Our first destination of the day was the village of Winter Lata, 30 kms from Auli on the road that leads to the Chinese border. In this region, every village is split in two. A set of houses are located high up in the mountains where the villagers farm terraced plots of land for beans, rajma, potatoes and vegetables. This part of the village is inhabited during the summers and monsoons – the growing season in the Himalayas. After Diwali, which comes right after harvest season, villagers pack up their essentials and move to another set of houses closer to the road below. This is where they wait out the winters and the snow takes over the higher village.
After we climbed down from Gorson, we took a small break at Auli, before continuing to the village of Lata, located about 40 kms from Auli, on the road to Malari (Map with directions). Where we actually stopped was the village of Winter Lata , which comprises of a series of houses on the right side of the road. To the left of the road is a small drop, a couple of levels of terraced fields and then the Dhauliganga river.
IMPORTANT: The Nanda Devi Outer Sanctuary (NDOS) is a restricted area, even for resident Indians. Entry into NDOS is restricted to 5 people per day and not more than 20 persons per week.For the permit, you will need to furnish one photograph along with a copy of a government issued photo identity card as such PAN Card, Voters’ Card, Driving Licence, Aadhar Card, etc. The entry fee per person is Rs 150 and on top of that, you will need to pay a trail management fee. You will also need to pay for your guide and porters. If you go with a local guide, he can get the necessary paperwork done for you in advance.
The trek starts from the edge of the road in the winter Lata village, at an altitude of 2,200 m, following a concrete pathway that leads to the Summer Lata village (2400m). The Ultimate destination was the log huts at Lata Khadak at 3,800 m, almost 13 kms away. The trek is doable in one day if one starts from the road at dawn. But since we were camping the previous night at Gorson, by the time we left the roadhead, it was around 3 in the afternoon.
For trekkers who are not at their fittest, it is best to break the trek from Winter Lata to Lata Khadak into two days. If you so choose to do so, you have Two possible camping options:
Bhelta: Deep inside the forest, this campsite comprises two narrow ledges to pitch your tent and a natural cave which can serve as the kitchen. Damp, dark and claustrophobic, Bhelta has that one thing trekkers and mountain travellers cannot do without – a water source.
Kanook: Kanook, also called Kanook Khadak is about 400 m above the Bhelta campsite and is a small meadow with a view of the Dhauliganga valley. While this clearly does not suffer from the claustrophobia of Bhelta, it does not have a water source. Since we had started the trek late and we were short of water, we chose to camp at Bhelta.
The 13 km long trek from Summer Lata to Lata Khadak can be largely divided into three section. The first part of the journey, one we had just completed, ends at the Bhelta campsite and is a gradual climb through dense forests. The next part of the trek is the actual steep climb that starts immediately after Bhelta and continues all the way to the treeline. The last and the third part of the trek continues steeply uphill above the treeline, all the way to the Lata Khadak log hut. In the rarified air and lacking the shade of the forest, sunburn is a real possibility here.
The Nanda Devi Sanctuary in general and this trail, in particular, is off the beaten track and we were the first group attempting this trail this particular year. This meant that in places, the trail was swallowed up by the forest and we could rely only on the directions of our guide and at times, some clever guesswork.
This was going to be a tough day for me as the climb looked almost vertical. In my mind, I had calculated that it would take me a better part of 8 hours to complete the 8 km stretch. We set off around 7:30 am from Bhelta and maintained a slow but steady pace. Every now and then the forest would thin out along a ledge and offer spectacular views of the Dhauliganga Valley and even the Gorson Meadows some 40 kms away, where we had camped to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude.
This trail has a unique way of reminding you how high you have climbed. Every now and then Summer Lata village would spring to view, growing increasingly smaller. Ditto with the Dhauliganga river. And this works strange magic on the tired body of the trekker. All of a sudden, you have a real sense of achievement. If I can climb this far, surely I can climb a little further…
What these photos do not capture, however, is the silence of the forest. This is one of the reasons I chose to get away to the mountains. There is something pure and therapeutic about this silence.
After a couple of hours of climbing through the forest, we found ourself suddenly above the treeline. The path now snaked through ankle length grass swaying merrily in the wind. This was the last stage of the trek to Lata Khadak. The trail, however, was still unforgivingly steep. At this point, our guide, irritated by my slow pace had decided to abandon me. ‘Ab toh asaan hai‘, he said. ‘Just look out for the laal jhanda (red flag)’, he said. On and on I went till a red flag mercifully revealed itself at the top of a hill. As I climbed towards it with a zombie-like intensity, a long, green, timber structure revealed itself.
At last, I was in Lata Khadak (3,800 m), our destination for the day, and shelter for the next three.
Lata Khadak is located on a high plateau, surrounded by even higher mountains. One of my favourite travel bloggers, Sadanand Kamath describes the location best:
On the south-west side is the Dhauliganga valley from where our climb started. Further left to the Dhauliganga valley is the Rishiganga gorge followed by Ronti nala. On the south side, we could see our trekking route– Gorson bugyal-Talli-Khullara-Kuari Pass and a part of descend to Dhak road head. A small ridge connects Lata Kharak with Saini Kharak and Jhandidar. On the north-eastern side, the prominent peak visible is Dunagiri (7,066 m) and some distanced peaks on the Indo-Tibet border.The closest peaks to see from Lata Kharak are Bethartoli Himal, Nanda Ghunti (south face), Ronti, and Hathi Parvat .Nanda Devi, Devisthan I and II peaks are not visible from Lata Kharak as their views are blocked byJhandidar ridge. These peaks can be viewed only from Saini Kharak.
One of the best things about Lata Khadak is the stunning view of Dunagiri. When we arrived the northeast sky was covered by scattered clouds, but within about an hour, the clouds were gone and there stood the mountain, seeming almost an arm’s reach away.
Once my battered body was coaxed back to life with a gallon and a half of steaming tea, it was time to explore the immediate surroundings. Just behind the cottage a narrow pathway leads to the ridge that connects Lata Khadak with Jhandi Dhar and Saini Khadak. The late September sun was at its golden best, colouring the already spectacular surroundings in a shade of honey.
After two days of hard walking, it felt great to just sit soak up the last rays of the sun from such a spectacular spot. Not a sound was to be heard save the chirping of the crickets. In front of us lay a great big icy wall, the kind that would put the great northern wall of Westeros to shame. This formidable wall was made of mountains including Bethartoli Himal (6,352 m), Nanda Ghunti (6,309 m), Ronti (6,023 m), and Hathi Parvat (6,727 m).
In my experience only mountains, and the Himalayas, in particular, can make you feel so utterly insignificant that it shakes you out of the self-centric bubble we tend to live in. This is the ultimate surrender – knowing how powerless you are against the sheer force of nature. You come back a grounded and a more rounded individual.
The long day, which began deep in the forests of Bhelta, was slowly coming to an end on a sunny rock overlooking some of the deepest valleys in Garhwal. The golden light had, by now reached the icy wall of Himalayan pinnacles. The stunning Bethartoli, now bathed in the yellow light resembled a mountain made of gold. The tiredness of the body was forgotten… pain in the limbs suddenly felt very inconsequential. All we could think of were the promises of the next day.
A strange darkness had started to creep in. I had always counted myself rich with an exciting job, a best friend of a wife, three of the cutest cats a person could have ever wished for – yet, there was this big gaping hole in the soul. It was as if I had been kissed by a dementor, a kiss that had sucked all the joy out of my life.
A chance conversation with the wife helped me reach the root of the problem. Partly it had to do with the phenomenon called ‘adulthood’. Over the last three years, I had landed myself an exciting, albeit stressful job, gotten married, and like Jude of the song, had taken upon my (not so) slender shoulders, all the weight of the world. Unlike my pre-adult life, there were no mountains; no rides on my trusty ‘Dope’, and barely time to be alone with the voices in my head. And it was this absence of this connection with myself, that had made me liken my then existence to a dementor’s kiss.
Coming to this realisation was a massive change in itself. It was as if a weight had lifted off my chest… I could breathe easy… the fog of despair had lifted. Now that I knew what to do, I needed to move on to the next step: where to go? Easier said than done. Every road called out to me. Every Himalayan valley seemed to sing a siren song trying to lure me into their deepest recesses. A week’s plan soon became 10 days, and finally grew to two whole weeks. It was settled then: I would do a trek inside the Nanda Devi National Park. To do that I would need to first get to Auli, near Joshimath. This is where my motorcycle, Dope comes in.
I have been on this route a few times, and from the very beginning, it was clear that Joshimath / Auli could not be reached in one day. So I decided to set off from Delhi around noon on the D-Day. The plan was to reach Rishikesh by the evening, rest up and start for Auli the next day at first light.
The road till Meerut was chaotic as usual, but once the by-pass starts, it is a clean six lane cruising all the way till Roorkee. I took to the saddle after four years with a lot of apprehension. Would I be able to ride for long? Will my back give up? Would I have to turn back with my tail between my legs? Turns out nothing of that sort was going to happen. It was like fish in the water. The miles just started tumbling and the first and only break of the day came after 216 kms of riding. Once a biker, always a biker.
I had booked myself into Hotel Green Hills in Rishikesh. A secure parking was absolutely essential for me and this establishment had it. I also got an airconditioned room for the night at Rs 700. Another advantage of the hotel was its location right on the highway. All I needed to do in the morning was tie down my luggage and leave.
Within ten minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself finally in the hills. The monsoons had just about ended and the mountains were carpeted in a million shades of green. On my right was the young Ganga – green and eager and utterly oblivious to the abuse that lies ahead. With every turn of the road, I could feel the mortal energy return to the husk of a being I had let myself turn into. The roads were blissfully empty and the metronome-like engine note of the large single-cylinder benignly threatened to transport me to a meditative state.
My plan for the day was to ride non-stop (photo breaks don’t count) at least till Karnaprayag. The annual yatra season had ended and I wasnt expecting a lot of traffic. The road itself was in remarkable shape. Except for a few landslide-affected stretches (inevitable in the Himalayas), the road was a poetry in smooth tarmac. Never had I seen a mountain road, (and a highway no less) in as good a shape.
This is no ordinary road. For thousands of years, long before humankind had mortar and asphalt, people have travelled on this road; on foot, on animal-drawn carts and even on the backs of other people, in search of the divine. Not only does this road lead to Badrinath, one of Hinduism’s most sacred temples, along it also lie the five holy confluences, or prayags – the Panch Prayag.
Dev Prayag: Alakananda and Bhagirathi Rivers meet here, the first of the prayags, giving rise to the Ganges. In terms of riligious significance, it is second only to Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Saraswati meet the Ganga to form the holiest prayag and hence the site of the Kumbh mela.
Rudraprayag: The meeting place of the Alaknanda and the Mandakini rivers. At Rudraprayag, one comes across a fork in the road and the two prongs each follow the rivers. I continue to follow Alaknanda towards the next prayag. I turned left on the fork here to follow the road running next to the Mandakini on a previous journey to Deoriya Taal and a trek to Chopta and Tungnath Temple.
Karnaprayag: 34 kms upstream of Rudraprayag, the Mandakini is joined by the Pindar river. Legend has it that Karna, one of the pivotal characters in the Mahabharata, prayed to his father Surya at the prayag here and in the process received the kavach (shield) that made him near-invincible in battle. Here, you cross the bridge over the actual prayag and continue along the left bank of the Alaknanda towards Joshimath and Auli. Another road branches off from the bridge towards Tharali and Gwaldham into Kumaon, a road I took on my way back and immediately went on to have one of the most fun few hours of mountain riding i’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. More on that later.
Nandaprayag: 23 kms upstream, the Nandakini River meets the Alaknanda River at Nandaprayag. Unlike the other prayags, the confluence isn’t visible from the road here. What you can see is a maze of concrete structures and have your senses invaded by noxious diesel fumes emenating from the bus terminus.
The road thus far has the river for company and follows a gentle enough gradient; but as soon as you cross Nandaprayag, things get more interesting. The roads are not as wide as you have experienced before and switchbacks appear with increased frequency betraying a rather steep gain in altitude.
Vishnuprayag: The last of the prayags was the only one I did not visit. This is where the Dhauli Ganga river (this river will make its appearence in a future post) meets the Alaknanda, a few kms upstream of Joshimath town.
During the course of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary trek, we would be hitting altitudes in excess of 4,500 m (14,700+ feet), so it is recommended to complete an one-night accimatisation trek. We had chosen the Gorson Meadows above Auli for this very purpose. To reach Auli, we had to take a small road turning right from the highway, a few kms before Joshimath town. This tiny little road snakes through thick forests and a couple of Indo Tibetan Border Police encampments for 14 kms and ends at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guesthouse in Auli, at an altitude of 2,500 m.
If the sky is cear, Auli offers the visitor a clear view of the iconic Nanda Devi peak (7,816 m / 25,643 ft). But this was not to be. The sky had gotten overcast as I took the turn for Auli and by the time I was unloading my luggage, it had started drizzling. The clouds, however, did little to obscure the unique jagged-edged mountains around Joshimath and Auli. In the dying light of the day, the dramatic mountains looked like the exposed teeth of a long dead leviathan, bared menacingly skywards upon death.
As a couple of plates of maggi, followed by some excellent chilli chicken whipped up by the good cook at GMVN slowly soothed the body into a state of temporary hibernation, the mind drifted across the jagged shadow mountains towards Mordor the deep Himalayas. What adventures lay ahead? Will the goddess Nanda Devi open her bounties to this humble traveller? If only I had a window into her divine mind…
It was 5:00 am on a cold, cold January morning that I stepped into the sleeper compartment of a train at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Station. AC coaches were not considered out of a mere whim while I was booking the ticket from the warm confines of my office. Once again I had underestimated the Delhi cold. Nevertheless, the journey was going to be a short one. Just 180 odd kilometres to the southwest, to the erstwhile princely state of Bharatpur.
Three and a half hours later, I emerged out of the compartment at Bharatpur station, thawed and adequately tea-d. It has been three years since my last visit and i could immediately see that the station had received a make-over. On almost every wall was a mural flaunting the feathered residents of this small town and the importance of nature. The bottoms of every mural, however, was stained by the ever-present paan spit.
A massively noisy and overgrown autorickshaw delivers me to my hotel half an hour later and before I could deposit my luggage, Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917) had arrived to take me to the park. I had met Mr Singh on the previous trip and encountered a man who was as patient as I was restless and with over two and a half decade worth of experience, knows the best birding spots in Bharatpur.
For the next three days, I would enter Keoladeo National park at 6 am and leave only when it got dark. Here’s what I saw:
Of the many species of Owls in the park, I could only photograph the Spotted Owlet and a solitary Indian Scops Owl. Was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Eurasian Eagle Owl at a distance.
An Indian Scops Owl roosts in a palm tree.
In my last two visits, i failed to spot any pelicans. This time, however, i was lucky. There was a whole pod of them, swimming around the main swamps. At various points through the next three days, i could see these massive birds flying into their swamp, sometimes in formation. Fascinating birds, Pelicans. I can spend whole days watching them. You can read about a fantastic (and hiding in plain sight) spot in the heart of Delhi to see pelicans here.
A line of Pelicans through the Bharatpur foliage.
DUCKS AND GEESE
BAR HEADED GEESE
An enduring memory of my first ever visit Bharatpur way back in 2007 was the sheer number of bar-headed geese, all over the main swamp behind the temple. Since then,, even though the water supply to the park has improved, their numbers have declined. These photographs capture the opnly flock that i could find.
Unlike the bar-headed geese, the greylags were seemingly everywhere. These are large and raucous, but also infinitely charming.
LESSER WHISTLING DUCKS
Unlike the Bar-headed geese and the Greylag geese, the Lesser Whistling ducks are year-long residents ofKeoladeoo National Park. They live in large family groups and get their name from a whistle-like noise they produce while flying.
Another of my favourite visitors. There is something about that golden plumage and the contrasting black wing-tips! Once, these birds were numerous but now are limited to just tens of pairs.
As the name suggests these ducks are everywhere in the park. They are extremely small and boisterous and darting in and out of the thicket. .
Resident species and one of the commonest duck species across the Indian subcontinent. They might be common but I always love photographing the spot-billed as it is a truly handsome bird.
Most ducks and geese get along well and live in large groups. It also bodes well in terms of safety as there are always eagles and Marsh Harrier’s circling in the air above. Stragglers and chocks are usually the ones picked up first. Here’s a look at the birdscape of Bharatpur before we look at more migratory/endemic species.
Striking! That is one word to describe this duck. Piercing white eyes on a bright brown plumage give it that striking look.
This is the first time spotting this bird and that too from a great distance. Unlike the other ducks in the list, this is a diving duck, as in it disappears underwater for minutes at an end to feed, before emerging on the surface.
After going through a water crisis in the mid 200’s, Bharatpur now was a plentiful supply of water. This means that there has been a spike in the numbers of both resident and migratory species of ducks. Here is a gallery of some other ducks from Bharatpur:
A pair of Northern shovellers diving for food
A handsome Northern Pintail female.
Northern Pintail Pair
Comb duck, female
Comb duck, female
Now that we are more or less done with ducks and geese, we can move on to the other birds.
Believe it or not, I had never ever seen a Pied Kingfisher and had never shot the ubiquitous Common Kingfisher. So you can imagine my excitement when I turned a corner and found a Pied Kingfisher literally posing for my lens! The next day, the same happened but with the Common King.
White Breasted Kingfisher
White Breasted Kingfisher
White Breasted Kingfisher
White Breasted Kingfisher
On my last trip, I had particularly good luck with the Sarus Crane, in that one just appeared right in front of me in the most perfect photographic conditions. This time, however, no such luck was to be had.
Bitterns are hard to spot. They stay motionless in the tickets on the water’s edge, carefully blending into the surroundings. If you are a fish that happens to come within striking range, the bird telescopes its wonderfully long neck in the fraction of a second to snatch the fish out of the water. I have seen a number of bitters, including the great bitterns, but this time was lucky enough to photograph two – a Black Bittern and a Yellow Bittern.
HERONS & EGRETS
Purple, grey, night crowned, little green – herons come in many shapes and sizes and Bharatpur provides them with the most ideal habitat.
Grey Heron in habitat
Purple Heron, posing
Grey Heron, portrait
Little Green Heron
Grey Heron, portrait
Purple Heron in habitat
Black crowned Night Heron, female
Black crowned Night Heron, male
Grey Heron in habitat
Egrets, grey herons and the odd spoonbill
Fantastically weird birds, spoonbills. Theyb sift through the bottom of the swamp with their unique bills, and when they are done feeding, tuck that bill in the folds of their wings and go back to sleep!
OK. Confession time. I have been an active birder for over five years now and even after going through a number of books, videos and of course physical sightings, i am still unable to distinguish between most waders. How can you tell different species of sandpipers apart? Then there are ruffs and snipes and whimbrels. I know this sounds bizarre but it is the 100% truth! So please help me with the captions here:
When it comes to waterfowl, i have only scratched at the surface. Below you will see the swmphens, waterhens and the bronze winged Jacana. I am yet to spot any of the crakes, rails, and even the pheasant tailed Jacanas.
Bronze Winged Jacana
Bronze Winged Jacana
Bronze Winged Jacana
A gaggle of coots
Just look at their numbers
It is true that the best of the sightings happen in the mornings and evenings. Most birders follow this pattern and return to their rooms during those hours. But like me, if you like nature and value some quiet time, take off on foot through the site paths deep into the sanctuary. You will come across hidden pools and maybe even a secluded spot where you can wait and watch the day pass.
BEST OF THE REST
So many birds, so little time. After spending three whole days inside the park you have one problem… a problem of plenty. Those of you have endured thus far in this post would have noticed that i am very bad at selecting photos. I hate leaving photos out and hence every selection becomes this lengthy. Here are some other birds I photographed.
Portrait of a Black-headed ibis
Portrait of a Black-headed ibis
Greater flameback Woodpecker
Asian Openbill Stork
Bay Backed Shrike
Bay Backed Shrike
Steppe eagle. might also be a greater spotted eagle. not sure
Crested serpent Eagle
Painted storks nesting
Crested Serpent Eagle
Great Crested Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Walking through Bharatpur, it is very easy to forget that birds are not the only residents of this small National Park. In fact, during this particular visit, a section of the park was closed off because a leopardess had taken up residence there. It is very common to see jackals, three species of large deer – Sambar, Chital and Nilgai, snakes, monitor lizards and at least 6-7 species of tortoises! In fact, during my 2013 visit, I had a close encounter with an Indian cobra.
Portrait of a Male Nilgai
Stranded Male Nilgai
Portrait of a checkered keelback
checkered keelback basking
A basking Softshell turtle
Portrait of a Indian Monitor Lizard
Basking Indian monitor.
Truth be told, I am writing this in mid-January 2018, almost exactly a year after the trip and barely 2 weeks before my next. Calls to Bachchoo Singh have been made and he has informed me that this year, the storks haven’t nested. Migratory birds are present in large numbers, he assures me.
Wishlist for February 2018 Bharatpur pilgrimage:
Boatride on the swamp.
Visit the turtle temple (You’ll know more when I know more)
Mooar sarus photos
Get close to a basking python.
Close photographs of the great crested Grebe
Owls, owls and some more owls – the dusky eagle owl would be great.
Lastly, can a black-necked stork come pose for me please?
For years now I have been delaying my plans to embark upon a road trip to the Mecca of Indian bikers – Ladakh. But then the most unexpected of things happened. Royal Enfield offered to take me on a ride from Delhi to Ladakh to test ride the Himalayan. I would be a fool to turn down the offer of a lifetime.
This would be my first road trip in three years. There were doubts. many, many doubts. Do I still have it in me to travel these long distances? What if I get mountain sickness? What if the bad roads and the strain of the saddle trigger my dormant sciatica? Strangely enough, all these doubts dissipated the moment I swung my legs over the rugged Himalayan on a sweltering July morning at India Gate.
What followed was a week of riding, riding, and then riding some more. Fine, I did fall off a couple of times, but in my defence, it was only while I was trying to show off. So anyway, while I battle my laziness and contemplate how to document the journey in this blog, here’s a teaser of the journey; Through some photographs from the phone. Hopefully someday soon I will manage to get off my ass and write a travelogue and post photos from the ‘proper’ camera.
CHAPTER I: THE HIMALAYAN
I worship my Royal Enfield, a 2008 Machismo 5oo. But the Himalayan was a different beast altogether. For starters, it is purpose-built to take on the rough roads and then carry on when even these ‘roads’ ended. This is not a review of the motorcycle, but let me tell you this, the chassis and suspension are on point. What I loved most was the positioning of the foot pegs; it allows you to stand up and ride. Specially designed indentations along the fuel tanks help you lock in your knees and just glide over the rough patches.
I have always admired motorcycles for their simplicity and ruggedness. After 6 days and close to 2,000 kms on this motorcycle, I can report that not one panel on the bike exists for aesthetic purposes. Everything is rugged and everything is functional. This is what, in my mind, makes the Himalayan beautiful. There is a lot of bite in the brakes, at times, a bit too much, but this is something you will get used to.
All these improvements on the Himalayan meant that it was really hard for me to get off the saddle. As a result, the 320-odd kilometres between Chandigarh and Manali was covered with just one butt break (not counting the photo stops). The previous day we rode into Chandigarh from Delhi, a distance of some 260 kms. This was good because it gave me time to get used to the bike before hitting the hills.
Following the Beas: Snapshots from the road to Manali
Following the Beas: Snapshots from the road to Manali
When you are used to riding the older generation Royal Enfields (and in this, I am including the models with the ‘new’ UC engines), you become so accustomed to vibrations at high revs that when you come across a motorcycle with no vibes whatsoever, it seems rather unreal. This is exactly what happened to me between Delhi and Chandigarh; on top gear at 110-120 kmph, I felt no vibrations whatsoever, at neither the handlebars nor the footpegs.
This also brings us very neatly to what is the biggest downside of the Himalayan – the rather unimpressive power delivery on the higher rev ranges. This is felt the most on long stretches of empty roads where you might want to give it some beans. Irrespective of how well you shift or how wide the throttle, the higher reaches remain annoyingly flat. This motorcycle needs and deserves 10 more horses. The day Royal Enfield makes this happen is the day I put down my deposit on one.
The Trout and I share a complicated relationship
It can die for me and i can travel great distances for it.
CHAPTER II: THE RIDE, OH THE RIDE
The flat Delhi-Chandigarh and the twisty Chandigarh-Manali stretches ensured that by the time we left Manali towards Rohtang and beyond, I had gotten the hang of the Himalayan. The Himalayan Odyssey is a group ride and this year there were close to 80 riders. In addition to this, there were us, a handful of riders from the media. I am not that much of a group rider; in fact, i ride alone and ride to get away from people. So, the mornings were usually slightly stressful for me.
Early morning in Manali/ All set for the road ahead
Of soaring mountains and plunging valleys
View of the road to Rohtang
Road we left behind
A photo stop at the beauty spot at Marhi
At the top of Rohtang, looking down
Going as close to the edge as I dare
Going as close to the edge as I dare
But where there is anxiety, there is also a solution. I planned ahead and parked the bike closest to the exit spot so that in the mornings I am one of the first riders to leave. Upon leaving, I picked up some speed (it was relatively easy as I am a paced rider by nature) which allowed me and a couple of experienced riders get a considerable headstart over the rest of the group. Once you cross Rohtang and descend into the otherworldly Lahaul-Spiti valley, you need to be in your own skin to enjoy the ride and this strategy allowed me to do so.
CHAPTER III: ON THE BANKS OF THE BHAGA
Our destination on the third day of the ride was the tiny mountain village of Jispa. At barely 110 kms, this was the shortest riding day of the trip. Coupled with my riding strategy, this meant that I was able to reach Jispa well before the rest of the gang arrived. Jispa is but a small hamlet located at the widest part of the Bhaga valley. The river here is wide, shallow and full of pebbled banks and a much-needed refuge to worshippers of solitude. Spend some time here, amid the relative greenery before you venture into the land of the high passes, the sparse, stark cold desert.
CHAPTER IV: MOONLANDIA
The word ‘Ladakh’ translates to ‘the land of high passes’. The first of these, Baralacha La, lay but a few kms from Jispa. The previous night was spent in the throes of a myriad of impossible dreams – an obvious effect of the high altitude. So as I swung my legs over the Himalayan’s saddle, I was acutely aware of the fact that on this particular day, we would end up camping at Sarchu, about a kilometre higher than Jispa. I had been previously under the impression that altitude-sickness would not affect me – what with all the trips across Spiti and a couple of high-altitude treks under my belt – but boy, was I about to be proven wrong.
Altitude is a great leveller and pride comes before Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Avoiding the precautionary dosage of Diamox was a bad idea. Baralacha La came and went, but what remained was a constant throbbing in the head and a strange tingling on the lips. Every breath was laboured and progress was hard. There was barely any strength left to stand on the footpegs and let the lovely Himalayan (which, at this point was faring better than the rider) loose over the gravel and the occasional water crossing. Your appetite goes for a toss, but you need to keep a full stomach to fuel the body and keep the situation from getting worse. Luckily, the lovely tented restaurants along the way dish out many a delicacy from their makeshift kitchens.
Mutton momos at 3500 m
Rajma Chawal at 4300 m
Sarchu is cold, windy but impossibly picturesque. It is also a nightmare for those staying overnight. There are no permanent structures, only tents offering varying degrees of ‘luxury’. Gasping for breath, we reached our encampment, neatly lined up in the middle of the windswept plains against the background of the stark, craggy hills.
Sometimes, in our travels we stumble upon a special place or an experience so transcendental that all future endeavours seem to be geared towards recreating that experience. But this experience is the product of a fortuitous coming together of the magical forces of the universe; hardly manufacturable. We, however, keep trying.
Back in 2004, I spent 29 exquisite days riding through the Himalayas on a borrowed motorcycle,travelling through the day, sleeping in dharamshalas, temples and bus shelters at night. In the second week of my journey, I had just crossed the tiny hamlet of Harsil, on my way to Gangoitri, in the Garhwal Himalays when all of a sudden there was a palpable change in the air. Before I could figure out what was happening, tiny snowflakes started descending from the skies above. Within minutes, it was coming down thick and fast – a freak snowstorm in the middle of a glorious spring.
By the time I found shelter under a pine tree, the road and the forest floor were covered in 6 inches of fresh snow. As if pulled along by an invisible magnet, I walked into the dense pine forest that lined the road. 10 minutes in, I was surrounded ancient pines each a hundred feet tall. Snow, unlike rain descends onto the earth in silence; and in a place this quiet, falling snow heightens that silence. The ancient trees, the manna-like snowflakes drifting down, the occasional schwoop of branches giving away under accumulated snow created an unreal atmosphere. I stood there, in a little clearing with magic soaking my pine. Was it a few minutes? Or was it a few hours? As I walked away, trying to find my way to the road, it felt like an eternity.
Almost ten years later, as I boarded a bus to Shimla on a cold winter evening, I was hoping against hope to walk into a forest and feel what I had experienced on a trip that turned me from a tourist to a traveller. The plan was to travel further from Shimla to the little village of Fagu, which is conveniently located next to some of the densest pine forests in the Himalayas. We reached Shimla when it was still dark out. At the bus station itself news reached us that after a recent snowstorm, the road to Fagu has been buried under 8 feet of snow and that it would take at least a week for the first vehicles to get through. After a lot of aimless wandering through the streets of Shimla and desperate calls for help, we were directed towards Aapo Aap Homestay on the outskirts of Shimla at Panthaghat.
While the homestay turned out to be comfortable and warm, its semi-urban surroundings were a far cry from the pristine wilderness I was hoping for. Over the next couple of days, there was a lot of snowfall, dancing in the moonlight and snowball fights – everything except THAT elusive experience.
View from our window
From the valley below rises snow-laden cloud
After an hour or two
And it comes down fast
The backyard has been sprinkled with fresh powdery snow
The same old view, but after a day of almost incessant snow
Out for a walk
Life comes to a standstill
but children continue to play
Grass beaten to submission by the snow
A village under snow
How the other half live in this sub-zero weather
Cold but smiling
Somewhere in Fargo, North Dakota
Signs of more snow to come
Like my fellow traveller commented ” a big yellow dog”
Even the concrete jungle of Shimla looks pretty under a coat of snow
Lonely traveller on a frozzen road
Even the concrete jungle of Shimla looks pretty under a coat of snow
The soaring sandstone walls of the Taragarh fort stand guard over the present city of Bundi. From its ramparts one has a clear view of the surrounding mountains, the blue houses and the black kites soaring above the city, riding the thermals and waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting prey.
Once you enter the fortress through the lofty Hati Pol (Elephant Gate), it is but a study in contrast. The construction started in 1354 and the present structure is but an agglomeration of the various palaces built thereafter by the rulers of Bundi. While most of these individual palaces are in dire need of repair (thanks to the litigation among the surviving members of the royal family), some have been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India and given a fresh lease of life.
Whatever be the state of preservation, the palaces in Taragarh have one thing in common – frescos. These paintings follow the Bundi style of miniature art. While the other kingdom of Rajputana like Amber, Mewar and Marwar were heavily influenced by Mughal Miniature art, the painters of Bundi borrowed elements from the miniature art forms of Deccan, thus giving rise to a unique style. The bright colours of Bundi miniatures and frescos are derived from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, as well as pure silver and gold. The paintings deal with both secular and religious themes. They also showcase the physical beauty of the Hadoti region, the rivers, the dense forests, dramatic night skies and feature ‘a distinctive way of depicting water by light swirls against a dark background, and vivid movement’. Bundi miniatures emphasized on hunting, court scenes, festivals, processions, life of nobles, lovers, animals, birds and scenes from Lord Krishna’s life.
Apart from Chitrashala (discussed later), a rich collection of paintings can be found on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal (Palace of Clouds). Occupying some of the highest rooms in the Taragarh Fort, it is said that during the monsoons, the low hanging rain clouds would actually float through the courtyards of the Badal Mahal. Almost tucked away in a corner and accessed by narrow flight of stairs, Badal Mahal once served as the zenana or the women’s quarters, housing the harem of the then ruler Rao Bhoj. Women then had no access to the outside wall except what they could see through the latticed windows. The paintings on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal, depicting battle formations, rural life, fantastic beasts and heavenly creatures and even scenes from a royal darbar might have served as a portal to the outside world for the ladies. A strange, gilded prison.
The centerpiece of Badal Mahal is definitely the ceiling of its topmost chamber. Sometimes referred to as Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel, the mural on the ceiling depicts, in painstaking detail, the raas leela of Krishna.
For the next collection of Bundi miniatures, head over to the Chitrashala. Previously known as Ummed Mahal after Maharaja Ummed Singh, this section of the fort was taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India, restored and preserved. If you find yourself here, please avoid flash photography.
The walls of Chitrashala come alive with the life and exploits of the kings and queens of Bundi. Along with the royals, Lord Krishna can also be seen playing his flute, gamboling on meadows with his gopis and getting up to all sorts of cosmic mischief. Most of the paintings you see here were done between 1773 and 1821. The artists of Chitrashala, and indeed of Bundi had their own standard of depicting feminine beauty. Women are portrayed with small round faces, receding foreheads, prominent noses and full cheeks. The royal ladies of chitrashala are shown wearing a transparent Jama over pyjamas. Featured prominently on most paintings is a background comprising of lush landscapes painted in vibrant colors. These compositions, massed with a variety of trees and floral creepers, ponds with lotus flowers in the foreground, fish and birds form a distinguishing feature of the Bundi style.
It is said that the existing tradition of creating miniatures was given a boost in 1605 by the sudden arrival of three master painters from Chunar, near Varanasi. These painters were a gift from emperor Akbar, in return for Bundi’s obedience. These painters who had previously worked only on palm leaf manuscripts changed their idiom by painting frescoes like those at Badal Mahal and Chitrashala. This zeal soon spread through the city, across classes and through time. Even today, a graffiti on the roads of Bundi usually borrows from city’s historic miniature style.
Rajasthan is, in all probability, one of the most visited states in India – both by domestic, as well as International tourists. It has been this way for decades. Given this context, to think that in this oft-visited state still lies a corner that is still relatively unexplored and untouched by the tourism industry, is well, incredible.
The kingdoms of Jaipur, Mewar (centered around Chittorgarh and Udaipur ) and Marwar (Jodhpur) were bigger, richer and almost incessantly at war – either with each other or some invading foe. Hadoti, with Bundi at its centre was tucked away in the corner, on the border with Malwa, away from the path of the invaders from the northwest.
What we now know as the region of Hadoti, started as a kingdom in the 12th century AD. It was, however, not destined to remain united. In 1631, the independent kingdom of Kota separated from Hadoti. The region was further split as Jhalawar became an independent state in 1838. So when Indian gained Independence, the three independent kingdoms of Bundi, Kota and Jhalawar joined the Indian Union.
The modern town of Bundi is yet to spill out of its medieval city walls. As a result, you are treated to a miraculously well preserved medieval town. Most of the hotels / guest houses are converted havelis, while the streets are lined with shops that have been functioning for close to half a millennia. All this, against the backdrop of the remarkable Taragarh Fortress – an impregnable statement in sandstone and granite growing like a beehive on the side of a mountain.
The charm of Bundi is very difficult to put in words. It is the result of a rather eclectic mix of rooftop cafes, blue houses, streets lined with medieval graffiti, farmers transporting milk in brass jars and a vibe that is distinctly wild and free.
It is perhaps this very charm that drew Kipling to Bundi. It is said that it was this town that inspired Kipling to write Kim. Rush to Bundi before the juggernaut that is commercial tourism steamrolls through the city’s incomparable vibes. Go there, take in everything, change nothing and, keep Bundi a secret wrapped in time. Above all, let’s not talk about Bundi, just like the first rule of Fight Club.
(Please click on any photograph to open the slideshow)
Bundi’s centerpiece – the sentient Taragarh fortress
Quintessentially Bundi – Fresco in a little lane
Guess who’s coming for dinner
Much like the town itself
Milk delivery, Bundi style
A temple ceiling
A medieval town crumbling in slow motion
Rani ji ki baoli. Spooky if you are the only one inside. In my case, spookiness was ruined by loud American tourists
Bhabai ki baori
Bhabai ki baori
Taragarh Fort is lit up at night.
One of the best way to spend an evening in Bundi is to stare at the illuminated fortress from one of the rooftop cafes
View of the town, palace and fortress from the highway
The TV tower sticks out as a massive eyesore
Bundi Palace and the Taragarh fort crowning it
Graffiti, Bundi style
Something Mehrangarh-ish about this
Hathi Pol. Obviously
The city stretches on into the fog
The medieval city, viewed through a medieval portal
The palace viewed from the path to Taragarh. Serious work getting there if you are fat. Like me.
From Bhim Burj, the highest point in Taragarh Fort. Views are spectacular
we’re on a journey in this land of rivers and roots and roads. all these things
are much like each other.
roads have roots
some roots connect to rivers
and some rivers
are roads too, of course.
they all weave
in the same way, coming
together and parting
in a symphony of confluences.
everything touches everything
and every particle and wave
are connected, changing,
growing, moving, weaving, loving, and
you and i,
we are here together now
maybe we too
will have to part again.
and that’s okay.
a good sense of direction,
will guide us
and lead us back home.
just as we
It had to be the Himalayas. Where in the Himalayas is another question altogether. As the sun hammered down on the anvil that is Delhi, the mercury was given a further boost by the general election. One could only dream – of a small room in the hills, of pugdundees and fog drifting in through the trees; of long conversations with the mountains and failed attempts at photographing the milky way. It had to be Dharamkot.
The first time I lay eyes on the Dhauladhars, way back in 2005, I rested at Dharamshala on my way to Triund. On my next trip a couple of years later, I discovered McLeodgunj, one step higher in the Dhauladhars than Dharamshala and one step holier, being the seat of HH the Dalai Lama. A small, family run guest house on the Tushita Road was the proverbial cherry on top. I kept coming back here to unwind till I noticed that McLeodgunj had grown too crowded for my taste. So one step higher I went in the Dhauladhars, to the village of Dharamkot.
Here you get a basic, clean room with hot water for Rs 500. There are numerous cafes around the village with great continental food and great walks all around. Just what I needed for a quick reboot. This is also where news reached me that my sister had lust delivered a little girl! Here’s hoping that weekend tourists do not discover Dharamkot!
Here are some photographs.
(Please click on any photograph to open slideshow)
What better place to meditate than the middle of the road
Cornfields and the Dhauladhars
Last light of the day
The zebra, the god and the wandering soul
Didi’s tea shop
The man who never spoke
View of Dharamkot village the and forest that looks over it
Walking to Naddi, the village beyond the mist
Outside the village of the chanting monks
Walking under a thousand prayers
A very no-nonsense dog
The spirit dog
Beyond Naddi. Babbling by a brook
Small waterfall meets slow shutter speed
Spotting the Himalayan water nymph
She sat there while water tumbled off rocks all around her.
After what seemed like a decade (two and a half years, in reality) I was back to Madhya Pradesh, one of my favourite states. My last encounter with Madhya Pradesh was a memorable one. We had explored ancient towns, gigantic rock cut temples that had faded from public memory, a whole gallery of pre-historic rock paintings in the middle of nowhere and a formidable fortress enveloped by the living forest. This time I had no such exploratory pretensions. I was headed to Orchha, a place I had visited before and a place that has for some time now enjoyed mainstream popularity. That however does not take anything away from it. Back in 2009, during my first visit to Orchha, I was on assignment, researching and shooting for an upcoming travel guide on the city. So the charms of the city were somewhat marred by the dark, dank cloud-like deadline hanging over my head.
This time no such thing would happen. I was going to Orchha with the express purpose of feeling the magic of the monsoons. I had heard tales of how the rains works it’s magic on the landscape surrounding Orchha. I have witnessed this magic first hand in other places across Madhya Pradesh; Mandu for example. Monsoons turn this otherwise barren corner of Malwa plateau into the greenest and the most romantic spot on earth. If the rains in Delhi were anything to go by, I was in for a treat.
We landed in Jhansi station when it was still dark out. A steaming cup of sweet tea restored our wits and we all (five of us) crammed into one auto and began the 15 km journey to Orchha. The roads were empty and the tarmac was wet. The monsoon induced greenery on both sides of the road was encouraging. The ride was short and sweet and we were in Orchha before you could say ‘photosynthesis’.
Our resort (Yes, you read that right. I have clearly moved up in life) was located right on the banks of the Betwa which had swelled up to almost three times its winter size. The bridge that connects Orchha town to the island in the Betwa was barely visible over the water. The skies were dark and threatening and very soon it started to rain. When it stopped about a couple of hours later, the bridge had gone under totally. This happens every monsoon, I was told.
Orchha, now tiny, was once the capital of the rather large Bundela Kingdom. Orchha is surrounded by forests, which have played a huge role in the city’s relative isolation and the preservation of its monuments. In 1634, even the almighty Mughals had trouble getting to Orchha on account of the dense forests, the craggy hills and the sentient Betwa. The Betwa, or Vetravati as it was known in ancient times originates in the Raisen district near Bhopal and after draining through a large chunk of Madhya Pradesh, flows into the Yamuna at Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh. Describing the importance of the river, Orchha’s 16th century court poet writes:
Saat dhar sarju baheNagar Orchha dhamPhool bagh nau chowk meinViraje Raja Ram
(The seven streams of the Betwa converge at Orchha, just as the nine palaces of the sons of Bir Singh Deo converge around the God Raja Ram who sits in the gardens therein.)
It is on the hallowed banks of the Betwa that the five of us – two editors, a rocker, a sitar player and yours truely started exploring this magical city. Like everyone else, we began with the biggest attraction, the Jahangir Mahal.
‘Whether one admires the exterior for its noble effect of mass or is intrigued by its orderly complexity of its interior, no one can fail to feel that the Jahangir Mahal is a notable architectural achievement’ – Percy Brown, Indian Architecture, Islamic Period (1942)
To get to Jahangir Mahal from the main square of Orchha, you have to cross an eight-arched bridge that spans a deep moat. It is built in the convention of a traditional haveli (please read this post for a better understanding of havelis, not only as a concept in architecture but also its socio-economic significance) but the similarities stop there. Sure, there is the square central courtyard, but the levels upon levels of rooms surrounding it and the sheer scale of the entire structure are simply mind-blowing. Most of the paint and the plasters that would have adorned the walls have long since vanished. But if you know where to look, you can still see some remnants of the lapis lazuli inlay work on the walls.
If you walk up the sometimes steep stairs to the topmost levels, you will be rewarded with stunning views. To the east, past many crumbling ruins flows the Betwa. To the south is a patch of very dense forest and a general undulating landscape through which, once again flows the Betwa. The terraces on west and north of the Jahangir Mahal will give you a bird’s eye view of the town and its surrounding land. In fact, the views of Orchha as seen in the photographs above are all taken from Jahangir Mahal.
It is generally believed that it took the Bundela King Bir Singh Deo close to four years to build this stunning edifice and at the end of it all was only inhabited for a day by his friend, the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Historians, however question the veracity of this claim. Archaeological evidence unearthed in the palace and its surrounding areas points to the fat that the construction of the palace started during the reign of Akbar, long before Bir Singh Deo came to the throne. He might have only continued with its construction.
It is however a fact that Bir Singh Deo completed the palace and named it after his patron, Emperor Jahangir. Jahangir had earlier bestowed on Bir Singh Deo the official title of ‘Maharaja’ after the latter beheaded Abul Fazal with whom Jahangir shared a tenuous relationship. It is also likely that a lot of the funds used to built this grand palace came from the Mughal treasury.
Right in front of Jahangir Mahal is the much older and equally ornate palace known as Raj Mahal. Built roughly a century earlier, it differs from the Jahangir Mahal on account of the almost total absence of domes. Another important feature of the temple is that from the outside it looks single storeyed although on the inside it is built on five levels. The past glory of this palace can be guessed by the remains of murals in certain portions of the building.
It was a gloomy afternoon when we entered to explore the palace. The stillness of the air was broken in regular intervals by loud thunderclaps. Very soon, fat drops began to descend from the skies above and confined five excitable people in a 500 year old building. While the rocker, sitar player and wannabe travel writer went ahead to explore the building, the two editors sat down for a nice tete-a-tete that involved sharing of many a scandalous information about people known (or unknown) to each other.
Lets move away from the centre of the town to the top of a hill barely a kilometre away. Most of my fellow travellers were busy setting up a makeshift bar by the hotel swimming pool where they wanted to spend all day. I understand the sentiment, I really do, but not in Orchha. Not when there are monuments to be seen and bicycles to be rented. I found a kindred spirit in the sitar player and we were off to the bazaar looking for someone who would rent us a bicycle.
Soon enough, bicycles were found and we were off huffing and puffing, pedaling hard on an uphill road. The temple is beautiful but you will be confused once you explore the structure in details. It is definitely a temple but it is built like a fort. It has bastions on four corners and even canon-slots on top of the bastions. There is however, no confusion on one thing: the view from the temple.
In front of you is a panoramic view of this incredible little town. To the left are the two masses that are the Jahangir Mahal and the Raj Mahal. To their right is the lofty Chaturbhuj Temple in front of which, proud and gleaming with a new coat of paint stands the Ram Raja Temple. Pan further right and you will see the impossibly beautiful spires of the chhatris of the Bundela kings poking out through the monsoon greenery. Scattered around these are ruins of many more palaces, sarais and temples. The modern human has spoiled the party with giant pylons and the numerous electricity bearing wires emanating from them. Modern civilisation does come at a price, i guess.
Once you move inside the temple, you will come face to face with another aspect of the temple – the murals. Spanning in theme from the secular to the religious, the murals are, fortunately for us, rather well preserved. The paintings depict scenes from the Ramayana and Tulsidas’s Ram Charit Manas and borrows from other popular Hindu myths. One stunning frieze depicts the brave Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi leading her troops in battle against the British.
From the Lakshminarayan Temple we saw this little pathway disappearing over the undulating landscape into the greenery beyond. We locked our cycles and started walking along the path. Many drops of sweat and feral cows later, the pathway led us to what looked like the ruins of a palace. On closer inspection it turned out to be a dargah. The walls were mostly down to the foundations but the main structure looked well looked after (evidence: a fresh coat of whitewash). It was calm, quiet and breezy and hence was an ideal place to sit and ruminate for a while. So we did.
At this point, we convinced the bums to join us for lunch. After we regrouped, we headed down the road to Jhansi for around 2 kms before we turned off into a gravelly side track. This track ultimately led us to this faux heritage property called Bundelkhand Riverside, built around an ancient hunting lodge used by the erstwhile royal family. To be fair, our less expensive resort was more ‘on the water’ than this one, but with its secluded location and fake but well executed old world charms, this one is definitely worth a shot. The food was good while the dining room struck me as being slightly fanciful.
After the lazy lunch, the bums were in a hurry to get back to our rooms. ‘Afternoon nap’, they said. We were dropped back to the market where we reunited with our (t)rusty old bicycles and set off to explore the rest of Orchha. The previous day while perched atop Jahangir Mahal, we had noticed a whole town of ruins to its left with a track running through it. So the track was found and we embarked upon exploring the ruins that lay along it. This was obviously not a tourist-favoured part of Orchha and was largely overgrown and empty. We rode our cycles through puddles, uneven rocks and lots and lots of mud. On the way we encountered a violent rip in my pants, a general and sometimes overwhelming loss of breath (fat guy + rusty bike + uneven terrain + full stomach), a murderous bull and a palace exclusively for the maids of the royal household.
When you think scale, the most imposing on Orchha’s many structures is easily the Chaturbhuj Temple. Its towering main shikhara dominates the landscape and is visible for miles around. The story of the temple is much much more interesting than its remarkable architecture. It was built between the years 1558 and 1573 by Maharani Ganesh Kunwar, wife of the then ruler of Orchha, Raja Madhukar . It was built to enshrine an image of Lord Rama who is believed to have had four hands (chatur = four and bhuj = arm); hence the name.
Legend has it that Rama visited the queen in her dreams instructing her to retrieve an image of his from Ayodhya and enshrine it in a temple at Orchha. There was, however, one caveat: on the journey from Ayodhya to Orchha, the idol could not be rested on the ground/ floor. After the queen finished the construction of this giant temple, she set out to complete the lord’s wishes. Upon reaching Ayodhya the queen located the image and it is said that she carried it all the way back on her head.
When she arrived in Orchha, she set the idol down in the kitchen of her palace right next to the new temple to take a nap. What she did not realise was that even though they were in Orchha, the idol was indeed put on the floor/ ground before it reached its final residence, i.e the brand new temple next door. The deity had mysteriously stuck himself to that very place.
No matter how much they tried, all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men could not lift the idol from the kitchen floor again. Upon realising her mistake, the queen begged for forgiveness and turned her palace into a temple. Today the palace is known as the Ram Raja Temple and is held in very high esteem by the local population. However, the cavernous and soaring Chaturbhuj Temple remained vacant, attracting an assortment of birds, bats and other critters. Today, the garbhagriha does house a deity but the pomp and splendour of its rituals fade in comparison to the one right next door.
The entrance to the temple is at the end of a long flight of steps and faces the Jahangir Mahal across the road. At this point (the above pic), you are already taller than the tallest building in the market below. You enter through two sets of arched gateways to arrive in a cavernous space, not unlike the nave of a large cathedral. The ceiling, at least 70-80 feet above you is adorned by a simple floral pattern while on the other end of the hallway is the sanctum which was supposed to enshrine the image of lord Rama.
Here, you can ask for the chowkidar of the temple and for a small fee (Rs 50-100) he will lead you, through a series of very steep and sometimes very dark staircases to the upper levels of the temple (strongly recommended. Carry torch). On every level there are passages that take you all around the structure. The higher you go, more stunning the view gets. After two levels (if i recall correctly) you reach a wide terrace at the base of the temple spires. At this point, you call command a spectacular view over the town and its surroundings.
I guess one can climb up further along the temple spires, as evidenced by a surprisingly large number of men perched all over them, keeping a keen eye on you, not unlike the gaze of some griffon vultures that nest on the inaccessible parts of the spire. The keenness is particularly severe on the females, so if you are a female and find yourself on the roof of the temple, consider yourself warned. We had a train to catch later in the evening and we still had the chhatris to explore. So we beat a hasty retreat, returned our cycles and proceeded on foot towards the chhatris.
Orchha was a rich and powerful state under the Bundelas and nowhere is their dominance over the land more palpable than along the ghats of the Betwa river. It was here, from the 16th to the 18th centuries 14 of Orchha’s rulers constructed their cenotaphs, or chhatris. These towering, temple like structures represent places where the kings were cremated.
Most of the chhatris are grouped together in an enclosure, surrounded by manicured lawns. Right outside this enclosure and on an island on the Betwa itself lies the largest, wildest and the most distinct of Orchha’s chhatris. In all fairness, the island was a temporary one as the monsoon laden Betwa has risen up and inundated the little causeway that connects this chhatri to the others. The monsoons had also swallowed the low bridge that connects this part of the town to the other side of the river, thus not allowing us to view these spectacular buildings from the other side. If you are keen on birds, like I am, you might want to scan the spires for nesting griffon vultures.
After the chhatris, we just had enough time for a quick beer in the pool before we boarded our auto for Jhansi. It was a lazy Sunday evening and the roads were empty; so we found ourselves standing in front of Jhansi station in no time. I know I speak for everybody when I say that all of us were thoroughly refreshed and rejuvenated – some of us on account of the sights we saw, others due to the hours spent in the pool drinking!
Our train to Delhi was on time and I soon cosied up with George RR Martin’s much underrated The Armageddon Rag. Outside, a monsoon dusk was fast descending. One of those overcast dusks that lasts but the blink of an eye but leaves the sky illuminated for a while like the bittersweet aftertaste of a chocolate infused liqueur. After about 20 minutes I look out of my window to see another great vestige of the Bundela Empire float past in the distance – the monumental Bir Singh Palace of Datia. I whip out my camera and take a couple of blurry shots. As I put my camera back in the bag, it starts raining outside and a steady stream of sideways travelling water droplets obscure the building from my sight.
To the initiated, Shekhawati is Rajasthan’s open art gallery. For those who have not heard about it, Shekhawati is a term used to denote a region in northern Rajasthan comprising of the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur. Apart from a long and eventful history, this region has also produced some of India’s best known business families – the Dalmias, thye Murarkas, the Goenkas to name a few.
Oh histories and havelis
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Marwari merchants moved to and prospered in India’s new commercial centres – Bombay and Calcutta. They sent the bulk of their vast fortunes back to their families in Shekhawati to construct grand havelis – to show their neighbours how well they were doing and to compensate their families for their long absences. As more and more merchants prospered, it soon became a competition to build ever more grand edifices – homes, temples, step-wells – which were richly decorated, both inside and out, with painted murals.
Haveli walls, particularly at the entrance, in the courtyards and sometimes within some of the rooms, were frequently painted by the from the ground to the eaves. Often the paintings mix depictions of the gods and their lives with everyday scenes featuring modern inventions, such as trains and aeroplanes, even though these artists themselves had never seen them. Hence, Krishna and Radha are seen in flying motorcars and Europeans can be observed inflating hot air balloons by blowing into them, or travelling in trains, the compartments of which look like English cottages. On these walls, fact meets fiction, the popular meets the chaste and in some unfortunate cases money meets bad taste.
These days most of the havelis are still owned by descendants of the original families, but not inhabited by their owners, for whom small-town Rajasthan has lost its charm. Many are occupied just by a single chowkidar (caretaker), while others may be home to a local family. Many of the better known ones have printed brochures and booklets which give an insight into the history of the family and the architecture of the haveli in question. Though they are pale reflections of the time when they accommodated the large households of the Marwari merchant families, they remain a fascinating testament to the changing times in which they were created. Only a few havelis have been restored; many more lie derelict, crumbling slowly away.
In February, i followed my friends Rohit and Sriparna to Rohit’s parents place in a tiny village, around 10 kms outside Jhunjhunu. The idea was to relax for a few days in the village, take long walks, and if possible visit one of the towns and check out the Havelis. After much deliberation, we decided to head to Nawalgarh.
Nawalgarh, founded in 1737 by Nawal Singh is almost at the centre of Shekhawati. Nawalgarh is quite compact, and most of its havelis are centrally located and easy to reach on foot. We started our tour from Morarka Haveli which is a good point to start your tour as most guides (you will need one) congregate here. Please remember that most havelis have individual tickets .
Understanding the Haveli
Haveli is a Persian word that means ‘an enclosed space’. But contrary to its literal meaning, the architecture of the haveli did much more than simply enclose space; it in fact provided a comprehensive system that governed the everyday lives of its inhabitants.
Most havelis are entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a solid wooden door. While most of the times the larger door is locked, a smaller portal carved within the larger door allows people into the first of the many courtyards. This outer courtyard is known as the mardana (men’s courtyard). More often than not, on one side of the mardana is a baithak (salon) in which the merchant of the household could receive his guests. In order to impress visitors, this room was generally the most elaborately crafted and often featured marble or mock-marble walls. Here, you’ll frequently see images of Ganesh, god of wealth and good fortune. The baithak usually came equipped with a manually operated punkah (cloth fan). Opposite the baithak is often a stable and coach house, called nora for accommodating camels, horses or elephants. A turn of the century garage, if you will.
A wall separates the outer mardana from the inner zenana (women’s courtyard). Between the two courtyards there was often a small latticed window, through which they could peep out at male guests. Sometimes, there was also a screened-off balcony, known as the duchatta, above the mardana for them to spy on proceedings. Entry into the inner courtyard was restricted to women, family members and, occasionally, privileged male guests.
The zenana was the main domestic arena. Rooms off this courtyard served as bedrooms or storerooms, and staircases led to galleries on upper levels, which mostly comprised bedrooms – some of which were roofless, for hot nights. The courtyard arrangement, together with thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the inner rooms, a vital necessity in this sun-scorched land. The haveli thus provided everything for the women and there was no need for them to venture into the outside world – and in Shekhawati these were spectacularly gilded cages.
In the wealthiest of families, there were far more than two simple courtyards, some havelis enclosing as many as eight, with galleries up to six storeys high. This meant plenty of wall space to house the elaborate murals that wealthy Shekhawati merchants were so fond of commissioning.
Half a kilometre and a walk through an amazing Nawalgarh bazaar are the Ath Havelis. Although ath in Hindi means eight, there are in reality, six havelis. The havelis were finished around 1900 and are painted both on the inside and on the outside. Most of the havelis are rented out for marriages and parties. As a result these century-old paintings are facing not only neglect but also, what can be best described as senseless vandalism. As is widely known, most of the havelis belong to some of India’s richest industrial families. While the Morarkas clearly spend some time and money looking after their havelis, it is not the case with Ath Havelis. Case in point, the following photograph:
Our next stop was Bhagton ki Chhoti Haveli. Located at the end of a narrow lane, off the main bazaar, this haveli has one of the most striking doorways. The frieze on top is a gallery of portraits depicting both locals and Britons. This haveli felt more compact and personal than the others we had seen so far.
For our last haveli, we came back to Morarka where we had started the walk from, and walked past it to Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. As the name suggests, not only is this a haveli but it is also a museum on Shekhawati and Shekhawati’s culture. This is one of the best preserved havelis around. In fact at times, one tends to feel that maybe it is a little too looked after. Various rooms of the haveli have been converted into individual galleries displaying musical instruments, models of forts of Rajasthan, headgear, etc.