Penelope Chetwode was the wife of the famous Poet Laureat John Betjeman and was obsessed with India, especially the Kullu Valley area in Himachal Pradesh. In the late 1900’s she made many visits to the area & became a well known figure who was deeply admired by the locals, due to her love of the area & her vast knowledge of the local temples & there architecture, she could read Devnagiri script & became a leading authority on the area & it’s temples, writing several articles for magazines & the like.
She first arrived in India in 1928 as a reluctant 18 year old, her father was made British Commander-in-Chief in India around 1930, when they lived in Delhi they took up residence at Teen Murti House designed by the famous architect Lutyens, it later became the residence of Nehru & is better known now as the Nehru Memorial Museum. Penelope Chetwode spent part of her childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, the Chetwodes summer residence there was at Snowdon. In 1931 she set off with her mother Lady Chetwode on a 140 mile journey by pony from Shimla to the Rohtang pass via the Jalori pass at around 10,500ft above sea level staying at resthouses & dak bungalows along the way.
Years later in 1963, she returned to the Indian Himalayas to organise her own mule trek along the same route passing through Fagu, Theog, Narkanda, Ani & Khanag to cross the Jalori pass continuing through Aut & Banjar before passing through Kullu & Manali & eventually reaching the Rohtang pass. On her way back someone recommended that she paid a visit to the Parvati valley, which she did without hesitation visiting Jari, which at this time was the bus terminal. However there was a jeep track as far as Kasol, but from here you could only get to Manikaran by foot. She rode by mule as far as Pulga & then continued by foot to the hot springs at Khirganga, where she bathed fully clothed in front of the resident sadhu. She had longed to visit Malana village on her way back down the valley, but due to severe weather conditions she failed to do this trek & was convinced that Malana’s all powerful Devata Jamlu had sent a huge cloudburst to to stop her reaching this mysterious hidden village.
On her return journey to Shimla she again crossed the Jalori pass making a detour via Goshaini & Bandal to cross the Bashleo pass into Sarahan, Arsu & Rampur. She returned to the area again the following year & for many years after this she led groups of people on treks all over the western Himalaya. In Manali in the ’70s she bumped into a Scottish woman called Christina Noble author of “A Home in the Himalayas” who had taken up permanent residence in Manali & married an Indian & ran her own adventure travel company. Over the years Penelope did lots of work for Christina escorting her clients to hidden temples & amazing them with her wealth of knowledge on the area.
She also became a close friend of John Bannon of the well known John Bannons G/H in Manali & would stay there often on her regular visits. She also was friends with many locals & officials in Shimla where she spent lots of time studying books on the area in the Shimla reference library. A very close friend was Mr Sud of the famous Maria Bros bookshop, which still existed till last year on the Mall in Shimla.
She wrote a wonderful book on the area describing her 1963 journey by mule called “KULU The End Of The Habitable World” She chose the title because the full name of Kullu is Kulanathapitha which means end of the habitable world. She also wrote an article for the Cornhill Magazine in the summer of ’72 called “Notes on Hippies and Drop-outs in the Upper Kulu Valley” (which i have not managed to procure a copy of, but if any of you reading this knows where i can find a copy then please let me know.) In 1985 she returned to the area once again with her 18year old granddaughter Imogen Lycett Green & spent 3-4 months traveling all over India.
In April 1986 she set off on another tour escorting some of Christina Nobles clients over the Jallori pass, they stayed a few days at Chapslee Hall while in Shimla run by Penelopes old friends Reggie & Mrs Singh, from here they took a local bus to Dalash a village situated at 6000ft in outer Saraj where the porters were waiting to escort them. When they reached the pass the way had been blocked by fallen trees due to a landslide & the porters said they would have to go a much longer way round with the ponies. Penelope was not happy about this as she wanted to visit a small temple on this route at a place called Mutisher, the majority of the party set off the long way round, but the determined Penelope decided she could get through to Mutisher & carried on with 2 other members of the group, one of whom was a nurse. Three hours later they reached Mutisher. Penelope was greeted by the temple pujari who was excited to see her as he knew her well from previous treks. He performed puja in her honor & rang the temple bell. Penelope dismounted & climbed 3 temple steps and rested her head on the stonewall. The nurse who was in the group shouted to Penelope that they needed to get moving to reach the village of Khanag. Penelope didn’t move, the nurse walked up the steps & shook her but she did not move. She quickly tried artificial respiration but to no avail. Penelope had passed away on the temple steps in one of her favorite spots in the Himalayas. The local villagers of Khanag gathered wood & built a funeral pyre where she was cremated. A few days later close friends scattered her ashes in the Beas in Kullu valley, which had been her request if ever she was to die in the Himalayas.
In 1986 her Granddaughter Imogen Lycett Green set off for India once again to retrace her grandmothers footsteps & to take a stone memorial to the village of Khanag to be mounted in honor of her grandmother, the stone can still be seen there today, she visited Shimla where she met the Singhs from Chapslee Hall, Mr Sud from Maria bros & many other Shimla acquaintances of her grandmother, in Manali she visited Christina Noble & the Bannon family plus many others. With the information she had gathered she wrote her own book about this journey called “Grandmothers Footsteps” which like her grandmother’s book is an excellent read.
(Article solicated from Indiamike.com and written by Kullu Kid)