Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Re-opening the uncanny can of worms

I'm sure many ardent supporters of BJP feel uncomfortable when ever the issue of the post Godhara Gujarat riots and the alleged role of Modi and his government come up. Congress and all other self-claimed secular parties always wait for an opportunity to open the can of worms where ever and when ever possible in an attempt to suppress their innumerable social injustices, as if, "I'm better if you're also no good".

No doubt the incidents in February 2002 are dark spots in the annals of the history of India, which has the rare achievement of being the only nation in the world to uphold the tradition and culture of all-inclusiveness and tolerance uninterruptedly for the longest period in human history. I don't think, irrespective of anything, any civilized and cultured person would accept any sort of act of violence against humanity. Any violence against humanity is an act of terrorism and condemnable. There shouldn't be any partiality in choosing whom to condemn or not based on any social and religious affiliation. The condemnation should come from within and should be selfless. The condemnation shouldn't be a shrewd act with something else in mind. The condemnation should come from the genuine anger against the perpetrators of the act and sympathy for the victims. Also the condemnation shouldn't be associated with any hypocrisy.

Every time Congress or any other self claimed secular party condemns the acts of violence in Gujarat I really feel more angry for those parties than I feel against the actual perpetrators of the violence. The entire act of condemnation stinks of selfishness and rot of politics. India is a free country and anyone any where can go to any place. If these people, who always try to point fingers to Modi and his government for their alleged role, are really feeling bad for the victims of the violence from the core of their heart they would have done something by this time to rehabilitate them or do something that could have made their lives better. On the contrary they have alluded with some NGOs and so called messiahs of social justice and indulged in cooking up horrid stories of atrocities and gathering fake evidences. The main aim of Congress was to get Modi into the same controversy that they had been into since their alleged role in anti Sikh violence in the past - as if, if Modi is tainted like me, then I'm also no bad!!

Alleged cases of social injustice against Congress (or for that matter of fact any other party in India) are not just limited to communal riots. The social injustice meted to the victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the victims of violence in Nandigram and Singur, the victims of indiscriminate caste killings and hooliganism by RJD, SP, BSP in the Hindi belt - just to name a few are no less than the thousands killed in communal riots before and after 1984 & 2002. The fact that Karunanidhi sees a friend in Prabhakaran, whose people were involved in killing not only Rajiv Gandhi but also many more 'Aam Aadmi' in the same suicide bomb attack is also a heinous act of social injustice meted to all who were killed. Priyanka Gandhi can forgive a lady terrorist involved in facilitating the suicide attack because she gains a lot out of this benevolence politically. But can the families of the other 'Aam Aadmi' who were killed in the same attack forgive the lady? No. Never. The same way the victims of the 1984 & 2002 riots can't forgive the people involved. Are the people killed by LTTE different from people killed in 1984 & 2002?

As I'd pointed out in some previous articles also, no party in India can be given even the pass marks when it comes to social justice. All these acts of social injustice and the people involved in them should be brought under books. This is not the responsibility of any political party, but that of the entire nation. Had Congress or CPM or SP or BSP or DMK had crystal clear credibility in providing social justice then I don't mind them shouting against Modi or anyone else for their alleged involvement in any acts of terrorism or violence or any form of social injustice. But when they themselves are not clean, they have no right to open the can just for the sake of some political mileage. 

Having said this, I don't want to say that I'm sympathetic to Modi just because I consider myself a "Friend of BJP". Jagdish Tytler was in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet just after the 84 anti Sikh riots. It took Congress almost 25 years to take any action against him, and that also in the form of not allowing him to contest an election. So why do they want Modi to resign? If finally Modi is convicted by the SC I'm sure BJP would also take a similar step that Congress has taken. But I believe BJP won't allow the Gujarat episode to drag for 25 years.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mohan's Cafe - An Inspiring Tale of Entrepreneurship

Mohan's Cafe (+91-9412162816), Kasar Devi, on Almora-Binsar-Bageshwar Road, bears the testimony of an incredible tale of entrepreneurship of a very ordinary person with very limited means but big dreams and the tenacity to make the dreams successful.

I bumped on Mohan's Cafe while returning from Almora to our resort in Binsar. It was already late evening and I had a tiring day. I'd visited the 8th century temples at Jageshwar, some 35km from Almora, took a stroll on the Light End Corner, which gives an awesome panoramic view of the far stretching Himalayas and the entire horse-shoe shaped city of Almora, visited the beautiful Ramakrishna Mission campus located perhaps in the most scenic spot of Almora and then getting back to Binsar. I wanted to pack some Kumayuni food, which I used to always prefer more than the conventional food at our luxurious and comfortable resort, for dinner. Little after Almora, at a place called Kasar Devi, on the Almora-Bageshwar road going via Binsar, I asked my driver to stop in front of what seemed to be a restaurant. That's when I saw the board "Mohan's Cafe". To my surprise I found flocks of western visitors sitting idly in open air. It was windy and the dark vast expanse in the front, which, it was clear even in the night, couldn't have been anything else than a valley. The atmosphere was just perfect for a vacation - relaxed people relishing their food, talking casually among themselves or reading books or browsing Internet - something not a very common thing in those hills of Uttarakhand - or taking collect calls at phone booths. To go to the sit out I'd to pass through the cyber cafe, phone booths and also a library well stocked with books, surprisingly, in mostly non English European languages. As I was looking for local Kumayoni food, which I figured out was not available at the Cafe, I went to a neighboring road-side food joint, but decided to come back to Mohan's the very next morning.

Next morning, on the way to Ranikhet, we decided to have our breakfast at Mohan's Cafe. If you're coming from Binsar and proceeding towards Almora, Mohan's Cafe is located little before Kasar Devi, which is a wonderful small hillock covered with deodar trees and with a two thousand year old temple at the top. The previous day I'd strolled up the winding path to the top of the hillock through the deodar forest and saw the temple which is supposed to be mentioned in Skanda Purana and several historical and ancient literature since the past two thousand years. Before taking the Uttarakhand trip I studied a bit about the local history and geography and very surprisingly I found that Kasar Devi and the temple was among the many places frequented by Swami Vivekananda during his visits to Almora. No doubt, Vivekananda had a fantastic sense of beauty that he chose Kasar Devi for his meditation. Looks like Kasar Devi has been quite famous a place for meditation and worship since historical times and it's no wonder that during the seventies it attracted the Hippies. That's when, I learnt from a French couple enjoying their English breakfast at Mohan's, the westerners located Kasar Devi as one of their rustic destinations on the Himalayas. In the past thirty years Kasar Devi became quite a popular spot for the budget western travellers who wanted to stay in Himalayas for months. Very logically most of the local houses were converted into home stays for the westerners, who got everything they wanted - peace, isolation, drugs and adventure - except for good food of their choice. That's when a tea stall owner Mohan got the idea to pitch in.

Mohan had befriended quite a few westerners, mostly people from Israel, and managed to learn their cuisine, all by himself. His customers - whom he used to serve only tea to start with - wholeheartedly taught him all they would like to eat. In due course he became an expert in preparing Indian, English and Israeli breakfast. To be very frank, till date even I don't know what's the difference between an English and Israeli breakfast. He learnt how to make good sandwiches, porridge, grilled toast, pasta and many other things meticulously. His customers were also very pleased to get homely food of their own choice alongside everything else that they already enjoying to the brim.

That's when he tapped another area - that's Internet access and provisions for phone calls. Again he got help from his customers because it's a luxury to access mails in that place. Like a savvy businessman he didn't just think about his profits but also about the fullest customer satisfaction. Otherwise why would he create a phone booth specially for only receiving calls? He had a small piece of ancestral land overlooking a wonderful valley with breath taking views of layers of mountains. He wanted to expand his business. By 2008 he had saved quite some money to invest in a little bit of infrastructure. With his own planning, in his own land, he created a small setup for a cafe with a pleasant sit out, a small covered area , Cyber Cafe, phone booths, grocery store and also a well stocked library mainly of the books left over by his customers. Recently he has also added a few rooms for staying. Mohan told me that his rooms mostly go full throughout the year. The sit out provides one of the best views of the Himalayas and his food is comparable to the best ones you might get in some theme restaurants in cities. It's just awesome to have a grilled toast and Mohan's special sandwich sitting in front of a deep valley surrounded by near and far stretching hills in all directions. Mohan's very simple designing of the entire space, manicured lawns and ethnic decorations are no less than anything designed by a trained interior decorator. Above all is his understanding of the needs of his customers. Each and every on I met at Mohan's are his highly satisfied customers.

It's so fascinating to see someone from no where to take small steps and finally setting up his own enterprise that has created employment not only for him but also for 10-15 other people in a place where sustenance of life is itself a very hard thing. Had Mohan not been an entrepreneur he would have been one of the million tea stall owners who struggle through out their lives to meet their ends. His simple ideas and great dreams made him go ahead of his peers. His conviction and satisfaction show in his face. It was a great humbling experience for me.

Anyone making a trip to Almora-Ranikhet-Kausani side should take some time off to visit Mohan's Cafe, just 6km from downtown Almora.The hill of Kasar Devi and the enchanting surroundings are just bonus!!

Library at Mohan's Cafe - available are books in several European languages

Menu Card of Mohan's Cafe: Complete with Indian, English & Israeli Breakfast, Muesli & Porridge, Pasta, Pancakes, Grilled Toast, Sandwiches & Salad

Over to Uttarakhand: Best Snaps

This is the famous Mall Road in Nainital. Surprisingly Nainital, though a bustling city, has preserved its own charm and beauty. Unlike many other popular hill stations like Ooty, Kodaikanal, Darjeeling - to name a few, Nainital doesn't seem to be decaying under the threat of over-tourism. Anyone who has visited Ooty recently knows what I mean. The Ooty lake maintained pathetically. The beautiful surroundings are just too crowded to be enjoyed leisurely. Compared to that Nainital, though equally crowded, still has a little element of leisure. The awesome Nani Lake surely takes most of the credit for the beauty and the leisure of Nainital. It's quite big and beautiful too. Most importantly it's maintained properly. The deep blue water, the matching sky and the greenery and the mountains around make Nainital just mind boggling. Mall Road runs parallel to the Naini Lake. It looks like a typical European boulevard decked with trees and popular shops, hotels and restaurants alongside. Taking an easy leisurely stroll along the Mall Road is a must if you're Nainital.

That's the view of Himalayas from Ranikhet. Trishul (seen as the leftmost peak in the picture) and the sorrounding peaks offer a spectacular view of the snow capped Himalayas from Ranikhet and many other places.

That's a view of the Himalayas from Binsar. Similar views abound in plentiful around Almora. Binsar is around 30km from Almora on the Almora-Bageshwar Road. This particular view is from a place called Kasar Devi, a place rich in history and religion, on the way to Binsar from Almora. The layers of Himalayas and the sun hidden in the clouds look like a water color painting. Though not on the popular tourist track, the areas around Almora offer some of the best views of the Himalayas. Ranikhet & Kausani (the site for 1942, A Love Story, Krish and many other movies) are also near by.

This is Gorson's Meadows, near Auli - the most popular skiing destination in India. Gorson's Valley is at an altitude close to 11000ft and is very close to Nanda Devi (within 15km aerial distance) and other about peaks like Trishul & Dunagiri. It's a fantastic place, within a few kilometers of an easy trek from the Clifftop Resort near Auli. It looks like a natural golf course with all the slopes and curves surrounded by a gentle forest and the dazzling snow capped peaks. The peak visible in the picture is Dunagiri. Gorson's Meadow is completely covered with colorful flowers around July - something like the nearby Valley of Flowers, though in a much smaller scale. It's a very good place for spending some leisure time with kids.

This picture is taken from the Clifftop Resort, where we stayed in Auli. There's nothing special about this picture other than the wonderful shades of colors that came out. I don't think I was much attracted by the shot when I took. Later when I was viewing all the pictures in my laptop this one appeared to be a wonderful one. Nanda Devi is hidden above the clouds. The construction work is for creating an artificial skiing slope that can be operational even if the natural snow is not adequate.

Over to Uttarakhand: Ranikhet - The first glimpse of Nanda Devi

Panoramic view from Ramnagar-Ranikhet Road

Trishul (extreme left): from Ranikhet

Views from Ranikhet

There's no doubt that we're really very lucky to catch some of the best glimpses of some of the most magnificent peaks of the Himalayas. In fact we understood how lucky we're only after returning back from Uttarakhand while going through the snaps that we'd taken. The experience of suddenly getting a glimpse of the panoramic view of the snow capped Himalayan ranges extending from Trishul in the west to the Panch Chuli peaks in the east - an expanse of around 65km - from a distance of about 110km can't be expressed in words. We failed to recognize at that time how lucky we're to get such an incredible view. Not many people get to see the entire range of Trishul (7120m), Nanda Devi (7817m, highest peak in India), Nanda Kot (6861m), Panch Chuli (6904m) and many more peaks and glaciers so clearly.

After a two day stay at Garjia in the Corbett National Park We're going to Ranikhet - our next destination. We're travelling on the Ramnagar-Ranikhet road, when suddenly beyond a curve the entire range appeared before us as a huge glass structure hung up in the blue sky.

The Ramnagar-Ranikhet is one of the worst roads we came across during the entire Uttarakhand trip. Not only is the road very ill maintained, it's quite dangerous too. It traverses along a barren edge of a steep ridge overlooking a deep valley. Most of the places the road doesn't even have a barricade at the edge. The surroundings are quite beautiful, but the dangerous ride doesn't give much chance to enjoy the beauty. After sometime the journey becomes quite boring because the landscape doesn't change much for miles at a stretch. That's when suddenly beyond a curve appears the dazzling structure of the snow capped Himalayan ranges. We never lost the view till Ranikhet - some 50-60km away from the place we first spotted it.

The view is just mesmerizing. I never bothered to find out which peaks they were. The names and the vital statistics of the peaks or the glaciers didn't seem to be relevant at that point of time. We just drank everything with our eyes for as long they were visible. It's only after we reached Bangalore that I started figuring out which all peaks we'd seen. And that's when I was just blown out to find out that we managed to get quite a rare view which many people would die to get. It requires the sky to be really very clear to get the uninterrupted view of the entire stretch of 65km of the mighty Himalayas from a distance of more than hundred kilometers. Later we went to Auli from where we could see the Nanda Devi at an aerial distance of only 25km. But still the beauty of the panoramic view from the Ramnagar-Ranikhet road is incomparable to anything. I searched for similar views in the entire Internet. But to my utter surprise and pride too, I could find out that our view is undoubtedly one of the best ones. I did some map study and figured out the names of the peaks that we'd seen. Knowing that we saw some of the highest peaks of the world, I wish I'd taken some better snaps. I didn't even bother to take a panoramic view of the entire range. Later I did a shoddy job with merging two snaps and creating a panoramic photo of the range stretching from Trishul to Panch Chuli.

We didn't plan to stay at Ranikhet. But we'd to break the journey from Corbett to Auli at some place. That's when we chose Ranikhet. Now I wish we stayed there more than just a part of a day. Perhaps the place we chose to stay also added more to the enchanting experience at Ranikhet. We stayed at a place called Kalawati Retreat, run by an unusual local entrepreneur who converted his ancestral land in the outskirts of the Ranikhet into a small hotel with very humble ambiance but extra ordinary hospitality and awesome food - among the best we took in our entire Uttarakhand trip. It's located near an Ayurvedic drug factory off the Ranikhet-Ramnagar road, a few kms away from downtown Ranikhet towards Ramnagar. People interested to spend a few leisurely moments in the lap of nature amidst lush green surroundings and the best possible homely food can surely try it out. The contact details for the hotel are +91-5966-220304/220394 (land line) & +91-9411308571 (mobile). It overlooks a valley which provides a wonderful view of sunset on the Himalayas. The color of the sky and the snow attains so many hues and shades in a small span of time that you're ought to keep gazing at it even long after everything gets dark.

Over to Uttarakhand: Corbett & Kaushiki

Within Corbett National Park

Teak Wood Forest in Corbett

The River Kaushiki (Kosi) flows through Corbett National Park

From Binsar we travelled to Corbett, down south and quite far off. The itinerary was off-course not the best one. Generally people travelling to Uttarakhand from Delhi cover Corbett first as that's the nearest. Nevertheless, our itinerary was quite interesting. Had it not been that way we won't have seen Kosi for so long throughout our journey. Among the various rivers we saw in course of our journey through Uttarakhand we got quite attached to Kosi, Alakananda and Pindar because they were with us for most of the times. Kosi first came by us on the way to Binsar from Naukuchiatal at a place called Khairna. She was with us for the entire stretch of the journey from Khairna to Almora. Next she came very close to us during the stay at Corbett, where our hotel, Hideway Resort, was bang in her bank at Garjiya. Again she was with us on our journey back to Binsar from Auli - from Kausani till Almora.

Kosi derives her name from Kaushiki, a river that has reference in the Puranas. This is different from the notorious Koshi that causes flood in Bihar almost every year.

The journey from Binsar to Corbett, a distance of around 150km, can be covered in 6 hours. We took the route via Almora and Ranikhet. The drive from Almora to Ranikhet is among the many wonderful ones that we took umpteen number of times during our entire Uttarakhand trip. The landscape around Ranikhet is beautiful - nothing special, but still fascinating with all the pine trees perched along the gentle slopes of the mountains, the picturesue villages and the high ranges of the Himalayas and the valleys all around us. The road from Ranikhet towards Ramnagar becomes worse more and more you travel away from Ranikhet. Not only is the condition of the road bad, but it's dangerous too. It traverses a barren and steep valley in a precarious way. There's not much you can do than to just leave your life at the mercy of the driver. At most places the road doesn't have any barricade at the edge of the mountain and a small mistake will land you deep into the valley with remote chances of survival. But despite every thing the entire stretch provides awesome views of the Himalayas. In fact it's on this way that we first saw the snow capped Himalayan ranges of Trishul and Nanda Devi - on the way back from Corbett to Ranikhet. The vegetation changes gradually as you travel more and more away from Ranikhet. Nearer to the Corbett National Park you see more of the tall teak wood forests, in place of the pines in the northern sides around Ranikhet and Almora.

Our hotel, Hideway Resort, is at a place called Garjiya, where many other hotels are huddled together within a small distance on the highway going to Ramnagar. Garjiya is close to the Amadanda gate of the Bijrani tourist zone. For better tourism management Corbett National Park is divided into five tourism zones each having a separate entry gate. As soon as the night sets in the ambiance of the entire area changes. The pitch dark night is sparsely lit only with the lights of the few hotels that stand on the highway. The local people say that seeing a tiger is not a big deal there and it's quite common to come across one anytime even on the road during the night. That's why they generally prefer to move in groups, if at all they are required to travel in the night. It's a very thrilling feeling to know that the tigers are not far away from you. The resort abounds with references to Jim Corbett. There are stories from his life and lot of his pictures on walls. The management of the resort left to stone unturned to keep tiger alive in almost all possible ways.

The next morning we went out for the Safari in the Bijrani tourist zone. We'd an open jeep and it was just too cold in the morning at 6am when the jeep was zooming fast on the highway. Our guide joined us at Amadanda entry gate. I told him that I'd been to Bandipur, Nagarhole and other Tiger Reserves in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu quite a few times but never got to see any tiger. I also told him skeptically that I didn't expect to see tiger even in Corbett. He mentioned that the chances of seeing tiger in Corbett is quite high. It seems that one out of every twenty jeeps sight a tiger every day. That's quite a high ratio compared to one in thousand in Bandipur. I took the comment with a pinch and kept on repeating that I didn't believe that sighting tiger would be that easy a thing. To prove me correct we almost came to the end of the two hours safari without seeing much. The guide consoled me saying that had I stayed at the Dhikala Forest House in the Dhilaka tourist zone then he would have guaranteed me sighting of tigers more than once. Anyway, that's sounded quite familiar because people always seem to see tigers at places where you won't go. We're almost coming out of the core area of the Bijrani zone when suddenly the guide asked the driver to turn back the jeep and enter into the jungle. Within a few minutes we're back to the same trail that we'd just covered an hour back, but now the sound of the jungle was quite different. The deer and many other animals were running like mad, the birds were chirping loudly and the entire jungle seemed to be suddenly awake with so much noise. Our sixth sense was getting active, just then we could really feel something heavy moving just behind the bush in front of us. Nothing had to be told to us to feel that we're within a few metres of tiger. That's when my wife panicked and frantically started asking the driver to get away from the place. Only once did the guide ask us whether we'd like to stay back and then even without waiting for our answers he asked the driver to turn the jeep back. After a while when my wife came to normalcy the guide told us that we're indeed very close to the tiger and we'd have seen it just in a few minutes of time. But then he also told that almost every day someone just faints upon seeing a tiger. He knew that my wife would have surely been the one to faint had we seen the tiger. He told us frankly that the driver has to often run the jeep quite fast in case the tiger gives a chase and it's not too safe to do that when someone faints. So that's how our climax ended in a very shoddy anti climax!! Nevertheless, I'll never forget the hustle and bustle in the jungle when the tiger is around, The whole jungle seems to be alerted by the arrival of the big cat.

People interested in staying in the Forest Rest Houses may refer to this link for further details. The rest houses need to be booked well in advance. Apart from that there is no other accommodation available within the forest. It's recommended to stay at Dhikala, because that's where most people see tigers.

Some good sites about information about Corbett National Park:

Over to Uttarakhand: Binsar & Almora - 'Desi' Hill Stations

The mesmerizing view of the Himalayas in and around Almora

Sunset in Almora

Two more snaps of the picturesqueue surroundings of Almora

Almora & Binsar, perhaps among the very few totally indigenously developed Hill Stations in India, provide magnificent views of Himalayas and Pine & Rhododendron trees - Entry to the Binsar Forest

To be very frank I won't have gone to Binsar if Club Mahindra didn't have any resort there. Since we became the member of Club Mahindra this was our first long trip, and trip a after almost nine years to the Himalayas. We'd planned for a vacation in US around the same time last year. But it was cancelled at the very last moment due to a series of sudden and shocking incidents. Since then we're really waiting for another trip to compensate for whatever had happened last year. We decided to go to Uttarakhand because not many places are left for us in South India. Club Mahindra has quite a few resorts in Uttarakhand. We decided to choose mainly the places where the resorts are located. 

Before browsing through the website of Club Mahindra I didn't even know about the places like Binsar or Naukuchiatal. Yes, it's sad that I (and might be most other people in India) was totally oblivious and ignorant of a part of my own country that has a rich history and culture which is no less antique or interesting than many of its better known contemporaries for a span of almost 1500 years. Had I not gone to those places, I won't have ever taken the initiative to read about their fascinating history or seen some of the oldest surviving architectures in our country.

The present day Uttarakhand has been a place that used to arouse an awe and aura among Indians since the past 3000 years. It was referred to as Kedarkhand in Vedic times (1500-1000BC), Uttarapanchal by the composers of Upanishads (700BC), Uttarakaushal in Ramayana, Uttarakuru in Mahabharata and Uttarapatti by Panini (600BC) & Kautilya (300BC). The region around Almora was mentioned in Skanda Purana as a region between Alakananda and Kaushiki (Kosi) rivers. Apart from several historical inscriptions, reference of the Kasar Devi temple on a hilltop near Almora is also found in Skanda Purana, making the temple almost 2000 years old.

Uttarakhand is divided into the eastern Kumaon and western Garhwal regions. The Katyuri dynasty ruled over the unified Kumaon and Garhwal regions for greater part of 6-12th century AD. They called their kingdom Kurmanchal, from which the term Kumaon was derived. Their first capital was at or near Joshimath, some time around 6-8th century and later the capital was moved to Baijnath. At its peak the Katyuri kingdom stretched from Kabul to Nepal. It was during the Katyuri Rule that Adi Shankacharya (788 - 820 AD) came to the Himalayas. He founded four 'Maths' (centers for learning and propagating Hinduism) in the four corners of India - Sringeri in Karnataka, Dwarka in Gujarat, Puri in Orissa and a place called Jyotirmath (Joshimath) in the Himalayas.  It's really fascinating to know that someone had travelled the length and the breadth of our country on foot some 1200 years ago with a missionary zeal. Joshimath's shot to fame mainly due to its association with Adi Shankacharya, who hailed from Kerala and finally died in Kedarnath. The temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath, both of which have been well referenced in ancient literatures and mythologies as holy places, are believed to be re-enshrined by Adi Shankacharya, though the present temple buildings at both the places were constructed much later.  During the same period the Katyuri Kings started constructing many temples at places around Almora - Bageshwar, Baijnath & Jageshwar. Most of these temples (or rather temple complexes) were renovated, constructed and  reconstructed by multiple rulers over the next many centuries.  Most of these temples, dating back to 7-8th century AD, exist even today in very good conditions in wonderful surroundings and locales. I can't but say that the sites of each temple were chosen in such a way that the natural beauty of the surroundings itself could arouse a sense of divinity and spirituality. It's no wonder that many spiritual leaders used to always choose the best place to medidate. Adi Shankacharya walked some 2500km from his home to see the Himalayas, Guru Govind Singh chose the awesome Hem Kund Sahib and most recently Swami Vivekananda chose Kasar Devi, a hill near Almora, for meditation. Rabindranath Tagore also took solace for some time in Almora during a turbulent period of his life when he had a series of personal tragedies between 1900 and 1910. It's not a bad idea to keep a track of the places visited by such people for what-so-ever reasons because undoubtedly they had a much greater sense of beauty. A visit to Almora and the surrounding places bear testimony to the superior sense of beauty of these people.

Coming back to the history - the Katyuri kingdom brokedown into several small principalities around 11th century AD when the Chand Rulers, a line started by Som Chand in 7th century AD in Champawat, close to Nepal border, took control over the greater part of Kumaon or Kurmanchal. The Chand King Kalyan Chand founded Almora in 1563 as the new capital of the Chand Kingdom. Binsar used to serve as their winter capital for sometime. 

Even during the reign of the Katyuri KIngs, the Garhwal region had many small principalities, one of which was started by Kanak Pal, a prince from Malwa, in 823 AD and the kingdom lasted for almost 1200 years and 60 generations, till 1947. After the fall of the Katyuris in 11th century AD, 52 such principalities, each with its own fort or Garh (from which came the name Garhwal), came into prominence in the Garhwal region. Ajay Pal, the 37th descendant of Kanak Pal integrated all the 52 principailities in 1358 and ruled over entire Garhwal region for the next 700 years. Eventually they took the title 'Shah', inline with the Muslim Emperors of Delhi, to express their suzerainty. Kumaon also came under their rule once the Chand Kings became weak in 18th century. The Garhwal Kingdom (which finally became the Tehri-Garhwal princely state during the British rule) remained independent even during the Mughal supremacy, resisting attacks from Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb number of times.

That's the history of the Kumaon and Garhwal - a history rich in mythology, gallantry, religion, culture and philosophy. Almora and Binsar are perhaps among the very few hill stations not built by the Britishers. And perhaps not many places would you see existing buildings which are some 1400 years old.

During and before the trip I spent some time in reading all these and hence I was already excited to see some of the places like Jageshwar & Kasar Devi. After spending two days at Naukuchiatal we drove to Binsar, via Bhowali, Khairna & Almora. The river Kosi started accompanying us from Khairna. The road (NH 87E) is in pretty good condition and passes through pine forests, valleys, small gorges and the gentle slopes of the mountains. Every corner, every turn unveils a new beauty and a new view. It's the same hills and the same rivers that we saw for the next 10/12 days, but we never got bored.

Almora is located on a horse-shoe shaped hill. Hence each of the main roads is also horse-shoe or semi circular shaped, located at various alititudes. From a distance the entire Almora city looks like a gallery. Some of the best views of the valleys and the mountains can be seen from the road called Bright End Corner. Don't miss to take a leisurely stroll on this road. Also don't miss the Ramakrishna Kutir, located at an end of the Bright End Corner, at the most scenic spot in Almora.

The road from Almora to Binsar, under repair when we're travelling, offers magnificient views, some of which are presented above. Perhaps the best view is around Kasar Devi from Mohan's Cafe, a favorite hang-out for western tourists. A stroll through the deodar trees along the gentle slopes upto the Kasar Devi temple on the top of the Kasar Devi Hill is very refreshing. The air is pure, climate cool and the surroundings serene. People ought to get spiritual at such places.

A visit to the Binsar Forest is another surprisingly wonderful experience. It's full of pine and rhododendron trees. The 1/2 hour journey to the 'Zero Point'  vista spot in Binsar from the Almora-Bageshwar road through dense forest is very scenic. We're not that lucky to see some awesome views from the Zero Point, nevertheless we never felt bad for that. Any thing there would evoke awe and astonishment.

People interested to stay within the Binsar forest may check out for the Binsar Estate Grand Oak Manor. The KVMN Rest House, very close to Zero Point, like any other KVMN hotel, is located in one of the best possible spots.

Over to Uttarakhand: Jageswar - History in the cradle of nature

Perched in Deodar forests and lost in time and are the 8th century temples of Jageswar

Mystic surroundings of Alomra - like a water painting

India is a land of history and age old traditions that have remained alive even after many thousand years. Every nook and corner abounds with an interesting tale which, over the ages, has slipped into a myth - very much like a distant object which looks misty to bare eyes. At many places it seems almost impossible to differentiate between the myth and the actual history. This very limitation makes most stories of the ancient India more fascinating to hear, even if they might not attract a rational and logical mind. Uttarakhand is a place where there are myths around every place you go. The grand Himalayas had attracted the imaginations and fantasies of people since the earliest days of civilization. The invincibility and the grandeur made the Himalayas a very mysterious object to the people. And where ever there's an element of mystery there's also a natural spirituality and divinity associated to it. So very naturally Uttarakhand has been always depicted as a divine land. Each invincible peak or gorge or terrain or valley became the abode of some God and a place of pilgrimage. 

Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri have been places of piligrimage for ever. There's no clear historical account about who first established these places. The entire region of present day Uttarakhand was referred to as Kedarkhand in Vedic times (1500-1000BC), Uttarapanchal by the composers of Upanishads (700BC), Uttarakaushal in Ramayana, Uttarakuru in Mahabharata and Uttarapatti by Panini (600BC) & Kautilya (300BC). Kedarnath and many places close by have been referred to in the ancient Sanskrit literary works like Mahabharata (600BC) and several Puranas (600BC onwards). Badrinath has been also referred to in several Puranas. Near Badrinath is the Mana village - the last village before Tibetan border - where Vyasa is believed to have composed the Mahabharata in a cave christened Vyasa Cave. 

Perhaps the eraliest historical record of the 'Chaar Dhaam' or 'The Four Holy Shrines' - Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri can be traced to Adi Shankacharya (8th century AD), who had visited Kedarnath and Badrinath and is credited to have re-enshrined the temples at both the places. Over the years the temples have undergone several renovations. The present forms of the temples at both the places won't be older than a few centuries. Compared to that the temples at Jageshwar, Bageshwar & Baijnath - all around Almora - date back to 7th century AD. Not many people are aware of these temples, which are undoubtedly among the oldest existing temples and historical monuments of India. I don't think there would be many monuments in India much are older than these.

The area around Alora abounds with temples. I was specially attracted to Jageshwar, Bageshwar & Baijnath just because of the sheer antiquity of these monuments which were constructed between 7-18th century, first by the Katyuri Kings (7-12th century AD) ruling a greater part of present day Kumaon and Garhwal regions and and later by the Chand Kings of Kumaon. Jageshwar was also the site for cremation for the Chand Kings.

Jageshwar is around 35km east of Almora on the Almora-Pithoragarh road, Bageshwar around 70km north of Almora and Baijnath another 20km west of Bageshwar on the way to Karnaprayag. I was staying in Binsar, some 25km from Almora on the Almora-Bageshwar road. I had only a day in Binsar to see these temples. I chose the nearest one - Jageshwar. The drive to Jageshwar is wonderful. The road going to Pithoragarh is very scenic one passing through alpine forests. The gentle slopes of the hill covered with tall alpine trees and the properly maintained meandering road lapping around the forest provide awesome views. The fascinating thing is that it's every where the same view but still you won't get bored at any moment. Jageshwar consists of a group of 125 temples of various shapes and sizes built over a thousand years. We saw two of the temple sites with a cluster of 10-15 temples at each place. Each of these sites are amidst dense deodar forest. The surroundings provide an awesome backdrop to the temples. The easy slopes of the hills are covered with a type of long grasses which look like green carpets from a distance. The tall and dense deodar trees create a cool and serene atmosphere all around. The small hamlet of Jageshwar, the narrow insignificant rivulet flowing by, the thin road that has brought us to Jageshwar from the Almora-Pithoragarh highway, the quiet surroundings and the few people lingering leisurely - all very simple things but still seem so extra ordinary in the cradle of nature. In the middle of everything stand the temples some of which are  close to 1400 years old. It always fascinates me to think of the days when the earliest Katyuri King came to this place, got mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the place and constructed the first temple. Ages have passed but the beauty of the place remained in tact. I could feel the sheer joy the kings would have felt every time they came to this place. The breeze blowing through the deodar trees seems to also speak of the joy and the surpirse that the humanity has felt for the past many centuries.

On the way back from Jageshwar, I took a drive through the beautiful city of Almora which provides some of the best views of the Himalayas.

Though I didn't get tme to visit Baijnath the same day, but I managed to pass by it on the way back to Binsar from Auli. The temple at Baijnath is on the bank of river Saraju. 

The KMVN hotels provide decent accomodation at all these places - Jageshwar, Bageshwar and Baijnath - at the best possible locations. I would surely recommend people to visit Jageshwar during their stay at Almora or Ranikhet. Baijnath and Bageshwar are very close to Kausani. You should visit both these places from Kausani. If you are staying in Almora or Binsar or Ranikhet you can have a day trip either to Jageshwar or to Baijnath & Bageshwar. From Kausani Baijnath and Bageshwar shouldn't be more than an hour or so.

Over to Uttarakhand: Gorson's Meadows

Dunagiri Peak - from Gorson's Meadows

The fascinating curves and surroundings of Gorson's Meadows

Chaukhamba cluster of peaks: as seen from Gorson's Meadows

Chaukhamba & Neelkanth Peaks: as seen from Gorson's Meadows

Gauri & Hathi Parbat Peaks: as seen from Gorson's Meadows

People know of the Valley of Flowers, but the Gorson's Meadows, quite nearby seems to be a closely guarded secret. Even during the 3km trek from Clifftop Resort in Auli to Gorson's Meadows through a forest we had no idea about what was there in store for us just a few moments ahead. From the resort till the tower number 9 of the Joshimath-Auli Cable Car (supposed to be highest and 2nd largest in Asia) it's a gentle walk alongside the construction work for an artificial skiing slope. Just beyond the tower 9, the endpoint of the cable car, starts  the jungle and also a not-so-gentle ascent, which may not be comfortable for kids who can ride on horses. A few minutes of trek through the forest leads to a temple of a pagan forest goddess. All along the the trek through the jungle various peaks like Gauri Parbat, Hathi Parbat and Dunagiri are visible from various angles from behind the trees. Very soon after crossing the temple the jungle ends abruptly you are suddenly standing in front of a vast expanse of an undulating terrain of gentle slopes and curves covered naturally with green grass and surrounded by snow capped peaks in two sides and the thin jungle in the other two. That's the Gorson's Meadows. The appearance of the Meadows is so sudden that you are bound to be stuck with an awe for sometime. The entire landscape just contains three colors - green of the grass, white of the snow and blue of the sky - the combination of which creates a fascinating and soothing effect. The gentle but biting-at-times breeze touches you from time to time. Intermittently there is some snow on the meadow. A little trek upwards leads you to more areas covered with snow even in April. The entire stretch of land looks like a natural golf course decked with snow at two sides. The most fascinating part of the meadows is the superb view of the Dunagiri peak. The place is perfect for a leisurely stroll as long as you wish. The serenity and the peace all around fill your heart with a sense of spirituality. You feel like languishing around for ever and get lost. Our guide told us that the entire meadow is covered with natural flowers around July.

Gorson's Meadows is the starting point for the trek through Kunwara Pass.

Over to Uttarakhand: Auli - The Abode of Snow

Nanda Devi - seen from our resort in Auli

Our resort - overlooking the Nanda Devi at sun down

Twin peaks - Gauri & Hathi Parbat as seen from the Gorson's Meadows, Auli

Dunagiri peak

Auli was the final destination for us in the Uttarakhand trip. Auli is a very unconventional tourist place in India. It's for sure not in the popular tourist circuit in India. Unless it's a pilgrim place, in general, the main bulk of tourists in India stick to places that are most easily accessible and provide ample scope for 'conducted tours'. If any place is covered in any popular 'package' then that's an added advantage. Auli is neither a pilgrim spot, nor easily accessible. It also doesn't feature in any of the see-Uttarakhand-in-seven-days or Himalayan-bonanza type of package offered by the types of Cox & Kings or Thomas Cook or SOTC. To add to it is the fact that not much option is left for accommodation there. All these factors have ensured that the serene surroundings of Auli are not cluttered with plastics and other excreta of the insensible Indian tourists.

There are indeed several unique features of Auli which have made it quite popular in blogosphere. Perhaps the most important feature of Auli is that it has the most popular ski slope in India. It’s claimed that the slopes of Auli are among the best in the world. I read a lot about Auli for quite some time and finally decided to include it in our itinerary though skiing is one of those many things which look nice to me only in TV and it can never be the deciding factor for me to select a destination for vacation. An added advantage for us was the fact that there’s a Club Mahindra associate hotel – the Clifftop Resort – in Auli. Ever since we took the Club Mahindra membership we’re always motivated to explore destinations in and around places that have their hotels. All such places we had been in the past offered quite enjoying vacations to us. So we’d expected something similar in Auli. We thought it would be just another place with a good hotel and decent sightseeing. We never expected that Auli would be one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen on earth. Just to summarize, we saw better mountains and more snow from Auli than our entire Switzerland trip in 2004.

Our itinerary was something like this – directly go to Naukuchiatal from Delhi – stay there for 2 days – reach Binsar on 3rd day – stay there for 2 days – go to Corbett on the 5th day – stay again for 2 days and then go to Auli in the 7th day and stay for 4 days. I did a little mistake in creating the itinerary. We should have first gone to Corbett, then to Naukuchiatal towards North, then to Binsar, further north and then to Auli which is very close to the Tibetan border. This way we could have optimized a bit in road travel. I didn’t quite understand that before confirming the hotel bookings. While studying the map in more details just before our trip I discovered my mistake, but that was too late to change the hotel bookings. So we had to stick to the original itinerary. But it was very clear that it’s almost impossible to make a direct journey of more than 300km from Corbett to Auli in a single day. So we decided to break the journey at Ranikhet, which is little more than 100km from Corbett and can be done in a few hours. The next day early morning after the breakfast we started for our journey to Auli from Ranikhet – a distance close to 200km.

At Ranikhet we got the first glimpses of the fascinating snow capped peaks of the grand Himalayas. It was a mesmerizing view of a huge stretch of the Himalayas extending from the peak Trishul in the west to Panchchuli in the east – a stretch of a few hundred of kilometres. The nearest part of the stretch is something like 150km from Ranikhet. The most fascinating thing of the entire stretch is obviously the Nanda Devi, the highest peak of India, if you discount Kanchenjungha, which is partly in Nepal. Within the next 8 hours of the journey from Rabikhet to Auli we gradually came closer and closer to Trishul and Nanda Devi. Finally from the Clifftop Resort in Auli we’re within 50km of Nanda Devi which stayed in front of your eyes for the entire duration of our stay at Auli for 3 days. Nanda Devi is one of the most fascinating peaks I’ve ever seen. It has a wonderful shape that stands out even from a distance of 200km. From anywhere Nanda Devi is visible it’s so easy to identify the peak even amongst a crowd of many other peaks.

The journey from Ranikhet to Karnaprayag – a distance of about a 120km – through Dwarahat, Chaukhutia, Gairsain and Adi Badri is not anything that can be called very unique. The condition of the road is also not very good in many parts. The condition becomes quite bad towards the last stretch after Adi Badri, a site of very old temples dating more than a thousand years. Close to Karnaprayag the river Pindar joined us from the right. Pindar gave us company till Karnaprayag where it merges with Alakananda. For the remaining part of the journey till Joshimath Alakananda was always to our left. We took our lunch at Karnaprayag – a beautiful place of confluence of Pindar and Alakananda – the two rivers whose water flow into Ganga. Alakanada, merged with Mandakini at Rudraprayag, finally meets Bhagirathi at Devaprayag further down, close to Rishikesh and is known as Ganga from there. Karnaprayag, though a beautiful place, and also an important pilgrim place for the Hindus, doesn’t have any good hotel or restaurant. It’s really interesting to know that millions of people visit each of the confluences every year but very few complain about the lack of the basic amenities. Perhaps that’s a part of the austerity involved in pilgrimage.

From Karnaprayag the Army maintained NH58 always skirts along Alakananda which comes so close at many places that you can even see the pebbles under her water, and at times goes so deep down that you just see a narrow line of sparkling water through a dangerous gorge. The road becomes quite dangerous at times with the deep gorge starting abruptly from its edge. At many places there’s even no barricade at the edge of the road. A little mistake in diving can lead to a really fatal accident. The mountains and the gorges become very barren at places with not much of greenery around. Passing through Nandaprayag – the confluence of Nandakini and Alakananda, Gopeshwar, Chamoli and Pipalkoti the road moves up slowly providing innumerable fascinating vista points at every curve and bend. A major problem is that you would just miss a wonderful view while busy taking a snap of another one in your camera. Sometimes I feel the cameras are the most irritating things that anyone can have in such wonderful trips where every nook and corner is photogenic. It’s much more relieving and enchanting to preserve the picture in your own eyes rather than trying to capture it in a few millions of pixels. Soon after Pipalkoti the twin peaks of Gauri and Hathi Parbat start playing hide and seek with you. The beauty increases proportionately with the danger of the road. Passing by Helang we reached Joshimath around 4pm - almost seven hours after we’d started from Ranikhet.

Joshimath holds an important position in the history of Uttarakhand. It’s from here that the Katyuri kings, one of the earliest rulers of Garhwal and Kumaun, started their kingdom sometime in 6th century. Joshimath is also the place where Adi Shankacharya came towards the end of the 8th century and founded one of his four 'Maths' (centers for learning and propagating Hinduism) – the other three are in three other corners of India – southern Sringeri in Karnataka, western Dwarka in Gujarat and eastern Puri in Orissa. It's really fascinating to know that someone had travelled the length and the breadth of our country on foot some 1200 years ago with a missionary zeal. Joshimath shot to fame mainly due to its association with Adi Shankacharya, who hailed from Kerala and finally died in Kedarnath. The temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath, both of which have been well referenced in ancient literatures and mythologies as holy places, are believed to be re-enshrined by Adi Shankacharya, though the present temple buildings at both the places were constructed much later.

In most part of the year (except April and November) Auli can be reached from Joshimath in cable car – claimed to be the largest in Asia – which remains out of operation in April and November for maintenance purpose. The cable car looks very much like the one in Mt. Pilatus, in Switzerland. I learnt that the cable car was installed by some European firm and hence the resemblance is no coincidence. As we’re travelling in April we’d to take the torturous route from Joshimath to Auli on our Tata Indigo. At many places it was mentioned that a four wheel drive is required for the 17km road journey from Joshimath to Auli. But we could do it quite well in our Indigo. The last 3 km to the Clifftop Resort was really bad and we did think many times that we should have hired a four wheel drive, at least from the centre of Auli to the resort.

The most fascinating part of Auli is the Nanda Devi, visible all the day in front of you from the resort. We got some of the best snaps of Nanda Devi and other peaks. I didn’t come across a better snap anywhere in the internet. There’s a serenity in the beauty of Nanda Devi that ought to instil a sense of spirituality in everyone’s mind. We’re finally close to the peak that we’ve been seeing for more than a day from various places and distances and angles. Everywhere Nanda Devi always stood apart from any other peak. It had already aroused a sense of suspense in us about how it would look like from a close distance. And here we were, standing just within a stone’s throw (well, assuming that the stone can travel some 50km) from Nanda Devi.

Close to the resort, within a 3km trek is the Gorson’s Meadows the other most fascinating thing about Auli apart from the Nanda Devi. I went twice to the Gorson’s Meadows and got some of the best pictures of Dunagiri, another wonderful photogenic peak visible from Auli.

The three day stay at Auli was one of the best vacations in our life. We perhaps never were so much mesmerized by the beauty and charm of a mountain. Even after weeks of our return the view of Nanda Devi still lingers in my mind. I can still feel the magnificent peaks standing in front of me.

We chose to break our journey back from Auli ro Delhi at Binsar. The way back is same till Karnaprayag, from where we took the route towards Baijnath. Pindar gives a constant company from Karnaprayag till a place called Tharali. Pindar never goes so deep as Alakananda and hence at every turn and curve it fascinates you with its charm. Pindar never goes away of your sight till Tharali after which you move a little south towards Gwaldam and Pindar moves northeast towards the Pindari glacier. Along the way we saw the gorgeous and colourful Vaishakhi celebrations of the local people.

From Baijnath we took the longer route to Binsar through Kausani – another wonderful place in Kumaun. Kausani offers some of the best views of the Himalayas and the valleys. You’re never alone in these routes. Soon after Kausani you’re greeted by Koshi, which gives you company till Almora from where we took the deviation towards Binsar. We stayed in Binsar for two days after which we returned back to Delhi – the plains – after a two weeks’ vacation in Uttarakhand.