Our First Himalayan Trek: RUPIN PASS


Trekking in Himalayas had been on my bucket list for quite some time. Dream came to reality when my better half agreed to be part of the expedition this summer. After some research, we booked ‘Rupin Pass’ trek with Trek The Himalayas (TTH) group for the 18th June batch. It is an 8-day trek starting from Dehradun and ending at Shimla. In between, we need to trek/hike for around 70-80 Km (including the everyday acclimatization walks) through narrow trails with mighty Himalayas on one side and meandering Rupin river on the other to reach the summit at 15, 250 feet.

Quite exciting, isn’t it! Only problem being, in this age of Google it is hard to downplay the risks of such adventures. As both our families, especially my parents knew it was ‘my’ idea of vacation, chip laid on my shoulder for the safe return from the trip. But then who fears responsibilities!

Beginning with a small goof-up

After multiple trips to Decathlon (a sports mall) to get all the necessary equipment, shouldering a 10kg backpack and the EXTRA responsibility, we boarded Nanda Devi Express at midnight from New Delhi railway station. We reached Dehradun early in the morning. After freshening up, I decided to get into complete trekker mode: wore a cap, a full sleeves light jacket and tied my shoe laces on the platform itself. Maybe I attracted a few eyeballs in the process. But the moment I started to walk, I tripped over my shoes as the laces got entangled! In my defense, these Quechua trekking shoes had incredibly long laces and it takes a while to understand them. So, beware!

Reaching Dhaula and Knowing Fellow Trekkers

TTH had arranged transport to Dhaula (our first base camp). It was a nice 10-hour drive alongside gushing Supin river, through the pine forests. Just 4-5Km before our campsite, our cab got punctured. By the time it was rectified and we reached Dhaula, it started raining heavily. Driver was like in the mountains, rains don’t stop early, so you better get going. With little less than a kilometre to cover on foot, we got in the act of taking out the windcheaters, ponchos, rain cover etc. from some nook and corner of our backpacks. Lesson no. 1 of trekking in Himalayas, always keep rain proof gear at the top. Finally, we reached campsite and were given a tent.

Our Trekking Group
Our Trekking Group with Ashish behind the camera

Over the evening tea, we met our trek leads Achin and Devraj and 15 other trekkers along with whom we were going to scale Rupin pass. Achin had undergone a couple of mountaineering courses and Devraj knew this region at the back of his hand. So, from the very onset we knew we were in safe hands. Getting to know the past trekking experiences of the group members was a real ice-breaker. We had a 57-year old half marathon runner among us who had taken voluntary retirement to pursue his interests in social service, world war II research, law and fitness. He became a constant source of inspiration throughout the trek. We also had an avid trekker in the group who had trekked in Dolomites, Mount Santis and Himalayas in the past. There was a set of 5 young turks in their early 20’s who were doing their first high altitude trek. Out of love their mothers had packed a lot of eatables and clothes to last the entire duration of the trek but that meant the backpacks became quite heavy and lifting them became strenuous.

Knowing the Trek Route and Do’s and Don’ts

Image courtesy:India Hikes
Image courtesy:India Hikes

Now came the serious business of giving medical declaration forms and Achin’s first briefing on what we had got ourselves into. Starting from Dhaula, we would trek to Sewa -> Bawta -> Jakha -> Dhanteras Thatch -> Upper Waterfall -> Rupin Pass -> Rontigad -> Sangla. In the next 7 days, we would go from 5500 ft to 15,250 ft to 8800 ft and stay in 6 camps: 4 in tents and 2 in the homes of the villagers in Bawta and Jakha.

We were told to be completely covered all the time to avoid mosquito bite. In the first two camps, due to damp conditions, there bred a type of mosquito whose sting caused huge amount of swelling. As we were going to gain altitude every day (at times 3000 ft in a single day), to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) we had to get acclimatized naturally: Drink 5-6 litres of water to keep hydrated, go for acclimatization walks after reaching a camp, stay awake throughout the day and absorb the surroundings. Himalayas demand respect and discipline and we were made aware of the adverse consequences in case we didn’t follow. Suddenly the mood in the group became grim. Queries were fired left, right and centre and Achin addressed them convincingly. A delicious dinner also lifted the spirits.

Living the Nomadic Life and Meeting the School Kids

Our first brush against the nomadic life! As we had to unpack after reaching every camp for one reason or the other and pack before making a move the next day, memory faded and things got lost and found often. For instance, our mobile went missing and then appeared in our back pack, one of us lost his credit card, etc.

Landscape on the way to Sewa
Landscape on the way to Sewa

We began the trek to Sewa. It is a small village in Govind Pashu Vihar National Park at the boundary of Uttarakhand. With mountains covered in chir pine and cedar trees and Rupin river finding its way through them, it was quite an exhilarating experience to walk on the narrow trails. There were a couple of places where help from trek leaders was required to cross the tricky terrain.

Plodding the precarious trails
Plodding the precarious trails

On the way, we met lot of school children who walk good 3-4 km one side every day to go to school.  Reality check on how we, the city folks take so many things for granted. Throughout this trek, we came face to face with this hard fact over and over.

Lifting one’s own Bagpack

Main challenge of this day was to test my limits as to whether I can lift my 10-12Kg backpack all 7 days or not. After delaying it for too long, I had only 2 more days to decide whether to hire a porter or carry it myself. In the name of equality and because I pulled my husband into this expedition, I was pestering him that let’s both of us give our bags to porter. As expected, it didn’t strike a chord with him and I underwent this trial. Watching 2 other ladies in the group lifting their bags was another source of encouragement to go for it.

My Backpack Challenge
The Backpack Challenge

By the time we reached Sewa, my shoulders were literally crying but in my heart of hearts I had decided, like a true trekker, backpack is going to be my best friend till the end of this adventure.

Starting of New Rituals

Our Sewa Campsite
Our Sewa Campsite

Our campsite was in the middle of Sewa village with a huge mountain in the front. Nearby there was an old temple which opened only once a year on a festive occasion. A peculiar feature of temples in this region is that temple fronts are adorned with medals and trophies won by the villagers in various fields. In the evening, we went for an acclimatization walk where for the first time we saw the snow-capped mountains beyond which we had to reach during next few days.

Smiling faces in the hut
Smiling faces in the hut

At 6PM, commenced the ritual of taking our oxygen and pulse rate readings. As we gain altitude, air becomes thinner and oxygen content depletes, therefore monitoring these vital stats become paramount. Permissible readings are: Oxygen more than 90 at lower altitude and 80 at higher altitude and pulse rate between 60 to 150. Subsequently followed another ritual of comparing our readings with our peers and making a huge hue and cry about it like board exam results. People with high readings used to have that ‘Karlo Duniya Muthi Mein’ feeling (this roughly translates to top of the world feeling) and looked with mixed emotions towards the ones with low readings who were segregated and directed to drink more and more water. Hereon, this act was our every day evening past time!

Scaling the steep hillock

Next day was interesting in a lot of ways. From the campsite, our trail took us downhill right next to the Rupin river. After getting clicked right next to the river, we crossed a small 10 ft wooden bridge that took us from Uttarakhand to Himachal. After ascending through the thick forest for an hour, we hit the narrow motorable road. Like our previous day, this stretch was a spiral road with steep slopes leading to Rupin river.
Walking in light rain shower, we reached the juncture from where began the herculean task of scaling a 45-50-degree inclined hill with extremely narrow snake-shaped path.

Stuck between devil and deep blue Rupin River
Stuck between devil and deep blue Rupin River

One wrong step and you effortlessly slide towards the motorable road with serious injuries. Looking at my balancing abilities, I was demoted to the front of the group. Paradox, right! Well, it is not. A group is as good as its weakest link. Our trek lead’s strategy was to keep the struggling members in the front. So, moving in front of the group was a reminder that there is still so much to learn in terms of technique to become a strong trekker. With one’s heart in one’s mouth and one step at a time, we completed this 2Km stretch and reached Bawta.

Our homestay in Bawta
Our homestay in Bawta

Here we resided in Narinder’s abode. A cosy double storeyed wooden house with loads of windows facing the beautiful mountains. From Sewa, Narinder joined our trek leading team. As part of our acclimatization walk, we went to the source of the waterfall we had seen earlier in the day. We also saw Kwar Village facing the waterfall and which has the only bank branch around this region. Imagine walking an hour or more to withdraw some cash!

Rocks leading to the source of the waterfall
Rocks leading to the source of the waterfall

Hanging out in Jakha

Our last village in en-route to Rupin pass was the hanging village, Jakha. It is a lovely village nestled in the Himalayan slopes. It is still in the process of getting connected to a motorable road, so whatever is grown is pretty much used for domestic consumption. In mountains, weather changes in minutes. A sudden downpour forced us to don the rainproof gear and we kept traversing the winding paths.

Flock of Sheep taking shelter
Flock of Sheep taking shelter

We saw the first herd of 200-300 sheep and mountain goats taking shelter in a mountain cave. Lot more herds were to follow till our summit day. We also had company of Himalayan Sheepdogs at every campsite. These are livestock guardian dogs and with iron spiked collar around the neck can beat the sheep-stealing leopard any day. After the day’s trek, dog lovers in the group used to sit back and pet them.

Path prepared by villagers to connect Jakha with outer world
Path prepared by villagers to connect Jakha with outer world

We climbed a steep incline for 1-1.5 hour and took a pit stop at a small shop covered with tarpaulin. Here, the piping hot tea and Maggi were a welcome respite from the rain outside.

We got to keep moving
Winding path to Jakha

In Jakha, we stayed in our trek leader Devraj’s home. Food was delectable especially the halwa sprinkled with generous amount of dry fruits in the night.

Witnessing a Multitude of Waterfalls

Day 5 of the trek, we were going to leave the treeline (the upper limit of tree growth in the mountains) and walk through the grasslands, moraines and two snow bridges for around 11Kms. We woke up very early in the morning, had breakfast, took our packed lunch and got ready to leave by 7:30AM. Unfortunately, one of the group members had to quit the trek due to ill health.
While leaving the village we saw the stadium-like setting where nearby villagers come and play tournaments. Given the sturdy built of natives and the amount of physical work they do on day to day basis, if governments encourage sports with full heart, villages can get uplifted automatically.

Sun and the beautiful vistas
Sun and the beautiful vistas

It was a sunny day and we criss-crossed the length of the mountains. After crossing the wooden bridge with roaring Rupin waters underneath, we basked in the sun and had hot onion pakoras from the lone Rupin pass tarpaulin-covered dhaba. River in the front, mountains in the backdrop, few Golden Eagles gliding in the sun-kissed sky was a sight of bliss.

Our Chotu Bhai (Narinder) guarding the river bridge
Our Chotu Bhai (Narinder) guarding the river bridge

As it was late June, snow had melted and few snow bridges were remaining in this region. We learnt to hit the snow through the lateral side of our foot to get an anchor on the slippery snow bridge and cross it step by step.

After having lunch and many energy bars and hiking for a long time, Dhanteras Thatch appeared to be in sight. But nature had tiny round crystals of hailstones to offer. Suddenly the panorama transformed into a valley encompassed with snow-capped mountains and tens of waterfalls running across them. We could see our camp right in the middle of this vista and thought we could run towards it keeping our drenching fears aside. Guess we were wrong! Distance was much more than what it appeared and after a couple of vacillating thoughts, we paused our dash for the camp and took out the rain cover. We all rushed towards the dining tent and stayed put till the rain subsided.

Near yet so far campsite with Upper, Middle and Lower waterfall in the backdrop
Near yet so far campsite with Upper, Middle and Lower waterfall in the backdrop

Dhanteras Thatch is an enchanting campsite by the river side at 11,680 ft. Till late May it is covered with snow completely. As it was late June, we were presented with the rocky landscape. We could see the upper, middle and lower waterfall with thundering Rupin waters. Rupin river originates just above the waterfall and we had to scale this waterfall region to gain another 1,440 ft the next day. It was a scary ravine and I wondered how on earth we were going to make it. There seemed to be no direct way to reach there.

Answering Nature’s Calls

Henceforth, another challenge was to get used to dry pit toilets. Our trek lead inquired whether everyone knew how to use them. Everyone affirmatively kept quiet. But I guess it took a while for some to figure out that sickle kept in the toilet tent was to be used to fill the pit with soil after answering the longer nature call.

Good thing about this voyage was that it brought the focus back to basics: Wake up early, eat at regular intervals, stay hydrated, have a good sleep at night and time the lavatory related processes to avoid running in search of solitary places to relieve oneself while trekking.

Reaching the Cliff-side Camp

Ascent to Upper Waterfall camp was replete with many tilting snow bridges and extraordinarily grueling rocks. Our number of pit stops grew as we went higher and higher to catch our breath every now and then. Though distance was just 3.5 kms, it took us around 3.5-4 hours to reach the destination.

Conquering the snow-bridge and top of the waterfall
Conquering the snow-bridge and top of the waterfall

Perched on a crag in the mountains, sight of our cliff-side camp came as a treat. At this campsite, the mandate was to keep our bags packed all the time. In case of sudden adverse weather conditions, tents need to be folded and we need to gather at a common place. Luckily, we had a bright sunshine and cool breeze throughout the day. With still half a day to go post lunch, all we had to do was to immerse in mother nature, drink plenty of water and chit chat with fellow trekkers. Remember, no sleeping in the day time! In the dusking sky, the chilly winds took over and the mercury levels dropped rapidly.

Viewing the Milky Way

Day 7 was the D-day. At Rupin pass, ice starts to melt a little in sunshine presenting the risk of falling ice cubes and weather generally begins to get harsh post mid-day, so we had to scale the summit as early as possible. We woke up at 3AM in the morning. I’m at a loss of words to explain how beautiful the sky looked with milky way and some zillion stars twinkling! By 5:20AM, sporting 3-4 layers of clothing, we were all set to kick off the journey to our ultimate goal. Sadly, Achin (our trek leader) met with an accident while lifting a heavy boulder the previous day. Seeing his bloated foot, it was unimaginable how he would cross the pass and reach Sangla after 2 days to get some medical assistance. But like a true leader he took it in his stride and led the team till the very end.

Scaling the Rupin Pass

Looking back at how far we had come
Looking back at how far we had come

After the initial sharp, rocky gradient, major part of the day was about walking in the snow. We were given crampons to have a safe walk. We wore our snow goggles to avoid the glare and then kept climbing slopes of snow one after the other. We walked past three other trekking groups.

Our snowy path to Rupin Pass
Our snowy path to Rupin Pass

The final track to reach the pass is 60-65-degree inclined snow slope called ‘Gully’. At the look of it, it appears insurmountable. We had additional technical staff to ensure our safety. They had carved steps in the snow with ice axe so that the group could use these ice steps like a ladder to reach the summit. There was a herd of around 700 sheep and mountain goats which crossed the pass before us. It is advisable not to follow the herd as they erase the ice-axed steps and roll many snowballs down the slope. While we were waiting for the flock of sheep to cross over, we were given hot tea. TTH staff had been immensely friendly and supportive throughout the trek, but this thoughtful gesture of carrying tea in thermos for the group at 4700 metres above mean sea level was the supreme expression of care.

The Towering Gully
The Towering Gully

Once we began mounting the steps in the gully, we realized what a perilous route it was! A step gone wrong and one can find himself spinning down the slope. We were asked to maintain 1-2 ft distance among us lest we ram into each other. While we were stuck in the ice-axed steps with visibly petrified looks, porters with bulky loads on their heads and in just lungi (a sarong-like garment wrapped around the waist) and rubber shoes walked past us effortlessly, exchanging pleasantries as if it was no big deal!

Sturdy porters and nervous us in the gully
Sturdy porters and nervous us in the gully

Thankfully, a technical staff member offered help. Taking one step at a time holding his hand I managed to reach the top. Soon, the whole group was at the summit. We all were ecstatic! We had finally achieved what we had come here for. Icing on the cake was that we clocked the second-best timing of reaching the summit in the season. Sunlit sky had a pivotal role to play. A bad weather could hamper the visibility and accentuate the hardships manifold on this ascent. So, we were very lucky! The peak offered a marvelous spectacle of the snow-laden mountains. It was just surreal! Stuff of fiction!

Picture perfect of triumph and jubilation
Picture perfect of triumph and jubilation

Sliding Down the Snow Slopes

Our team leaders congratulated us for our group performance and informed that 60% of the trek was yet to be covered. In my mind, I was like they can’t be serious! It must be some keeping us on our toes scheme! Guess, it had some element of truth. Technical staff had to return to upper waterfall camp. So, we thanked them and returned the crampons. We began our descent by sliding over the snow slopes twice. Our trek leaders were very cautious in choosing the slide paths so that we don’t hit a boulder when gravity takes over. Sadly, we witnessed two examples of reckless behaviour and its consequences from the trekkers of another trekking group. Both slid from a slope which had two rocks protruding out of the snow. They hit one rock and then rolled over a couple of times to hit the other one. Therefore, caution is of utmost importance!

A bunch of us after sliding from the top
A bunch of us after sliding from the top

Unlike the gully, snow slopes were an open field with no trail defined with the ice-axes. It was abundantly slippery and almost everyone slipped. My personal slipping score was at least 20.

Slippery walk to Rontigad
Slippery walk to Rontigad

With lot of help from the trek leaders, we crossed the snow and hit the grasslands. We had lunch on the way and kept walking and walking with no end in sight. After going up and down innumerable number of slopes and crossing a couple of rivulets, we saw Rontigad campsite nicely perched on the hilltop. Climbing this stretch to reach the camp was like the final test of endurance for the day. We were dead tired and dropped on the ground to take a quick nap till the promised samosas arrived.

Revisiting the Experience

Now that Rupin pass was done, we were more relaxed. People shared ghost stories in the night and later got so scared that up to 6 people slept in one tent. Looking at the tent in the morning, it seemed it had its own horror story to narrate! Being our last morning together, trek leaders gathered us for the final briefing session to share our trek experience. It was interesting how each one of us had a different take away from it. Having stayed together for 7 days, recollecting the big and small episodes was quite moving!

Running towards Sangla

Now we geared up for our last stop, Sangla from where we would part in different directions. We saw the picturesque Kinnaur Kailash on the way. Our recent trekking experience came handy and we were running down the mountains in good speed. Still, covering 12Kms took quite a lot of time. In the end, we crossed the bridge over thumping Baspa river waters and reached Sangla.

Prayer flags and Baspa river
Prayer flags and Baspa river

Here we got the certificates from TTH stating that we had successfully completed the trek. After having a quick lunch and saying goodbyes to trek leaders, we boarded the cab to Shimla. Another cab from Shimla to Chandigarh and Haryana Roadways ultra-high-speed bus from Chandigarh to New Delhi ensured our early morning arrival back home.

Checking the Trip Expense

A quick look at the trip expense. TTH charged Rs. 16,240 for complete food and accommodation for 8 days along with the travel to Dhaula and Shimla. Other expenses of reaching Dehradun and journey back from Shimla were borne by the individuals.

Away from the hustle-bustle of the city, unplugged from the invasive social media and with no mobile network to catch, sitting in the lap of nature was all about finding oneself. Though we had a pre-defined destination every day, it was all about the journey both outside and within. Every day some mental barriers were broken and some internal strengths were discovered. It was an elevating experience indeed!

Advertisements

Where Figurines narrate a Hundred Tales

India has a diverse cultural heritage with a common thread stitching everything together. More you travel and experience different parts of the country, more it become self-evident. How else can one explain the carvings based on Mahabharata and Ramayana tales in the Hoysala Temples of 12th century! As per historians, epic age when Mahabharata and Ramayana actually played out in North India was from 900-520BC. Hoysala dynasty ruled most of the present-day state of Karnataka between the 10th and the 13th centuries. Thus, artisans of Hoysala Empire sculpting war scenes of Mahabharata from soapstone speak volumes about the passing of the mythological legends from times immemorial.  No wonder ours is considered to be one of the oldest living civilizations in the world!

Bangalore offers plenty of weekend getaways. If you are a history enthusiast or a student of architecture, paying a visit to the temple towns of Belur and Halebidu is imperative. Distance of 220 Km from Bangalore and frequent KSRTC bus service make this an accessible travel route. You can book a cab for a day from Bangalore or take a KSRTC weekend travel package from here. The drive is mesmerizing with paddy fields and distant rocky hills on both sides of the smooth tarred road.

Hoysalas were great patrons of art and architecture. They built close to 1500 temples to celebrate their imperial ambitions and establish their supremacy in the region. Chenna Kesava at Belur and Hoysalesvara at Halebidu are the most spectacularly ornate temples of this period. Both the temples are operational and are open from 9AM to 6PM.

Statue of young ‘Sala’ fighting a lion: Name ‘Hoysala’ comes from this act of bravery of the founder
Statue of young ‘Sala’ fighting a lion: Name ‘Hoysala’ comes from this act of bravery of the founder

King Vishnuvardhana commissioned the construction of Chenna Kesava temple (literal meaning Handsome Vishnu) to mark the victory over Cholas in the great battle of Talakadu. It took 103 years to complete this prodigious structure.

Elegant stone panel depicting Lord Narsimha at the entrance
Elegant stone panel depicting Lord Narsimha at the entrance

An hour and a half around the temple with a guide and I was convinced as to why it took three generations to build it! The temple is built on a raised star-shaped platform and the stone walls are embellished with intricate tales from Puranas, Upanishads and Epics.

Star-shaped raised platform
Star-shaped raised platform

It reminded me of many bedtime stories narrated by my grandparents in my childhood: Churning of the ocean (Samudra Manthan) and the fight between the gods (devas) and the demons (asuras) over the nectar of immortality, an array of arrows shot by Rama to kill Ravana, Arjuna hitting the eye of the fish with an arrow, Hanuman carrying the mountain of Sanjeevani herb, wedding of Shiva and Parvati, Goddess Durga killing Mahishasura, and Abhimanyu tangled in the chakravyoo.

Lord Rama killing Bali behind the woods and coronation of Sugreeva as the Monkey King
Lord Rama killing Bali behind the woods and coronation of Sugreeva as the Monkey King
Array of Arrows being exchanged by warriors in a war scene
Array of Arrows being exchanged by warriors in a war scene
Kali dancing on an elephant head and Krishna lifting Govardhan to save people and livestock from heavy rains
Kali dancing on an elephant head and Krishna lifting Govardhan to save people and livestock from heavy rains

Friezes with delicately carved elephants, lions and horses on it run across the bottom section of the walls. Here elephants signify strength, lions signify courage and horses signify speed. No two figures are alike!

Friezes at the bottom section of the temple walls
Friezes at the bottom section of the temple walls

42 Beautifully decorated pillars support the complete edifice. There is a 42-foot tall pillar in the courtyard balanced purely by gravity. One really wonders how it continues to endure the lashes of the weather from past 900 years without the help of any cementing material. It certainly exhibits the artisans’ knowledge of laws of nature.

Devdasis, young girls who dedicated entire lives to the service of a deity in the temple, were part of the prevalent culture. This formed the basis of another striking feature of this temple: Shilabalika/ Madanika (Bracket figure of a Dancing Girl).

Shilabalikas
Shilabalikas

There are 42 shilabalikas in the entire temple complex and each depicts a distinct aspect of the feminine charm and grace: Darpan Sundari (Beauty with a mirror), Shuka Bhashini (Lady having a conversation with her pet parrot), Tribhangi Nritya (Lady dancing stylishly by bending her body in three portions, considered one of the toughest Bharatnatyam postures), The Huntress (Lady aiming an arrow at a bird), Bhasma Mohini (Related to mythological tale of Vishnu taking the form of a damsel to kill Bhasmasura), Nagveena Musician (Lady playing snake-shaped violin), and many more. It’s intriguing to see how minutely the sculptor captured the expression of even the tiniest creature in these bracket figures. For instance, in one of the panels, a lizard is depicted with an open mouth ready to catch a fly in the background of a madanika. The attire and hairdresses of shilabalikas throw light on the openness and status of women in the society of those times. Shantala Devi, queen of king Vishnuvardhana was herself adept at music and dance. Many of these nimble figurines were inspired by her sublime beauty.

Bracket Figures
Bracket Figures

Around 16 Kilometers from Belur is Halebidu, the Old City. It was the regal capital of Hoysala Empire in the 12th century. Magnificent Hoysalesvara temple is the major attraction here. Similar to Belur temple, it is adorned with the exquisite portrayals of the mythological tales. Statues of Dwarapalakas (the watchmen) of the main deity, Shiva, are richly accessorized with ornaments and weapons. Two massive nandis in front of the temple are testimony of the splendid craftsmanship of the times.  It took 90 years to build this temple but it was never fully completed. Like other Deccan kingdoms, by late 13th century, Hoysalas had spent their heyday in building gigantic temples instead of fortifying their towns and strengthening the cavalry. As a result, they were no match for the ferocious Khiljis. Under the plunder campaigns led by Malik Kafur, Hoysaleshvara temple was ransacked and the kingdom fell into a state of decay. Never to return to its past glory!

Another small temple in Halebidu
Another beautifully adorned stone temple in Halebidu

Hoysalas respected all religions of the day. Therefore you can see many Vishnu, Shiva and Jain temples in the region. Around 86 Kilometers from Halebidu lay one of the ancient Jain temples in the city of Shravanabelagola.

Statue of Gommateshvara at the top of Vindhyagiri
Statue of Gommateshvara at the top of Vindhyagiri

Take a flight of 600 stone steps on Vindhyagiri hill to view the world’s largest monolithic statue. The 58-foot tall statue of Gommateshvara was erected in 981 AD by Western Ganga dynasty. It’s hard to fathom how the construction and placement of the huge statue at the hill top was carried out in those days! The temple is full of inscriptions in a number of languages dating to various times from 600 to 1830. Chandragupta Maurya is believed to have spent his last days in meditation here. Every 12 years, hordes of devotees gather here to witness the Mahamastakabhisheka, an extravagant ceremony in which the statue is covered with milk, curd, ghee, saffron and, gold coins. The view of the city at sunset from the top of the hill is breathtaking. Ensure you enter the temple premises before 6PM.

View of the town from the top
View of the city from the top

Surprisingly, tourism has still not picked up in a big way in these glorious sites. Hence, very basic food and accommodation facilities are available. If you are planning a day trip by car, carrying packed meals would be a good idea. Guides are readily available and make the experience worthwhile with their elaborate story-telling skills.

Belur-Halebidu-Shravanabelagola has been collectively proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. By mid-2016 it is expected to be declared one!  So go out and immerse yourself in these stunning tale teller constructions of the past!

References

A Road Trip to Bhutan

Ibn Battuta very rightly said ‘Traveling – it leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a storyteller’.  After having a fabulous road trip to Bhutan, there was an unabating urge to narrate the story of this small landlocked kingdom with breathtaking landscapes and real warm, happy people, so that it triggers a desire in at least few friends to visit this scenic country and witness the spectacle of how civilizations can still coexist in perfect harmony with nature.

Ever since I saw the photographs of the land of thunder dragon in a friend’s facebook profile in 2012, it got added to my travel wish list. In late November 2014, few friends decided to go for a vacation and we started thinking of probable travel destinations. Key factor being number of leaves couldn’t be more than four. After some basic research and loads of deliberations, we all settled for a 6-day trip to Bhutan from 29th April to 4th May, 2015 so that we could utilize the extended weekend and witness nature in its full bounty. March to May is the spring season when the flowers are in full bloom and September to November is the fall which offers mild weather and many festive celebrations. These are the best months to visit Bhutan.

Our Route Plan

Fortunately we had a friend from the border town of Jaigaon who helped us with the itinerary. Plan was to land in Siliguri and then take a cab for rest of the trip to cover few cities in Western and Central Bhutan.Our Route Map

Our Route Plan

We got a glimpse of how the business is done in Bhutan on pure good faith, when we booked the accommodation by exchanging emails with the hotels and not paying a single penny in advance. This website provides exhaustive information on all the hotels in every district of Bhutan.

Jaigaon – The Gateway to Bhutan

We started from Bagdogra Airport to Jaigaon at 4:30PM. This drive amidst paddy fields and parallel railway track with Himalayas in the backdrop is beautiful.  We crossed Teesta by Coronation Bridge and the curvy hilly landscape presented itself.

Teesta river flowing beneath Coronation Bridge
Teesta river flowing beneath Coronation Bridge

At half-way we stopped at a small roadside shop to have one of the best masala teas of our trip. We reached Jaigaon at around 8:30PM and checked in Hotel Ibis. It’s a nice hotel with spacious rooms and polite staff. After having dinner, we retired for the day.

Getting Travel Permits

Being in the extreme east of the country, here dawn breaks at around 4:30-5AM and we had a herculean task chalked out for the day. Immigration office in Phuentsholing opened at 8:30AM IST. We had to get the entry permit from there and leave Jaigaon latest by 9:30AM so that we could reach Thimphu by 4PM and get the permit for Punakha. A tourist entering Bhutan via Phuentsholing needs an extra permit in addition to Bhutan entry permit if he intends to visit the Central Bhutan region and this extra permit is issued only in Thimphu. As Bhutanese people are very punctual, reaching Thimphu Immigration office on time was indispensable. Somehow we managed this feat by getting ready by 6AM, standing at the helm of the queue in front of the immigration office, getting the entry permit, having a quick breakfast, and covering a distance of around 180 Kilometers to reach Thimphu within 6 hours. One quality that stood out in our interactions with the government offices was the responsibility that the staff took to cater to every person who entered the office. In case of delay, the officer proactively informed about the cause.

Bhutan Gate between Phuentsholing on Bhutan side and Jaigaon on India side
Bhutan Gate between Phuentsholing on Bhutan side and Jaigaon on India side

India and Bhutan share strong ties on economic, military, foreign policy, and development fronts since 1949. You will find lot of projects such as road and hydel power plants being maintained by Indian companies. Therefore, no visa is required for Indian nationals to enter Bhutan. Entry permit is issued on arrival. Carry original and at least 4 Xerox copies of your passport along with 4 passport size photographs for getting the various permits. Except Indian, Maldives and Bangladeshi nationals, every other foreign tourist needs to get in touch with a tour operator and pay $250 per day to stay in Bhutan.

Stepping into the Land of Happiness  

First thing that came to our notice the moment we entered Bhutan was the omnipresence of women in all spheres: Be it government offices, shops, hotels, highway restaurants, construction sites, or farms. Bhutan is essentially a matriarchal society, where the groom moves in with his bride, married women do not take their husbands’ names, having a daughter is looked upon more favourably than having a son as daughters are considered to be better caretakers of the home and the elderly parents, and there is equal participation of women and men in decision-making.         

Schoolgirls in typical Bhutanese attire
Schoolgirls in typical Bhutanese attire

Situated at a height of over 7600 feet, Thimphu is the only capital in the world which has no traffic lights. It is a delight to see an array of cars stopping without a whimper just to let a pedestrian cross the road. View of Thimphu valley from the massive Buddha Dordenma Statue is mesmerizing.

169 feet tall Buddha Dordenma Statue
169 feet tall Buddha Dordenma Statue
View of Thimphu Valley from Buddha Statue
View of Thimphu Valley from Buddha Statue

We couldn’t explore Zorig Chusum Art & Crafts School, Folk Heritage Museum and Tashichho Dzong as all of them are closed by 5PM. Instead we strolled along the streets, interacted with the locals and feasted on Mushroom Datshi (A mix of mushrooms and the local yak cheese), Thukpa (Hot soupy noodles with lot of vegetables) and Jasha Maru (Spicy minced chicken, tomatoes and other ingredients served with brown rice). Alcohol is easily available in the market but smoking in public is not allowed.

In 2011, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies. But it was Bhutan who pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness way back in 1972. Basic premise being that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. No wonder we found sunny, smiling faces all around. Though there are few nightclubs and gaming parlors, the hustle bustle of a typical big city is absent, life seems to be moving at its own calm and composed pace. Our first day in Bhutan culminated with some conversations with the young and exuberant staff of Hotel Shingey and few rounds of the Uno game.

Late to bed but extremely early to rise was our mantra for this trip as complete plan of a day was contingent on us getting up early. We visited Thimphu Chorten just before leaving for Punakha. It was erected in 1974 in the memory of the third king. Many people were circumambulating this religious structure and whirling the large prayer wheels.

Thimphu Chorten
Thimphu Chorten

Our next pit stop was at Dochula pass. This location provides a fascinating panoramic view of Himalayan mountain range along with 108 chortens (stupas) which were built to commemorate the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed while fighting the Indian rebels who were using Bhutan soil to create insurgency in India in 2003.

Dochula Pass with 108 Chortens
Dochula Pass with 108 Chortens

The cold, misty weather was perfect to have hot aloo paranthas, thukpa and coffee in Druk Wangyel Café. Indian food is readily available throughout Bhutan. As road to Punakha was under construction, it was being opened for vehicles only for half an hour (10-10:30AM) in the morning and for another half an hour later in the afternoon. So if we didn’t enter that stretch before 10:30AM, we would have to wait at the entry point for next couple of hours. We got a little late while relishing our sumptuous breakfast but luckily managed to cross the road block just in time. We crossed and the guard shut the doors. Can’t explain how ecstatic we felt at this achievement!

Punakha – The Erstwhile Capital of Bhutan

Punakha is at a lower altitude as compared to Thimphu, therefore was pleasantly warm. April-May being the spring season, entire drive was interspersed with colorful rhododendrons. Before driving down to Punakha valley, we took a diversion and went to Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery.

Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery
Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery

Perched on a ridge in the middle of pine trees and overlooking the valleys of Punakha and Wangduephodrang, this learning centre consists of a temple with magnificent statues of various deities and a hostel for nuns where apart from religious training, nuns are also given life skill training such as tailoring, embroidery, statue making, and thangka painting. It was a pleasure interacting with these young, lively ladies, knowing their daily routine and how their families were supportive of their lifelong path of worldly detachment. One of them had such an angelic voice that ears secretly wished of her continuing the narrative of the tales of Buddhist gods and goddesses to eternity. Vajrayana Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan and forms a crucial component of social, political and economic life.

Nuns of Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery
Nuns of Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery
View of Punakha Valley from the nunnery
View of Punakha Valley from the nunnery

We checked into Damchen Resorts, located right next to Puna Tsang Chu River. It provides an excellent view of the river and the mountain range. After having lunch, we headed to majestic Punakha Dzong. Situated at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers, it served as the administrative centre and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955. Wedding of the current king and queen was solemnized here. With a string of lovely Jacaranda trees and Mo Chhu (mother) river in the front, this dzong is the epitome of elegant Bhutanese architecture.

Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong

After traversing the three courtyards and multiple steep wooden stairways of Punakha Dzong, we went to our next viewpoint, about 200 meter long suspension bridge, draped in colorful prayer flags.

Suspension Bridge
Suspension Bridge

Here we met some chirpy school kids who were more than willing to get clicked. Fresh breeze and vivid view of Punakha Dzong with a river flowing below was captivating.

Schoolboys and the Suspension Bridge
Schoolboys and the Suspension Bridge

It was already 4:30PM and we embarked on a time-bound hike to Khansum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. Without caring about the drizzle, we literally ran across a small suspension bridge and the rice fields so that we could reach the top in flat 20 minutes. This accomplishment transported us to a different plane of contentment!

View on our way to Khansum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
View on our way to Khansum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

Built over a period of 9 years, Bhutanese craftsmen including carpenters, painters, and sculptors consulted the Holy Scriptures rather than engineering manuals, to construct this 4-storey temple. Post this small adventure, all we needed was to sip a cup of tea next to the riverside and wonder what a bliss life was!

Khansum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
Khansum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

Scaling New Heights

Next day, way to Paro again led us to road block area, but this time we made it much before 10AM. While waiting for way to clear up, we tried Suja, the salty buttered tea and somehow the taste of salt, butter and relatively no milk didn’t go well with our idea of a tea. We also tried Cheese Momos, Tibetan-style dumplings stuffed with cheese and they were delicious. We reached Paro in the afternoon and were really hungry. On our driver’s suggestion, we decided to have maggi in a small roadside restaurant. Without understanding the gravity of word ‘spicy’ in Bhutan, we happily ordered spicy maggi. What followed this will remain alive in our memory for lifetime. Though very delicious, this epic maggi, strewn with an uncountable number of green and red chilies set our mouths’ on fire! Its only then we realized that spiciness is the most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine. Cheese and chillies are part and parcel of almost all the dishes. Here chillies are used as a vegetable and the national dish of Bhutan is Ema Datshi, Ema means chilly and Datshi means cheese. Watch out whenever you utter SPICY while placing an order in Bhutan!

Road to Chelela Pass
Road to Chelela Pass

After our maggi episode, we drove across the winding roads for an hour to reach Chelela pass. At an elevation of nearly 4000 meters, it is one of the highest motorable passes in Bhutan.

Chelela Pass
Chelela Pass

The all-encompassing view of mighty Himalayas with fluttering colorful prayer flags and bone-chilling winds was awe-inspiring. Once you experience the nature at such a magnitude, you really start to reflect what a small place you hold in the whole cosmos.

Prayer Flags at Chelela Pass
Prayer Flags at Chelela Pass

But this chain of thoughts was soon replaced with the novel idea of performing a small dance which we had prepared for our friend’s wedding just a week ago. It was funny the way we brought the car right up to the edge to capture the sound of our music system and the perfect background for the video. The onlookers were completely taken aback once we started dancing! After all such acts need an element of madness!

The Charming Town of Paro

Unlike urban Thimphu, Paro is a small rustic town on the banks of Paro Chhu river. We explored its main street on foot which was replete with the shops selling Bhutanese clothing and souvenirs like colorful masks, phallus symbols, prayer flags, and prayer wheels which as per the local folklore have the power to drive away the evil and bring long life, happiness and prosperity. Souvenirs are generally expensive and only some amount of bargaining is possible. People are extremely simple and unassuming. Though Dzongkha is the national language, English and Hindi is generally understood by all. Through our shopping spree, we figured out many people had come from distant villages of Eastern Bhutan to make a living here. We stayed at Hotel Phunsum, a simple cozy hotel right in the middle of the paddy fields.

A view of Bhutanese Buildings
A view of Bhutanese Buildings

All Bhutanese buildings, be it a house, a monastery, a police station, or a hospital are built in a particular fashion approved by the government. General characteristics of Bhutanese architecture are: lavish use of wood, sloped whitewashed walls, window size increasing with the stories, the trefoil shaped windows, and the pitched roof covered with shingles and weighed down with stones.

The Hike to Tiger’s Nest

Last day was saved for the picturesque trek to the most sacred place in Bhutan, Paro Taktsang. Hanging on a precipitous cliff at 3120 meters above mean sea level, this monastery is an architectural marvel in itself. Full hike of 5 Kilometers is festooned with rhododendrons, pine trees and prayer flags.

View on the way to Paro Taktsang
View on the way to Paro Taktsang

There is a small café halfway where everything is too overpriced but it presents a splendid view of the monastery. If required, you can hire a pony till this midpoint. As nothing is available at the top, it is advisable to carry ample amount of water and eatables.

View of Tiger’s Nest from the Cafe
View of Tiger’s Nest from the Cafe

We came across many old pious people who could barely walk, being assisted by helpers to complete this pilgrimage. That’s what faith can do to you! As legend has it, Guru Rinpoche flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress to subdue the local demons and establish Buddhism. Once we reached the top of a hill facing the Tiger’s nest monastery, we took a flight of steep stone stairs downwards to reach the gorge with waterfall in the background. Then we ascended another set of 700 steps to finally reach the monastery. Monastery consists of seven temples embellished with big statues of deities, glowing butter lamps and beautiful thangka paintings. We really wondered how this huge structure was first constructed in 1692 within such dangerously limited area and with zero accessibility to labour and means of construction. Looks like a Disneyland castle nestled in the mountains! View of Paro valley from the monastery is beyond description. There couldn’t be a better point than this to end our sojourn in Bhutan.

Paro Taktsang
Paro Taktsang

After the strenuous but most fulfilling event of the day, we had lunch and drove all the way back to Jaigaon carrying truckloads of memories of this beautiful land and ingenuous people. Next day, we took a flight back home from Bagdogra Airport.

We covered close to 1000 Kilometers of Himalayan roads in a span of 6 days and it wouldn’t have been possible without our committed driver, who initially was totally flabbergasted with our itinerary but then got on the job and ensured we covered every single point listed in our schedule. As no one honks in Bhutan and it is full of serpentine roads, couldn’t have asked for a more alert and cheerful driver than ours.

With our Driver Bhaiya
With our Driver Bhaiya

For a relaxed trip, I would suggest that you should plan for 6 days in Bhutan in addition to 2 days of air travel to and from Bagdogra Airport. Alternatively, you can take the flights from Paro International Airport and save time.

Our Trip Financials

Bhutan is a true value for money travel destination. Exchange rate: 1 Indian Rupee (INR) = 1 Bhutanese Ngultrum (BTN). As lot of trade happens between India and Bhutan, Indian currency is widely accepted rather preferred. We got discounts in few hotels on doing cash payment in Indian rupees. Therefore carry a good mix of Indian and Bhutanese currency. We were a bunch of 4 people. Below is a summary of cost per person:

Our Trip Financials

The Dalai Lama has very wisely suggested, “Once a year, go someplace you have never been before”. For us, it was the enchanting land of Bhutan this year. Hope this write-up inspires you to experience it someday!