First published in Learning & Creativity magazine in August 2015.
Time stands still on the stone steps by the river;
a silhouette takes a dip and emerges from its waters,
hands folded in obeisance to the rising sun.
A moment of transition from mundane to divine.
A marigold garland drifts by with ash in a plastic bag.
With a conch’s cry, the temple city quivers to life,
a flower boy approaches and with him a frail form
in white, a prayer basket trembling in her hands.
Oblivious, she faces the river, chants mantras,
lights the flower lamp and sets it afloat.
A song comes as a boatman begins his day.
The sun rises from the saffron tinted waters,
lifting the veil from Shiva’s abode. The air thickens
with smoke from funeral pyres and cooking fires,
the skyline of soot-darkened temples their backdrop.
In the sacred city of Varanasi a union of opposites—
suffering and liberty, birth and death, sacred rituals
and the unfolding of daily life. I walk the ghats,
that are alive with rhythmic sounds of cleansing
as washer men thrash laundry against stone slabs.
A holy man—his body smeared with ash—
lifts his hands above his head in prayer,
another, with Shiva-like dreadlocks,
sits in deep meditation at the sunken temple.
The air echoes with the clamour of temple bells.
Pigeons take flight. I sit beneath a canopy
and watch the river of life gasp for breath
at the confluence of the city of light and death.
I write this post as the rain douses the raging fire in the forests of Uttarakhand. Forests are the lifelines of hundreds of humans, flora and fauna and this kind of neglect is criminal in my opinion. To think that 3465.94 hectares of forest land lies ravaged by man-made fires is deeply disturbing. (number source Indian Express) The loss is immeasurable. Read this brilliant piece by Peter Smetacek about steps that can prevent future forest fires and sustain our forests. I hope some lessons will be learnt from the devastation caused by these fires and strict measures will be taken.
Flanked by lush forests the lake district of Kumaon, Bhimtal / Sattal / Naukuchiatal, has some beautiful high altitude (3000 – 4500 ft ASL) lakes. The decision to go there was impromptu. We booked the hotel from Ranikhet and after a refreshing early morning drive arrived at Bhimtal just in time for a good breakfast by the lakeside. The sight of calm emerald water was soothing to the eyes. We lingered around for a while and then headed to Naukuchiatal which was to be our base.
The valleys and the foothills of the Himalayas have a different charm all together. It was good to be back. Though the sun was bright and warm we were ready to explore the water bodies, winding pathways and the dense forests for the next two days. Solar panels on top of the roof of our hotel immediately gave it a few brownie points and the fact that it was right near the Kamal Tal or the Lotus Pond added a few more.
Flowers, bird calls, tall chir pines and mighty oaks, paragliders sailing in the sky and the floating leaves of the lotus plants were a good start to the last leg of our trip. I stood watching the vast spread of green water and an abandoned boat wondering how it would look when the lotuses would bloom.
A walk along the road took us to the lake of nine corners or naukuchiatal, its iridescent bluish waters glistened in the mid-day sun. Mythology tells us that the lake was created by Lord Brahma and even today the parikrama around the lake is considered sacred by the locals. There is a little Brahma temple near the KVMN guest house right near the lake.
It was good that the lakeside wasn’t cluttered with the tourists that day. Naukuchiatal is the deepest of all the lakes in that area. It is nourished by a natural underwater spring. A few shikaras were drifting languidly on the glistening waters. It was an ideal setting for us lazy bones and we made the best of it.
The moment we hit the town we were surrounded by the people offering paragliding services. Later at the lake it was the boat owners who kept persuading but we politely declined much to the displeasure of Adi who of course wanted to do both. Some inner fear kept me away from such activities and I wouldn’t let him go either which resulted in some bad blood between us.
There is nothing that a chilled glass of fresh lemonade made from Hill lemon can’t resolve and we had a glassful each and soon we were happily ambling down tree flanked banks of the lake, teasing, laughing, talking and basically enjoying ourselves.
Many times we stopped to watch the colourful boats, kayaks and shikaras docked by the harbour swaying gently with the breeze or a kingfisher diving into still waters to catch a fish. Naukuchiatal, like its sister towns, is seeing a lot of construction and we could see the hills, that once were spotlessly green, were now dotted with buildings. While this region falls under ‘no construction’ zone, it is being ravaged by rampant construction work, undertaken by private builders. A little disheartening to see the how alarmingly adverse developments have occurred threatening the existence of this ecologically fragile region. The lakes too have high rates of sedimentation which isn’t a good sign.
After a long walk we sat down to simply gaze at the water. After a lot of persuasion I agreed to let Adi go for Kayaking. With heart in my mouth I waited as he made his way to the middle of the lake and back. Now, I love water but in recent times I have lost courage to venture into any such adventures. We lingered around the lake for some more time sipping lemonade enjoying our quiet Zen moments along with the anglers waiting patiently for some Mahasher to get caught in their lines. Fish reminded us of food and we walked back to the hotel for lunch.
In the evening, a stroll in the opposite side of the lake and up a winding path into the forested area left us mesmerized with its beauty. A tranquil walk amidst the Oak and pine forests have a distinct soothing effect on the mind and body. The place also has large number of fruit trees like figs, pear, guava, apples and hill lemon. Naukuchiatal has some 500 odd species of native and migratory birds besides butterflies, moths, and small animals, leopards are also sighted in the deeper jungles. We spotted a number of birds but the lack of good camera prevented us from taking photographs.
There wasn’t much time to explore the nearby villages and hike to the deeper woods so we came back before it got dark. Meal that night was at Mahindra Resort. It was a letdown that the town did not offer any local food. I was really hoping to find it here as much to our disappointment the only place in Ranikhet that served kumaoni food on request had closed down. The food at Mahindra was extremely delicious and value for money.
Next morning we left for Sattal. The lakes at Sattal are nestled in the midst of thick oak and Pine forests below the lush orchards of Mehragaon Valley.
Sattal has a larger area of conifers than Naukuchia and Bhimtal, whereas Nainital has more Oak trees because of the high altitude. Bhimtal on the other hand has more grassy patches. Naikuchiatal has a mix of all in small measures.
As we drove down the meandering road downhill I could see one of the lakes down in the valley peeping through the forest green. Do stop to admire the terraced farm, the distant hills, greenhouses, and pretty little hamlets in the picturesque Bhimtal valley en route to Sattal.
Sattal is one of the many birding hotspots in this area of Kumaun. These forests rising from Bhimtal right up to Ramgarh boast a wide variety of birdlife. More than 300 varieties of birds, including, oriental white eye, magpies, flycatchers, kingfishers, babblers, tits, bulbuls, warblers, woodpeckers and barbets are found here. You can see many of them from the roadside, sometimes chirping in a bush or perched on a distant tree. There are more than 500 species of butterflies, moths and other insects. Sadly, rampant construction is slowly diminishing their natural habitat and I won’t be surprised if the actual number of birds could have dropped due to this.
When I first visited Satal many years ago there wasn’t much touristy stuff around the lakes. Five of the seven lakes were full and I think out of those five three were only accessible by foot. Surrounded by lush forest the area had more to offer than just the lakes. Treks in the woods, secluded natural waterholes for birdwatchers, quaint campsites, natural water springs to name a few.
Two of the seven lakes have dried up now and the biggest three interconnected ones, Ram, Lakshman and Sita lakes look like a replica of Naini Lake with the same touristy fanfare.
The Lakeside is encroached by food/tea stall owners and the “adventure sports/activities” groups catering to the tourists. A lot of people were engaged in kayaking, zip lining, and zorbing.
I wonder how long before these gorgeous water bodies will become just memories. Though I agree that these interconnected lakes are much cleaner and flanked by more forest green than the ones in nearby Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal, the tourist activity was maximum at this lake.
The pristine beauty of the lakes is most magnificent during monsoons but even now the blue green waters offered solace to the eyes. We decided to leave the noisy stalls at the banks and explore the wooded areas on the other side of the lake.
The place is so tranquil and picturesque that one just wants to reach out and explore its deeper secrets. From the main road a small trail that goes to ‘The Studio’. Birdwatchers’ paradise, this place is often visited by many rare birds and they actually seem to pose for the camera hence the name Studio.
There is a small lake there and often one finds the placid cows grazing around it. Tucked away in the forest the place is on the way to Subhash Dhara, a beautiful natural waterfall. We went up to the Studio but did not know how to proceed to the waterfall. Thinking it was wise not to venture on our own we trekked back to the main road. The rustling leaves, the music of the wind floating through the pines, gushing water, wild flowers and fruits, chirping of crickets and birds made the walk less strenuous.
We were hungry and decided to skip the Mission Estate, the Methodist Ashram and other ‘places of interest’. Out of all the lakes, I personally love the jade green garud tal. While there, do visit the Jones Estate. Frederic Smetacek’s butterfly museum at Jones Estate is a must see if you are in this area. We had visited it earlier so decided to skip it too. Lack of time was one of the reasons for not indulging in camping, hiking, nature walks etc. One needs to do a solo trip to this place to enjoy all this. Combining it with other places often leaves one wanting for more.
While returning we discovered a delightful cafe called ‘I heart Cafe’ located at the beginning of Bhimtal.
One of my long cherished dreams is to own a cafe in the hills. This one won my heart. Everything from food to decor was just awesome. We had delicious German teacakes, shakes and sandwiches over a game of chess and then relaxed there for some time.
This was our last day of holiday and on way to the hotel we stopped again at Bhimtal lake, the largest of all lakes in Kumaun region.
Usually vivid green, the colour of the water changes with time and seasons. The colour comes from the glacier minerals washed down from the hills covered in mixed deciduous forest. One can roam on the peripheral road fringed with Jacaranda trees along the lake to experience its beauty. have seen these trees in full bloom and the effect is mesmerizing. If you love the gorgeous Jacarandas you must visit in the month of June. Bhimtal’s climate is excellent for floriculture and one can see so many varieties of flowers in season.
The waters are unruffled and a serene sense of calm prevails here. A thriving ecosystem of aquatic species and birds is supported by the lake. Rich with aquatic life the lake is a boon for fishing enthusiasts. We saw anglers waiting patiently at a secluded point of the lake.
The little town of Bhimtal set on the slopes around the lake is slow paced and ordinary as compared to the other hill towns. That perhaps makes it beautiful. It has the least tourist activity at the lake as compared to Naukuchiatal and Sattal.
To have dinner at the hotel turned out to be a good decision as there was hail storm and rain that night. I guess it was a perfect round off to a great holiday for us.
Now, back in the malicious heat of Delhi, my heart wants to escape to the mountains again. you can not have enough of it. There is a constant pull, a constant call of the mountains that will haunt you until you pack your bags for another adventure. Let us see what time holds for me.. Right now my heart is set on Kasol. Praying that this trip works out.
This marks the end of the three part series of our travel to Uttarakhand. We will be back soon with more adventures. Keep watching this space. 🙂
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin
Road journeys are the best way to bridge distances. If my health permitted I would leave it all to travel to the hills and far off places. Even money would not be an issue then as travel requires less expenditure than tourism. For many years we took road journeys to different places and then it all stopped. The relationship with the mountains became a distant love affair. Both of us pining for each other but hardly meeting. After the Shimla, Mashobra, Tatta Pani trip I was longing for the hills again but the mundane routines of urban life weren’t loosening their grip.
Ranikhet and nearby lake towns of Bhimtaal, Saatal and Naukuchiyatal were on our mind since some time. Finally on a bright spring morning we drove towards an adventure of a lifetime. We were going to this area after a gap of 13 long years.
This is the first post of the three part series on our journey to the Uttarakhand mountains.
It takes 7-8 hours to reach Ranikhet which is about 350 Km from Delhi. The roads are much better than what I saw earlier and driving is mostly smooth if you leave early in the morning. We started at around 6.30 and were there by 2.30 in the afternoon. Fortunately we did not encounter any traffic jams. We decided to take the route via Hupur- Garh Mukteshwar- Gajraula- Moradabad Bypass towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur, Pant Nagar and Haldwani.
There is an alternate route also via Kashipur- Ramnagar (Corbett), Mohaan, Taarikhet onward. This route is less crowded than the one we took and more scenic too.
Traffic can slow you down for hours sometimes at Brij Ghat at Garhmukteshwar especially if there is some religious festival on the day of your travel. It is the closest to Ganges one can get from Delhi. After that the drive is usually smooth.
We Stopped a little ahead of Garhmuktehwar for breakfast. I think it was somewhere near Gajroula. The dhaba was clean and the hot crisp Aaloo Parathas tasted sumptuous with a dollop of butter, curds and mixed pickle.
Dhaba food is what one looks forward to while on highways and though this area isn’t flooded with dhabas that serve lip smacking food like when you travel to Chandigarh on NH22. Clean toilets and good food are two things one looks for while travelling. This place had both.
Dhabas are the lifeline of National Highways and every traveller has some favourite dhaba to talk about. We looked out for our favourite Amritsariyan da dhaba at Rudrapur but couldn’t spot it in the midst of all the new construction. Disappointed, I decided to simply gaze at the summer sky while Adi listened to the music .
Another thing was the absence of shops with boards advertising Chilled beer all through the National Highway. Those liquor shops have been shut down on govt. order to prevent drunk driving. A good decision I thought. During hot summer days we used to often pick a few bottles from these shops but the person driving the car never drank. Frankly, I kind of missed it but what the heck we were headed for a different high altogether.
We took the Moradabad bypass (NH24) , continued to Rampur then turned left here towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur…
We didn’t go into the Rampur town which was immortalized by Jim Corbett for its verdant jungles. (Man Eaters of Kumaun).
As we neared Rampur – Rudrapur road I was amazed by the changes that had taken place in the last decade. The 68 Km of NH58 has considerably improved since I travelled last but urbanization has changed the serene landscape to an eyesore. After cruising through the periphery of Udham Singh Nagar district’s rolling green paddy fields one gets jolted at the sight of something like a chaotic miniature version of Gurgaon.
I was appalled to see stores of big brands, a huge mall, high rise buildings and swanky hotels along the road. The flatland of terai region is no more a dusty town that vanished in a blink of an eye as we zip past it.It is a concrete jungle in the rapidly developing foothills of Himalayas. Instead of the wild leopards and tigers it now hosts the corporate tigers running this industrial hub. The place that once had paddy, sugarcane, wheat and soya fields adorning the landscape especially from Bilaspur to Rudrapur now just has a few patches of green. At least it was heartening to see the locals selling guavas alongside the road. The few orchards were full of mango blossoms. I dreamed of luscious mangoes in the dripping heat and dozed off.
As one approaches Pantnagar one is filled with the excitement of being close to the hills. The roads are usually crowded here and continue to be so till on crosses Kathgodam. We made our way through the congested town of Haldwani to reach Kathgodam from where the hills begin.
It is beyond this point that the drive becomes scenic and you get the first glimpse of the lower hills. The air changes considerably , becomes fresher and cooler. The sight of the mountains is always exciting and we gazed at them with longing eyes, ready to be embraced by them. Flowering trees, the simple mountain village folks, pretty houses and a long and winding road was such a joy to behold. Like children we chatted and pointed out different things we noticed as the landscaped rolled past us. The sun was bright and warm but not torturous.
On the Bhimtal –Almora National Highway, just ahead of Bhowali, is the famous Kainchi Dham. The seat of Neem Koroli baba who was revered as an incarnation of Hanuman, of whom he was a devotee.
That was our first stop in the mountains. Not for the Ashram and temple but for our long time favourite Mohan Restaurant which is right across the temple complex.
Many people headed to Ranikhet and ahead stop here for delicious food and clean toilets in the little shopping complex on the temple side of the road. There are two hairpin scissor like bends on the road hence the name kainchi mod. (Kainchi – scissor, mod- bend) Many celebrities like Julia Roberts, Marl Zukerburg and Steve Jobs came here to stay in search for Nirvana. Located at the banks of the rivulet Shipra, which merges into Kosi river as it meanders northwards, this Ashram is visited by thousands every year. You can find more about it from Google. I love the place for its scenic beauty. Tall conifers, green houses at some distance near the rivulet’s bed, hundreds of birds and flowers make it such a blissful place. Even with the place being a stopover for many tourists and travellers for food etc the serene peaceful Kainchi mod and surrounding areas are so welcoming. You will find local villagers selling Plum, Peaches, Apricot and other seasonal fruits. There are a few small eating joints along the road.
Mohan restaurant is one such eating joint. Unmistakable with its pink walled interior and a shed on top , the place is owned by a kumauni family. In all the years that we have stopped at this place the quality of food hasn’t changed a bit. Simple, homely and delicious kala chana and pooti, Aaloo sabzi and poori, parathas, bhajia and tea, maggi and a few other things are part of the menu. They are all made fresh by the lady of the house. The highlight is the pahadi cucumber raita and tangy spiced up jalzeera or lemonade made with Hill Lemons (Khatta).
In season one can see trees laden with these hill limes at many places on the way and in the villages. The fruit is an integral part of the kumauni cuisine. We had chana poori and raita and after freshened up. There are clean bathrooms available across the road. We needed to stretch our legs so we walked around the area soaking in the smells and sounds only mountains can offer.
Again on the road we crossed khairna bridge( there is a bifurcation here, one road leads to Almora and another goes to Ranikhet), Garam Pani and other small villages with lovely houses. The winding road is well maintained and the view simply enchanting. Look to your left for a magical view of green knolls, terraced fields , meandering river down in the valley, lush forests and cleanse your smoke choked lungs with the sweet smelling cool mountain air…bliss.
Far from the madding crowd we were driving now among beautiful tall trees and wild wayside flowers. The valley below to our left was bathed in sunlight and looked absolutely gorgeous.
Soon the sign boards and toll point indicated that we were right at the threshold of the unique slope town of Ranikhet situated on the upper ridge of the lower Himalayas. We took the higher of the two ridges flanking Ranikhet. The Chaubatia ridge, among orchards and old churches, has the army cantonment where we were going to stay for the next few days. Within minutes we were outside a lovely British style cottage which would be our home for the next few days.
It was a lovely day and we were ready to explore our favorite haunts.
We will continue with our adventure in the next part of the series. Keep watching this space.