The train reached the station early in morning. After a comfortable night spent in the upper berth of Ranikhet Express (Train #15013), where I slept like a dead man to bury; I was feeling awesome.
We hired a cab from Kathgodam that drove us through many a switchbacks and hairpin curves to Nainital in pitch darkness of early morning. It was a clear sky with bright constellations shining overhead – immaculate and sinless. As we keep driving the 24km (twice stopped at the roadside local rodeos to sip milky tea) the slopes of the Smanora Range it looked like three-dimensional charcoal drawing in shades of dark grey. A great silence spreads before us – even the birds are not awakened yet as we drove through extreme quietness around. As I rolled down the car window – a whiff of sharp, chilly January wind smothered my face so hard that I suffered from frozen nose tube during most of the journey. (Nevertheless, this did not hinder my travelling spirit except of occasional bouts of nasal congestions.)
The stretch of 23km of Nainital – Jeliokot – Haldwani (NH 87) is one of the well-maintained and broad roads compared to other hilly terrains in the northern part of the country. However, it becomes risky during monsoons adding to over-speeding, recklessness and DWI (driving while intoxicated) resulting fatalities. So far, we are safe and driving!
As the dawn, keeps breaking-in during the hour-long drive the views of Smanora range starts getting clearer. The dark sky changes over the horizon to shell pink to molten gold spreading a luminous white light and ‘sky so blue’. As more visibility gains, the charcoal-sketch mountains gains beautiful colourful patches of dark green and brown patches painted all over it. Thickly nested with tall pine and oak trees at every inch of the winding mountain slopes; white snowflakes hanging from their branches – the drive was delightful for citybreds like me.
“…it snowed last night” the driver informed. We smiled with sparkle in our eyes.
“Which hotel are you putting up?” the driver enquired as we drove the main alleys dodging the buses coming from Nainital.
“We reached?” I look around inquisitively around. Boulders and congestion – the town doesn’t look as a sleepy corridor but a claustrophobic congested mayhem.
“Yes sir! There’s the Gandhi’s statue…” He pointed his finger to a black asphalt mural mounted on a podium at the T-junction with myriad of electric and telephone cables overhead.
“TRH Tallital…” I replied grimfaced; slightly disillusioned with the loss of exclusive serenity around.
He drove left from the statue and stopped at the hotel gate, two blocks away.
While my sister retires to the hotel room to freshen-up, I stepped out for a quick stroll.
Guarded by forested valley this small but bustling tourist town at the foothills of the magnificent peaks of the outer Himalayas is an interesting stopover laced with chronicles from The Great Victorian Era and mythical stories.
Of all the earliest records, it shows that in 1823, the Commissioner of British Kumaon and Garhwal was the first to set his eyes on this pristine and quiet place known only to the local herdsmen. Then, an English merchant called M. P. Barron took a great fancy to this secret land in 1839 and somehow tricked his way to reach the lake; though often misled by the local guides and porters. During his second visit, Barron bought a huge chunk of mountainous area from Nar Singh – the village headman and built the first European house (or Pilgrim Lodge); now acquired by government and changed to Governor’s Estate. [Trivia: The house got its name, ‘Pilgrim’ not because of any mythical anecdotes related to Nainital but ‘Pilgrim’ was Barron’s nickname. Eh!]
Soon, the small and sombre valley turns to a favourite summer escapade due to its strange resemblance to Cumbrian Lake District; and more British officers settle down nearby the lake and its adjoining hills.
Nevertheless, Nainital is not a discovery by Colonial Empire. A reference to this secluded escapade in the lap of the mountain found in the ancient Hindu text ‘Skanda Purana’ – the largest Mahapurana, [a genre of eighteen Hindu religious texts devoted primarily to life and deeds of Shiva and his consort]. It happened so that three sages – namely Atri, Pulaha, and Pulastya were on pilgrimage to Himalayas when they accidently stopped at a place feeling thirsty. Since, they found no water in vicinity they dug a huge crater shape hole on the Earth and filled it with water from Mansarovar Lake. The modern Naini Lake is then called as Tri-Rishi–Sarovar (or ‘The Lake of Three Sages’).
Lore from the Skanda Purana related to how the lake got the almond shape is equally interesting. Ages unknown, there was a king called ‘Daksha’ [or Prajapati (The Principal) as referred in various Sanskrit texts] who conducted a grand Yagna. He invited all-important ones except, Shiva (The Hindu God of Destruction). His daughter Sati who is married to Shiva felt insulted and thus, jumped into the holy fire sacrificing her life to save her husband’s honour. When the news of Sati’s death reached Shiva, he invoked the Virabhadra and Bhadrakali (two of the Tantric forms) and set to ‘Dance of Destruction’ with the charred body of Sati on his shoulder. The enraged Shiva was all set to destroy the creation so, Vishnu – The Preserver start decapitating the corpse of Sati in 51 pieces which later grown into Shakti Peethas (each one claims to possess a part of Sati’s body). The eye of Sati, which is almond shaped, is believed to have fallen in Naini Lake; and thus how it got its shape. Mysticism of India enthrals me, enchants me. (Note: Incidentally, the 51 Shakti Peethas across India linked to 51 alphabets of Sanskrit.)
Life in Nainital revolves around a pear-shaped lake (of the namesake) with city bus stand at the southeast corridor called, Tallital (or Lake’s Foot). At the northwest end of the lake called Mallital (or Lake’s Head), there is an ancient temple and clutters of hotel. A long but nice promenade connects both side called ‘The Mall Road’ is open to visiting families, honeymooners and tourists to stroll, shop, and relax.
A narrow C-shaped pedestrian drive running on the western side of the lake parallel to the Mall Road is a beautiful walkway with old world charm and abundant natural serenity. Laid under the shades of tall groves of oak and deodar trees; the lane is named ‘Thandi Sadak’! (I am not sure, how it got the name – maybe the area remains under sunshade due to tall trees and remains a cool place throughout.) Joggers, elderly locals, and bohemian loner walk leisurely the lane – enjoying the freshest of air; the warm cover of shrill; gentle breeze puffing through the trees and birds chirping around.
I walk back to the hotel for the breakfast after awhile. “Room Service” a shrill voice knocked at the door balancing the tray with crispy toasted bread served with extravagant spread of butter, plus-sized omelette and pot of tea. After scrumptious and filling English breakfast (just to add the colonial feel), we booked a car for local sightseeing and set forth.
Tours in and around Nainital is grouped into three cluster – Lake View, Mountain View, and Temple View. The packages remain more-or-less the same with varying charges depending on the season and vehicle of choice. We decided to begin with Lake Views, as most of the perennial water bodies are located afar. The driver starts the engine and drove towards Bhowali.
A bustling municipal town, Bhowali is a busy road junction lined with fruit marts and shops selling woollen clothing or sweetmeats that serves as the major gateway to various places of Uttarakhand. Driving past the congested marketplace of Bhowali, we first headed to Sat-tal (A land of seven lakes).
It is a large freshwater reservoir with shinning emerald green water; in a peacefully dense but unspoiled forest at an altitude of 1,370m above sea level. Sat-tal is often compared to Westmoreland County of England for its picturesque beauty of mountains and crystal water lakes. The serene surrounding of sedimentary rocks and quartzite is the house to various migratory birds and hornbills, magpie and kingfishers. Rejuvenating and de-stressing will be the perfect words to define the experience as the boatman takes us for an hour-long tour of the lake.
A cluster of seven water areas stitched into one (as it claims), the Sat-tal Lake comprises of Ram-Tal, Sita-Tal, Lakshman-Tal, Purna Tal, Nal-Damayanti Tal, Sukha-Tal and Garur-Tal – each associated to various mythical characters from different Hindu scriptures or lore. (Interesting!)
“Where is the way to Garud Tal?” I asked the boatman referring to the small placid lake locked in hill that I saw on the way.
“Nobody goes there”, the boatman respond.
“It’s a cursed land…haunted place…nobody goes”, the boatman respond placidly while rowing those oars side-by-side in a singsong motion. Nevertheless, his uninterested voice ushered my ‘curious selfhood’.
Hills and woods have interesting stories of ghosts and ghouls and I was looking for one. Garud Tal – a place so close, serene and abandoned yet presumably haunted – how could I give it a miss? After much of pestering and request, the boatman introduced me to an elderly man with thick glasses and punctured mouth; full of mythological stories about the lakes. He took a deep breath and asked me for a cigarette and starts blowing. I am now exasperated.
In Mahabharata – Yudhishtra (the eldest brother of Pandavas) and his brothers visited the place following a fallow. In the Book of Forest, it is mentioned that he sent his brother (one-after-other) to bring water from a beautiful lake. When none of his brothers returned, he became anxious. He set to search them and found each one lying dead by a lakeside. As he kneeled to drink from the lake, a crane warned him to meet the same fate unless he answers a set of 18 questions. Yudhisthira successfully passed and the crane happily brought all his brothers alive.
The elderly man stopped; take another puff and said, “Earlier, Garud Tal is called ‘Raksaash (or Demon) Lake. The place is not haunted but got some powerful mystical powers.” [Incidentally, the crane revealed itself as the Yaksha – (a sub-caste among spirits) to Yudhisthira before it vanished in thin air.] I do not endorse superstitious or supernatural beliefs but these local anecdotes and legends are now a rare find. I believe due to its remoteness and slight faraway from other rest of lake; these local legends are woven to dissuade tourists from being adventurous.
[Trivia: Garuda Purana – one of the eighteen Puranas with 19000 slokas containing details of life after death, funeral rites and the metaphysics of reincarnation, thus it is recited as a part Antyesti (Antim Sanskar) or funeral rites (funeral liturgy) in Hinduism.”]
How much of cultural and natural glory goes unnoticed? Ahem!
As it gets warm and the reflection of the sun on the water starts to bedazzle we decided to head-on to other lake journeys. The car winded back the same Z-route crossing the Farsoli village until Kuttani-Sattal Road met Bhowali–Bhimtal–Haldwani Road near Mehragaon and then, headed southwards.
Mehragaon has its own historic lineage that dated back to First Mughal-Rajput War in 1525 when a group of Rajput belonging to Mehra (loosely transliterated from the Urdu word ‘mehram’ – the knowledgeable) community escape to the hills of Kumaon to escape the wrath of Babur (The first Mughal Emperor).
Anyways, it was already quarter to noon when we reached Bhimtal – a 5km driveway from Mehragaon. The sleepy surrounding has just woken, as the bazaar gets ready for the daily sell. Tea vendors, fruit sellers with carts of polished seasonal fruits lined up. An old man hunched over his charcoal stove, roasting groundnuts. Young shopkeepers haggling with the tourist to look at the stocks, which I kept ignoring while briskly walking toward the lake.
Bhimtal is the largest lake in the district but neither serene nor picturesque. It seems like a huge crater-shape holed into the earth and filled with water with a marble promenade lined with lamppost, an ochre-red temple, and a small hill in the middle. (There are many false claims about the scenic beauty of the lake – my experience is however revolting.)
A popular and most-narrated story about the lake is that Bhima – the second of Pandavas from Mahabharata built a temple dedicated to Bhimshwara Mahadev (The Great Shiva) but I find no sufficient relevance to it (except of its proximity to the Garuda Tal or Lake of Dead) . Nevertheless, Bhimtal does have a great offering and relevance to Indian history. [The name ‘Bhimtal’, I believe is not because of Bhima but due to its size and depth. (Bhim, in true Hindi transliteration means ‘big’). IMHO]
It served as one of the famous stopovers in ‘Ancient Silk Route’ for traders and merchants visiting Nepal or Tibet. The lake has a passing reference by Hsuen Tsang – the Chinese monk belonging to Buddhist monastic order who visited India and chronicled his famous travelogue.
Fifteen minutes…we spend fifteen minutes strolling by the lake watching a couple of duckling playfully quacking. A couple of hot piping momos (steamed dumplings) centres and local tea vendors are getting ready for their business as we headed to another lake Naukuchiatal.
The distance between Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal is approximately 7km passing through Sanguri Gaon. The place might have owned its name from the word ‘Sanguri’ (group of tectonic features that bisecting the Sivalik Hills) with extensively toiled small hills. Cattle’s, sheep, and rams grazing on the slopes and uphill; beautiful cottages made of available woods and stones, Sanguri Gaon is beautiful and perfectly picturesque.
O! The place also got an interesting ballad modelled after many lovelorn souls. Gangath – the protagonist of the tale was the son of King Vaibhav Chand visited the Bhowali-Almora region where he met Bhana (a beautiful Kumaoni girl married to Kishan Bhana from Joshikala). As love bloomed and some version of the story suggests that Bhana got pregnant with Gangnath’s child, the enraged husband hatches a plot to kill them. On the day of Holi – Hindu Festival celebrated on the last full moon of spring; Kishan Bhana killed them mercilessly (including the foetus). Before she die, Bhana, however spell a curse –
“…the mountains would dry and not a life would survive with drop of water quenching the thirst.”
As livelihood in the mountain gradually start receding and pastures begin to dry locals began to worship Gangath and Bhana to dispel the curse. [In 2015, I can see water pipes installed to the remotest uphill; and curse does not seem to be functional anymore.]
Anyways, as we kept driving straight many a hill we stopped near a shaded road where the driver pointed us to the nearby lake. Naukuchiatal (as the name suggests is a ‘lake of nine corners’) placed on a small hill is 5km driveway from Sanguri Gaon. The lake is 175 feet deep and surrounded by hills covered in trees and shrubs within an enchanting valley offering an opportunity of angling and bird watching. The place got a serene lake, shaded mountain trails and a tourist resort; ample scope for rowing, paddling or yachting if that is what your trip only involves.
To me what makes the lake interesting despite of the bland surrounding is its historic and mythological importance. One of the popular beliefs suggests a local sage (unknown) once did a great penance to Brahma (Hindu God or ‘Creator’). After years of his worship, the God pleased and created the lake, which eventually makes it one of the holiest of all the lakes in the Nainital area. Another legend suggests that Pandavas (the protagonists) from the epic drama ‘Mahabharata’ hid near Naukuchiatal during their one-year of Agyatwas (or Incognito Period) after 12-year of exile. This however, I disapprove as Pandavas disguise themselves and seek a refuge in Virat Nagri – a disputable location either Wai (Maharashtra) or Rath (Uttar Pradesh).
Conjoining the stories from Mahabharata and their association with other lakes nearby; possibly, Pandavas has been in Naukuchiatal during their one-year exile period after the Lakshagriha episode where Duryodhana (the antagonist) built them a House of Lacquer and set it to fire. The protagonists however, escaped their fate.
Anyhow, the Naukuchiatal remains a holy site where thousands of pilgrims pay a visit during the ‘Annual Escape Festival’ (during May) and Makar Sankranti – a Hindu harvest festival. Incidentally, it was January 15 – the day of Harvest festival and groups of pilgrims have crowded the place. We found ourselves among pilgrims and locales attending the annual harvesting festival marking the transition of the Sun into the zodiac sign of Capricorn on its celestial path. Tonsured heads, plates of ‘Ghughutia’ – a sweetmeat offerings for the departed soul and children singing ‘Kale Kauva…” a local song to attract the crows or migratory birds returning after their winter sojourn. (Uff!)
Since, overcrowded places and lampooning kids irritates me we decided to take upon the Mountain View; and drove back to Nainital.