KULLU, the Kullu valley's capital since the mid-seventeenth century, became district headquarters after Independence. Despite being the region's main market and transport hub it has been eclipsed as a tourist centre by Manali, 40km north. Kullu is noisy, polluted and worlds away from the tranquil villages that peer down from the surrounding hillsides. In October, when the entire population of the valley comes to town to celebrate Dussehra, the city takes on a life of its own.
Kullu's most famous temple, the Raghunathji Mandir is home to a sacred statue of Lord Raghunathji, a manifestation of Rama, brought by Raja Jagat Singh in the mid-seventeenth century. The raja had been advised by his priests to install the sacred icon here and crown it king in his place, and to this day the Kullu rajas consider themselves mere viceroys of Raghunathji, the most powerful devta in the valley and the focus of the Dussehra procession. The temple is tucked away behind the Kullu raja's Rupi Palace above the bus station. Half an hour's walk further up, the paved trail leads beyond the village of Sultanpur to a high ridge, with excellent views over the Beas River to the snow peaks in the east. Vaishno Devi Mandir, a small cave-temple that houses an image of the goddess Kali (Durga), is a stiff 3km further on.
Another important temple, the Bijli Mahadev Mandir, stands 8km southeast of town, atop the bluff that overlooks the sacred confluence of the Beas and Parvati rivers. Although it's closer to Bhuntur than Kullu, you have to approach the temple via the Akhara Bazaar– Tapu suspension bridge and a well-worn track south along the left bank of the Beas. Bijli Mahadev is renowned for its extraordinary lingam. Bolts of lightning, conducted into the inner sanctum by means of the twenty-metre, trident-tipped pole, are said to periodically shatter the icon, which later, with the help of invocations from the resident pujari, magically reconstitutes itself. From the temple there are superb panoramic views of the Parvati and Kullu valleys and Himachal's highest peaks.