I left home with this on my wall, “Driving up, through the Prayags, nestling amidst the Himalayas, picturesque woods, silver streams…pines and deodars…alpine grasslands…meadows on slopes of snow covered peaks…roads encircling the Greater Himalayas…with the clouds left far below, my travels take me to KUMAON !!!”
Driving out of Rishikesh, watching a landslide on the corner I just cut, I felt lucky to be on the move again. As I climb further I witness a protest march; the pathetic state of affairs in the development of the hill region was the cause of people wailing. However, as I was determined to crossover from my beloved picturesque Garhwal to the rather less exhibited heights of Kumaon, I drove on.
Along the Alaknanda, crossing one Prayag (confluence) after another I reached Simli; a small hamlet outside Karnprayag played host for the first night.
Unassumingly I had entered the confines of nature, up here where men and mountains meet it is almost a blissful existence. The treachery of lowlands and the tyranny of man is dismissed from the panorama at gaze.
From Simli, I proceeded up the Pindar river towards Gwaldham. The last town of the Garhwal region, it houses a homogenous mixture of Bhatia, Kumaoni and Garhwali population who live together peacefully. Angora farm rabbits, a Bodh Temple, Benatoli village walk, Bhim Pathar are the attractions here. With no signs of the inflictions of the warring tribes, only invigorating Himalayan highs in sight, the town set the tone for the serene journey.
I soon made headway into Kumaon; first, stop Kausani. The town beholds a 365 km stretch of the Himalayas on view. With summits like Nanda Devi, Panchchuli, Trishul among several others flanked before the eyes, the view is nothing less than regal.
With no FM or cell phone network and a lone Kishore Kumar disc playing at an almost subliminal volume, I began my temple trail began. First up, Someshwar, followed by the ancient temples of Baijnath, Bagnath in Bageshwar district, Patal Bhuvaneshwar, Gangolihat in Pithoragarh district, Nanda Devi, Chitai and finally Jageshwar the prime jyotirling, in the Almora district.
The hills are full of mythological tales running parallel to modern-day reality. Wondrous stories from the hills of Neeleshwar and Bheeleshwar; why no river till date has been able to cut across the Neeleshwar hill, housing a temple of Lord Shiva, while all other hills have been pierced. The story of Kosi’ betrayal and why it has no major confluences.
From the main road connecting Chaukori-Berinag to Rameshwar, a steep 8km off-road downhill stretch from Guptari town will lead you to the doors of the Patal Bhuvaneshwar, the primordial sanctum-sanctorum of the ‘underworld’.
If the place doesn’t excite you already, multitudes of tales definitely will. This ASI, photography prohibited, the site is a mix of mythological and natural wonders; all you need is the priest cum guide accompanying you to unearth the stories behind the formations.
The temple entrance is a narrow 3×2 feet wide cave opening, using ropes and chains. One needs to rappel down a good 30 meters to reach the level ground inside the cave. 33 million Hindu Gods, almost all the characters from Hindu mythology that one has heard of, an entry into Satyug and a return to Kalyug is illustrated within the caves all of which is promised while Sheshnag, bears the burden of us all.
I was still trying to grasp all that the guide had narrated about the formations inside the cave when I encountered a difficult terrain along the Ramganga project. For a continuous mountainous stretch, no chai-wallah in sight, the car’s fuel tank running low, and to top it all the almost nursery like the scenery of the setting sun; not one but I witnessed 3 sunsets that hour. It would set before my eyes, the range would turn red and gloom would follow. I was chasing sunlight, behind every bend and curve. A couple of turns later, crossing over from one hill to another, the Sun would present itself again and take a dip allowing me ample time to click. Had the road been wider, allowing my car to stop without stalling the traffic, I am sure my camera shutter would have eventually given in.
The journey didn’t halt, partially, as there was no halt in sight yet and partially because this journey had become about denunciation. Re-routing my compass, I decided to halt at Jageshwar for the night.
After a tiring day’s drive, reaching Jageshwar was a relief. The place was majestic! A town laid out on one side of the temples built centuries ago; and an open forest encircling the temple from the other. A tiny stream labeled the Jata-Ganga arising from the main temple complex and flowing outwards of Jageshwar. The night sky was unreal; with stars almost handpicked, strung in rows and given an extra bolt to glow brighter. The morning brings the calm you associate with Lord Shiva. Aloof from worldly affairs, eyes shut, deep in meditation, unperturbed by any human presence the temple complex is as pious as it gets.
The local deities also needed to be ticked off my list so as I entered Almora, the Lord of justice, Gaulu Devta’s temple at Chitai was also a designated stop. The deity’ story goes like this, once a great king, known for his strong belief in handing out just decisions. Among the local folk, he was praised for centuries, kings going to war sought his blessings and soon the legend of a great king turned into a folklore of a deity of justice, an incarnation of Yama himself and you know stuff that legends are made of.
What’s striking about this temple and in general about temples in Kumaon is the practice of tying bells in the temple in lieu of a boon. Arrays and arrays of bells, big and small, strung on every tree, every wall, every pillar, in the temple. Again then why the temple at Chitai is so popular? The answer lies in the belief that bells aren’t enough, God needs letters too!
The last on the list was the biggest deity of the other side of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, the temple of Nanda Devi in Almora. Set amidst the Lala Bazaar, this tiny structure has thousands of visitors thronging to the gates every twelve years for the Nanda Devi fair.
The true joy of traveling around Kumaon is experienced while trekking to tiny hillocks, just off the road. Stations like Sitlakhet, Chaubatia, Vijaypur, and Bigul give you a chance to cherish such excursions. Descending from a rather sunlit hilltop into a valley with still no ray having pierced the thick mist, owing to ‘air drainage’. After knowing of the concept had a first-hand experience for the first time in the Garur and Pindar valley en route to Chaukori.
What is beautiful about the hills, especially the Himalayas, is that it has layer and as the layers unfold, through ridges and V-shaped valleys we see purer forms of it. The more you see of it, the more infatuated you get. Almost romantically, the mountains bewilder you at one moment, enchanting you at the other, and then reconciling, to wrap you in a tight embrace.
On my track out of Kumaon, I visited Dwarahat, Ranikhet, Bhatronj Khal, Mohan, and Ramnagar. To be honest a Corbett stay never crossed my mind. But, as luck would have it, thanks to Mr. Advani’ Rath Yatra and routes being shut, I took my chance and dived into Corbett’ Jhirna Range. An unmetalled road, ranger tracks, under the watch of Rangers seated in machines and anti-poaching guards we crossed up to Kalagarh, leaving Kumaon far behind. An elephant, a cheetal, a boar or two that’s all I could spot…sadly no Tiger.
Kumaon gets a thumbs-up for being easy on the pocket, lots of places to see and things to do. The Himalayan experience and solace is delivered. What you need to watch out for though, is distances, connectivity, availability of amenities like ATMs, gas stations, and even cell phone networks. All in all, a must do is Kumaon.