Sunday, February 14, 2010

Getaway to Bharatpur - An Avian-ture's Delight

So, what decides the destination of our trip? The budget, the popular choice, or just Outlook Traveller. Well, this time none of them made us choose Bharatpur as our long weekend getaway during mid-Feb. Cheers to Lord Shiva for blessing us with an extra holiday on the weekend (due to Shivratri), we were already a game for a small trip out of Delhi. Bharatpur came as the nearest destination with an exotic flavor to offer-birdwatching. This must be considered literal by all those who watch birds of different kind ;-)

Bharatpur is located on the Eastern peripheries of Rajasthan, touching borders with Uttar Pradesh's quintessential Krishna zone "Mathura" and Mughal's pride "Agra." Though, such a neighbourhood makes it a good touring deal for anyone, we insist on sticking to the birder's zone. Bharatpur's USP is the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (pronounced as "Kevladev" in Hindi, named after a temple of Lord Shiva inside the park and Ghana referring to the dense woodland).

The park, popularly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It inhabitates many rare species of birds, including the Siberian Cranes (localities claimed to have not seen them since 2002).

The park geographically is a low-lying area which has ample wetlands and marshy areas (post low-rain seasons, these are now fed manually by the booster pumps installed in the park).

Monday, January 4, 2010

First Breakfast in Kangra - Julie ke Paranthe

After a night long slow motion journey in Himachal Express, we stepped out in early morning at the busy station of Una - an industrial town in the Kangra Valley. A chaffeaur from the Judge's Court, a sleepy eyed Punjabi guy who wore full-on beard and pathani kurta, was there to receive us. It seemed diffecult to conclude if he was more disturbed to see us (probably we intervened his nap as he waited since 5 a.m.)or we were more pissed off to see him. We both were feeling cranky. Una was not a station like what we had imagined. The culture and demography was cent-percent Punjabi, and just by law the place appeared a part of Himachal Pradesh. And, this surprised us. Later we realized that this portion was originally a part of Punjab, and was later annexed into HP as per the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966.

There was one more reason to feel restless. Post our journey excitement fizzled out, we both were damn hungry. We instantly requested the driver to stop by at a "decent" restaurant for breakfast. He nodded.

The journey from Una to Judge's Court (Pragpur) was longer than we had thought off. The chilly wind of December slapped hard on our cheeks. Only a hot cup of tea could salvage. Some OK type joints faded away, but the dutiful driver did not stop by. Desperately, we reminded him that we cannot wait till we reach hotel.

Finally, the driver slowed down the wheels. But, wait... we could not see anything around except a muddy shack on the slope of a hill. An aged gentleman was there, more busy in his household tasks, than welcoming prospective customers. Never mind, the way the driver moved around there, made it apparent that we needed BREAKFAST!

Without sighting eggs/bread/maggi packs around, we assumed ubiqutous "aloo paranthas" on plates, till Uncle told us that "he had not boiled potatoes yet!" We looked hard at him as if we could almost bake him. Suddenly, he hanged two sleek "reddishes" in his hand. He said that "
Hum aapko mooli ke paranthe khila sakte hain." My introvert husband was instantly disparaged. He rarely ate those yucky-smelling, burp-causing, fart-boosting paranthas, even as a last resort. But, this time he kept quite. "Marta kya na Karta, bechaara!"

Soon, the uncle heated up the tawa. Unlike the lengthy procedure of cooking mooli-parantha at home (involves peeling of, washing, and grating, and marinating in salt), uncle was rather quick. He simply grated the two reddishes and mixed salt, loads of lal mirch, and a pinch of Haldi. On asking whether he forgot peeling off them, he replied "
abhi to khet see nikali hain. Chilka kya utarana".

And, in no time he passed two round hot steaming paranthas towards us. A dirty bottle of pickle or a katori-full of "at least a day old" dahi seemed like bonus.

We ate them. 1 each. Still looking at uncle...if he had more! He was generous to offer one more to us and the last one to the driver. My husband smiled at me... a usual act when he needs a favor. This time he wanted the second Julie ka parantha.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Jab They Met at the Naggar Palace

Many saw JWM for a lilting fresh love story. Few others saw it to catch up with the blossoming chemistry between bespectacled Shahid and sparkling Kareena. I had my reasons to catch it up. One logical one being that it was the next movie of the Socha na Tha director, the celebrated love guru Imtiaz Ali. Pritam's music was great too, but there was this hidden charm in the movie as it was shot partially in the beautiful locales of Naggar and Manali of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh.

Now a days, when even a B-grade movie is filmed abroad, I was overjoyed at this choice of location. The place is cliched like a girl next door. But, still it has been shot so specially, just for people in love.

How can one forget the scene where Kareena says goodbye to Shahid for that pesky character Anshuman. The white vapors oozing in background out of the 70 mm screen added clutching impact to the pain of Shahid. And, in the song “Yeh ishq hai…” a full-rounded view of the Naggar castle comes up. There were also glimpses of the snow-clad La Rohtang Pass in the beginning. The song was majorly shot in the premises of Naggar Palace. It was choreographed by Saroj Khan featuring local folk dancers, who looked beamingly different from typical Bollywood style extras.

And, finally here is the travel angle to this story. Naggar was the capital of the former princely state of Kullu for over 1,400 years. Now, it is acknowledged as the third heritage village in Himachal after Pragpur (Kangra) and Kalpa (Lahaul). The castle is around 500 years old and is made up of big stones and wood. On the East side flows the river Beas. The 6-minute song was pictured in the backyard of the castle that opens up to the valley where generally gliding and ballooning takes place. The riot of colors as shown in the song was not real though and seemed like a made-to-order Tibetan carnival.

The castle, built by Raja Sidh Singh, had survived the devastating earthquake of 1905. It has now undergone a facelift and been converted into an HPTDC hotel. The small wooden castle has many fables associated with it. One being that the queen of the castle died after jumping down. Another one is related to the construction of the castle. It is said that the stone for building it was brought from the other side of a river via a human chain of laborers, passing stones from hand to hand! The stones, collected from the ruins of Gardhak, a fort of Rana Bhosal , gave the king his castle.

A basement of the castle, from where Kareena walks down a ramp, is a small dingy museum showcasing Himachal’s arts and crafts like patoos, shawls, gudmas, nagaras, carpets, including figures of devis and devtas in traditional attire.

The castle also has the revered Jagti Patt stone inside. Many believe that once Naggar was chosen to be made as the celestial seat of all the Gods in the world. The Gods converted themselves into honeybees and cut a sample of Deo Tibba and flew it down to the present site of the temple.

There are few temples around, namely Vishnu, Tripura Sundari & Lord Krishana. Vehicles can go up to the castle, but the remaining way is best enjoyed on foot. Few kilometers ahead is the Roerich art gallery, erstwhile home of the famous Russian artist Late Nicholas Roerich, who came to India and decided to stay here forever in 1929. The house has now been converted in an art gallery, which displays his masterpieces. The museum is still maintained by the Russian government and is definitely worth a visit with a camera. Naggar is also a base for pursuing treks to the Chanderkhani pass and the mysterious tribal village Malana.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Thursday, March 6, 2008

To Bolo Hanuman Ki Jai!

No bridge over a sea? No worry, coz he will fly over to cross it! Can't locate a particular tree among many on a hill? No worries again, he will dig up the entire hill! Well, these stunts are not in a Rajni sir film, rather they are just few of the ritual acts performed by my favorite God, Hanuman Ji.

The monkey God who helped Lord Rama in winning the fight against Ravana in Lanka and is worshiped to be fearless... has numerous temples all over India. In this blog, I want to write about the four different temples I have seen of him and certainly cannot forget them.

1. Hanuman Tok in Gangtok

Tucked away at an altitude of over 7000 ft, along the tortuous roads, lies Hanuman Tok (Tok means Hill). Soon after you enter the premises; a big statue of Hanuman Ji greets you. If you have as much time as we have over hills, do chant the aarti written on the wallstone. Else, take off your shoes and climb up the icy-cool cemented stairs towards the main temple (we visited this place during early February).

Unlike any temple that I have seen so far, this temple is maintained by the Indian army. So, instead of seeing a dhoti-clad pujari in the temple, expect a man in uniform to smear a vermillion mark and pass you the sugary prasad. Needless to say that such a system helps in keeping the temple very clean and quite. Apparently, the temple is also not surrounded by small shops (selling flowers and sweets) which otherwise camouflage the temples with their commercial existence.

Take a walk around the temple to soak in the misty views of Khangchendzonga, the third-highest peak in the world. Near the temple is Lukshyama - the royal cremation grounds for the erstwhile royal family of Sikkim.

2. The Jhakhu Mandir in Simla

We went to Simla-Chail trip during 2006 April. After doing a to/fro walk over the Mall Road and a mundane visit to Kufri, I wasn’t delighted yet. The overcrowded Mall road looked like a Lajpat Nagar set up amid hills. Kufri minus snow appeared nothing but just a yak junction. Much ado about nothing! And, then my husband decided to take me to Jhakhu mandir. I wasn’t very excited till he told me that it is Hanuman Ji temple over a steep hill. After an exhaling walk over the hill, the normal setting of a temple appeared (prasad and flower sellers, chaat-wala and blah blah). In addition, there were countless monkeys, affirming one’s belief that Hanuman certainly existed here.

The temple is small and has a legend behind it. When Laxman ji fainted in the war at Lanka. Hanuman Ji flew to the Himalayas to fetch Sajeevani booti for him. There, he dug the entire hill as he could not recognize the exact plant. On way back, the tired monkey-God rested for a while at the Jhakhu hill, which is said to have got suppressed since then. The main temple has colorful illustrated scenes of Ramayana over its walls featuring Hanuman ji. In the other annexe, footsteps of Hanuman ji are preserved.

The temple looks bejeweled among tall devdars and one can spend hours gazing Simla from a distance and wowing at the playful monkeys.

3. An Ashram in Sitabani, Ramnagar

In our Corbett post, you can find more details about the Sitabani ashram and jungle. For the first-time I saw Sita ji without Sri Ram. Her temple consists of a white-stone murti (statue) in which she is shown holding her sons Luv and Kush. In the temple above, an unusual statue of Hanuman ji exists which has several faces depicting his powers.

You would be astonished to see the verdant surroundings and the silence would seem everlasting.

4. The Masroor Temple in Kangra

The Masroor temple, in Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh, is said to have existed since the 8th or 9th century. In fact to put it correctly, it is a complex of about 16 temples carved out of sandstone rocks. To few aficionados, it reminds of the Khajuraho caves.

This is primarily a Ram temple, as one can make out from the statues of Ram, Sita, and Laxman inside the shikhar. Outside which, is the cut-out of Hanuman Ji, as shown in the picture. The temple got severely damaged by the earthquake of 1905. So, this Hanuman Ji structure appears like a fallen off pillar.

Being the only monolithic structure in the Himalayan region the temple in Lanj Panchayat has huge historical relevance. The gentleman from Chamunda who accompanied us also told that because of architecture, the temple was declared a protected monument of national importance by the Archaeological Department of India.

Adding to the look is a rectangular water tank located in front of the temple complex. Climb up the intricate stair cases to take a panoramic view of the temple and villages around. A nominal fee will be charged for the visit (and extra for the camera).

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Let the Silence Speak at Rewalsar

There are certain places you visit during a journey unplanned. On the spur of the moment. It is only after being to these spots that you realize how worthwhile it was to visit them. Rewalsar was one such destination for us. We visited it in the summer of year 2007.

We had just one day left as our holidays drew to a close. We drove down to Rewalsar, about 25 kms from Mandi, on our way back from Manali with no big surprises/plans in mind. I had only heard of a lake and few monasteries around it.

In the month of May, the weather was warm and sunny on the road to Rewalsar, quite different from the weather in Manali. There had been some showers in the valley (which meant a thin layer of ice up in Rohtang).

As we came down, the hills shrunk and the greenery on top of the hills grew less. There were no more apple orchards lining the road. Just regular vegetation that reminded me I was approaching Delhi and the vacation was ending.

But the moment we entered Rewalsar, a small town in Mandi district, my mood changed. Was it a historical town? Or a grand location? Not exactly. But the interesting mixed population of the town struck me first. There were monks, playful Tibetans youth/kids, a few Himachali people and probably an equal number of foreigners.

The lanes were just wide enough to fit a medium-sized car, else you would run into a monastery. In a few minutes, I was able to figure out that the entire town was hardly a few metres across and then the lake began. The lake was sombre, green, and so peaceful. Even ripples created by wind ruffled its surface.

A lake Stay

We soon checked into a HPTDC hotel, which matched the calmness of the lake and town. The hotel was clean and has basic amenities in true sarkari (government) style. If you are not too much of a city slicker you would love the place.

We chose a corner room, which offered a colourful view of the town and a giant statue of Lord Buddha. I suddenly realised that my physical and mental fatigue had eased. I was ready to embark on a walk in the town.

We were advised to shut our rooms to keep our belongings safe from mischievous monkeys, who lived just a floor above, over the slanting roof of the hotel and adjoining trees.

The hotel clerk also told us that we did not need to waste eight hours a night sleeping because the silence of the town was so magical one could feel recharged in just four or five hours.

I completely agreed with him.

We decided to go for a walk. You don't need a car to get around town; it would be just a 10 minute drive. Close to the HPTDC hotel was Hotel Lotus Lake. This hotel, we discovered, was rather nice and modern. Most of the people staying there were tourists. They were all over the hotel -- eating Maggi noodles in the cafe, reading novels and praying.

Apart from the life around the lake one has to also take a look at the life inside the lake. The lake swarmed with fish which you cannot see unless you open up a pack of biscuits or offer them atta balls, available locally. They are considered holy fish and nobody is allowed to hook them or drink water from the lake.

The locals vouch for the holy nature of the lake -- if you pray here with a true heart your wishes are fulfilled. You cannot complete a visit to the lake without visiting the Lomas Rishi temple. The pujari told us that the name Rewalsar came from names of Rishi Putri Rewa and Lomas Rishi.

Kuntikund, Naina Devi Temple, and yet another monastery on the peak

Seven kms from Rewalsar was a web of lakes, which were full during the rainy season. A local told us that these lakes are of different colours and came into being during the days of the Mahabharata, when Arjun shot an arrow to fetch water for Kunti. We could not go there because a heavy downpour was expected.

The road will guide you to another monastery and a Naina Devi temple, which is thronged by Himachali during Navratris. The monastery was even calmer than those at Rewalsar lake. When we reached a few old ladies guided us to a dark cave in which a huge statue of Lord Buddha was seated. For once in my life, the silence deafened my ears.

By the time we returned to the hotel after our grand round of Rewalsar it was five. We were famished and decided to go the Tibet way. Unless you are missing parathas, rajma and similar Indian fare you will find the thupka, noodles and momos quite satisfying. It was a wonderful end to a lovely day

And by nightfall I was ready to stay in Rewalsar forever.

A few facts

Rewalsar is located at an altitude of 4,100 feet, south-west of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. You can book the hotel in advance at HPTDC office ( The hotel also offers sleeping quarters for drivers.

Try the various Tibetan shops for local souvenirs, T-shirts, prayer wheels, malas

Behind HPTDC hotel is a local market for mithai fruits, vegetables and hand-made shoes.

Lastly an early morning walk around the lake, with the background of chants in the monasteries around, is extremely soothing.

Our Fancy Trips to the Jim Corbett National Park

When the city-life makes us breathless, we run for cover to the nearest haven, the Jim Corbett national park. The fun starts from booking tickets in Ranikhet Express, a train from from Delhi to Kathgodam, which has limited coaches for Ram Nagar (a town about 9 kms farther from the Corbett territory). After boarding in from the Old Delhi Railway Station at about 10.45 p.m., the train reaches Ram Nagar at about 5 o’ clock in the morning. And, then the moment you move out the station, you start feeling a different breeze—fresh and chilly, that can never be replicated by an AC or a deo. The condition remains that you enjoy it in early morning.

Most of the hotels/resorts are located at Dhikuli. All hotels in this belt are rather expensive, but they do provide cozy and fancy living at the foothills of the jungle. Almost all the hotels have the Kosi river in their backdrop which just roars in its season (post-monsoon).

We prefer to stay in Tiger Camp, a very hospitable resort in Dhikuli. They arrange pick-up from the station in their Maruti Gyspies, which make the morning ride quite windy and an eye-opener (literally). But, yes if you are covered well, you may enjoy them. Tiger Camp provides cozy cottages to live. It is also worth mentioning the Golghar-based buffet dining they provide. The menu is mainly Indian, served with English convenience. Not sure if they mastered these facilities, but now almost every hotel in that ring boasts of cottages, river-view, and similar eating arrangement. However, the hotel also has a trademark guide (aka naturalist) named Dhanu. A seasoned jungle and bird-watching expert who just pours his passion into the profession. Do request him to host the evening slide-show arranged around the bonfire. His jungle stories, animal tales, and tiger encounters will certainly leave you more literate about animals, trees, and birds around.

You can make a schedule of 1.5 or 2 days to spend here. Given below are our five must-dos here.

1. A safari in the jungle - From the Dhikuli area, jungle safaris (limited in number) are arranged via the Bijrani gate every morning and evening. Keep your fingers crossed for spotting a tiger. The guides (compulsory with every jeep) may keep you hooked for sometime by showing the tiger pugmarks and scratches. However, be ready to see lots of langoors, deers, and birds, beyond zoo.

Note: For Safaris, permission need to be obtained from the forest deptt at the Bijrani gate. Since limited jeeps can go (every morning and evening), include this while booking your hotel in advance; they manage it better.

2. The Corbett museum – From Dhikuli, you may also plan a 2 hour trip to the Corbett Museum in Kaladhungi. This museum is at the place where the great hunter stayed. Apart from his small statue, you can enjoy an illustrated museum with information about Corbett and national parks and Geography in general. In the other room, you can see stuffed corpses of Tigers that were hunted decades ago and are now in preserved state.

3. The Garjia temple - On a way back from the jungle, do visit the Garjia temple. Located on a small hill, the temple is surrounded by the Kosi river. A lot of locals from nearby areas come to worship devi, who is also known to protect the temple from drowning during floods in the Kosi river. There is a very small Shiv temple under the hill as well. Do move inside for a dekko and blessings of course.

Few meters away across the river is the Bhairon temple. People visit this temple in the end; however, the way to the temple requires one to cross the river over a fragile bridge, made up of cement stacks.

4. Sitabani jungle – About 22 kms from Ram Nagar is a pristine forest area. You will rarely come across any animal other than monkeys and deers. However, this jungle is not for watching animals. Come here to see how silent, dense, and expanse a jungle can be. In fact, you must not conclude to have seen a jungle until you see this one. A dense green forest consisting of tress of sal, kattha, and many more. A long and bumpy ride will take you to a small desolate ashram and temple, where Sitaji is said to have spent her years with Luv and Kush, in exile. The temple is very quite and unique in every sense. Plan your trip in mid-afternoon here, as going back from the lonely jungle might seem challenging.

5. Walks to the Kosi river every morning and at the time of sunset are very relaxing. You will get addicted to the moods of the river and the noise it makes by hitting the stones and boulders.

We call this trip a fancy trip because a real jungle trip is not supposed to be that cozy. The Dhikuli-Ramnagar area is located on the outer boundaries of the Corbett forest area . To see some non-bookish real-time jungle activity, plan a visit in the Dhikala area. Enlivened by the Ramganga river (the lifeline of the entire jungle), you have better chances of spotting prized animals like tuskers and tigers. For planning a trip to Dhikala, see more details on the KMVN site.

Note: The jungle is closed for safaris during the monsoon season. The best time to visit is between November to April. However, don't be surprised to see full hotels on any odd weekend as well. Book your stay in advance.