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.
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.
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.