pile, marched all over the hills, broken here and there by slender trees with spreading canopies. A faint silvery mist still hung across it all, and the pine woods on the peaks beyond were shrouded in shifting cloud.
I had just learned what serendipity meant.
Two decades later, Palampur is no longer an obscure hill town frequented only by buyers of Kangra tea. The Tibetan community from nearby Dharamsala has branched out and built the serene hilltop monastery of Tashijong. The artists village of Andretta, once home to famous names such as Sobha Singh and Norah Richards, is a busy little place where you can watch superb pottery being made and then buy that pottery as well. Baijnath, home to an ancient Shiv temple that bears an uncanny resemblance to the temples of Orissa, is flooded with pilgrims. And then, there are the tea gardens.
The pice de rsistance of Palampur is its tea. Darjeeling and Assam tea may be among India’s most famous teas, but Kangra chai is not to be sniffed at either. This is lovely, fragrant tea a deep honey gold in colour, delicate and soothing, with perhaps (or is it just my imagination) a whiff of the pine woods. If not the champagne of teas, at least a very good claret.
Tea gardens spread out on the hillsides all around Palampur. Some are privately owned; some are demonstration plots managed by organizations such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. And a vast estate, sweeping uphill in an impressive stretch near the road to Dharamsala, belongs to the Palampur Co-operative Tea Factory. As long as we didn’t pluck any leaves, we were welcome to stroll through the plantation, admiring the beauty of the tightly packed bushes, and gloating over a find a small white tea flower, fragrant and lovely.