The Hills Are Alive

There are two ways to drink nectar from a rhododendron flower. The first is to break open the lily-like buds and slurp it up. The other way is to gently pull out one of the buds, place the stalk on your lips and suck up the delicate drop of sweet liquid. It might not seem to be very different, but to the people of the Almora valley, it is as important as the correct way to hold a champagne flute. And why not? Even paradise has its rules.

A rhododendron flower. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

I was told this by Govind Singh, a one-time forest ranger and now the caretaker of the forest Guest House in Binsar, a forest spread over 47 sq. km, which has been converted into a sanctuary under the aegis of the Corbett National Park. The cool breeze of the forest was a relief after a hot and dusty drive up through the Uttar Pradesh heartland. Less than 500 km from Delhi, the drive to Binsar is like a 10-hour geography lesson, as you rise from the Indo-Gangetic plain and up through the terai forests and the foothills of Kumaon till you reach the Almora valley in Uttarakhand, dominated by the shaggy bear-like mountain of Binsar.

The Forest Rest House at Binsar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Almora is a wonder. One of the greenest regions in the Kumaon Himalayas, its slopes are dotted with picture perfect little villages among the chir pine and rhododendron forests. Binsar used to be a summer retreat of the kings of the local Chand dynasty till the British annexed their kingdom. Many of their erstwhile properties are now charming little tourist bungalows within the sanctuary. I was staying in the Raj-era Forest Guest House, a huge bungalow within a cedar grove, built by the British in 1902. Home to leopards, mountain goats, martens and wild boars, as well as countless species of birds, Binsar has one of the richest ecologies in the Himalayas. But it’s not just the forest and its inhabitants that draw visitors. There’s also the little matter of the view.

The view from Binsar, with Trishul on the left, Nanda Devi's twin peaks in the middle and Nanda Kot to the right. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

At just over 7,500 feet, Binsar commands a panoramic view of the Great Himalayan Range, spanning the horizon from left to right like a surreal painting. There are massive ramparts of three-pronged Trishul, the peaks of the outer wall of the Nanda Devi biosphere reserve and then Nanda Deviitself, at 25,600 feet, looking like an outsized cathedral. From the watchtower of Binsar’s quaintly named “Zero Point”, you can see some 300 km of snow peaks, from the Chaukhamba and other peaks of the Garhwal on the left to the jagged Annapurna Range in Nepal to the right. Quite a sight, first thing in the morning.

Nanda Devi's twin peaks rear up behind Panwali Dwar. Picture by Priyodorshi Bannerjee

Binsar’s old forest teems with legends. As I trekked to the ancient temple town of Bageshwar, some 20 km away, Govind told me of the old Shiva temple where an old woman hermit used to live. Every full moon, a leopard would come to her for a bowl of milk and would lick her toes in gratitude. Since she passed away, a spectral shroud of mystery hangs over the place. Then there’s the 108-year-old Sitaram baba, a Hanuman worshipper and mystic, who looks a youthful 60. Legend has it that even the bullets of Kashmiri militants couldn’t slow him down.

En route to Jageshwar, we walked along the high ridges of the Almora valley, through forests and terraced farms, pine groves and past small animistic temples. Govind taught me how to evade a charging wild boar and detect the hunting patterns of leopards. There are plenty of these magnificent animals in the region, though all we could find were some leopard tracks and the carcass of a deer that it had killed the previous night. Jageshwar itself is a temple town at the bottom of a deep, narrow gorge best-known for the 1,000-year-old stone temples built between 7th and 14th century A.D. And from the ridge-top, you can see the eternal snows of the mighty Himalayas, sometimes shrouded in clouds and sometimes gleaming in the sunshine.

A temple in the old temple complex of Jageshwar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

It should be noted, though, that this is a fragile paradise. As climate change continues, the delicate ecological balance of the region is burdened by the drying up of perennial water sources and deforestation. At one point, Govind closed his eyes in holy dread and told me how, a few days earlier, the Himalayas had turned black due to a lack of adequate snowfall, for the first time in centuries.

So enjoy the views, but tread lightly.

A Walk in the Clouds

I was on a mountain road in Mussoorie when it rained. The clouds crept up slowly and engulfed me, caressing my skin with cool softness. The ghostly whiteness closed in until I felt as though I was walking through water. I couldn’t see more than two feet ahead of me. And then it started pouring. It was like being adrift in a vacuum with just the sound of the rain for company. I covered up and found a rocky overhang to wait under for shelter. And as the cloud passed by, bits of vastness start peeking out. A glimpse of a valley here, a hilltop cottage there. When it cleared, wisps of clouds trailed the peaks as if the mountains were steaming.

A cloudburst in progress near Everest's house in Mussoorie. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

While in the hills, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not venturing out just because its raining. And this is true in Mussoorie more than anywhere else. From July to the end of September, the town and the mountains play hide and seek with monsoon clouds. It was the climate that first attracted the British who virtually made Mussoorie the summer capital of the country. The fact that Shimla ultimately got the honour should be viewed as a blessing because, unlike Shimla’s concrete nightmare, Mussoorie remains an elegant town, buzzing like an urbanised mountain hamlet.

It is a long walk from Lal Tibba, the highest point in Mussoorie, to Everest House, at the other end of the ridge. So start early, leave room for the occasional breather. Walking in Mussoorie is all about a leisurely pace and stopping for the views and for a cuppa wherever you want. I suggest taking a car up from the Picture Palace bus stand to Chaar Dukan (or the Four Shops). This old mini-marketplace marks the entry into the forested hilltop of Lal Tibba.

A full 1,000-ft higher than the Mall, it towers over the rest of Mussoorie. It is a quiet part of town, where stately bungalows are interspersed with churches and cemeteries. And the mist as always, wrapping itself up in the pine tops. Lal Tibba is marked by the Childer’s Estate, established in the 1860s. On clear days, you can get fantastic views of the greater Himalayan range from here, thanks to a pair of old highpower Japanese binoculars. Even if an overcast sky disappoints, look closer at the green slopes and breathe deep. “Refreshing” doesn’t come close.

The view from Lal Tibba. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Once you’re done with views you could take the long way back around the hilltop, past the discreet bungalows and deodhar trees right up to the Doordarshan centre with the TV tower. The road runs down to Chaar Dukan intersection. From here, you could walk down to old Mussoorie (Landour) via the driveable road or take the steeper road that the locals use. Fantastic views of the cloud covered Doon Valley are broken up by picturesque little houses where the locals go about their business—kids coming home from school, housewives returning with vegetables from the market, dogs lazing in the sun.

The short cut leads to the Tehri bus stand, which marks the beginning of Landour. Landour is where it all began 200 years ago in a familiar story of British violence and intense romanticism that was the schizophrenia of the Raj. For centuries the area of Landour and Mussoorie was a high pasture ground for cattle. In 1814, the British defeated the Gurkha kings of the region in a series of vicious battles, and fell in love with the place. At over 7,000 ft, it was perfect for homesick Englishmen, suffering from the burning Indian plains.

The lovely walk down to Landour from Lal Tibba. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

In 1825, a Captain Young built a shooting lodge. A couple of years later a sanitarium was built for British soldiers in Landour Cantonment and below it, the marketplace of Landour took shape. This area retains its old world charm with the bustle of the local Garhwali people—some still dressed traditionally—and the thousands of Tibetans who live here. The Buddhist monastery and shops offer Tibetan handicrafts and embroidered Garhwali dresses. The narrow road winds down to the Picture Palace end of the Mussoorie Mall, and this is where the tourism madness begins.

On weekends, it’s a scrum of loud, pushy families eating and whining and shopping brainlessly up and down the main street. But devoid of people, it’s a charming enough stretch with neo-Gothic buildings like the Post Office and the Christ Church, probably the oldest church in the Himalayas, dating back to the 1830s. It’s also a foodie Mecca. Grab a coffee at Barista’s or gorge on the momos. Then take the ropeway up to Gun Hill, a high point with great views of the Doon Valley and the Greater Himalayas. And at the end of the Mall, go left at the intersection and carry on up the ridge. The wild profusion of shops and hotels gradually thins out, and you enter a mist-splattered area of schools and old estates belonging to the erstwhile maharajahs of various Raj-era princely states.

A view of Mussoorie's Mall from Gun Hill. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

The road climbs up the sparsely wooded spur of the ridge to a scarcely driveable track leading to George Everest’s house. It’s a winding, picturesque ascent through a thick pine forest. Take your time, though, as some stretches are quite steep. After a steady climb comes the hilltop clearing with the ruins of George Everest’s house overlooking the Doon Valley. India’s first surveyor, the Welshman Everest built his house here in 1833, and much of the work of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India—which discovered the world’s highest peak—was done here.

George Everest's house. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

To the left of the house is a sacred grove festooned with hundreds of Tibetan prayer flags. At the end of a long walk, there’s no better place to sit and let the clouds wash over you, while the flags flutter in the breeze, blowing its prayers out over the endless chain of valleys and mountains.

From BT MORE October 2008

Good Day Sunshine!

Jumping out of bed at the cold, unearthly hour of 4:30 am I stepped out into the freezing night only to have my breath taken away by the galactic arm of the Milky Way stretching over me. But I hadn’t much time to lose, as I had to get to the peak of Chandrashila above Tunganath by 6 am or miss the fabled sunrise. So I ran in the lightening darkness, my lungs heaving with the effort in the rarefied air and my head spinning with the cold and the exertion. Behind me the Chaukhamba and Kedar peaks brightened in the fast-approaching dawn. Ahead of me, on the ridge-line the silhouettes of other sunrise-spotters intent on their goal, trudging up. One by one I overtook them. Below and behind, I could see a torchlight in the darkness- Debo and Biru coming up behind me.
A loud yell of exhilaration escaped my throat as I rounded the last hump and came up in front of the temple of the moon atop Chandrashila. The sky had cleared behind me, though Chaukhamba and the other giants had yet to catch fire. I made my way through the gaggle of people on the peak to the farthest point on the ridge. This is what I saw, over a half hour that lasted forever. Night below me and daybreak at 3,800 m. My ancient camera had stopped working in the cold the previous day, so I had to borrow a friend’s cell phone, cursing my luck. But I forgot all that once the sun came out slowly, with impeccable timing, behind the beautiful spire of Nanda Devi.
Right to left, main peaks: Trishul, Bethartoli Himal, the Devitan peaks, Nanda Devi, Changabang, Dunagiri, Rishi Pahar, Tirsuli group, Kamet. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Down to the Waterline

When you’re idling bang in the middle of India’s longest lake, you may drift off to sleep in the middle of a conversation. As a gentle breeze plays over the placid watery expanse, your eyes droop, your words slur, and before you know it, you’re snoring gently. At over 250 sq km, Vembanad Kayal is a massive freshwater lake on the south-west coast of Kerala.

Large enough to border three districts, it is at the western edge of the extended backwaters system that covers almost half the state. Its emerald green waters stretch to the horizon under a low sky fringed with clouds. Small, insistent waves lap the shore with lazy inevitability, as the summer sun climbs the sky, painting the palm-fringed shoreline a vivid green with every passing hour.

Gathering storm-clouds over Vembanad Lake. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Like all of Kerala’s backwaters, the roots of Vembanad Lake lie in the distant Western Ghats that tower over the state’s eastern edge. The range give rise to some 40 rivers and countless rivulets of very different sizes which make their way to the Arabian Sea. Five such rivers—Achenkovil, Pamba, Manimala and the eponymous Vembanad—drain into this huge lake, and between them, make up the approximately 1,500 sq km Vembanad Wetland System.

Since the 90s, tourism has boomed on the lake and its attendant waterways in the shape of houseboats, or kettuvallam, as they’re called locally. These boats, once a mainstay of the waterbased spice trade, are a huge hit with tourists, drawing thousands each year. It was only a matter of time before luxury houseboats made their appearance and sure enough, two of the best have made the lake their base—the Oberoi Hotels’ Motor Vessel Vrinda and Park Hotels’ MV Apsara. My stay was divided between these two cruiseboats, with the first stop being the Apsara.

It is the younger of the two, launched in January this year, and yet to complete its first full season. Tastefully designed with clean minimalist lines, it is a smart and relaxed way to see the lake and the backwaters. Although the boat has a four-day cruise itinerary, I was there for only two days, so we made up the itinerary as we went along, under the enthusiastic guidance of the boat’s Operations Manager Pravish Kuttickat.

The Apsara docked at Vembanad Lake. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Cruising on the lake, watching the clouds change shape over the massive domed sky as they drifted towards the sea was therapy enough for my battered city soul, but the Apsara also has a fully fledged spa on board, run by Aura. Unlike other cruiseboats that only have a docking station on land, the Apsara’s station is also a fully-fledged resort with 10 luxury rooms, as well as a large fine dining restaurant and a jetty bar.

That Kerala has a wet, humid climate is well known, but nothing prepared me for the sight of the storm clouds which arrive like clockwork every evening. I was awestruck by this display, but used to the splendour, the locals did not bat an eyelid. However, the building storm caused us to start back for the safety of the jetty. Although the deepest point in the lake is a mere 12 feet, its sheer size, choppy waters and high wind speeds make it unsafe at such times.

The storm broke early, so we made our way to Marari beach 15 km away. Sunsets on the west coast are always a treat, but today, under a light drizzle, the sea turned golden, and the distant thunder-heads glowed a deep pink. The setting sun and massed clouds conspired to turn the western sky into a massive projector with a quarter-rainbow at its end. Tourism literature labels Kerala, God’s Own Country, and with sights like these, it’s difficult to disagree with the purple prose.

Sunset at Marari beach, Alleppey. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

But witnessing the unique lifestyle on the waterways had to wait another day, when I was sailing on the Oberoi’s Motor Vessel Vrinda. Commissioned in 2003, and a veteran of the lake since 2004, Vrinda has a solid six years of experience under its belt, and it shows.

Manned by a young, enthusiastic crew under the supervision of Chef Simran Singh, the crew never puts a foot wrong, with ready smiles and the discreet service that’s the hallmark of the Oberoi. The boat is opulent eight king-size cabins with large bay windows, and a luxuriously appointed upper deck with a massive dining space taking up pride of place in the middle.

The outer deck on the Vrinda. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

The real winner, in my opinion, is the Vrinda’s itinerary. I was able to get my first taste of the backwaters as she set sail southward down the main channel of the lake, heading for the Pamba river and the main Alappuzha canal. Also known as Alleppey, Alappuzha district is famous for several things—from its intricate network of inland canals to its vast Kuttanad rice growing region where much of the farming takes place on reclaimed land below sea level. This has historically been one of the more prosperous parts of the state, fuelled first by the riverside spice trade for which it was famous in ancient and medieval times, and now in its modern avatar, as the rice bowl of Kerala.

The main channel of the Pamba river winds south-east, with myriad smaller canals, natural and man-made, branching off in various directions. The main canals are always busy, with houseboats jostling with public ferries, little farmers’ canoes and ducks out for a midday meal. As the Vrinda coaxed and cajoled her way through the traffic, we moved into a smaller ‘rice-boat’ to navigate the narrower channels further in.

Ducks out for a mid-day meal on the Pemba. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya.

Our destination was the historic inland town of Champakullam on the tributary of the same name. Kerala’s old spice trade used to pass through this town en route to Cochin and other ports on the west coast. Settled more than a 1,000 years ago by Syrian Christian traders, who later converted to Roman Catholicism under the Portuguese, the people chose to keep their syncretic cultural heritage. This can be seen in the monumental St Mary’s Church on the riverside. Built in 1550, the foundations are said to be as old as 8th century AD. Architecturally, it is a mélange of several European styles, from the Levantine altar and structure to the Dutch arches that tower overhead.

St Mary's church in Champakullam. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya.

The town is famous for the Champakullam Moolam, which is the biggest Vallam Kalli or boat race in Kerala. Held during the harvest festival of Onam in autumn, the Chundan Vallam or snake boat race features 130 ft long canoes called Chundans. Once the maritime warboats of choice, these seat upwards of 100 rowers. The Champakullam Chundan is the Diego Maradona of boats, built in 1974, and still winning trophies. A visit to the workshop leaves me in complete awe, especially when I find out that these monsters are rolled out onto the river over palm leaves!

The head-prow of the mighty Champakullam Chundan. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya.

All this sightseeing is hot work under the humid noon-day sun. A return to the Vrinda is bliss, greeted by cool towels, a tall glass of watermelon juice, and a sumptuous lunch of the choicest Kerala cuisine. Later, on our way back to the jetty, the daily storm catches us full-fury in the middle of the lake, with high whitecapped waves and low ominous clouds. The rain lashes the boat fiercely, but as usual, no one bats an eyelid, the captain steps on the throttle, and soon we are docking under a calm sunset.

These cruises are a great way to see the backwaters, especially if you’re a first-timer and the kind of traveller who likes to keep a fair balance between sybarite and explorer. The Vrinda is the seasoned old hand, beautifully laid out with all the luxuries you could hope for and more. The Apsara is newer, but thanks to its lakeside resort and largely informal ambience, it has definite advantages.

But as I take a long and exhausting flight back to the traffic-choked city, what lingers in my mind is the memory of this gorgeous verdant land.

From BT MORE June 2010