That’s the beauty of traveling to places that are so rich to offer everything. Even in the stay of less than a day, we felt pretty well fed, in terms of having grasped the beauty and one-of-its-kind views at Abbott Mount. So here we were, driving down the steep, again praying that we do not encounter any vehicle going uphill… and in no time were amid lush green canopy on the great Himalayan slopes. On our way up, we had noticed 3 little goose-like animals. They were black in color with white spots, were about a feet tall and a feet and a half long and very, very agile. They crossed the road in a jiffy and then crossed it back again. It all happened in a matter of few seconds. We didn’t get any time to prepare our shooting devices and for a long time, the cabin was abuzz with what kind of animal that was. We even came close to assuming that may be we have made a discovery and may be we can have our name go into thick-and-boring biological books but better sense prevailed. While driving back towards Lohaghat, we were looking around with the hope of spotting the jumpy siblings again but to no avail and we reached Lohaghat.
The route that took this time covered Lohaghat – Rameshwar – Gangolihat – Bhuvneshwar – Gangolihat – Berinag – Udiyari Bend – Chakori. The total distance was about 140 Kilometers, including the detour to Patal Bhuvneshwar. We were hopeful of reaching Chakori by daylight and were in no rush, as we leapt on NH 125 at Lohaghat.
Here is the route that we took.
The above route is from Lohaghat to Udyari bend since Chakori and other places are not plotted on Google Maps. Also there was a 28 KM (both sides) detour for Patal Bhuvneshwar. And finally, the distance might look small when you are now in upper Kumaon region and your average speed per hour is usually not more than 26-28 KM per hour.
NH 125 is a well laid road and it connects Sitarganj (close to Rudrapur) to Pithoragarh via Tanakpur, Champawat and Lohaghat, along the Indo-Nepal border. The drive from Abbott Mount to Lohghat is scenic with that air of Himalayan solitude but as soon as you join the main highway at Lohaghat, there is more action on the road. We moved on towards Gangolihat admiring the lofty mountains, carpeted green by the aspiring Monsoon and gleaming fresh from the overnight rains.
The weather was pleasant and there was a growing desire inside the cabin to stop for a road-side tea break. Since we started a bit late and were fearing heavy rains, we decided to go slow and steady but no break. Our next scheduled break was to be at Patal Bhuvenshwar. But more of that later.
We kept on driving and reached a fork where we had to leave NH 125 and get onto the road that connects Gangolihat. We were told by Bunty not to expect a very good road in this section but our Euphoria over Uttrakhand roads didn’t let us see this and what a great surprise it was. The moment , I took the side of the fork which was closer to me, right before that bridge which goes over the river, separating the two forks, we knew that we are in for some character-building session. The road started to give way to rubble very soon. It was a one-carriage-at-a-time way, and not too wide. There weren’t enough vehicles but having lost the flexibility of any shoulder, the drive needed extra caution. We carried on in the hope that very soon, things would improve.
After a while, I think we started gaining height and though there was enough oxygen for my car to warrant any special action, I could sense that the howls had increased. We were now making very little progress and the constant jar had dampened all the poor jokes in the cabin, the distance flaunting milestones were appearing late than desired and it was time to look beyond the next pothole and ensure that we make progress, howsoever little it may be. The only distractions were those three Tata Sumos, laden with climbing gears and well-built, weather-weathered faces who seems to have been returning from a greater character building trek or a climb. We did pass through some Himalayan villages but overall it looked lonesome and arid with Sun shining to its full glory.
After a while, we climbed down and noticed that every few hundred meters there is this drain like underpass being made so that the rain water, as it comes downhill, gets an alternate path to move on, without bothering the tar or at times without taking it away with her. This was not the usual big sewer pipe but a concrete concoction. And since they could not dig it across the width in one go, so as to not completely stop the traffic, they were doing it in two rounds. So if you are not careful, you might lose half of your car (OK, I agree I am being too imaginative) and that made the progress slower and more painsome.
It was close to 2.30 when we reached Gangolihat or the point where we had to take the detour towards Bhuvneshwar. We decided to take a halt there itself for lunch but since we were not getting much there, we decided to rather go all the way to Patal Bhuvneshwar. The growling bellies were back to the cabin. Patal was still 14 KM away and it would have taken at least 30-40 minutes for the complete drive and all were dreading that we may not get much to eat at Patal since we would be reaching their pretty late. Since it was a place of religious importance, we were banking on the fact that if nothing else at least each one of us can have a half a KG of laddoos. To tell you the truth, the Poori and Aloo ki Sabzi that we had at Bunty’s had run its course quite a while ago and all eyes were jutting out for a good place to eat.
As they say that whole universe conspires to make it happen, there appeared a board saying ‘Parvati Resort/Restaurant’ and we steered towards it. After a brief drive down, with thoughts of how this place can turn out as a big disaster, there appears a clean, brightly painted hotel with a large and airy dining hall right in the front. Tell me if you are not feeling hungry as you read this. We were starving and ordered as much of everything as we could. The place turned out to be a hero, high on hygiene, hot good tasty food, polite staff and a great service. The lady at the reception told us about the group and their plans about coming up with more properties. We also looked at a room and it looked pretty tempting. Had we not booked at Chakori, we might have stayed there for the night. Pitying on the the pitfalls of a well planned trip, we moved on towards Patal.
The main temple is about 200 meters away and there is a cemented pathway which takes you to the mountain complex. Before the main temple, there is a KMVN Guestouse and like all the guest houses, this one too has a great location. There is no parking and I would assume that during special religious occasions, it might get a bit difficult to manage your way towards temple. We reached there at about 5 PM and there were not more than 20-30 people in total.
As you enter the complex, you do not see any apparent structure because its underground, a natural cave complex. There is a log maintained by the priests, accounting all visitors that they reconcile as you get out. We were offered a Guide who we graciously took and decided to get in. Yeah, unlike many (or all) temples, you had to climb down as much as 100 feet. As we peeped in, what we could see was few steps, made by cutting rocks, and a pool of darkness. We were not confident on taking the kids so it was just I and my friend who went in.
After a few steps, the pool of darkness gave way to a dingy and damp natural tunnel with protruding rock projections from the sides. In no time, we lost our guide who by virtue of his multiple visits every day was quick like a rabbit. After about 20 steps, I decided to go back. I ‘caved’ in. I could look back and see a faint flash of light and when I looked down – saw darkness, smelled damp rocks – the natural rock cut stairs were hard to put your foot on and it was getting claustrophobic. I decided to go back to light, to go back to the mundane car parking that was not there, to KMVN cafe to have the great Himalayan sweet tea, to go back and get stuck in a highway Jam. But my friend from Mumbai had to compensate for the cost he spent on his last minute air-ticket and he was in no mood to even entertain any of those thoughts. We were at a point where there was not enough head room, so we were crouching trying to hold on to the iron chain, and make a firm footing on the stones made extra smooth by years of wear. And in this state of indecisive calm, we realized that someone is coming up. We knew that we can not pass on as mountain creepers, stuck to the surface so we acknowledged their presence. Our crouched bodies responded and we stretched ourselves to make enough space for them to go up and when we looked at their face, it was glowing. These folks looked at us and for the flash of time, when they passed over us (literally over us), we were suddenly much more brave. We decide to carry on and after slithing and crawling and crouching and chanting “Har Har Mahadev”, we landed in a clearing having enough head room, about 10 feet.
It would be too humble to say that I was relieved to have finally made it and it was a pleasure looking at my guide, beaming with pride, coming from the ownership of this miraculous structure. He was ready to show us around and after taking a good eye full, we went with him to discover caves after caves, hundreds of small natural structures which have now elaborate mythological stories.
Text from the above picture.
Welcome to Patalbhuvaneshwar Cave
Introduction of the cave of Patalbhuvneshwar
This awesome cave is believed to be as old as the earth itself. It has been mentioned in details in the 103 chapter of Manaskhand of ‘Skanda Purana’. The first human entered this cave was kind ‘Rituparna of Suraya dynasty during the ‘Tretayuga’. It is said that during his visit, he had encountered with several devices and ‘Adieshsa’ himself acted as his guide.
In ‘Duapar’ yuga, this cave is rediscovered by Pandavas.
In Kaliyuga Adishankar Acharya consecrate this cave and since 1191 the priests have been performing rituals here and people have been visiting there both for worship and for wonder.
For worship in this cave, priest (Bhandari Family) came from Kasht (Bhandaris) are appointed by Chand dynasty kind. At present, 18th generation of Bhandari priests are doing all the religious ceremony along with – Rawals, Gurs, Dsaunis, Duapas, Bhuls.
President – Mandir Committee
There must be many entries to go inside and I am guessing that they have opened only one, which is in the scrutiny of the local trust. We were taken to numerous little structures and each was explained in detail, in terms of their religious values and importance. I tried to steer away from the topic and get some geological facts but was not entertained. You climb up and down and find yourself in another cave and it continues for at least an hour. There are formations that look like ‘chaar dham’ and then there are interpretations about four Yugas. At once place, there is a great formation of limestone, something which you might see on internet or in books. The local meaning of these is that they are Shiva’s jatas. It is mind boggling to be through with everything inside and I would imagine that in yesteryears, the place would have attracted all kinds of people. To have this kind of elaborate cave complex which is intact over the centuries is a marvel. I can bet that such a marvel would get so much special treatment elsewhere that it would be on top of travel chart but out here, it was something which was just like a characteristic of the local culture and belief system. Photography was not allowed inside and the cellphones had to be submitted at the entrance. Every now and then, someone would climb down, urban folks, village folks, folks who came for the awe of it, folks who were there to pay obessience for a fulfilled wish, a group from West Bengal who seemed to have their own interpretation and a couple from Gujarat beaming and chanting ‘Paisa Vasool’. All this very much lives and stays together. So we soaked as much as we could in that dark cell and started climbing up, carrying the same glow as every other visitor who is been to this place. The stretches and pulls and crawls were remembered for many days by our urban bodies.
We walked out and moved towards KMVN Cafe. We had spent quite a time inside and everyone was now looking forward to a tea break. On the way, we clicked this picture.
Look at nature’s way of camouflaging its creatures. The pattern on the butterfly is same as the step of the plant.
One for the KMVN.
The placed looked OK. Cafe was not impressive. It was right on the pathway which led to the temple so I would imagine that it would be attracting a lot of rush during day. It overlooked a garden, which boasted of some of the great Himalayan flora, bright orange colors.
Right in front of KMVN, there is a post office.
May be we should have a post-office Kiosk outside monuments, places of interest selling picture postcards where one can walk-in , write some text and put in the mail-box. May be they can be a collector’s item as you might want to post them to yourself and keep them as souvenirs once you receive them via post. So much to do. We moved back to our car and started our journey towards the main highway leading to Berinag.
There was a new energy in the cabin as we explained what we just saw and surviving the bad roads, we reached ‘Berinag’. We were looking for a local spirit shop to further stock our quota of water of life. Strangely, we didn’t see any. I am sure, we would not have been very alert. Berinag looked like a small hilly town with its own share of Sweets shops, Kirana Stores and so on. The road went through the market and it was not a small market. The journey from Berinag to Udiyari bend was not too exciting. It was a little warm at Berinag. As we reached Udiyari bend, we took the road that goes to Thal and then to Munsyari and suddenly everything changed. This is the road which is coming from Bageshwar (we would take this road on the way back) and what a road it is. After the harrowing experience of Gangolihat stretch, we could not believe our luck. We started gaining height and went all the way up to Chokori, the tea-estate town.
While driving from Udiyari Bend to Chaukori, we realised everything changed post Udiyari. Suddenly the wheels were on an amazing road that smelled so sweet and beautiful, somewhat like the early winters of Delhi that smell of Harsingar Trees. The weather became beautiful as the twilight started setting in. With the clouds floating, it seemed that we are now in a different world. All the hardship seemed well worth it and we reached Chaukori, and the hotel we stayed in smelled of luxury which we had earned.
The Family suite was very clean, well equipped and had a big bathroom with running geysers. In no time we were standing amid the dark, listening to deafening sounds of crickets and soaking that fresh mountain air. It was time to just lie down and enjoy.
In my next post, I shall take you around Chaukori, with a quick trip to Kasturi Mrig Research Centre followed by a evening walk to an abandoned estate house. Goodnight.