Where Nature weaves magic in the air; where the Himalayan peaks shine resplendent; where faith lives through a hole in the rocks; where you can walk listening to bird calls and breathe the freshness of mountain breeze; where Jim Corbett made his home; where the breeze sings a virgin song; this is Mukteshwar.
Nestled in the Uttarakhand hills of Nainital District this small town lives still untouched by the influences of the plains. Though barely 350 km from Delhi, it transports a visitor into a unique stillness that is unparalleled and allows peace to blossom in heart. Some hotels look at valleys, some at snow peaks, some get a temple view, some just a forest, so stay wherever because you can walk wherever in this place easily discovering different facets of Nature.
By the time we reached; my friend, a bachelor boy from Delhi, his two cousins and I, it was time for dinner. Searching a hotel was not difficult, it just fell on way. A new construction by an NRI, now settled in Delhi, alone most of the time in Mukteshwar, offered clean rooms and good linen but did not open his room heaters, perhaps because of the concession he offered us, the only people that night in his hotel.
We lit up a bonfire and talked and sang and drank.
The stars were beautiful as ever, twinkling into nursery rhymes, creating the magic tirelessly every night. The Moon, as it rose looked a little too nearer and reddish brown in its ascent. How much love must the stars give to the Earth? How much indulgence must the Moon show to humans? Existentialist questions, those never get to raise their tiny heads amidst the negativity of city life always rise up to the fore and clamour for answers. One of our friends was too involved in stoking the fire. He wanted to see the flames rise high in the cold.
The night was cold, it being January. Dawn was heavenly and the soft rays of the Sun touched everything and made it look like bathed in liquid gold.
Thereafter, I led the group to the former home of Jim Corbett.
He started as a railway Inspector of Permanent Way; went on to become a shooter of maneater tigers and ended up as a wildlife conservationist. What a trajectory his bullet like life took. The view from his bungalow; now a Tourist Rest House, is magnificent. The eye meets a king size view of Himalayan peaks which dwarf all human effort and ambition before them. From end to the other are the peaks of Nanda Kot, Nanda Ghunti, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Panchachuli etc. What more can a man want after this! Days and nights; season after season one can sit here and ponder on Life, God and Truth.
A mountain pathway to the right as we exit this place took us to the cliff where surprisingly sharp rocks jut out into the sky. As usual many lovers have etched their names with designs of heart and arrow on the rocks. Some singles just left their impressions alone.
People climb up the inclining and obliging rock surface, sit and pose for a photograph while barren women engage in a daring display of faith.
There is a round hole in a rock, big enough to take in a human body across. People say that if a barren woman goes across the Chauli ki Jali on Shivratri, she is blessed with a child! Faith makes one do impossible things!
The restaurant down below gave some wise quotes and a half-cooked omelette, which we gulped down sans criticism as we were hungry by then.
One can take long forest walks in the forests at Mukteswar. One can trek from Peora to Mukteshwar or Peora to Almora as well as Binsar to Artola. If you are a camping type, this is the ideal place for you to experience the camp life, do stargazing and light bonfires.
I like going to villages and talking to the real people who brave the inclement weather and make a living out of very little. There I met Gopuli Devi. When I asked for her husband, she said he is not there. I requested her to tell him on phone that there is a visitor to meet him. “He will not be able to come”, she said. “Why?” I asked. “Because, he is gone to a place from where no one comes back”, she answered. By then I understood, that he was no more.
I apologized profusely and spoke to her about life with her children; her broken parapet, and the Plum orchard that sustains her family. She told me that someone had poisoned her husband and he died an untimely death. So, jealousy and conceited violence also dwells within an outwardly peaceful looking village society. I was taken aback and hurt as I saw her three children and her lone efforts to keep the family hearth going.
I came back with mixed emotions of man-eaters and conservationists, still lurking around in the shadows of Mukteshwar!
(Text & photographs by Sandeep Silas)
The very concept of erotic art sculpted on temple walls can raise eyebrows. Not so in Khajuraho!
I left Jhansi, 176 km from Khajuraho, photographing the wildflowers enroute and the River Ken. The road could have been better considering we connect a World Heritage Site, but still had its surprises of cattle being milked by villagers, children playing in front of their homes, fresh vegetables being sold by the road, and life caught up in the effort of living.
These temples were built by the Chandela dynasty between 950 AD to 1050 AD and have survived the ravages of weather and time to still tickle the senses of visitors. Originally 85 in a 20 km area, they stand only 25 in 6 kms today. Alberuni, the traveler historian calls it as a “city of gods”. Normally, one visualizes a temple as a place of worship of a deity. Now, whether the deity is human or the mind of a human thinks a deity to be part of his personal life is a question of debate?
Mark Cartwright, traveler and author writes about the architectural highlights of Khajuraho- “Most of the temples at Khajuraho were built using sandstone but four also used granite in their construction. In the latter group is the Chaunsat Yogini (64 tantric goddesses), built c. 875-900 CE, which has 64 shrine rooms arranged around a rectangular courtyard. Next in the site’s development came the Lalguan Mahadeva, Brahma, and Matangesvara temples which are all quite plain in design and decoration compared to the later temples.
The majority of temples at Khajuraho were constructed between 950 and 1050 CE and are either Hindu (Saiva or Vaisnava) or Jain. The most famous is the Kandariya Mahadeo built in the early 11th century CE and dedicated to Shiva. The more or less contemporary Laksmana temple was built in 954 CE by King Dhanga (r. 950-999 CE) to celebrate independence from the Gurjara-Pratihara rulers and has a similar layout and exterior to the Kandariya Mahadeo. So too does the Visvanatha temple (c. 1002 CE) which was designed by Sutradhara Chhichchha. Both temples have shrines at each corner of their terrace platforms. The Laksmana was dedicated to Vishnu and its terrace is of particular note as it carries a narrative frieze running around all four sides: Elephants, warriors, hunters, and musicians form a procession watched by a ruler and his female attendants.
Other notable temples at the site include the single-towered Chaturbhuja and Vamana, the squat Matulunga, and the rectangular, more austere Parshvanatha Jain temple with its unique shrine added to the rear of the building (c. 950-970 CE). Probably the latest temple at Khajuraho is the Duladeo which was built on a star-plan.” ( https://www.ancient.eu/Khajuraho/)
The eroticism of Khajuraho overshadows the rest of the hidden meanings of art. Sex, was not a bad word in those days as we see it being celebrated openly, encouraged and glorified on temple walls. Many meanings have been ascribed to the “why” of this art. One says, the Kings needed more men as soldiers so encouraged copulation, another looks into the hidden spirituality achieved through the meditative human sexual union.
But, all these fail to explain the man to animal and the unnatural forms of sex depicted on Khajuraho walls.
Whatever it is, the fact is that Khajuraho excites a visitor at any age and allows the person freedom of thought and expression. You come home satisfied you have seen art at a physical plane; you come back pondering you have seen the hidden spirituality within art; both equally satisfying feelings.
The stunning and fabulous sculptures led the temple complex to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site monument. Whatever exists is maintained very well by the Archaeological Survey of India. The temples are categorized into three groups: Eastern, Western and Southern.
Lakshmi Sharath mentions some stories trying to explain the raison d’être of building these erotic temples- “The moon always evokes romance and it is little wonder then that the descendants of the celestial moon god would build monuments that stand for love. The story goes that a beautiful woman called Hemavathy was bathing in the dark under moonlight, when she was seduced by the moon himself. She ran into the forests for refuge and raised her son, Chandravarman alone. The moon however promised her that their son would one day rule over a kingdom. True to his word, Chandravarman grew up to establish the Chandela dynasty. It is believed that he was influenced by his mother’s story and so he built temples with sculptures depicting human passions and probably, the futility of the same.
In case you are not fascinated with the story behind the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, here is another belief that says the carvings of mithunas are symbols of “good luck” along with several sculptures that showcase mythical creatures. Another interpretation says they served as a form of sex education, by rekindling passions in the ascetic minds of people, who were probably influenced by Buddhism.
It is a depiction of the Hindu philosophy of Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. Perhaps you can attain nirvana, once you are done with all your wordly pleasures.”(https://lakshmisharath.com/stories-erotic-sculptures-of-khajuraho/)
There is so much to see in Khajuraho and remember wondering about the apsaras, the nymphs engaged in activities like looking at the mirror; pulling out a thorn from the foot; fondling their breasts; tickling the private parts of their partners; holding a child; undressing; dancing; painting; or just being beauteous by themselves. There are warriors; horse & camel riders; there are the drummers going ahead of an army; there are mythical animals and attendants. In between the human endeavour the Gods and Goddesses are there too, placed under arched enclosures, as if blessing the whole exercise of recreation and human evolution. Here, the natural and the unnatural merge in the human consciousness that is governed by the law of love and nothing else.
I came when the sun was brightest and by the time I finished my art appreciation the sky was overcast. I started hurrying to the far end of the temples to catch the last of the bright rays falling on statues before they were eaten up by the black clouds threatening rain. The mood of the sky changed suddenly as that of a human and it burst open sending rain-showers upon the beautiful damsels who live and dance on the walls of Khajuraho temples.
Dusk fell upon the warriors, lovers and damsels who are in an immortal frieze at Khajuraho. The cover of darkness was perhaps an encouragement to them to leave their stone forms and assume a human life in the night, before the next day’s dawn!
Khajuraho is too complex to be understood by the ordinary senses. One has to delve deep into the mysteries of art & sculpture, and see with the discerning eye what all is hidden beneath the visible!
The Kalka-Shimla Railway
Like smoke wafting lazily from a candle, blown by a kiss of the wind, chugs the Kalka-Shimla train. The mist, held by the hills and the pines, lowers itself in a welcome to the traveller. Its freshness brings alive the sensations hitherto forgotten and buried under the pace of life.
If you look down history lane with a telescope, you find the gallant and fearsome Grouches of Nepal walking into Sikkim in 1814. The ruler of Sikkim, helpless, appeals to the East India company and the Company Bahadur extends security. At the close of the war in 1816, under the Nepalese Peace Treaty the British `mandarins retained a huge tract of land, which also included the ridge on which Shimla was later built.
One Major Kennedy, built for himself a house at Shimla in 1822. The Governor General’s were quick to realise that the environs of Shimla offered them an England in India. Lord Amherst spent the summer in 1827, followed by his successor Lord William Bentick. However, the journey was not particularly comfortable for the Gora Sahib. Ponies, or jampans – sedan chair fitted with curtains, slung on poles borne by bearers, over a 43 mile mountain track made mule of a man.
It was only for a correspondent, to conceive the idea of a railway line, that time waited for, till Nov. 1847. A passionate plea in the Delhi Gazette by this gentleman advocated the sketching of a railway line to Shimla – “We may then see these cool regions become the permanent seat of a Government, daily invigorated by a temperature adapted to refresh a European constitution, and keep the mental power in a state of health, beneficial both to rulers and the ruled”. The earliest field surveys were conducted between 1884-95. While the railway surveys were on, The Hindostan and Tibet Road, 58 miles, was opened during 1850-56.
The signing of a contract between Secretary of State and the Delhi Umbala Railway Company in 1898 signalled the beginnings of the line. The journey to a cooler paradise became a reality in Lord Curzons’ time.
The bosom of the highly erratic Shivalik hills was parted by a 96 km. railway line on Nov. 9th, 1903. Three years of labour by dedicated engineers and labourers in limestone and shale rocks saw through an astounding feat.
The line passes over 864 bridges and under 102 tunnels. Two-thirds of the formation is laid on sharp curves– sharper than a damsels !
The British chose the narrow gauge dimensions of 2′-6″ as the hills tolerated no more than a whisper to rise the arduous 1519 m between the plain and the hill. The treachery of the hill formation was bound by a silver thread, reassuringly. Lofty stone bridges, arched in their effort of holding the rail, at times three-tiered too, arrest the sight of a traveller.
The dark tunnels aplenty on the ascent, bring more than an opportunity to a honeymooning couple. Excited whistles and natural cries rent the air when you travel. A curious mix of chill and warmth permeates the atmosphere.
The journey from Kalka to Shimla is absolutely out of the world. Immediately on arrival at Kalka one sheds off his inhibitions like snake-skin. The toy train provides a breath-taking view of the Kushalya river, the moment it enters the foothills. The serpentine splash of mercury keeps disappearing and reappearing with each bend for some time. Passage through the Koti tunnel makes you hunt for a coat and the air jabs you, the moment you hit Jabli, 1240 m above sea-level.
Three picturesque loops near Taksal, Gumman and Dharampur provide photo-opportunity to an enthusiast. But wait, more is to follow. The ascent is steady. The train huffs and puffs its way across green meadows, capsicum fields, red-roofed chalets and half timbered houses. Each coach has chuckle under its wheels. Through aged in service, it does not sigh, for it carries a pleasant burden. About seven coaches form a train, to accommodate about 200 passengers per trip. The extremities of weather do not dislodge the determination of the 700 horse power B-B type diesel engines. They run to the call of duty in temperature ranging from 0-45 Celsius and in snow which averages 2 feet during winters. What to talk of the annual rainfall of 200-250 cm received by the hills! The average speed of 25-30 kmph ensures that “hurry” is removed from the psyche and replaced by a naturalness of demeanour.
If you want to taste the beauty of nature in exclusivity, travel in the Rail Motor Car. There are four of them and three date to 1927, while the last dates to 1930. A group of 18 can be housed in this vintage experience. You will be surprised to learn that the original White & Pope petrol engines fitted by Drewery Car Company Ltd., London, were replaced during the second World War as petrol was scarce. Americans supplied the diesel engines to the car, from General Motors, U.S.A.
Surprises escape the visage as nature unrolls its bounty. Gurgling brooks flowing down mountains, passing under the stone bridges, present a pleasing sight. Clouds of mist decide to tumble down and gingerly touch you, enlivening your senses. The train meanders through Kumarhatti, then enters the Barog tunnel which is more than a kilometre long, precisely 1144 mts. This tunnel crosses the Panchmunda ridge, about 900 feet below the road. At Barog, it is mealtime, on the morning trip.
Through the English firm of “Spencers” which built the restaurant at Barog is no longer there, but the English hospitality continues to live.
From Barog to Kandagthat the train runs downhill, past beautiful and quaint retreats of Solan and Saloghra. The final climb begins at Kandaghat. Gradually, solemn forests of deodars and pines replace the meadows. The abundant green fills the soul. At Shogi, a heartwarming view of the Chail valley brings numerous anecdotes associated with a Prince to the fore. It is said that this Punjab Prince, pinched the bottom of an English class on the Shimla ridge, and was thence banished from English society at Shimla. Undeterred, he built for himself a palace at Chail, a nearby resort.
Past Taradevi, the railways take you under Prospect hill to Jutogh, winding its way like a naughty current of air teasing you, tickling you, till it pauses at Summer Hill.
The prospects of a fullsome holiday brighten up the spirits of each traveller. Finally, like the last birth pang it burrows under the Inverarm Hill, to emerge and deliver a happy child at Shimla.
The transformation of a traveller from an adult to a child is complete.
As little as a train journey brings out the child in the man, to chuckle, laugh and indulge in childlike pranks around the invigorating forest paths of Shimla.
Travellers must move on towards the destination, the source of life. There are always halts filled with magic en route, but the journey of the ‘seeker’ makes him plod on and on. While traveling to Gangotri I have taken a night halt at Bhairon Ghati, 9 kms short. Next morn, I leave the Bhairon temple in the care of its tree cluster, the GMVN Tourist Rest House happy in its hollow, and the rigid crags that tower above the place to their permanent positions. They have enacted the role of a protective godfather all through, as if shielding the hamlet from some danger. They have also successfully hidden the pleasures of the journey beyond as if they are a grave finality.
The thought of river Bhagirathi, like a mystical light shining in the distance, led me ahead till Gangotri was reached. Gangotri is a temple town, a holy place for most Indians. It is also the end of pilgrimage for some and the beginning of pilgrimage for others. The height above sea-level is 3140 m and you can feel the sharpness of the wind. Cars and jeeps line the thin metallic road and cops have a tough time organising orderly parking.
The religious significance of the place is immense. It is believed that river Bhagirathi owes its origin to the foot of Lord Vishnu, wherefrom it started flowing first, and was captured by the jatas (hair-locks) of Lord Shiva. That was a tale of heavens above. On earth, King Bhagirath, unable to bear the suffering of his people due to water scarcity worshipped Lord Shiva at Gangotri. His devotion so pleased Lord Shiva that he asked him for a boon. Bhagirath prayed that Ganga be released from Lord Shiva’s hair locks for the benefit of his people. So was granted Ganga to the earth. It is named after Bhagirath as river Bhagirathi from the point of its descent at Gaumukh up to Dev Prayag. At Dev Prayag, the river Alaknanda merges with Bhagirathi and thence onwards it is called Ganga.
An arched gate, gifted by the Border Police to the town, greets the eye. Everyone has to pass through it, the destination being Gangotri, temple, the bathing ghats or the steps leading to the trek route of 18 kilometers to Gaumukh. Gangotri temple is small. It is erected on the sacred stone where as per tradition Bhagirath worshipped Lord Shiva. The building is non-ornamental, rather ordinary in appearance. There are no statues on the exterior and its height is also about 12 feet. E.T. Atkinson wrote of it in the 19th century- “it is quite plain, coloured white with red mouldings, and surmounted with the usual melon-shaped ornament commonly known as Turk’s cap.” The temple is quite the same save that the colour combination is now white walls and silver top.
The serious trekkers take to the steps, which connect the Gangotri ghats and the trek route. Buy a walking stick— you might need three legs on the way ahead. The river Bhagirathi is a pleasant companion all through right up to Gaumukh. Sometimes the mountain rocks to your side echo the forceful holler of rushing waves. Yes the river makes them sing. The snow peaks enveloped forever in a clouded embrace of the Meghdoot (cloud messenger) sit happily above their unsteady glaciers. It is a treat to lift the eyes from a rivulet meeting the river bed; slowly caress first the green cover, then the black, rough and prominent crags; then allow the vision to melt in the snow at upper reaches.
The trekking route is tough, full of uneven stones, even dusty at times. It is a real test for the muscles of the legs. You really get to know more about your own legs than you believed. Tree trunks have been used to bridge rivulets and one has to balance steps lest the boulders in the water have the last laugh. The trek is a story of ascents and descents. You rise again as the path decides to lift itself from the riverbed. It is good to feel the heights. You tend to pause before every new face of a snow peak, which is revealed to you. The edges of the black crags are to be admired. The eyes can feel their razor thin sharpness and also their blunt prominence.
Shacks en route provide plastic comfort to weary travellers. They offer biscuits, potato chips, simple roti-dal (bread and pulses), paranthas (oil-fried bread), and bottled water. Mattresses to recline on are luxury! There are slogans displayed on banners about the ill effects of plastic and non-biodegradable waste. The glacial river must not be polluted with polythene or plastic wrappers. Thanks to these gentle reminders erected by environmentalists, the route is remarkably free of poly-pack litter. Travellers were seen actually heeding the advice and using dustbins.
Bite into something at Chirbasa, 9 kilometer deep, from the origin of the trek at Gangotri. Have some tea with a dash of salt, it will pep you up. The hamlet of Chirbasa is a cluster of pines rushing from the heights in a straight descent to the riverbed. Shacks are perched on space created between boulders on the ridge. This ridge you cross. Do not halt too long lest the legs refuse to lift again. Bhojbasa, 5 kilometres ahead, has to be reached for a night halt. And of course, sunset must be enjoyed at Bhojbasa before you hit the bed.
The flora along the trek route is different and interesting. Ganga Tulsi, a shrub with a heady scent, used as an accompaniment during Hindu worship, and White Jungle Rose, each flower with only four petals, almost line the route.
Yellow wildflowers too have a word to say! Some concerned environmentalist groups are trying level best to not only generate public awareness but also give a green cover to the Himalayas where it is most needed. So we see plantations of Spruce, Silver Fir, Blue Pine and Himalayan Cedar along the way. A little ahead of Chirbasa, some educationists nurse a Bhojpatra nursery. This effort at preserving a threatened specie is laudable. The Bhojpatra Utilis has a distinct white bark and round green leaves. Its botanical name is Betula Utilis. The bark of this tree served as paper for recording ancient Hindu religions texts. I peel some. It is actually as thin as finest quality paper. I keep it as a memento, but it is not enough to write a song!
There are no wild animals to sight save herds of mountain goat and deer. We see one. A goat blessed with a pair of curved horns is perhaps the leader of this herd and his posturing on a rock proudly proclaims it. The coat of the goats blends with the rocks. The black mountains have yellowish-brown traces. So does the goatskin. There are no trees on these hard infertile rocks and shrubs are sparse. How beautifully God has provided them protection by making them look like rocks! You are left wondering?
The sun plays hide and seek on a June afternoon. Clouds drift at will. Sometimes you see a snow mountain half-concealed by clouds and half-visible to the eyes. It is like watching a Venus, thinly clad, sensuous in demeanour, and amorous in the eye, whom you would like to only see and not touch!
The Bhagirathi river continues to sing its song as we continue upstream. It is past 4 p.m. in the evening. Our guide warns of falling stones in a patch ahead. A warning signboard and we smell trouble. True enough it rains stones on the route ahead. We do not carry hard hats. I hide behind a huge boulder clutching the hand of my 10-year old son. Stones keep rolling down. They can break bones or even throw a person deep down towards the riverbed by sheer impact. One has to exercise caution. This phenomenon in the evening is due to harsh winds blowing across. The mountains in this patch are loose stones embedded in mud. So the peculiar rain. It is strange coincidence that this is the 13th kilometer from Gangotri, I observe! We run across carefully finding our steps when the fury if the mountain is spent.
The last leg to trek for the day to Bhojbasa is tougher still. A stream has to be crossed sans a log bridge. You have to place your feet in the bed on firm stones so as to save your shoes from getting wet. My son exclaims aloud—“Tough route, tottering wooden bridges, falling stones, icy wind, quite deadly.” Still he makes the 14 km trek in good seven hours.
Alas my desire of watching the sunset at Bhojbasa is not fulfilled. The clouds just whisked away the sun in a swift move! I have to wait yet another day braving the biting wind on the Bhojbasa ridge. There is a GMVN Tourist Rest House, an Ashram and several shacks, which serve as night shelter. You come back in life to just hoping for basics; a toilet is a luxury.
The Bhojbasa valley is panoramic. It is really huge. Gaumukh is seen as a cluster of rocks from this ridge. It is the source of the river Bhagrathi or Ganga, regarded by Indians over the centuries as mystical, spiritual and holy. Three peaks of Mount Bhagirathi tower above Gaumukh. It is an unbelievable sight—one, which you deserve in a lifetime. The three summits, Bhagirathi I, II & III perhaps symbolise the trinity of beauty, truth and peace, which I presumed was exposed earlier to me on the trek. How wonderful!
The morning was proclaimed in a loud exclamation. The moon had not left its rightful reign of the night sky and the sun was raising expectations of travellers as it continued in its upward stride. Pure magic was being played all around Bhojbasa Valley by the Great God. Straight above Gaumukh, the cloud curtain was gradually being lifted from over the three Bhagirathi peaks. They were being revealed like sacred verses are spoken to listeners. If you lose them in that pure moment they are gone, sucked in by that force, which transforms the present into the past—the churning wheel of time.
Sure enough an overpowering cloud fall barred the snow peaks from sight in the next few minutes. So were gone two beautiful virginal peaks to our left, one, which was bravely trying to cradle the moon in its last sojourn! The sheer transience of the scene was mesmerising, just like elemental man-woman associations, which charm you as long as they last.
The last 4 kilometers to Gaumukh are tougher. Especially the very last! The trek reduces to nothing but trapeze walk over accumulated boulders. Only faith and will power can take you ahead. Finally Gaumukh, 4000 m above sea-level, is reached. I find a perch on a rock before the cave, the source, and settle down to my thoughts. As I look at Gaumukh, I feel the sensuousness and abundance of love. That love, which knows no bounds. That love, that gives and gives always and forever.
Gaumukh is a cave surrounded by glacial bottle-green ice. Water, the source and preserver of all life on earth, keeps gushing out in good measure. The spectacle is akin to a mother giving birth to a child. The half-moon cave is the source, the water life at birth. And you son of man, a part of this beautiful creation!
People bathe, pray here. By doing so they believe that they have purged all sins. I feel the icy water and look at the slab of ice bobbling beside the rock I sit upon. I look again at Gaumukh or the cow’s mouth, the name given to the glacier cavern. Next moment, I am in the water, my hands clutching a rock and my lungs holding my breath. I have done it! Yes how many get the opportunity to worship the mother source of a holy river at its hideout deep into the Himalayas. The sun is benevolent. It lights up eyes and many lives. The ice sparkles. Sometimes chunks of ice fall down from the top of the glacier cave to meet the water below. Huge blocks of ice and the current of water play a game with each other. The stream cuts into the blocks and pushes it mid-stream. The block tries hard to stay put on its temporary throne and breaks the current into two. The game continues here in a hitherto unusual unseen mirth of ice and water; both same and yet so different!
Above Gaumukh is Tapovan. All saffron clad barefoot or slipper-sporting sadhus (holy men) are headed for that territory. It is place across the Bhagirathi glacier where Rishis and Munis did penance and meditated. Today there is some alarming news from Tapovan. One traveller slipped and fell some distance below to hurt his head on a rock. He was evacuated on a makeshift stretcher by locals and some foreign trekkers. It will be almost ten hours before he reaches Gangotri, where first-aid is available. Bhojbasa, I think, demands a doctor, a medical unit and telephone connectivity for evacuation by helicopter in dire emergencies.
The Himalayan glaciers have long fascinated the British explorers who arduously mapped and recorded their uniqueness. Colonel Gordon (Roof of the World, 17) writes—“the glaciers of the Western Himalayas are twice as extensive as those of the Alps, and are probably the largest in the world or at all events larger than any others out of the polar regions.” How do you recognise a glacier and the river it has given birth, must be understood. I am tempted to quote Lieutenant R. Strachey on the appearance of a glacier—“It seems to be a vast rounded mass of rocks and ground utterly devoid of any sign of vegetation, standing up out of a grassy valley. From the foot of its nearer extremity the river, even here infordable, rushes in a turbid torrent out of a sort of cave; the top of which is but a few feet above the surface of the water. Behind this, the glacier rises less steeply like a bare gravel hill, to its full height, which is probably 500 feet above the water of the river when it leaves the cave.”
After a tete a tete with Bhagirathi glacier and river source one must return to Bhojbasa or if possible Chirbasa for a night halt. Walking early morn on return is pure satisfaction to the visual and olfactory senses. Start about 6–6.30 a.m. The clouds are still lazing in the valley. Their effortless glide up the mountains is inspiring. The atmosphere is filled with the fragrance of plants and shrubs, especially Ganga Tulsi. You become part of generous nature. Many prayers come to lips in such circumstance—God make me a mountain stream so that I can quench the thirst of earth, plants, and men; God make me a wildflower, so that I can enliven a jungle path; God make me a birdsong so that I fill the woods with music; God make me a cloud so that I roam anywhere at free will; God make me a mountain summit so that I tower above everything else; God make me the wind so that I can give life to the world; God make me a star in the sky so that I fill the eyes of your children with dreams. Any one of these prayers could be yours. The prayer of humility, of freedom, of power, or dreams; it just depends how you feel. I, for one, would like to end up as a birdsong in a forest!
All good things these days end up in a mix of concrete, machine and artificiality. Should you come here once, you would be happy that for some days you were only a child of benevolent Nature.
Travelling on the dusty road once you leave the Bikaner Highway towards Gajner Palace, meeting simple villagers, finding broken bullock carts, watching hand painted sign boards, you really don’t believe that you are actually on way to some oasis palace amidst the Thar Desert. The road is unassuming, till you come to see a bright red gate leading you inside to an impressive monumental building. This is the Gajner Palace, now a Hotel.
What was private is now public, what was hidden is now open, what was unapproachable is now yours for the taking!
Gajner Palace was built by the then Maharajah of Bikaner Ganga Singh as a personal hunting lodge. Those were the days when Maharajahs could afford such luxuries at the cost of the royal exchequer. He ruled Bikaner from 1887 to 1943 and it was during his reign that Gajner palace hunting lodge was built to be later converted in 1976 into a Hotel.
6000 acres of the once called Jangladesh is now a beautiful Palace ground and palace structure on the banks of Lake Gajner. The Britishers were known to enjoy a lavish lifestyle at the cost of the then Maharajahs, eventually passing on the cost to the subjects of these numerous Kingdoms. So, it was but natural that these Kings who had accepted the suzerainty of the British play gracious host to the Viceroys, Generals and other Officers of the Crown! It attracted several British dignitaries, including the Prince of Wales in 1905, Governor General Lord Elgin, Lord Erwin in 1927 and Lord Mountbatten when he was Viceroy of India.
After alighting at the steps I heard a peacock call and that reminded me that peacocks are a plenty in Bikaner and the call added immediate pleasantness to the environment. The reception was welcoming and displayed photographs of the Maharajahs and Maharanis of Bikaner, who have now passed into history and only rule from their adobe in framed photographs hung on the walls.
One black & white photograph of a Princess was particularly appealing.
Stepping inside was a treat for a fan of architecture and a student of history. The centre courtyard had ornamental buildings to its three sides, the one in front being the Dungar Niwas. You can inhale the mystifying fragrance of tiny, white flowers of the maulsari trees (mimusopse elongii), which stand at the four corners of the courtyard. The tree flowers in the night!
It was here, at Dungar Niwas, that the British rulers stayed, occupying the 13-suites overlooking the Lake Gajner, enjoying the rise of the Sun and its setting, though they believed that the Sun never sets in the British Empire!
The originality of the suites bears the stamp of royalty and of an era that is lost into oblivion. Not to worry, you won’t have to pee and poo the jungle style because all rooms are absolutely modern and air-conditioned.
The other wings of the Palace are Mandir Chowk to the right of the Courtyard where a temple is built on the banks of the Lake, Gulab Niwas and Champa Niwas.
The trunk of the Banyan tree at the Mandir Chowk is so huge that one wonders about the age of the tree. It is clear it existed much before the palace structure was even conceived. It is said that the 32 deluxe rooms in Gulab Niwas were used by the glamorous railway officers of times bygone as a railway line was connected to the Palace in 1922.
Champa Niwas is a new section, recently built with a beautiful garden courtyard surrounded by rooms.
The Imperial Sand Grouse shoot at Gajner Palace during the Christmas season was the most sought after invitation in the Indian social calendar.
(The two Sand Grouse photographs from the Internet)
The Maharajahs and the British colonists knew how to enjoy life and not waste their time into unnecessary things, save those that suited their interests.
You can peep into the life of those times, as you look at the photographs of the British lifestyle, displayed in the corridors and staircases of Gajner!
The food place is the Mirage restaurant serving all cuisines, but when in Rajasthan eat like a Rajasthani! In front of the Mirage restaurant is the Imperial Terrace, which serves as a open air cushioned arena for many a cultural concert, with drinks and snacks.
You can also request for food to be served in Rajasthani Thalis at the Imperial Terrace and eat watching the colours of the sky and the lake waters!
Julie Elaine Hughes, a researcher has done a wonderful dissertation, presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin, about the animal shoots in Princely India— Animal Kingdoms: Princely Power, the Environment, and the Hunt in Colonial India; 2009. She writes (quote):
“Ganga Singh greatly admired his state’s wildfowl and, because his status as a sportsman was linked to the perceived quality of his primary game, he wanted outsiders to do so as well. According to the maharaja, the imperial sandgrouse was a superior game bird capable of giving “capital shots and sport.”12 He insisted that a great deal of skill and steady aim were required to down the birds because sportsmen had to shoot them precisely in the head or breast.13 In addition, the flight of the imperial sandgrouse was vigorous and “much faster” than it appeared.14 Apparently enamored of aeronautical references, Britain’s Secretary of State for Air in the 1920s likened the speed of Bikaner’s sandgrouse to “torpedo-carrying bombers.”15 Even Lord Curzon opined that their movement was “quite unlike that of any other bird, and…not in the least [like] that of a grouse.”16 Some of Bikaner’s other wildfowl were similarly challenging. Like imperial sandgrouse, Ganga Singh described demoiselle crane (kūñj) as strong, fast, and hard to bring down.17
(Animal Kingdoms: Princely Power, the Environment, and the Hunt in Colonial India; Julie Elaine Hughes 2009; pg 126)
Further, Julie mentions an anecdote about Maharajah Ganga Singh’s shooting style, as described by Viceroy Lord Linlithgow:
“Such vehicular sport gratified British VIPs who shot in Bikaner by giving them a flattering story to relate about their personal triumphs in the field. The experience often left them impressed with their host’s prowess too. Describing the blackbuck hunting that he enjoyed in 1937 along with Ganga Singh in the prince’s “high-powered car,” the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow wrote that [w]hen a blackbuck appears [the maharaja] stamps on the accelerator, takes both hands off the steering wheel and opens fire at the animal with his rifle. It is interesting to speculate as to whether or not he will resume control of the vehicle before it disappears into a thorn thicket at 40 m.p.h. [miles per hour].45 Even as Lord Linlithgow expressed admiration for the sport, he framed the interludes he experienced as comic amusements.46
(Animal Kingdoms: Princely Power, the Environment, and the Hunt in Colonial India; Julie Elaine Hughes 2009; Page 133)
I would like to quote from Mahesh Rangarajan’s book, which mentions about the shooting skills of one of the Maharajah’s of Bikaner:
“THE Big Game Diary of Sadul Singh, Maharajkumar of Bikaner, privately printed in 1936, catalogued his bags over a quarter of a century. In this time, he had ranged far beyond the confines of his desert kingdom in western Rajasthan to shoot tigers in the forested hills of central India, lions in the dry teak jungle of Saurashtra, leopards in Bharatpur and wild buffalo in the Nepal tarai. The rarer a creature, the greater the sense of exultation of the big game hunter.
Thus it was that on a March morning in 1920, Sadul Singh’s father grew taut with excitement when trackers brought news of a male wild buffalo that they had seen mingling with a tame herd. The party of hunters had travelled all the way to Babia-Bankuwala in Nepal to get a fine head of the great arna, a creature already so rare across north India that the British had restricted its killing for sport. As they waited in a macchan, a platform on a tree at the edge of a plain, Sadul Singh recalled how, “Father got very excited as it was his first experience of this kind, even though he is an experienced sportsman. He said his heart was thumping as in his early sporting days.” Five years later, the same hunters gave the coup de grace to a group of three cheetahs in Rewa, a princely kingdom in central India. The cheetahs, shot from a motor vehicle, were so rare that their shooting was described as “a great piece of luck”.
The Diary is a priceless document because it totals all that Sadul Singh shot over a quarter century. Nearly 50,000 head of animals and a further 46,000 game birds fell to his gun. Among these were 33 tigers, 30 Great Indian Bustards, over 21,000 sand grouse and a lone Asiatic lion. To cap it all, over a thousand of the game animals had been bagged outside India. The Cape buffalo and the black rhino were among the 33 varieties of herbivores of the savannah and jungle of Africa that ended up as trophies in the Bikaner palace”.
(India’s Wildlife History: An Introduction, Mahesh Rangarajan, Permanent Black, p.160.)
Sounding a little weird but, nevertheless to mention is a recipe from Rajasthan, of the Kings of those days. I quote:
“Take a whole camel, put a goat inside it and inside the goat, a peacock, inside which put a chicken. Inside the chicken put a sand grouse, inside the sand grouse put a quail and finally, a sparrow. Then put the camel in a hole in the ground and steam it…”
This is all what was done by the Maharajahs! The question arises what you can do now? Well, well, you can take Nature walks, do yoga in the morning by the Lake, watch enamouring sunrise and sunsets, go for camel safari, walk hand in hand with your loved one in the palace grounds, kiss her at the Billiards Table, host a lavish Rajasthani dinner along with a cultural performance at the Imperial Terrace, in front of the Mirage restaurant.
And if you are not married as yet, why don’t you decide to tie the nuptial knot at the Gajner Palace, truly Rajasthani royal style and discover each other under the shadow of history in the splendor of Gajner.
Gajner not only surprised me, giving me a royal dip in its past, but also a lesson that past times can still beautify the present times!
Distances from major cities:
Jaipur 331 km; New Delhi 448 km; Jodhpur 251 km; Mumbai 1255 km
From Bikaner city it is 30 minutes by car
Airport: Currently Jaipur, but small planes are likly to commence flying to Bikaner in the coming months.