Hidden in the hills of Uttarakhand is a trail of precious gems. Take your pick, from the ruby hues of Ranikhet, the emerald forests of Jageshwar, the sapphire skies of Badrinath and the topaz tints in nature at Binsar.
Ranikhet, the Ruby
Cupid must live here, for the shades of love are everywhere—not just in the flowers, but also in the bright red ladybird, in the soft pink cloud floating by, in the rusty roof of a cottage, and in the glistening pink peak of Trishul at sunset.
Despite the chill in the mountain air, you will find yourself warming up to picturesque Ranikhet almost immediately. It’s an idyllic town, with not much to do except.
- Wake up at sunrise to watch the Himalayan peaks being bathed in a golden glow.
- Stroll through the forest paths [carpeted with red rhododendron petals, if you are there in summer].
- Hike up to Chaubatia, a fruit orchard known for its crisp, juicy apples.
- Sample the local juices— Rhododendron [buransh], litchi, pomegranate, amla—all fresh and bursting with flavour.
- Tuck into traditional Kumaoni cuisine—gahat dal, bhat chutkani, aloo gutke and, of course, the mustard raita.
- Find a cosy nook to read a book, or chat with the friendly bird that will flutter by now and then.
- Settle down at dusk with a steaming cup of chai and some company, even if it’s just of the twinkling stars above.
In a place where time seems to stand still, you’ll be surprised how quickly the days go by. I found that two days were definitely not enough to do nothing!
Did you know?
Ranikhet is Hindi for ‘queen’s meadow’. It gets its name from a local legend; according to which, a queen, Rani Padmini, was awed by the beauty of this place and chose it as her abode. There are no signs of a palace in the area, though.
Delhi is approximately 350km away. You can either drive [8 hours] to Ranikhet, or take a train to Kathogodam [the nearest railhead]. From here, you can opt for the road route through Nainital or Bhimtal [slightly shorter].
Jageshwar, the Emerald
This must be what they call the ‘other side’, as the grass is certainly greener here. Jageshwar, a temple town, is nestled in the midst of a deodar forest. How apt, when you consider the name ‘deodar’ is derived from the Sanskrit term devadaru or ‘wood of the gods’.
The trees here loom above you, their needle-like leaves cutting patterns through the sunlight. The sights and the smells of the forest lure you to follow and lose yourself in its winding paths. And, for once, you should give in to temptation. Climb high enough and, if you’re as lucky as I was, you might catch a glimpse of a lone cherry blossom tree growing rebelliously amongst the green deodars. And when you wish to head back to town, just follow the sound of laughter of children making their way to school. The stream will then guide you to the temple compound. It’s a prettier path than taking the road through the town.
The temples, 124 in all, were built between the 9th and the 13th century; Mahamritunjaya Mahadev being the oldest and largest of them all. From the larger shrines to the smaller lingams, a layer of vivid green moss grows on the surface of every stone, complementing the bright orange red floral offerings. With not too many tourists around, there is a sense of serenity as you walk barefoot on the cool floor of the temple compound. But I found more tranquillity amidst the trees.
Did you know?
It is believed that Lord Shiva came to meditate at Jageshwar. A local tale says that his sight drew the women of the village closer for his darshan, which infuriated the men. And so the Lord took the form of a child, which is the reason he is worshipped in his adolescent form here.
Jageshwar is accessible by road from Almora [35km], Pithoragarh [88km], Haldwani [130km] and Kathgodam [125km], which is the nearest railhead.
Binsar, the Topaz
Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchchuli… the prominent peaks of the Kumaon range are the true showstoppers. Dressed in swirling white clouds, like celebrities, they dazzle and pose for you, turning even amateur photographers into paparazzi. It is only when you snap out of the hypnotic hold of the Himalayas that you see Binsar and the sanctuary that it is.
While the intermingling branches of oak and rhododendron trees form the roof of the forest, moss carpets most of its floor. The carpet, the green having dried out, is a regal yellow with patterns formed by rays of sunlight. So dense is the sanctuary that you must step off the well-trodden pathways to find a clearing, for a view of the valley below and a glimpse of a golden eagle circling nearby.
You will find the streaks of topaz in the sky at sunrise. At this time of the day, the Himalayan peaks are shrouded in a veil of haze, allowing the landscape to be in the limelight. And at night, with electricity being a guest that leaves too soon, it is the candlelight that provides a warm yellow glow for company.
Did you know?
The mythological war between King of Binsar and Golu Devata resulted in the latter having his head and trunk cut off in areas near Binsar. Temples mark the site where each part is said to have fallen.
The nearest railhead is Kathgodam [126km]. Private taxis will take you directly to Binsar. Budget travellers can opt for the local bus or a shared cab to Almora, and then hire a vehicle for the remaining 35km.
Badrinath, the Sapphire
Here, above the tree line, more than 3,400m high, the snow-capped peaks etch themselves against the brightest blue backdrop of the sky. And the vegetation, even the human dwellings, appears to shrink in size in awe of its vastness. But the river will not be outdone; the Alaknanda carves its way through in a stunning icy blue hue of its own. And yet, the main attraction of this town is its temple.
The Badrinath temple, dressed in bright red and yellow finery, stands out against the pink and blue dwellings that crowd the area. It has faced the wrath of Nature, with avalanches and earthquakes striking the region over the years, and has been renovated several times over. Today, its colourful stone exterior is topped with a gold gilt roof.
Being the most important of the four sites in the Hindu Char Dham pilgrimage, the temple is thronged by devotees in the warmer seasons. And so, if you visit during the onset of winter, just before the cold is too biting to bear, you can climb up the stairway to the shrine without being pushed rudely back to earth. Later, as the domineering Neelkanth Parbat casts a chilly shadow over the landscape, you can warm yourself up with a dip in the Tapt Kund hot springs.
Did you know?
Sage Vyasa is said to have written the epic Mahabharata in a cave in Mana, near Badrinath. The Pandavas in this epic are believed to have passed through this place on their way to heaven.
Badrinath is reachable by road routes from Delhi, Haridwar and Rishikesh. The nearest airport is Jolly Grant at Dehradun [317km]. The nearest railhead is Rishikesh [297km].
The state has two main regions: Garhwal, the western side and Kumaon, the eastern side. From the plains of Rishikesh to the heights of Kedarnath, the land is dotted with many a spiritual abode. Even if you’re not looking to wash away your sins or attain enlightenment, there is a lot on offer.
DO: Treks [at Roopkund, Pindari or Gangotri], adventure sports [like white water rafting and paragliding], botanical walks [Valley of Flowers], wildlife retreats [Corbett, Binsar].
SEE: Panoramic views of the Himalayan range [from Mussoorie, Kausani and Dehradun].
EAT: Indian, Tibetan, and the local Kumaoni and Garhwali cuisines.
STAY: Being a tourism-driven state, there are plenty of places to stay that suit all budgets. Check out the government rest houses [KMVN and GMVN]; they are usually situated at the best sites at affordable prices.
VISIT: Each season has its charm. Winters are usually harsh at higher altitudes, and access to places higher up in the Himalayas might be closed due to unpredictable weather.
This was first published in the February 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.