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Secret Garden

Dharansi. A hanging valley. I savour those two words. What a delicious idea! I close my eyes and try to remember if I’ve seen one before. There was that small hanging plateau on the northern marches of the Indrahar pass in the Dhauladhar. But this was massive. I was sitting in the middle of a large smooth bowl, covered in turf and little splashes of tiny alpine flowers. Running through the grassy side were long, shallow gullies, filled with the rubble of boulders—the giant moraines of winter snowfields. Right in the middle of the bowl, where our camp was pitched, lay the longest and widest of the moraines. It was also the lowest point in the curve of the valley, almost a hollow. It continued for a little way below the tent. Then, from a cutoff, the valley dropped a couple of hundred feet into another bowl, less wide, more hemmed in by serrated cliffs. The valley then wound down gradually, like a lazily flowing river, then it suddenly ended, as if someone had sliced it off with a very large knife. A tortured, broken precipice plunged dramatically for 5,000ft into the spectacular gorge of the Rishi Ganga. The Bhotias believe that demons live here, and none but holy men may pass through. Thus the river gets its name.

The hanging valley of Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was up this gorge, in 1934, that two English mountaineers and three of the greatest Sherpas of the day forced the only—and till then uncharted—passage into one of the most unique mountain fastnesses in the world. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s adventure was an improbable one, one of the last heroic journeys into the unknown. Shipton’s elegantly romantic book, Nanda Devi, had warmed my heart for many years. Here at Dharansi, the furthest I could get into Nanda’s secret garden after days of incessant rain, landslides and storms, I could hardly believe my luck.

I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor and Oz; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. It would have to be a perilous realm; you’d endure many hardships trying to get there; and you could never hope to reach without a large helping of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, but I had yet to see a place like Dharansi.

Above me, the bugyal stretched upwards at a gentle incline. Directly above the rim of the bowl lurked Hanuman, a prickly black mass of heavily compacted rocks, leering down at me like a nightmare fortress. A modest 19,931ft high, it is best known as one of the standard climbing peaks for trainee mountaineers. But the mountain has a local reputation that is somewhat more sinister. The villagers of the Niti valley, especially those of Dunagiri village, don’t take too kindly to the monkey god. In fact, many despise him, and consider him a thief. When Hanuman flew to the Himalaya to find the magic herb that would cure Lakshman, this is where he is said to have come. Not knowing which the correct herb was, Hanuman hedged his bets and made off with an entire mountain

A little way up the slope, a herd of bharal, the famous Himalayan blue sheep, stood watching us. There were nine individuals. Three sprightly youngsters pranced about unsurely on the massed jumble of boulders. Three ewes, their long black eyes watchful, were licking salt off a large table-shaped boulder. One of them had a single short horn, making her look uncannily like a unicorn. Last of all were the three rams, aloof and sporting impressive curving horns, extremely skittish and keeping their distance. When Shipton and Tilman had broken through to the inner sanctuary, they had been pleasantly surprised to find large herds of bharal grazing on the meadows of the sanctuary, absolutely unperturbed by their presence. That was seventy-eight years ago. By the time all entry into the sanctuary was banned in 1982, the widespread hunting of these beautiful animals to provide meat for mountaineering expeditions had resulted in a near wipe-out. That had also affected the bharal’s chief predator, the snow leopard. I’m sure there was one around, but of course I’d never be able to see this Himalayan ghost unless he wished to be seen.

I had met another such famously shy animal a couple of days ago on the upper slopes of the meadow of Lata Kharak. I’d gone walking to the adjoining ridge of Saini Kharak to get my first glimpse of the legendary Rishi gorge and, if lucky, Nanda herself. We were traversing the cliffs of the junction of these two ridges when Raghubir Singh, one of our porters, clutched my jacket and pointed to a massive rock face and said “Kasturi!” I had to focus before I could make out the distinct brown shape of the musk deer, surprisingly close, looking at us with some alarm, twitching his black nose. It looked like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo, the startling feature being the animal’s vampiric canines. In a few seconds he was off, bounding straight down the sheer cliffs with dizzying speed.

A musk deer in the distance preparing to leap off and away. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Raghubir Singh of Lata is a legend from a legendary village rife with legends. He and his friend Dhan Singh Rana, my guide Narendra’s father, were highly feted high-altitude guides and porters during the heyday of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. Even earlier, from the time Shipton first came to Nanda Devi, the people of Lata have featured prominently in the history of mountaineering in this area. The villagers of Lata are Bhotias, like the rest of the denizens of the Niti valley who live by the banks of the trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga river. Of mixed Tibetan stock, these tribal people of upper Uttarakhand had been successful traders, carrying on a millennia-old summer trade with Tibet. The 1962 war put an end to that. Later, when the national park came into being and all entry was closed, even the local people who’d led a symbiotic relationship with Nanda Devi and her valleys and grazing grounds, found the way barred, and their rights superceded.

It was in Lata, and nearby Reni, that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the decimation of sacred deodar groves around these two villages. In the late 1990s, these same villagers fought a long-drawn-out campaign for community participation in the management of the national park. Dhan Singh was a part of both these efforts. In the former he was a defiant boy standing up to forest contractors. During the latter, he was the village sarpanch who cannily organised the villages into a formidable body of activists. An offshoot of this movement was the opening and maintenance of certain trails within the park where local men could act as guides.

The Dhauli Ganga valley with Lata village in the distance. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra is a shy, soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties. However, the last few days in the wilderness seemed to have wrought a subtle change in him. In addition to the deepening stubble on his angular face, there was a flashing brightness in his eyes, a sharpness of sight. He was beaming as he hid behind a rock and took pictures of the bharal. He loved being here, back after many years. He mostly works in Dehradun now. The last time he’d come this way, he was accompanying a scientific expedition to the inner sanctuary. He still hadn’t forgotten the awe he felt in the presence of Nanda Devi, a mountain that was also a goddess.

And with good reason. My companion Parth and I had arrived in Lata five days before, on a sunny day in early September. It was the last day of the annual Nandashtami celebrations. The devi’s origins lie in ancient nature cults. Indeed, in the older temples of Kumaon, her image is that of a tribal woman. Today, to outsiders she is just another reincarnation of Parvati or Durga, but to the Bhotias Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. Sitting in front of Nanda’s medieval temple, studded with brahma-kamals to mark the occasion, I felt as if I was watching something unfamilar, something special. This wasn’t Hinduism as I knew it. Women in Tibetan-style long black robes and white cloth headscarves danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize—a brahma-kamal.

The Nanda Devi puja in progress in Lata village. photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a ring of high mountains. Bang in the middle of the eastern curve of this cirque sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere in its 110km length is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high except at a single point in this chain, where the Rishi cuts through the barrier and flows west to meet the larger Dhauli. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the precipitous outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga and crossing the 13,950ft Dharansi pass to Dharansi and then down over the Malathuni Pass to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

The broken jagged precipices of Satkula cunningly hide the valley. The only way through is over an exceedingly steep goat track. From that initial notch, it descends right down to a gully before trudging back laboriously up to the next cliff face to another notch in the skyline before plunging down the next gully. It’s beastly hard in the rain, especially in the middle of a heavy fog; one misstep will send you hurtling some 8,000ft into the Rishi gorge. The pass itself is the last link in this chain of convenient notches in the broken ridge-system. But to me, the true entrance was the impressive stone goat arch of Ranikhola, one that the writer Bill Aitken memorably described as a goat’s Arc de Triomphe. It is said that when the shepherds brought their charges to Dharansi, a Bhotia maiden dedicated to Nanda would stand guard here, counting each goat and sheep as it passed through the gateway.

Traversing the Satkula ridge to Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

That evening in Dharansi proved to be the first thawing of Nanda’s suspicion of this motley group of out-of-season trespassers. Along with the shockingly tame bharal came a spectacular sunset. The sky had cleared in the direction of the Dhauli valley and the sun was setting above the distant peaks of Chaukhamba, painting the film of clouds on the western horizon an angry red. Steady streams of thick vapours were flowing down over the strangely shaped pinnacles overhanging the Rishi gorge. Other clouds formed impossibly long banners that draped themselves over the prominent peaks to the south—Bethartoli Himal and Ronti. Up east the sanctuary was still cloaked in heavy clouds. But as I looked up the slope I was mystified to see what looked like a luminous mist playing on the uppermost reaches of the bugyal. Glowing orange and yellow, the mist was the last to disappear, leaving us with a dark night so still and silent I could hear my own heart beat.

The Rishi Ganga gorge from Dharansi at sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

I rose early, only for my jaw to drop as soon as I stepped outside the tent. Everything was unbelievably clear. Beyond the Dharansi cutoff the distant Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys were drowning in a low layer of clouds. But above that all was clear. Far to the northwest ran a set of peaks I was very familiar with—the Kedarnath group and the Chaukhamba massif that contain the Gangotri glacier. A little to their right rose the triangular southeast face of Neelkanth, the peak that towers over Badrinath.

Dunagiri from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To my right, the delicate ice flutings of Bethartoli Himal were a blushing pink in the diffused light of the rising sun. Even the Devistan peaks that formed the dividing ridge between the inner and outer sanctuary were out. Would Nanda be revealed at last? Her peak couldn’t be seen from camp so Narendra and I ran around to the southern enclosing wall of the valley. We drew up to Malathuni pass, panting, with our boots soaked by the heavy dew. There she was, Nanda Devi, her west face in shadow, but her pinnacle proud and true, sailing through the heavens without any wind. The people of Lata were right. She was herself and no other. Looking at her strange, fearful symmetry it is no wonder that Nanda Devi the mountain and Nanda the goddess are considered one and the same, indivisible.

Nanda Devi from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

At the lovely alp of Dibrughati, 2,000ft below us, it was still night. Yet, across the gorge, the green side valley of Dudh Ganga—that descends from the combined snows of Trisul and Bethartoli—looked exactly like a sun-kissed CGI valley. To my left Dunagiri’s peak was lost in a maelstrom. But the majestic shoulders of this giant stood out, the snow glinting in the sunshine. The sun started peeking out from behind Hanuman, and slowly the Dharansi alp started shining a bright emerald green, of a kind I don’t remember seeing before. Lammergeiers flew overhead in slow arcs while tiny swallows leapt down into this amazing scene of wild gorges and snow peaks. A mouse hare emerged to sun himself. I sat there for hours, staring, until swirling mists from the Rishi slowly hid the world again.

-Bibek Bhattacharya

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Outlook Traveller.

Where the Creatures Meet

“Camel ride sir? Great camel”

Nahi ji

“Why nahi ji sir?”

What could I say? There’s only so much camel I can take, and I’d been catching myself staring at these strange, disdainful beasts all day. I can’t think of any other animal that carries off such studied insouciance, even when doing nothing more demonstrative than chewing cud. But I definitely had no intention of riding one.

I had never been to Pushkar before, and at the risk of sounding gauche, I have to admit that nothing had prepared me for this. Despite being one of India’s prime tourist magnets, Pushkar has a strange feeling of isolation. This may be purely geographic- the town is situated in a valley between parallel rows of the Aravalli range, cut off from it’s larger neighbour, Ajmer, and indeed from the rest of the world. The Aravalli are, of course far older than the Himalaya, and it’s fascinating to imagine how these mountains must have looked in their pomp in the depths of geologic time.  Secluded in the desert, Pushkar and its cosmic lake are indeed timeless.

The crowded Bramha ghat and Gaumukh ghat by Pushkar lake. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

This is in part due to a self-reinforcing alliance between the medieval architecture of the town and an even older religio-cultural tradition. Pushkar has to be one of the oldest holy towns in the country, second only to Varanasi. Yet it’s different too. Bramha is worshipped here, as is well known, but his wives also get precedence. The Bramhin Savitri and the tribal Gayatri, both boon-granting goddesses, occupy two prominent hill-top shrines on either side of the lake, keeping a watchful eye on their husband. Even in the context of the pantheon, this is Hinduism at its most basic: Bramha and the holy cow- rather, the cow’s purifying mouth- get the two main ghats by Pushkar lake.

The entrance to one of the 52 ghats. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

The 52 white washed ghats rise up from the lake in that familiar cluster of layered balconies, chattris and terraces that is common to many old pilgrim towns around the country. These provide enough nooks and crannies for bathers to preserve their modesty, or for the bahurupiya to don his make-up while he transforms into Hanuman or Shiva.

Photography is understandably banned here, considering the number of people in states of casual nudity as they dip themselves repeatedly in the lake’s sacred waters. Every day brings more anxious pilgrims, clutching single carry-bags, the women with the ends of their saris firmly tucked into their mouth, and looking for a dharamshala to stay. Of these there are plenty, some of which specify caste affiliations, providing their patrons ‘full service’ – lodging, food and ease of worship. When the waxing moon reaches its zenith on the night of Kartik Purnima, in a re-enactment of Bramha’s mythical yagna attended by all the gods of the pantheon, thousands of people from around the country jostle here for just that one, cathartic dip in the lake’s sacred waters.

A pilgrim in Pushkar. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

Apart from the pilgrims who come here to wash off their sins, there are as many reasons to visit Pushkar as there are people. Take Marie, a fifty-something Frenchwoman I met in a charming old haveli next to the lake. Now a converted guest-house and restaurant, its frayed grandeur matches Marie, who looks like an evacuee from one of Lou Reed’s songs of the fading demi-monde. Once an actress, Marie has been making an annual trip to India for the past three years, and she invariably finds herself in Pushkar. Did she ever visit when she was younger? “No, I used to think my hippie friends were stupid, babbling on about spiritual India.” She pauses to take a deep drag on her cigarette before spreading her spidery fingers open as if she’s trying to grasp some elusive thing. “But now,” she says, exhaling, “I get it.”

It’s easy to see how the intensity of an exotic faith and the sheer physical splendour of a landscape can combine to such effect on a jaded, urban mind. But while those like Marie are in search of the ineffable, others are here for more tangible reasons. I’d been noticing a young man in a keffiyeh all day, wandering about town, his sharp eyes darting; his bulging arsenal of lenses on the ready to capture the colourful and the serendipitous. I finally corner him at one of the large dining tents for camel-herders, while he’s shoving his camera into the impressive moustache of a peanut vendor. His name is Vikram, and he’s from Mumbai.

“Are you on an assignment?”

“No man, I’m here to shoot my portfolio.”

“Portfolio?”

“Yeah man. Your portfolio is incomplete without Pushkar. Look around man, isn’t this place great?”

Yes it is, I agree, and he lopes off towards the makeshift tent city that sprouts up every year in the wilderness just outside town. It houses the camels, horses and cows, as well as their grooms, minders and sellers. Its carnival time for the local tribal people; busily chewing sugarcane, buying farm implements, hukkas and kitchen utensils while an army of photographers shadow their every move, shooting fifteen frames a second. If you discount the camels and the holy city vibe, Pushkar is curiously like Shantiniketan’s Poush Mela– essentially an annual local fair that politely ignores its well-heeled city patrons.

A woman walks past a gaily decorated camel at the fair. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

In another category are the ‘Pushkarites’- decidedly more urban than their nomadic brethren- who go about their day in the cheerful knowledge that it’s one long holiday. When the slanting sun paints everything gold late in the afternoon, they emerge in finery to ride the ferris wheels, eat whatever junk they can get their hands on, visit the temples and the ghats and generally have a good time.

Ferris wheels at the fair. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

However, to many jaded Pushkar hands, there aren’t any real ‘Pushkarites’, just nomads and tourists. It’s a highly reductive world-view. Walking through the surging throng of pilgrims down the Badi Basti road next to the lake, I bump into a tall young American Hare Krishna proselytiser. He grabs my hand and says, “Hey there my man, where’re you from?”

“Um, here,” I say.

“Oh cool, a genuine Pushkarite! There aren’t many left you know!”

“Um, no, I meant I’m Indian.”

“Oh, from where?” says he, while trying to push a Bhagwad Gita into my hand.

“Calcutta, and I don’t want this.”

“Really? Cool, I live in Mayapur. You must take it.”

“I’ve been there a few times. I really don’t want it, I have one at home.”

“You must visit again, ciao.”

Hare Krishna people at Pushkar. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

The serious business is transacted at the camel fair. The camel is to the Rajasthani nomad what the yak is to a Tibetan- support system, a source of sustenance as well as a principal mode of transport. So buying a good camel makes everyone happy. Everywhere I stop for a cup of tea or a smoke, there’s invariably a gaggle of wiry, weather-beaten men in dusty white shirts and large colourful pagdis conspiratorially discussing camels. And in this regard, the notorious Rajasthani preference for all things male seems to fall through. “A female camel or a male, what difference does it make? I want a good camel,” admonishes a bidi-smoking elder to a harried flunkey, who rushes off to seal the deal.

But if camels constitute the bulk of the business, horses fetch the higher prices. Pushkar Mela is the place to buy and sell thoroughbreds, especially the Sindhi and Marwari varieties. The horse enclosures are usually peopled by minor Rajput potentates, or their agents dressed sharply in riding breeches, jodhpurs and sporting royal crests on their stylish jeeps. A hub for both race and polo horses, some desirable animals can fetch really high prices, going up to anywhere between Rs 3 and 5 lakhs. Mohar Singh of Kherla village was busy brushing the coat of his dashing brown horse, Badal. Is it true, I asked him, that apparently a horse had sold the previous day for 95 lakh rupees? He hadn’t heard of such a thing, but he asked me to beware the sellers of non-Marwari horses. They were spreading misinformation. How much was Badal for? He studied my face a full five seconds and said, “four lakh.”

A prized mare and her colt at the camel fair. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

Later as I walked towards the car-park, I thrilled to the mystical charge of an almost-full moon in this oasis under eldritch stars, surrounded by hills over 200 million years old. Who knows maybe on kartik purnima the Old Ones themselves might descend? Pushkar would probably take it in its stride.

Bibek Bhattacharya

You can find a shorter version of this in Outlook Traveller magazine.

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

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

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