Category Archives: 2010

In the Shadow of Royalty

It was 1 in the morning and I was suffering. I was in the throes of an allergic reaction, probably from the dust of the train, sneezing and coughing all over the place. I took an anti-allergic and as the medicines took hold, I slowly drifted into that state between waking and sleep, where the world is an indeterminate black, but your mind’s awake. This is a properly luxurious way to feel, I thought to myself, swathed in the comfort of my four-poster bed. A sliver of moonlight came in through the window at the far end of the room. The night was dark, and I lay in that enveloping silence, and gently floated into sleep.

From the suite in Rambagh Palace. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Rambagh Palace, the erstwhile residence of the Polo-loving Maharajas of Jaipur, sits calmly in the oasis of lush gardens and tall trees in a busy part of the city. The elegant double-storied complex of the palace wings is topped by arch domes and cupolas of understated beauty, sprawling over 47 acres of land. It is now a Taj Heritage hotel replete with the sheer classiness the group’s properties are known for. The discreet, tree-shaded corners form little pockets of enchanting light and shade, while the air around you is full of birds, flying, rustling, crying out, fidgeting.

My first walk through the grounds with P. Sairam, my butler who hailed from Vishakhapatnam, pretty much convinced me that this time, I was not going to go out into the city. The great forts and palaces of the Pink City I knew very well, and this was fresh ground to explore. A charming young man, Sairam took me on a tour of the Palace. There is a “Historical Tour” for residents at the hotel every evening at 5:30, but Sairam was only too happy to show me around.

Rambagh Palace had been among the first royal houses to convert into a Palace Hotel way back in 1957. Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II sided with modernity, opening up an elegant palace which is a wonderful amalgam of Rajasthani art-deco splendour to the public, albeit a very exclusive one. Such are the high standards of restoration the Taj undertakes to keep the rooms in their original condition that the Maharani Suite has never seen a redecoration, only updates. Once the room of the late Rajmata Gayatri Devi, who fell in love with the way it looked as a young woman, the original decor has been preserved in all its opulent Hammond’s-of-London magnificence. The four-fixture mirrored bathroom, a fulsome fantasy of endless shringar overlooks the Mughal Gardens, a delightful pavilion with water channels rushing through, cascading over into flowing channels dotted with gushing fountains.

The Mughal gardens at Rambagh Palace. Picture at Bibek Bhattacharya

My wood-panelled suite shared the view with the three grand suites, including the Maharani Suite. On an early winter day, that meant a welcome access to the warming sun. While nursing the cold with two glasses of fresh orange juice—all that Vitamin C—and two hard-boiled eggs, I could feel the sun on my back while I sat and read, and wrote. Too ill to stir out, I decided to enjoy this forced respite. Not a difficult thing to do at Rambagh.

The previous night, Executive Chef Ashish Kumar Roy had conjured up for me the best Rajasthani Thali I’d ever had. All my past unfortunate experiences with concocted “Rajasthani cuisine” were driven away by an explosion of the richest spices and the softest meats. The red lal maas cleared my sinuses immediately, while the mutton melted on my tongue in a flourish of chillies and spices, wonderfully balanced. It was a rich banquet in the stunning Suvarna Mahal, the old grand dining hall of the royal family, fringed by original Florentine frescoes, under massive hanging chandeliers. So when I followed that up with the healthy breakfastin-bed with Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, I was essentially using luxury to combat my illness, and guess what, luxury was winning!

Recuperating with Calcutta Chromosome. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

When Conde Nast’s readers voted Rambagh Palace to be the Best Overseas Leisure Hotel for Asia & the Indian subcontinent, they clearly got their basics right. A magnificent palace hotel, which re-enforces your sense of privacy and luxury, thanks to an unobtrusive service that takes care of you like an invisible hand. Those readers have chosen well.

From BT MORE January 2010

Into the Deep

The one thing you must learn before you dive is how to ‘equalise’. This novel way of neutralising the increasing water pressure on your body as you go deeper needs some getting used to. When you’re on land, just a yawn can do the trick, but when you’re underwater and with a breathing device in your mouth, the Valsalva manoeuvre is your only defence against an exploding blood vessel and much worse. So you pinch your nose shut, count to three and breathe out a ferocious stream of bubbles in the sea.

Why did I need to learn this? Because I was diving to a respectable three metres to a coral reef off Wandoor beach in the South Andaman island. What most people don’t realise is that diving is fairly easy, and you don’t really need to know swimming to be a diver. As my genial instructor Seemant Saxena, explains, all you need to do is relax. “Stay calm, don’t panic,” his motto. Easy to say when you’re an expert, but what about someone who’s wary of water, let alone the sea? But with the promise of coral reefs, I wasn’t going to let something as piffling as paranoia get in my way! And anyway, Seemant did promise that there would be no swimming involved, only gliding.

A view of the corals and beach off Havelock Island. Picture by Umeed Mistry

And the corals! They feed all the clichés and more, from diverse marine life to crystal clear waters, and huge reefs. It’s an overcast day. The lack of sunlight, so vital to a reef system, allied with choppy waters, means that by the time we dive in the afternoon, marine life isn’t as abundant as it could be. But for a newbie like me, it’s good enough.

Andaman has fringing corals, which means that they occur close to the coastlines and radiate outwards forming a boundary. All the islands of the Mahatma Gandhi National Park, some 40 km south of Port Blair, are coral islands, with mangroves on one side and sandy beaches on the other. Typically, the reefs are several hundred metres wide, and separated from the coast by a lagoon.

A view of the Wandoor islands including Alexandria to the left and Grub island in the middle. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

When the ever-curious British discovered the islands in the 19th century, they undertook a survey of the group, and gave the islands incongruous yet charming names like Alexandria, Red Skin, Jolly Buoy, Grub, Snob, Riflemen and Tarmugli. Although tourist visits are restricted to Red Skin and Jolly Buoy isles, diving outfits can take you diving deep in the park in the corals by the many islets.

A view of Wandoor beach with the coral islands of Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in the background. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

At Wandoor I dive to a mere three metres, but that’s a fairly respectable depth for your first dive. I’m diving with Lacadives, which is one of the best diving outfits in the country, and has a great staff. Although the bulk of their diving is based out of the Lakshwadeep atolls—hence the name—they also organise diving trips in the Andamans. Of the corals around Wandoor, Sumer Verma, Lacadives partner and a 3-star CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques) instructor, says: “The reefs are still in good condition, but there’s no denying the fact that human pressures and the warming El Nino currents are accelerating their rate of decline.” Recent government studies have declared the reefs around Wandoor to be in fairly robust health, and rich in life forms.

Umeed (left) preparing to dive with a first-time diver. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

The first dive is often cited as a life-changing experience. Sumer’s diving colleague Umeed Mistry says his first dive off the Maldives in 1996 so entranced him that he decided to take it up for a living. Brief though my dive is, I can imagine the wonderdivers feel in this radically alien environment of shifting light, darting schools of fish and strange life-forms. Clearly, like mountaineering, diving is a full-time passion.

For a non-swimmer like me, it’s a shock to discover how difficult it is for someone to sink. Our bodies are so buoyant that a diver has to wear a ring of weights around his waist and deflate the air from the scuba harness to be able to sink. The steady, long breaths from the compressed air tank strapped to my back has a calming effect as I sink deeper, pausing every now and then to equalise. The marine world looks perfectly calm through my glasses. Schools of tiny fish—barely an inch in length—hover near my face, staring at me curiously. I poke at them with my finger, and they scatter, only to re-assemble in a flash.

Among the larger ones is the parrot fish. Found in large numbers in the Indo-Pacific region, these part-time herbivores love reefs as these supply a wide variety of organisms towards their diet. I see a few of these dining out in the corals. Parrot fish are indiscriminate feeders, so to get to one tiny mollusk embedded in the coral, they’ll break off chunks of the reef with their tightly-packed, sharp little teeth only to be excreted as fine sand. In retrospect, its amazing to realise that much of Andaman’s beautiful beaches are formed by the coral debris excreted by fish like these!

Anemone fish. Picture by Umeed Mistry

Then there are the poster boys of the reef: the clownfish. These anemone-fish have become synonymous with reefs ever since Finding Nemo was released almost a decade ago, but the Andamans are one of the few regions in the world that you’ll actually find them. I spot one hiding deep inside a sea anemone, with which the clownfish has a symbiotic relationship. But the best thing about diving is the profound silence of the sea. The only sound in this vast blue vault is the whoosh of bubbles rising from my breathing apparatus. Sitting on the sea-bed, I look up at the looming coral cliffs, and above it, shimmering beyond the surface, the world I have left behind for a dip into the unknown.

From BT More December 2010

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

Sheer Bliss

The Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal is an important man. His kingdom is not necessarily one of great riches or political significance; but one more profound—a regency of stories,  culture and myth. The Maharaja’s palace is spectacularly located at Narendra Nagar, about 18 km above Rishikesh, overlooking the Ganga and the lush spread of the Doon valley. The Rawals, or hereditary priests of the Kedar-Badri shrines, high up in the Garhwal Himalayas, gather here every spring to decide the date on which the temples will be reopened after their winter hibernation, making this palace central to the mythos of the area. The building is itself of relatively new vintage, dating back to 1895, when Maharaja Narendra Shah shifted his capital from the high Himalayas to this outcrop overlooking Rishikesh and the Terai forests. The nearby village of Odathali was at this time rechristened Narendra Nagar.

Looking across the main lawn of Ananda. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Once a favourite of the Viceroys, Indian royalty and other social elites, the palace and its surrounding grounds are today the property of the world-class luxury spa destination—Ananda in the Himalayas. The current Maharaja Manujendra Shah still owns the main palace precincts, with Ananda managing the palace annexe, including the magnificent Viceregal Suite and the sprawling green grounds.

I arrived there late at night after a gruelling seven-hour drive from Delhi, feeling that I could use all the rejuvenation I could possibly get.The plan was to savour the delights of Ananda, as well as to explore the fascinating lower Himalayan foothills of Tehri Garhwal; often passed over by the average mountaingoer in favour of the more glamorous scenery of the Greater Himalayan Range further north.

The location couldn’t have been better chosen. Ananda stands on a spur of the first wave of thickly forested ridges directly above Rishikesh. By virtue of its position, you get a panoramic view of not only the Ganga as it winds languorously towards the northern plains, but also of the hazy ridges stretching away to the west and east. A few thousand feet below lies the immense carpet-like spread of Rajaji National Park, itself a part of the northern Terai forests that stretch from the foothills of HimachalPradesh in the west, to the plains of Assam in the east. Far to the west, you can see Dehradun, jewel of the Doon valley, and even the lights of Mussoorie on a clear night.

The Ganges winds out of the foothills from Rishikesh. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Of all the luxury hotels and resorts that I have visited, Ananda ranks among the best. The staff exudes a genuine warmth and consideration, and will go quite far out of their way to ensure that you have a comfortable stay. The spa has an extensive range of arrangements for different tastes, and I had no trouble at all getting help to do the things that I wanted to do. Ananda is designed to be a holistic retreat, and it fulfills these goals admirably with an excellent staff of masseurs, yoga and Ayurveda experts. What’s more, there’s delectable food to be had that can be made to suit you. Depending on the packages that one would like to avail, as well as any sightseeing one would like to do, the resort makes a detailed itinerary for its patrons.

I set out one morning with my guide Dinesh, to hike to the local temple of Kunjapuri, an old Shakti Peeth (Centre of Power). According to legend, it is here that the breasts of Parvati landed when the god Vishnu cut down her corpse to stop Shiva’s cataclysmic dance of rage. The temple of Kunjapuri is located on a peak looming some 6,000 feet above the Ganges valley, a six to seven km walk from Narendra Nagar. Trekking up through the forests and occasional villages early in the morning is an invigorating experience. Although I have reasonably good mountain feet, I was soon cursing my general lack of fitness and my thoughts were straying to Ananda’s massage centre. But, as Dinesh said, mountains are the best elliptical cross trainers in the world, and soon I was breathing regularly and my thigh muscles gradually ceased screaming.

Rent by the gorge that the Ganga cuts through, The foothills march on. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Coming out of the green cover at the top is an exhilarating experience. Rounding the steepest bend of the ridge directly below the temple steps, you are greeted by a mountain panorama of the kind only Uttarakhand can provide. Behind and below lay the Doon valley, and the North Indian plains under a thick haze. To the west stretched out the unending roll of the lower Himalayas. I could see the gorge that the Ganges sculpts for itself on its way down from Devprayag, the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers. In front, going north, lay the waves of ridges that make up the middle Himalayas, rising in a steep gradient until finally the view was arrested by the glittering white wall of the Great Himalayan Range; massive jagged peaks and glacier systems stretching from the borders of Himachal Pradesh in the misty west to the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in the east.

Panorama of the eastern Garhwal peaks of the Himalayan range including (l-r) Kharchakund, the Satopanth Group, Satopanth, Sumeru Parbat, Mandani Parbat, Chaukhamba, and Neelkanth from Ranichouri forest in Tehri-Garhwal. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

I have passed through Rishikesh countless times in my travels into the mountains, but never had I imagined that such views existed a mere hour from the town! The temple is a pretty structure painted in warm white and orange. Though the outer structure was built in the early eighties, the inner sanctum and idol look immensely old.

The Kunjapuri temple, ten km from Narendra Nagar in Tehri-Garhwal. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

From the highest point to the low, I made my way down Rishikesh. Of great religious interest to the Hindus, as well as the main hub for trekking and rafting in the area, Rishikesh is a fascinating town. Dotted with ashrams belonging to various sects, the Ganges winds its way down from the gorge and flows out onto the plains here. An ancient centre for yoga and Ayurveda, as well as for foreign backpackers looking for a simplified Indian spiritual experience, Rishikesh is a complex melange of sights and sounds that threaten to overwhelm you with sheer detail, until you sit down by the Ganges, close your eyes, and realise that it’s all maya.

From BT MORE April 2010

Free as a Bird

Winding down the twisting roads through the highlands of the Kangra valley, the sight that greets you about an hour before Kangra town is breathtaking. Up north, the gentle swell of the rolling uplands suddenly come up smack against an incredibly high jagged wall that dominates the horizon. The wall it seems, goes on forever, running in a long unbroken stretch from the east to the west, like a mythical barrier guarding some forbidden paradise.

At an average height of 14,000 feet, the Dhauladhar range isn’t as large as the other Himalayan sub-ranges of Himachal Pradesh, but it is certainly one of the most dramatic. Rising 12,000 feet from valley floor to ridge-top, this serrated range looms over the landscape, clad in a thick coat of snow and ice that only relents in the rainy months.

The Dhauladhar wall rearing up over Triund. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Monsoon is hardly the best time to go for this trek, and with the abnormally heavy rains this year, we were told roundly by all comers that it was madness. However, two things were in our favour. One, our guides were of local Gaddi stock, the dominant community of much of the Chamba and Kangra region. Mostly traditional shepherds, they know every valley and pass around the Dhauladhar and Mani Mahesh ranges, which form their old homeland of Gadderan. The second was that one of my companions, Amrita, was a trained mountaineer who had participated in several big expeditions. Brought together, these two factors played a big part in assuaging any fears I might have had.

As we limbered into McLeodganj one Monday morning, the signs were not encouraging. The Dhauladhar was cloaked in thick clouds and it was raining hard. In a way, it was better this way. Once you’re soaked through, you pretty soon get used to the idea.

The first thing to do was to meet Jagdish and Gulab, our companions for the next 10 days. Jagdish, a stocky, solid man with a shy and retiring nature had been guiding in the area since 1979. His compatriot Gulab was a wiry 26-year-old father of two with ankles of steel, an irresistible charmer and an ardent believer in the powers of direttissimo-the most direct route over any obstacle.

Gulab (left) and Jagdish. Picture by Amrita Dhar

Although we had planned to stay an entire day at McLeodganj and re-pack our sacks and shop for fresh vegetables and other foodstuffs, Jagdish was of the opinion that we shouldn’t waste any time in the prevailing weather and make directly for Triund, some 10 km and 3,000 feet above us. We scattered in different directions for one last burst of provision shopping. A hearty breakfast, numerous cups of tea and some ruthless repacking later-in which we discarded most of our surplus clothes and trekking luxuries-we were off climbing steep country tracks through the resinscented pine forest of Dharamkot.

By the time we reached Triund a few hours later, the unique agony of carrying a 12 kg rucksack on my back was beginning to tell. We huffed and puffed our way over the final rise and collapsed, dripping with sweat and rain, at one of the four tea-shops that are a fixture here. We quickly took over an old colonial-era forest hut and made copious cups of tea and struggled to get our things dry. It was raining as hard as ever, and there wasn’t much else to do but cook a quick dinner and fall asleep hoping fervently for a clear dawn.

This was not to be. We woke up to what has to be the most dispiriting sight while on a trek-thick clouds and driving rain. So much for our hopes to get an early start to Lahesh cave higher up the range. If it kept raining like this we wouldn’t even be able to start later during the day, as the ferocious nalas higher up would be in full spate, making any crossing a treacherous business. With not much to do, we decided to concentrate on acclimatising our bodies to the high altitude of Triund, following the mantra of eat, drink, sleep, move. To ensure that the brain adjusts itself quickly to the rigours of rarefied air, it is essential to drink lots of water, take short naps, and climb to a height higher than that of the camp before returning to it for hot food. The rain had subsided for a bit, and so after a quick shut-eye, we started out climbing halfway up to Lahesh.

Amrita, a rock climbing teacher, took me and KP, my other companion, up rock faces of varying difficulty, giving us tips on how to make the best use of even a tiny finger-hold. By the time we returned to the hut a few hours later, exhausted and exhilarated, the Dhauladhar revealed itself after being lost in clouds for two whole days. High up into the sky climbed the rocky pinnacle of Mon peak and I could just about see the Indrahar Pass as a tiny notch high up on the forbidding ridge. We went to sleep that night fervently praying for a cloudless morning.

And so it proved! The sky was as overcast as ever, but for a change it wasn’t raining and we could see far up the main range. A quick breakfast and we were soon making our steady progress up the ridge, keeping our fingers crossed for good weather. After a couple of hours we reached the treeline at the grazing ground of Laka Got. We were roughly half-way up to the cave, and from here, the trail led over steep boulders. The mist was closing in again and we figured that we had barely an hour of dry weather. So, resting long enough to have a cup of tea, we went on through intricate boulder mazes occasionally lit up by bright splashes of alpine flowers. The rain started, moving from a light drizzle to a downpour, but we had no choice but to keep moving. After jumping over a torrential nala, and climbing over ever-steep and now slippery boulders, we finally crawled into Lahesh, a large, low natural cave formed by two massive overhanging boulders. It was only early afternoon and soon after we finished lunch, our elusive friend the sun finally shone through. It was a pleasure to go through our acclimatisation routine in bright sunshine, surrounded by massive, sombre boulders. Hanging over our heads, like a petrified wave almost a thousand feet above, lay the massive Mon peak and the tiny Indrahar pass.

The next day was crucial, as we would be constantly exposed to wind and rain and possible rock falls the entire length of the day’s trek, till we reached the camping ground of Chhata Parao on the other side of the pass. Although misty, there was no rain, so thanking our lucky stars we set off in semi-darkness at 6 am. The enterprising Gaddi shepherds have since time immemorial built and maintained a vertical stairway of boulders up to the pass. Although it took every bit of our strength and stamina, we were finally upon the Indrahar pass (4350 m) five hours later, just as the sun was breaking through the clouds to shine upon the Triund ridge, now far below us.

Jagdish descending the norhtern face of the Indrahar Pass. Picture by Amrita Dhar

The jagged Dhauladhar ridge marched off into the clouds on either side and below us was our steep descent skirting rotting glaciers into the Ravi river valley, a two day long march away. My exhilaration knew no bounds as I gazed upon the distant panorama of the soaring Pir Panjal range, extending all the way to the west, right into Kashmir.

However, you don’t stop for too long at a place this exposed in inclement weather, and our long knee-shattering descent into the Kuarsi valley began. At first over steep rocks, and then hopping over boulders, we descended towards a patch of green some 3,000 feet below us in the valley. Around us were the rocky peaks of the Dhauladhar with quaint titles like Arthur’s Seat, Two-Gun and the Coolins, named by old British armymen who first climbed them.

Soon we were jumping over ever widening side-streams coming down to join the main Kuarsi nala. The weather, which had behaved itself up till now, proceeded to unravel. A thick mist soon surrounded us and loud thunder reverberated around the cirque of rocky peaks that we’d just left, while we floundered our way through waisthigh weeds and stinging nettles. Flogging our path with an ice axe we reached camp late in the day.

Looking down the Kuarsi valley. Picture by Amrita Dhar

The next morning was gloriously fine, and we immediately took the opportunity to try and dry our things. We still had to leave quickly since the main Kuarsi nala had to be crossed before it swelled with ice-melts from the glaciers upstream. When we reached it, the river was thundering down, and the main channel was too deep and swift for us to wade through. So Gulab and Jagdish cut up two fallen pine tree trunks and lashed them together as a temporary bridge. We edged carefully across the swiftly moving water, conscious that the slightest misstep would create a very difficult situation for the whole group. It was veritable heart-inmouth stuff. Next came landslide zones-mushy vertical slopes which continued to slide slowly down the mountain as we walked as fast as possible across them, plunging our feet deep into the gooey earth to find stable purchase.

Thankfully, this too passed without mishap, and soon we were having a hearty lunch by a beautiful brook amidst pine groves and rolling meadows. We were reminded of the land’s wildness when we came across the carcass of a cow stripped clean by a bear. It was the final lap before reaching the village of Kuarsi an old hometown of the Gaddis who first came here in the 12th and 13th centuries. We camped for the night in the wooden temple of Indru Naga which dominates the village.

The Naga temple at Kuarsi. Picture by Amrita Dhar

My only grouch had been that the peak of the Mani Mahesh Kailash had been hidden from us by the monsoon clouds. One of Shiva’s five abodes in the Himalayas-the holiest of which is Mt Kailash in Tibet-it is a beautiful peak of stern majesty. Imagine my glee then, as I peered out from the temple window the next morning and saw the Kailash standing tall, its pinnacle seemingly floating over the boiling clouds as a spectral sun shone through the vapours.

It had been a hard trek, with many knocks and quite a few scares. But, bathed in that early morning glow, it seemed like we were living in a state of grace, surrounded by these incredible people and their old culture.

From BT MORE October 2010