Earlier last month we were in a fertile corner of the Kumaon Himalayas. Following the Pindar River upstream from where it joins the mighty Alaknanda at Karanprayag, where forests cover the upper part of nearby ranges; we reached a much greener and salubrious part of Garhwal – “Gwaldam” – where it shares its border with Kumaon. If we leave aside the hiccups of rock cutting and road construction, our drive from the dusty Karanprayag to the hamlet of Gwaldam was a pleasant one.
As we rise higher on the road, now being widened by the BRO, a feeling of exhilaration possesses the mind. The lungs get to breathe the pure, fresh and deliciously cool air. Down below, as we ascend the narrow road, the deep Pindar gorge is filled with light shrubbery and above us are densely wooded ridges. As far as the eyes could locate, the greenery is intersected by a white line of the white Pindar. A light drizzle welcomes us to the higher reaches. As the road begins to climb after Tharali, the lush aroma of the wet woods begins to stimulate our senses.
The gaze captures dense forests of rhododendrons and oaks as well as thick grey clouds blanketing the snowy Himalayan peaks towards the northern horizon. The plantation of pines on the adjoining hillsides gives the sylvan cover to the settlement of Gwaldam (1946m). The ridges and ravines all around are abounding with wild forests or patches of rock made barren by snow. The rising wood smoke from small houses in the settlement shines out in the fading evening light. In the vast landscape, the evening casts the valley with shadow as countless electric lights coming from the settlement shine out. Within the next few minutes, the busy looking small market of Gwaldam greets you. The state run GMVN TRH is sited just perfectly above the market. The caretaker at the TRH is full of information about the region. Positioned on the saddle of Gwaldam-Shisakhani ridge and Gwaldam-Badhangarhi ridge, Gwaldam enjoys the salubrious weather throughout the year. South of these ridges is Kumaon and north is Garhwal. The famous Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra passes through this little heaven; also a base for trek to the mysterious Roopkund Lake, Bedni Bugyal or the Lord Curzon Trail. We call it a day after a cheesy evening meal.
Next morning, I wake up to the sound of our bathroom geyser hissing with the formation of the steam. Its automatic feature to cut off the electric supply is clearly not working. Outside, the weather looks clear. The drizzle of previous evening did the wonders. Soon we are up and about to catch the first rays of the sun. The rising sun casts a magical alpenglow on the Trishul (7120m) and Nanda Ghunti (6309m) peaks. Soon the entire valley is mystified with pinks and blues. Covering every inch of landscape, the valley and ridges around have assumed the loveliest verdure; as the eyes are feasted with delicate sky and endless greenery that changes its tone with every fold and dimple of the rippling hills. The tip of the Kedar Dome glitters above an extension of the Kuari ridge. The view towards the vast bowl of Kumaon’s lush Katyuri Valley is blocked by a ridge densely carpeted with pines. Awestruck by the beautiful landscape before us, I sit deep in thought and wonder how the sentinels of Garhwal and Kumaon would force to fight to gain supremacy over each other in such a godly landscape.
Gwaldam was one of the 52 garhs (forts) of ruled by chieftains in Garhwal, and being on a strategic location, it remained an apple of discord between the Garhwal and Kumaon kings. Things were calmer till the eleventh century when Katyuris, who hailed from Joshimath in Garhwal, ruled the region. The onset of chiefdoms of Chand rulers, Panwars and Gurkhas brought internal troubles to the Himalayan land. The advance of the British in the valley much later in the nineteenth century calmed down the situation. Later, the weakening of the Gurkhas watered down the dissonance and brought cordiality in relations between the two Himalayan chiefdoms. Subsequently, the British not only established an outpost here but developed it as an idyllic summer resort for their soldiers. After 1947, the relations between the two neighbours turned much friendlier than noticed earlier.
Soaking in the sylvan weather of Gwaldam, we start for Baijnath (1134m), the erstwhile activity centre of Katyuri kings. The hillsides we cross are utilised for cultivation; and converted from arid rocky declivities swept bare by rain-torrents, into fruitful fields and orchards. Varieties of wild flowers and ferns grow all over this region steeped in myths and folklore; where locals hold the Katyuri kings in the same league as their deities. For instead of any military exploits, the Katyuris are remembered more for their love of art. The erudite Katyuris invited master craftsmen from the plains to build numerous stone temples in the region and adorned them with sculptures. In their heyday, the Katyuris ruled the entire territory from eastern Himachal Pradesh to western Nepal including the Terai-Bhabar region. From Joshimath, the Katyuris later shifted their capital to Katyur near Baijnath.
From the car parking site adjacent to the bridge on Gomti River, a small causeway takes you to the temple site Baijnath. Comprising a total of 18 shrines on the left bank of the Gomti, the temple complex of Baijnath is said to have been built between the ninth and twelfth centuries by the Katyuri kings. Most of the shrines save for the main one which houses a magnificently carved statue of goddess Parvati, have been locked away. The entrance gateway to the main temple has innumerable brass bells hung by devotees. The intricate Hanuman and Ganesha carvings are also noticeable around this shrine. A major part of the complex was rebuilt using the original stone in the nineteenth century; nearly hundred years after it was destroyed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
The gazetteer records a population of mere 117 souls in 1881 in Baijnath, the centre of the Katyur Valley. During those times, the valley was studded with tea-plantations which were the preferred haunts of tigers and bears. The ancient temples were used as corn lofts and storerooms. Gosains from the region observed the custom of burying their dead in small temple like tombs around the building in which they worshipped. Several olden sculptures were studied along the walls, most of which were of modern Hindu origin but one was found to be a representation of Buddha. This is in accordance to the travel notes of the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who mentions that followers of Buddhism also lived in the area.
Next, we head towards the district headquarters of Bageshwar (904m), flocked by both pilgrims and traders since time immemorial. The road from Baijnath to Bageshwar follows the left bank of the Gomti. The river Gomti originates from the Birchuwa peaks and Gadwalbunga and flowing through the Katyur valley join the Saryu on its right bank at Bageshwar. The river support many villages and tea factories. The settlement, situated by the luxurious confluence of Gomti and Saryu rivers (not to be confused with Gomti of Lucknow and Saryu of Ayodhya) is dotted with numerous ancient temples. The temple complex of Bagnath is the main draw. Built in fifteenth century by Lakshmi Chand, the temple has idols many of which date back to seventh to sixteenth century. On the opposite bank, atop a small hillock Neeleshwar Parvat, is another ancient Shiva temple. A 20 min hike takes you to the top. In January every year, the temples come alive during the Uttarayani Mela around Makar Sankranti.
Not only a centre of attraction for pilgrims, Bageshwar used to be a great mart for exchange of Tibetan produce between the Bhotiyas from Tibet and the Almora merchants. Atkinson writes that during winters the roads leading to Thal (towards Munsyari) were crowded with “flocks of goats and sheep conveying borax and salt from Bhot and grain and rice in return, while numerous parties of lowlanders are seen carrying kiltas of oil which they exchange in Bhot for wool”. The religious fairs of January were also frequented by Kumaon traders and the Bhotiyas from Tibet.
Teeming with fishes, the river basin is surrounded by high wooded ridges. The settlement is spread on both sides of the Saryu. Observed from top of the surrounding ridges, the houses in the valley give the impression of matchboxes. Historians found evidence of a non-Hindu settlement in Baijnath of the Katyuri valley. Likewise, inscriptions found in this valley also depict a far earlier foundation than the fifteenth century ruled by Chand dynasty. Certain structures discovered in the Katyuri valley have been assigned to Mughal colonies.
The valley of Bageshwar is 21 km from Baijnath which is 23 km from Gwaldam. Almora is 92 km from Gwaldam and Bageshwar is 73 km. Karanprayag to Gwaldam is 68 km.
Average Altitude: 1200m
Best time to visit: Winters; avoid monsoons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views and natural heritage