bNomadic

Kumaon Diaries: A weekend at Ramgarh

One of my initial memories connected with Ramgarh was lunching Kumaoni cuisine at a government owned TRH. Back then, on way to Mukteshwar, we had briefly stopped at this hill station. The action was over but the sensory spectacle of the romance and serenity of a green valley of the middle Himalayas, remote from airless plains and the usual tourist lines though already popular with holidaymakers and peace seekers, remains with me.

My next visit to Ramgarh came a few years later. When I returned to Ramgarh last month in April, I conclusively believed that this must be among the prettiest corners of the accessible Kumaon Himalayas. The Kumaon with which I connect the memories of mossy oak and rhododendron woods; the sough of the breeze in deodar and pine, the glittering snows, the verdure of rainy seasons, the rich brown and emerald of the mountainsides in drier seasons, the bright sunshine, the azures of sky, the poetic winter evenings or the warmth of smouldering logs in veranda.

Valley view from the balcony of our room at TRH. The terraced orchards could also be seen in the frame. For more images from the region, please visit Flickr

The approach from the northern plains to Ramgarh is perfectly dreamy. Leave behind the heat, dust and worries of the plains as the road begins to climb; relish brief stopovers on the way, wind along and feel the fresh Himalayan air. The drive, in fact, happens to be one of the most beautiful and characteristic one in the outer Himalayas. Passing under the shadow of the Lariya-kanta, the road meanders amongst bloody rhododendrons, grassy spurs and deep-wooded khuds which run down from the northern prolongation of the peak. Crossing Bhowali, the road descends to reach the Ninglath stream after which a steady rise along an outlying spur of the Gagar range takes it to the crest of the Gagar pass at 2395m. Ahead, the road descends for a few kilometres to reach the market of Ramgarh. With the sun playing hide and seek amidst the trees, within a few hours of starting from plains, you are sitting in the cooler climes going for a hard earned meal. And at the same time admiring the enormous line of Himalayan snow.

The valley of Ramgarh comprises three parts: Ramgarh Malla, Ramgarh Talla and Agar. Occupying the upper reaches, the Malla is bounded on the north by Ramgarh Talla; on the west by Dhaniyakot; on the south by Mahryuri Talli and on the east by Agar. Embracing the lower reaches of Ramgarh, Talla is bounded on north by Kotauli Malli; on the south by Ramgarh Malla; on the east by Agar and on the west by Dhaniyakot. Traditionally, the Agar region consisted mostly of hillsides where mining was a special avocation. Just as other parts of Ramgarh, climate here is fairly salubrious; however, the soil is poor. Of late, this area is also being occupied by fast mushrooming hotels and resorts. The intriguing village Nayakana that is inhabited by the former dancing girls of Kumaon called Patas and Nayaks is also located in the forests of Agar; as one proceeds towards Almora. The remains of the government run Kumaon Iron Works Company that smelted iron ore is also located within this region.

Terraced fields in the Agar area. Please visit Flickr for more images of the region

In the evening, we leave for a ridge top which is pompously called Tagore Top (2196m) by the locals. A short of hike of 1.9 km from the main market of Malla takes you to the spot where Gurudev Shri Rabindranath Thakur is said to have composed a few poems of the acclaimed Gitanjali. Even though, the house where he lived during his stay in the valley is in hopeless ruins today, the spot continues to be a point of attraction for obvious reasons. The trail we take passes through a government managed orchard that hardly fruits. On the way, some characteristic touches of the hard native life could be observed. The womenfolk are seen carrying fairly heavy loads, ploughing fields and doing house chores or tending cattle. Chubby infants are often carried in a basket at the mother’s back. Descending from the ridge, a man warns us of a pet dog ahead. Luckily, he was tied.

The Tiger Top Ridge as observed from the TRH. the government-run orchards are also in the frame

Starting from the Malla market, the 1.9km short trail passes through pines, cedars and rhododendrons

Soon we are at the top; in deep shock after seeing the treatment meted out to the house which was once occupied by Gurudev. Even though, the state government has recently started to construct a paved pathway from KMVN TRH to reach the spot, nothing has been done to mark the spot or to restore the modest but momentous property associated with Gurudev. The view from the spot is marvellous and encompasses almost the entire valley. The snowy range was still covered with grey clouds. We could but only imagine how the landscape would look in a clear open weather and, especially, it would have during the times of Gurudev. To our south lay the dense woods and rhododendrons merging with the Bhabhar belt; the luxuriantly wooded ridges of the Gagar Range thickly covered with oaks and pines to our north. Facing north, a chaotic mass of mountains lies before us, wooded hills, deep ravines and dark blue ranges rising one above another; against the backdrop of the edges of snowy peaks of the great Himalayas. What a photograph it would make on a clear weather day, we thought! We leave the spot and take the under construction trail to reach our shelter for tonight. The newly built trail is 3.5 km to the Malla market.

The trail passing through the orchards. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

The remains of the cottage where Gurudev Shri Rabindranath Thakur is said to have composed a few poems of the acclaimed Gitanjali. More images from the region at Flickr

The fireplace! The house where Gurudev lived during his stay in the valley is in hopeless ruins today

The view from the spot is marvellous and encompasses almost the entire valley. More from the region at Flickr

View towards the valley floor. Please visit Flickr for more images

A Himalayan Jackal. More from the region at Flickr

A bloody rhododendron trail!

Workers engaged in constructing the pathway to the Tagore Top

Another dilapidated bungalow said to be associated with Gurudev. More images from the region at Flickr

From the creative world of literature, Gurudev was not the only one who sought inspiration from the serenity of Ramgarh but poetess Mahadevi Verma, patriot Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ and Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayanv ‘Agyeya’ also lived here. Next day, we visit the ridge of Umagarh (2035m), atop which the summer abode of poet Mahadevi Verma is situated. Her home, 600m from the Malla market, has now been converted into a museum and looked after by the Kumaon University. The caretaker and his family live just next door. Even though, it commands a brilliant view, the ridge seems overburdened with houses and buildings. And so is a considerable part of Malla Ramgarh. The greenery and peace of the valley attracts weekend vacationers from far and beyond. Numerous olden hutments in the region have now been leased out and serve as hotels. Having established small cantonments and summer retreats, the British built sprawling bungalows. With their own set of claims, a few of such bungalows are now being billed as heritage hotels or writer’s cottage.

The summer abode of the poetess Mahadevi Verma atop Umagarh ridge. More from the region at Flickr

Many mountain lovers and businessmen, running tourism ventures, from the plains have now occupied the hillsides of Ramgarh; all feeding on limited resources. With little sense of running tourism businesses in hills, many of such properties look like a sore thumb. Even with the mushrooming of multiple-storied buildings, the market of Malla remains to be a basic one that closes as the sun sets. The olden traveller’s rest house is situated just next to the market. There is also a dharamshala, now locked, for native travellers. During the olden days, water was conveyed to this market by a series of wooden gutters from the Gagar pass located above.

A group of young travellers watching a fishmonger cutting fish into pieces. The dude hails from Brailley

Playing carrom is the favourite pastime of locals on the street. More images from the region at Flickr

Street dogs waiting for their share outside a meat shop in the Malla market. More from the region at Flickr

The basic market of Ramgarh Malla. You can of course buy supplies and veggies

Not many would know that the hunter turned conservationist Jim Corbett stayed at Ramgarh on his way to kill the Mukteshwar man-eater tiger in 1910. The dak bungalow he stayed in is still intact and is looked after by the PWD now. As we drive through the road leading to the Talla Ramgarh, we cross several olden buildings. The rest house is at a distance of five kilometres from the main market. During those days, the dak bungalows were strictly maintained for the British or burra sahibs. The staff which accompanied Corbett on his march to Mukteshwar stayed at the cottage, now a heritage retreat, just adjacent to this dak bungalow.

Built in 1899, the dak bungalow (now a PWD Rest House) is the place where Corbett stayed in 1910 during his march to Mukteshwar to hunt the man-eater tiger. The structure is still intact, though, most of the furnishings have been renovated. More images from the region at Flickr

On the third and our final morning in the valley, after sumptuous breakfast, I step out of the TRH and observe the cloudy spectacle; huge fluffy sea of whites hovering in the valley. I am convinced that any piece of literature or art would turn to be two completely different works when in the plains and in this valley amidst such a natural spectacle. During our descent to the plains driving along dusky hill roads, I inevitably think of the likes of Corbett and Gurudev undertaking foot marches on bridle paths to reach the delicate beauty of Ramgarh. Driving through winding roads, pine forests and tiny hamlets, we were back at Haldwani, the gateway to the Kumaon Himalayas.

Getting There

The fruit bowl of Ramgarh is 24 km from Bhowali which is 36 km from Haldwani. Almora is 54 km from Bhowali and Mukteshwar is 29 km from Ramgarh.

Average Altitude: 2000m
Best time to visit: Autumn and spring; avoid monsoons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views and natural heritage
Accommodation: Plentiful

Hike to Kartik Swami Temple

If certain hardship is one of the prerequisites to obtain an extraordinary Himalayan view, we were prepared to undertake that on this particular journey. Many a plans had been made to hike the pinnacle of the Karoch Parvat, where the illustrious Kartik Swami Temple is situated. With time on our hands, last month as we were heading towards Kumaon from Rishikesh through the Alaknanda Valley, the decision to hike up the ridge this time was instant.

We left Rudraprayag after lunch and drove to Kanak Chauri, a couple of hours drive on a narrow road. A small pass on the ridge, Kanak Chauri is the base from where the near three-kilometre trail to the Kartik Swami Temple branches off the road. Sunlight streamed down out of a cloudless azure sky as we patiently drove to reach Kanak Chauri, our destination for the day. Climbing steadily from Rudraprayag, we wind down the windows of our vehicle. We were fast getting embraced by the cooler climes of the Himalayas.

Terraced hillside in the Alaknanda Valley. More images from the region at Flickr

A forested hillside near Kanak Chauri. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

We had driven in from the base of the mountains in south-western Garhwal, where the life-sustaining rivers of Yamuna and Ganga begins to sanctify the plains, to the wooded and more austere ranges of central Garhwal. A green cover announces the forest of Kanak Chauri. The settlement was still a couple of kilometres away. A matter of few tea shops and a couple of two-room guest houses, the market of Kanak Chauri (2249m) is located right along the road above its small settlement. Standing aside the road and spangled with sweat, a few girls in cotton salwar kameez, a plain coloured chuuni tied around their wastes and vibrant colourful headscarf, chattered as they filled their over-sized plastic bottles with water through a hand pump. By the time we parked our vehicle and dislodged the luggage, the girls had come again on the road to make a refill. Life is indeed very tough in the hills.

Long walk to education; kids in rural Himalayas might have to walk miles to get education. More images at Flickr

The Kartik Swami Temple atop the forested ridge (right of the frame) above the settlement of Kanak Chauri

Gateway to the settlement of Kanak Chauri; the green-roofed huts belong to the Mayadeep HH

The tea shop at Kanak Chauri. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

Hope. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More images from the region at Flickr

Before starting from Rudraprayag, we had informed the caretaker at the Mayadeep Holiday Home, one of the very limited options at Kanak Chauri to spend the night. We planned to start the hike for the temple early next morning. As the caretaker prepared the evening meal for us, we took a stroll on the road. The small settlement of Kanak Chauri village along with its terraced fields extends down the valley. From the opposite ridge, the ridge top where the Kartik Swami Temple is situated was clearly visible. Road repair workers were returning from the project sites assigned to them. We too settled inside a wooden hut allotted to us for the night. It was a chilly spring night. The night sky looked clouded. The disinterested caretaker served the evening meal to us inside the hut. We grudgingly ate whatever we needed to and slept in total peace.

The under-construction gateway adjacent to the white temple marks the trailhead of the Kartik Swami Temple

We woke to a beautiful morning. It was dark outside but the twinkling of stars at five in the morning gave us some hope for a clear day. We quickly packed up for the hike and reached the road. Save for a few street dogs, the road wore a deserted look. In complete silence, we started off the climb. The trailhead (2249m) is located just next to a small temple built adjacent to the road. The Kartik Swami is the chief deity of the region. Apart from Shaivites, almost all newly married women from the region; or the ones blessed with a child visit the shrine in reverence and to pay their obeisance to the God. Not only for the religious sentiments it upholds, the temple is a popular vantage point that offer one of the finest views of the western Garhwal Himalayas.

The incipient rays of sun filtering through the dense woods of the jungle. More images at Flickr

The hazy morning view, Rhododendrons, Oaks and the trail. More images from the region at Flickr

Temple bells and bright red chunni tied to a tree branch atop the second ridge crossing. More at Flickr

The trail to the top is fairly broad and passes through a forest mixed with oaks, rhododendrons among many others. The initial stretch of the trail was cemented before it was consumed by the dense forest. With incipient rays of the sun filtering in through the leaves and woods of the jungle, we made a steady progress up the trail. The Himalayan view was still not clear. The rising sun gave us hope as it began to peek over the horizon and painted the sky in marvellous shades of pink and purple. In few minutes, the mighty Chaukhamba imposingly stood above the clouds. The morning sun greeted the snowy peak with pink light. Summits of its neighbouring peaks too shone with the morning sunlight. Far in the distance, the ridgeline including the temple, bathed with the morning pink of the sun.

The Kartik Swami Temple atop the Karoch Parvat shining in the morning sun. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

The Chaukhamba massif, a prominent peak in the Gangotri group. Artistic capture by Sarabjit Lehal for bNomadic. More images from the region at Flickr

Rhododendrons; most species have brightly coloured flowers which bloom during spring. More at Flickr

The Rhododendron flower is considered edible and enjoyed for its sour taste. More images at Flickr

The trail crosses four ridges to reach the last one atop which the Kartik Swami Temple is situated. The first resting place beneath a rain shed (2435m) is at a distance of 1.6km from the trailhead. Ahead the gradient eases off to reach a small dharamshala as well as the dwelling (2492m) of the temple pujari. The dharamshala here is used by local pilgrims during fairs and festivals in June and November. The residence of the pujari is at a distance of 2.4km from Kanak Chauri. The roofed structure also serves as the emergency shelter for a few pilgrims. The lodging here is limited to only a couple of blankets on the floor of a single door room. The pujari ji gave us chairs to sit and offered us tea. He was just getting ready to undertake the morning rituals at the temple.

The dharamshala-cum-pujari’s abode before the steep hike begins. Carry enough water or supplies for the hike as there is no source of water anywhere near the trail. You can, however, procure some water from this place

Just before the Bhairon Nath shrine. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

With the Kartik Swami Temple in the background, the Bhairon Nath Temple marks the start of the final stairs

The idol of Bhairon Nath. Photo: Sarabjit Lehal

Just before the final set of stairs to reach the top of the narrow ridge. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

The workers were securing the platform and renovating the stairs; the Kartik Swami Temple on the top

The ridge pinnacle against the backdrop of the mighty Chaukhamba; the hazy weather continued to disappoint us. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The iron railings that cordoned the platform and stairs were loose and were being secured. More at Flickr

The administration had engaged a few workers to cement the pathway to the top of the temple from the pujari’s abode. The initial temple dedicated to Bhairon Nath (2570m) is located at a distance of 600m from here. Although, we were able to locate the snowy peaks but the overall Himalayan view was not as clear. We continued our steep ascent on a stony pathway. This last section of the pathway was steeper than the rest. Huffing and puffing, in a few minutes we were at the top. From Bhairon Nath temple, the top is hardly at a distance of 60m. The workers were busy patching up final set of staircase just below the main temple. The temple is built on a secured platform at 2589m.

We were unlucky because the view was hazy. Down below in the valley forests, the forest fire was already contributing to the after spring haze in the weather. The crest was windy. We could see moisture laden grey clouds closing in from south west direction. Awestruck, we thought how the view would be on a clear weather day. I occupied myself with taking travel notes as Sarabjit got himself busy with making photographs. The inside layering of my windcheater jacket was drenched with sweat, even as it was cold outside. The platform on which I was sitting in the courtyard of the temple is perched precariously on a narrow ridge with sheer drop of a few thousand metres on three sides. Tens of temple bells were hung on iron bars, meant for the purpose, by devotees who sought the deity’s blessings.

The Kartik Swami Temple and the mighty Himalayas. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

The Kartik Swami Temple perched precariously on a narrow ridge with sheer drop of a few thousand metres on three sides. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

A natural representation of Kartik Swami Ji, also known as Kartik Murugan Swami in the southern part of India

The belled gateway to the main shrine

The Ganesha; legend has it that Kartikeya, the son of Shiva and Parvati, came here to sulk after his brother Ganesha had been granted superimacy. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

From the Kartik Swami Temple, there is a perfect view of the Gangotri, Kedarnath and the Chaukhamba peaks and also towards the Badrinath direction. The peaks of Kedarnath seem to be precipices almost perpendicular, no snow finding a resting a place on their grey sides. The Chaukhamba peak appears like the crater of an extinct volcano with walls still standing and hollow inside; that facing the south is the smallest and lowest. Apart from the wind, the only sound that breaks the silence is that of fluttering prayer flags. The brightly coloured temple houses an ancient stone image of Kartik Swamy, the elder son of Lord Shiva. Legend has it that Kartikeya, the son of Shiva and Parvati, came here to sulk after his brother Ganesha had been granted superiority. Subsequently, Kartikeya sacrificed his body and gave his bones to Lord Shiva as a testimony of his devotion to his father. Lord Kartik Swami is also known as Kartik Murugan Swami in the southern part of India.

The narrow ridge which is exposed on both sides. More images from the region at Flickr

The dharamshala from the top. Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

It was on descent, when I realised that iron railings which cordoned the platform and stairs were loose and needed repairs. Right up to the Bhairon Nath temple, the ridge was very narrow and exposed on both sides. On our way down we came across many newly wedded women attired in sari who were going to the temple to pay homage to their revered deity and seek blessings. We sat under the rain shed and gobbled up a kg of grapes we had bought from Rudraprayag yesterday. And what a gratifying morning meal it was! Built at a ridge crossing, the rain shelter is at a picturesque vantage point that affords great views of the hills and step farms going down to the valley floor towards south. To the north stood the imposing Chaukhamba, which was now hidden behind grey clouds.

The temple is at a distance of 3.1km from the trailhead and with two litres of water and a kilogram of grapes, we had happily completed our morning hike.

View southwards from the rain shelter. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

Just above the settlement of Kanak Chauri; the market, the road, Mayadeep and our vehicle parked on the road

Terraced fields near Mohankhal (2144m). Photo for bNomadic by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

Pokhari (1901m); the connect between Rudraprayag and Karanprayag or Gopeshwar via Pokhari offers an alternate route

Getting There

The temple of Kartik Swami is three km on a broad trail from the base at Kanak Chauri which is 40km from Rudraprayag on the narrow RudraprayagPokhari road. Another approach can be from Karanprayag; reaching Pokhari first.

Average Altitude: 2200m
Best time to visit: Autumn and spring; avoid monsoons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views and natural heritage
Accommodation: Limited; confirm in advance

Property Review: Misty Mountains Retreat at Jhaltola

Located right in the middle of a forested hillside of Jhaltola in Kumaon Himalayas, the Misty Mountains Retreat is a boutique hideaway that offers uninterrupted panoramic views of some of the loftiest peaks of the Great Himalayan Range. Elegantly crafted by an enterprising homey couple, this sylvan home-away-from-home is a supremely unspoiled heritage refuge that makes you feel closer to nature and seek inspiration from the majestic Himalayas. A few weekends before, we stayed here for three days to escape the plains and this is what I have to say about the property and the region.

About Jhaltola (2000m – 2600m)

Spread at an altitude ranging from 2000m to 2600m, the hillside of Jhaltola is located at an eminence in the lower Himalayas at the western extremity of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. Now clothed by a mixed forest, with a few varieties of Oaks among many others, the hillside is an erstwhile tea estate gifted by the British to the descendants of the explorer pundits of Milam. The view of the snowy Great Himalayan Range from the Jhaltola ridge can hardly be surpassed. To add to this extraordinary vantage point, there is an old temple dedicated to Lamkeshwar Mahadev, Lord Shiva, atop the ridge from where views ranging from Trishul to peaks in Nepal could be obtained. The tranquillity around the ancient temple, snow-capped Himalayan peaks, verdant terraced fields, curvy meadows and dense woods, the hillside houses every reason for a mountain lover to spend a weekend.

The Lamkeshwar Mahadeo temple atop the Jhaltola ridge. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

Not only for the extraordinary Himalayan views and an array of flora, the salubrious hillside of Jhaltola is abound with a good variety of wild mammals and birds as well. The famed temple of Ram Mandir is located in the settlement by the same name at its base. Mercifully, the region is yet to witness its unfortunate rise from a mere village to a touristy hill station. The settlement of Jhaltola, just below the forest cover, could be reached through the shorter road connecting Almora with Chaukori or Patal Bhuvaneshwar via Barechina, Dhaulchina and Raiagar. Although this road could be taxing and hot, as it approaches through lower parts of the valley, the scenery on the way well repays the labour. The hills on the either side are thickly clad with pine forest and present magnificent views of the lower hill scenery of the Himalayas.

The temple at Ram Mandir. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The unparalleled view from the Jhaltola Tea Estate. It was a bad weather day of course! Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

The Misty Mountains Retreat (2020m)

The Misty Mountains forest retreat is located near Ram Mandir, just a few kilometres towards the pilgrim hotspot Patal Bhuvaneshwar from Raiagar on the ChaukoriAlmora road. Save for the Misty, hotels, homestays or guest houses are not an option in this part of the green Kumaon. The aesthetically crafted Misty occupies just five out of the 1000 acreage of the tea-estate-turned forest hillside of Jhaltola Estate. The estate itself dwells on a rounded ridge of considerable dimensions which is surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountain ridges piled one upon another, some dark with rock and forest, and others shining in all the bright resplendence of eternal Himalayan snow. Once you are at Ram Mandir, the Misty is reached by a tad steep and narrow motorway especially carved out for the purpose.

With its wholesome cooler climes, the Misty is a place not only of refreshing beauty but natural profusion which has been shaped into a garden wooded with luxuriant fruit trees that apart from adding attraction to the landscape are pleasingly associated with ideas of real wealth and comfort to those who holiday beneath their shade. The owners, a nature loving and enterprising couple – Ms Ambika and Mr Madhur Chhabra – have turned this forgone jungle estate into a woodsy retreat. In about a decade, the Misty has graduated to be a forested retreat that has a capacity to entertain up to 50 guests at the same time. With well-appointed cottages that conform to the holidaying needs of large families, children, couple, friends or even office groups; recreational hall and an open dining space, the property has it all.

The Misty Mountains. The aesthetically crafted Misty occupies just five out of the 1000 acreage of the tea-estate-turned forest hillside of Jhaltola Estate. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

A hutment inside the premises of the Misty. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The peace and natural luxury at Jhaltola can hardly be surpassed. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

My Experience at Misty Mountains

Earlier last month, we got an opportunity to spend three days in the natural luxury at Jhaltola where we experienced total peace and felt quite rejuvenated. Sipping some caffeine free tea at the KMVN Chaukori, I fished out the route map creative, from my mobile, which I had already downloaded from the website of Misty. No sooner had we crossed the junction at Berinag than a call from Ms Ambika flashed on my phone. She gave me road directions to reach her property which we located without any trouble at all. On the way we visited the office site of the NGO Avani, which is doing exemplary work to empower local communities.

Inside the shop at the Avani complex. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

The dude with the rugged transport of Misty. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

Manoj, along with his Misty vehicle was patiently waiting for us at the retreat-owned parking site just below its forest cover. The next three kilometres were completed on Misty’s vehicle. As we approached the Misty on a bumpy road, the chug-chug of the engine was the only noise that broke the calmness of the jungle. With our movement, scores of wild pheasants strutted towards the shrubbery on either side of the motorway. We knew we were going to enjoy the next three days of our stay at this birdlife haven. We were allotted the cylindrical Rosebank cottage which was located just at the upper end of the forest clearing. The luxuriantly furnished room was not only spacious with a trendy entresol that could comfortably accommodate another couple inside; the wide view from the windowpane encompassed almost the entire Misty landscape against the backdrop of the Great Himalayan Range.

Untethered by the memories of the day gone by, the mystical and beautiful early morning sun as it shone through a thin layer of haze. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images from the region at Flickr

A Tickell’s Thrush, a lifer for me. We spotted a number of birds including the mimicry artist Black Headed Jay.

The cylindrical Rosebank cottage just below the treescape. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

Room with a view! The rooms are luxuriously kept free of any TV entertainment, intercom connectivity and Wi-Fi.

A trendy entresol that could comfortably accommodate another couple inside. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

The following morning we lazed around trying to make a few photographs of the views and the birds. The after-spring haze rising from the valleys below succeeded in obscuring the icy peaks from our vantage point, in fact, from almost the entire Kumaon region. Later on we hiked the short trail to Lamkeshwar Mahadev temple (2308m). Starting from right next to our cottage, the paved pathway, locally called khadanja, climbs roughly 300m through dense woods covering a distance of two km to reach the Shiva temple, the original and the main shrine. The temple is surrounded by a sacred and dense grove. Dedicated to God Vishnu, the other temple at a distance of 600m from this shrine is situated atop the ridge at 2360m. Soaking in the views from the terraced courtyard of Vishnu temple, we sat for an hour at the top.

Khadanja pathway inside the Jhaltola jungle. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The noisy bugger! On the trail, the buzz of cicada beetles filled the air all around us

The Lamkeshwar Mahadeo temple. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images from the region at Flickr

The Vishnu temple in sight atop the Jhaltola ridge. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

Exiting the sacred grove of Lamkeshwar. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images from the region at Flickr

The forest cover in the lower ranges looks detached around habitations. Seen from a distance, the rising hills form light fringes with dark patches on its side wherever the forest predominates. A substantial portion of the hill-faces in the valleys of Bageshwar region were dug for mining talc powder. Below the white snowy outlines, the forests become dense and continuous. With plains to the southeast; towards the eastern, northern and western slopes the eye sometimes rests on miles and miles of country where not a glimpse of the ground can be discerned through the dark foliage leaving blue hues. The nearer ridges have a very imposing appearance; a rich green forming the ground – of different tints, according to the kind of tree that predominates, with oaks leading the pack – while sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, the long tapering summits of the pines appear piercing through the dense mass of extra dark foliage.

A sumptuous lunch spread comprising Kumaoni cuisine along with Gujarati papadum. Misty serves pleasingly flavorful north Indian cuisine along with tantalizing home-made chutneys and pickles prepared out of locally procured organic ingredients. On the plate is Kumaoni Raita, Bhang ki Chutney, Bhat ki Chudkani, Kheera salad, Thechwa, Green Chutney, Lai ka Saag and Madhwa ki Roti. Just as most agrarian communities, Kumaonis eat twice a day. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

Later in the evening, we hiked to the Pokhar area where the heritage house of the legendary Rawat family, gifted by the British after they left India, is located. The olden house offers equally good vantage point especially towards the end of the day. In the evening, we went over to see other cottages and recreational area. As if assembling a set of bestsellers; designed uniquely, each cottage offers a different view and serves a distinctive purpose. The common room is a large hall that doubles up as an assembly and a recreational place stocked with college classics as well as travel literature lined up in shelves.

The heritage bungalow of Rawats, the descendants of the legendary Pandit Nain Singh – the legendary spy-explorer from Milam – who along with his brother was engaged by the British to map the countryside of Tibet in the previous century. The estate, including this bungalow, was awarded to the Rawat family by the British as they left India. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

One of the family cottages that is ideal for a couple or a small family. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

Tea with a view! We were expecting (at least a trace of) rain the next day.

The family cottages are built to comfortably accommodate extra large families. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

Our initial regret of a hazed view was compensated by the forestlike charm and organic living maintained by the owners at the Misty. The rustic appeal of the Misty; warmth and friendliness of the owners, especially Ms Ambika, made us believe that there is more to a Himalayan retreat than just the views.

Ms Ambika with her support-staff – a young, energetic and cultured team of local boys. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

The way I saw it

Ambience and Location: 4.8/5
Accommodation and Staff: 4.4/5
Food and Dining: 4.5/5
Amenities: 4/5
Tariff: 4/5

If you wish to book your stay here, you can contact at +91 800.66.677.22 or reach out to them through their website. I’ll advise an advance booking.

Disclaimer: This particular visit to Jhaltola was based on an invitation from Misty Mountains. The views expressed here are free of any bias and are solely based on my experience.

Road Tripping through Alaknanda Valley

No other river has stimulated man`s imagination in India like the Ganga. Devotionally called Gangamaiyya or Maa Ganga, the river occupies the status of mother Goddess in virtually all Hindu homes. Descending from the icy heights of Gaumukh glacier in the Central Himalayas, the sacred Ganga enters the plains at Haridwar and flows through the great plains of north India before it finally arrives in the Bay of Bengal after completing a journey of over 2,500 km. The third largest river in the world by discharge, the Ganga, unfortunately, also ranks among the most polluted rivers of the world.

Located by the rightmost channel, just as the Ganga enters plains at Haridwar, the famed Ghats – Har Ki Pauri – literally meaning steps of Lord Shiva, are believed to have been built by the King Vikramaditya in the first century BC. Haridwar also marks the start of the Himalayan Char Dham Yatra. More images at Flickr

A few weekends before, courtesy the CEAT Tyres, I got an opportunity to road travel along the River Alaknanda, one of the two popular headstreams of the Ganga that originates in the Badrinath region. Such is the reverence for the Ganga that the greatest of all Himalayan temples for Hindus, Char DhamsYamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – are located right at the source of its four major headwaters Yamuna, Bhaghirathi, Mandakini and Alaknanda. It is believed that anyone who completes a pilgrimage of the four dhams assures himself a place in the heaven. Revered since time immemorial, the Badrinath has gradually become the cornerstone of this pilgrimage.

Strawberries on display by the highway; you could halt to give your taste-buds the fruity touch. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

A group of pilgrims from Rajasthan at the Triveni Ghat, Rishikesh. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

After a sumptuous breakfast at our hideout in Rishikesh (370m), gateway to Garhwal – home to the Ganga headwaters – we started our upstream drive along the Ganga. Passing through the important adventure spots of Kaudiyala and Shivpuri, a fairly broad road curves along fragile hillsides on the right bank of the Ganga. In just above 70km from Rishikesh, the road reaches a maximum of about 1200m near the landslide zone before descending to Devprayag, spread at an average height of 800m. Going upstream, Devprayag is the first and the most important of the panch prayags, the five sacred confluences of glacial streams with the Alaknanda River in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Together they are called the panch prayags: Devprayag, Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag, Nandaprayag and Vishnuprayag in that order upstream.

The Ganga preparing to enter the settlement of Rishikesh. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

With the turbulent Bhaghirathi dropping in from left and calmer Alaknanda from right, the Ganga prepares to leave the mountains. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

Otherwise a sleepy small town visited mostly by travellers or pilgrims, Devprayag attains popularity because it is here that the mighty river Ganga attains its name after confluence of Bhaghirathi and Alaknanda. Right from the highway high above the confluence, one could see stepped ghats below the small settlement leading to the icy waters. It was spring, so the waters were bluish-green and relatively calmer otherwise gushing in from the north-west the Bhagirathi is usually turbulent, whereas, pitching in from east the Alaknanda carries volume with it.

Meeting with her turbulent consort, the Alaknanda hurries down as she unites her clamours with the blustering current of Bhagirathi. Devprayag has always been a preferred halt for pilgrims on way to complete their Char Dham Yatra. The town also happens to be the winter home of the famed pandas of the Badrinath shrine. The Badrinath priests, mostly Brahmins from south India, had settled here in the eighth century when they accompanied the Hindu saint Adiguru Shankaracharya to the Badrikashram.

The highway from Rishikesh to Badrinath (Mana) is part of the NH58 that further connects it with Ghaziabad near New Delhi. The road ahead, slightly raised along the valley floor, meanders more or less along the Alaknanda. Being on the prime pilgrim network, the entire route is full of road side dhabas, sufficiently spaced fuel pumps and hotels. The next major town is Srinagar (580m), the erstwhile capital of the Garhwal Kingdom.

View from a roadside eatery ahead of Devprayag. Please visit Flickr for more images of the region

The Alaknanda! Please check Flickr for more images of the region

One thing you wouldn’t miss on this highway is temples and shops selling prasad and puja souvenirs. Being on a traditional pilgrim route, you’d notice a temple of repute every 20km or so with many of them destroyed and rebuilt after floods or other natural calamities. We drove along the Alaknanda under the shadow of the icy expanse of the Himalayan peaks to experience that travelling is the natural extinct of our being. Even as we were following a traditional pilgrim route, we were not pilgrims; but for us this experience meant much, much more than a pilgrimage. To travel along this route was to experience the interplay of history and geography at every turn.

The awareness of natural features is basic equipment for the traveller. One needs to know the personality of a river from its source to the estuary both as a practical aid and as an aesthetic advantage. As we left Srinagar, a large reservoir of greenish water of the dammed Alaknanda appeared like a high-Himalayan lake from a distance. A few kilometres after this dam site, we stopped for lunch by the highway. From the windows of this newly constructed restaurant, the view of the valley floor was spectacular.

The dammed Alaknanda just before Rudraprayag. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

We were lunching only a few kilometres before Rudraprayag, the confluence town of Mandakini, that descends from the Kedarnath region, with the Alaknanda. The waiter at the restaurant, a young man who was a local recalled before us the horror of the 2013 flash floods. The settlement of Rudraprayag (720m), seventy kilometres from Devprayag, bore the brunt of the floods as being on the valley floor it received swelling waters from both the rivers. Rudra, one of the many names ascribed to Lord Shiva, gives this place its name. It is said that Shiva performed the Rudra Tandav here, which depicts him in his role as the creator as well as the destroyer. Nature will always be supreme. All of India’s rivers undergo astounding changes during their seasons; from the slack shy pools of winter to fearsomely swelled muddy torrents in monsoons.

Our next stop was the memorial built at Gulabrai to commemorate Jim Corbett’s kill of the man-eater Leopard way back in 1926. Reputed to have killed more than 125 humans, the leopard was killed by Corbett after more than ten weeks of search and hunt. Such was the terror of the leopard that the locals continue to hold an annual fest at the memorial site to this day. We bought some fruits and topped our supplies for the remainder travel of the day.

The memorial at Gulabrai, Rudraprayag. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

The road condition had improved after Devprayag. Our next stop Karnaprayag, 31 km from Rudraprayag was reached in no time. On the way, we crossed Gauchar, a settlement that gained fame with the onset of state managed Char Dham annual yatra. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Pindar and Alaknanda, Karanprayag is surrounded by high Himalayan peaks of Nanda Devi, Trishul and Dron Giri, etc. Legend has it that the great warrior hero of the Mahabharata, Karna, prayed here for three years and was rewarded with an impregnable shield by his father, the sun God, Surya. From this town a narrow road, being widened by the BRO, by the Pindar connects Garhwal with Kumaon.

The Alaknanda Valley at Gauchar. More images from the region at Flickr

Thats the Karanprayag. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

The marketplace of Karnaprayag is a good option to top up the supplies if you are heading towards Badrinath or the Valley of Flowers. The road ahead climbs to reach the next prayag Nandaprayag, a large village at an average altitude of 1320m. This prayag is the confluence of rivers Alaknanda and Nandakini, originating from Shivasamudra Glacier, which can be approached through the popular Kuari PassTapovan Trek.

The sacred Vishnuprayag. A temple dedicated to Shiva is situated just above the sangam

Reaching the next prayag, the highest of all, takes rather slightly longish time. At an average height of 1600m, the small settlement of Vishnuprayag is spread above the holy confluence of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga. One needs to cross Joshimath to reach this prayag on way to Badrinath. One thing of note here is that all the prayags have been a popular mediation spots since time immemorial. The higher ones were preferred by Swami Vivekananda. The connotations of a prayag are appropriate to the Hindu belief where it is believed that the goal of life is an individual quest to merge one’s soul with the divine. Life itself is like a river, snaking its way past obstacles, surging back after petering out in the shallows of despair.

A group of pilgrims from Mahendragarh in Haryana singing melodious bhajans at Joshimath

Babaji smoking his chillum; he later discouraged me from travelling in the Himalayas but surprisingly offered me his chillum. Holy Smoke!

A blockade imposed by the administration at Joshimath to allow one way movement on narrow roads.

A road blockade normally lasts a couple of hours; enough for the cooks to prepare a group’s evening meal.

Further ahead, the distance between Vishnuprayag and Badrinath isn’t much (32km) but it might take more time than necessary due to road-breaks imposed by the administration to facilitate rather quick and safer flow of traffic on narrow roads. If required, prefer a night halt at Joshimath than anywhere else. Specifics of this route will be covered soon on bNomadic.

The infant Alaknanda near Ghangaria. Please visit Flickr for more images of the region

The Alaknanda at Badrinath. More images at Flickr

The Badrinath Dham by the Alaknanda. For more images, please visit Flickr

The evening bazaar at Badrinath. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

Insofar as road safety on hills is concerned, always remember that driving on the mountains and driving on the plains are two different experiences. Not only the machinery of your vehicle, but your skillset also needs a refinement up here. Honk on curves and turns. A vehicle climbing uphill should be given a priority. Do not unnecessary get into speeding or overtaking mode. Watch out for falling rocks, normally marked by the agencies, and cross them as soon as possible once you are sure of a clear passage. Make a mental note that the hillside of Garhwal is more fragile in stability as compared to the other regions like Kumaon or Himachal.

A group of pilgrims taking the evening aarti at Badrinath. More images at Flickr

Disclaimer: This post, Road Tripping through Alaknanda Valley, my road trip adventure has been chronicled for CEAT Tyres in association with BlogAdda.

A weekend at Rishikesh

The banner image of this write-up features Arjuna being charioted by Krishna as illustrated in the epic of Mahabharata. Even though, the Mahabharata had no direct link with this pilgrimage town; the epic story would possibly forever continue to be the underlying sentiment of all Hindu pilgrimages. I clicked this image at the ghat managed by the iconic Parmarth Niketan Ashram where apart from routine yoga lessons, the Ganga aarti is performed every evening by the ashram mates.

Gems and jewelry shops dot the streets and marketplace of Rishikesh. More images at Flickr

The prasad and street shops selling wooden souvenirs come next. More images at Flickr

Whether you are a pilgrim seeking a holy refuge, a yoga enthusiast seeking spiritual environs, an adventure lover or an adrenaline junkie or simply a traveller who loves to explore the streets, Rishikesh has just everything in store for you. The region had always been a preferred destination for spiritual and solace seekers; but ever since the likes of Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in the late 1960s, it firmly placed this small pilgrimage town on the global map. Today people from all walks of life and nationalities throng this place in search of yoga instruction, spiritual awakening, soft adventures as well as giving themselves a chance to be closer to nature.

When we visited this town – also known as the Gateway to the Himalayas as well as the Yoga Capital of the World – a few weekends before; people of all sorts, many of whom were carrying plastic yoga mats and dressed ethnically, dotted the streets and cafes. Those who couldn’t afford a walk rented scooterettes or Enfield bikes to ferry their belongings from spot to another. Having parked ourselves in one of the popular TRHs located in Muni Ki Reti, now a northern suburb of the town, we set out to explore the multi-layered town on foot. Even though, the Char Dham Yatra season was still a couple of months away, the ghats on both sides of the holy Ganga were teeming with devout followers ready to take the holy dip as their pandas assisted them in offering flowers to the Gangamaiya, as they fondly called it; ringing temple bells and singing sacred hymns. The energetic streets were activated with spiritual randomness. Hawkers dotted both sides of the passage selling temple souvenirs and prasad or street foods.

The ghat near the confluence of Chandrabhaga with Ganga River on its right bank. More images at Flickr

Apart from the Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, motor boat jetties are the only means to crossover to the other side of the Ganga around here. More images from the region at Flickr

The Sivananda Ashram Ghat. Please visit Flickr photoset for more images from the region.

The Ram Jhula, visible a long way off, connecting the two banks of the Ganga. More images at Flickr

The tri-coloured Ram Jhula at Rishikesh

The Parmarth Niketan Ashram on the opposite bank. Source: Parmarth. More images at Flickr

My co-conspirator on this trip, Sarabjit Lehal who also has a thing about street photography lost no time in digging out his Ricoh for the assignment. The pandas or street hawkers are so used to posing for cameras that they start asking for a bribe in return. There is no dearth of ashrams, hermitages and yoga centres in Rishikesh, possibly hundreds of them, with a few more than thousand years old. Crossing Ram Jhula, an iron suspension bridge engineered in 1980s, to the Swargashram side, we headed towards the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. We had a few queries related to yoga and health which the resident Ayurveda doctor duly addressed. With more than 1000 cells or rooms, the ashram was much larger than what we had anticipated. Next we headed towards the erstwhile Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s estate.

Now a part of the Lansdowne range of the Rajaji National Park, the ashram is currently in shambles with some intriguing past trapped in the nooks and corners of the estate. More than a month long spiritual retreat by the Beatles in 1968 gave this town and ashram some international fame. And for die-hard fans a short excursion through the Beatles ashram where they had stayed is a must-to-do. As we rambled through the shrubbery overlooking the energetic Ganga, checking the once modern meditation pods or claustrophobic cells and the graffiti-covered yoga or lecture halls, images of the yesteryears flashed before us. The reason why people from across the globe come at Rishikesh to find solace and meditate was before us.

The entrance gate to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram where the Beatles stayed and apparently wrote much of the White Album. The ashram had turned into a ruin after it was abandoned in 1997. A couple of years before, the state Forest Department converted the ashram into an eco-friendly tourism destination. The Department now charges an entry fee of Rs 150 from Indian nationals and Rs 600 from foreigners for allowing “Nature Walks” and “Bird Watching”.

Apparently the pods where the Beatles stayed to experience transcendental meditation. More images at Flickr

A majority of the 84 Meditation Pods have now been consumed by the jungle shrubbery. More at Flickr

In 2012, a few artists including Pan Trinity Das painted the walls with pop art and black-and-white portraits of the Beatles along with some spiritual leaders; the artwork on the walls of the yoga hall has remained untouched and continue to be an attraction for visitors. More at Flickr

The ashram once had a multi-storied residential complex for the spiritual seekers. More at Flickr

Inside the meditation cells of the ashram

The two Chotiwala Restaurants in the Swargashram area are favorite with Indian tourists. Frankly, we did not like the flavors one bit. More images from the region at Flickr

We strolled through the Swargashram on the left bank of the Ganga and headed towards the Lakshman Jhula. Yoga and music instructors, Ayurveda practitioners, Meditation as well as rafting guides of all sorts are available on this side of the Ganga. Locals believe that the energetic Ganga against the backdrop of the wilderness makes the realisation as well as working of mind faster and more conducive which is why many seekers including foreigners are now increasingly looking for permanency in this region. Most popular food joints or cafes are either located near the Ram Jhula or the Lakshman Jhula; both separated by a couple of kilometres.

Cafe De Goa in Tapovan. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

Connecting the two small settlements of Tapovan with Jonk, the Lakshman Jhula is one of the major landmarks of the town. This iron suspension bridge was built in 1930 to replace the earlier bridge which was washed away by the great floods of 1924. More images from the region at Flickr

The stretch below the Lakshaman Jhula is also the preferred point to conculde rafting adventures. More at Flickr

Setting sun; as viewed from the Lakshman Jhula. More images from the region at Flickr

We opted for the Lakshman Jhula side and patiently waited at a café for the evening Ganga aarti to start at the Kailashanand Ashram just below the Jhula. The other, and more popular, spots to see the evening aarti spectacle are at the Parmarth Niketan ashram and the Triveni Ghat which we visited on our next trip to the town. According to the Hindu mythology, the Lakshman Jhula is built on the same site where Lakshamana once crossed the river Ganga on a jute rope; and hence another important pilgrim attraction. A short excursion (30 min) from the tri-junction on the left bank of the Jhula takes you to the Neer Garh Falls which are best visited in monsoons.

A group of pilgrims after the bathing ritual at the ghat. The Triveni Ghat is considered to be the most revered sacred bathing spot in Rishikesh. It is believed that a dip in water at this ghat washes away all the sins and purifies the soul. More images at Flickr

A woman selling prayer diyas meant to be offered to the Gangamaiyya. More at Flickr

A group of pilgrims assembled at the aarti site to have their special pooja performed. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

After which some dakshina, a small payment for the services of a priest, is also offered. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

We had opted to take refuge in Café De Goa for snacking and some evening tea. The café offers a nice vantage point. Overlooking the beautiful Ganga in its calmer role, the views from the deck of this cafe are exquisite. Run by locals, this is a typical café where you get the best of various cuisines including Mediterranean, Lebanese, Indian, etc. It is not uncommon to find visitors lazing here and soaking in the view. We ordered some popular food that seemed hygienic but to our amazement it also lacked flavours. Right across the café was a preferred point to end the rafting exercise where rafts were being collected by the organisers. As it exits the Himalayas, Rishikesh is the first major town, the holy Ganga reaches. On the opposite bank, preparations for the evening aarti were afoot and soon we were at the Kailashanand ashram to watch the proceedings up-close.

The evening aarti performed in full rhythm and chorus makes for an appropriate finale to a day’s activities and excursions at Rishikesh. The crowd enters in a devotional trance and a few devotees even vow to keep the Ganga clean. After all it is a collective purpose for which all stakeholders and communities need to come together to respect and value their natural surroundings to an extent that equates it to a form of devotion.

Babaji, who also doubled up as an usher, at the aarti platform at Triveni Ghat. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal

The evening Ganga aarti at the Triveni Ghat. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The Ganga is worshipped every evening at various ghats in Rishikesh among which the Maha Aarti at Triveni is distinctively famous

The aarti starts with chanting of bhajan, drum beats and bells as diyas are offered to the Ganga. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

Evening Ganga aarti at Kailashanand Ashram. Please visit Flickr for more images from the region

The aftereffect of the aarti; here in the frame: a devotee from Rajasthan in trance. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More at Flickr

The crowd patiently listening to and participating in the bhajans after the aarti. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

Starting from our TRH and back, at the end of the day, we had clocked over six kilometres on foot. It is advisable to start from Ram Jhula side to Swargashram and then to Kailashanand Ashram to take Lakshman Jhula and be back at Muni Ki Reti. This route covers most iconic landmarks or attractions of Rishikesh except for the Triveni Ghat or explorations in the wilderness around. More from the Rishikesh diaries soon on this blog.