My Garhwal Adventure: Deoriya Taal to Chopta


The waters of Deoriya Taal must have miraculous properties, for when I was woken early in the morning by a shivering Prashant, I realized I had no hangover at all! Wonderful realization aside, one could now see the mountains in bright daylight and what a sight it was! From left to right, the entire horizon was marked by white, jagged peaks, culminating with the Nanda Devi, peeking surreptitiously over the ridge-line!

The first shot of the morning
Kedar Peak in the morning light
No, i could not stop clicking!
My lovely little home for the day
In full glory

The lake is famous for the reflection of the peaks . This only happens early in the mornings when the air is still. Once the wind picks up, post 10 am, it creates ripples on the surface of the lake and the reflections disappear. The setting on this particular morning was perfect. The air was still, the light was bright and the reflections were near perfect. Just a tiny problem: the camera seems to have a mind of its own. No matter what setting I used, the photos were all washed out. I just could not figure out the damn thing. It’s surprising, considering how brilliantly it performed in the low light conditions the previous night. On the brighter side of things, I did manage to salvage like 10 clicks from the hundreds I shot. Sigh!

Reflections
Chaukhambha
Kedarnath
Spring foliage around the lake
More of Chaukhambha

The magical waters of the lake failed to have its effect on Negi, whose snoring had woken Prashant up who then decided that I have slept enough. While Negi was sound (well…) asleep, his friend from the village arrived, to guide us on our trek from Deoriya Taal to Chopta. It is a 14 km long trek through the rhododendron forests and the occasional bugyal (meadow, in the local lingo) and a tough one too, for unfit souls like us. I did not even have proper trekking shoes!

Other campers
One last look before we leave

The track started at the other end of the lake and for the first part, passed through thick oak and rhododendron forests. After around a mile or so, the track starts climbing towards the top of the ridge that overlooks Saari village. The total ascent here is of about 250 m over a horizontal distance of less that 300-400 m. So it’s STEEP!  The top of the ridge offered a spectacular view of the village and the surrounding valleys. On the distance, we could see the motley collection of tents and a few permanent buildings that is Chopta.  It was still far, very far off!

The woods were lovely and deep, but not that dark. Sorry, poet!
Trekker!
Trekker’s eye view of Saari
Prashant and our guide!
Somewhere high up on the mountain in the distance is Chopta

On the other side was Chaukhambha, now appearing even more massive. Slowly, but steadily, a growing cloud was covering up the mountains. There was also some concern over the reappearance of the storm I faced on the first day while I was riding up to Sari (see earlier post). As a result, every now and then we found ourselves glancing towards the heavens searching for the tell-take signs. We were walking at an average altitude of 3000m, and a good soaking would definitely result in a most pleasing bout of pneumonia. Oh good!

Clouds coming down
Bad hair, just like i promised in the previous post!
Few shots of Chaukhambha before it is veiled by the clouds
Prashant posing
The highest point of our trek

We then traversed the top of the ridge and proceeded to descend into the valley on the other side through some thick woods. Every now and then, we would chance upon a clearing or a meadow where we would rest, drink some water, and munch on some biscuits. It was a tough trek and most of the time we were climbing over ridges and descending into valleys. Straight and level stretches were few. Although I struggled a bit in the uphill parts, a made up for it by taking less breaks.

Descending to the valley
Kalapahad, the black mountain. Does someone know its real name?
Walking through a painted forest

After we descended into the valley on the other side of the ridge, the Chaukhambha disappeared from view and another snow clad peak showed itself. Taking into consideration the relative height of the nearby Chandrashila and the amount of snow left on it, it couldn’t be more than 5500 m tall. But since it was very close (right across the gorge to our left), it loomed over us like a giant. It was made of jet black stone and the way some dark clouds gathered around its summit, gave it an aura of mystery. Negi (yes, our guide was also called Negi. No relation though.) told us that the villagers call it Kalapahad, owing to the dark rocks.

I don’t know why, but i had a sudden urge to dance to ‘Singing in the Rain’. This shot caught me midway through the routine. Donno if you can make that out!
Another one

Every now and then, the forests would clear and we would emerge on a bugyal. While most of them were snow-less, the higher reaches of some still had some patches of dirty, dying snow. With every meadow, the mountain called Kalapahad was getting closer and closer until we came upon one where it felt that you could just reach out and touch the mountain’s snowy slopes. By this time we had covered almost 60 percent of the trek and since we had also made good time, we decided to reward ourselves with a long break. So we sprawled out on the gently sloping meadow with the mountain occupying most of our visual field.

Emerging from the forest on to the meadow
More of the meadow comes into view
Prashant and the guide wait for me to catch up
And the protagonist. This photograph does not even begin to convey the sheer scale of the peak
Sweet repose

We could have sat there and looked at the mountain for ages, but alas, we had to move on. The track began climbing again and very soon, huffing and puffing, we were on top of yet another ridge. Chopta was now only one more mountain away. Incidentally, our supply of water was exhausted due to zealous consumption. With around 5 kms still to go, our only chance of a refill was at a stream at the bottom of the ridge. It was a rather steep descent and the trail was, at times, blocked by fallen trees. To add to my fitness issues, my shoes were now cutting into my feet and the discomfiture increased with every step.

The wild and steep descent towards the stream

So needless to say that when we did reach the stream, the first thing I did was to take off the shoes and dip my gnawed out stumps in the water. What I did not realize was that the glacier the stream was being fed by was merely 300 m upstream. Bone chilling is an understatement. I could not feel my legs for a full minute after a mere one second soak. Good thing I guess. Water does not come purer than this. We refilled our bottles and decided to lounge here for some time. I found a slab of rock in the middle of the stream, undressed to my shorts and promptly fell asleep in the sun. A power nap never hurt anyone, especially since we were one just one climb away from reaching Chopta.

Beached whale

Soon it was time to get going again and embark on what would be the last leg of our trek to Chopta. From the stream, we clambered up the side of the next hill and soon came upon the longest flat stretch of the trek. Here we met a group of villagers comprising mostly of women and one lone man. They were carrying on their backs  huge loads of a local fern which they would then dry, bind together and use as brooms. These are hardworking villagers, the very salt of the earth. While I was groaning under the weight of my 12 kg backpack, these tiny women were each carrying a load almost equal to their own body weight and even then outpacing me!

An ancient forest
The little women and their huge loads
View of the valley floor from Chopta
The last push towards Chopta
‘Not all who wander are lost’

At long last the track merged into the metalled road leading to Chopta, which was still around one kilometer away.  After the rough stones and uneven ground, the feel of the hard, flat surface beneath the feet was very comforting. Negi (not the guide) had arranged a hotel for us in Chopta, which was right beside the path that leads to Tungnath and Chandrashila. By this time the battery of the camera was on the last bar and I was hoping to charge it up for our morning trek to Tungnath and Chandrashila.

Little did I know that Chopta had no electricity! They had some solar panels but those are only for the lights. This did bum me out a little but I forgot about my woes completely when the room service boy showed up with a huge bucket of hot water (no running water as well, unless the room service boy is in a hurry). The hot shower took away all the strain of the trek and once I had changed into some comfortable floaters, I was almost as good as new.

So energized was I after the shower that I joined a few local kids in their cricket match. Prashant, meanwhile couldn’t care less about a bath and went straight to bed. Chopta, at 2900m was considerably higher than Deoriya Tal and the cold, as a result was also more severe. By the time the game was over and I had had my tenth cup of tea, the temperature had plummeted. With no electricity and the fascinating things that come with it, like moving pictures and songs from boxes, we called it an early night.

Early morning views from the road to Tungnath

We woke up at the crack of dawn for the trek to Tungnath and Chandrashila. Boy was it cold! After the customary five mugs of steaming tea, we set off for this 4km trek. The locals have been telling us that we would not be able to reach Tungnath, never mind Chandrashila which is 500 m higher. The winter had been severe and the temple was still covered by snow, almost knee deep. If we even had proper trekking shoes, we could have done it. But not in the present rag tag state we were in. But we headed out anyway.

A meadow on the way
More of the meadow and some abandoned huts
Chaukhambha says Howdy!
Lukka chuppi
Something heavenly must lie at the end of this path!

The path was steep, but unlike the trek from Deoriya Tal top Chopta, and owing to the large pilgrim footfall in the yatra season, the whole path was paved and cemented. When we set out I just had enough juice in the camera for 10 shots, so I had to shoot judiciously. Amazingly enough I got more than 20 shots out of it and it finally gave away when after much slipping and falling on ice; we managed to reach the temple. Chandrashila would have to wait for the next time.

More and more snow
Prashant is clearly thrilled..or not
This is the only shot of the Tungnath Temple before the cam ran out of juice

The way down was easier, thanks to gravity. From here however, Prashant and I would part ways. I would ride on to Gopeshwar and from there back home via some relatively unknown roads and over two days, while Prashant would go back to Ukhimath and head back home from there.  We parted with promises to keep in touch. Two months later, as i sit and write this account, i am glad to report that we are in touch and much to my consternation, while i am in the furnace called Delhi, Prashant, the professional poker player (no kidding!!) is cooling his heels in Khajjar. Bastard!

Live here? Good idea!

Along the Eternal Narmada: Maheshwar


It is said that of the five most sacred rivers of India – Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri, Narmada is the holiest. It is also said that when Ganga herself feels unclean, she takes the form of a black cow and using the darkness of the night as her cover, comes to cleanse herself in the waters of the Narmada.

Narmada at Maheshwar

She is known by many names, one of them being Shankari, or the ‘daughter of Shankar (Lord Shiva)’. It is believed that she was borne out of a drop of tear that fell out of Shiva’s eyes. Narmada’s connection with Shiva does not end here. Anyone who has travelled to any town on the Narmada has heard the saying ‘Narmada ke kankar utte Shankar‘, meaning ‘Shiva lives in each pebble on which the Narmada flows’. True to the legend, the banks of the Narmada are replete with cylindrical pebbles, looking rather similar to the shivalingas worshipped across India. Banalingas, as they are better known are collected by tourists and pilgrims and taken back to their homes.

The Narmada, for most of its course flows through Madhya Pradesh, a state that has always amazed me. Owing to its sanctity, there are many temple towns on the river. Amarkantak, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the river originates is one of the holiest places in India, and so is Omkareshwar, which is located roughly midway through the river’s course. And then there is Maheshwar. This tiny town on the banks of the Narmada is known not for its temples but for its benevolent queen, Ahilya Bai Holkar, considered by many as a goddess. Also, there is the famed Maheshwari saris, a dying weaving style which has now, fortunately, been revived.

I set off from Delhi for Maheshwar and Omkareshwar on a rainy November night from Hazarat Nizamuddin Railway station. My train would take me to Indore from where I would continue by bus, first to Maheshwar and then to Omkareshwar.  I reached Indore station at 5:30 in the morning and then caught an auto to Sarwate Bus Terminus. Maheshwar is 92 kms from Indore and depending on the bus you take (express, super or local) the journey could take you anywhere between 2.5 to 4.5 hours. Luckily for me I managed to get hold of an express bus which was scheduled to leave at 8:00 am. The bus followed the beautifully laid National Highway 3 till the town of Dhamnod from where it diverted off to a charming double-laned road for the last 15 kms to Maheshwar.

Narmada, as seen through the pillars of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Maheshwar

After alighting in the main square at Maheshwar, I realised that staying options in this town was very limited. There was the Fort Ahilya, a very expensive heritage hotel and a couple of tiny lodges. After some asking around, I was shown into a very basic, yet clean room for Rs 400 a night. Since I am not fussy about accommodation, provided it is clean, I took it. A quick shower later, I was all ready to explore Maheshwar.

The landscape around Maheshwar is typical of the Nimar plains which are drained by the Narmada. Scorchingly hot in the summers and warm during the winters, this undulating land is composed of red soil, which itself is derived from the ancient lava rocks that once covered the region. One afternoon during my trip, I borrowed a moped from the owner of the hotel I was staying in and drove for around 75 kms on the small roads leading out of the town connecting it to the tiny villages.

The red soil of the Nimar plains. Some say that these plains have seen so much battle that the blood of the fallen have coloured the whole land read.
Bhils, the tribe that populate the arid plains were once hunters. Civilisation has made them drop their lethal bows and arrows and pick up shovels.
A small dargah

As instructed by the owner of the hotel and the moped, i drove around 5 kms on a dirt track to the top of a hill west of Maheshwar town. From there one could see the Narmada tumbling over a rocky bed giving rise to thousands of tiny streams. It is for this exact reason that this cascade has been called Sahasradhara (Sahasra, in Hindi means ‘a thousand’ while dhara means ‘stream’)

Sahasradhara

Surroundings visited, I turned my attention to the town itself. All there is to see in Maheshwar is located inside its fort, and to get to the fort, one has to walk two kms through the busy market. Although it was November, the afternoon soon was burning in all its fury and the temperature was hovering around the 40 degree mark. It was as if the entire town had gone for a collective siesta. The shops were open but there were no shopkeepers. The customers too were absent. Every know or then I would spot a stray canine, a dusty kid running after a rolling, used bicycle tyre or a housewife making a quick trip to the grocer.

A shop selling framed images of Maheshwar’s famed queen, Ahilya Bai Holkar
Before and After?

Very soon, the north gate of the fort, Ahilya Dwar was visible. Previously known as Gadi Darwaza, it is the largest gate and the only way to enter the fort on a vehicle. Just as you enter through the gate, to your right is the quaint Laboo’s Cafe. Stop here for some much-needed lemonade or if hungry, a home-made lunch. The café also offers rooms to travellers, which in my opinion was a little overpriced.

Ahilya Dwar from the inside
Laboo’s Cafe
A tiny wall-shrine in the café

As you enter through the gateway, you also step into the old, walled city of Maheshwar. Although people continue to live here, the main city and its all-important market lies outside these walls.

Straight ahead of Laboo’s Cafe is a small gateway which is the entrance to the Rajwada, or the palace. Half of the palace has now been converted into the luxurious Fort Ahilya Heritage Hotel, while the other half has been converted to a museum and is open to the public. The first thing that strikes you about the palace is its simplicity. If you have travelled to historic destinations around India, you would have noticed the opulent palaces that the rulers used to live in. This is a complete antithesis to the seemingly vulgar pandering of wealth, often accumulated over the blood of poor farmers. It is not that Ahilya Bai, the Holkar queen who constructed much of this fort or the palace was the queen of a small dominion, unable to muster money for such luxuries. At the height of her rule, she controlled over half of what is now Madhya Pradesh.

She spent the money instead on building temples. The famed Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi was built by her. She constructed temples, dharmashalas (guest houses) and baolis (wells) in Haridwar, Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Kanchi, Jagannath Puri, Pushkar, Nasik and Pune. She is, even today depicted wearing a simple white sari, the same costume she used to wear while she was the queen. It is said that she possessed only three of these saris, all of which were woven by her.

View of the Rajwada from the front
View of one of the courtyards in the Rajwada
Lord Krishna and his cows keep an eye on the main entrance

The simplicity of the queen can be further seen at her so-called durbar hall, where she conducted the affairs of the state and held audiences with the average person. Located on the verandah in her wing of the palace, it is nothing but a white mattress covering the floor with a low, wooden throne at one end of it. These days, a white marble image of the queen can be seen on the throne.

The audience ‘hall’

From the simple to the plush. Here are some snapshots of the Fort Ahilya Hotel in the palace:

Old World
The swimming pool
One of the many charming courtyards in the hotel.
Maheshwar town viewed from the ramparts of the fort

A double storeyed gateway, directly opposite the main entrance to the Rajwada leads to a flight of steps leading down to a cluster of buildings on the banks of the Narmada. It is from this gateway that you get your first glimpse of this holy river, which at this point is over a mile wide!

At the foot of the flight of stairs, to the right is another gateway, which opens into a compound at the centre of which lies the Chhatri (mausoleum) of Vitoji Rao Holkar. He was the younger brother of king Yashwant Rao Holkar (1798-1811). Built on a high plinth and sporting two bulbous domes, this chhatri is known for its exquisite carvings, especially that of a row of caparisoned elephants on its side.

Chhatri of Vitoji
Another angle
The beautifully carved row of elephants
A night-shot

Facing the entrance to the Chhatri of Vitoji is a gateway to yet another enclosure which houses the Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya. Although it sounds like a Shiva temple, and is definitely built like one, it is actually the chhatri of Ahilya Bai Holkar. Built by the queen’s daughter Krishna Bai, this towering structure combines the north Indian nagara style of temple architecture with the Maratha style.

Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya
A night-shot of the chhatri’s spire
Inside the chhatri’s sanctum. The priest decides to pose
While on the outside, his wife tries her hand at modelling!
Interesting sculptures in the chhatri 

From the enclosure that houses the two chhatris, another gateway leads to yet another flight of stairs that forms the main ghat of Maheshwar. Almost two kms of the riverfront of Maheshwar has been paved in stone to give rise to a series of ghats.  Of a total of 28 ghats, the most important are Ahilya, Peshwa, Phanse and Mahila

Gateway leading to the ghats
Sculpture on the walls
Ever so faithful
Perfect place for a quiet prayer

Just like a couple of centuries ago, the lives of the people of Maheshwar revolve around the ghats. At daybreak, people throng to the ghats to offer their prayers. The morning air resounds with chants of Om Namah Shivay as people brave the morning chill to take a dip in the holy waters of the Narmada. Locals believe that the waters of the river have purifying properties and hence a morning dip ensures success in the day’s endeavours.

The holy dip
A priest readies himself for the worshippers
While some opt for a more personalised service!
Others busy themselves with the yoga routine…
..and I capture a quick mug shot of the self!

After the initial stream of devotees have taken their dips and have gone on their respective missions, come the tourists. Colourful boats lie moored on the ghats to take the tourists for a cruise on the waters of the Narmada.  There are two kinds of boats available at the ghat – row-boats and the ones powered by modified motorbike engines. While the latter is definitely faster, they create one hell of a racket, which can effectively ruin the ambiance of a quiet  morning. So it is advisable to take the row-boat. Oh, and do bargain beforehand not only about the price, but also the duration of the ride. I hired a row-boat which took me around the river for a good hour and I paid Rs 150. Also, if you can, do tip!

Them tourists!
Leaving the ghat on my beautiful red boat

Many of the temples and ghats of Maheshwar are best viewed from the boat. I shall describe them as we go along:

Located on the Mahila Ghat is Laxmi Bai ki Chhatri. However, do not let the name fool you, as it really is the chhatri of Ahilya Bai’s daughter, Krishna Bai
On an island in the middle of the river stands the Baneshwar Mahadev Temple. It is believed that a heavenly line (an axis of sorts) from the North Star passes through this temple to the earth’s centre
Mid-river bliss
The Narmada is but an ocean
..and all of humanity a mere island.
And back at the ghat

As the day rolls on and the devotees and tourists have long vacated the ghats, come another group of visitors. Predominantly women, they do most of their cleaning and washing on the waters of the Narmada.

One of my favourite shots from this trip!
Done for the day!

On my long walks across Maheshwar, I was accompanied by a local boy, Chhotu, who was acting like my guide. He used to work as a waiter at the Fort Ahilya Hotel and as a result had picked up a spattering of English which he was more than eager to advertise. On the last day at Maheshwar, which I had left for visiting the weavers, he tells me ‘saar, mere paas one more temple hai. Chalein?’.

‘Chalo’, says I

So he leads me on this dusty track by the side of the Narmada. Very conveniently, he had forgotten to mention that we would be walking for around 3 kms, one way. So I did not bother to carry water with me. The river water was full of all kinds of rubbish and was undrinkable. So I walked on in the 40 degree heat without water or shade. We finally stopped at the base of a steep hill which had a small ghat and seven small shrines on it. The shrines, Chhotu says are to the ‘seven mothers’, but refuses to explain further. Their identity remains hidden forever. What I did learn was that this site was called the Sapta Martuka Mandir. On top of the hill in the background, however is a 17th century pre-Holkar Shiva temple known as Jaleshwar Mahadev Mandir. The priest of the temple was kind enough to save mu life with some water.

The track by the river
The shrines of the seven mothers with the Jaleshwar Mahadev Temple rising in the background

This is also the point where a smaller river, called Maheshwar, after the town, joins the Narmada. At the point where the two join is a small hill surrounded by water. On top of the hill is another, even older temple which, interestingly, is heavily fortified. Sadly though, there were no boats here to take us across , so we had to give it a miss.

The fortified Kaleshwar Mahadev Temple

With barely hours left for my bus to Omkareshwar, Chhotu and head off to the weavers’ colonies. A few decades ago, the art of weaving a Maheshwari sari was almost at its deathbed. Richard Holkar, the current scion of the royal family and his wife Sally, while on a visit to Maheshwar realised the need to revive it. So with a paltry grant from the Indian Central Welfare Board, in 1979, they started a weaving project involving the local women and called it the Rehwa Society. Rehwa, or Rewa, is another name for the river Narmada.

Over the next three decades, the number of weavers has gone up to 250 and they operate over 1,500 traditional looms. Inspired by the success of the Rehwa Society, individuals have also taken up weaving and now within the walled city, the stillness of the sir is broken at all hours by the click-clacking of the wooden looms. Though the weavers, back in the day produced mainly saris, the modern weavers have diversified into dupattas, scarves, shawls and dress material.

The traditional loom
The weavers are mostly women
The quaint building housing the Rehwa Society

Maheshwari saris are usually coloured using vegetable dyes, though to bring down prices some weavers do use chemical dyes. The most popular colours used in Maheshwari saris are angoori (grape green), dalimbi (deep pink), gul bakshi (magenta), jaamla (purple), tapkeer (deep brown) and aamras (golden-yellow). The pallav or aanchal of a Maheshwari sari is distinctive with five alternating stripes of which three are of different colours and two are white. The use of zari and kinari is used to embellish the saris which often have a rich golden border and two gold bands on the pallav. The unique feature of a Maheshwari sari is its reversible border. The border is designed in such a way that both sides of the sari can be worn. An original Maheshwari sari can cost anywhere between Rs 1,500 to Rs 5,000. The fine, airy cloth is perfect for hot Indian summers while the blend of silk and cotton makes the cloth float above the skin.

I am no sari photographer, but still…
Another one

My two days in Maheshwar has been extremely rewarding and at the end of it I was off to Omkareshwar. Predominantly a temple town, the vibe of Omkareshwar would be completely different from Maheshwar. On top of that, this particular trip was planned on a shoe-string budget, which means that all the travelling was done on buses – another experience.

Watch this space for the Omkareshwar chapter of this series. Till then I leave you with two images of the sunset on the Narmada.

Tequilla sunset
The late goodbye

Reaching Chauragarh


Around a year ago, work took me to Pachmarhi. As usual, our organisation was asked by Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Developement Coporation to write a travel guide to Pachmarhi. This is the first step of an elaborate plan that ends in the declaration of Pachmarhi as a UNESCO World heritage site. To be honest, i have only heard mentions of Pachmarhi and had no idea whatsoever of what surprises awaited me. In my initial research, it was clear that it was a hill station of sorts (come on, having spent a considerable amount of time practically next door to Darjeeling, the tag ‘of sorts’ is only fair). What interested me more were the hills on which Pachmarhi was located – the Satpuras.

The landscape is dominated by rugged hills, plunging ravines, and ancient monoliths that resemble the tough hide of some colossal primeval beast deep in an eternal slumber. Dense forest covers the land and paints it in swathes of a thousand shades of green, broken only by the deep brown of some of the most ancient rocks known to mankind. At every possible point in this landscape, mountain streams tumble down the steep slopes to give rise to cascading waterfalls.

Although the main photo-journal of my Pachmarhi trip will come later, i could not resist giving a standalone mention to one of Pachmarhi’s most daunting attractions – the Chauragarh Temple. Located on top of the Chauragarh Peak,at an altitude of 1,330 m, the temple can be accessed after a 3.6 km ling trek. Just when you are thinking that the three-and-a-half odd kms is not really a big deal, let me just tell you that the last kilometer is basically 1,380 steps cut on the sheer rock face.

View of the Satpuras from Forsyth Point. Look closely at the top of the highest hill on the right… what you see as a little pyramid is the Chauragarh Temple, my destination for the day
Wish you were here!

You can take your car upto the Mahadeo Temple, 9 kms from Pachmarhi town. From there begins the trek to Chauragarh. For the first kilometre, you climb up and down a number of small hills till you come to the base of the main hill. See, the thing is, i USED TO be a fit guy when i was in college and played sports regularly. The lesser said about my present state of physical fitness, the better. So i hired a guide (read: porter) who would carry the water and the extra camera. For people planning to go there, please carry your own water as there are no vendors on the way. A few tribals set up shop here and there selling gutkhas, cigarettes and nimboo paani. For the last item, they mostly use a lemon that grows in the wild and makes a nimboo paani unlike anything else you have tasted. Must-have!

Initial stages of the trek.
Signs of His presence

Almost halfway through the trek, you begin to wonder why on earth did so many people spend so much verbal bytes on how difficult the trek was going to be. I was making good time and there was no sign of any challenging climb. At one point of time i was even thinking that MAYBE i was not as unfit as i thought i was…MAYBE i am in fact the superfly and that i would conquer Chauragarh in no time.

Anyway, condescending thoughts aside, halfway through the trek, you encounter a large cave. The opening is rather wide and as one ventures inside, it gets narrower and the roof gets increasingly lower. At the end of the cave was a deep pool full of what seemed like the most sinister looking water that ever was. If i was in a pulp detective novel, this was the kind of place i would find the remains of the victims of a Dahmer-isque serial killer. But that was not to be…all i found was an idol of Shiva!

My guide decides to take a nap while i explore the cave!
Shiva at the end of the tunnel

After the cave, the track finally starts winding upwards. On one side of the road was an unrestricted view of the Satpura valley, most of which is part of the Satpuras National Park and Tiger Reserve. As you trudge on higher and higher, the scenenery begins to unfold under you. At this point of time, you begin to wonder if this view looks stunning, what would the view from top be like.

Onwards…
The valley that was
A little further up

Two-thirds of the way up, i started feeling the pinch of the climb. Heavy breathing graduated into discernable panting and at the first sign of the real climb began to show itself. I was standing at a point where the hill had risen sharply. The moderately inclined road had come to an end and the stairs had started. They were cut into the side of the rock and each of them was almost twice the height of the ones we encounter everyday at home or in office. At some places, the steps were almost vertical it was almost like climbing up a ladder.

This should give you an idea of what i am talking about.
View from almost halfway up the hill.

After the first 300 steps, relief came in the form of a stretch of level road. Chest swelling, muscles aching, i stopped here for a breather. It was amazing how silent it was. Due to the difficulty of the climb, not many people attempt the trek. It had already been almost one and a half hours since i started from the Mahadeo Caves and i had seen not more than a dozen souls on the road. All i could hear was the rustling of leaves and the occassional chirping of a bird.

The rare level road. The little shop sold some very refreshing nimboo paani
Still a long way to go..
It was all very silent
Where the god resides
Halfway up yet another climb

After what seemed like an endless climb, i finally reached a terrace of sorts. It was almost at the neck of the hill, with one final flight of moderately high stairs (for a change) to the top. I rang the bell here in all my earnestness to thank the lord that the ordeal was almost over.

Almost there
The final climb

The temple courtyard is stacked with thousands of trishuls, some weighing over three tons and standing nearly 5 m tall. On the occasion of Nagpanchmi and Mahashivaratri, devotees come here in droves, lugging up these heavy tridents or trishuls as offerings. These are then stuck in the ground around the temple creating a forest of trishuls. It is generally believed that the wishes of anyone who offers a trident here will be fulflled.

A giant heap of divine weaponry
And then some more
The real pilgrim

The temple itself is a half-built modern structure with an idol of Shiva in the garbhagriha. A small hut by the temple serves as the residence for the two priests. A conversation with one of the priests reveals that the hill was held sacred by the local adivasis long before ‘outsiders’ came. An assimilation of cultures let to the identifcation  of a tribal deity with Lord Shiva.

I will not describe in words the view from top. Here, see for yourself:

The view from top. You can clearly see a part of the road leading to the temple.

The climb down took almost a fraction of what it took me to reach the top. I calculated that from start to finish, the entire trek took me around 6 hours. My guide thought that i was rather quick compared to the numerous others he had accompanied. Having said this, he added that this 16 year old nephew was known to do the round trip in under an hour. I wouldnt want to meet the lad though.

on the way back

This remains, to this day the most physically demanding trip i have ever undertake. I am not much of a trekker and given a choice, i would let by Bullet do the walking. But if any of you guys are planning on going to Chauragarh, give me a shout. I might just come along. This was special.

Amundsen..well, almost!

Ujjain – The land of God(s)


Work took me to Ujjain earlier this week. We are doing a book for MP Tourism on this most ancient of cities. I am, as per office policy, not allowed to put up work related pics ahead of the completion of the project, but the snaps that you see here have been reduced in size and resolution. So technically speaking, apart from this space they are pretty useless!

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Harsiddhi Mata Temple. I love moments… moments like this

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The Paintings on the interior of the Harsiddhi Mata Temple. Real kitsch is what i mean!

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The idol of the deity in the temple!

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A sadhu outside the Kal Bhairav Temple. I think sadhus make for very nice pics. Though the subject is highly overdone and has been  a cliche for ages, its still remains very appealing.

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Friends strike a pose at the ghats outside the Mangalnath Temple

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Patience is a virtue!

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How many things can rise to the sky at the same time?

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Man doing yoga on the waters of the Shipra river near the Navagraha Temple. Look at the finesse…he is just floating there…such is his skill and balance that even the ripples in the water are perfectly symmetrical

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Worshipping under the old Banyan Tree

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Ah! This pic… it has got to be one of the best i have clicked so far. There is something about the frame…something in the room, in the man’s eyes that makes me stare at the picture for several minutes at a stretch.


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Coming to think about it,  this one is quite well framed

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Kalideh Palace, just outside Ujjain. The durbar hall has been converted to a Sun Temple and this is the sun god himself. He needs peotection though and is surrounded by a grille. Tried to frame him through one of the grille patterns.

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It was such a quiet place. I could hear the creaking of the wheels of this bullock cart, long after it disappeared from sight!

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To beat the summer heat, the Mughal governor of the region made a palace and surrounded it with water in the form of channels, nullahs and tanks. The locals wash clothes, cook and worship here now-a-days.

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The Ram Ghat. This is where the Maha Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years! The ‘magic’ evening light!

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This was by far the highlight of the entire trip – the Sandhya Arati on the Shipra. This young priest was on my side of the ghat. On the other side there were two priests. There were groups of people on both sides playing kettle drums and banging cymbals in unison. It was a very powerful moment.

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I love this pic, i love the soft glow of the lamp on his face!

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….and on the other side of the river!

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A Shiva temple on the ghats.

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The curiously modified bus that took me on a Ujjain Darshan!

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Falahari Baba! He has lived only on fruits for the last 45 years!

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I was trying to click the red potlis in the background but this man walked into the frame and started observing what i was doing…i shot the man!