Himachal Pradesh (Himalayan Province) is wholly mountainous, with peaks rising to over 6700 m. The Dhaula Dhar range runs from the northwest to the Kullu Valley. The Pir Panjal is further north and parallel to it. High, remote, arid and starkly beautiful, Lahaul and Spiti are sparsely populated. They contrast strongly with the well-wooded lushness of those areas to the south of the Himalayan axis.
At lower altitudes the summers can be very hot and humid whereas the higher mountains are permanently under snow. In Shimla, the Kangra Valley, Chamba and the Kullu Valley, the monsoon arrives in mid-June and lasts until mid-September, giving periods of very heavy rain; in the Kullu Valley there can be sudden downpours in March and early April. To the north, Lahaul and Spiti are beyond the influence of the monsoon, and consequently share the high-altitude desert climatic characteristics of Ladakh.
Originally the region was inhabited by a tribe called the Dasas who were later assimilated by the Aryans. From the 10th-century parts were occupied by the Muslims. Kangra, for example, submitted to Mahmud of Ghazni and later became a Mughal province. The Gurkhas of Nepal invaded Himachal in the early 19th century and incorporated it into their kingdom as did the Sikhs some years later. The British finally took over the princely states in the middle of the 19th century.
Although the statistics suggest that Himachal is one of the most Hindu states in India, its culture reflects the strong influence of Buddhism, notably in the border regions with Tibet and in the hill stations where many Tibetan refugees have made their homes. In the villages many of the festivals are shared by Hindus and Buddhists alike. There are also small minorities of Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.
Hill tribes such as the Gaddis, Gujars, Kinnaurs, Lahaulis and Pangwalas have all been assimilated into the dominant Hindu culture though the caste system is simpler and less rigid than elsewhere. The tribal peoples in Lahaul and Spiti follow a form of Buddhism while Kinnauris mix Buddhism with Hinduism in their rituals. Their folklore has the common theme of heroism and legends of love. Natti, the attractive folk dance of the high hills, is widely performed.
The dominant local language is Pahari, a Hindi dialect derived from Sanskrit and Prakrit but largely unintelligible to plains dwellers. Hindi is the medium for instruction in schools and is widely spoken.
Handicrafts include woodcarving, spinning wool, leather tanning, pottery and bamboo crafts. Wool products are the most abundant and it is a common sight in the hills to see men spinning wool by hand as they watch over their flocks or as they are walking along. Good-quality shawls made from the fine hair from pashmina goats, particularly in Kullu, are highly sought after. Namdas (rugs) and rich pile carpets in Tibetan designs are also produced. Buddhist thangkas, silverware and chunky tribal silver jewellery are popular with tourists and are sold in bazaars.
Modern Himachal Pradesh
Himachal Pradesh was granted full statehood in 1970. There are 68 seats in the State Assembly, but as one of India’s smallest states Himachal Pradesh elects four members of the Lok Sabha and three representatives to the Rajya Sabha. Since 1966 Shimla has been the state capital. Dharamshala has been the home of the Dalai Lama since 1959, following the Chinese takeover of Tibet. With the long-term closure of routes through Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh has seen a sharp rise in tourism, and is the main land route to Ladakh. The new strategically important tunnel under the Rohtang Pass is scheduled for completion in 2014.
Current political developments
Even though Himachal is quite close to Delhi, it still has the feel of a political backwater. News from the state rarely makes the national newspapers and, while the contest for representation in the Lok Sabha and in the Assembly is intense, the two-horse race between Congress and the BJP rarely attracts much attention. The Congress party gained power in March 2003 under Chief Minister Shri Virbhadra Singh, his third appointment to the post after earlier tenures covering much of the 1980s and 1990s, but the BJP won three of the four Lok Sabha seats in 2009.