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Tuesday, 28 February 2012 16:13

Travel :

I left home with this on my wall, “Driving up, through the Prayags, nestling amidst the Himalayas, picturesque woods, silver streams, pines and deodars, alpine grasslands, meadows on slopes of snow covered peaks, roads encircling the Greater Himalayas with the clouds left far below, my travels take me to KUMAON !!!”

And I returned with this…

Driving out of Rishikesh, watching a landslide on the corner I just cut, stalling the road for cars behind mine, I felt lucky to be on the move again. As I climb further I witness a protest march, the pathetic state of affairs in the development of the hill region was the cause of people wailing. Yet unstoppable as I was determined to cross over from my beloved picturesque Garhwal to the rather less exhibited heights of Kumaon, I drove on along the Alaknanda, crossing one Prayag (confluence) after another. Simli, a small hamlet outside Karnprayag played host for the first night. The lives here in the hills are simple, a day begins at 4 am, long before the sun is out and ends the hour that the sunlight begins to dwindle.

The terrain churlishly denies the inhabitants a proper living. It is difficult to make a hut, leave alone laying roads or stringing a bridge.

Unassumingly I had entered the confines of nature, up here where men and mountains meet, it is almost a blissful existence. The treachery of lowlands, tyranny of man is dismissed from the panorama at gaze.

From Simli, I proceeded up the Pindar river, towards Gwaldham. The last town of the Garhwal region with its homogenous mixture of Bhotia, Kumaoni and Garhwali population living peacefully after being warring tribes for years, makes for an interesting anthropologic study. Angora farm rabbits, a Bodh Temple, Benatoli village walk, Bhim Pathar are the attractions here. With no signs of the inflictions of the warring tribes, only invigorating Himalayan highs in sight, the town set the tone for the serene journey.

I soon made headway into Kumaon, first stop Kausani. The town beholds a 365 km stretch of the Himalayas on view. With summits like Nanda Devi, Panchchuli, Trishul among several others flanked before the eyes, the view is nothing less than regal.

A strange meeting transpired in this very town, I heard a sermon in Gandhiji’ Ashram about understanding what the Bhagwad Gita means when it proclaims that you own nothing and shall take back nothing. The ashram is called “Anashakti”, it is the power of understanding that develops when one acknowledges that whatever he may possess; one is merely using it but does not own it. From here I conjoined to learning another life changing thought. Denounce, accept the world for what it is and denounce all expectations.

With no FM or cell phone network and a lone Kishore Kumar disc playing at an almost subliminal volume a temple trail began. First up, Someshwar, followed by ancient temples of Baijnath, Bagnath in Bageshwar destrict, Patal Bhuvaneshwar, Gangolihat in Pithoragarh district, Nanda Devi, Chitai and finally Jageshwar the prime Jyotirling, in the Almora district.

The hills are full of mythological tales running parallel to modern day reality. Stories of the hills of Neeleshwar and Bheeleshwar;  why no river till date has been able to cut across the Neeleshwar hill, housing a temple of Lord Shiva, while all other hills have been pierced. The story of Kosi’s betrayal, and why it has no major confluences.

From the main road connecting Chaukori-Berinag to Rameshwar, a steep 8km off-road downhill stretch from Guptari town will lead you to the doors of the Patal Bhuvaneshwar, the primordial sanctum-sanctorum of the ‘underworld’.

If the place doesn’t excite you already, multitudes of tales definitely will. This ASI, photography prohibited site, is a mix of mythological and natural wonders, all you need is the priest cum guide accompanying you to unearth the stories behind the formations. The temple entrance is a narrow 3x2 feet wide cave opening, using ropes and chains one needs to rappel down a good 30 metres to reach the level ground inside the cave. Thirty three million Hindu Gods, almost all the characters from Hindu mythology that one has heard of, an entry into Satyug and a return to Kalyug is illustrated within the caves all of which is promised while Sheshnag, bears the burden of us all. Ah, the guide, I tell you, his words have stuck!

I was still trying to grasp all that the guide had narrated about the formations inside the cave, when I encountered a difficult terrain along the Ramganga project. For a continuous mountainous stretch, no chai-waala in sight, the car’s fuel tank running low, and to top it all, the sun!  Catching an almost nursery like scenery of the setting sun. Not one but I witnessed three sunsets that hour. It would set before my eyes, the range would turn red and gloom would follow. I was chasing sunlight, behind every bend and curve. A couple of turns later, crossing over from one hill to another, the sun would present itself again and take a dip allowing me ample time to click. Had the road been wider, allowing my car to stop without stalling the traffic, my shutter would have gone lose. I crossed a few hills more, and one more time the sun presented itself, shy red and almost without any penetration, and after one final time for the evening, it went dark.

The journey didn’t halt yet. There was no halt in sight, and partially because it had become about denouncing. Re-routing my compass, I decided to halt at Jageshwar for the night. After a tiring day’s driving, reaching Jageshwar was a relief. The place was majestic! A town laid out on one side of the temples, built centuries ago; an open forest encircling the temple from the other. A tiny stream labeled the Jata-Ganga arising from the main temple complex and flowing outwards of Jageshwar.

The night sky, was unreal, with stars almost handpicked, strung in rows and given an extra bolt to glow brighter. The morning brings the calm you associate with Lord Shiva. Aloof from worldly affairs, eyes shut, deep in meditation, unperturbed by any human presence, the temple, complex, is as pious as it gets.

The local deities also needed to be ticked off my list, so as I entered Almora, the Lord of justice, Gaulu Devta’s temple at Chitai was also a designated stop. The deity’ story goes like this. There was once a great king, known for his strong belief in handing out just decisions. Among the local folk, he was praised for centuries, kings going to war sought his blessings and soon the legend of a great king turned into a folklore of a diety of justice, an incarnation of Yama himself, and  the stuff that legends are made of.

What’s striking about this temple and in general about temples in Kumaon, is the practice of tying bells in the temple in lieu of a boon. Arrays and arrays of bells, big and small, strung on every tree, every wall, every pillar, in the temple. But why was the temple at Chitai specifically so popular? The answer lies in the belief that bells aren’t enough, God needs letters too. So, file them here; with stacks of other applications detailing your problem, asking God to address it.

The last on the list was the biggest deity of the other side of the Uttarakhandi Himalayas, the temple of Nanda Devi in Almora. Set amidst the Lala Bazaar, this tiny structure has thousands of visitors thronging to the gates every twelve years for the Nanda Devi fair.

Almora, in one glance is an ordinary hill station. A second look will tell you that it has a penchant for sight. Every major building has a soothing sight to go with it, almost picture perfect in most cases. Preserving old structures is a stand out and plausible facet. The municipality is as old as 1864. The Sessions Court is a modern equivalent of a forest retreat right out of a fable. The head post office slightly below the road but just right for the sloping roof to be the foreground for Himalayan peaks. Continuing on which the last bend leads you to the Bright End Corner, a wide angle view of the Himalayas, as per taste, coffee to go with it to capture the floating verve.

Only if the camera could capture that I saw!

The true joy of travelling around Kumaon, is experienced while trekking to tiny hillocks, just off the road. Landing in golden meadows, surrounded by hills, gazing at peaks at a distance, and yet sharing the same land with them. Stations like Sitlakhet, Chaubatia, Vijaypur and Bigul give you a chance to cherish such excursions. Descending from a rather sun lit hill top into a valley with still no ray having pierced the thick mist, owing to ‘air drainage’. After having known the concept, I had a firsthand experience for the first time in the Garur and Pindar valley en route to Chaukori.

Pines and conifers, tall and green; from the mix, standing out, a tree of wild Himalayan cherry is seen. The experience is not just scintillating for the visual senses, but the purity of air actually enlivens you, making you more perceptible to the fragrances and delightful sights around.

Kishore da was still playing at the same subliminal volume, making me hum along, “Main toh chala jidhar chale rasta…” My momentary concern was even if I might get you images and a sense of how beautiful my sojourn was, how can I ever bring the fragrance to you.

What is beautiful about the hills, especially the Himalayas, is that it has layers, and as the layers unfold through ridges and ‘v-shaped’ valleys, we see purer forms of it. The more you see of it, the more infatuated you get. Almost romantically, bewildering you one moment, enchanting you the other, and then, reconciling to embrace you.

On my track out of Kumaon, I visited Dwarahat, Ranikhet, Bhatronj Khal, Mohan and Ramnagar. To be honest a Corbett stay never crossed my mind. But, as luck would have it, thanks to Mr. Advani’ Rath Yatra and routes being shut, I took my chance and dived into Corbett’ Jhirna Range. An unmetalled road, ranger tracks, under the watch of Rangers seated in ‘machaans’ and anti-poaching guards we crossed upto Kalagarh, leaving Kumaon far behind. An elephant, a cheetal, a boar or two, that’s all I could spot. Sadly, no Tiger.

Kumaon gets a thumbs-up for being easy on the pocket, lots of places to see and things to do. The Himalayan experience and solace is delivered. What you need to watch out for though, is distances, connectivity, availability of amenities like ATMs, gas stations, and even cell phone networks. All in all, a must do is Kumaon.

Sum totals: 1100kms travelled in 5 days, spending 40 hours on road; for a meager Rs. 6,400 only.

If Garhwal is the abode of the Gods, then Kumaon is certainly the attic hiden away.

-Vaibhav Saklani

Last Updated on Wednesday, 29 February 2012 06:22

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