Join guest author Arun Iyer on his journey through some of Kumaon’s popular lakes and temples. From peaceful Kasar Devi where Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Jawaharlal Nehru vacationed to Bhimtal where mighty Bhima of the mythological epic ‘Mahabharata’ forced water out of the ground for a thirsty Draupadi, he makes discoveries and witty observations worth a read.
When you alight from a train at Kathgodam Railway station on a late summer afternoon, you notice a lot of frenetic activity with a swarm of porters and taxi-men vying for your attention. It’s the last station on that stretch of the North Eastern Railway line, and what one might call the Gateway to Kumaon, a region in Uttarakhand state that tourists across India flock to.
Evading the clamour you step out of the station, just to feel a 40 plus degree heat wave singe your face. You rush into a taxi hoping the driver’s promise of a ‘cool breeze ahead’ materializes soon. Just a few kilometers into the drive you hit the beginning of a never-ending stretch of winding mountainous roads. The temperature comes down by a few notches immediately, beautiful mountain ranges pan out ahead and you begin to relax, soaking in the scenery.
However, if three members of your pack are prone to motion sickness, you very well know that ‘yeh gaadi ab ruk ruk ke chalegi’. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the five days that we spent in the Kumaon ranges, there wasn’t a single 100-meter stretch of road without a bend or a curve. Okay, maybe there was one or perhaps two, but you get the picture.
Lakes of Kumaon
Nainital district in the Kumaon region is home to four popular lakes or ‘Tals’ namely Nainital, Bhimtal, Naukuchaiatal, and Sat Tal. I am generally loathe to refer to Indian locations with reference to a western city or place. For example, Kausani is the ‘Switzerland of India’ or Alleppey in Kerala is ‘Venice of the East’. Likewise, Nainital district is referred to as the ‘Lake District of India’. No doubt the European counterparts are exceptionally beautiful, but the comparison takes away from the unique and distinct beauty our Indian locales offer.
Naukuchiatal literally means ‘lake of nine corners’ and is the deepest of the four lakes.
With the advantage of staying right by the lakeside, we started our holiday with a canoe ride in the calm waters, kept clean and fresh by pumping in oxygen. Canoeing is undoubtedly strenuous work but aided by an experienced navigator and a tailwind, it turned out to be much more enjoyable than a normal boat-ride.
The highlight though was a dip in the cool waters of the lake. For a non-swimmer whose best experience with water is wading through a 5 feet deep pool, feet planted firmly on the floor, floating in the lake (thanks to the life jackets) in about 30 feet of water was a scary and fantastic experience at the same time.
Sat Tal (literally ‘seven lakes’) is an inter-connected group of seven lakes just 12 km from Naukuchiatal. En-route to the main lake, one passes by Garud Tal. The latter is nestled amidst dense woods that are home to a variety of birds.
As you amble along a sun-kissed path with tall trees providing intermittent shade you can sense the quietude of the environment but for the distant chatter of birds. It’s known to be a popular birding spot and we had the privilege of spotting a Checker-throated Woodpecker.
The lake is relatively small, surrounded by hills on three sides. Adjacent to the lake is an open-air chapel replete with a cement pulpit that adds to its idyllic mystique.
Driving further you reach the main lake called Sat Tal, originally made up of seven freshwater lakes – Panna or Garud Tal, Nal-Damyanti Tal, Purna Tal, Sita Tal, Ram Tal, Laxman Tal, and Sukha Tal or Khurdariya. Some of them dried up and currently Garud Tal, Ram Tal, Sita Tal, and Lakshman Tal are believed to feed this lake.
Being a ‘touristy’ spot, it’s lined with eateries and points for water sports. The most enjoyable sport for kids is the zip-line where you zip along the cable to the center of the lake to be gently dunked into the water by men who are on standby specifically for this – a sport my six-year old son named ‘para-bouncing’.
Somewhere between Sat Tal and Naukuchiatal is Bhimtal, the largest lake in Nainital district and in my opinion the most majestic. We did the mandatory boat ride on the lake and our oarsman related the legend associated with it, which goes like this – The Pandavas were in this region during their ‘van-vaas’ (Sometimes I wonder, if there is any place in India where the Pandavas had not set their foot during their ‘van-vaas’? There is a cave near our house in Pune, which is believed to have been used by Pandavas during their exile. But hey, I digress).
Draupadi felt very thirsty and asked Bhima to get her some water. Finding no source nearby, the nonchalant Bhima, as he is prone to do in sticky situations such as these, took out his ‘gada’ and struck the ground with all his might. Out sprang the water – which eventually filled up the whole place as a lake; hence the name. There is a quaint little temple dedicated to Shiva (Bhimeshwar Mahadev) adjacent to the lake, also believed to have been first built when Bhima visited the site.
We deliberately gave Nainital a miss, fearing that the crowds would take away from the serene trip we were having thus far.
Read post on Naini Lake in Nainital here
Off to Binsar
The journey from Naukuchiatal to Binsar is via tortuous roads of the Kumaon ranges. If you are from Mumbai or Pune imagine a Mumbai-Pune road trip, but driving the entire distance through the ghats of Khandala / Lonavla. On much narrower and winding roads.
The scenery is quite breathtaking though. As you go up and down the mountain roads, majestic valleys and distant mountain peaks alternate between generously lined landscapes of oaks, deodars, and pines. Approaching Almora district, one can distinctly note the flora changing and pine trees soon form the predominant view.
In stark contrast, Almora town itself is quite repulsive. You can see filth lined alongside roadsides and the crowded mélange of gaudily colored houses hurt like an eyesore. Strangely enough though, once you drive past a horseshoe-shaped bend, the same town with houses painted in blue, green, pink, saffron and yellow looks like a beautiful palette.
Thankfully, Binsar is sparsely populated but for intermittent Kumaoni villages and lives up to its reputation as a picturesque, sleepy town. The Club Mahindra Binsar Valley Resort true to its name, is nestled in a valley and welcomes us with well-manicured plants and neat pathways. Another resort Binsar Villa, located atop a hill, has strategically positioned log huts that offer a bird’s-eye view of the valley below and is a kilometer away via an uphill trek – a thoroughly enjoyable experience if you’re one for treks.
Temples of Kumaon
Temples always fascinate me. Not because I am overly religious; in fact, when it comes to religion, I am a confused soul and do not have a particular point of view. However, I do enjoy visiting temples as I believe each temple has a unique character – in some cases, it’s the splendor of architecture and in others, it’s the history or mythology associated with it.
When we started on the 55 km drive from our resort to Jageshwar, uppermost was the thought ‘how will the family survive yet another ‘mind-bending’ journey?’ Hence at the kids’ behest, we took a pit-stop at a mini zoo near Almora. It was an utter disappointment with lethargic leopards and a solitary bored bear in its confined space that seemed to long for company.
As you approach Jageshwar, the predominant and monotonous pine tree covered landscape suddenly changes complexion and you enter a valley densely filled with tall Deodar trees. As you drive past the first set of stone temples, you feel its ancient character.
The main temple complex is a cluster of stone temples, believed to be over 1,500 years old, set between sky-touching Deodar trees. It has 100 temples small and big, each containing a Shiv ling and 24 other temples dedicated to various Gods and Lords such as Ganesha, Kuber, Maha Mrityunjay, Surya, Kedarnath, and Devi etc.
The main temple supposedly houses the 8th Jyotirlinga (among 12 in India) and is dedicated to Lord Nagesh. I say supposedly because there are two other claimants to the title – one in Aundh, Maharashtra and the other in Dwarka, Gujarat.
The confusion is because of the term ‘darukavana’ referred to in the Shiva Puranas as being the location of this Jyotirlinga. One school of thought says that ‘darukavana’ is derived from ‘daruvana’, the ancient name for Deodar forest, an obvious reference to Jageshwar. Another school of thought says that darukavana actually means Dwarkavana (although there is no forest in Dwarka). Besides, another scripture credited to Shankaracharya is referred to while associating the Nagesh Jyotirlinga with Aundh, Maharashtra. At times I wonder why can’t we have 14 Jyotirlingas instead of 12 and keep everyone happy, but when it comes to religion things can’t be that simple, isn’t it?
A highlight of the temple is a massive Deodar tree located in a corner of the complex. One of the priests told us that the tree is almost 1,400 years old and probably the sole surviving companion of the temples through the ages. The locals call it ‘Ardha-nareshwari’ because of the two distinct trunks that separate from its massive base. The Pandit claimed that the girth of the tree was over 10 meters and its height was 62 meters. Looking at its imposing structure, I had no reason to disbelieve him.
Read more about Jageshwar – and the history associated with the temples here
2. Chitai Golu Devta Temple – Bell Temple
What comes to your mind if someone offers you a visit to the Bell Temple? You might think that perhaps the temple houses a massive bell; or if you are one who believes in the miracles of science rather than the miracles of God, you might surmise it’s a temple dedicated to Alexander Graham Bell (God bless his soul, what would we have done without Mr. Bell!). Okay, that was a lame attempt at humour but when our driver told us that our next stop was the Bell Temple, we anticipated that the temple was likely to have many bells.
Only when we entered the temple gate did we realize that this wasn’t a temple with tens or even hundreds of bells, but several thousands of bells of all sizes, adorning every nook and corner of the temple complex.
The Bell temple is dedicated to Golu Devta, believed to be a Shiva incarnation and a mythological God of the Kumaon region – Read more here
When it comes to God, we Indians have a complex and varied system of beliefs and rituals. Deeply underlying this belief system is an undying faith in God and His omniscient abilities to grant us anything we want. Hence, we do various things to propitiate God in the hope that He will eventually reward us for our faith.
At first, one doesn’t quite comprehend the significance of the bells. However, when you proceed to the inner sanctum you see even more bells, this time smaller but with paper notes attached to them. Strangely, some of these are stamp papers. Apparently, Lord Golu is believed to be the God of Justice and hence the prayers/requests on a stamp paper are almost like a petition, or request made to God to grant a favour or do justice to the devotee.
We were tempted to read some of those notes but refrained (much to the chagrin of my daughter) from doing so. My justification was that it would probably tantamount to impropriety (and hence a sin) to read someone else’s prayer.
- Kasar Devi Temple
One normally tends to associate spirituality with temples. Most large temples though typically run as commercial institutions, hardly imparting any sense of spirituality. Occasionally one comes across a temple in the remotest of places that literally provides you with that ‘Closer to God’ experience.
Even as you approach Kasar Devi village the beauty of the surroundings captivates you. The relatively easy climb up the hill that houses the temple is a serene experience as you wind your way through pine and oak trees.
The temple is almost deserted, with no ‘pandits’ (priests) vying for your attention or devotees thronging it (maybe we got lucky with that). When you reach the peak, breathtaking 360-degree views of the Kumaon range with deep valleys below fill you with a sense of elation and the winds whistling through the trees feel like Gods whispering to you.
A bright blue board announces the fact that Swami Vivekananda meditated in the solitary cave on the hill sometime in 1890 and that he almost attained Nirvana when something prompted him that to believe that he had a larger purpose in life – to serve humanity.
It was only later when I Googled the place that I found out its mystique had attracted the likes of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, among others. Well, I wouldn’t have minded their company!
Part Two is about Binsar, a few travel tips and information on how to get to Kumaon.
ABOUT THE GUEST AUTHOR
Arun Iyer, by his own admission, is a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ and dabbles in photography, painting and poetry. As a software professional, he’s in a perennial state of conflict, swinging between ‘One day I will give it all up and chill’ and ‘I need to do this’. You can catch him on twitter @arun_s_i
I, Vibha Ravi (blog editor, owner), thank Arun for giving us a glimpse of Kumaon