The pristine beauty of Jiva Nal and the ferocious devta of Duada

Where reason and good sense didn’t restrain covetous ‘development’ fiends, faith has, in this pristine stretch of Himachal Pradesh

The grandeur of the Jiva Nal valley (photo: Avay Shukla)
The grandeur of the Jiva Nal valley (photo: Avay Shukla)

Avay Shukla

The Jiva Nal is the least known of the four streams of the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP). It drains the north-west corner of the park, emanating from the mountains and glaciers that guard its northern frontiers, and after covering about 65 km, meets the Sainj at Siund.

The trek to its source and back takes seven days. Given the purity of its catchment and the wealth of wildlife there, the GNHP management does not encourage treks and very few trekkers get to see the hidden wonders of the valley of Jiva Nal.

For those fortunate enough to obtain permission, the journey begins in the Sainj valley from Neulli (the roadhead), on to Shakti (first campsite, 2,100 m), a pleasant trek of 22 km all along and up the river. Here, one leaves the Sainj on its right bank and climbs for seven hours in a northerly direction to Satogani thatch (3,700 m).

It’s a hard slog because there is no discernible track, the lush undergrowth reaches one’s armpits, and the tree cover gradually changes from broad leaves to conifers and then to the kharsu oak and hill bamboo, known as ‘nirgal’.

The world changes, however, once the ridge line is attained and the panorama of Satogani thatch lies spread out before one’s unbelieving eyes like a carpet of a million hues.

It’s a 4-kilometre meadow that would humble the tulip gardens of Srinagar: a flood of geraniums, poppies, primulas, geums, the cobra plant and the imperial brahm kamal, believed to be the favourite flower of goddess Parvati.

The Sartu glacial pond (photo: Sanjeeva Pandey)
The Sartu glacial pond (photo: Sanjeeva Pandey)

Coexisting with a whole gamut of rare medicinal herbs: dhoop, karu, patish, hathpanja. In all my years of trekking I have never seen such fecundity of plant life; it’s a testimony to the rejuvenating powers of nature once the heavy hand of man is removed.

The third day’s trek, also about seven hours but not so strenuous, brought us first to the Satogani pass (4,300 m), which is the watershed between the Sainj and Jiva Nal valleys, and then steeply down to the Sartu campsite at 3,700 metres.

Sartu is a flat meadow on a shelf above the left bank of the Jiva: to the north is the 18,000-feet high Khandedar massif, beyond which is the Parbati valley. The eastern end is closed in by even higher, 20,000-feet ranges, and behind them lies Spiti. It is in the snow plains and glaciers of these mountains that the Jiva Nal takes birth, winding its way down those smooth white slopes like a necklace on the alabaster bosom of a Nordic beauty.

There are massive brown bears here, and ghoral, Himalayan tahr and snow leopards, but we did not see any. So captivating was the landscape that we spent two days here, though we did not press further upstream for lack of time.

On the fifth morning, we rose early to cross over to the right bank of the Jiva Nal before the snowmelt made the stream impassable. Here the track veers left, to the west, following the Jiva downstream, past the iridescent blue wonder that is the Sartu glacial pond. There are spectacular snow-bridges and waterfalls on the way.

The origin of Jiva Nal (photo: Avay Shukla)
The origin of Jiva Nal (photo: Avay Shukla)

Emily, a French girl who was part of our party, fell while photographing a waterfall: we immediately named that cascade ‘Emily Falls’ and it is now so recorded in the GHNP maps. So now you know how natural features are named!

After 10 km, one arrives at Duada (literally, where two roads meet). A major gorge meets the Jiva from the north at this point — the Duada khad — and there is an impossibly steep trekking trail up this khad that goes to Phanchi Gallu (4,664 m). The GHNP ends here, beyond which is the Parbati valley.

In 2010, the Himachal Pradesh government established a new national park called Kheer Ganga National Park and the entire area beyond Phanchi Gallu is included in it, forming a seamless natural reserve right up to the Pin Parbati pass. This is one of the rare things the government got right!

Duada is a clearing next to the river, hemmed in by thick forests. There is no habitation here, just a broken down, unused forest hut and a large grassy mound—this knoll has a grim but fascinating myth attached to it.

According to legend, there was a thriving village here a couple of centuries ago. The local devta (deity) allowed the people to live here on the condition that they would not kill the animals or birds in the forests. After a few years, the villagers broke this covenant and started slaughtering the wildlife.

The furious deity emerged from the jungle one night, big as a deodar tree, pulled down all the houses and killed each and every human there. The mound is all that remains of the village, and no one has dared to settle there again. The locals will not stop here even for a cup of tea, so deep is the myth embedded in their cultural past.

The legend may or may not be true but there can be no doubt that the devtas reign supreme in these remote regions. Organised religion has minimal influence here, thankfully, for the devtas are a force for conservation.

A concretised hillside at Sainj (photo: Avay Shukla)
A concretised hillside at Sainj (photo: Avay Shukla)

Each village has a devsthan or sacred grove from where even a twig cannot be removed. The Duada devta has forbidden meat or eggs from entering his domain, and we had to send back our store of the same. (Fortunately, there was no bar on the demon rum, which would have been a deal breaker!)

I have observed this conservationist streak in the near-animalistic beliefs throughout the remoter areas of the state and can only humbly thank these nameless deities for their role in protecting the natural environment.

One crosses to the left bank of the Jiva below Duada and now leaves the stream to ascend to Subli (3,400 m), the day’s campsite. This is the primeval habitat of the western tragopan. At dawn the next day, we could hear their calls all around us but, sadly, did not see a single one.

The sixth day’s journey is not very exciting: an hour’s trekking brings one to the Kandi Gallu pass (3,700 m), at which point we descended into the Sainj valley. By evening we reached habitation again — the little village of Bhagikashahri — where we spent the night in a school compound.

The next day it is a 12-km, four-hour hike back and down to Neulli and the Sainj river: we had completed a full circle in seven days.

The Jiva Nal itself meets the Sainj 10 km further downstream at Siund, but it is dead long before that. Its waters have now been trapped somewhere below Duada and diverted into underground tunnels to power the turbines of Phase I of the 800 mega watt Parbati project.

This power house is in Siund, whose greenery has now become one solid mass of concrete, rewriting the geology of the area, with disastrous consequences, as we witnessed in July and August this year.

The gods of commerce have arrived in this remote and pristine region to stay. But I much preferred the devta of Duada.

(Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer. He blogs at

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