Queens of Pithoragarh – Chaukori and Munsyari – Part 1

Part 2

How does it feel when a long-standing pain goes away suddenly? That’s how I felt back in the year 2003. I was going through months of stress in my professional career and on one fine day, suddenly everything fell into place. On such occasions, you normally strive for something more than trivial. That’s when I thought of visiting the hills of Kumaon. I’ve been to Garhwal and Himachal for a few times by that time, but Kumaon was still out of reach. However, I wasn’t new to the place, thanks to the literature of Edward James Corbett. I opted for the upcoming long weekend of Holi (a festival of colors in India) but faced a problem of plenty when it came to selection of places. After speaking to some of my friends and relatives who have been to the Kumaon region before, I narrowed down on Kausani (a picturesque hill station in the Bageshwar district) and Chaukori (in Pithoragarh). Stories were ripe about amazing sunrise and sunset views from Kausani and Chaukori was famous for its proximity to the famous Himalayan peaks (some Bengali travel magazines had phrases like “If you throw a stone from Chaukori, it might land up on Nanda Devi”). Hence, quite obviously, my expectations were high and that was one of the reasons of sheer disappointment of this tour.

Me and my wife boarded the Ranikhet Express from Old Delhi railway station at about 10.30 PM in the night and found ourselves at the Haldwani station, the next day, at about 6 AM. Haldwani is one of the main entrance points of Kumaon. We hopped on a share jeep that was headed to Almora and from there, boarded another one for Kausani. The serpentine hill roads after the last railway head Kathgodam had its impact on me and I was nauseating. However, it subsided after sometime and we reached Kausani at lunch. The KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam – the tourism wing of Uttarakhand state Government that handles the Kumaon region) rest house was about 2-3 km beyond the main market of Kausani. But the northern skies were filled with clouds and there were no traces of the Himalayan peaks. We settled in our suite and had lunch. Afternoon didn’t prove to be better either. We just saw glimpses of the Trishul but soon clouds covered it up. In the evening, we asked the staff at the rest house about commute options to Chaukori and that’s when they dropped the bomb shell! From what transpired, it became apparent that during the Holi festival, almost all vehicles go off roads and we’d find it very difficult to hire one. They suggested we immediately get down to Nainital and spend the rest of our vacation there because it is near to Kathgodam and it would be easy for us to get a transport to the railway station. Our entire plan went for a toss. We were to stay 2 nights each at Kausani and Chaukori respectively and I was not ready to spend all these days at Nainital. The next day, against the advice of the hotel staff, we ventured out for Chaukori. We woke up early in the morning hoping to see the sunrise but were disappointed. That’s the first time, we experienced this strange phenomenon. The sky was devoid of any clouds and we could see the dark outlines of the distant Himalayan range but as the sun started to come out, they just started fading away in the bright sunlight. Much later after we came back from this trip, we came to know the reason behind this. In this time of the year before the onset of summers, the villagers set grasslands (and often forests) on fire with the aim of clearing up fields for cultivation. Land is scarce in this part of the world and no bit of arable land lies unutilized. The pressure of growing population continues to have its effect in terms of depleting forest cover. Such “wild fires” result in generation of a lot of smoke and fills the air with dust particles, thereby creating an invisible screen that prevents clear vision. The months of October and November and the winters are the best time to visit Kumaon.

Coming back to my story, we boarded a bus from Kausani to Bageshwar, followed by a shared jeep to Chaukori. It took us about 5 hours to reach there. The cottages of the KMVN rest house at Chaukori was spread out over the slopes of a hill that offered magnificent views of the Himalayan peaks of Kumaon region “provided” the sky was clear. The word “provided” weighed upon us very heavily on this trip and Chaukori was equally disappointing. We piggybacked with two other families who were kind enough to accommodate us during our return journey from Chaukori to Nainital where we reached in the evening.

The disappointment of this trip resulted in a plan of visiting these regions again during better times and that was in late October in the same year during the vacations of Diwali (another important festival of India). This time around, when we reached Haldwani, the atmosphere was visibly different. There was chill in the air and the vegetation bathed in bright sunshine. My mother was with us this time around. We started off in a Tata Indica from Haldwani. The vehicle was to stay with us for the entire trip that involved staying one night at Chaukori, followed by 2 nights at Munsyari. It would then drop us at the Kathgodam railway station from where we were to board the Ranikhet express for Delhi. As we moved ahead of Kathgodam, roads started spiralling. We crossed Bhimtaal, Bhawali and stopped at Khairna for breakfast. I engaged myself with the route. We gradually crossed Almora and The Himalayan peaks started to appear. Things weren’t going very well with my mother She was nauseating. We had to stop frequently for her where shed would wash her face before starting again. We crossed Dhaulchina and reached Berinaag by afternoon. A few km after Berinaag came Udyari bend. Chaukori was 5 km up from this place. I was praying hard for the road to end as my mother was in a sorry state. Her eyes were almost popping out of their sockets. We finally reached at the KMVN rest house. After the formalities at the reception desk, we were allocated a cottage. It was an isolated wooden cottage with a bedroom and an attached toilet. Its windows opened to the majestic views of The Himalayas. The sky was crystal clear with the rays of fading sun acquiring a touch of pale yellow. One could see unobstructed views of Trishul, Nanda Devi (the largest peak in India before induction of Sikkim as a state, which is when it passed on the baton to Mt KangchenDzonga), Nandakot, Nandakhat, Pawalidwar, Rajarambha and many other peaks. The group of five Panchachuli peaks was at the eastern end of the horizon. After having tea, we went outside the cottage and the stage was set for a marvellous sunset. The mighty Himalayas were set ablaze by the setting sun.

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Kumaon Himalayas at sunset – Chaukori

My mother went through an abrupt change as soon as she got off the vehicle at the end of our long journey. She was feeling surprisingly well, especially after having tea and the splendid sunset pumped her up. We roamed around carelessly with our eyes firmly on the Himalayas where the sun was spraying colors galore. No one seemed to be in a hurry, both tourists as well as locals. Life seemed so easy and simple in this lazy evening. Birds flew back to their nest with their purchase for the day. There were no targets to be met, no need to uplift yourself at the cost of others.

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Nandakot – Chaukori

We came back to our cottage and spent time gossiping till it was time for dinner which was served at the dining place. As soon as dinner was over, there wasn’t anything to do and we slid into bed under the warmth of the blankets. Sleep embraced us with both hands and we were soon into the world of dreams.

The Himalayas makes me rise early and Chaukori was no exception. There was a watch tower at the KMVN lawn. We climbed to its top while the sky was being sprayed with scarlet. There were some clouds in the sky but that only added to the beauty. Their lower edges burned like a fire as the sun popped up as a golden ball from behind the hills.

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Sunrise – Chaukori

As we turned to the North, The Himalayas were rising from last night’s sleep. The twin peaks of Nanda Devi brightened up and as the sun came out in its full glory, they turned into silver.

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Himalayas – Chaukori

After spending sometime at the tower, we came back to the cottage as it was time to prepare for our next journey to Munsyari. After having bath and breakfast, we settled our bills at the rest house and headed out for Munsyari, 90 km from Chaukori.

Part 2

In the abode of the lord – part 4

Part 3

the next morning, we woke up early and headed towards Joshimath bazaar. That was the main place where the gate was (the gate refers to the accumulation of vehicles headed for Badrinath that were given permission to hit the roads at regular intervals – something that I explained in my earlier post).

Joshimath is an important junction in this route. It has significance in multiple aspects. Not only it is a big town on this route, but it is also the place where the puja for Badrinath (Narayan or Lord Vishnu) takes place during the six months of November to April (dates vary across years) when the actual shrine becomes inaccessible due to winter snow. Joshimath also is an important junction on this route when it comes to trekkers. It is from here, trekking routes go to the interior of the Nanda Devi National Park to places like Mallari, Niti valley and other wonderful routes. There are accounts of ancient routes to Kailash and Man Sarovar through this area, but those routes seize to exist nowadays after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962.

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Road to Badrinath from Joshimath

We boarded a bus that was carrying pilgrims to char dhaam yatra (Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath). The road initially moved downwards from Joshimath through its cantonment area and then spiralled down till we reached the banks of Alaknanda river, where it crossed over to its other bank and moved towards Govindghat. We often crossed areas where road was damaged by fallen rocks from the upper mountains. The entire route to Badrinath from Rudraprayag and particularly this section of it between Joshimath to Badrinath is prone to landslides. We went through places, where people were posted to keep a watch on falling rocks from upper slopes of the mountains in order to alert the passing vehicles. When we reached Govindghat, I was excited once again as this is the place from where the trek starts for another amazing route in the interior of The Himalayas – the Valley of flowers and Hemkund Sahib. Many years after this trip, we had the fortune of visiting these places, but that’s a tale to be told another day.

It took us about 2.5 hrs to reach Badrinath. We off boarded at the bus stand, but our place of stay was at Kedia Cottage of Kali Kamli which was about 1.5 km walk from there. Kali Kamli had many rest houses at Badrinath. Kedia Cottage was located on the banks of Alaknanda just opposite the Badrinath shrine.

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Badrinath shrine

Badrinath is a bustling town, much larger than Kedarnath with the Alaknanda river flowing right through the middle of it. After settling down at the rest house, we went to offer the puja at the shrine. The priests surrounded us trying to convince the importance of offering a puja of higher amount. We spent the afternoon at the rest house. A dry cold wind flowed from the north and was lashing at our faces. In the evening, my mother discovered that my father was running high temperature. That was surely a cause of concern. I went out in search of a doctor and luckily found one. He gave some medicines. We went to bed that night concerned about how the fever might play out. We still had to get down to Haridwar which was a journey of at least 12-13 hours by bus.

We woke up to a cloudy day the next morning. I had to drop my plans to visit Mana, a place about 5 km from Badrinath and was the last Indian village before the Sino-Indian border. My father still had high temperature so we chose to stay at the rest house. A local boy came up to us and offered to provide buckets full of warm water. He’d be bringing them from the hot spring near the Badrinath shrine and asked for Rs 15 for two buckets! The rate was in no match for the effort involved (the hot spring was on the other bank of Alaknanda). He pleaded us not to take the services from anybody else and even agreed to carry our luggage to the bus stand the next day morning when we were supposed to board the bus for Haridwar. He represented the extreme poverty and the hardship of the locals. What we view as tourism, is a necessity for them to survive.

When we woke up the next morning, it was still dark. As we prepared ourselves, the light gradually started to spread. That’s the first time I noticed the dark outline of a distant mountain right behind the hills on the opposite banks of the Alaknanda river. As the first rays of sun fell on it, the tip of the mountain turned golden and swathe of gold gradually expanded and a beautiful peak appeared in front of us. It was Neelkanth. We haven’t had a view of it till now and just before we were about to leave Badrinath, it was kind enough to appear before us.

neelkanth
Neelkanth

 

The local lad came and helped us by carrying our luggage to the bus stand. After giving  tips, we exchanged wishes with him and boarded the bus. The bus started at 7 AM. I had a mixed feeling during our return journey. On one hand, I was a bit sad as we moved back towards the plains, but on the other hand, it gave comfort that the next 2 days we were to relax at Haridwar and our days of toil were coming to an end.

We spent 2 days at Haridwar and the next day, we went to the station for a train to Dehradoon. Our next destination was the hill station of Mussourie. Local people at Haridwar suggested to board any train and they said reservation wasn’t going to be required as the journey was merely for an hour or so. The Delhi-Mussourie express entered the station and we boarded a compartment. The train stops at Haridwar for a long time as some of its coaches get detached at Haridwar with the rest going to Dehradoon. After we boarded, the train started to move backwards and after sometime, it moved to a different line before coming to a halt. We knew that trains stopped for a significant time at Haridwar. There were other local people who sat with us in the compartment. But when it didn’t start even after a long time, I got nervous and started to ask others and that’s when I came to know that the Delhi-Mussourie express had already left for Dehradoon. As it turned out, the coach we boarded (along with a few others) were slated to be detached at Haridwar and were not destined for Dehradoon. While we waited in them, the rest of the train had already departed! We had to get down in somewhat awkward manner as the coaches were not standing beside a platform. We literally had to jump from the door and walk back to the platform along with the luggage. This time around, I made arrangements with a coolie (persons who carry luggage) that he would arrange for seats in the next train and that too, in a compartment that was destined for Dehradoon (the act of detachment of coaches happens for all trains headed to Dehradoon via Haridwar). He kept his words and we boarded the next train and we were finally headed for Dehradoon.

Part 3

In the abode of the lord – part 3

Part 2

Part 4

Temple bells woke us up the next morning. The dark sky was dotted with numerous stars. The Kedarnath shrine stood against the dark backdrop of the mountains behind. The morning light gradually started spreading in the sky though the sun wasn’t out yet. The sages were headed to the temple to offer the morning prayers to the lord. The rays of rising sun started to shower on the Kedarnath peak. It looked like the crown of a king with just the top of it acquiring a touch of gold. I couldn’t take my eyes off. It was my first ever experience of sunrise in The Himalayas. Gradually, the rays of sun fell on Kedar Dome and the mountains behind the shrine and when the sun finally came out, the entire range of mountains appeared as if they were wrapped in dazzling silver.

We got ready and bid adieu to the temple town. Our journey down to Gaurikund was not more than 2.5 hours. After we reached there, we went to the hot spring for a bath. As I submerged the lower half of my body into the shallow pool of luke warm water, I almost fell asleep. As if someone had prepared a bed to welcome my tiring body. Our initial plan was to stay at Ramwara both on our way up and down from Kedarnath. Since we travelled on ponies, we now had 2 extra days at our disposal. We met a group of travellers who were coming from Badrinath. From them, we came to know about Auli. It was a picturesque slope up in the mountains. One could reach there by a ropeway from the town of Joshimath, an important junction on the road to Badrinath. I made up my mind and went to book tickets for the bus at Gaurikund bus stand. However, tickets for the first bus were sold out and we had to settle for a bus ride to Rudraprayag. The bus drivers convinced me that we could get ample buses from Rudraprayag for Joshimath.

The next morning, we left Gaurikund by the first bus and reached Rudraprayag at around 10 AM. As we waited for the bus, tension gradually started to creep in. I had my parents with me and we had luggage. The buses that came from Haridwar or Rishikesh were all filled to the brim and there was almost no place to sneak in, let aside getting a chance to seat. We had to let go many of the buses that came by. Finally, we gave up hopes for seats and boarded the next bus that was headed to Badrinath. I had to climb up the ladder at the back of the bus to transfer our luggage to the roof. The bus was jam-packed and we could barely stand. These buses were the only means of daily transport for locals and we were just piggybacking. As the bus moved on, we got adjusted and after sometime, two people gracefully offered their seats to my parents. After a journey of a couple of hours, the bus reached KarnaPrayag.

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KarnaPrayag

KarnaPrayag is the confluence of the rivers Alaknanda and Pindar. The bus waited for a long time at KarnaPrayag but that was expected. As we were waiting, some passengers got off the bus and boarded another. Gradually, more and more passengers did the same and that caused suspicion in my mind. I got off the bus and asked the conductor (who was having tea in a nearby stall) when the bus was about to resume its journey. His reply gave me shivers down the spine. I learnt that the bus won’t go any further and that’s the reason, most of the passengers got off to board another bus that was standing beside and it was to start its journey immediately. I didn’t even have the time to debate with him about his responsibilities to inform his passengers. I rushed back to the bus, informed my parents. I then dragged them down, made them board the other bus and rushed to the driver to ask him to wait for some time, climbed up the ladder of the previous bus and transferred our luggage from its roof to the roof of the other bus. When we resumed our journey from KarnaPrayag, I was still breathing heavily.

Clouds started gathering and by the time we reached Joshimath, it was raining heavily. While my parents waited under the shed of a local shop in the market of Joshimath, I went around in search of a hotel. By the time I found the rest house of Kali Kamli Wala, I was totally drenched. After having my parents settled at the rest house, I went out in search of some food. Though the rains caused trouble for us, the locals were relieved as it was the first rains of this summer. After an early dinner at 6.30 PM, we slid under the blankets in our beds. It was still raining heavily and there was nothing much to do. The next morning, we woke up to a clear and bright sunshine. I went for the rope way ride to Auli while my parents preferred to rest.

The rope way from Joshimath to Auli was the longest in Asia at that time. The cable cars and the rope way were designed by an Austrian company. The cable car had space for about eight persons to stand and had glass windows an all sides of it. As it started its journey upwards from Joshimath, mountains started to peep out from behind the hills surrounding Joshimath. It appeared as if curtains were being raised and scenes began to unfold in a theatre that made us awestruck. Snow capped mountain peaks started to appear from behind the hills and when we reached Auli, we were greeted with a 180 degree view of snow capped Himalayan peaks. As I turned my head around, from right to left, the peaks of Nanda Devi, Trishul, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba, Kedarnath and many other snow peaks of the Garhwal Himayalas were visible.

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Cable car at Auli

After spending some time basking in the morning sun and enjoying the majestic views of Himalayan peaks, I headed down to Joshimath by the cable car. For the rest of the day, we relaxed at the rest house. The plan for next day was to board a vehicle for Badrinath. Back in those days, the road from Joshimath to Pandukeshwar was one way – i.e. vehicles could travel only in one direction at a given time as the road wasn’t wide enough to allow crossing of two vehicles from opposite directions. Every alternate hour, vehicles were allowed to go from Joshimath to Pandukeshwar. The same pattern was followed for vehicles coming from Pandukeshwar to Joshimath. It meant that if your vehicle missed to leave Joshimath in the first hour, it had to wait for the third hour for its turn. Hence, our target was to leave Joshimath by the first hour (first gate, as it was then called). We went to sleep with that in mind.

Part 2

Part 4

In the abode of the lord – part 2

Part 1

Part 3

Sleep deserted me last night. Partly because of the excitement, partly because of tension around whether we can successfully pull off the journey to Kedarnath and finally because of the roaring sound of Mandakini flowing under the balcony of our room. When we got ready to start, it was still dark. The walk to the pony stand from the inn was a narrow lane through the maze of the hotels, inns and shops of GauriKund. We were clad with whatever warm clothes we’ve brought but still the cold outside was biting and this was still 14 km before Kedarnath.

After some bargain, three ponies were slated for us. To board them, we had to ascend some stairs to an elevated platform to get to the same level of their backs. With some difficulty, my mother managed to sit on the saddle of her pony and local boys helped her to sneak in her feet in the metallic slots that hung from the saddle on both sides. Once she was settled, me and my father repeated the steps for our respective ponies. A look at my mother quickly revealed that she was not at all comfortable and looked very tense. Her entire attention was focussed at her pony. We started off just as when the morning light started to come out. After sometime came the first shock. Till now, each pony had a person by its side, but now only one boy remained who was supposed to control three ponies all the way to Kedarnath. That sent shivers down the spine. It was a narrow path and the ponies moved along the edge beyond which there was a steep slope that went straight down to the gorge of the river Mandakini. The fact that all three of the ponies were tied to each other by a rope didn’t give much comfort. As they went around the bends, they came precariously close to the edge. The fast flowing Mandakini thundered down the gorge in the form of roaring rapids. It must have been a magnificent sight, but frankly, beauty did not even figure in our minds. The trail was laden with dung of ponies and every now and then, their hooves skidded on such piles. The morning mist, the smell of the fresh morning dew from dense forest in the valley and the aroma of dung piles all mixed to form an atmosphere which was refreshing (yes, even with the smell of dung). Our ponies formed a line with my mother at the start of it, followed by my father and I at the end. The local boy was at the front  carrying the leading end of the rope that tied all three. I missed enjoying the beauty of the initial journey as all my attention was on the ponies. Our bodies danced in the rhythm generated by the steps of the ponies. Every now and then we crossed with the ponies coming down the mountain from the other side and with carriages carried by humans (dandi, as they’re called in this part of the world). In these mountain roads, such crossings weren’t very pleasant as there wasn’t much room to spare. To allow passage, someone had to step aside (usually one tries to be on the side of the mountain wall, but at times we got forced to the edge). My constant vigil on ponies wasn’t letting me enjoy the beauty at our disposal and I tried to force my attention towards it. After all, this is what we were here for. Gradually, I got used to the situation and was able to turn my attention away into the wilds of nature. The thick dense forest was interspersed with thundering waterfalls every now and then which came down the slopes. A batch of four persons carrying a dandi were coming down the path from the opposite side. I was worth watching their steps, which looked like a march with all of their steps harmonized like a tuned musical instrument. This was very crucial to keep balance of the carriages in these roller coaster trails, which carried a human being. As the carriage approached us, I suddenly saw that my mother slid from the saddle and she almost fell from it. The boy immediately rushed to her help and prevented the fall just in time. She was crying like a child. Later, it transpired that the carriage collided with her pony and that imbalanced her. This incident had a lasting impact on her for the rest of the journey and she could never turn her focus away from the path or the pony.

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Kedarnath

 

After 7 km from GauriKund, we reached Ramwara. Just before reaching the place, we had to cross a place where the path was very narrow, filled with boulders with water flowing over it. The ponies had to jump from one boulder to another carrying us on their top. Every step appeared to be dodgy and a slip from there could have landed us straight into the laps of Mandakini. We had our lunch at Ramwara while ponies were given their share of grams. Apart from food, our bodies too got a chance to relax as it was very painful sitting on the saddle. Our journey resumed after lunch and now the path started to spiral upwards. The hairpin bends increased in frequency as the trail moved up. People of all age group were on this path – right from child on the backs of porters to the elderly and differently abled. Some of them were treading on foot wrenching their backs to scale these tiring slopes with the hope of reaching the shrine. In search of what? What has made thousands of them toil over the ages to these shrines? Is it the wish to rid their sins in life? Is it the wish to reach heavens beyond this earthly life?

Trees had declined in numbers, giving way to shrubs and bushes. After Garur chatti, the last inn before Kedarnath, the last trace of green disappeared from the mountains. We were now into the land of moraines and slopes with striated with patches of snow. As we crossed a bend, we were greeted with the sight of the Kedarnath shrine at the backdrop of the Kedarnath and Kedar Dome peaks. The afternoon sun showered its fading rays on the Kedarnath peak. We crossed the bridge over Mandakini to reach the Kedarnath town. The Kedarnath shrine was at the center with hotels and inns surrounding it. The place looked like an amphitheater surrounded by mighty peaks on all sides. The temple had a simple structure with the idol of Nandi (the bull) in front of it.

We arrived at the Bharat Sevashram Sangha and went to our allotted rooms to relax for sometime. In the afternoon, the bells of the temple resonated amongst the mountains. The fading sun showered its rays on the temple and turned the peaks of Kedarnath and Kedar Dome into crimson and then gradually faded away. Temperatures plummeted as darkness hovered over the town.

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Kedarnath at sunset

We offered puja at the shrine and went into our rooms. At about 7 PM, we were told that dinner had been served but we didn’t even heed to that. We were already into our beds, wrapped in multiple blankets. It was so cold that the blankets felt like they were drenched with water. The tiring journey on the ponies and cold made us fast asleep.

Part 1

Part 3

In the abode of the lord – part 1

Part 2

The place isn’t the same anymore. The humans went overboard with interfering into Lord Shiva’s serene territory. He doesn’t demand extraordinary devotion and prefers to live and let live in peace. But humans misjudged his silence as his acceptance. Of what? Well, anything they could think of. Be it denuding entire valleys of trees, relentless construction of structures literally in every corner or constraining the freedom of rivers flowing down the valleys to satisfy their own luxury (read electricity). It was all piling up and finally patience ran out and then came down his wrath. Within minutes, millions of gallons of water roared down from the slopes of mountains of Kedarnath and swept everything that came on its way. The sweet and beautiful Mandakini turned into a demon and devastated lives and properties of millions of families. Parents saw their children getting swept away and vice versa. Houses that took years of humongous effort to build, got swallowed by ever rising tides within minutes. Entire villages got erased from the map. The lord came to act true to the meaning of his existence, which is to destroy everything that is garbage to clean up the way for new. What emanated in Garhwal could only be related to Tandava, the famous dance of the lord to destroy everything. Kedarnath was never going to be the same again. Ramwara, the favorite resting place halfway up the erstwhile route to Kedarnath vanished in no time. So did Garurchatti, the last place of halt where pilgrims took a deep breath before embarking on the last hike to the Kedarnath shrine. Today, one cannot find any of the innumerable dharamshalas or hotels that were built over the years in and around the temple. All that remains is the shrine surrounded the snow-clad mountain slopes and nothing else. Today, one has to stay the upper Lincholi, visit the shrine and come back to spend the night at Lincholi. Probably, the lord wanted his disciples to stay at some distance to allow some space for his loneliness. The route which was 14 km from Gaurikund earlier, now turns out to be approximately 20 km going via Sonprayag-Gaurikund-Bhimbali-Lower Lincholi-Upper Lincholi-Kedarnath.

The place that turned into shambles on that fateful day, once was the epicenter of pilgrimage from across the country and I was no exception in succumbing to its appeal. Kedarnath had beckoned millions through the ages.

Back in those days when there were no trace of any automobile in the entire route from Haridwar to the shrine, people spent months on the trail to the twin shrines of Kedar and Badri. They often started their journeys from their homes with a possibility that they might never return and very often that materialized too. It is the trail that has witnessed the sigh, toil, often deaths and triumphs of innumerable pilgrims.

Mythology says that the Pandavas seeked the blessings of Lord Shiva, who, for some reason was trying to hide from them. He took the guise of a bull. Bhima, the second Pandava recognized him and tried to cath hold of him. In the hide and seek game that ensued, the Lord tried to evade but Bhima tried to pull the buffalo by its tail. In this tug of war, the lord split himself up and the parts of his divine guise landed in five different spots in the Himalayas. The places where the parts landed, collectively came to be known as Panch KedarKedarnath, Mad Maheshwar, Tunganath, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar.

Then came a time when the route turned out to be a nightmare for thousands of pilgrims (in those days, it wasn’t in millions) thronging to the shrines annually. It was during the years of 1918 – 1925. That was when the notorious man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag tormented the pilgrims in a large section of the route in and around Rudraprayag. Ones who have read “The man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag” from Corbett know that the animal appeared out of nowhere and started to kill humans (local villagers as well as pilgrims) and very soon turned into a demon. The thrilling and humane description of the plights of the people by Corbett captured hearts of many like me across generations and proved to be one of the reasons of my interest in this voyage. Though, in today’s world, one cannot even gauge the situation that people went through when the animal ended up with 125 documented kills (and many undocumented) till it met its fate at the hands of Corbett. Nevertheless, it thrilled me that this was the same stage where such incidents were enacted almost 100 years ago.

The first opportunity came in the year 1999. My mother wished to visit the shrines and I started to gather information from my uncle. It was the first time I was going on such a tour with my parents. We had no experience of travelling in The Himalayas, especially when it involved a trek of 14 km from the nearest motor head Gaurikunda. Though I call it a trek, but it’s not the only option nowadays. Like many others, we were to travel by ponies. Excitements started with planning and preparations. I had endless discussions with my uncle and other relatives who’ve been there. Then came the time for railway reservations, bookings at holiday homes in Haridwar and Mussourie. Finally, the plan started to take shape.

About a month before we were to depart, a severe earthquake struck the Chamoli district of the Garhwal Himalayas. Loss of lives and devastation followed. The places where it struck were right at the heart of route. Most of our relatives suggested to drop the plan except my uncle. His justification was that we still had a month to go. Majority of the damage was done to the route to Badrinath from Rudraprayag. It was expected that the army will rectify it as soon as possible since it’s a road that leads to the Sino-Indian border. On the day of our departure, I had a fever which gathered intensity by the day. Out train was at 7.30 PM and I was running temperatures in the range of 102-104 (F) in the morning. It appeared to be a lost case and I almost gave up hopes. My doctor sprang a surprise. Instead of preventing me, he encouraged to continue with the tour. He prescribed the medicines and gave his suggestions for taking care. When I slept in the train that night, I still had fever. It disappeared the next morning and I breathed easy. We reached Delhi by 8 PM and boarded the train for Haridwar at 10 PM. We reached Haridwar the next morning at 6 AM.

Haridwar railway station was small and calm by the magnitudes of Howrah (Kolkata) or Delhi. There were a few sages roaming around on the platform and auto and taxi owners started to approach us with proposals for a tour in and around Haridwar or Rishikesh. Ignoring all of them, we boarded a three-wheeler from outside the station and landed at our holiday home. While my parents relaxed at the holiday home, I had the bus tickets booked for Gaurikund for the day after.

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Haridwar

 

Our evenings were spent at the banks of The Ganges at Har ki pauri watching the splendid Aarti. The flowing river was illuminated with countless lamps lit and floated by the devotees with the hopes of blessings from the river which is the lifeline of entire Northern India. Our bus for Gaurikund started from Haridwar at 5 AM. After exiting the city, it crossed bridge over the Ganga to reach the other bank and we entered the Chilla range of the Rajaji National Park. The road lay ahead like a black serpent swirling through the dense forests on both sides. Then came Rishikesh – a place dotted with numerous temples on both sides of the Ganga. The road gradually started to move higher as plains started to give way to the mountains. The picturesque Laxman Jhula foot bridge spanned across the river with the green waters of the Ganga flowing beneath it. The place bathed in bright sunshine. The first stop of the bus was at Vyasi for breakfast. When it resumed it’s journey, the road scaling more heights up the slopes of the hills. We reached DevPrayag., the first of the many Prayags (confluence of rivers) on this route. While we were approaching the main town of DevPrayag, we could clearly see the confluence of The Ganges that was coming down from the snout of the Gangotri glacier at Gaumukh and Alaknanda, which came all the way down from the distant town of Badrinath. The colors of the two streams were distinctly different. The waters of Alaknanda were muddy, whereas that of The Ganges was crystal clear and green.

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DevPrayag

 

We left The Ganges at DevPrayag and the road now was along the banks of Alaknanda and we crossed Srinagar and then came Rudraprayag, the confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini. RudraPrayag today is a busy town and an important junction in this route. This is where the road gets divided. One goes up the slopes along the banks of the Alaknanda all the way to Badrinath. But our bus crossed the bridge over Alaknanda and entered a tunnel. After exiting from the tunnel, we suddenly found ourselves on the banks of the river Mandakini, which was to be our companion all the way up to Gaurikund. In fact, even beyond that till the Kedarnath shrine. The road moved along the banks of Mandakini. The rays of afternoon sun showered its golden colors on the terraced fields along the mountain slopes. We gradually crossed the towns of Kund, GuptKashi and Sonprayag and finally reached Gaurikund bus stand. It about 3 PM in the afternoon. After collecting our lodge, we went towards Bharat Sevashram Sangh, the Dharamshala where we were to stay for the night. Gaurikund was a congested place surrounded by hills on all sides. We showed a copy of the letter and receipt of the payment made at their Kolkata office at the main entrance and were alloted a room. One had to bend his back in order to enter the room which was very dark with only a candle to light it up. Luxury is not something one expects in these areas and no body complains. Our room extended like a balcony above the river Mandakini which was roaring down the rocky terrain. One could hear nothing but the roaring river right beside our room.

I went to the room of the Maharaj to inquire about the rate and options for pony for our journey to Kedarnath the next day. Our initial plan was to walk the entire route but break our journey at Ramwara and then continue to Kedarnath the next day. But after taking stock of reality, I dropped the plan considering my parents’ health. The dinner of hot khichdi, pickle and papad was sumptuous in this biting cold. As we went to bed, I had a mixed feeling of excitement and tension. While the former was about my long cherished dream coming true while the latter was being able to take along my parents with safety. Jai Kedar.

Part 2

Hello travelers

One thing I never liked doing since my childhood was to see off someone at the railway station! I still don’t. As the carriages moved out of the platform with me helplessly waving my hands, I used to think that the traveler is the luckiest one on this planet. When my friends went back to their hostels after their vacations, I used to think they were very happy to ‘travel’ back to their places of study where it might well have been to the contrary.

Such views have evolved with age. Destination and purpose of travel does have a bearing now. For example, when I travel to my native place for a vacation, I’m all too excited but same can’t be said for the reverse.

Just like many other Bengali families, travel started in my childhood with trips to Puri (Odisha). Whenever there was scope and time, that was the only destination to aim for. My parents never wasted time to choose places as that was always settled. So was the itinerary. It almost got to a point where I started to prefer staying at home rather than going there.

That pattern changed in our first ever trip to Darjeeling after my class X exams. That was the time I was introduced to the misty bends of the mountain roads. For the first time, I came to know that clouds could hover around me and I could swim in and out of them. The first ever view of Kanchenjunga from the mall was to change the way I looked at travel forever.

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The Kanchenjunga range

Then came the eventful trip to the Garhwal Himalayas in 1999. Events that occurred during the build up to that trip or even during it almost threatened to it, but we somehow managed to pull it off at the end. Nowhere in this world, you get to see a temple at the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. I was thrilled to travel through places like Rudraprayag, the place where Corbett shot the man-eating leopard way back in 1925.  I plan to share the details of this trip sometime in future on this site.

Then my profession brought me to the city of Delhi. Every year, when my company published the holiday calendar, our (me and my wife) first job was to look for long weekends. They were my windows to venture out to the corners of The Himalayas. Many such weekends took me to places of seclusion in Kumaon, Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh.

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Naukuchiataal, Kumaon, Uttarakhand

 

Mountain roads have always fascinated me. In more than one ways, they resemble the journey of life. After every bend, you’re presented with a view that is different from the previous one. It’s like a play with its scenes unfolding. You never know what surprise awaits you at the next bend. Mountains are probably the only places which let you to be with yourself. When you walk the trails up or down the slopes, you’re always with yourself and no one else. You’re responsible for the decisions you take, the speed at which you travel and hence, how soon you reach your destination.

I wish to share these experiences with you with my posts about my voyages. If they interest you, I’ll be more than happy to answer any queries you may have about those trips. Looking forward to interact with you all.