My attachment to Mussoorie goes back to the mid-1990s, when as a kid I first visited this hill station on a family holiday. First impression was memorable. So, we sojourned this hillside again and again until 2005. On my latest visit last month, I came here after a gap of more than 10 years. One of my earliest memories attached with Mussoorie holidays was passing through dozens of tea stalls perched perilously on the edge of precipitous drops. I wasn’t a tea drinker then but the snack lover in me remembered the way out.
This time, as I opened the car doors, I was hoping to step out into a fresher, more invigorating world. Straddling its long ridge, Mussoorie didn’t give a relaxed holiday feel it was once famous for. In the last decade, much water has flowed under the bridge. It wasn’t just the weather. Clinging to the hillside, the houses, hotels and shops were all brimming with business. During the on-season that now seems to extend throughout the year, Mussoorie takes on a carnival atmosphere.
Having successfully negotiated my way through the jam-packed roads leading to the main square, I comfortably parked myself for a few days at a secluded retreat on the northern hillside of Mussoorie. The snowy view continued to be blocked by moisture-laden grey clouds. The traffic of weekend holidaymakers had crowded the roads to capacity. It wasn’t a complete quiet at the retreat either. The ear-piercing honking of desperate vehicles stuck in long jams along with random sound of car speakers blaring out Punjabi songs reverberated across the valley.
Among the first known British settler in Mussoorie was Captain Young, an enterprising British Military officer, who in 1823 built Mullingar, the oldest surviving cottage that has been encroached now. Being the favoured holiday destination of the British officers as well as rajas and nawabs, Mussoorie remained to be the most exclusive club in India before independence. Much after that, in the 1960s, Mussoorie’s downturn began that, however, only lasted until the rapidly growing ambitious Indian middle class started to see the hill station in the same light as the British did – as a getaway. This trend continues unabated till date, as attested by the scores of visitors who weave their way through the crowded Mall with its festive atmosphere. The crisp mountain air of Mussoorie always had a hint of romance.
On a busy Saturday morning I decide to take a walk across a major part of the inhabited ridgeline of Mussoorie. In the thick of the touristy crowds, burgeoning hotels and thriving market, physical remains of eld remain scattered all across the ridge. There isn’t any naturally level area of any sort along the portion facing the Dun valley. Spanning from the library to the Landour Post Office, the wide road known as the Mall is the chief promenade and hub of the hill station. Towards the west the Mall divides into two bridle paths, one leading to Vincent’s Hill and the other to the Happy Valley. From the eastern end the road continues from the Post-Office through the bazar to the Landour cantonment. The Library square is jam-packed with traffic coming in from the plains and Kempty side.
The Mall road is brimming with holidaymakers. Crossing it once or twice every day is inevitable. Past the toll-barrier, the ornate lamp-posts and benches with curlicues remind of the colonial period and add to the aura of yesteryears that outlines the Mall. Just ahead is the Camel’s Back hill that is studded with huge boulders which occasionally roll down from its northern face. One of the popular walk starts from here and loops the northern ridgeline to reach the Kulri Bazaar further ahead on the Mall. Along the Camel’s Back road is the Scandal Point, presumably so named because it has always been a favourite meeting place for young amoureux. The entire stretch of the Mall is dotted with all sort of hotels, restaurants as well as shops selling clothes, groceries, woollens, medicines, souvenirs, walking sticks, faux jewellery, monkey caps, ice-cream cones and popcorn and every other touristy stuff.
Walking on the Mall may not be a very attractive thing to do in Mussoorie, especially in a peak season. It can even be hazardous. Wildly driven taxis, macho drivers, unpredictable bikes, slow-moving rickshaws and cyclists and thousands of wavering, wayward walkers make for a complete chaos on the road. The otherwise romantic air is filled with smoke and diesel fumes. Amidst loud honks and thumping music, I realise that the Mall is perhaps meant for almost every purpose except walking leisurely.
Setting out on a long walk, I head towards the Christ Church. Standing in tribute to the religious concerns of the early inhabitants of the hillside, today, the Church is a beautiful reminder of an era gone by. The royal emblems, the grills, furnishings and the façade are all still very intact. History lies littered all around in the churchyard. Inside, bathed in the magical light filtering through bits of coloured glass, one suddenly comes face to face with the colours of a rainbow. I head back to the Mall through a Tibetan street bazaar to briefly stop at the Gun Hill ropeway site. Otherwise reachable through an uphill trail of 500m, the ropeway ferries the amusement-seekers to the top of the Gun Hill that affords brilliant views of the Great Himalayan Range. The hilltop is so named as during the British days till 1919, a cannon used to be fired from here at noon to let people know the time.
The Dun valley views from the platform of martyrs’ memorial are very beautiful. The rich and varied expanse of the Dun is bounded by the Shivaliks beyond which the prospect extends over the plains. The Kulri Bazaar begins right after crossing the ropeway on the Mall. I withdraw some money from an ATM of SBI only to realise later that the landmark SBI building was the same one that was once built to house Queen Victoria on her visit to the hill. Just opposite this building is the Cambridge Bookstore where a banner is put up every Saturday to advertise the literary figure Ruskin Bond’s schedule of visiting this store later in the evening. Autograph seekers are already making enquiries of Bond’s arrival timings. Few youngsters are excited that they are going to meet “James Bond” in the evening. Some distance ahead is the hundred years old imposing Methodist Church. The touristy crowd starts shrinking as I reach the road barrier. The various 1980s styled gaming parlours operate from the now defunct Picture Palace.
Despite all its touristy disappointment, the Mall is enjoyable but there’s a quieter, prettier and salubrious Mussoorie above it. Once I cross the territory haunted by tourists, Mussoorie reveal an entirely sylvan face. An uphill paved trek of 5km from Kulri Bazaar brings me to Landour (2250m), founded in 1827 as a British cantonment. On the way, I cross Landour Bazaar that sells a variety of handmade woollens, customised leather footwear as well as antiques.
Initially, Mussoorie and Landour were quite distinct from each other. Today, as both the hillsides are gradually merging, each one still possesses its own unique character. Whereas, chock-a-block Mussoorie is mobbed by tourists, Landour, on the other hand, has successfully retained much of its quietness. The unexpected quietness must be attributed to the fact that about two-thirds of Landour belongs to military and then the strict forests laws. As a result, Landour still retains many of the attractions that drew Young to this hillside high above Mussoorie. As I walk further up the ridge, shops give way to bungalows and dense woods. At Landour, I briefly stop for snacking at Char Dukan. Circling the ridge, I next visit Lal Tibba, colonial-era cemetery, Sister’s Market and the nineteenth century St Paul’s Church.
A walk through the misty streets of Landour takes me on a journey through the history of this hillside. A refuge to homesick British, Landour, perhaps more than any other hill destination, is said to have had a reputation for frivolity, fun and flirting. One would soon discover that, apart from seeking spiritual healing, rejuvenation of soul, recharging batteries and strengthening faith, people come to this hillside with other beautiful ideas on their mind. For those who love downpour, the monsoons here are quite magical. A rain-drenched hill station like this in the Himalayas is bound to bring out the best of romantic in you. As the monsoons sets in, the ridge’s enchanting tranquillity and quietude is once again restored. The stunning Himalayan views appear washed in colour and the sounds and sights seem magnified. Even if the snowy range is hidden during a rainy season, the landscape is dramatically obscured to within a few hundred yards by the vast clouds of mist that creep up from the valleys.
The hill-station of Mussoorie is 36 km from Dehradun. The approach is fairly wide but steep. The distance from Library to Landour, via the Mall, and back is 12km.
Average Altitude: 2000m
Best time to visit: Round the year, avoid holiday seasons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views, heritage and sylvan charm
After a tedious day long drive from Munsiyari, arriving at the salubrious ridge of Deenapani just before sundown was a great relief. The weather and the landscape that surrounded us refreshed us in a moment. Mind-blowing! Nestled among the middle spurs of the Himalayas, and surrounded by range upon range of higher mountains fading into the icy Great Himalayas, the ridge of Deenapani is the place where valley winds talk to each other. Far away towards the north towers the magnificent line of well-defined godly snowy peaks – the distinct Nanda Devi massif; flanked on west by the trident of Mahadeo, the Trishul and Panchachulis or the five hearths of the Gods towards the east. These famous snowy summits are the guardian angles of Kumaon.
Perched just above Almora – the ancient capital kingdom of Kumaon – the sparsely populated ridge of Deenapani is connected by a single road with the forests of Binsar on one side and the Almora city on the other. My initial memory connected with Deenapani was a hurriedly planned stopover for the night while returning from Badrinath in Garhwal many years ago just before the arrival of monsoons that season. I couldn’t wait to discover more out of the sylvan environs of the ridge. From then on, I relied on the peace of Deenapani and used this place as a transit destination to explore other parts of Kumaon. My most recent visit to Deenapani happened a few years later – earlier last month and this time I didn’t plan just a transit halt.
Just as my previous brief sojourns at Deenapani, this time as well we stayed at the KMVN TRH, the balconies of which face northwest and overlook a large part of the valley. The northern slopes of Deenapani ridge provide a good vantage point to observe the ingenious ways in which the hillsides of Kumaon are terraced and tilled for agriculture. Southwards the view is dominated by deep ravines and vast slopes of mountains all around with patches of cultivation surrounded by wilderness. Innumerable points of light shine out to announce the presence of habitations all around in a great vastness of the middle Himalayas as the fading daylight fills valleys and ravines with shadow.
When I was preparing for my Kailash Mansarovar Yatra (KMY) in 2015, I came across many interesting aspects originating from the Deenapani Ridge, a popular stopover on the traditional route of KMY. On my return to this hill many years after my initial vacation, this time I was searching for stories of Almora, Kasar Devi and Crank’s Ridge. Next day in the morning we walked the entire ridge length from Binsar junction on the east to the forest department office located westwards. As the horse saddle shaped Almora becomes visible, the ridge side ahead of Kasar Devi temple adorns a denser green cover comprising mostly pines and some oaks. Planted by the British, the pine cover around here gives quite a sylvan touch to the landscape around Almora.
Most travellers would agree with me in that Almora may not be a hill station in real terms but the town has everything to claim a culturally rich and a historic settlement status for itself. It also happens to be among the few mountain destinations in the Himalayas which were not founded by the British. The Chand dynasty ruled Kumaon for nearly three centuries from its capital at Almora before the British took over in 1815. The local architecture testifies Almora’s variable past. Blanketed by dense woods, the town’s sylvan charm have been attracting people for centuries. Its most illustrious visitors from the Indian landscape include Mahatma Gandhi, Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur, Swami Vivekananda and Jawaharlal Nehru, Uday Shankar, Zohra Sehgal and Guru Dutt, etc.
Nearly eight kilometres north of Almora, the area around Kasar Devi has been attracting spiritual seekers, curious visitors and celebrities from across the globe for a totally different reason. One of the earliest known pilgrims was Swami Vivekananda, who penned about having meditated at Kasar Devi in 1890 and made three trips to Almora. The ridge was once the residence of the renowned Tibetan Buddhism scholar Walter Evans-Wentz who wrote the Tibetan Book of Dead. His residence was later acquired by the colourful and theatrical couple Lama Anagarika Govinda, a Buddhist monk of Austrian origin who wrote the bestseller The Way of the White Clouds, and his wife Li Gotami, a Parsi artist and a photographer. Other popular mystics who visited and meditated here include Alfred Sorensen or Sunyata from Denmark and Richard Alpert aka Guru Ram Dass. The tranquil hillside also inspired Italian writer Tiziano Terzani who wrote The End is My Beginning.
Much of the “popular” spiritualism part of this tiny hill was swallowed up by the emergence of hippie cult in 1960s with the arrival of psychologist Timothy Leary, the father of hippie movement. Leary, who openly backed the use of psychedelic drugs, later popularised that the entire Kasar Devi ridge is bestowed with special cosmic energy as it directly falls on the Van Allen belt. As Leary sought advanced ways to attain spirituality, he started to try nudism even as he smoked freely available wild cannabis. He was the one who gave Crank’s Ridge its name. Today, the temple of Kasar Devi marks the end of the Crank’s ridge, formerly a haunt of artists, philosophers, spiritual leaders, poets and writers. The list includes the English novelist DH Lawrence, Cat Stevens, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Robert Thurman and Hollywood actress Uma Thurman and many more.
With an hour of daylight left, I head towards the old Kasar Devi temple that finds a mention in the Skanda Purana as a popular pilgrimage site. Legend has it that a renowned sorcerer and sage of olden times, who resided here, possessed such a supernatural power that he used to burn iron bars in his kitchen instead of wood. A pathway leaves the main road and ascends for about 600m to climb 70m to reach the temple at 1950m. An ancient Shiva temple is further up a few metres from the initial temple, now dedicated to Durga Devi. The spots where Swami Vivekananda is said to have meditated are marked by information boards. The top of the ridge commands a sweeping view of the Himalayas which is grand beyond description.
Towards the west and south stretch the deep valleys of the Kosi and with the open low Hawalbagh plain in front, the valley is enclosed by wooded ranges of mountains. Down below, the villages appear like nests on terraced fields. The sky is still overcast. To the immediate north, a faint profile of the snowy Great Himalayan Range rises above the forests of Jandidhar. Soaking in the mesmerising sunset landscape, we turn back and head home for the night. The lush foliage tempers the fading sunlight filtering through tall straight pines. The earth everywhere is clothed with moist pine needles. Walking under a sky still aglow with orange and pink, I feel enamoured by the sweet smell of wildflowers and resinous odour of the pines. “Dating the silence of the hills, we are indeed walking in a Himalayan paradise”, I tell myself.
We take a walking detour through the Deenapani settlement. The village folks are tending their livestock and are occupied with evening chores. Startled by our approach, fluffy hill dogs spookily follow us as troop of monkeys breaks away over the tree-tops and occasionally a partridge would fly noisily across the path. Back at the TRH, a wonderful nightscape awaits us. How pleasurable to sit in the balcony and drink in the pure Himalayan breeze as gaze strays from valley to valley and from distant range to range. With no hint of worldly noise to mar, an hour later, I am still sitting at the same spot in pensive mood as faintest breezes wander by.
Next day, we drive up a few kilometres (18 km) to the locally popular Chitai Temple. The temple is dedicated to one of the most popular deities of Kumaon – Golu Devta, God of justice – who, hypothetically, grants all wishes made by followers with a clear conscience. Intriguingly, Golu Devta’s chief shrine at Chitai is hung with uncountable bells and written petitions from followers seeking favourable answers to their wishes. As expected at any Hindu shrine, the market outside the temple sells all sort of holy souvenirs as well as naff ornaments and photographs.
Located a few more kilometres (22 km) up the valley towards Patal Bhuwaneshwar, we next reached the Rock Shelter of Lakhudiyaar by the bank of Suyal River, a painted and an ASI notified property. With a complete rock projecting out of a mountain face, the rock shelter dates back to the Stone Age. The ASI information board claims that most paintings are still intact. The inside walls and ceilings are painted in red, black and white resembling human beings, animals or trees. To sum up, I must admit that Deenapani actually is a destination with spiritual and travellers’ magnetism strong enough to attract wandering souls from faraway places.
The ridge of Deenapani is 14 km from Almora and 18 km from Chitai on the Almora-Pithoragarh road.
Average Altitude: 1900m
Best time to visit: Winters and spring; avoid monsoons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views and heritage
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 Rudraprayag – Pokhari 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