Last year, I encountered the work of the legendary Russian painter-mystic-writer Nicholas Roerich and its hypnotising quality led me to research him further. Roerich wandered extensively through the Himalayas and painted the most striking landscapes of the mighty mountains. Something about the Himachali village of Naggar held him in its thrall, and he settled and worked there until his death in 1947. That’s what had brought me to visit Naggar.
From my vantage point I can see the skeletal, cement-hued Beas River, gentle slopes dotted with apple orchards, pine forests, and tiny hamlets. A man with a crutch limps along a narrow path in a field of green. An autorickshaw splutters up the snaking road. Fierce mountain crows circle and caw. Like in an enchanted map, life goes on in the Kullu Valley as I watch transfixed from the terrace of the Naggar Castle, perched atop a crag in the village.
Unlike European castles, this is an elegant Pahari-style structure in stone and timber, containing woodcarvings of pine and spruce. But like many old castles, it has its share of secrets and stories. One of its courtyards has an eerie weeping willow while the Jagtipath Temple stands in the other. The temple contains a slab of stone, which according to local belief, was carried here by gods who had transformed into bees. The town was the erstwhile capital of the Kullu Valley and the castle was built in the 15th century by Raja Sidh Singh. It was used as the royal residence and later as the state headquarters of the kingdom. Today, it is a heritage hotel overlooking the spectacular Kullu Valley.
In Naggar I realise why Kullu is called the “valley of gods.” And I’m perhaps looking at the same magnificent vistas that drew Nicholas Roerich here nearly a century ago.
A 20-minute walk from the castle lies the Roerich estate. Perched high above the village, it consists of the painter’s two-storey house, an art gallery with over 40 paintings, a small temple, and a memorial. The white-washed, wooden house has been preserved just the way it was when Roerich’s son Svetoslav lived here. A tree-lined path leads to it through a garden in a riot of colours. Visitors can walk through common spaces of the house but are not allowed inside the bedrooms. I peek through the windows and get a glimpse of the cosy, carpeted spaces. The living room has a fireplace, plush carpets, and two wrought-iron chairs. Another room has a huge study table with a Russian paperweight, a wooden stamp, a slab of thin stone with Tibetan motifs, and a fish-shaped brass pen stand. Wooden chairs laid out on the balcony overlook majestic Kullu Valley. Three rooms on the ground floor make up the art gallery, containing mesmerising paintings by Roerich and Svetoslav. Strangely eerie and captivating by turns, the art displays dramatic mauve skies, the luminescence of the Himalayas in soft post-dusk light, and puny figures framed against lofty mountains. A strange calmness and deep reverence for the mountains emanates from each painting.
Soft classical music wafts out of the gallery and follows me as I make my way down the winding path leading to a green hill, with Nicholas Roerich’s samadhi laid out in the middle. A brown Buddha sits under a headstone. White and yellow wild flowers overrun the place. There’s a bench under a huge banyan tree at one end. A gentle, rain-kissed wind whispers in the pines below. As per tradition, I leave a pine cone at the grave as a sign of respect. The memorial of his son Svetoslav, who has a story of his own, is also part of this estate. Married to yesteryear superstar Devika Rani, he made India his home, travelling its length from Naggar to Bengaluru. Apart from Himalayan landscapes, the younger Roerich is known for his paintings of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and other leaders of the time.
As the day draws to a close I walk back to my guesthouse. The last shaft of sunset bathes the mountaintops in a golden hue and cotton-white clouds are aglow. Distant snowy peaks slowly fade into a horizon of colours, and I realise that I am witnessing a sight that might very well be one of Roerich’s paintings.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Painter’s Muse”.
Naggar is located in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu district 280 km/7.5 hours north of Chandigarh and 22 km/30 min south of Manali. Overnight Volvo buses ply between Delhi and Manali, from where taxis to Naggar are available (HRTC Volvos leave from ISBT Delhi, tickets ₹1,400; taxis from Manali to Naggar charge ₹250 one-way). The museum-cum-gallery is open Tues-Sun, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; entry ₹30.