Nainital: In the lap of divinity!

A quick four-day getaway that too one in the beginning of the month of March was something I never thought we could’ve planned bang in the middle of a recession. But still while I sprint across the house trying frantically to make it to work on time, my husband was busy booking tickets for our departure to Nainital. And before I knew what was happening I was in my boss’s cabin asking him to sanction me a quick break! I was back home packing everything I could remember that we would need for our brief stay. We caught a 17.30 flight to Delhi the very same evening (and actually made it before time!!) and where on our way to a magical place I never dreamt I could visit so soon.
Mumbai does look beautiful from the skies

Mumbai does look beautiful from the skies

We didn’t really start on a very promising note. For beginners our flight was late for takeoff, and after a bit of taxiing, we were told we were seventh for takeoff!! So we finally landed at Delhi airport after 20 more minutes of taxiing on the Indira Gandhi Airport runway at 20.30 and headed right away to the Anant Vihar ISBT. En route to the bus station, we caught a glimpse of the beautifully lit India Gate, but since it was night and no traffic on the roads, we couldn’t halt long enough for me to fish out my cam and take a few snaps. We took a 23.00 bus to Haldwani. Haldwani is situated at an hour’s distance from the Nainital bus stand and is also called as the “Gateway to Kumaon”. If you decide to take the rail, the nearest rail head to Nainital is Katgodham. Haldwani also connects Katgodham to Nainital by road. We reached the Haldwani bus depot at around 6.00 in the morning and by 7.15 we were strolling on the cleanest roads in the country! The weather was extremely chilly at 17 degree Celsius which was bone chilling cold for us city folks. Since we were on an “off season” visit, finding a room wasn’t so difficult.

A view of the lake from outside our room

A view of the lake from outside our room

Our hotel was perched atop the hill facing a part of the Nainital Lake. Since this part of the hill is warmer compared to the one facing it and hence, most of the hotels are located on this side of the lake. Since hot water is available only from 7.00-10.00 in the morning, we had enough time to wash up and begin our sightseeing. We hired a car from the hotel itself, and set out to explore the foothills of Kumaon.

First Stop: Bhimtal

Nainital is surrounded by lakes, and each lake has a fable associated with it.

A view of the Bhimtal Lake

A view of the Bhimtal Lake

The first stop on our exploration was Bhimtal, a lake named after the Pandava brother Bhima. There are several resorts in this region since the district of Bhimtal has added attractions from a religious point of view. Legend has it that the “Bhimeshwar Mahadev” (Shiva) temple which is located at the dam side banks of the lake was visited by Bhima when the Pandavas were banished. Hence this district and lake came to be known as Bhimtal.An Island in middle of the Bhimtal Lake

An Island in middle of the Bhimtal Lake

An Island in middle of the Bhimtal Lake

An Island in middle of the Bhimtal Lake In the center of the lake is an island which is said to have a famous hotel. We saw ducks swimming right in front of the hotel. Although the water level was significant low, they seemed to be enjoying themselves quite thoroughly.

The Vanara lord Hanuman stands tall

The Vanara lord Hanuman stands tall

At short ride from the Bhimtal lake is a huge Hanuman statue which can fulfill your wishes. You can make a wish and toss a coin into the pond beneath his feet. Hanuman is a Vanara deity worshipped by Hindus all over the world. The huge statue is usually a good spot to view sunsets.

Next Stop: Naukuchiatal:

Searching for Nirvana at Naukuchiatal

Searching for Nirvana at Naukuchiatal

Naukuchiatal is the deepest lake in the lake district of Nainital. Nau-Kuchia-tal means a nice cornered lake. Legend has it that anyone who can view all the nine corners of the lake at once attains Nirvana- the highest form of enlightenment as per Buddhism. We could not find that spot and the water level in the lake was also quite low, as it always is during this time of the year. The perfect time to visit is the rains where the locals say a special type of lotus blossoms in the lake.

Next Destination: Sattal:

A calm place for adventure sports

Sattal: A calm place for adventure sports

Like the name suggests, Sat-tal means seven lakes. This lake is formed by seven interconnected smaller lakes. These lakes are Panna or Garud Tal, Nal-Damyanti Tal, Purna Tal, Sita Tal, Ram Tal, Laxman Tal and Sukha Tal or Khurdariya Tal. Each lake has certain mythological legends. For instance the Nal-Damyanti Lake is so named because King Nal allegedly drowned to his death in the lake. The lake offers a soothing boat ride but is better known for a large species of flora, fauna, resident and migratory birds and several butterfly species. The lake is however more popular for adventures and excursions like mountain biking, rock climbing, angling, rafting, rappelling, bird watching, boating, swimming and trekking.

Unnecessary Attraction: Cave Garden:

A tiger statue rests in the panther cave of the cave garden

A tiger statue rests in the panther cave of the cave garden

Our next stop was this place called the Cave Garden. When Nainital had lesser human population in comparison to the animal life, animals used to find shelter in the various cave scattered across this garden. The temperature inside the caves is incredibly lower compared to the chill weather outside it. There is a canteen in the middle of the garden for quick refreshments.

Yes those are real flowers, and could you tell me which bird this is?

Yes those are real flowers, and could you tell me which bird this is?

However the real treat was when we were on our way out of the garden. A few paces out of the canteen area lies an inoperative fountain, where we spotted a pair of exotic birds. On our way out we were greeted by beautiful and colorful flowers.

A Window to Paradise: The Snow Point:

Well a bit less fog would've been a welcome change

Well a bit less fog would've been a welcome change

After an almost eventless stop at the cave gardens, our journey next took us to the snow point. The snow point is also known as the Himalaya point and on a perfectly good day, you can be lucky enough to catch a silhouette of the Himalayan mountain ranges. We weren’t as lucky because of a thick fog cover, but we still managed to see some snow while at the spot!

A Beautiful Top View: Khurpatal

Khurpatal: a trowel-shaped clear water fishing lake

Khurpatal: a trowel-shaped clear water fishing lake

A Khurpa is a kind of a trowel and if you look at the lake, its shape resembles that of a small garden trowel; and maybe that’s where the lake gets its name from. It is quite known for fishing activities. It has beautiful fields all around it and can be seen en-route the suicide point while travelling from the snow point.

Suicide Point:

Please don’t jump!

Please don’t jump!

Like every other “Hill” station, Nainital also has its own suicide point. Why anyone would travel so far or how they can manage to kill themselves in such a serene spot it completely beyond my comprehension. But the view from this point is fairly pretty, nonetheless.

Scaling Heights: China Peak:

Is it China peak or is it the Naina Peak??

Is it China peak or is it the Naina Peak??

From the suicide point, you can hire ponies to go to the highest peak in Nainital formerly called as China Peak (prior to the infamous landslide in September 1880, the peak offered a panoramic view of the Chinese territory), now the peak is popularly referred to as the Naina peak, named after the Naina Devi temple which was subsequently resorted post the landslide. It now gives not only a view of the snow clad Himalayan peaks but a bird eye view of the entire Nainital district. We developed a fear riding horses after out not-so-eventful stay at Katra, Jammu, we skipped that part (with a lot of regret later) of our vacation completely.

That was how we ended day one of our journey. We were eagerly looking forward to day 2, when we would visit the Jim Corbett National Park!

Day 2: A Safari at the Jim Corbett National Park

If you are a nature enthusiast, then your trip to Nainital without a safari at the Jim Corbett National Park would be incomplete. You can either opt for a three-day safari package where you will be put up in one of the guest houses inside the jungle itself. Or you can opt for a 3-hour ride in an open jeep. There are only 60 jeeps permitted to enter the jungle in a day, 30 at 6.00 in the morning and another 30 at 13.30. The registration office is at the Rampur village and it opens by 10.30 in the morning. You need to fill in the required documents for a jeep to be allotted. You can pick up binoculars on rent for anywhere between Rs.50-Rs. 100—a figure that can go quite high during peak seasons.

A small stream greets us en route to the Jim Corbett National Park

A small stream greets us en route to the Jim Corbett National Park

We set off at 7.00 in the morning to make sure that we are not disappointed for the second time on the trip. On the way we stopped for tea next to a small stream of water. It was gushing heavily and the water was quite chill. Let me tell you a bit about the Jim Corbett National Park. Named after the famed English conservationist and slayer of man-eaters in the Kumaon region Jim Corbett, the reserve is 1318.54 sq. km. in area, including 520 sq. km. of core area and 797.72 sq. km. of buffer area. The core area forms the Jim Corbett National Park while the buffer contains reserve forests (496.54 sq. km.) as well as the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary (301.18 sq. km.)

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A map painted at the entrance of the forest reserve

While we waited patiently for our paper work to be completed, we also managed a quick bite. From the souvenir shop, we picked up a documentary on the Jim Corbett National Park, lest we miss out on any of the information we collected before our travel.

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Our royal ride!

After a wait of almost four hours, we jump into the back of our open jeep with a lot of excitement and hopes of spotting a tiger. First up we spotted a beautiful blue robin, but he flew away before I could capture a picture on my camera.

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Peacocks, little green bee eaters and species of ducks

We managed to see a few of the hundreds of species of exotic birds that this national park spanning over 1300 square kilometers is home to. We also managed to see a muster of 3 peacocks, spotted ducks, and little green bee-eaters among other birds.

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Hugh termite hills can been seen all over the reserve

One other thing that caught my attention was the presence of huge ant hills. When I quizzed the tour guide about these, he corrected me saying that these weren’t ant hills but termite hills instead which survive on trees which fall during rains or otherwise.

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Spotted deer are the most commonly seen animals and usually move around in big herds
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A sambar looks at us

As for the tame animals, we spotted the chitals (spotted deer), sambar and we also managed to catch a glimpse of a herd of elephants passing over a distance of 5-6 kilometers into the dense forest. I couldn’t capture any shots of the elephants because of the distance they were at, but thanks to the binoculars we hired, we could at least manage a quick glimpse.

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Monkeys and langurs can be seen usually in big herds

We did manage to spot some species of monkeys as well, that is, the common monkeys and langurs. They are usually present in herds and seem to look at the passing humans with bewildered expression. They looked like they were all set to enjoy the next episode of a boring soap on TV!

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A stream that runs inside the reserve where most animals come for a drink of water

Although the Ramganga River does not flow into this part of the forest, a small stream can be seen around. In the heart of this perimeter of the jungle, we found a watch tower.

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The jungle is full of dry hay in the heart of summers

The forest in this time of the year is covered with yellow hay instead of green luscious grass. There are times when the summer is so scorching, that the hay starts to burn, leading to small forest fires. But the forest department is doing a phenomenal job to keep the forest ecologically sound.

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Fresh pug marks of a tigress

As our journey came to its last leg inside the forest there was a slight disappointment that we couldn’t spot any tigers. Our guide, sensing our disappointment, quickly reminded us that the forest is so dense that we might find it difficult to spot a wild animal if he stands behind the thick bushes. As a consolation though, we did manage to trace fresh pug marks of what appeared to be marks of a tigress (A tiger leaves bigger pug marks than a tigress whose marks are slender small in comparison). We then headed out of the jungle, content and not disheartened…the DVD we purchased set our meeting with the tigers and leopards anyway!

Day 3: The Nainital Zoo

When we returned from the long safari, a sign post right outside our hotel caught our eye. It said zoo 1.5 Kms. So the very next day we decided to go pay a visit to what we presumed would be a kiddies day out type of a trip. Well, for starters, reaching the zoo is a trek in itself! You don’t need a guide or any directions to make it, there are arrow markers everywhere to help to reach the destination.

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A 360 degree view of Nainital from the zoo

The Nainital zoo is actually named as the ‘ Bharat Ratna Pt. Govind Ballabh Pant High Altitude Zoo, Nainital’ and is managed by a trust with a similar name. Located on the hills called as ‘Sher ka Danda’, the zoo is located at an elevation of around 2100 meters above sea level. There are markers to help you explore the zoo and it offers a panoramic view of the entire Nainital district.

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The Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES) of the Manora Peak

On one side, you can also see the ‘Aries’ high-altitude sky observatory. Named as Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), the observatory is an autonomous institute devoted to research and development in Astronomy & Astrophysics and Atmospheric Sciences. The Institute is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India. If you want to visit the observatory, it is situated on the Manora peak around 1 km. from Hanumangrahi. Although is it open to visitors, night viewing requires prior written permission.

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Floral plants in and around the zoo

The zoo is not only home to a variety of birds and animals, but is also home to rich variety of flora and rare trees.

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Some of the bird species found inside the zoo

The zoo has various pheasants on display. Apart from common birds like roasters, chickens and parrots, you will also find barn owls, eagles, and white peacocks among other exotic birds.

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A sad looking Japanese Macaque looks on

Apart from the regular monkeys, you can also catch a glimpse of the Japanese Macaque breed of monkeys.

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A pair of Barking Deer and a full grown sambar at the zoo

We also managed to catch a glimpse of the other two species of deer found in the Jim Corbett National Park forest reserve, that is, the Kakar or Barking Deer and a full grown sambar deer as well.

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A racoon looks at its visitors

There are several species of rodents like raccoons also in the zoo.

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The wild animals at the zoo

As for the wild animals, there are Himalayan bears, snow and regular leopards, royal Bengal tigers, and the arctic dog to look at. There was a new entrant in the zoo while we were passing by. A tiger from the Jim Corbett National Park forest reserve had turned man-eater and hence was sent to the zoo. He wasn’t in one of his best of moods, so he was locked away from prying visitors. His loud roars, however, reminded us constantly of his presence.

And once we were out of the zoo, it was time for a ride in the lake.

A serene ride:

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A boat being rowed in the Nainital Lake

The beautiful lake in the middle of Nainital is from where a part of the name of this district is derived (Tal means lake). According to the Hindu mythology, Naini Lake is one of the 64 Shakti Peeths where parts of the charred body of Sati (Parvati) fell on earth while being carried by Lord Shiva. The spot where Sati’s eyes (or Nain) fell came to be called Nain-tal. The Naina devi temple is situated on ‘Naina Peak’ side of the lake has been a place of worship for many years now. The temple was also demolished in the 1880 historic landslide, but has been rebuilt since.

According to Buddhist beliefs and popular folklores, the Nainital Lake is also known as the Tri-Rishi-Sarovar, where three rishis, Atri, Pulastya and Pulaha, who came to this particular location and on finding no water to drink dug a large hole and filled it with water from the holy lake Manasarovar in Tibet. And hence it is believed that a dip in Naini Lake is equivalent to a dip in the Mansarovar itself.

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The Hanuman temple located on the other side of the lake

On the bank at the other side of the mall road is a Hanuman temple. The specialty of the temple is that it is one of the few temples with the idol in a lying down position and it is made of Rudraksh.

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What a beautiful back drop!

You can either opt of a self-peddle boat or one with a rower. We took two trips at the lake in the rowing boat.

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The 'sea chicken' before he took a 'holy plunge'(above). A pair of swans swimming in the lake (below).

On a good day you can see swans and ducks in the lake as well. We spotted a duck which is known as a water chicken.

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Nainital in its morning splendour

We woke up early on the last morning of our wonderful stay, and our beautiful destination gave us no reason to be grumpy. As we woke up with the rising sun, it was a view that could not be missed at any cost! What a beautiful way to end the perfect vacation!

03rd March – 06thMarch, 2009.

Mahabaleshwar: Exploring the queen of Maharashtra

A good gift always begets a better one! And so I decided that I gift my peace loving husband a much needed break on this birthday. The destination we headed for was Mahabaleshwar. Now there are two things which I feel you need to know about popular hill stations in Maharashtra. First and most importantly, try and avoid visiting them in summers. Don’t forget, even though elevated, they form a part of the Deccan belt, which is known for its torrid summers. Thus rains and winters are the perfect time to visit these places. Secondly, these placed come with points of abundance! In Mahabaleshwar alone, there are 25 points to visit. Most view they offer is very similar, from different angles. Look up for the most important ones visually and pay your guide accordingly (not all the points have directions; besides, a little help wouldn’t hurt, would it?)

Known as the queen of hill stations in Maharashtra, the word Mahabaleshwar means, “a God with great might”. We started our leg of the trip by visiting the Mahabal temple in located in Old Mahabaleshwar. After getting the blessings of the Hanuman deity, we proceeded on a short trek to the “Plateau” point. The point gives a panoramic view of the dense jungles around the hill station. On one end of the point, you can see the “king’s seat”. This is the spot where the Maratha King Shivaji used to sit and strategize his war moves. By the time we began our trip, the sun had already risen, so there was no real reason to go to the “Sunrise point”, also known as the “Wilson Point” which is the highest point of the hill station.

Next stop was a small stream off the “Lingamala” waterfalls. The trek leading to the fall was absolutely enchanting. In fact the picturesque tall trees remind you of popular computer wallpapers! In a later leg of our journey, we saw a huge hole in a mountain from where the falls actually can be seen during monsoons. (We couldn’t witness it because we went during winter).

Lord Lodwick was the first European to set foot on the Mahabaleshwar hills. A monument commemorating him has been erected in his honor and memory. The “Lodwick’s point” overlooks most photographed point of Mahabaleshwar. Also called as the “Needle hole point” locally, the point is actually the Kate’s point at a distance! The Lodwick’s point is also quite a favorite for many Bollywood films.

Next stop was the Kate’s point and the Echo point. Both lie adjacent to each other. Apparently it takes around 2-4 seconds for the echo to return from the echo point. Lord Malcolm was the first Governor of Mahabaleshwar; he had two daughters, Kate and Marjorie. There are points named after all three of them. Standing atop the Kate’s point is like riding an elephant; you are actually on the back of the elephant hill seen from the Lodwick’s point! From the Kate’s point you can see both sides of the Krishna River Valley. The Krishna River originates here and runs to the south of India.

Next up was a quick trek to three more points of the hill station. There were originally four points here; but the Window point was toppled over the click because of the Latur earthquake. The first of the three points was the “Hunters point”. It was named so because it was one of the most popular hunting spots for the Brits during the pre-independence era. The second was the Malcolm’s point. It is said that when the sun’s rays hit the mountain at this point, it looks like it’s made of golden threads!

While going to Arthur’s Seat, we crossed a cool water stream called the Tiger Spring. The water is rich with minerals and fit for human consumption. It is believed that tigers and panthers frequently visited this place to quench their thirst. The Arthur’s Point is named after writer Arthur Malet and is one of the most famous points overlooking the densely forested valley. Prior to the earthquake, a straw hat or a handkerchief tossed down the valley floats like a parachute! (The guide told us that the length of point has reduced considerable post the earthquake, and also warned us that the parachute theory does not work on a human body)

On our way out, we decided to feast on the local savories. What better food to gorge on than home churned strawberry ice-cream, topped with fresh strawberry crush and freshly cut strawberries and all that for a mere 35 bucks!

On our way back, we stopped to enjoy the second highest point of the hill station, the Connaught peak. It offers an amazing panoramic view of the Venna Lake and Krishna Valley. You can also see the controversial “Dhoom” dam over the Krishna River. To the right you can witness a small village which was portrayed as the Charanpur village in the movie Swades.

We then went on to visit the sacred Panchganga temple. This is where the sangam of the five main rivers, Koyna, Krishna , Venna, Savitri and Gayatri. River Krishna is one of the longest rivers in India. It travels 1,300 Kms from Mahabaleshwar to join the Bay of Bengal near Andhra Pradesh. River Krishna as Hindus believe that Krishna is the presense of Lord Vishnu himself and its tributaries Venna and Koyana are Shiva and Brahma respectively.

Next we visited the Marjorie’s Point, which is also known as the suicide point. The fact that people come all the way to such beautiful and peaceful place to die is both baffling and amusing! The sun was almost setting and it was time to proceed to see the sunset point.

The sunset point is also called as the Bombay point. At a 1.5Km trek is the Elephant’s Head point. The mountain peak looks like a resting elephant, but we were too exhausted to walk that far and back to our vehicle thanks to a hectic and long travel day.

The next day en-route to Panchgani, we stopped over to visit the Parsi point and the Mala Factory. The Parsi point offers a panoramic view of the entire Mahabaleshwar. The Mala Factory makes a wide variety of squashes, lemonades, fresh fruit juices.You can purchase all this and fresh strawberries from their farm. Photography is strictly disallowed as we saw litchi squash being made.

Next Stop: Pratapgad Fort

Pratapgad or the “Fort of Victory”, located currently in Satara district of Maharashtra, was built in 1656 after it was won by Shivaji in the famous Battle of Pratapgad which was fought below the fort on November 10, 1659. The base of the fort had a tunnel which could house around 40 maratha warriors, which has now been destroyed to make way for the road lead to the fort. The fort held strategic importance since it could watch over a large region ensuring greater regional control. The architectural plans were laid down by Moropant Trimbak Pingle at the command of Shivaji, who has indeed done a marvelous job! The fort is currently owned by Udayan Raje Bhosale, the heir of the Satara princely state. A large number of descents of the Maratha warriors still live inside the fort which closes every day at 6pm sharp.

The most amazing thing about this fort is the fact that you cannot locate the entrance unless you stare directly at the door. It looks like just another pillar from a distance. This was one of the major defense mechanisms. The fort is divided into two parts, that is, the upper or small fort and the lower or bigger fort. It was believed that no fort could be captured in the true sense unless the upper fort has been seized. At the entrance we saw a traditional lamp holder and cannon on display.

En-route to the fort is the famous tomb of Afzal Khan. History has it that Shivaji wanted to capture the Mogul owned fort quite desperately. For that reason, he had a meeting with the Bijapur general Afzal Khan. The five foot tall Shivaji, who was very much shorter than the seven foot general had to be extremely quick witted to outnumber the giant. Under the pretense of hugging him, ripped his stomach with an iron knuckles called wagh nakhi. The body of Afzal Khan is buried near the fort, and his head is buried at the Raigad fort. Owing to a dispute, the tomb here is closed for public entry.

While constructing the fort at such a high altitude of 3543 feet above sea level, water is scarce. There is a well in the lower part of the fort, although the water is no longer fit for consumption.

A few feet from the pond, we saw the entrance from where the royal procession used to lead to the Bhavani temple at the top of upper the fort. The entrance is closed now closed as it is not considered safe to ply.

Apart from the Tulja Bhavani temple, the fort also has a Shiva temple, the ling was self-formed, and hence the temple was constructed. The dome of the temple has a pure gold peak and there are huge structures where oil lamps were lit commemorating major Hindu festivals. We also saw some of the hand held weapons used by the warriors then. Some weigh as much as one ton!

The fort has four view towers to patrol over the dense forests. The forests used to be so dense that sunlight would barely touch the ground for days together. Three of these can be seen on the tourist route and the fourth is inside the Malva village. This historic photo graph is the most amazing and landmark image of the fort as it feature in the fourth standard History books under the SSC curriculum.

As we proceeded through our trip, our amazing guide showed us trap exits, there are four such trap exits which open to the mountain slope. These used to help the warriors to secure the upper fort even after the lower one was captured. How it worked was, once lower fort was captured, the warriors would lock the gates of the upper fort, slide out of these trap exits and trap exits, trapping the enemy in between. Once atop the upper fort, our guide took us to this point where the wall of the fort falls on the exact boundary of Satara and Raigad districts. This place is also known as Kadelot, meaning throw overboard. Shivaji was a very fair and just ruler. The only punishment for mistrust was to be tied in a sack and thrown off the mountain. Since the trust factor was very high among the marathas not too many incidents of kadelot is recorded in history.

Once at the end of the fort, we visited the Tulja Bhavani temple and the court area. Once the Brits came into power, they destroyed major portion of the upper fort, which included the court area and the royal sleeping rooms. A bronze statue of Shivaji Maharaj on horseback was erected and unveiled where the royal suites were located in 1957 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India.

LAST STOP: Panchgani

Panchagani by itself is a small town, which is made up of five table land mountains from which it derives its name. The smaller hill station is situated at an approximate altitude of 1330 meters, it is around 38 meters below Mahabaleshwar and has the British Raaj stamped all over it. Founded in 1853 by John Chesson, the hill station was basically a recommendation to the East India Company as a suitable place for the wives and children of the officers of the Company to reside instead of going back to England frequently. Since then, Panchgani has been a abode to many popular boarding schools. In fact the famous “Taare Zameen pe” school is located in Panchgani. You can take a horse or you can hire a horse cart like we did. The ride lasts around 90 odd minutes during which you will be taken around the centrally located table land.

First up we saw 6 pair of foot marks, which incidentally belong to the Pandavas and Draupadi, who had rested on the post during their vanvaas. The Devil’s kitchen, situate to the south of Tableland was also one of their pit stops during their long exile.

And at a distance, we could see the “One tree point”. This was the spot where the famous song from the film Raja Hindustani was shot. In fact, the entire movie was shot in and around this area.

We could also see the other four table lands. Our cart rider told us that this crevice was where the famous hand glider scene between Amitabh Bachchan and Amjed Ali was shot for the film Dostana.

At the other end of the table land lies Sidney Point, a flattened area on the apex of a conical hill. This point especially highlights the fine Parsi and Colonial style houses and architecture. From this point can see Wai village and the Sanatorium in the distance and also the sparkling waters of Dhoom Dam.Since we had already had a good view from the Kate’s point and were pressed for time, we did not venture that far.

As we ended our leg exploring Panchagani we witnessed nature at its very best, a sparking lake in the middle of the table land and eagles soaring the high skies. If you are adventurous, you can also ride Camels across the table land.

On our way back, we had a very relaxing pedal boat ride across the Venna Lake. What a perfect way to end a perfect trip!

20th December – 21st December, 2008.

Bandardara: A road seldom travelled

This was one special trip for me because it was a birthday gift presented to me by my hubby. I honestly didn’t know such a place existed, but it has been one of the best hill stations I have set foot on. Now, like most November-borns, I love water and I love the winters. At Bandardara, we sampled both: pristine blue waters and chilling winter cold. Let me give you a quick background of the hill station. Located in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, the hill station is around 180kms from Mumbai. Engulfed in the Sahadri Mountain ranges, Bandardara lies on the banks of the Pravara Lake at an altitude of around 750 meters. The apt time to visit the place is the monsoons, or the winters, in that order strictly. The best stay option is the MTDC resort facing the lake giving you cost effective service and a view you can cherish for a lifetime. The most popular tourist spots include the Wilson dam, the Arthur Lake, Mount Kalsubai, Amruteshwar temple, Agasti Rishi Ashram, Ratangad Fort, Randha falls and the Umbrella waterfalls.

FIRST UP: The Wilson Dam

The Wilson Dam has been constructed on the Pravara River in the year 1910 by a British architect after whom it is named. It is perhaps the oldest earthen dams in Asia and the largest in India at a staggering length of 150 meters. The dam was constructed with stones and was pieced together with earthen adhesives which include molten glass. A unique ode to the engineering and architectural techniques of the olden day, the base of the dam is a brilliant picnic spot with lush greenery. During the monsoons when the dam water overflows, you can enjoy the beautiful Umbrella waterfalls (the rock formation to the left of the dam gives the shape and the name to the waterfall). Since we went in the winters, we could view only the rocks not the waterfall. While the place is quite well known as a fishing destination, we found a winged-friend who is quite good at the sport!

NEXT STOP: Randha Waterfalls

As you pass by the flood gate of the Wilson dam where you can see the water looming at eye level from the river, you can see the first glimpse of the Randha waterfalls. Having a 45 meter fall and used as an important source of hydro-power, this waterfall is a beautiful sight to see. The mass destruction during the 2005 Nasik floods however is hard to miss. On the other side of the waterfall is a deep valley. The local tribal people climb down the mountain using rope ladders to collect honey and wax from the huge honey combs that hang over the valley. It’s both awesome and scary. The location also has a large number of dried ferns, which is used for decorating artificial flower bouquets. It is also an area where you can savor tea brewed with a seasoning of fresh lemon grass.

THE WAY AHEAD: The Arthur Lake

After the Wilson Dam was erected over the Pravara Lake, water used to overflow from the river quite constantly. As a result of water harvesting and percolation techniques, the water was redirected and the Arthur Lake was so formed. The water levels continue to be maintained by the river water and rainfall. You can take a boat ride across the lake to reach Amruteshwar temple or you can ride on the road around it. We chose the latter. On the way you can see some amazing mangroves. If you stand atop the mountain on the other side of the MTDC resort, you will realize that the lake is shaped like the Map of India as in its present state!

HOLY WATERS: Amruteshwar

Our next stop was the Amruteshwar temple. The temple is quite well known among trekkers, since it serves as a base camp at Ratanwadi to trek to one of Shivaji’s favorite forts: Ratangad. The place also has rustic Indian gooseberries. The temple was built in 1100 AD and has the distinct Hemadpanthi flavor to it. The folklore about the temple however goes something like this. At the time of sagar manthan, according to the Hindu mythology, the seas threw out an enormous amount of poison. Lord Shiva held the poison in his throat and asked the Gods in Heaven as where to dispose it off. He argues that he can’t spit it out anywhere as the poison had the capacity to destroy the entire world. He was convinced to spit it at Ratanwadi, and the poison turned to elixir (amrut). Hence the temple came to be known as Amruteshwar. The pond behind the temple is also known as the “Amrut Kund’.

AIMING HIGH: Mount Kalsubai

A trekker’s paradise, the Kalsubai peak is the highest mountain peak in Maharashtra at 1,646 meters. The peak was also extensively used by the Maratha warriors as an observation post. The peak is name Kalsubai after the folktale associated with it. According to the locals, centuries ago, one little girl came to live with a farmer, who had no family to call his own. She gave him a lot of affection, and in return asked him to never talk about her marriage. When she came of age, her father, forgetting of his promise, was eager to settle his beloved daughter into marital bliss. When he put forth his thoughts, the furious daughter left her dwelling and took Samadhi at the peak. The peak is home to a small Kalsubai temple and an old well in its backyard. Legend has it that the water in the well is so cold that a minute into it and your fingers will freeze also the water level of the well has never dropped below 3ft. Since we are not the trekking type, we were content with the base camp view of both the peak and the Kokankada (the Edge of Konkan region). The most amazing thing about Kokankada is a fork in one of the peaks, where you can see the sun rise perfectly between the crevice during equinox; i.e. when the days are equal to nights (20/21st March and 21/22nd September every year). This particular stretch of Bandardara also featured in he song “Nazrien Milana” from the movie “Jaane tu…ya jaane naa”, and many others. On our way back from the majestic peak, our well informed guide, led us to a tribal village. The villagers there have a frequent visitor, a proud peacock, who also gave us a royal appearence, that too up-close!

THE UNSEEN PARADISE: Agasti Rishi Ashram

Although we saw the place from a distance, our guide was more than happy to share the legend of Agasti Rishi. Apparently, it was through his blessing and his special arrow through Lord Ram he killed Ravana and rescued his wife Sita. The ashram serves as a major tourist attraction and is located on the bank of the Pravara River.

FINAL DESTINATION: A boat ride across the lake

As the day ended, we had the good fortune of enjoying a calm boat ride across the Arthur Lake and witness a beautiful sunset to mark the end of a perfect day! Since we try taking our trips during the off-season, ours was the only boat on the calm and serene lake. And about view that we witnessed…the picture speaks louder than my thoughts!

9th November – 10th November, 2008.

Manali: "The abode of Manu"; the queen of Himachal

Our first trip as man and wife was not just a pleasure trip, but was probably a dream we had nurtured for a long time. This was my first trip to the northern India, and I honestly don’t remember what I was more excited about: getting married to my best friend, or taking a dream vacation with him.

We had our intentions right, but relied too much on technology (read Yahoo! maps). Instead of hitting the road at Delhi to reach Manali, we decided to go via Jammu. Result? We ended up spending more time on the road, plus we had to travel through two states; i.e. Jammu and Punjab. The ride, although a pleasant one, was a bit of a strange experience for both of us. For beginners, we had never seen bunkers bang in the middle of the airport. Also, the airport is so small; you actually walk out of the plane towards baggage claim! Secondly, we had not expected every third vehicle to be a military van scouting the area. On the flip side, we also realized why Jammu is called as the “Land of the temples”, and got to sample the original “Punjab di lassi“. Through the late night travel, we were acquainted with many different facets of north India, the cattle herds, colonial bridges and the roadside dhabbas. We reached the outskirts of Manali at around 4.30 am the next morning, and we were awakened by the loud and furious gush of the Beas River. It was quite a thrill, we had never witnessed anything so scary yet so beautiful ever before. And then we finally started the hunt for our hotel, the address of which simply read as “The North Bank”!! So anyway, we located our hotel on the northern bank of the Beas River. We got a bit of rest and finally set off to our first location of the trip which was the Rohtang Pass.

DESTINATION: Rohtang Pass

The roads leading to the snow clad strip of land was a destination in itself. We found horses grazing. We also saw a nice picnic camp along a shallow stream of the river. Enroute to Rohtang, we also saw the Rahata waterfall, which is at a altitude of 2,507 m. A few minutes further in the ride, and we had the first glimpse of heaven: fresh white snow!! But that was not even a glimmer of what was awaiting us. Once at Rohtang Pass, the beauty of nature was truly engulfing. Let me tell you a bit about the geographical and tourist details about Rohtang. The Rohtang Pass divides the scenic Kullu valley from the Lahul and Spiti valley both located in Himachal Pradesh, at the foothills of the Himalayas. This pass provides the quickest route to reach the Ladakh region by road, and has become the most sought after summer route after the Kargil war.This tourist spot is open to visitors from the month of June to November, owing to heavy snowing had massive landslides, the pass remains shut for the rest of the year. The word ‘Rohtang‘ in Persian means ‘a pile of dead bodies’; this may be due to the mounting number of accidents the pass has witnessed. To south of pass is the ‘Bias Kund‘, marking the starting point of the Beas River. A temple shaped like a concrete igloo has been constructed around the glacier with eventually melts to form the gusty river.The pass lies at around 13,050 feet above sea level. You can have a breath-taking view (quite literally) at the Himalayan ranges of the Chinese region. Apart from tea and coffee, the main delicacies you can enjoy there are bread omelettes(for the carnivores) and steaming hot bowls of Maggie (for the herbivores) (in fact, the entire north of India should account for 60-70% of Maggie noodle sales!!) . The temperature there at the time was around -4 degree Celsius.

On the tourist front, you get full snow gear on rent for Rs. 100 per head on the way to the pass, which includes a one piece windcheater, gloves and gumboots. You can enjoy skiing, sledge, horse and yak rides and you can also hire snow bikes at Rs. 500 per round. You can get your photographs clicked in traditional attire for anywhere between 50- 100 bucks. It’s completely worth the memories. Also, there is what you may call as ‘ice sofas’ which are carved to perfection in a two-hour-daily-ritual by the locals. You can get your pictures clicked for any anything between. 50-100 depending on your persuasion skills which serves as an added attraction. Spiraling down from the pass, you will notice glaciers on both sides of the road. According to our guide, it is the precise point where parts of the movie Jab We met was shot.

NEXT STOP: Solang Valley

On our way back, we had an opportunity to visit the beautiful Solang valley. This brilliant valley is house to many international skiing contests in the heart of winters. But the place is very green and earthy in the summers and rains. You can enjoy many adventure sports in the valley like gliding, zorbing (rolling inside a cushioned ball filed with air) and horse riding in the summers. Popularly known as the snow point of Himachal, the valley is house to the very world renowned 300-meter ski lift. The point is also a popular base camp for avid trekkers. We returned to the comfort of our hotel room for the night. The next day promised to be another wonderful and adventurous chapter of our life.

DAY TWO: Manikaran

Day Two was even more action packed than day one. On the agenda were Manikaran, Vaishist sulphur hot springs, and a river rafting experience on the Beas River. Manali experienced light showers in the night before day two, and we were amazed to see fresh snow peaks formed across the horizon of tall mountains. The entire road was laced with hundreds of apple trees on the both sides. There were hoards of cattle walking right in the middle of the road! Even the cloud formations were a delight to capture through the camera lens. We started off with the river rafting on the Beas River. Sumeet and I strapped on the life jackets and helmets that were given to us and were among the first to board the inflated raft. You have an option to raft for a 3km. stretch or the full length of 7km; the rates vary accordingly. Fortunately or unfortunately, Sumeet was sitting at the head of the raft with me on his left. The poor soul took all the waves head on! But that undoubtedly, was the most adventurous activity of the entire trip. After drying ourselves up, we proceeded on to explore the religious and mythological sites of the region. The next stop was Manikaran. The entire location displays a strike amount of religion and cultural diversity. A river flows across the region which very heavy gusto. Atop the river is a Gurudwara. The region also has a Ram temple and many sulphur hot-water springs. Let me iterate some of the popular folktales about the various monuments of the area. It is believe that Goddess Parvati accidentally dropped her bejeweled earring (mani means pearl, and karan refers to the ear, hence the name Manikaran, or the jewel stone of the earring) on Earth and a serpent deity named Shesh Nag seized it. Shiva had performed the tandav nritya to recover it. Seeing Lord Shiva in rage, River Ganga starting flowing in full gush as a result of which, and the jewel shot up through its force. It is believed that the river named Parvati after Shiva’s wife continued to throw out jewels until early 1900. The Gurudwara on the other hand has a tale of its own. Legend has it that Guru Nanak came to Mani Karan along with his Five ‘Piaras‘ or followers. Tired and hungry, the guru and his followers hunted for food and a place to bathe. When they could not find anything, the guru magically created an extremely hot water spring. A bath is located below the gurudwara. The gurudwara also has a langar where rice, dal, chappaties, sabzi and tea is cooked through the steam of the spring and distributed free to everyone who comes to offer their prayers in the gurudwara. Also located in the center of the town of Manikaran is the Sri Ramchandra temple. The idols of the temple have their roots in Ayodhya, and have been installed in Manikaran by the King of Kullu. The folklore however states that the trio of Lord Ram, Lakshman and Sita had one of their stops here during their 14-year-long ‘Vanvas’. Sita being a princess, wanted to bathe, but the water was too cold. Hence, Lakshman used one of his ‘Agni Bann (arrow)’ and the agni kundh was formed. A rath yatra commemorating Ram Navami is carried out of the town every year. On the outskirts of the town, you can witness the sangam (amalgamation) of the two rivers River Parvati and River Beas. We ended the day with a visit to a traditional Kullu shawl making factory. Kullu is also house to the Angora rabbit, an original inhabitant of Angora in West Germany. This rabbit is reared for its wool from which the famous angora woolen articles are made.

FINAL DESTINATION: Manali

The final day was reserved for local site seeing at Manali. The local tourist locations include the Hidimbi devi and Ghatothkatch temples, the local monastery, and the club house. Hidimbi according to the Hindu epic Mahabharata was a rakshi. She was married to Bhima, who was one of the pandavas. Ghatothkach was their son. These are the only known temples of the two deities. At the club house, you can enjoy video games, bungee jumping and go karting. We ended the trip by visiting a local monastery. We realized various diverse facets of Buddhism and their praying methods. The Tibetan monastery gives you with immense sanctity and peace. The monastery is an institution for young Buddhists to discover and explore the teachings of the Buddha. In the center of the monastery stands a huge Buddha statue along with other Buddhist deities and artifacts. Outside the monastery, you will find colorful prayer scrolls fluttering with the wind.

The entire Manali is surrounded with flora which can soothe your very soul….what a way to end a perfect trip!!

9th June – 12th June, 2008.

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