Uttarakhand – 4. Bhowali. The Pristine And The Ugly

The beautiful hills outside Bhowali

The beautiful hills outside Bhowali

When I was a kid growing up in Nainital, we used to walk to Bhowali for our Grade 5 and 6 picnic. Bhowali, via a short cut was 7-9 kilometers from Nainital, and this was considered a gentle enough walk for young toddlers like ourselves who were 10 or 11 years old at the time.

The first time around, I groaned and moaned at the thought of this very, very, very long walk, but I got used to it after the first walk, after some good natured ribbing by my classmates, and some not so good natured thrashing from the teachers. These were big, burly Irishmen who loved the outdoors, and they all looked as tall as the skies to us. Of course, we used to end up at a nearby place called Gorakhal, which was known for it’s “military school”, or school for the kids of soldiers. Tough kids, they were. We’d walk along the road, and then we would climb up the hill to our destination. The first time I did this, I looked down, and the 5,500 feet below me fell away like some sort of bottomless valley, where horrible monsters lived.

I had a hyper-active imagination, as a kid!

The town, as we enter

The town, as we enter

Now, of course, I would not dare to drive. Tourism has increased a lot since those innocent, happy days, and the bleating sound of the mountain goat has been replaced by the sound of  bleating car horns, as they whizz past, belching smoke in their wake. This is akin to a man who farts smelly farts as he walks. He leaves the trail of smell behind!

Bhowali is the gateway to many places in Uttarakhand, and as such, it does see a lot of traffic. It is also a big fruit and vegetable center, and our friends (the ones we were staying with)  drive to Bhowali every week to stock up. They are just one of the many who do this.

Yet, as you enter the town, a deceptive calm awaits you, as you pause on the road to admire the white building.

Then, as you (and, we did) enter, the ugliness hits you. It hits you like some sort of sledgehammer, no like a machine gun burst aimed squarely at your stomach.

The Ugliness Hits You Like A Boxers Fist

The Ugliness Hits You Like A Boxers Fist

Or, better still, try and imagine yourself standing by innocently, minding your own business, and then someone like Mike Tyson or The Undertaker (in their respective primes) comes along and punches you hard in the stomach.

This indeed us the shock of Bhowali, and it leaves me with a speechless wonder, as to how we can blithely create ugliness in the midst of nature’s beauty, and stand there and laugh.

This is one of the mysteries of man, and our wonderful love for the world in which we live.


Uttarakhand -3. Mukteshwar

Mukteshwar Valley

Mukteshwar, in Uttarakhand, is a beautiful place. It is in Nainital District, in Uttarakhand, in India. The name literally means “Abode of Shiva”. The town got it’s name from an old temple, Mukteshwar Dham, that is about 350 years old. I did not get to see the temple. Sadly, we had very little time when we were there. We left a bit late, and had to get back before dark. It was a wonderful day that we were there. We did get to see one old temple with lots and lots of bells, a temple that has one of the best locations I could have ever wished for.

We drove through the IVRI land. IVRI stands for The Indian Veterinary Research Institute, set up in 1893 by the British. So, this is one more thing that we have to thank the Brits for!  Driving from Satauli to Mukteshwar, we passed through some of the most incredibly ugly new property that is being mindlessly developed by private developers. Come to Mukteshwar, the promotional materials scream, come to where the Gods live! They forget to tell you that they build ugly places, crowd you together like they do in the cities, and don’t care to provide for water.

So, when we drove through the IVRI grounds, I doffed an imaginary hat to the Brits, and to the Government for keeping places like this inviolate. There are some lovely old estates along the way, and so the environment is preserved!

Dak Bungalow-Mukteshwar

We reached the edge of the world, as it were, and then my son and I went climbing down. This Daak Bungalow is set at a point where the scenery is lovely.  There is a wonderful view of the mountains and the valleys, and as we stood there, the cool wind blew into our faces. The Daak Bungalows were the original post points set up at various points on the road, and were also places where the weary traveller could rest his bones. There is a lot of history that is associated with these Daak Bungalows across the country, and ones like this blend in perfectly with the scenery.

Mukteshwar is 2,285 meters above mean sea level, which is not too high. It’s never too hot, and the winters are beautiful.

Sadly, people – tourists – whizz from scenic point to scenic point in their cars, and don’t take the time to walk along the wooded paths.

Mukteshwar Post Office

Neither do they take the time to pause and look at absolutely wonderful buildings like this one above. This is The Indian Post Office building, and was established in 1905. It is beautiful, and have to say, it is one of the more beautiful post offices that I have seen.

Abandoned Building

Any old town like this is going to have its fair share of abandoned buildings, history and old stories slowly blending back into nature. There are stories in these buildings, in these stones, stories one alive and now forgotten, as are the people who once inhabited them. Yet, they lived here, worked here, died here, and their stories are now forgotten. The hills are full of stories, full of the ghosts of the past, yet they live on in spirit.

And then, it was time to go! Lunch at a little dhaba selling bun-omelette. A simple bun with a simple omelette, at a simple dhaba overlooking the mountains. It is simple pleasures like this that often make life great.

Uttarakhand 2. A Day In Satauli

Morning Fog

We had finally reached Satauli. I have to say that we were dog tired, after a roughly 12 hour drive. Now, if you are driving in Europe, the journey would have probably taken us 4 hours less, but the roads in India are not great; and, what the hell? We were in no rush to get there. We stopped a couple of times for tea, and there was an especially lovely tea stall quite close to our final destination that I had to stop and have some lovely, sticky, sweet tea.

We were staying with friends who had decided to retire into the hills, and I must say that I admire their decision. We were put up in a little cottage, and the only real precaution that we had to take, was to keep the doors closed in the evening, lest the creepy crawlies would enter the rooms. They had put up solar panels all over the place, which I thought was most practical, to be honest.

Morning greeted us with rain, and I groaned. Then, I groaned some more. The first groan was because of the rain, which threatened to keep us in all day. The second groan followed the first within ten minutes, as I tried very hard indeed to kick myself in the butt. I had not carried my tripod, and now I had to shoot the misty landscape with handheld perfection.

The mist is beautiful, soft and mysterious. It turns the landscapes into something altogether magical.

And then, by mid morning,  the rain clouds lifted.


TheMountains From Satauli

The rains lifted, and suddenly the mountains rose from the clouds in all their majesty. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching the snow capped peaks rise from the clouds. I felt truly blessed, and I was almost down on my knees in reverence at the sight. There they stood, in silence, and in majesty, looking over the distance with a calm, spiritual dignity.

We were lucky. Normally, the best time to see the snow-capped peaks is between October and March, when the haze and the dust has been washed away from the sky. It is almost as if the sky had been scrubbed clean, and I was the silent beneficiary.

Satauli is a quiet place, and has not been infected by developers and tourists, so it is still possible to sit in quiet contemplation and look at the mountains as they twinkle in the sun.

We gamboled about, went for a walk along the country roads, and let the quiet feel of nature cast its healing touch on our generally stressed urban souls.

The Tree At Dusk

The good weather held into the evening, and we were witness to the sun’s rays light up the clouds as it descended behind the horizon for the night.

One day, three views.

One day, three sets of lighting

One day, three moods.

Can you ask for more?



Into Uttarakhand – 1. Departure

Highway Near RudarpurWe left Delhi a few months ago, to get away into the hills of India. We had done a similar trip last year, when we went to Simla. Sadly, my camera was packed away at that time, and I was forced to take photos only with my mobile phone. These photos were also taken with my mobile phone!

We left early in the morning, to beat the heat and the traffic. Beating the heat is a good idea, but leaving early does not always mean that you beat the traffic. Many people have the same idea, and you are likely to meet lots of holidayers on the road. The highway has changed a bit. There was a time when I would stop for tea, and maybe a bite, at the traditional Indian roadside restaurants, but those days are gone, and the “dhabas” in many parts of the country seem to be in some sort of retreat. Maybe it is old age catching up, maybe the fact that I was traveling with family, but we did not fancy stopping at the dhabas, so we stopped at McDonalds near a place called Gajraula for our breakfast. The loo was clean, and this was great. A clean loo is something that is much to be desired, especially if you have to do something more solid than pee.

The highways seemed better than my times in the past, but the work is erratic. There are stretches where you have simply awful roads, and my bones did their fair bit of jiggling and jangling as we bounced apart on these parts of the road.

Past Moradabad, and Rampir, which seemed as crappy as I remembered them, we switched to a country road, or a state highway, and then on to Rudarpur, where we stopped at the Radisson Blu for lunch. And then, we were heading into Haldwani and Kathgodam before we started our climb.

The roads seemed to change, and the dust seemed to recede, as we suddenly found trees lining the roads. This was my old annual road trip, while going to school in Nainital. We’d get into the bus early in the morning, and drive to Nainital. It was between Rudarpur and Haldwani that the faint outline of the hills would start to make themselves felt. While I look back on those days with fondness and nostalgia, I used to face the hills with a wee bit of trepidation. Nine months away from home, regimented lives in school, with the canings that would follow our acts of naughtiness.

And now, I was seeing those hills slowly appear in the horizon, and all that I felt this time was my strong attachment to the hills.

Haldwani and Kathgodam shocked me. Crowded as hell, they seemed to be messed up caricatures of the towns of my childhood memory.

Getting Into The Hills

And then, we were climbing. The smell of the trees, and the fresh air came rushing back, and really brought me back into the past. More than that, the clean air brought me back to a place of pure beauty. There is nothing in the world like the sights, the smells and the sounds of the Indian Hills. To me, this something altogether magical. Whatever we humans do, the hills will stand there in their majesty, and as we started the drive up, the last four hours to our destination, I realized I was home, and the next days would be a taste of all that is good in the world.

Flowers In The Rain

Flowers In The Rain

Flowers In The Rain

“To See The World In A Grain Of Sand

Heaven In A Wild Flower

To Hold Infinity In The Palm Of Your Hand

And, Eternity In An Hour”

While I may have made a mistake in quoting the brilliant opening lines of “The Auguries Of Innocence”, these lines often stay with me. A couple of months back, I spent four days in the hills of India, and one of the places that I went to, was Nainital. I spent five years of my childhood in Nainital, studying at St Joseph’s College. While I had my share of hellfire and brimstone, and I went through the pains of growing up, these years have stayed with me, and have played a significant part of my growing up.

Nainital is one place I love, and I often refer to it as my spiritual home. I remember waking up in the morning, especially on Sunday mornings, and looking across the hill at Birla Vidya Mandir. I remember carrying my trunks up to school, even at the age of 9.  I remember walks along the lake side, during our weekly outings. Those days,  the sight of a car was something to be marveled at. They were just not visible. Summers were cool, and winters were really cold. We would look over the valley, listening to the hollow sound that the wind would make as it whistled it’s way through the valleys, and tales of witches and hill station ghosts would be born. Again, and again, and again.

During the monsoons, the hills would be shrouded in mist, and we would not see the sun for almost a month. We would be living in the mist, and when, after a month, we would get a sunny day, the Principal would announce a Sunshine Holiday.

Yet, those days, we used to ache to go home, and as the winter holidays would approach, we would chant our song”

“Ten More Days and where shall I be?

Out of the gates of SJC..

No More eggs and no more French

No more sitting on a hard old bench…”

Now, I might sound like a nostalgic old fart, but those days were magical. Sadly, they are gone. While the hills and the lake are still absolutely beautiful, the city is now crowded with cars that have been driven up from the plains. The town is still beautiful, but starting to decay at the edges. Ugly tourism continuously rears its head, and you are hard pressed to find the old magic.

So, I went up to the Sherwani Lodge, run by my former classmate, and there in the garden, named after the old gardeners, were a whole bunch of flowers, swaying in the rain. The raindrops hung perilously to the edges of the petals, waiting patiently for some of the impatient tourists to stop and feel the wonder.

Is it because I have a camera that I am sensitive to these things, or am I just a sentimental old fart? I wonder…

For those who like a bit of music, I have attached a wonderful song by a great old British Group called The Move. This song, from the 1960’s is called “Flowers In The Rain”

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