Gangolihat – Hat Kalika temple, Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave, all in the heart of Himalayas

Incredible beauty, caves as old as the earth itself with links to Ramayana and Mahabharata, a temple of the designated goddess of a regiment of Indian army and chosen by Adi Guru Sankaracharya: my road trip to Gangolihat at 1,760 metres in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand proved to be an ideal way to end 2013. The 500 km 3 day amazing road trip with wife and in-laws was a great driving adventure with the close on-the-road encounter with leopard being the cherry on the cake.

Reaching and staying at Gangolihat

For me the journey started first from Gurgaon and was likely to end at Haldwani after 300km drive, considering we were visiting my in-laws but better sense prevailed well in time and we decided to visit Gangolihat, the hill town my in-laws and their ancestors actually belong to. The 200km drive (Click for route) from Haldwani to Gangolihat was something that excited me immediately and a quick Google search revealed so many outstanding interesting places there that I could not wait to be there to see and visit each one of them.

To make it easier for you in case you plan to visit Gangolihat, from Gurgaon/Delhi take NH 24 through Moradabad (bypass), enjoy meals at Gajraula, cross Rampur and Rudrapur (expect potholes for 20km), start uphill journey from Haldwani/Kathgodam, take the Bhimtal route, reach Almora after approx 80 km from Haldwani (just under 400km from Gurgaon, close to 11hours) and maybe stay there for the night. Next day take the Badechhina – Sheraghat route, take right from Raiagar and after 20km you would have reached Gangolihat after close to 5 hours of drive from Almora and that too through the snake like route. In Gangolihat there are few good options for stay, my advice get your rooms reserved in advance at the KMVN tourist rest house (click for more), it’s cheap and very nice place to stay.

Hat Kalika temple at Gangolihat

Hat Kalika temple is one of the two most impressive and popular places of interest in Gangolihat, the other one being Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave. This is a temple located just a km from the local market and is dedicated to the goddess Kalika Mata. Adi Guru Sankaracharya chose this temple for installation of Mahakali Shaktipeeth, which makes it not only one of the most revered places for the Hindus but also over hundreds of year old (12th century). And that’s not all, this temple holds a special place for the Kumaun Regiment of the Indian army– a fact that is too hard to miss when you visit the Hat Kalika temple. There are like a dozen gates which announce this special relationship.Hat Kalika

The Hat Kalika temple deity itself is amazing. We were very lucky when we visited as we got plenty of time to do puja there to our satisfaction and the pujari allowed me to click pics of the deity. The whole experience of being in the temple surrounded by deodar trees and inhabited by naughty monkeys was memorable. And it was after a long time I visited a temple where animal sacrifice is still a common practice.

Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave at Gangolihat

Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave is the other most important place to visit when you are at Gangolihat in addition to Hat Kalika temple. This limestone cave at about 14 km from Gangolihat is as outstanding as anything can be. Its history, the fact it is supposed to be as old as the earth itself and the legends about links to Ramayana and Mahabharata and historical proofs of visit by Adi Shankaracharya in 1191 AD make it a must see place.

For me the visit to the over 150m long and scary 90 feet deep Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave was a mix of geographical excursion and religious journey, both at the same time. The mix of limestone formations and religious significance was quite amazing. At first I could not muster enough courage to enter the cave – it’s a 30-40feet drop through a very narrow cave opening but once I started going down it only got more exciting. And once you reach the bottom, the cave suddenly becomes bigger with some spectacular formations all around.

It’s a pity that you are not allowed to take your cameras and cell phones inside the Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave thanks to some stupid and greedy priest who stole a priceless idol some years ago. It would have been a great experience to capture the inside of the cave in my camera but that was not supposed to happen.

The incredible beauty of Gangolihat

And in the middle of this, what you won’t miss is the incredible beauty of the place. There are snow clad Himalayas all around. If you have time visit nearby places, you can even have a look at the Nanda Devi – the 7,816 m second highest mountain in India, something I wanted to but could not find time to visit.

The rich traditions and folklore of Gangolihat

There are plenty of things that you as a regular tourist may miss out in Gangolihat but since this is the native place of my in-laws, I had that privilege, well almost. Every family/clan here has its own traditions and way of life, e.g. they have a family deity which is revered highly and is only worshiped by the family members. I being the son-in-law could not be part of the worship and my wife on account of being married has also lost that privilege now.

Moreover, you may not get to see the fruit orchards from close range if you are a regular tourist. I got the chance to see one owned by one of our relatives in Gangolihat and it was an experience in itself to pluck the oranges from the tree and relish them there and then. The taste of those juicy oranges was just splendid.

And if you are the luckiest of them all

The best part of the trip, the rarest for sure, was kept for the last. As we reached Almora on our way back from Gangolihat, a wild leopard was waiting for us to make our trip as extraordinary as it could have got. We took a 2 min halt at about 6:50pm to click the pictures of the Almora town and got out of the car. While we did so we didn’t know there was a leopard within 10-15 meter of the spot we were standing at.

When we restarted the journey, we took a right turn and came to a spot which was exactly below the spot where we had got down and took a few pictures of Almora and there it was, the leopard right in front of our car in the middle of the road. It was our bad luck that by the time I could take out my camera and “shoot” the wild animal, it was long gone and all we had left was the memory of those 4-5 seconds. I could not believe my luck – it was the second such leopard sighting for me in a 2013, the first one was in my home town in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh. That time the leopard we met on the road was younger, may be 2 years old, and I could capture it in my mobile camera. I had my DSLR this time but the time was not sufficient, it was dark and the leopard was in real hurry. It was still spectacular nonetheless.

To summarize

If you are a sucker for road trips and hill stations which are not crowded with tourists, Gangolihat with its Hat Kalika temple and Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave, is more than a great destination. Since you will be travelling to a fairly far off place, it may make sense to spend more time in Almora, visit Ranikhet and also add Nanital and Bhimtal to your itinerary. Overall, you can be sure of a memorable trip.

 

Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary – Bird’s, Bird Watcher’s and Everyone Else’s Paradise

This was my 2nd visit within 3 years to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and I am already looking forward to my 3rd visit (For pics from my first visit, click here). Best part of this place is perhaps not the spectacular views of the birds who come from as far off as Siberia (they could be travelling like 4000km), I think it is the fact that even a disinterested or indifferent tourist ends up falling in love with the experience that this place has to offer.

For everyone’s benefit – all about stay, food and the like

So, let me start off by sharing where it is and where to stay if you plan to visit and few other tips. Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is about 20km from Fatehpur Sikri (it’s itself an awesome place to visit, click here) – so not far off if you are planning to visit Agra, and some 35km from Mathura – that’s the diversion you need to take if you are coming from Delhi/Gurgaon (which is about 185km). From Gurgaon it is 4 hour comfortable drive.

There are quite a few places to stay within 500m of the entrance to the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. They are not too costly and serve just OK to good food. However be mindful of that fact that you will most likely have to eat in the hotel you are staying in as there aren’t any restaurants around and other hotels usually have food for the tourists staying in their hotels. We faced the problem with dinner as we didn’t like the food we got at Hotel Saras and had hard time finding another place to eat, though Hotel Sunbird served us good food.

Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary – the actual sight-seeing

To enter the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary you’ll have to buy tickets at the entrance and you can park your car there for free. If you want you can take your car further 1 km inside by paying 100 INR but my suggestion is no need to do that. From wherever you park, to enter the main part of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary you have three options – hire a rickshaw at 100 INR per hour (that’s what I did), hire a bicycle (don’t know the rate) or just walk. Walking and cycling can be tiresome as the sanctuary is spread over a large area.

If you want a guide you can get that for 250 INR per hour. The rickshaw guys have OK knowledge and they act as kind of guide at no extra cost officially except that at the end of the tour they expect you pay them extra for the extra service they have provided you. 2nd is better option as they in any case pester you for tip in the end. And yes, make sure to rent a good pair of binoculars (rate 100 INR for the trip) – the rickshaw guy should have one, that way you can enjoy the bird watching more.

Now coming to the serious point – why go there and my experience

I thoroughly enjoy each moment I spend inside Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, in fact I feel like not leaving the first spot that gives me a glimpse of the birds. Now with my heightened interest in photography how amateurish it might be, I want to just sit there and wait to capture that perfect, elusive and exclusive moment. But that means patience which I have in plenty and time which is unfortunately a luxury most of the times.

Anyhow, till I reach that stage where I can share something worthwhile through pictures that I capture, let me take you through my me-too-syndrome try outs. Here’s some of the moments from my recent visit to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, please click on the   thumbnails to enjoy more:

Fatehpur Sikri – amazing Mughal history and architecture, too many guides and countless memories

Fatehpur Sikri – a beautiful place (forced to live under the shadow of more popular and nearby tourist destination Agra), has a charm of its own and having read a little history myself and with strong recommendation of my dad who doesn’t waste his opinion, I finally made my much awaited trip to history a reality. And like I always like to do, I thought I’ll share my experience and maybe be of some help to the tourists and enthusiasts who may plan to visit it one day and also to those who may never.

Reaching Fatehpur Sikri fort, little tricky

First things first. Fatehpur Sikri is about 40km from Agra and about 20km from Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. Reaching the Fatehpur Sikri fort is not that easy as it could have been, especially since the signages on the highway could have been a little better. We drove from Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and struggled a little in finding the right diversion, however with some help from the locals we finally made it. Though the real trouble was yet to start.

“Govt approved” guides can make life miserable, leave bad taste in mouth too

Once you reach there the first thing that hits you is not the Mughal history and architecture for which you would have gone there, rather its lack of management by authorities, confusion, non availability of right sources for information and the most striking and annoying of them all – too many unsolicited guides. These “Govt approved” guides will throw themselves at you, butter you, tell you how economical it would be for you to hire them and start misguiding you from the word go. And if you show lack of interest, they’ll start reducing their rates, tell you their livelihood depends on you so you must hire them and finally if you still not hire them, may end just short of cursing you in front of you, they may do it behind your back though.

Park and take the CNG bus- they pretend but it’s no Agra

Anyhow, if you are going by your own vehicle, there is a parking place about a km and half short of the fort, you can park there for INR 60. From there take the bus, the fare is only INR 5. To board the bus, go towards the back of the parking, there you’ll see a shopping area – cross it and at the far end you’ll see a few buses parked. I don’t know whether this is intentional, but the place to board the buses is almost impossible to find and just too far off. Anyhow.

Fatehpur Sikri fort – lots of amazing things, just right there

The Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri has so many things that it offers and I just loved it. The architecture of course is impressive, the red colour a strong reminder of Red Fort at Delhi and Agra Fort and having taken my new DSLR to its first historical place – which is my favourite kind, I had a rocking time. What you get to see inside the fort or the city includes Diwan-i-Aam, Diwan-i-Khas, Anup Talao, Panch Mahal and lots of stories and anecdotes. Good part, it’s not too spread out so you can take the complete tour in just about 2 hours.

The guides who don’t leave you for your life even here will tell you there are like 26 mahals and what not and that you should hire them but I am not sure how useful hiring them is. We gave in to their (read my wife and my friend’s wife) demands and finally a guide became part of our tour, or should I say we became part of his tour. He agreed to show us the fort and everything around for 100 INR, which of course at the end of the tour was something he first disagreed to and demanded more, then accepted as what we had agreed upon initially but asked for more as a matter of his right, then as a favour or tip and then finally as something moral for us to do. For us the moral of the story – DON’T HIRE THEM.

Buland Darwaza, Jama Masjid and Tomb of Salim Chishti are close by too

Anyhow, once we had finished the tour of the city/fort, we walked (3-4mins) to the very impressive complex which houses Buland Darwaza, Jama Masjid and Tomb of Salim Chishti and a few other things too. We entered from the King’s Gate, which is remarkable. Once we entered the complex two things caught our eyes straightaway – one, the white marble Tomb of Salim Chishti and two, the huge backside of the Buland Darwaza. As a matter of fact the Buland Darwaza is so huge that it’s distinctively visible even from the Fatehpur Sikri city/fort.

While inside, pay your respects and pray at Tomb of Salim Chishti if you want, take a round of the entire complex and all the structures inside and then go to the Buland Darwaza. It looks fantastic when you are looking at its backside and it’s breathtaking once you look from the front. I think for many of the tourists this one gate i.e. Darwaza would be worth a trip to this place if nothing else.

Be one with history or just buy a souvenir

The kind of sad part though is that right outside the Buland Darwaza as well as the King’s Gate you’ll find hawkers selling one thing or the other and I think many tourists like it also as they get to buy souvenirs, I for one somehow don’t like it much. When I visit a historical place I like to be left alone and appreciate it more if the place looks and feels like as it would have when it was actually inhabited – a feeling that was so strong when I visited the Bhangarh Fort (click here to read about it) and walked through its streets. But I guess this is the price more popular tourist destinations have to pay for being popular. Anyhow.

To sum it up – Fatehpur Sikri is a place that has a lot to offer and good thing is all you need is 3-4 hours and you can enjoy it all. And though the time of our visit was purely coincidental as that was the only time we had, however visiting it in the evening can be a better experience. The whole architecture appears to get even more spectacular in the evening. However, you plan your visit at it suits you and make sure to go there if you are visiting Agra or Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary – half a day is all that it will take.