I wasn’t expecting much, simply because over the years, I have conditioned myself to believe that better things are found in higher altitudes. At barely 1300 metres, Rewalsar wasn’t expected to make anyone’s jaw drop. But as the bus approached the town, my opinion began to change. The road was actually at a slightly higher altitude and I could see the whole town, the lake in the middle, and the surrounding hills from my bus window. There was a layer of mist covering a certain part of the hill but a gentle breeze drove it away and the gigantic statue of Padmasambhava revealed itself too.
I first heard fo Rewalsar only in 2013, just after visiting the Parashar Lake. The driver of the shared car offered to take me there for a quick trip but I was tired and gave up on that opportunity. Since then, I have crossed Mandi countless times, moving towards higher altitudes of Kullu and Lahaul but yet I never managed to make that short detour to Rewalsar. This time, I finally decided to wipe out this blot on my Himachal CV and spend a couple of day in Rewalsar at the end of my long summer.
For the uninitiated, Rewalsar is a major Buddhist center which is around 22 KMs from Mandi. It also has some Hindu temples with associated mythology and there is a large Gurudwara too because of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru once visited it in order to form a political alliance with the hill kingdoms against Aurangzeb. However, the town is primarily dominated by Tibetan Buddhists. They associate it with Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), the 8th-century master credited for spreading Buddhism in Tibet. They call this lake Tso Pema (Lotus Lake). People from Tibetan border areas at higher altitudes, where the winter is harsh, tend to come down to Rewalsar nowadays. This was once told to me by a guy in Spiti. As a young man, he had to take care of his home even during the winter but his elderly grandparents were sent to Rewalsar for a safer stay during those months.
My bus reached the town at around noon and I soon realized that you cannot escape the gaze of Padmasambhava from any point of the town. It can be seen from every angle. The whole statue is seen from a distance but even from close range, the head can be seen popping out from behind the buildings. I needed a cheap place to stay. There is a nice HPTDC hotel and some other options in town but I was interested in staying at one of the monasteries. After fooling around for a while, I entered the gates of Nyingma Gompa and found a hotel-like counter. I was expecting some austere serai fit for monks but it turned out that they have rooms just like hotels with attached bathroom and TV, for only INR 300!
This monastery is a destination itself, with the usual delights of Buddhist sculpture and a large “Peace Bell” that woke me up each morning. A few yeards from there was the Zigar Drukpa Kagyud Monastery, an even bigger edifice. But all these are new constructions. Although the story of Rewalsar dates back to the first millennium, these monasteries are mostly new. The place has gone through sort of a renaissance after the arrival of Tibetan refugees in the 20th century, with a conscious effort to turn this into a centre of Buddhist theosophy and learning.
* Do note that some of these pictures were taken using the SJCAM and hence not as sharp as they need to be. But it is a wider camera that helped me overcome the limitations of 35mm lens of my DSLR. All normal looking pictures are from the DSLR and fish-eye-ish ones are form the action cam.
The pinnacle of this revival is, of course, the larger than life statue of Padmasambhava that I mentioned earlier. This 37.5 metre (123 ft) colossus was completed only in 2012. I generally associate Buddhism with all things serene and subtle. So this imposing colossus was somewhat disconcerting for me and took some getting used to. It is located just behind Zigar Drukpa Kagyud but it is a standalone structure in itself. It turned out to be even bigger than it looked from a distance. In fact, one has to climb a steep flight of stairs only to reach the base of the statue. There are stairs even to reach the top of the statue while there is a spacious temple under it!
The base of the statue is also a good point to have a view of the lake. But in any case, a visit to Rewalsar is not complete without a “Kora” (circumambulation) of the lake. Devout people can be seen walking around the lake all the time and I also did it several times during my stay. The primary Hindu shrine of Lomas Rishi and some assorted shrines are all located in one part of the bank.
I also paid a visit to the Drikung Kagyu Monastery, which has a beautiful purplish-red decor and is home to the Emaho Cafe, the most popular cafe in town. The location is perfect because you can see the lake and the statue while sipping your drink. I bought some incense sticks from there too although the same thing is also available in Tibetan dominated areas of Delhi such as Majnu ka Tila.
The other major monastery here is Zangdok Palri Palace Monastery that I could not visit. Apart from that, one should hike up the hills to reach certain ancient caves that are associated with the original Padmasambhava stories. There are supposed to be more lakes in the upper reaches too. However, Rewalsar was having the same impact on me as Kasar Devi. There was a strange, languid, calmness in it that made me inactive. I just walked around the town and had no motivation left to go for a strenuous hike. While there are some cool cafes, I discovered the best food in a nondescript, nameless restaurant near the bus stand. It served excellent Mandiyali Dham for a mere INR 50 and I kept coming back to it every time.
I still have a lot to cover in Rewalsar. But as a preliminary visit, it was easy and painless. I think it is an excellent place for someone looking to avoid the crowd and spend a few pensive days without spending much.