Monday, November 21, 2005

Travelogue, Almora, Uttaranchal 2005



A Travelogue

Delhi to Almora, Uttaranchal, India
… The Kumaon Region { Himalayas }
Distance 328 Kms
Time Taken: 9-10 hrs by road one way.
Height Approx 5400 feet above sea level

We leave Delhi at 6:45 AM for Almora. “Josh Ju” as Mr Joshi is called by “Pahadis”” is our driver and “Indica” is the car we set off on.


The first 25 minutes are an eye opener for me, being a Delhiite myself I had never seen the city at this hour on a drive. A gorgeous red sun in the sky, freshly swept highways and a mix of modern high-rises with classical styles of temples, forts and what not. Funny, it never seemed like this when I was here!. We buy the paper at a traffic stop light and the earthquake in India & Pakistan stares us in the face. What can I say? ... this year has overtaken any number of catastrophes in past years. I am told by family that it was felt at our destination too.

We had a hectic few days in Delhi before we set off, so we did not have to try to doze off once we were in the car. In between dozing I caught glances of miles and miles of green fields of the winter crops. The drive was timing well up till Moradabad, UP, at about 130 Kms/hr, actually the speed was making me a bit nervous with trucks coming headlong at us and drivers deciding to take the lanes as a matter of will at the last split second. I decided not to look ahead!

When we woke up at about 11:30 AM we were closing on to Rampur, UP, Josh Ju informed us that the drive had slowed down considerably in UP due to roads that had gotten bad after the rains. He was surprised we had not felt it, we were pleased on the other hand. Josh Ju now thought that we might get to Almora at 7 instead of 4:30!

Rampur, hmmm!, I only associated 2 things with the place, “Rampuria”, referring to the knives made in Rampur and “Rampur Gharana” which is an important style and school for Indian Classical music. That is exactly what this little town is most famous for, other than being a busy stop for trucks & carriers transporting goods between the hills and the plains of Uttaranchal & UP. If one watches closely at the start, Rampur has these really old beautiful Mughal & Colonial styled bungalows, that have now been converted to public offices. It is also a town that saw very severe Hindu – Muslim riots during the partition. The area has since always been wrought with communal tension.

Later I gathered that Rampur has a famous museum with very ancient manuscripts & original exhibits of miniature paintings that were the property of the then Princely State of Rampur. Rampur is today a District in the Indian state of UP.


About 45 mnts from Rampur we enter the long heavily forested drive into the Kumaon region in the Himalayan state of Uttaranchal.. Interestingly the roads become smoother, the state border is lined with Utaranchal police and Kumaon Regiment army personnel to collect octroi & road taxes. Well, atleast one can see it being put to better use here than in UP!
Just before Udham Singh Nagar we stop at “Punjab Dhaba” for parathas and lassi. Stuffed for few hours, we drive into Udham Singh Nagar. This place has a bit of history, named after Udham Singh, who was the only one who ever did something about the brutal Jallianwala Bagh Massacre by killing General Dyer .

We next drive into Kathgodam after driving through Haldwani. Kathgodam is the last terminus of the North East Railways connecting Nainital with Delhi,Dehradun & Howarah. From Kathgodam, the train backs up, and anywhere into kumaon from here has to be by road.
This place is also the place for many a base camps and river rafting activity. One can tell one is in the Himalayan Region as one starts seeing densely forested hills and far away, on a clear day, some snow-capped mountains.

Winding roads start here and one passes an army base camp. The car starts winding its way up and we shut off the AC and roll down our windows, camera out, face sticking out of the window, I start shooting. The green here is absolutely fantastic, so far away from the dry summer in the plains, there is smell of pine in the air, it’s clean. River rafting has been introduced in stretches of Kaliganga and Saryu/Ramganga rivers. On Kaliganga, the average grade of the river is class III while on Saryu the average grade is class II with a few class II rapids, ideal for beginners and leisure rafters. On both stretches, the rivers and rafts flow past a landscape of terraced hills and villages. The drive to Almora from here is about 4 hrs, we are doing good time and at this rate we will reach by our previously calculated time of 4:30 PM.

The drive is so beautiful that we stop for a cup of tea. On the drive all the way up, the climb is steep and winding, an interesting temple catches our eye. There are huge idols of
Hanuman, Ravana and Ganesha, that almost seem to rise from within the mountain, quite a traffic stopper. Hanuman seems to be the most popularly worshipped God here. In some parts I suspect it is the same but called “Gollu Devta”. On many cars and vans you will see the slogan on the windshield stickers…. reading “Jaya Gollu Deva”, as opposed to the “Jaya Mata Di” that is more popular in the plains. We drive by a road that forks in 2 directions. One that steeply moves in a hairpin bend towards Nainital, and the other heads towards Almora. I have visited Nainital on many occasions, but the travelogue fever had not caught up with me by then. So.... it will have to do till my next visit.

At around 3:00pm we drive to this interesting Ashram called “Kanchi Ashram”. My father in law later explains the name to have come from the term “kaenchi” that means scissor, this Ashram is near a double “8” bend in the road that is very sharp, in local term this is referred to as the scissor bend, hence the name sticks till day. Although, it is a convenient name also for the people in the ashram (who came into the picture much later) who revere the great saint of Kanchi Math. We also drive by the little village of “Garam Paani”, the name means “Hot water”, and we take a guess that there maybe hot water springs around.

About this time we are driving through huge pine forests, and it is absolutely lovely, we drift in and out of sleep. On the way we see, huge boulders and damaged roads because of landslides due to heavy rains during the monsoons, some boulders are as big as cars! Also along the way one notices huge number of monkeys sitting by the roads. As we stopped the car for a shot, one started towards us, as if to ask us where we were off to. Pashu quickly rolled up the window and we packed up . On the way back we caught a black faced Lemur on camera.

About 2 kms from Almora, pashu points the “Bright End Corner” , famous for its beautiful sunrise and sunset views of Almora.On another day later we visited an aunt of Pashu’, who lives near about. The unusual calm and peace here is rarely felt on any other hill station offering a similar view. The Circuit house is very close to this point & is an added attraction. Nearby is the Vivekanand library in Ramkrishna Kutir. This place is dedicated to Swami Vivekanand. It was at this place Vivekanand spend few days while his stay in Himalayas. Parts of it have been converted into a rest house for travelers.

The glamour and glitter which is seen in Ranikhet & Nanital is totally absent in Almora. Almora is still a virgin hill-station and is full of scenic beauty. I would say it has a lot of tourist potential that is underdeveloped but it is never late to improve. It appears that nature has spread and blessed this place with a lot of love. In the lap of nature this region has small houses built on the slopes. Just besides the city flows the Koshi & Suyal rivers.


In the 9th century Almora was ruled by Katyur dynasty. By 16th century this place was ruled by rulers from Chandravansh. This town was established by King Balo Kalyan Chand in 1563. This place was the then capital city of Kumaon region. The forts, monuments and palaces built by the rulers of Chandravansh and Katyur dynasty are till date evidence of the splendor this place had in the past. In 1790 Almora passed into the hands of Nepali Gorkhas. The Britishers gained control of this place from Gorkhas in 1815.

Unlike most hill stations Almora wasn't an empty hillside 'discovered' by the British. It was already an established town with a long history. The Kashaya Hill on which Almora is built is mentioned in the Hindu scripture, the Skanda Purana. It is believed that the great god Vishnu dwelt here. The area has been inhabited since the earliest historical times.

Almora is situated on a hillock which is in the shape of a Horse shoe and is surrounded by dense forests of fur and pine trees. In the backdrop are the lovely snow-capped peaks of Himalayas. Almora has been able to retain the tradition and ancient culture even when other places are being influenced by modern trends. Right in the middle of the town is the Nanda Devi temple and Narsingha temple, evidence of the great faith of people in God.

I found a lot of similarity in the temple architecture here and the ones I have seen in Bhaktapur, in Nepal. They date around the same time and are believed to have been built by the same kind of people to a large extent.

We pull up into our hotel, called Shikhar Hotel. It was not fancy, but it had a great view into the valley and the rooms were large and clean, with all the basics that are required. The plus point was that it was walking distance to Pashu’s Uncle’s home which was right in the middle of the bazaar. From the hotel, in the morning we could see the Himalayas, snow capped peaks, winking back at us, behind the forested hills. I believe the ones we saw were the Nanda Devi and the Trishul Peak. Called Trishul, as in the “trident”….. locally known as Chaukhamba.
Apparently what we see is Trisuli West standing at 7035 mts.
Trishul 1-7120 mts
Trishul 2-6680 mts
Trishul 3-6315 mts
Nanda Devi 7,817 mts
Except for some peaks in Kashmir, it is the highest point in India. Hindus believe that the goddess Nanda, wife of Shiva, lives there. Nanda Kot, at an elevation of 22,538 ft (6,870 m), is said to be Nanda's “couch.” The peak was scaled in 1936 by an Anglo-American expedition.

One of the peaks we could see was flat topped and reminded me very specifically of the one I saw in my mountain flight to the Everest in Nepal called the Chamlang at 7319 mts. It is easily recognizable as the flat topped mountain. I still have not confirmed this but am researching some material on it.

" To see the greatness of a mountain, one must keep one's distance; to understand its form, one must move around it; to experience its moods, one must see it at sunrise and sunset, at noon and at midnight, in sun and in rain all other seasons. He who can see the mountain like this comes near to the life of the mountain, a life that is as intense and varied as that of a human being."
-Lama Anagrika Govinda

Here is a link where you can read more about the various peaks: http://www.ardhkumbh2004.com/en/Haridwar/Uttaranchal/TouristDestinations/FamousMountainpeaksofUttaranchal?UTCPostGUID=%7B538703F1-6C20-4C5A-B290-D0785DA83D8E%7D

In case one is interested there are numerous stories associated with the peaks in Uttaranchal. Some can be read at the link above.

There is a post office and the clock tower of interest in Almora: The post office, built in 1905, is still very British but the main clock tower opposite the tourist office, erected in 1886 by an Indian but constructed by a British engineer, shows a strange confusion of styles. My Father in law recollects… that a few days before India’s independence, and it seemed just like yesterday, he had stood there and heard the announcement of independence being made on the loudspeaker, he also tells me that in those days there were not many buildings here and that they used to read the daily news here over the speakers. He tells me that it was also here that he heard the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on 30th Jan 1948 and he, alongwith a million other Indians, listened on in horror.

On our second day we woke up to a lovely vista spread out infront of us from the hotel balcony. The city of Almora was full of clouds in the shape of a tea cup, it was quite unreal , the sight. We had breakfast and headed out with family to the famous Jageshwar Temple Complex, that dates back to the 12 C. Around the same time as we saw the Pashupatinath Temples in Kathmandu, I later found huge similarities in styles of both the temples. But then This was part of Nepal at a point of time and ruled by the Gorkhas.

The drive was beautiful, lined by pine forests and quaint little mountain towns. My MIL tells us about the protected Deodar Forests. Local tale has it that these areas were marshaled by tigers to protect people from harming the Deodars. Till dates you see the huge , tall and majestic forests, untouched apparently. We continue towards the temples. All in stone the group appears out of no where almost. We buy a Puja Thali, adorned with the usual coconout and beautiful, size defying Dahlias in red !, and proceed with our offerings.

The first thing that grabs me is the cold, the floor is stone, and even in this time of the year, freezing. The temples are empty of most idols, as they now find a place in the newly erected Jageshwar museum in the little town. A trek to this is recommended. You can see some fantastic carving and archeological exhibits.
Flanked by stately deodars, Jageshwar is one of the serene spiritual destinations in the Kumaon region. Not being one of the more popular tourist destinations, it lies in repose in the beautiful Jat Ganga Valley. Believed to house one of the 12 jyotirlings of significance to the Hindus, Jageshwar is a complex of about 164 temples constructed over a period of time by the Katyur and Chand dynasties of Kumaon.
The main temple in the complex is dedicated to Bal Jageshwar, or Shiva the child. There is another one dedicated to Vriddha Jageshwar, situated on the higher slopes. The story goes that as Lord Shiva sat meditating at this spot, the village women left their household chores and other duties and walked to watch him, as if in a trance. When the men of the village came to know about the fickle behaviour of the womenfolk, they vowed to kill them and marched towards the spot. Shiva, who realised the danger he had inadvertently put these women to, immediately transformed himself into a child, thus absolving them of any misdemeanour. Since that day, Shiva is worshipped in the form of a child in this temple.
Locals believe that the temples are blessed with mystical powers and a dip in the Jat Ganga or the Brahmkund within the temple complex is said to absolve one of a hundred sins, including matricide.
At the neighbouring Mahamrityunjaya (Conqueror of Death) Temple one can perform a Mahamrityunjaya Jaap for a price. In this case, a group of 718 pundits essentially recite the Mahamritunjaya Mantra, by rotation, one lakh and one times. And this is said to have the power of warding off death!
A big draw here are the two annual fairs one during Shivratri in February and another one in Shravan, the rainy season. A dip in the waters on those occasions is of great religious significance to the Hindus.
Irrespective of whether one believes in the myths surrounding the temples of this town, a visitor to Jageshwar is bound to find the atmosphere refreshing.

Do stop by and feed the old dog if you come across him outside the temple .

By this time we were hungry and we headed to picnic in some clearing in the Deodar forests, on the way back. We hogged Puris and Aloo, and fooled around in the river flowing by. Someone very considerate had even left some detergent by the tap , so we discovered when we went to wash up before the meal. Bobpsy and I decided to try a different way back to the car, and jumped a little wall, only to find that there was no way back other than wading in the freezing stream!, so much for bright ideas! Pinky Mama and I cooled some drinks in the stream in a plastic bag, while Bobpsy took my suggestion to wade through but forgot to take off his shoes, well you figure the rest!

One can also visit the Goldevta Temple at Chitai, which is also a unique seat of justice for the locals. People actually file their complaints at a designated spot and attach photocopies of the judicial papers and beg for divine intervention and mercy. Upon redressal of their cause, most people offer a sacrifice to thank the lord. It is believed that most land disputes in the area have been peacefully resolved through this way, without having to visit the High Court in Allahabad.5


We headed back towards Almora. We stopped by At this stone age exhibit which is a natural stone formation almost as large as a ledge sticking out from one of the hills. This surprisingly is not mentioned in any guide book as yet! I later researched this area to be Lakhudiyar, which has several rock shelters. Members of our species once lived in these rock shelters. They date back to the time when there were no dates, to what is called the Stone Age. The rudimentary drawings on the stone surfaces are humankind’s earliest expressions of creativity. They have miraculously survived thousands of years!
We've come very far from those humble beginnings; there is still a long way to go. If curious visit this link http://ignca.nic.in/asp/showbig.asp?projid=rock and look for Lakhu-Udyar , District Almora.
Factfile: Lakhu-Udyar Is 16 km from Almora town. It literally means `one lakh caves'. It is noted for pre-
historic wall paintings. A hood-like rocky shelter is the chief specimen. The paintings here date back to the mesolithic-chacolithic period.

All possible information about Almora can be found at:
http://almora.nic.in/

We had reached Almora on the Dusshera Day, The festival of Dussehra is celebrated with great pomp and show all over here. Various Ramlilas are enacted depicting the story of Lord Rama's victory over the demon King Ravana. The Almora Dussehra procession is unique with huge effigies of gods, heroes and demons paraded through the streets. Effigies are made by local groups from various localities here, and are paraded through the main streets and eventually burnt at dusk. They don’t use any explosives with these effiegies anymore as there had been incidents of fire before. The entire feel of festivities were in the air as one walked to see where the main burning was to take place.

Very soon and it was so hectic but it was time to go back, after endless yap sessions with family, chai and dahi jalebis, we left Almora, surely to go back very soon.
On the way back in the car we got fantastic glimpses of the Himalyas,Pashu by this time is a bit travel sick. Funny! he is the mountain goat and he feels ill on winding roads!, I am feeling neither cold nor sick..  good for me I suppose. We stopped here and there for stuff to eat and were back in Delhi after a 9 hr drive. We slept through most of it!

4 comments:

Amrit(raj) said...

thanks for the blog visit :)
yer quite a traveller :O).. i see

Just out of curiosity.. are you bong? :)

-raj

ViperJazz said...

parochial instincts??
:), yes i am. Grew up in delhi though, so not the proverbial calcuttan
keep in touch
~Papia

sudo phish said...

Hi Papia
chanced upon your blog while searching for "uttaranchal" on blog search. My dad is from Almorha (actually a real pretty hill town called Binsar close to that) and have been getting very nostalgic the past few days. Your detailed blog made me recall my thousands of visits to that area!
It's interesting to read some one else;s thoughts about a place you practically grew up in! Whenever we drive from Delhi to Uttaranchal, Rampur etc are just pit stops. It was great to hear their history...

Keep blogging :)

shailesh gururani said...

Hi Papia,
Almora is my hometown and currently I am in Delhi. When I was searching for the views of tourists here I came across many blogs including yours. I am fascinated by the fact that the complete strangers when visit here provide a new dimension to this place which is never seen by the local people. I also came to know about the glorious histroy of some places like Kasar Devi which was earlier unknown to me and many persons from here.
It's a beautiful experience reading the blog. Thanks for posting.!!!!