This Himachali tour guide with a PhD tells stories of goddesses, sages and mushrooms | Condé Nast Traveller IndiaMay 18, 2021
Himachali guide Prem Sagar leading treks
Before becoming a tour guide, Prem Sagar was a lover of books. He graduated in 1988 with a Master’s degree in English Literature and opened one of the first book stores in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, close to his home in Kajlot. He says that he continues to learn everything he knows by thumbing through novels and travel magazines in his free time. It was his humble bookstore that put him on the path to being a guide. Having grown up in the mountains, he had always enjoyed treks and hikes but never thought of making it his profession. “So many foreign tourists would come into my bookstore and we would always have a cup of tea and chat,” he says. “That’s when I started exploring the possibilities of travelling with them and learning from them.”
A year after opening his store, he started his own trekking agency—Eagle’s Height Hikers and Trekkers. Soon, he was branching out into jeep safaris, hikes and mountaineering expeditions across Leh, Ladakh and Nepal.
Tracing myths, mythologies and histories
Sagar believed that it wasn’t enough just to see a place. In order to truly understand all that one saw, it was important to first know its history. So, in 2006, he began conducting historical tours and heritage walks in Himachal Pradesh. “We all read about Mughal history in India,” he says over a phone interview. “But no one talks about what happened before that. History needs to be re-explored.”
What is interesting is that Sagar’s history is a mix of that which is recorded as well as that which is percolated through myths.
He gives the example of Bilaspur, a district in Himachal Pradesh, named after Vyasa, the sage who is regarded as the narrator and compiler of the Mahabharata. The historic town was completely submerged when the mighty Sutlej, that ran through it, was dammed to build the Govind Sagar dam. The town was then rebuilt from scratch a little upslope in the 1960’s, starting a new chapter of its history in independent India.
“Himachal is full of mysticism,” he says, talking about the mythological and religious context in the state. Regarded as the birthplace of Lord Parshuram, the legendary home of the goddess Parvati as well as a centre of Buddhism, this is a state where geography, history and myth all intersect at different points.
A passion into a career
Apart from the mythology of the state, Sagar is also deeply entrenched in the communities of the state and their history and culture. He completed his doctorate thesis on tribal communities of Himachal Pradesh and the ecology of the Himalayas from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “Tribal communities have such a long history in India but no one talks about them.” In Kullu, he takes travellers on nature walks, telling them about the local flora and fauna, including the many varieties of mushrooms grown by local communities and more. “From June to September, a large variety of mushrooms are grown here,” he says. “Most are edible and the locals have learned the art of drying and preservation which allows them to be stored for years.”
Like many others, Sagar’s work has ground to a halt due to the pandemic. Tourism has been sparse the past year and he has only seen visitors from nearby states like Punjab and Delhi. And he doesn’t see things going back to normal anytime soon. “I suppose, we will have to adapt to new ways of doing things and change as things around us change.” Despite the challenging times, he continues to pursue his work where he can, reading and interacting with locals to understand his home state better. Even in these circumstances, he is grateful for what he has. “I have turned my passion into my career,” he says. “What could be better than that?”