Sunday, September 2, 2018

Haridwar – gateway to the land of Gods

Haridwar – gateway to the land of Gods

Ganga aarti at Haridwar
             After the brief stopover at Rudraprayag on our way back from Syalsaur, we imbued the glimpse of the River Ganges and the mesmerizing valleys cocooning it, one last time, before returning back to the nature ravaged city life.  We stopped at the same small eatery, this time also before reaching Devprayag and had some snacks etc. and a nice hot cup of Coffee.  Thereafter, we boarded our Car and began the last leg of our journey, which was uneventful till we actually reached Haridwar.  In Haridwar, in order to locate headed for the Hotel where in had made the booking.  As the town of Haridwar had grown immensely over the years and we could not trace out the once familiar land marks, we used the Google map, which confounded us further through its messages and finally after resorting back to the old, tried and tested method of asking the local Rickshaw wallahs for directions, we finally reached our destined Hotel in Haridwar at about 3.00 P.M.  After checking in and thereafter partaking some light snacks and coffee, we prepared for attending the evening Ganga aarti that commences at 6.00 P.M.
As the River Ganga meanders towards the plains, so does the road running alongside
            Haridwar, whose literal meaning would be ‘Gateway of Gods’ is one of the oldest surviving human habitations on Earth.  It has been proved by archaeological findings that terracotta culture was existing in this region of in & around Haridwar during 1700 B.C. and 1800 B.C. Historically, this region was ruled by Maurya Empire from 322 BC to 185 BC and later it came under the rule of Kushan Empire. The place also finds mention in the treatise of ancient Chinese traveler Huen T’sang, who had visited India in 629 AD. At that time Haridwar was part of the kingdom of the King Harshvardhan (590 to 647). The city was also invaded by Timur Lang (1336–1405), a Turkish King on January 13, 1399. First Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak (1469–1539) bathed at the famed 'Kushwan Ghat' on Baisakhi Day. Later in the 16th century Haridwar came under reign of Mughals and emperors like Akbar and Jehangir stamped their domination here. According to Ain-e-Akbari Mughal Emperor, Akbar drank water from the Ganges River collected from Haridwar, which he called 'the water of immortality'.
The cold evening has set in and River Ganga flows by Haridwar

The congregation waits on banks of River Ganga for the Aarti to start in Haridwar
       Mythologically also Haridwar finds mention in many of the ancient Hindu scriptures, according to Kedarkhand of Skanda Purana, the ancient great King named as Shwet did long penance on the bank of river Ganges at Haridwar. The Brahma pleased with his devotion & blessed that the place will be special place with blessing from all gods and bathing here will be very fruitful to devotees. Raja Vikramaditya's brother Bhratuhari has also done penance here. In his memory, King Vikramaditya built a “Paudi (pawadi)”/ step way here, which later became famous as Har Ki Paudi or Har Ki Pauri. Apart from this Guru Datatrey had also spent great amount of time here in meditation.​ Haridwar is mentioned in various other ancient Indian scriptures of Purans, Upanishads and Mahabharata, where it finds mention as a Mayapur, Kapilsthan, Mokshdwar or Gangadwar. In Mahabharata great sage Dhaumya had also mentioned Haridwar (Gangadwar) as a major pilgrimage town to Yudhisthira.  Sage Kapila also lived here in an ashram, so this place was also known as Kapilsthan. The tradition which was established by King Bhagirath is now followed by thousands of Hindu devotees, who bring the ashes of their departed family members, in hope of their salvation by the water of river Ganges.
The preparations for the evening Ganga Aarti have begun on ghats of Hridwar
The Ganga Aarti begins on ghats of Haridwar

An interesting aspect of the Pandits (Priests) of the Haridwar is that they have kept the genealogy records of most of the Hindu population, which is maintained in hand written vahis (hand crafted note books). These records are updated on each visit to the city by the families and are a repository of vast family trees of family in entire India. Further, it is believed that the nectar (Amrit), which was one of the fourteen valuable condiments that came out during the churning of the Sea by both the Devas & Ashuras i.e. Samundra Manthan, this nectar was sprinkled at 12 places in the entire universe. Out of that 12 places 08 places are in heaven and only 04 places on earth. Har-Ki-Pauri in Haridwar was one of the four places where Amrit was sprinkled on mother earth. As a result, every 12 years Khumbh Mela comes to Haridwar by turn as it is also held at other three places of Ujjain, Allahabad (Sangam) and Nashik and draws immense crowds. The Ardha Kumbha Mela comes once in every six years.
The pandits offering sacred lamp for seeking blessings after Ganga aarti in Haridwar
Accordingly, the Ganga aarti held at Har ki pauri has both historical and mythological importance as explained hereinabove.  However, the Pandas have now made it into a money spinning exercise, as they try to extort money from pilgrims on premise of keeping the banks/ghats of Ganga River clean, stating that the local municipality does not contribute to its up-keep.  We dodged past these vermin’s and proceeded to watch the Ganga Aarti, where I found the priests being loud and uncivilized while interacting with both foreigners and Indian devotees.  However, I took cover under a stair case and filmed the proceedings, which it appears is losing its sheen, as it is performed in same manner as it was performed 10 years ago or even twenty years ago, juxtaposed to the innovation that is taking place in Rishikesh, akin to Varanasi aarti.  After enjoying the Ganga Aarti at Haridwar and having had some delectable sweetmeats on the way back to Hotel, we wrapped up our winter vacations for the year. 
Evening aarti taking place in adjoining temples on Ganga banks of Haridwar
             I have not put in the details of various tourist destinations about Hardiwar as I have already done so in an old blog of mine and those interested can check it out at -
Photograph shot in 2001 and part of the old blog

Check out the video of the Ganga Aarti -

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Rudraprayag – the confluence of holy rivers
The famed Rudranath temple in Rudraprayag
As we started our return journey back from Syalsaur, I had made it a point to revisit Rudraprayag (having visiting the famed destination way back in June, 2001 – here is the link to my previous blog -  Having traversed a few kilometres we had reached Agastmuni, although very few travellers stop by this holy township that is named after the Sage who goes by the same name and there is a temple dedicated to him in this township.  However, we too did not stop here as we had to reach Haridwar before commencement of the evening Ganga Aarti there. 
Going past Agasthmuni
Rudrapryag from other side - shot during my visit in 2001
Close up of Rudraprayag from the town side - shot during my visit in 2001
Rudraprayag from the opposite side of the town - shot in 2018

            Rudrapryag is at a distance of about 19 Kms. from Agastmuni township and the road runs along the tranquil Mandakini River that emanates from the Kedarnath region.   Rudra Prayag is a small township that is located in the state of Uttarakhand and in the district that goes by the same name. The town is situated at the confluence of the River Alaknanda and River Mandakini, perched at an altitude of 610 meters. Some locals describe the place, as where the two rivers resembling like two sisters embrace each other and there is a quaint mystery about the place.  The entire district is steeped in immense natural beauty and one can visit many a famed holy destinations other that trekking destinations encompassing lakes, glaciers, rivers and streams here. There are a few temples that are located in the town as well and these are a must visit while travelling to Rudra Prayag.  The main temple that sits at the confluence is known as Rudranath temple that is dedicated to Lord Shiva and the town also gets its name from the same.  The township is all the more important for the Chardham Yatra as it is the destination wherefrom the road splits towards Kedarnath, after crossing the bridge across Alaknanda River and the other road, after crossing the township, heads straight towards Badrinath along the Alaknanda River.
As the Mandakini flows in from Kedarnath side at Rudraprayag

Rudraprayag the confluence of Mandakini & Alaknanada Rivers
The close-up shot of Rudraprayag confluence - Alaknanda & Mandakini meeting
A panoramic view of Rudraprayag
As the River Ganga meanders amongst the hills
We gradually head back towards the plains of Haridwar
            Mythology of the region states that the Narad Muni (a holy sage) has meditated and prayed for years together to please Lord Shiva so as to gain expertise in music.  Through his dedicated worship, Lord Shiva was pleased to bless him and appeared before Narad Muni in his ‘Rudra Avtaram’ (a fierce form of Lord Shiva) at this confluence and the temple was built and dedicated to Lord Shiva since.  The confluence of Alaknanda with Mandakini is one of the holiest of confluences amongst the ‘Panch Prayag’ (Holy confluences of holy River Ganga) and the others being Dev Prayag (wherefrom Ganga River emerges as one and is considered as the holiest) followed by Nandprayag (confluence on Alaknanda and Nandakini Rivers the latter emanating from the Nanda Devi glacier),  Karanprayag (this confluence is of Alaknanda and Pidar Ganga Rivers and the latter emanating from Pindari glacier) and Vishnuprayag (the confluence of Alaknanda with Dhauli Ganga River and the latter emanates from the Niti pass region).  Having spent some time trying to get some shots of the confluence albeit across the light, we headed back towards the plains for our next halt for the night i.e. Haridwar.

Here is a short video of the destination -
© S. Roy Biswas

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Kartik Swami temple – a platform for viewing Himalayan vistas

Kartik Swami temple – a platform for viewing Himalayan vistas

The majestic view of the Himalayan ranges as seen from Kartik Swami temple
             I had read about this destination with awe and had seen the photographs of the spectacular vistas of Himalayan ranges on the internet.  Accordingly, visiting Kartik Swami temple was the last, but not the least in order of priorities for me.  I had kept this trek for the last leg, so that even if we got tired, it would be the last trek of the trip.  Having visited Deoriatal the previous day and that being a tiresome journey, sans any food etc. we all got up late in the morning, including the driver.  The ladies of the group i.e. my wife and daughter had started mumbling and grumbling about the trek to Kartik Swami temple, when they heard that it was a 3 km. trek one way.  Therefore, I had no other option than to drop them at Syalsaur and my Son also volunteered to stay back with them.  Thus, I visited the famed Kartik Swami temple on my own.
View of Kedarnath peaks from Syalsaur as we start for Kartik Swami temple

As the road construction activity is underway the vehicles stop on either side
Going past Mohan Khal en-route Kartik Swami temple road
             Katik Swami temple is a small temple dedicated to Lord Kartik, son of Lord Shiva & Parvati, placed on a ledge that offers 270º view of the Himalayan ranges.  It can be reached by trekking for 3 Kms. from a nondescript little village called Kanakchauri.  This village can be accessed both from Rudraprayag as well as a small village called Banswara on Kedarnath Highway, about a kilometer from Syalsaur.  Kanakchauri village is about 40 kms from Rudraprayag on the Rudraprayag - Pokhari route, whereas from the road at Banswara, it is about 37.9 Kms. from Syalsaur.  This road is a narrow and due to ongoing road construction work for another road, connecting some of the villages in the hills, which was taking place, due to displacement of rocks in the process, we had to wait mid-way for about 45 minutes or so.  But this road being used mainly by the local villagers falling in this route, namely – Gair, Kanyas, Akauri etc., till one reaches Mohankhal, which is the nodal point wherefrom the road from Pokhri meets, it is a smooth ride with very few vehicles traversing along this road patch.  Kanachauri village can also be approached from Karanprayag, which is about 40 Kms. from Pokhri and it is another 15 Kms. from Pokhri to Kanakchauri. 
Terraced fields and small villages perched on mountainsides en-route Kartik Swami temple

First view of the Kanakchauri village and ridge astride which is the famed Kartik Swami temple
The first view of Chaukhamba massif on trek route to Kartik Swami temple 
             Kanakchauri village is a very small village and total length would not exceed 150-200 meters along the main road, wherein numerous shops catering to local requirements as well as eateries dedicated to tourists run shop.  In case of heavy rush of tourists, there is not ample space available and the road, being quite narrow, parking is definitely a problem here.  The Mayadeep group has a reasonable rest house constructed mainly with bamboo here and they quote a price of Rs.2000/- per night for each such bamboo hut.  However, I have come across blogs wherein it has been claimed that bargaining can give you a good deal of around Rs.800/- per room per night also during lean seasons.  The trek route for the famed Kartik Swami temple is easily identifiable by a gate constructed on the road side leading towards the trek route.  Although, there are no sight to any Himalayan peaks visible from the village road itself, but a few hundred meters upward trek would make them visible.  The trek route is about 3 Kms. and takes about two hours’ time at a medium pace and the trek runs through a pleasant and virgin Oak and Rhododendron forest and the stillness is broken only with a twig or two breaking under your shoe or that of a bird chirping somewhere in the canopy and the gradient is moderate.
A Nuthatch bird on trek route to Kartik Swami temple
The description hoarding on trek route to Kartik Swami temple
The hut of the temple priest of Kartik Swami temple
A display poster erected by Uttarakhand Tourism near Kartik Swami temple

             Nestled in the Garhwal Himalayas at an altitude of 3048 meters (about 10,000 ft) in the Rudraprayag district of the State of Uttarakhand is the temple of Kartik Swami. Kartik Swami temple is perched on a spur of a ledge, in a serene and beautiful location, that provides a spectacular panoramic view of some of the highest mountains peaks of the Himalayan ranges in India.  The snow laden peaks of Bandar punch are visible to the west. In addition, the peaks of Kedar Dome, Meru, Kedarnath, Neelkanth, Trishul, Nanda Ghunti and Nanda Devi group of peaks are also visible from Kartik Swami. The main attraction of Kartik Swami is the mighty Chaukhamba peak which appears, as if as, it is framed as the temple’s background.  En-route, just before you take onto the huge stone steps for the final assault on the ridge to reach the temple top, is the home of the priest of the temple, who stays in a basic concrete house (an ashram), which is less than 1 km before the temple and he will accompany travelers/devotees to the temple, if required.  There is something mystical about Kartik Swami temple trek, as on the way you find broken bangles and vermillion (sindoor) all along the path made as offerings, while the temple complex has a lot of bells hanging around it.  The ever interrogative mind of mine was getting vexed to know about the mythology of the place and hence I made some research on the internet, searching for answers to my query.

The pen nib like peak_Janhukoot peak as seen from Kartik Swami temple
Panoramic view of the famed Kartik Swami temple
The main temple doorway of Kartik Swami temple
The idol of Lord Kartikey in Kartik Swami temple
The mighty Chaukhambha peak as seen from Kartik Swami temple
         Mythological anecdotes relate this place to Lord Kartik Swami, who is the elder brother of Lord Ganesha and according to Hindu mythology, he is considered as “God for War and Victory.”  He is also known as Murugan Swami in Tamil Nadu, Subramanya in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and Kartikeya in Bengal. The temple encompasses an idol of Lord Kartik Swami carved on a marble rock.  According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva (the destroyer) told his sons Ganesha and Kartikeya that one of them, who will be the first to take seven rounds of the universe will have the privilege of being worshiped first.  Ganesha took seven rounds around Shiva and Parvati, stating that he saw the Universe in them, while Kartikeya faithfully circled the universe. Impressed by Ganesha, Lord Shiva gave him the honor of being worshipped before anyone else. While Lord Kartikeya was taking his final round, he encountered Narada Muni (albeit intentionally), who informed him that he had been made to look like a fool by circling the Universe and that Lord Ganesh had already been granted the boon.  Angered by this kind treachery, Kartikeya sacrificed his body and gave his flesh back to his mother Parvati and his bones to Lord Shiva as an ultimate sacrifice.
As the evening sets in we head back to Syalsaur from Kartik Swami temple
            Having visited the temple and spent some quality time there, we traversed back through the serene trek through the Oak and Rhododendron tree forest and reached back Kanakchauri in about an hour’s time.  As we were totally famished by this time, myself and my driver, who had accompanied me to the temple top, ate some noodles with eggs and tea, which was so sweetened that I could only have one gulp, before discarding it.  Thereafter, as we were about to make our way back, a forest worker requested for ride upto Mohankhal as he had missed the last bus.  We dropped him at his desired destination and made our way back to Syalsaur and thus, ended my winter sojourn for the year, albeit visiting a few more destinations on our way back.

Here is a link to the video of the destination -

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The emerald alpine lake – Deoriatal

The emerald alpine lake – Deoriatal
Panoramic view of  famed Deoriatal
Having completed of morning Puja at Omkareshwar temple in Ukhimath, we commenced with our onward journey towards the Sari village wherefrom the trek to the famed alpine lake known as Deoriatal begins.  The road leads along the same road that one takes for Chopta but bifurcates from main Chopta road, but as the signpost is on the opposite side of the road and is thus, not clearly visible from this side of the road and hence as a key reference for taking the U-turn, the first point of reference that comes into view is the ‘Anjali Tourist Lodge & Restaurant’.  Thereafter, the road actually takes the U-turn towards Sari village from the corner of ‘Hanuman Inn & Resorts’ (check out the video below).
Distant view of Sari village - starting point for trek to Deoriatal - shot from Chopta
View of Mandakini River from road to Deoriatal
Panoramic view of Ukhimath - as we head towards Sari/Deoriatal
         Sari is a very small and a remote village in Uttrakhand, situated at a distance of 12 Kilometers from Ukhimath, it is the base for the trek towards scintillating emerald alpine lake named Deorial Tal (2483 meters).  The trek is about 2.3 kilometers trek from Sari village. Many of the visitors set up camps or hire them at Deoriatal and use it as base for trek to Tungnath Temple and Chopta. One comes across very beautiful bhugyals (meadows) along the road journey from Sari to Chopta.  There are no hotels in Sari village but one can find a few lodges or home stay options, if you explore.  Perched at an altitude of 6,601 feet, the village is quiet & quaint with very little of modern amenities. The villagers go about with their daily chores and lifestyle untouched by commercialization, as we see in the cities in the plains, except for a handful of youngsters enjoying mobile phone facilities. Thus, it also emphasizes that in case you have missed out buying on any of your trekking gear, there is no market in here and you will have to retrace your steps all the way back to Ukhimath to purchase the same. Also please keep in mind that electricity at the village cannot be relied upon as it is intermittent and breaks down in event of any inclement weather hitting the region. You may not be able to charge your electronic appliances here at times, unless you are lucky during the freak weather or you are carrying your own power bank. However, mobile signals of Airtel, Vodafone and BSNL numbers function at Sari.  
Scenic view of Himalayan peaks on way to Deoriatal
A local herder tending to his flock of sheeps
The trek from Sari Village to Deoriatal winds through dense forest of Oak and Rhododendron trees.  I had gauged the steepness of the trek and was seeking some mules to ride on, as being a city brigand I could make out that the trek would be very arduous for me and my family.  However, the contractor with whom I negotiated sought Rs.700/- for onward trip, we therefore decided to trek on ourselves.  However, just ten minutes into the trek we could make out that it was quite tiring, much more that we had anticipated.  However, the mule provider was still waiting below and shouted that he was willing to negotiate @Rs.500/- per mule for one way drop.  This sounded reasonable and hence I agreed and we trekked upwards on mule back, which too was an unforgettable experience (check out the video below).  Fifteen minutes on mule back and half an hour into the trek, one comes across a small temple dedicated to lord Shiva known as the Omkar Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple. Locals worship here and a Pundit is available just outside the temple to help you in making your offerings. Made in the early Nagara architecture style, the walls of the temple are plain with geometrically placed ridges made in stone. A rock sculpture of the mythical cow Nandi is strategically placed at its entrance. Inside the temple one can see avtars of Shiva carved in rock. This temple is a landmark before you start towards the first view point wherefrom you can enjoy the panoramic views of the village below. There are several such viewpoints on the way and locals have conveniently opened small tea shops selling cold drinks and water as well.
The panoramic view of Sari village
Deoriatal is beyond this top that requires to be surmounted
The spire of the Omkar Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple
Panoramic view of the Omkar Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple
White chinned laughing thrush on road to Deoriatal
Chopta as seen from trek to Deoriatal
          As you almost reach the summit of the mountain after the long and arduous trek, one comes across the last the biggest of the ‘dhabas’/local eating joint, which offers tea/water/cold drinks alongwith maggi etc.  One cannot comprehend the majestic view that is going to unfold before one’s eyes, as the narrow kuchha road behind the dhabha leads to the spectacle and offers no clue of what lies beyond until you reach the clearing overlooking the famed Deoriatal.  Yet this stretch I found to be most rich in the avifauna of the region and was able to click a few white throated laughing thrush birds with only a 55-200mm lens attached to my camera.  As one steps out of the oak covered road, the splendor of Deoria Tal opens up before you.  Deoriatal is in itself only a small lake, but the spacious lawns surrounded by dense vegetation around it makes it an excellent spot for camping, sighting distant mountains and star gazing. Local legends associate this lake with certain events of Mahabharata.  As for the legends, it is a mythological belief that the Devas bathed in this lake hence the name, the lake is also sometimes believed to be the “Indra Sarovar” referred to in the Puranas by wandering, Hindu mendicants Sadhus. It is also believed that it was the place from where the Pandavas due to extreme fatigue and arrogance failed to provide answers sought by Yaksha and on drinking its water died, Yudhistara, the eldest of all Pandvas was then asked four questions by Yaksha, which was answered by him and the life of the other dead Pandavas was then restored by Yaksh.
The emerald green deoriatal
Cloud covered Chaukhambha from Deoriatal
The base of the Chaukhamba massif visible from Deoriatal 
Another peak looming across the other side of the deoriatal lake
This is a photograph taken from the internet to show the readers the beauty of Deoriatal
The pen picture of the lake would describe it as an emerald colored lake, surrounded by undulating, soothingly inclined, grass fields that are bounded by a dense wood cover all around. Set majestically in the lap of the mountain, with a backdrop of magnificent mountain peaks, especially Chaukhamba peak that puts in a spectacular reflection on the waters of Deoriatal, is a popular tourist destination for the adventure loving lots.  On the day we visited Deoriatal, it was a bit of damper for me as the Chaukhamba was not visible as it was snowing on its top and hence could not get a glimpse of the reflection on the lake surface.  Yet the trek to the famed lake was worth every penny and after enjoying the environs fully, we started out trek back towards Sari village.  We stopped at the dhaba to have some maggi, so as to get some fuel into our stomach before starting the arduous trek back.  However, there was some smell of either oil or something that dissuaded us from partaking the same and we had to trek back on an empty stomach, which nothing much available at Sari village either.  Accordingly, on the way back we purchased some biscuits, sweet meats etc., as it was almost evening by the time we reached back to Syalsaur.

Here is the link to the video of the destination