Har-Ki-Dun: The Hypnotizing Wonderland

Trekking the Himalayas for the Third Time in a year…

It was the month of April, my favorite month of the year. The reasons are many – because it’s spring; because it’s my birth month; because it was in this month that I had fallen for the mountains all over again.

This was that time of the year when I had a promise to keep, a promise I have made to myself the year before about spending my birthdays with nature and experiencing its supreme splendor– the only thing that gives me utmost joy and happiness. With a corner of my heart now permanently occupied by the majestic Himalayas, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

This time I was off to explore Har-Ki-Dun. Also known as Valley of Gods, Har-Ki-Dun is a cradle shaped valley and the legends of this trail go back to the Mahabharata*. It is said that the Pandavas had taken this very route on their way to heaven after the great war of Kurukshetra. The trek goes right up to Swargarohini, the peak which is supposedly the pathway to heaven.

* The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic poem revolving around Pandavas and Kauravas, the two branches of a family who fight the Kurukshetra War for the throne of Hastinapura. The Mahabharata includes Bhagavad Gita and with 100,000 verses it is the longest epic poem ever written. (Read More)

I was once again trekking with Indiahikes. This time, my sister was accompanying me. All geared up for yet another extraordinary experience, we arrived at Sankri. I was back to this tiny little beautiful village situated in the lap of the Himalayas exactly after one year. Last time I was here during my trek to Kedarkantha Peak.

Crossing the Nallahs on way to Taluka

After spending a night at Sankri, the group of 20 of us boarded two Boleros to go to Taluka, situated 12 Km away from Sankri. The entire route with lush green valleys, hanging cliffs, forests with tall tree all around, sporadic waterfalls here and there was simply spellbinding. The broken road passing through these waterfalls kind of interrupts their flow leading them to convert into streams before continuing their fall on the other side of the road. These streams are known as nullahs by the locals. As we crossed the nullahs, our Boleros tossed and jerked with the cliff on one side and a vertical fall on the other. Those were moments of additional excitement laced with a tad bit of nervousness for many of us – the city-bred delicate darlings!

Camping Beside the River at Puani Garaat

From Taluka, we started our trek alongside River Tamosa. The bright crystal clear turquoise water of Tamosa lifted my spirits the moment I laid my eyes on her. Tamosa was to be our constant companion flowing, dribbling, and swerving through the trees and hills while glistening and smoothing the already shining rocks and boulders. The flowing water seemed to be in constant hurry and always playing hide and seek with us, disappearing sometimes only to reappear again.

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Pic 1: River Tamosa meandering across the lush green landscape

We had walked beside the river for close to 6 hours maneuvering countless twists and turns alongside a constant interplay of light and shade caused by green forests of tall Chestnut, Pine, Walnut, Cedar, Oak, and others. Finally, we arrived at our first camp site, Puani Garaat. The exhaustion from the 13 Km. walk disappeared the moment I saw our tents pitched in a tiny little clearing right beside the river. The constant sound of gushing river radiated an energy that was highly contagious touching the soul and soothing the mind. It was not the least monotonous as one might presume. The sound of the river magnified at night but its rhythm served as the perfect lullaby as we drifted into a deep sleep.

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Pic 2: River Tamosa dazzling with the early morning sunlight.
Charming Osla Village on way to Kalkatiyadhar

The trek route passes through a couple of ancient villages, most noteworthy being Gangaad, Osla, and Seema. These tiny villages left us bewildered with their remoteness and exclusivity. As we passed by Osla village, the wooden homes of the village arranged haphazardly on the mountain slope captured our imagination. Seeing our enthusiasm, our trek leader suggested that we could stay at the village on our way back. And, that we did leading to an experience of a lifetime. [I’ve described that in a separate post.]

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Pic 3: The village of Osla with River Tamosa flowing below

It was the second day and we covered the 7 Km. trail through some level walks, few steep sections, and finally a continuous ascent through a gradually increasing incline. As we approached Kalkatiyadhar, the stunning views of the Bandarpooch and Pir Panjal ranges of mountain was just what we needed to sooth our tired mind and body. The magnificent Kalanag or Black Peak was also clearly visible just before arriving at this campsite.

Kedarkantha peak also provided a brief glimpse somewhere in this route. As dusk approached, Kalkatiyadhar displayed a dramatic sequence of changing colours with the sun painting the sky in myriad hues of bright oranges and yellows as it slowly departed for the day and set behind the horizon. (I miss having a camera at such times! A phone camera is largely insufficient.)

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Pic 4: Just before reaching Kalkatiyadhar, Kalanag can be seen in the backdrop
Getting Closer to Our Destination – Har-Ki-Dun

The entire trekking route had multiple steams, some we crossed directly by jumping over boulders and stones while some others through rickety wooden bridges. Besides the streams, on this day we encountered two fascinating waterfall as well. One cascaded in a narrow single flow with a great force and from a great height, the other was mildly spread across falling from a much lesser height. The latter enticed us and we waded across the stream to go right upto it, washed our faces and even filled in our water bottles.

Once again, passing through a forest dominated by pine trees with a sizable number of rhododendron trees we ascended and descended, walked through some flat land, and crossed some narrow ridges with a valley on one side and a cliff on the other. As we passed by a bend in the mountain, Har-Ki-Dun peak and Hata Peak made their grand appearance inducing a dose of instant happiness and delight.

The entire route, right from Taluka was as picturesque as can be. It truly lives up to its name of Valley of Gods. The meadows and the mountainsides were sprinkled with colourful spring flowers of varying shades though yellows, pinks, blues, and violets dominated. Not to forget the pink and white rhododendrons that illuminated portions of the forests.

Once in a while shepherds with their flock of sheep or mules would appear bringing in a sudden pause to our walking rhythm as we let them pass. Women of all age groups in their traditional attire and ethic jewellery from the villages would appear every now and then – some of them collecting wood, some on their way to Taluka, smiling and greeting everyone on their way. Sometimes giggling young girls and playful children would merrily pass by making us envious of their carefree demeanor.

Unveiling of the Scintillating Wonderland:Har-ki-Dun

We walked for about 5 hours and arrived at a steep incline. It was tiring in the hot afternoon sun as we inched along. The thought that this was the last climb for the day kept us going. As we approached Har-Ki-Dun at an altitude of 11,500 ft, it was a moment of disbelieve. The phenomenal valley was like an amphitheater and revealed itself bit by bit before my eyes. I felt that I was stepping into a wonderland. Was this real? Am I in a dream? Valley of Gods it indeed is! If there’s a place where Gods live, this has to be it.

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Pic 11: Har-Ki-Dun Valley as we first laid our eyes on it

The soothing sound of the rippling Har-Ki-Dun River with a patch of green on either side strewn with rocks and boulders that effortlessly blended into tall mountains all around was a sight to behold. On one side of the river stood tall jagged bare mountains adorning various shades of green, grey and brown with a rocky and stony surface. Their counterparts, on the other side, were elegantly dressed in a cloak of pristine white snow.

I stood there for a while drinking it all, trying to fathom all that lay in front of me. This was God’s perfect painting. I had seen such scenes only in calendars and posters. Words are failing me and I cannot do justice to that moment of picture perfect brilliance.

Spending my Birthday with the Mystical Swargarohini

While others went to their camps to rest and change, my sister and I had no patience for all that. We dumped our bags and rushed to the river bank to take off our shoes and dip our feet in the alluring river water. Fed by melting glaciers from the mountains, the water was very cold and we couldn’t keep our feet in there for long. It was around 1.00 PM in the afternoon and we had the entire afternoon and evening to ourselves. Moreover, we would be here the next day as well – a thought that made us ecstatic. We had enough time to explore the entire fairy tale like land. This was brilliant, I couldn’t have asked for more!

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Pic 12: The mystical Swargarohini

As we sat by the river facing the snow-clad mountains, for the first time we wondered which one of these was Swargarohini. It turned out that Swargarohini wasn’t right in front of us, rather up in the corner.  Swargarohini, covered off and on by clouds, did stand out as being starkly different from the other mountains and had a mystical charm to it. We walked ahead for a closer look. I could imagine the Pandavas and Draupadi walking up the peak and falling off one by one. Yudhishthira reaching the top with the dog behind him, a ladder dropping from the sky, and they climbing up to heaven.*

* The Pandavas were five brothers and Draupadi (also known as Panchali) was their common wife. After the war of Kurukshetra the Pandavas and Draupadi renounce the world and go to the Himalayas where they finally start ascending the Swargarohini peak towards heaven. A dog who had befriended the Pandavas during the journey also accompanies them. During the ascend, one by one everyone falls except the eldest of the five brothers, Yudhishthira and the dog, who are the only ones to go to heaven. (Read More)

This was my perfect birthday, my kind of happiness and joy. With that thought, my lips curled into a pleasurable smile. I did keep my promise!

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Pic 13: Few minutes of rest just before reaching Har-Ki-Dun

It was evening and I realized that I hadn’t seen my sister in a while. We were both sitting beside the river after lunch soaking in the afternoon sun. While I kept expressing my thoughts and feelings, she was relatively quiet. I then went off strolling around and was too busy taking in everything around to pay any attention to her. But now afternoon had given way to evening.

I walked back near the river looking for her and caught her sitting in the same place – all alone. I approached her only to find her weeping. Overwhelmed by the mountains, she felt very insignificant and small. This does happen to many people, so I wasn’t surprised. Her eyes were swollen and she just couldn’t stop the flow of tears rolling down her cheek. I sat beside her for a while and then let her be.

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Pic 14: How insignificant and tiny we are before the majestic Himalayas

The next morning we trekked 3 Km, up the mountain to visit Maninda Taal, which is situated behind the mountains. We were back by lunch time. After lunch, my sister and I took off once again voraciously absorbing all that we could of the valley on both sides of the river. We crossed over to the other side, walked till the edge of the valley, climbed up the mountain towards the forest rest house and visited the Shiva Lingam located in its premises, climbed up another mountain to get a better view of Swargarohini, interacted with other people we met, and so on.

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Pic 15: The Shiva Lingam with a glimpse of Swargarohini behind the mountain

The next day we woke up early while it was still dark, as we wanted to have some more time with the valley before leaving. Once again, we went for a walk while waiting for the Sun to rise.

Soon it was time to go. As I started to walk away, unknowingly I turned back for a last glance of the gorgeous breathtaking landscape. A feeling of gratitude took over as I felt fortunate for having had the opportunity to spend a few moments of my life on this slice of heaven on earth. My soul is blessed to have had Har-Ki-Dun charted in my destiny! With this thought, I happily turned away to trace my way back with precious memories etched in my heart and mind forever and ever….

A Few Addendums

  • Indiahikes, the group I trekked with, follows a principle of eco-friendly and sustainable trekking with minimum impact on the environment. They take several measures to make that happen, one of which is handing over an eco-bag to all trekkers. Any waste we generate while trekking goes into that bag. Not just that, if we find any litter on the trekking trail, we collect them onto these bags. On this trek, I had collected a lot of garbage and often went out of my way to do so. Indiahikes awarded a special certificate in recognition for this and, I was absolutely elated!
  • We bought Rhododendron Juice on our way back from Sankri, which was a huge hit with our friends and colleagues in Bangalore.
  • The gorgeous Tamosa river is formed near Osla by Har Ki Dun and Ruinsara Nallah. Flowing through Taluka, Tamosa merges with Supin River at Sankri. Supin river then joins with Rupin River to form Tons River at Netwar.
  • The valley houses rich Himalayan fauna, like Black bears, wild boars, Barasingha, Langoors, Golden eagles and massive Himalayan griffins. The colourful Himalayan monal, the state bird of Uttarakhand also thrives here. We weren’t lucky enough to spot any of these except the horses and cows grazing in the meadows. However, during the night at Kalkatiyadhar, we got to know of a mule calf being attacked and killed by a wild animal possibly a leopard.

Up Through the Forest Wilderness

An Arduous Climb Alongside Nohkalikai Waterfalls

We climbed, climbed, and climbed along! Will this ever end! At every turn, I hoped to see some flat land but there wasn’t any and every turn only revealed another steep climb through the same set of rugged, uneven rocks. I glanced at my watch and it was 2.30 PM. That means we’ve been climbing constantly for 3 hours now. “Just 10 minutes more to the top”, said Droning, our guide.  I knew I couldn’t take his word for it. As a 15 year old village boy, he can easily do it in less than that time.

We were tracing our way back from Nongriat after visiting the Double Root Bridge and the Rainbow Falls. The usual route is a pathway constituting 3600 concrete steps but we were on a different route. The path where we were walking, rather climbing, was right beside Nohkalikai Falls, which happens to be the tallest plunge waterfall in India, falling from a height of 1115 feet (340 metres).  And, that very well explains the steep climb. It was like walking up a vertical wall of that height.

We got carried away when we heard about this route and embarked upon it without putting much thought onto it. To top it, we had missed breakfast and had hardly eaten anything. Not just that, we ran out of water pretty soon. And, I for one didn’t have a single sip as I was saving it for my cousin, who needed it more.

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Pic 1: The steep climb laid out through rustic moss-covered stones

We had no clue about this route and got to know about it from some travelers the night before at Nongriat. The jungle route appealed to us and we had decided in an instant to go through that route instead of the usual concrete pathway. A quick chat with Droning to gauge the safety of the route with respect to wild animals and if it would be slippery was enough to seal the deal. Droning, however, miscalculated our capability and estimated that it would take us 2 hours to reach the top. He had said it takes him an hour, so by our standards it would be 2 hours. How wrong he was!

Also, it was only later that we discovered people climb down the route but seldom climb up. It’s not a very popular route and many people don’t know about it. Backpackers, trekkers, and adventure seekers walk down this route to go to Nongriat and then go back up through the concrete pathway.

Rajat and Ashwin, two of our newly made acquaintances had joined us too.

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Pic 2: Resting a while to catch our breath

The jungle was alluring and too glamorous for words! The initial 2 hours was simply fascinating. I felt the five of us were like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five unearthing a secret trail attempting to solve a dark and deep mystery. Tall trees and thick shrubs adorned either side of the steep rustic moss-covered stone steps. The sun passed through the miniature openings in the thick foliage making varied patterns on the path we walked. The entire pathway had a generous dose of Bay leaves scattered all over.

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Pic 3: The climb continues through as the sun’s rays filter through the thick canopy. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Every view appeared unique yet the same, all at once. Once in a while we came across these huge and delicate spider webs housing an elegant spider, proudly sitting right at the center. Gorgeous velvety butterflies fluttered every now and then spreading a blast of colours across their path. Some were tiny while most were really big, almost the size of a man’s palm.

A sweet jungle fragrance filled the air and our eyes feasted on multiple shades of green, sometimes interspersed by few browns.  Wild flowers of myriad vibrant hues scattered here and there were a source of constant delight uplifting our spirits and minds. I felt transported to a different realm. I wished I could take this jungle home and make it part of my everyday life but I couldn’t and have to make do with potted plants in my tiny little balcony.

There was nobody other than us in the trail making it even more enigmatic. The only people we met was a British couple going down the path towards Nongriat. They had come driving all the way from England and were exploring the remote corners our country.

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Pic 4: Delighted to meet people from across the continent (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

As we started walking, we found plastic bottles, chips packets, chocolate wrappers scattered all around. Though this path was less littered compared to the concrete pathway but it was disturbing nevertheless. Even a place like this, which is not touristy and less frequented was not spared. Initially, we just exchanged discontent about this among us.

Soon the discontent got the better of me and I started collecting them in a spare bag I had and by the time we were done with the climb, my bag was full and there was no more space in it. It was a great feeling to find the British couple doing the same and they were stuffing garbage in their pockets. I had another extra bag, which I handed over to them.

After about 3 hours of continuous climb, we were drained. The tiring uphill trail coupled with an empty stomach was increasingly becoming tough for everyone. Our water supply of 2L was almost exhausted, which was anyway insufficient for six adults. We had expected to find a water source enroute in the jungle but there wasn’t any. Our focus had shifted from the enchanting surroundings to ourselves. The enthralling jungle was failing to divert our attention anymore and was becoming more of an ordeal that we wanted to get over with.

All of us were pushing ourselves. My backpack felt heavier than it was and with no water my throat was parched. My sisters were struggling.  While one of them kept complaining about a supposed hamstring in her thigh muscles, the other was finding it more demanding than the rest. She kept drinking glucose water and spraying Volini on her calves to keep her going. She was getting me worried if she could at all make it to the top. At one point where I was further ahead, she even napped for a few minutes somewhere in the trail – I have no clue how she managed to do that on the almost perpendicular flight of rocky and uneven stairway.

To keep myself going, I devised my own strategy. I started counting the steps and set myself a goal of 30 steps at a time. After 30 steps, I would rest for a few seconds and start towards another 30. I would silently congratulate myself for completing 30 steps and heave out a sigh of relief of having progressed a little ahead.

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Pic 5: We just reached the top, the azure blue sky is just fascinating

Towards the end I was so dehydrated that it was getting increasingly difficult for me to move on. Desperate, I requested Droning to run ahead and get some water for us as we continued our climb. After an arduous 4 hour climb, the jungle gave way to tall brown grasses on either side indicating we were almost at the top. A little while later the hilltop appeared in the form of a vast and sprawling meadow. What a moment that was! Phew! At the same time Droning arrived with a bottle of water. We guzzled up all the water in split seconds like raindrops on a parched land. After quenching our thirsts, we moved ahead and soon spotted Nokalikai falls shining in the bright afternoon sun.

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Pic 6: The direction shows you can walk down this path, and we walked up instead!
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Pic 7: Nokalikai Falls – note the steep wall beside it, that’s the path we walked up!

Today, as I look back it feels good that we had chosen to walk that path. Several memories besiege me –

  • Agony of the 4-hour near vertical climb winding through the thick green canopy
  • Stepping through hundreds of fallen dry leaves strewn over moss-covered rustic stones
  • Maneuvering billions of crisscrossing gnarling roots that even God himself cannot map
  • Feasting our eyes on the myriads of colourful flowers and butterflies
  • Mushrooms and lichens of various shapes and sizes
  • Amazing and unusual insects by the dozens
  • And much more……….

All of this I wouldn’t have known had I taken the concrete pathway.

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Pic 8: We encountered several such gorgeous beauties. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)
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Pic 9: A stick insect, insects that camouflage like twigs (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)
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Pic 10: The skeletal remains of a leaf (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Constant

In Pursuit of the Elusive Rainbow

I stepped out of my room and looked up at the sky. The moon shone brilliantly and looked like a perfectly rounded sphere of white radiance sailing in the cloudless night. Millions of twinkling stars accompanying the moon seemed to be looking at me knowing exactly what I was thinking.

We were spending the night at Nongriat in a homestay, which was right next to the double root bridge – a bridge that epitomizes the harmonious blend of Nature’s abundance and Man’s hard work. Braving 3600 steps, we had arrived at Nongriat earlier that day.

Later that night, we befriended four travellers staying at the homestay. Gautam and Om were from Mumbai and were biking in the North East while Rajat and Ashwin were solo travellers. Rajat came from Delhi and Ashwin all the way from the city of Mysore in the South. I was with two of my cousin sisters and we were exploring our own home state. Our destination for the next day was Rainbow Falls and we decided to go there together as a team. Our guide, Droning was quite amused to find the three sisters multiply into this little army in just a few hours. Droning lives in Nongriat and is a young 15-year-old lad, who is preparing to appear for his school final this year.

Next day started early for us. We were up by 5.30 AM and left the homestay at 6.00 AM with our newly found acquaintances. The sun wasn’t up yet but the skies looked clear. Soon, we found ourselves crossing a shaky iron bridge that threatened to throw us off as it swayed to and fro while we crossed it one foot at a time. We had encountered such bridges the day before as well, but I for one was still not used to them and could feel my knees quiver. This particular one was worse as the iron was rusted in places. After a while, we crossed another root bridge and the root bridges are so much more stable!

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Pic 1: Another precarious hanging bridge, this one had few rusted iron rods making it scarier!  [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 2: Another hanging root bridge, this particular one was supported by iron rods. Root bridges were much more sturdier. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]

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Pic 3: Towards the end of the root bridge as we stepped into the jungle. Isn’t that glorious!

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Pic 4: Through the jungle trail, one step at a time. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 5: Sis takes a break. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
The sound of running water of the falls teased us for a long while as we continued walking and expected to see it at every turn but the falls kept eluding us. Then, in a flash it suddenly emerged from the thick green envelope. There it was! Rainbow Falls – a hidden treasure in the deep jungles of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya. The mighty roaring water was spectacular leaving us transfixed for a moment.

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Pic 6: Rainbow Falls as it emerged through the dense green thicket.

I stared at it from the top of the hill for a while before convincing myself that this was not a dream. Only then, was I able to descend the final flight of steps towards the falls. As I looked on, I noticed the enormous force of the water as it pounded its way right into the pool below. The pool was a brilliant sparkling blue and looked serene and calm, unaffected by the torrents of water pounding on it with such great force.

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Pic 7: I just had to admire it for a while before making my way down.

The sun was just about making its way through the tall hills around the falls. So, we would have to wait a while to see the rainbow that appears on the falls. It’s this permanent rainbow across the falls that makes it unique and gives it the name.

I found myself a comfortable seating area from where I could view the falls in its entirety. One of my sisters joined me. The rest were already making their way down through the huge formidable boulders. We watched them go down. Two of the guys couldn’t control their urge and very soon plunged into the crystal clear blue waters of the pool below. The water was so clear that we could see right through into the pebbles at the bottom.

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Pic 8: The pristine blue water was just too alluring!

The dazzling blue water was too inviting. My sister could hold herself no longer and decided to climb down.  The huge boulders intimidated me and I wasn’t sure. It’s my short height that limits me, shaking my confidence at such times, as I know my legs will not reach out to all places. I felt quite comfortable where I was but my sister insisted. Soon, Droning was summoned to give me a hand and help me navigate my way down to the blue pool.

Down below, the falls was magnificent but at the same time terrifying and unnerving. I stood there for a while watching the rest of my gang braving the chill and swimming and wading in the water. At one point all of them climbed up a huge boulder that had a ladder against it for a closer view of the falls. I wasn’t able to muster the courage.

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Pic 9: The  clear blue water through to the pebbles below. The water was comparatively shallow, as it was Winter season.

Another sparkling green pool of water amidst huge rocks and boulders glistened in the morning sun and lay quietly away from the falls. While the others went towards that, I decided to go back to my comfort place and again not without Droning’s help. One of my sisters and Rajat joined me too.

We chatted and waited patiently for another hour and a half as the sun’s rays slowly descended down the falls. The rest settled in a place down below after they had their fill of exploring and posing for photographs of kinds. We didn’t know at what point the rainbow would appear and every now and then imagined seeing colours when there weren’t any.

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Pic 10: Sis poses at the crystal clear green pool at the far end of the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 11: At my comfort place overlooking the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
And when the rainbow actually appeared, we literally shrieked in unison. It was so sudden that I felt as if an invisible fairy godmother had touched it with her magic wand. We reveled in the enigmatic beauty of Mother Nature for a while.

It was almost 10.30 AM. A few more people had now started coming in and it was time for us to leave.

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Pic 12: Do you spot the rainbow? We had to wait till the Sun’s rays reached that point just before it touched the pool below.

In our anticipation of the rainbow, we had forgotten that we had missed breakfast. Having been up for more than 4 hours with quite a bit of physical activity, our stomachs had started growling. The girls had meticulously packed in a few bread slices from our Homestay the night before. The boys had none. The food was far from sufficient and we still had a long way to go. We had decided not to go back to Nongriat, instead follow a jungle trail that goes straight to Cherrapunjee.

We had already invited trouble, just that we were still unaware…. (Continued)

Bridges that Breathe

I stood there and stared at it, there it was, just as I had visualized. It looked brilliantly gorgeous in the subdued evening light. “Love is the bridge between you and everything”, I muttered. Rumi has indeed captured my imagination and seems to have followed me even to this remote village in Meghalaya. The tantalizing double root bridge seemed like an entwined poetry between the two trees that flanked the Umshiang River silently flowing through the rounded stones that lie below. It was winter, and the reduced water level in the river made it look more like a stream.

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Pic 1: A marvel of organic engineering – man and nature in perfect harmony!

It was my first time at Nongriat village after braving 3600 steps and it was all worth it. The natural bridge floored me with its splendid elegance and grace. I couldn’t stop marveling at the ingenious organic engineering of the local tribal people. There are several root bridges in Meghalaya that are hand-crafted, using natural resources by the Khasi and the Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya (Khasis, Jaintias, Garos are the three tribes that constitute the native people of Meghalaya.).

These root bridges are made by guiding the aerial roots of Rubber tree (Ficus elastica) across a stream or river, and then allowing the roots to grow and strengthen over time. The young roots are tied, twisted, and weaved together encouraging them to combine with one another. The roots are wound around areca nut tree trunks, placed on either side of the water body. The roots keep growing, entwining the trunk and the bridge is elongated to the desired destination taking about 10-15 years to completion. The roots thicken over time and the bridge is further strengthened with mud, stones, sticks, and bamboos. These bridges last for hundreds of years and can carry the weight of 500 people at one time.

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Pic 2: Enchanting tree trunks that seem to be straight out of a fairy tale.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the double root bridge is nearly 200 years old. Locally known as Jingkieng Nongriat, the bridge is one of a kind and famous across the world. As a non-tribal resident of the state of Meghalaya, I could feel my chest swelling with pride as I stood there trying to fathom this tangled masterpiece hand-crafted by my tribal brethren.

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Pic 3: The water in the crystal clear stream below irresistible to our tired feet.

Soon, I found myself kicking off my walking shoes and settling down with my feet dipped in the cold water and the bridge right in front of me. My sisters joined in. We chatted into the evening accompanied by the occasional fishes that swam across tickling our tired and aching feet. We stayed at Nongriat and hence could enjoy the bridge in the way we wanted to, which would not have happened otherwise.

The reason being, it was the Christmas – New Year time, when the maximum surge of tourists happen leading to the place getting over crowded. To top it all, not all tourists who come here are nature lovers. It may seem strange but it is true. When we reached this place in the late afternoon that day, we were shocked to find people all over the place. There were some who were bathing in the river and shouting their lungs out disturbing the tranquil and serene surroundings. This is not how I had visualized the double root bridge and this is not my idea of enjoying nature. Dismayed, we walked away towards the jungle and came back only in the evening.

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Pic 4: A single root bridge on way to Nongriat village.
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Pic 5: A closer look showing the floor of the bridge.

Earlier that day, while on our way to Nongriat, we had been to a single root bridge. It had a prominent notice displayed stating that only two people are allowed on the bridge at one time. But the crowd of over enthusiastic tourists had no time read that. We pointed out to many but they didn’t care. We waited for a very long time for the crowd to thin down before we embarked upon the bridge. The next day, we crossed two other bridges in the interiors of the village. Each one leaving us spellbound with their spectacular intricacies.

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Pic 6: Another single root bridge in the village.

Last year when I was home, we had visited the single root bridge at Mawlynlong. That one is accessible by road and hence remains very crowded. However, the day we visited there was no one. We were really lucky. Mother Nature ensured peace so that we could soak in her comforting ecstasy.

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Pic 7: The single root bridge at Mawlynlong village.

Brilliant

Dhankar Lake – A Melody of Peace and Solitude

“Yehi best time hai ji!” (This is the best time), proclaimed Raju, our guide and driver for the past 3 days at Spiti.  As I looked at the way ahead towards Dhankar Lake with the afternoon Sun at its blazing best, I couldn’t stop myself from asking Raju if some other time would have been better.

This timing was the result of a tweak in our original plan for that day, which was to arrive at Dhankar village in the morning, visit the spectacular 1000 year old Dhankar Monastery, explore the village for a while and then make our way to Dhankar Lake. However, we changed our plan while on our way, did other things and landed here in the afternoon instead. It was about 2.45 PM, and by now we had learnt that afternoon is the time when it gets really really hot in this cold desert mountain.

Raju had informed that it would take us about an hour to climb up the stretch of about 2.5 Km. It is considered an easy hike but the steep climb in that altitude can make you breathless within a few seconds. It can be physically challenging if one is not used to steep climbs.

A muddy trail marked by the beautiful colours of Autumn welcomed us as we took our first step towards our destination. Armed with a bottle of water each, the three of us set off determined to reach the top in less than the stipulated 1-hour time.

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Pic 1: The spectacular fall colours against the deep blue sky

As we climbed up, Dhankar monastery and the village homes against the intricately designed surrounding mountains was a sight to behold. A particular patch looked like a termite hill, another had a tunnel like opening and looked like a secret cave leading way down to Spiti river, the new monastery was sparkling in its golden yellow colour, the meandering road snaking its way up to the village was clearly visible, dotting here and there were brightly colored shrubs in hues of orange, yellow, brown and green. It appeared like a scene of some other planet, straight out of a Sci-fi movie.

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Pic 2: That opening on far left is no doorway to a cave as it may seem so and that distinct pattern on the right is no handiwork of termites

Further ahead the muddy trail became steeper and gave way to loose pebbles scattered all along the pathway. One mis-step in the steep ridges and you will go down the rocky mountain. I thanked my foresighted decision of wearing my trekking shoes to Spiti instead of my normal sports shoes or any other shoes. Up here, the wind was pretty strong too.

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Pic 3: A small signpost showing the way
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Pic 4: Almost there, the lake is just behind that mountain

Dhankar lake lies hidden behind the mountains that surround the Dhankar village. Situated at a height of 4136 meters, it remains frozen and inaccessible for most part of the year. Dhankar lake is considered holy by the local people.

We made the climb in about 45 min. As we approached the lake, it looked like a tiny pool of water that totally disappointed my sister who had put in quite a bit of effort to make the climb. Raju chose to ignore the snide remark she made at this point, urging us to walk  along the side of the lake.

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Pic 5: As we approached the lake, it looked like a tiny puddle of water, much to our disappointment
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Pic 6: A signboard in broken English with the important instruction for travelers

As we continued walking, the colour of the lake kept changing and on reaching the far end of the lake we were speechless, mesmerized by the amazing view that lay in front of us! Stunned by the turquoise colour of the water and the barren mountains with their snow covered peaks in the backdrop, we were dumbstruck! To add to it, the azure–blue sky and complete silence. No sound rang out from the shimmering stillness of the lake other than the gentle whistling of the wind. The idyllic scene looked like nature’s amphitheater that simply took our breath away.

I felt complete peace and everything seemed utterly beautiful. There was nobody around at that time other than the three of us. Absorbing all the calm and serenity, we sat in complete silence and conversed in unspoken words as my mind and heart rejoiced with joy. Perhaps a manifestation of the divine presence in the lake, as believed by the locals.

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Pic 7: The colour of the lake was changing as we walked along
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Pic 8: And there it was, the magnificent view at the far end of the lake that took our breath away making all the climb worthwhile 
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Pic 9: The Stupa at one side of the lake

“Ab chale, Madamji?” (Shall we leave now, Ma’am?), Raju’s voice bounced me back to reality. I smiled and nodded in agreement. I had lost all track of time. A quick glance at my watch informed that we’d been there for more than an hour. With a huge deal of effort, I reluctantly rose to my feet to bid farewell to the soothing time and moment beside the calm and dreamy Lake. With the resolve to come back someday, I tied a prayer flag before I followed Raju retracing our way back.

As I write this today, it feels like a dream and I long for the same feeling to take over my senses once again.

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Pic 10: The gorgeous shrubs at one end of the lake, which we saw while walking back

Note: All pictures are unedited, raw photos clicked through iPhone-6

 

 

 

 

 

Chandrataal – The Hypnotic Moon Lake

A slice of heaven on earth……

It was biting cold as we stepped out of the car. I have no idea of the temperature but the cold hit us hard especially out of the warm and cozy car. I felt like my body was about to convert into a mound of ice even after putting on additional layers of fleece. It was 8 AM by then and we had not expected it to be so cold at this hour. Regretting my decision of wearing yoga pants and not denims that morning, I couldn’t help wonder how it might have felt a few hours earlier, at dawn. The sun was glowing bright all along the edges of the snow-capped mountain tops but was yet to reach the base of the mountain where we walked. Our anticipation of what awaited us kept us going even as our teeth chattered and our limbs were near numb. Also, we knew the cold was temporary and it was just a matter of time before the sun would warm us up.

Our destination appeared like an unimpressive greenish-brown pool of water as we saw it from a distance. As we approached closer, the colour changed dramatically to a turquoise blue, and then a blueish green and then deep blue blending with the green edges. The magical crescent shaped Moon Lake or Chandrataal revealed its jaw-dropping gorgeousness. Its magnificence glimmered in the morning light – a slice of heaven on earth it was! It was kind of a lightening-bolt moment for us.

Chandrataal is situated in the Spiti part of the Lahul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. The name of the lake reflects its crescent shape (Chandra – Moon; Taal – Lake). It is fed by the Chandra Glacier, which lies within the Chandrabhaga range that overlooks the lake. Hidden behind the mountains and situated at an altitude of 4300 m, its pristine and clear waters is sure to put you on a trance.

I had never seen such profound beauty before and my heart and mind was captivated instantaneously. There was instant peace and calm. The hypnotic tranquility had cast its spell and it seemed too beautiful to be true. I felt like I was in a reverie as I tried to absorb all the divinity emanating from the surroundings. The water was still with the brown mountains casting their reflection on one side of the lake, the prayer flags fluttered on the other side, the sky a deep shade of blue – creating an atmosphere too good to be true.

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Pic 1: Our first view of Chandrataal with the the sun lighting up a part of it displaying clear reflections of the brown mountains and blue sky
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Pic 2: On one side of the lake the prayer flags fluttered gently

We just stood there speechless totally engrossed and don’t remember feeling cold anymore. If there is a heaven, it’s got to be like this. A few minutes and the sun was up, its golden rays spreading all across the lake.

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Pic 3: As the sun’s rays spread across the entire lake

We walked a few meters by the side of the lake, tad reluctantly, not wanting to disturb the divine magnificent tranquility we were soaking in.  As we moved on, another splendor unfolded, this time it was the reflection of the snow-clad mountains and the water had turned a indigo blue.

It was bliss! Words are falling short and I have no language to express my feelings. Is this real? If I am dreaming, please don’t wake me up! The more I saw, the more I wanted to see….it was just not enough. We kept gazing and even a blink seemed to be wasteful.

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Pic 4: The reflection of the snow mountains
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Pic 5: Reflection of another snow peak
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Pic 6: As still as a mirror

After walking for a bit, we sprinkled a little of the cold water on our face and sat down to absorb the quiet emanating all through the bluish-green expanse. One can also choose to do a parikrama around the lake, which takes about 2.5 hours.

No wonder this place is considered holy. Such glorious scene has to have a divine presence. We read the clear instructions provided at the start of our walk about maintaining the sanctity of the holy lake by observing silence and not littering around. The place was absolutely clean. Not sure if it was due to the handiwork of the local people or it was because of the travelers abiding by the instructions. I do hope with all sincerity that it is the latter. There was no noise either, however, there were very few people at that time. The ‘monastery-quiet’ had a soothing and healing effect. Vehicles are not allowed in the vicinity of the lake, hence the 1.5 Km walk. Kudos to whoever took this decision and implemented the same.

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Pic 7: Soaking in sheer bliss, the cairn is blessed indeed…

One can do a day visit to Chandrataal or can camp overnight. There is a place 3Km away from the lake which has an assortment of tents of all shapes and sizes. Most travelers camp overnight. During our visit in October, the night temperature was around -7 degree Celsius. Some people camp with the hope of catching a glimpse of the Milky Way, some for the sheer adventure of it, while some others expect a party-like atmosphere with bonfires and music. We had decided not to camp there as the idea did not appeal to us, it was full moon so chances of seeing the Milky Way was slim and parties don’t interest us anyway.

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Pic 8: A view from the mountain top as we reluctantly traced our way back

We could have spent an entire day sitting beside Chandrataal absorbing its divine splendor but our plans to go back to Manali on the same day restricted us and we had to leave after spending about 2 hours. We were truly lucky to be able to witness the perfect reflection on the lake. The reflection depends on the weather conditions and is not always visible. The mountain Gods had ensured a blue sky with very little wind.

I feel blessed to have witnessed such immense beauty and I bow to Mother Nature in gratitude. Chandrataal gave me moments of perfect bliss and left me yearning for more. With a sigh, I traced my way back with the resolve to return to this halcyon paradise some day again…..

Magical Christmas at Kuari Pass!

When the Himalayas came calling again…

A corner of my mind and heart now stand permanently reserved for the enchanting Himalayas after my first rendezvous with the majestic snow-clad magnificence.

I was back from Kedarkanta Trek with millions of tales to tell and I’ve been told a couple of times that each time I reminisce the Himalayas my face lights up and my eyes sparkle – a comment that doesn’t fail to amuse me!

I had deliberately planned the next trek during the Christmas week in the month of December. This was to be my second Himalayan trek in the year 2016. This time my friend, Papia, was joining me and I was delighted. Papia always nurtured a sincere desire to trek the Himalayas but felt she couldn’t and it took me quite an effort to convince her. Once convinced, there was no looking back and she plunged wholeheartedly into it. She even got her brother’s family and two other people with her. A colleague of mine also joined in. So, this time we were a big gang of 7 people from Bangalore.

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Pic 1: The gang of 7 delighted with the crystal clear water of mother Ganges, which is sharply contrasting to how  we have seen her in the cities of the plains.

Thoroughly satisfied with my previous experience, I once again decided to trek with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). We had chosen Har-ki-Dun and it was the prospect of walking in snow that excited many in our group. While we were busy planning Har-ki-Dun, destiny had something else in store for us.  Just a fortnight before the trek, we got to know Har-ki-Dun was cancelled as the government had decided not to allow winter trekking in the area. IndiaHikes gave us the option of taking our money back or trek Kuari Pass instead. We chose the latter as we already had booked our tickets to Dehradun. I for one, was totally disheartened and my enthusiasm subsided considerably. The reason being Kuari Pass wasn’t rated amongst the top 10 Himalayan treks by IndiaHikes. Well, the saying ‘whatever happens is always for the best’ revealed itself later during the trek.

This time, we traveled to Joshimath from Dehradun. Needless to say this was yet another journey that is etched in our memories forever. As we passed through the ‘Panch Prayag’ (Vishnuprayag, Nandaprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag) one by one with Mother Ganges in all her glory for constant company, it was a journey through paradise. By the time we reached Joshimath, dusk had set in. However, even after travelling for 12 hours on road there was no exhaustion whatsoever.

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Pic 2: Confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers at Devprayag – notice the distinctive colours, while Alaknanda is greyish, Bhagirathi is dark greenish

The following day, a 45 min drive took us to Auli, considered as one of the best ski destinations in India. The season’s snowfall hadn’t happened and Auli bore a barren look much to the disappointment of many in our group. After all, it was late December and Christmas Eve for heaven’s sake! We climbed the Auli slope for a little more than 2 hours. The rugged mountains in the background with glimpses of snow gave us some respite from the barren slopes and noisy tourists.

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Pic 3: As we climbed the barren slopes of Auli

As we left the slopes and moved higher, Mount Nanda Devi made a brief and grandiose appearance bringing in the much needed excitement to all of us. Very soon the much awaited Oak forest greeted us. The interplay of sun and shade, the ground strewn with fallen leaves, and the gradual climb made for a mesmerizing walk that I will cherish for the rest of my life. In a tiny clearing at the edge of the woods is ‘Padiyar Devta’ temple. The serene and tranquil temple seemed to be in perfect harmony with the calmness and silence of the surrounding woods.

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Pic 4: The forest floor strewn with dry leaves
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Pic 5: Padiyar Devta temple – locals believe the deity protects wildlife in the jungle

We reached Gorson Bugyal, our camp site for Day 1. The group of 18 odd people from various walks of life were slowly getting to know each other – a bunch of young scientists from ISRO, an ophthalmologist from AIIMS, an executive from a well-known MNC, the tech engineer duo, entrepreneur couples, instructional designers, and last but not the least a computer scientist with degrees from top-tier institutions across the world, who quit his high-flying career to be with the Himalayas.

An acclimatization walk in the afternoon followed by an abundance of ghost stories around a bon fire marked the other highlights of Day-1. The temperatures dropped as we retired for the night amidst a bright and twinkling sky with millions of shining stars. Our wishes for snowfall intensified and someone even sent out a fervent prayer to the universe. We hoped for a miracle as the weather prediction didn’t mention snow for the next one week.

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Pic 6: Gorson Bugyal with our tents in the background

And miracle did happen…..

All night long we thought we heard rain drops splattering across our tents. It was cold and the thought of rain was enough to dampen our spirits. Just before dawn, Papia put on her headlamp and opened the tent to inspect the rain…..and she squealed out in joy as all she saw was white flakes all around. It was the season’s first snowfall and it was Christmas morning. What could be more magical than this! We felt we were nature’s chosen ones and this was special. It was Papia’s first experience of snow as was for most others in the group.

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Pic 7: The first sight of snow at dawn as a tent is lit up from inside by a headlamp
(PC: Soumik Sarkar)
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Pic 8: The snow-covered Gorson Bugyal looked completely different

It snowed intermittently as we walked making for a very special Christmas Day, Day-2 of our trek.  It was a cloudy day for most part. The sun did make brief appearances during the morning half but it lacked the usual warmth. It was freezing and the cold seemed to seep in through our skin. The snow mountains peeked through the clouds once in a while allowing us glimpses of Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri. The twin peaks of Haati-ghoda had become our constant companion right from the time we had spotted them for the first time on our way to Joshimath. The setting sun had painted them a bright orange that had stolen our hearts in an instant.

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Pic 9: Taking a break while admiring the peaks that surrounded us

Walking right ahead with those at the beginning of our group, we approached the ridge, which was an adrenalin rush for many but not for me. My heart froze as I saw the narrow trail with the almost vertical cliff on one side and the deep valley on the other.  Khusiji, our guide, offered a hand and I covered the entire 1.5 Km clinging onto him. I couldn’t concentrate much on the mind-blowingly beautiful stretch with shades of green, brown, yellow, black. It had started to snow once again while we were midway onto the stretch, which intensified as we were towards the end. At the end of this stretch, I sent out a small prayer of gratitude to the Almighty for enabling me to cross over to the other side safe and sound. Simultaneously, my mind raced to Papia and the rest of my gang who were trailing behind wondering how they were faring. It was not until later that night I got to know it was just as challenging for them as well.

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Pic 10: The narrow ridge that scared the hell out of me!

Passing through the gorgeous Tali lake that was half frozen, we entered the fascinating Oak woods once again. This time, it was even more magical as the entire place was covered with snow. It was a surreal feeling of fantasy as I could imagine Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer passing by with Santa’s sleigh and leaving behind an illuminated trail for us to follow. My joyful mind quietly hummed the Christmas Carol (Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer…..) and I felt I could hear the jingling bells all around me.

As the temperatures dropped further, we reached Chithrakantha camp site, situated in the heart of the forest. It had gotten extremely cold and I have to admit that we were feeling miserable despite the layers of warm clothes we had on. Some sat around a fire while others wouldn’t step out of their tents. I felt my blood was freezing and was in no mood to even talk to anybody – a behavior alien to the otherwise exuberant me.   We retired for the night apprehensive about the weather next day and wondered how deep the snow might be higher up where we would trek the following day. The sleeping bags kept us warm and cozy but we couldn’t sleep well, which was for the unevenness of the ground rather than the cold.

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Pic 11: The snowfall had intensified as we crossed Tali lake (PC: Padmanava Sen)
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Pic 12: We camped in the middle of the enchanting snow-covered oak forest  (PC: Soumik Sarkar)

It was Day-3, the summit day and we had started early. The Mountain Gods had smiled and a bright and sunny day greeted us, which lifted our spirits considerably. There was sparkling snow all around us and we couldn’t be happier.  The terrain constituted several steep ascents and steep descents. The snow peaks glistened at the distance and their elegance and splendor kept multiplying with every ascent. Once again, it was Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri along with the spectacular Neelkanth that were most prominent peaks accompanying us all the way.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for me and Day-3 felt tough especially the stretches of steep ascents. Despite that, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the good weather had a lot to do with that. I was intermittently sending my gratitude to the Mountains for giving me this opportunity to experience their supreme splendor.

Passing through Chitrakantha top with a panoramic 360 degree view we arrived at a ridge with gradual slopes. Here, the strong winds threatened to throw us off and we struggled to maintain our balance.

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Pic 13: Clear skies and sparkling snow with Haati-Ghoda as constant companions
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Pic 14: Strong winds sweeping off snow atop the majestic Haati-Ghoda
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Pic 15: As we approached the ridge where the strong winds almost threw us off balance

Passing through a part of the legendary ‘Lord Curzon’s Trail’ we reached the breathtaking frozen waterfall. Precariously we made our way down through the sides of the waterfall with crampons attached to our shoes that provided the much needed additional grip.

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Pic 16: The frozen waterfall – notice the people climbing down through the side

Finally, we reached Kuari Pass! We were overwhelmed at 12,516 ft and each one of us rejoiced in our own way. While some of us preferred to sit in complete silence, others got busy clicking selfies and freezing the moment forever through their lenses.

As I sat there absorbing every bit of the surrounding gorgeousness, my mind ran to Papia and I wished we could enjoy this moment together. Papia, along with a few others had opted out of the summit and had instead descended to Khullara, our next camp, where I would meet her later that day. The miserably chilling conditions of Day-2 drove them towards this decision.

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Pic 17: As we trudged along nearing Kuari Pass  (PC: Soumik Sarkar)
Kuari Pass - Neelaanjana Paul - At the summit with a wee bit of snow on my shoes as a testimonial to the snow-laden path we just traversed
Pic 18: A moment at Kuari Pass – a wee bit of snow stuck on adamantly to my shoe

With the summit over, we retraced our path and proceeded towards Khullara. While most of the people moved ahead, a group of five of us decided to take it slow as we rested, chatted, clicked pictures, and made the most of our descent towards Khullara.

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Pic 19: Descending towards Khullara as another amazing day was coming to an end
(PC: Padmanava Sen)

Khullara was the most beautiful campsite of this trek. It was a small clearing, surrounded by forest slopes and mountain ranges. The brilliant sunsets and sunrises we witnessed here across Neelkanth, haati Ghoda, Dronagriri and other peaks was a feast for the eyes. People who chose not to go to the summit ended up having a wonderful time exploring Khullara and it was not a bad bargain after all.

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Pic 20: The sky at dusk – twilight is astounding in the mountains
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Pic 21: Neelkanth glowing with the first rays of the sun (PC: Soumik Sarkar)

Starting early the next day, we commenced our journey towards Joshimath through the Tapovan valley. During the onward journey as always, I was way ahead with the group of people who were always at the beginning. On the return journey, I chose to go slow, stay behind and relish each and every moment. Who knows when I’ll be back again!

Another fantastic trail of about 9 Km awaited us as we pass through forests partially covered in snow with steep descends in some places, overlooking the snow-mountains all along. Towards the end of the trail we passed through a cluster of hamlets that provided a glimpse of the lives of the local people. As we passed through one such village, someone remarked “How lucky are these people to wake up to such a view of the Himalayas everyday!” It took us a good 60-70 minutes from the village to the nearest motorable road. Joshimath was a 45 minute drive from here. Are the village people really all that lucky? And to think that they don’t have a hospital.

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Pic 22: Descending towards Tapovan through the steep forest slopes
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Pic 23: A village viewed from a distance

My second Himalayan trek had come to an end. Captivated and spellbound I was once again. Additionally, this time two realizations dawned upon me. First, a Himalayan trek is about feelings and experiences that are beyond all words.  You have to go there to know what I mean. Second, the belief that our desire and intention is nothing before the mighty Himalayas (and perhaps all other mountains). The mountains decide what they want you to experience. If the mountains concede, only then you get to set foot on them to experience their majestic grandeur and I bow in reverence.

 

 

A Date with Leeches at Kudremukh

A lush green montage of rolling hills, sprawling grasslands, and tropical forests….

“Good Lord, Eewwwwww!” I shrieked. A swollen wobbly leech just fell off from my upper arm as I took off my rain-jacket. Stuffed and all pumped up after a sumptuous blood meal sucked out of my arm, the hale and hearty leech was wriggling on the ground trying hard to move around. Sounds gory, isn’t it? Not quite! Leeches are creepy but pretty harmless creatures, something I learnt after I trekked to Kudremukh peak in Western Ghats.

I soon discovered that there were three more leeches – one on my stomach and two on my feet that were happily feasting on my blood while I was engrossed with all the wonders of Mother Nature surrounding me. I had managed to dodge tonnes and dozens of them all the way and these were the lucky four that secretly found their way onto my skin. And it was not until I was back from the peak that I discovered them.

I’m still not sure if I have overcome my fear of leeches – not fear, rather the uncomfortable creepy feeling associated with these creatures. However, these wriggly-wiggly creatures surely added to my overall experience of Kudremukh.

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Pic 1: The green mosaic of thick vegetation, vast grasslands, rolling hills, and dreamy clouds

Trekking in the lush green Western Ghats had been in my wishlist for a long time now. Kudremukh was an obvious choice to experience Western Ghats for the first time after having seen mesmerizing photographs of the chain of rolling hills laid out in a mosaic of sprawling grassland and dense forests.  It was with this motive that I had started following Tranquil Voyagers on Facebook and it’s been more than two years now. However, life is paradoxical and I landed up discovering Himalayas in the far north while I kept contemplating Western Ghats, which is right next door.

Tranquil Voyagers is a trekking company in Bangalore run by Shravan Kumar. Having observed them on Facebook for quite a while I decided to join them in my quest to discover the beauty of Western Ghats. Being with the right people is extremely important when it comes to hiking, trekking and exploring nature and I must say I am quite selective about that. Shravan himself leads all the treks conducted by Tranquil Voyagers and they exceeded my expectations with their idea of fun combined with high levels of energy, responsible trekking, and ecofriendly practices. I highly recommend them. (http://www.tranquilvoyagers.co.in).

It was early monsoon in the month of June. We reached Kudremukh National Park at dawn and were put up in a homestay with very basic amenities. Surrounded by tall trees, thick vegetation, and green hills, it was nothing but heavenly. Soon after breakfast, we started out towards Kudremukh peak.

Kudremukh or Kudremukha is a peak in Chikkamagaluru district, in Karnataka, located within Kudremukh National Park. The name ‘Kuduremukha’ is derived from a view of a side of the mountain that resembles the face of a horse. ‘Kuduremukha’ is a Kannada word meaning ‘horse-face’.

A group of 18 of us walked along chit-chatting with the early morning sun shining brightly and adding cheer to the newly found acquaintances. An important topic of discussion was the leeches that we knew we would be encountering and everyone had their own theories and stories to tell. All of this was doing little to drive away the discomfort I had at the very thought of the slimy wriggly-wiggly creatures. I had done my own research and had read up quite a few articles but the knowledge I gained did nothing to ease my apprehension. Very soon we started encountering them. And as we stepped into the forest, they were all over. It took me a while to recognize them as they can be easily mistaken for twigs scattered amidst the big brown leaves all across the forest floor, until you see them moving and stretching all around looking out for potential unsuspecting victims.

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Pic 2: Refreshing shades of green

Keeping aside the leeches, the wide variety of landscapes throughout the trail was a source of constant delight. The green carpets of grasslands would merge into smooth hill slopes with a very few or no trees at all. Patches of shrubs and bushes would appear intermittently. This would quickly give way to stretches of evergreen Shola forests with foliage so thick that the sun rays could hardly penetrate. (Shola is the local name for stunted tropical montane forest in South India). Once in a while the gurgling streams showed up gushing through the forests complementing the humming cicadas and chirping birds creating a surrealistic experience of dream and fantasy. Crossing the streams was great fun as we carefully made our way through the stones and pebbles, some of which were slippery due to the moss, lichens, or algae covering them.

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Pic 3: Walking through the shadowy groves of ‘Shola’ forests enjoying the leafy canopy and trickling sunlight
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Pic 4: The giggling stream greeted us as it happily passed through the forest
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Pic 5: The stream smiles, lit up by sun rays piercing through the thick jungle foliage.                               Pic Credit: Nikunj Amipara

It rained every now and then, adding to the enchanting aura created by the varied landscapes. The National Park houses a variety of wildlife and herds of sambars, spotted deer have been seen on the trekking route. However, we weren’t that lucky but we did see a couple of birds including a few peacocks. Not to forget the leeches though! To make sure that the creepy creatures didn’t catch us, we literally ran across the leech-infested forest floors and didn’t dare hang around to admire the pure serenity of crackling leaves, crunching twigs, and rustling foliage. There was no escape, whatsoever! Every now and then we would have to stop to remove the slimy creatures off our clothes and shoes. Once they sneak in and attach themselves to our skin, it gets tricky. Then, it’s important to take them off along with their suckers or else infections may set in. I was armed with a packet of salt but contrary to my knowledge, I learnt that sprinkling salt on leeches is not a good idea at all as that not only entails killing the leeches mercilessly but can lead to severe skin infection. Apparently, once the creature attaches to your skin, leaving it there and letting it fall off after it’s done with sucking your blood is a safer bet. Of course, I have no idea how you can do that without psyching out at the very thought of it.

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Pic 6: Carpet of green stretching as far as one can see  – a real treat for the eyes

As we were nearing the peak, after a few stretches of steep climbs, it started raining and a thick layer of fog engulfed us. I felt like I was walking in a vacuum of white as I couldn’t see anybody or anything ahead or after me. The heavens were not kind enough and by the time we reached the peak, the rains intensified. Along with that, the winds blew strongly and it was really cold. Drenched from head to toe, our raincoats provided little respite. The thick fog ensured that we got no view at all.  Shivering and trembling in the cold coupled with disappointment of not being able to see anything, we decided to descend. After a while, the rains stopped and the fog cleared just for a few minutes and that was our only window to catch a glimpse of the hypnotizing rolling hills undulating in all shades of green.

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Pic 7: The thick fog of grey that engulfed us as we approached the peak
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Pic 8: The window that opened up for a few minutes provided a glimpse of the undulating green hills that lay behind the clouds

The rains lashed hard again and didn’t stop till we were back at the homestay. Some areas, especially while climbing downhill had become slippery, forcing our concentration on the path ahead of us leaving us with no opportunity to stop and admire the enthralling surroundings. Though a few of us did stop at the clearing that was lined up with mango and jackfruit trees. With the raw mangoes hanging low, we couldn’t resist gobbling up a handful of them with salt before the salt was washed off in the rain.

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Pic 9: Happiness is walking into clouds through a soothing stretch of green
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Pic 10: ‘Onti Mara’ – The Lone Tree stands tall in the barren hillside undeterred by the thick fog.

Back in the homestay, after clearing the leeches, we bathed in hot water and feasted on onion pakodas and hot tea. The hot water bath was quite a luxury I must say!

It was an experience of a different kind, even though we couldn’t see anything at the peak. The journey is always more important than the destination and the beautiful and varied landscape we experienced made for an enchanting experience.

However, I have to say that having experienced the Himalayas, nothing else truly makes a mark upon me. Though, I know it’s unfair and I should not compare a hill with a mountain!

The leeches turned out to be harmless but something else almost killed me that night after I was back to my city in Bangalore but that’s another story. You can read that here – When my Immune System Overreacted

When Kedarkanta Happened!

My First Tryst with the Himalayas…

The year 2016 was particularly difficult for me. Certain things happened that negatively impacted my personal environment changing the course of my life, perhaps forever. Alongside something else happened. Again impacting me, but in a positive way.  Even though this cannot compensate for the other things that have gone so wrong, I feel fortunate and blessed.  And here’s what happened – I undertook two fascinating journeys discovering the intriguing beauty of the majestic Himalayas as I trekked to Kedarkanta and Kuari Pass in Uttarakhand.  In an attempt to share my wonderful experience, I am penning down the story of my Himalayan sojourn.

Let me start with Kedarkanta…

I am not getting into the details of how I landed up deciding to go on a Himalayan trek.  It was a very impulsive decision and how grateful am I for that!

It was the third week of April, the week of my birthday. Accompanied by my friend, Partho, I embarked on my maiden venture to the Abode of Snow with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). Kedarkanta peak is located in Govind National Park and the trek starts from a tiny village called Sankri, tucked away well within the park.  We started from Dehradun and the entire route to Sankri was a picturesque one, making the 10 hour drive really pleasurable.  Sankri is a tiny little beautiful village with a population of just about 300 offering some stunning views of the mountain ranges in Uttarakhand.

I was trekking for the first time, though I had gone for a day trek in Bangalore before but I don’t consider that to be of any significance. Kedarkanta is considered an easy trek but for people like me with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, it wasn’t all that easy. I did have an edge though – at least that’s what I would like to believe. After all, I belong to the mountains, having spent the first 30 years of my life in the Eastern Himalayas in the beautiful little hill station of Shillong. My hometown, fondly known as the Scotland of the east, the capital of Meghalaya – abode of clouds!

We were in a group of 25 people of all age groups with the youngest being 9 years old. Most of us were first timers. There were three families and half the group constituted members of the same family.  However, by the end of the first day, the entire group had become like one big family.

As we climbed up towards Juda-ka-Talab on Day 1, it was raining intermittently.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the steady ascent through the forests of pine, deodar and oak trees. Occasionally, we would pause to admire the rhododendrons that were blooming all the way.  We even plucked a few to satisfy our curiosity of tasting the flower petals. This was totally new to me. I had no clue that we could eat rhododendrons!

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Pic 1: Our colorful raincoats blending harmoniously with the surrounding forest.

The changing landscape kept us engaged all along – forests with shades of all kinds of green with tinges of yellow and orange; trees with intricate trunk patterns having roots that spread far and wide; occasional green meadows irresistible to our already aching feet. We also came across one or two shepherd huts that appeared abandoned. These are places where the shepherds spend the night when they come up grazing their sheep as they cannot go back on the same day. We later learnt that the shepherds of the adjoining villages usually move around in team of twos armed with ‘kukris’ so that during the night while one rests the other watches over the sheep, protecting them from wolves and bears.

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Pic 2: Multiple hues splashed across the forest creating a divine aura.

After a continuous climb of 4 Km for about 4 hours through countless pines and oaks, Juda-ka-Talab revealed itself as a small pond in a tiny little clearing amidst the lush green and dense forest. Legend has it that Lord Shiva opened a little of his hair and water flowed out to form this small pond.

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Pic 3: Behold, the impressive Juda-ka-Talab!

A little after we reached Juda-Ka-Talab, the rains intensified, forcing us inside our tents.  After a continuous spell of about an hour or so, the rains disappeared without trace and a bright and sunny afternoon greeted us.  We didn’t see a frozen Juda-Ka-Talab as the ice had melted just a week before we had arrived. No complaints, especially with the snow-clad mountains around us and the reflections of the surrounding pine trees on the ‘talab’ making the entire place an ecstatic visual delight. With our minds and hearts overwhelmed, we retired for the night as the stars shone bright and beautiful making the whole experience blissful and magical.

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Pic 4: Upside down or downside up!

We looked up and saw the Kedarkanta peak at a distance that was partially covered in snow.  It was Day-2 and we had just arrived at Kedarkanta base after a very short and steep climb. The quick ascent left us pleasantly surprised. While most people were delighted with the thought of being able to rest and relax in such heavenly abode, I was excited about the prospect of exploring the adjoining woods. Being the naturally energetic person that I am and with my mind busy fantasizing the witches and fairies of the woods that surrounded us, I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day just idling around the tent.  At the same time, I couldn’t master enough courage to venture into the woods all by myself. I found the 55-year old Vinod for company whom I had befriended the day before, and who amazed me with his stamina and fitness, passion for trekking, his grit and determination, and his love for the Himalayas. We shared our common love for yoga.

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Pic 5: Time for a break!

Time stood still as we walked through the enchanted forests of oaks and pines, admired the lichens and mosses, listened to the rustling of dry leaves below our feet, took note of the birds calling out every now and then, discovered streams and waterfalls, relaxed in the meadows, clicked selfies, talked to the occasional shepherd appearing from nowhere with his flock of sheep and disappearing in the same way, encountered the extraordinarily friendly mountain dog, and chatted about our lives and experiences. I was living in a picture postcard. Life seemed perfect!

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Pic 6: Time stood still as we lay on the soft green just below the Kedarkanta Peak…
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Pic 7: The extraordinarily friendly mountain dog.

It was 3.00 AM in the morning and we were already on our way to Kedarkanta peak with headlamps and torches lighting our paths. It was cold and we walked in silence in one straight line being led by our trek guides.  The cold eased a bit as twilight approached giving us hope and making Day-3: the Summit Day seem a little more achievable.

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Pic 8: As dawn broke, there was magic everywhere! 

As twilight gave way to early morning, we were delighted to see patches of snow glistening with the first rays of the sun.  There was some fresh snow indicating that it must have snowed the day before.  The terrain constituted patches of steep ascents and continuous gradual ascents as we huffed and puffed our way towards the top. In some patches, the snow had turned to ice making it a slippery and risky affair.

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Pic 9: The choco-vanilla landscape is a complete contrast to the lush green landscape!

Finally, after a climb of 6 Km for 6 hours, we reached Kedarkanta summit standing tall at 12,500 ft! The 360 degree panoramic view of some of the famous snow-clad peaks and mountain ranges was simply jaw dropping. Swargarohini, Bandarpoonch, Black Peak, Gangotri and the Yamunotri range, Chanshil Pass and Kinnaur Kailash ranges were clearly visible. Keeping my eyes wide open, I was gorging on every moment as my heart and soul danced with joy.

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Pic 10: I could have sat there forever!

Climbing down was tricky at times especially during the initial descent where the slope was steep and in those places where there were patches of ice.  We also did a slide in one patch that had some good amount of snow. It was some real fun as we twisted and turned, rolled and slipped, amidst hooting, laughter, and cheer!

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Pic 11: The slide!

After a brief rest at Kedarkanta base camp, we continued walking down towards Hargaon. While I was always amongst the top five people while climbing up, I was mostly lagging behind while climbing down – a clear sign that my knees needed some workout. Once again a spectacular trail through oaks, pines and streams led us to a meadow laid out in a carpet of green where we were camping for the day. It was a sunny afternoon with clear skies and we spent the rest of the day chit-chatting, reveling in the beauty of the surrounding snow-clad mountains, watching the horses grazing in the distance, walking barefoot on the soft grass, and playing cricket.

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Pic 12: Sunsets are gorgeous anywhere and more so in the mountains!

As Vinod and I basked in the sun along with a few others, a shepherd we had met the day before passed by with his flock of sheep. It was a moment of mutual delight. This time we chatted longer and learnt more about their lives and it was by no means an easy one. A pang of guilt hit me slightly as my mind did a spontaneous comparison of the kind of life I lead with all amenities at my disposal and here was someone whose life was a constant struggle oblivious to all the comforts that modern life has to offer.

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Pic 13: Picture postcard it was!

Starting early on day-4 and revisiting our rhododendrons through the forest floor laden with dry pine needles and cones, we descended back to Sankri, the village where we had started.

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Pic 14: The forest floor strewn with pine cones and pine needles.
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Pic 15: Rhododendrons – Yes we did pluck and gobbled a few!

At Sankri, we further explored the village, visited the ancient wooden temple of Bhairava (a fierce manifestation of Shiva), mingled with the locals, bathed in river Supin, watched young children play joyfully without a care in the world before finally calling it a day.

It was the end of my first Himalayan trek. However, for me this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a newly discovered love and passion for the mountains.  I was spellbound – the enchanting Himalayas had captivated my soul. It was intoxicating and I knew I would be back very soon, which I did…. (Kuari Pass Trek)

 

The Mythology of Kedarkantha

Uttarakhand is considered to be the land of Lord Shiva and Kedarkantha peak has its own mythological story related to the Lord. The word Kedarkantha means Throat of Lord Shiva. The story goes back to Mahabharata. After the war of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were looking for Lord Shiva to atone for the sins committed during the war. First they went to Varanasi, Shiva’s favorite city, which has the famous Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Lord. Infuriated by the death and dishonesty at the Kurukshetra war, Shiva wanted to avoid the Pandavas. So, he assumed the form of a bull (Nandi) and hid in the Garhwal Himalayas. Not finding Shiva in Varanasi, the Pandavas went off to the Himalayas. Bheema spotted the bull and recognized it to be Lord Shiva. He held on to the bull not letting it go. In the resultant struggle, the bull was torn into five parts that appeared at five different locations. This resulted into the Panch Kedar: Kedarnath – Back of Lord Shiva; Kalpeshwar – Hair of Lord Shiva; Rudranath – Face of Lord Shiva; Tungnath – Arms of lord Shiva; and Madhyamaheshwar – Navel of Lord Shiva. Locals believe that during that time, the throat of Lord Shiva fell at Kedarkantha peak and that’s how the peak got its name. A small temple dedicated to the Lord is situated at the summit.