The lakes of Kumaon Hills

The ducks are paddling lazily in the lake, forming ripples in the shimmering water which eventually break upon the moss green walls and disappear. The sun slips behind the tall mountain, dropping an imposing shadow on the lake. A restless wind rises from the lake and rushes through the trees, the branches swaying like arms shielding the trees from the piercing chill. Jolly school kids are diving into the green waters egged on by their friends as several anxious ones await their turn, shivering. The warm autumn afternoon reluctantly yields to the crisp evening as the idyllic hill town of Bhimtal, in the state of Uttarakhand, is bathed in light which reflects off the lake and illuminates the sky. I was a lost traveller seeking the elusive calmness which has fled our bustling metropolises and unexpectedly discovered it here, dancing in the lap of nature under the orange sky.

BhimTal with the small island at the center

The lower Kumaon hills abound in placid lakes surrounded by dense jungles of pine, oak and cedar. Time is dictated by the moods of the wind, the swell of the lakes, the blueness of the sky and the sound of the birds chirping in the woods. The soul revels in the beauty of nature, free from the irksome worries and trepidations of a chaotic urban existence. Although these serene lakes are accessible by road, walking allows us to appreciate the natural synergy as we can sense the harmony between these creations.  A drive in the hills, though exhilarating, focuses more on the destination whereas walking expels haste and immortalizes the experience by celebrating the effort.

Sat Tal nestled in the lower Himalayan range surrounded by dense jungles of oak, pine and cedar

Sat Tal (translates to seven lakes) is a 7 kilometer walk from Bhimtal by road. An alternative shorter route which cuts through a dense jungle is more appealing but fraught with danger as leopards are known to inhabit these forests. After crossing the hill slope on which Bhimtal rests the road winds down in a series of hair pin bends to the emerald Garur Tal, the first and the most enchanting of these lakes.  Thereon, the road snakes through entwined trees with yellow leaves and finally gives way to the last two lakes. Eateries dot the lake side; stalls selling lemonade, snacks, tea and coffee, a balloon stand, boats anchored to the shore wait for eager customers.  The narrow cobbled path lining the shore fights a losing battle against the relentless bushes which have swallowed the path for considerable stretches. After several hours of idling at the lakes I had trudged uphill to Bhimtal, kept company by a solitary monkey.  I kept a lookout for its mischievous brethren but surprisingly none appeared.

Misty Valleys and clear blue skies during the month of October

Another rewarding endeavor is the walk to Naukuchiya Tal (the lake with nine corners) which lies 4 kilometers east of Bhim Tal. The local lore is that if one beholds all nine corners of the lake in a single glance good luck would be bestowed on that person. When I had finally arrived at the lake it was dressed in a white cloak, raindrops plopped and were swallowed by the grey waters, bright red flowers caught in the muddy shore swayed with joy and the clouds bridged the gap between the earth and the sky. I had relished a cup of steaming hot coffee in the wooden shop besides the lake with the music of the raindrops falling on the tin roof.

The orange sky is turning to a giddy pink and sleepy stars join the party in their shiny attire. Soon the day would end and so will my journey, for now at least. And days later, when the rain comes pouring down I would not run and hide, I will look up to the sky and think of a couple of drenched school boys, oblivious to the heavy downpour, holding hands and walking home like Kings.

An autumn stroll to Jageshwar

A new autumn day is impatient to burst out from the confines of a dark night. In the dark blue sky the half-crescent moon is kept company by a solitary star and I am huddled on the roof ledge with a tepid tumbler of sweetened tea eagerly awaiting a chance to behold nature’s magic.With a child-like curiosity I nervously glance at the reddening horizon and the snow-capped peaks rising sharply behind the dwarf hills dotted with a speck of light. The imposing Trisul lies to the extreme left; the elusive Nanda Devi, at the centre, is eclipsed by the Panwali Dhar and the distant silhouettes of the Pancha Chuli are preparing to embrace the sun. And as the warmth of the rising sun sweeps over the misty valleys, the hundreds of kilometres of the Himalayas is illuminated in a golden hue. The raw force of nature here is overwhelming and the sight of the mighty peaks draped in the silken snow intoxicates the heart. It is here at Binsar; the insignificance of existence is reflected in the scorn of the stoic mountains.

Maiktoli, Panwali Dhar and Nanda Devi

However, Binsar has another treat for nature lovers – a trail of about 22 kms riding on windy ridges, threading dense forests and tiny villages to ultimately culminate at the ancient temple complex of Jageshwar. The trek follows the motorable road from Binsar for about a kilometre where it veers off to the left through dense scrubs and oak trees and descends in a steep gradient to a cobbled path which then continues along the hill slope. Along the trail, unadulterated views of the Himalayas can be relished as the trail runs parallel to the ranges for quite a distance. The euphoric jungle welcomes the stranger with an unfamiliar hospitality; the crickets create a racket, birds chirp hysterically and the cries of a barking deer liven up the surroundings.

Misty valleys as seen from the trail

These forests nurture some of the most important creatures of the Himalayan ecosystem such as the Himalayan Monal, leopard, goral, musk deer, chital, barking deer and a host of other animals and birds. The jungle predominantly consists of oak and rhododendron during the initial descent; this peters out to pine trees as we approach the hamlet of Dhaulchinna, which is approximately 6kms from Binsar. Here, one has the option of retiring to a cosy rest house for a day before continuing onto Jageshwar (another 16kms from Dhaulchinna). In the event of a night stay in Dhaulchinna, a stroll to the ancient Vimalkot temple can also be undertaken.

Temple Complex at Jageshwar

The path from Dhaulchinna is a relatively wide mud track straddled by lush green terraced fields and hill slopes covered in pine trees. Ranges of blue-green hills stretch to the horizon; the hill-station of Almora is located on one of these ridges. The mud track finally joins the motorable road coming from Pipalkoti, which runs along the ridge to Saukiyathal and terminates at Vriddha (old) Jageshwar. The temple at Vriddha Jageshwar is dedicated to Shiva and can be dated back to the 9th-13th century. The Himalayan range, which was lost to view from Dhaulchinna, reappears with more peaks now visible like the Nanda Ghunti to the west of Trisul. The final stretch of the trek is a 3 km steep descent through a brown pine forest; and as we near Jageshwar this gives way to a green deodar jungle.Jageshwar is a temple complex dedicated to Shiva and the temples range in the period from 7th century to 18th century. Idyllically located in a valley surrounded by hills covered by deodar trees with a sparkling brook skirting the complex, the sight of the temple town is rejuvenating.

Trisul Massif rising behind the village Katdhara

In his book Footloose in the Himalayas, Bill Aitken says and I quote ‘the aim of recollecting these vintage walks is to try and hint at the timeless sublimity of the Himalayas even in its lower reaches’. This trek offers a glimpse into this timeless beauty of the Himalayas without being encumbered with the intricacies of planning that more ambitious excursions entail.Sometimes it is imperative to expel aspiration and wander aimlessly amidst nature; to let the trail be the master, to resist the temptation of pursuing accomplishment rather than the experience and to lose yourself in the wild!

The article was first published at The Alternative

Shepherds of the High Himalayas

The end of summer is nigh; the parched valleys are shrouded in a white haze and the merciless sun whips up dust storms which rage through sleepy towns and dress them in brown cloaks. Weary eyed pilgrims crouch beside the road, searching for the elusive shade and water to soak their hearts. The hills anxiously await the arrival of the grey clouds rolling past the plains of India; they pine for the soothing caress of the cold showers on their charred backs. The snow-capped mountains sweat as the sun beats relentlessly day after day; swelling the rivers with gushing foamy water. The high-altitude bugyals (meadows) shed their white blankets and don the sombre green; countless flowers of unimaginable colours dot this green landscape.

A flock of sheep near the village Jinjhi

A sturdy man wakes up to a bright young morning; tomorrow he shall leave his village for a journey to the hidden valleys protected by daunting passes, through jungles where wild beasts roam unhindered, in rain and hail and wind for four months forsaking all worldly ties. In the lap of the indifferent Himalayas, he is the guardian of humanness; he is Bahattar Singh in Osla, Shaitaan Singh in Wan, Dewan Singh in Ransi and Lacchi Ram in Namik, he is the Shepherd of the lofty Himalayas.

It is five in the morning and Bahattar Singh or Bathru, as he is commonly referred to, is walking to the village Seema where he hopes to find jaggery and potatoes in Thakurji’s shop. The icy cold waters of the Tons River bound down the slopes in leaps and bounds breaking the silence of the morning. Bathru finds Thakurji stoking fire for the morning tea lazily puffing on his hukkah; after being assured of the ration he requires he hastily scurries back to his village Osla. His daughter waits with the flock of sheep and they follow a trail to the meadows overlooking the Tons valley; the imposing Kalanag glistens in the morning sun flanked by the Swargarohini peaks. Bathru leaves the trail and like a mountain goat scrambles to the hidden ravines in search of green grass; he leaves tomorrow and needs to stock enough for his cows. This time tomorrow he will be across the river on the trail to Ruinsara Tal; beholding his home for the last time for a long time.

A young shepherd with a new born lamb(Pic-Rahul Bahuguna)

His parents had named him Bhagwat; as a child he was often caught loitering in the jungles during school hours or stealing oranges from Masterji’s garden, One day, when he was five, he had followed a trekking party heading to Bedni Bugyal for a couple of kilometres ; he received a sound thrashing from his father and was rechristened Shaitaan Singh. Today is a busy day for Shaitaan Singh; it is already eleven and after repairing his homespun woollen garments he needs to visit all the households in Wan which own sheep and goats; this year he expects at least a hundred animals to accompany him to the bugyals. He has done this drill for the last 10 years; count all the sheep and goats, identify the ones who will probably not survive the arduous journey ahead, account for the ones who will deliver young ones in the next four months and haggle over the price which must be paid to him once he returns. This he records meticulously in his little black book though he proudly claims that he knows all the animals in his care and can associate them with their rightful owners. He has never lost an animal in his ten years of sheep herding.

Shepherds camping in Panwali Kantha

It is five in the evening; a blanket of shade covers the Madhmaheshwar valley as the sun slips behind the daunting Chaukhamba. Dewan Singh is seated in his verandah with his fearsome shepherd dogs, Rani and Sheru. With charcoal black fur and thoughtful dark eyes these beasts are the best friends of a high-altitude shepherd; their loyalty is unquestionable and their courage formidable, it is known that a pair of shepherd dogs can pose a challenge to a leopard looking for prey. Dewan Singh is preparing to leave for Sinar Bugyal, a lush green meadow overlooking the villages of Ransi and Gaundhar. His ration is in sewn hemp bags which the bearded goats will carry; his tent and other essentials are neatly packed and his flock is idling around the ancient Rakeshwari Devi temple. Young boys from the village follow the procession to the village limits where they halt and lovingly pat the stream of passing sheep. Dewan Singh will camp in Sinar Bugyal for the night and then head along the ridge to Kanara Khal and Dwara Khal and finally to the hidden Mandani Valley. His wife watches silently till they disappear behind the bend in the hill and then retires to the kitchen to prepare dinner.

Shepherds of Osla on the way to Har-Ki-Doon(Pic-Rahul Bahuguna)

Lacchi Ram is woken by the howling of the shepherd dogs; dawn is breaking as the horizon turns orange. The dead silence of pre-dawn is broken by the roaring waters of the Ramganga and the jingling of the bells tied around the neck of his sheep. The temple bells toll in the distance and soon his village Namik will spring to life; farmers will head to their fields, women will tend to their cattle and kids will assemble in the school playground and recite the Morning Prayer. But he is no longer a part of this life; he must climb high to the nondescript corners of the Himalayas riding on winding ridges, through dense jungles, across chilling streams and over back-breaking passes. He will witness the Namik Glacier give birth to the Ramganga, watch the first rays of the sun illuminate the Panchachuli peaks and hear the roar of the angry leopard during a lonesome dark night. And when the evening chill returns in the fickle autumn he shall return to his village and go to the Dussehra fair in Bageshwar with his kids. He is no longer a father, a husband, a son or a brother; he is now the Shepherd of the lofty Himalayas.

All the places mentioned here are in Uttarakhand and a few lie on the popular trekking routes in the state.

The article was first published at The Alternative

A savory adventure in Kumaon Himalayas

During my last trip to Kumaon in Uttarakhand, I came across an old father narrating an anecdote involving his son who had landed a job in the far south. The mother, reluctantly, packed her love in pickle jars and ghee dabbas and bade goodbye to her son arming him with an assortment of spices and eatables native to Uttarakhand. When the lad was going through the security check at the airport in Delhi an officer found a neatly sealed bag containing seeds from the cannabis plant (hemp seeds commonly referred to as bhang); flabbergasted he demanded an explanation. In Kumaon, chutney made from these seeds is a common recipe and a much loved one too – unfortunately for the young man the officer was not willing to buy his story and it took hours of convincing (and pleading) that the seeds were in fact harmless ingredients for a kind of chutney.
Kumaon is known for the spell-binding views of the Himalayas, peaceful retreats in the wild and impatient rivers but food rarely finds a mention. The restaurants in suave hill-stations stick to tried and tested cuisines and lately even the evergreen dhabas of the hills have developed a penchant for serving ‘Chinese’ food. However, Kumauni dishes are alive in household kitchens across the towns and villages and here is a peek into some of the delicacies often prepared by doting mothers for their visiting children who work or study in faraway cities.
Aloo ke Gutke, a dish made of pahari potatoes fried with local condiments and relished with cucumber raita

Something to snack on
If you travel along the winding roads of Kumaon you will come across small eateries offering delectable potato wedges fried with local condiments like jakhya (Cleome viscose), jamboo (Allium stracheyi), cumin seeds and topped with coriander leaves. Known as Aloo ke Gutke, this dish cooked from pahari potatoes is usually relished with raita made from hill cucumber laced with mustard seeds – the seeds often creating a tingling sensation in one’s nose. The hamlet of Garampani, on the highway from Haldwani to Almora, is famous for offering a platter of hill specialties complimented with cucumber raita. During the cold winters, chapattis made from flour obtained from Madua (finger millet seeds) and buckwheat are enjoyed with a dollop of ghee and jaggery along with a helping of hill spinach.

Something unusual
Chutneys are regular inclusions in meals and are savoured with a variety of dishes. A couple of native recipes are chutney prepared from cannabis seeds (bhang ki chutney) and darim (a local variety of pomegranate). The cannabis seeds are ground in a paste and also used in another delicacy, Sana hua Nimbu. Prepared from curd, cannabis seeds, radish, big lemon and spices this refreshing mixture is an intrinsic part of the routine of people soaking in the sun during the winter months. Here Shishun (stinging nettle plant) is a wild shrub with thorny leaves and stem; historically it is loved by parents and detested by kids as it is often employed to punish wayward behavior. However its leaves (minus the thorns) are also used to prepare a tasty green leafy vegetable high in nutritious value.
Cannabis seeds used for making chutney

Something for the famished
In Kumaon a wide range of pulses like urad (black lentil), chana (black gram), gahat (horse gram) and bhatt (black and white soyabean) are used, often in conjunction, to create mouth-watering recipes which are usually enjoyed with rice. Chudkani (black soyabean), bhatiya (white soyabean) and ras (a combination of black lentil, black gram, horse gram and black soyabean) are some of the much loved dishes commonly prepared in Kumauni kitchens.
Made from semolina and curd (and sometimes bananas too), pua is a sweet cake prepared during all major festivals

Something sweet
Made from semolina and curd (and sometimes bananas too), pua is a sweet cake prepared during all major festivals (as prasad to offer in temples) and major life events like birthdays etc. Another local recipe is a kheer made from jhangora (barnyard millet) complimented with cashews and raisins. Bal Mithai (brown chocolate like fudge made from khoya and coated with sugar balls) and Singodi (flavoured khoya wrapped in oak leaves) are a couple of quite popular sweets prepared in the hill station of Almora.
Bal Mithai(right)- brown chocolate like fudge made from khoya and coated with sugar balls.Singodi(left) flavoured khoya wrapped in oak leaves

The culinary tradition of Uttarakhand is deep-rooted in growing food organically and most of the recipes use items which are either found naturally in the Himalayas or are cultivated locally. Due to the unavailability of most key ingredients and condiments in other parts of India these delicacies are largely unknown outside Uttarakhand. For generations people here have mastered the skill of bringing the bio-diversity of the Himalayan eco-system to their plates. Using the medicinal herbs and spices found here, the cuisine has evolved into a perfect blend of taste and nutrition. So the next time you are in Kumaon to admire the magnificence of the snow-capped peaks squeeze in a day or two to explore the food offered by this region – it will certainly spice up your Himalayan experience!

The article was first published on The Alternative

Binsar : An Eternal Paradise

An offshoot of the motor able road from Almora to Kafadkhan,DSCF5787 is a narrow tarred path which marks the entrance to the Binsar Wildlife Reserve. This path, like a persistent vine, clings to the oak covered hill side and climbs in curvy hair-pin bends to the settlement of Binsar. The hallmarks of civilization have a meager presence here and nature, with all its care and indifference, reigns at will. To the north, snow capped peaks span the horizon; to the south, their lesser cousins nonchalantly disappear in the dusty plains of the Terai. Here the mighty peaks of the Himalayas, visible in unsatisfying glimpses from the lower reaches of the Kumaon hills, bare themselves with pompous ferocity. Binsar offers none of the quintessential hill station experiences; but it embraces with nascent affection one who craves the camaraderie with nature.

A leisurely walk along the numerous trails amidst theDSCF5657 oak and rhododendron forest is therapeutic; particularly the trails to Jhandi Dhaar and the Forest Rest House. In autumn the paths are carpeted with brown leaves; colourful flowers adorn the jungle floor, the langurs indulge in frivolous revelry and the barking deer gingerly tread the steep rock faces. On clear days, it is believed, one can view the Chinese border and the Terai plains from Jhandi Dhaar complimented with unobstructed views of the Himalayas. A stone structure has been erected here; one can relax in the shade and relish the music of the nuthatches.

The road to Binsar culminates at the Forest Rest House, a quaint building overlooking endless rows of hills dotted with terraced fields. The view of the sunset is particularly beautiful from here; one can be seated in the grassy DSCF5682courtyard and witness the tired sun slip behind the grey mountains and the sky turn a blend of orange and red and pink. Furthermore, a steaming cup of tea can sweeten this blissful experience. The forest surrounding the rest house is teeming with numerous species of birds and is a treat for people interested in birding.

Binsar is a treasure-trove of nature’s wonders but undoubtedly its most precious jewel is the sunrise. I will attempt to paint an honest picture of this event though words can faintly convey the actuality. The night is on its final stretch; countable stars ornament the sky, the moon sheds a feeble light on the snow covered peaks, the wind is hostile and the silent valleys are shrouded in mist. The silhouettes of the peaks are reflected in the dark blue sky; from the Nanda Ghunti to the Trisul, from the revered Nanda Devi to the distant Panchachuli; DSCF5735all rising above 20,000 feet and looking down on this petty world. And as the sun rises the golden rays bounce off the silky snowy slopes and hop from one peak to the next till all of them are illuminated in an infant glow; the valleys shed their misty cloaks to get on with the day and the air is infused with warmness. The script is perfect, the stage is meticulously set, the acting is succinct and the direction flawless!

 

This article first appeared here.