Unacquainted with conventional games in their childhood and devoting the time in romancing with snow, many generations of countryside villages of Manali have left no stone unturned to turn their land into mini Europe where people worship skiing as their deities.
The villages have now become the wellspring of professional skiers for India, with over 70 children and youth having participated in international skiing events only in last few years! The journey from homemade wooden skis to the Winter Olympics has been remarkable.
Neglected by government but supported by natural skiing slopes, children, who never played hide and seek, gilli danda or cricket, spend a large amount of their capital in buying expensive skis and obtaining technical training.
Children who cannot afford expensive pair of skis have enough knowledge that how to make temporary ski with help of timber fitted with pieces of steel blade on its base to reduce friction. Blades are generally stolen from saw mill.
Burua, Shanag, Palchan, Solang, Ruar, Kulang, Goshal and Kothi villages in upper Manali have long list of success stories in winter games which has not only brought laurels to the country but is also a mean of healthy bread to hundreds of families.
Lack of money forced youths to make wooden-skis at home in early days and now these youths are representing Indian team in all international events, including Winter Olympics.
Though the Indian national ski team which is new to the professional winter sports and which mostly has skiers from Manali villages could not perform extraordinary in international events so far but the lone luger of the country Shiva Keshavan who hails from Vashisht, a small village near Manali, has set an Asian speed record and has grabbed three gold in Asian Luge Championships in Japan.
His latest gold came in December 2016. As India does not has any luge track, he had to practice on the highway, not on ice track. Unlike luge track where a sled skids on ice, Shiva had to fit small wheels on his sled to be able to ride it on sloppy and dangerous roads of Manali. He was youngest Olympian of the world to qualify for luge event at age of 16.
The talented youth are proving their mettle in various countries after buying entire skiing kit at own expenses while others who could not make it to the international slopes are giving lessons on basic and advanced skiing to students and tourists on native slopes.
One in every fifth villager has taken lessons on basic and advanced skiing from Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS).
Youths from these villages are dominating national skiing championships for many years and are representing India in Olympics, Asian Winter Games and World Championships.
Hira Lal, the first skier from India to qualify for Olympic is also from Manali village. Currently he is the coach of India skiing team.
Roopu Negi of Manali, who is currently president of Himachal Pradesh Winter Games Association (HPWGA) and was vice president of Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI) recalls the days of 1970s when they used to make wooden skis even for national competitions.
He adds, “When we got a third hand professional ski, we used to wear it one by one. How can we forget the time when we used to carry ration to Solang valley for two three weeks and practice with home-made wooden skis.”
“I won the first prize in national junior competition in 1978 and then won many prizes in senior competitions. Skiing sport of Manali has seen many colours of struggle. The skiing then flourished in other states as well.”
Despite government’s indifferent attitude towards winter games, youths are continuing with world class training from foreign coaches after spending lakhs of rupees from their own pocket with a hope for a bright future.
“Our skiers have struggled a lot to represent country in world championships. They have incurred their own expenses for ski, suit, coach and lift charges. Still our skiers are full of confidence and they find their way to Olympics,” former Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI) secretary general Roshan Thakur said who used to operate the WGFI office from Manali itself.
Girls have been given an equal chance to carve their skiing skills. Bhuvneshwari, Varsha and Aanchal have represented India internationally many a times and are the burning example that without discrimination skiing has become a religion for everyone here.
Mother nature has awarded Manali with world class skiing slopes but lack of infrastructure, funding, instruments, snow beating machines have always become an obstacle to fetch a big achievement in international events.
Although skiing has become an integral part of tourism in Manali with thousands of tourists trying their hands on local slopes, but no attention has been paid by government to improve its status and infrastructure.
Hundreds of residents, who have opened their shops along the roadside starting from Manali towards Rohtang pass, are generating self-employment by renting out their skis and ski suits.
However, this business has now shut after National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed ban on commercial skiing in 2015. It is not possible for villagers to buy new skis which costs between Rs 40 to 80 thousand, so most of the residents buy used kit and do rehearsal with them.
History of skiing in Manali
Though foreigners were skiing on slopes of Manali for years but it was Darjeeling’s Wangdi Sherpa’s small skiing school at Vashisht village which started giving lessons on skiing to local residents.
Simultaneously Western Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (WHMI) (now ABVIMAS) started its courses in skiing and mountaineering in 1961. Ran Singh and Balwant were the very first ski instructors at institute.
Later, to promote the winter games, first Winter Carnival was organized in 1977 and All India Skiing Championship was started. All this was an initiation of Harnam Singh, founder of WHMI.
But it was the Winter Sports Club of Manali which was founded by Jimmy Johnson, Roop Chand Negi, MC Thakur, Gupt Ram, Narender Sood, Dharmender, BS Negi, P Kaishta, Iqwal Sharma and a dozen more youths in 1978 which instilled spirit of skiing in other youths of the region.
In 1984, Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI) was formed by a group of visionaries and adventure loving individuals. When Solang ski slopes were not developed, competitions were organized at Rohtang pass only in summers.
Japan’s Kazuo was godfather of Indian Skiing
The skiers of Himachal in October 2013 had organized a puja at Rohtang pass for the peace of soul of renowned Japani skier Kazuo Sato who is believed to be the godfather of skiing of Himachal and India as well.
Sato had expressed his wish before dying in 2002 that his ashes should be immersed in Rohtang pass.
Born in 1947, Sato frequently visited Manali between 1987 and 2000 and gave lessons on skiing to youths and children. He also contributed towards promotion of skiing in the country.
Sato took youths from India to Japan and improved their skiing skills in his country without expecting anything in return.
Jagdish Lal, one of the first skiers of Himachal, said Sato had asked his wife that after his death, ashes should be immersed in Rohtang pass.
“He was the man who took the Indian skiing to this level. It was result of his efforts that our skiers started taking part in international skiing tournaments. The puja was performed in the presence of renowned skiers of Himachal and we paid tribute to our guru,” he said.
Himachal Pradesh Winter Games Association president Roop Chand Negi said skiers of the country will always remember Sato.
“It is the result of his efforts that our skiers are proving their mettle in Olympics and other international winter games.”
Over two thousands families in Manali are directly or indirectly earning their livelihood after organizing ski course or by renting out ski kit.
The trained youths organize short term ski courses and earn good money. Over one hundred shops along Manali-Rohtang highway deals in skiing kits and hundreds of travel agents across the country are promoting winter games of Manali. Skiing is also generating good revenue for government by attracting more and more tourists.
Talented but poor winter game athletes have always been complaining about apathy of government which has failed to provide a deserving platform to them.
Country has no ski resort to give warm welcome to international skiers and is lacking proper snow beating and artificial snow making machines. Skiers incur all expenses of training, kit and coach from their own pocket.
Despite having good potential to attract more ski lovers, the ski slopes are being neglected and athletes are not being given the attention which they actually deserve.
WGFI has its office in Manali
Roshan Thakur, (former) general secretary of Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI), being resident of Manali and federation having no sufficient funds to maintain a proper office, WGFI’s main office is being operated from Manali by Thakur for many years now. However, the federation has been suspended and presently WGFI has no office.
First athletes to participate in international event
Nanak Chand and Chuni Lal, both residents of Palchan, were the first youths from Manali who participated in Albertville Olympics in France in 1992. It was just a beginning as athletes from Manali didn’t give a miss to any of the international winter game event since then. However, India first participated in Asian Winter Games, Sapporo, Japan, in 1986.
Although no big success has been bagged by these self-sustained athletes so far, but they have been sustaining a continuous presence of India in international winter games and Olympics.
By making themselves technically perfect in the game, more and more youths are generating self-employment by sharing their skills with newbie. Still, many skiers believe youths cannot make their future bright in skiing unless government supports them technically and financially.
Manali mountaineering institute gives shape to talent:
Manali based Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS) has been giving a technical shape to the local skiing talent for years.
Thousands of youths have got basic and advanced training in skiing from here. Joint director of institute Ashwani Kumar said: “We have learners from across the country and sometime even from abroad. Most of the students come from locality. Not only they are representing India in many countries but generating self-employment by giving training to others.”
Ski resorts in India
- Solang, Manali
- Gulmarg, Jammu and Kashmir
- Auli, Uttarakhand
India has 600 athletes registered with WGFI
Nearly 40 to 50 thousand skiers have been trained so far by various institutes in India
Top players say:
Roshan Thakur: Thakur, a renowned skier, a coach, technical advisor, team leader and former secretary general of WGFI had started skiing at age of 12 and he spends most of his time in abroad to support his teams, said, “Our main motto is to find young talent, carve their skills and give them opportunity to represent the country. Our prime motto is to find and develop new slopes. No matter what others think about us, we are committed to host Olympics in India someday.”
Hira Lal | coach of Indian ski team: It was a proud moment for me to become the first Indian to qualify for Olympics in Italy in 2006. We are now working hard to prove our mettle in 2018 Winter Olympics at South Korea. I wish we had better infrastructure in our own country and skiing were as famous as cricket.
Ludar Thakur | Coach and many times India team leader and national champion: Since 1995 when I represented India in Junior Asian Games in South Korea and then in Iran, Japan and Kazakhstan, our youth are performing even better every time. We are participating in more and more international events. We have established our identity among International Ski Federation (FIS) and International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Santosh Thakur | First Indian athlete to win medal in international event: “I won silver in South Asian Winter Games but nobody congratulated me on this achievement. Winter games have a lot to do to become popular in our country. While I am disappointed to see weak skiing infrastructure in country, I’m happy that our athletes are improving. We are organizing national events on our home slopes at Solang. Our sports minister is from Manali and he is taking good interest in improvement of sports infrastructure. This has filled all athletes with thrill and hopes.
Aanchal Thakur | Girl to represent India in first-Winter Youth Olympics 2012: I want to make skiing my career. I am visiting many countries to seek good lessons from good coaches. But this is very expensive. Now I am eyeing next Winter Olympics. I have learnt a lot from coaches in Switzerland and Japan.
Varsha Devi | Indian skiing champion: My father and uncle who belong to middle class family have been spending lakhs of rupees on my training in abroad. I know I can prove myself but we need a platform and support from government. I wish we had good slopes and facilities like many other nations.
Kapil Thakur | Represented India many times in international events: We have natural slopes, we have snow, we have people who are willing to devote time for the game and we have enthusiastic youths but we are lacking infrastructure. We need funds to develop our slopes so that our youths would get good training.