50 kilometres from Pune, lies the small district of Mulshi, a popular ecotourism zone, especially in monsoons. Punekars (and other tourists) flock to Mushi and its popular road waterfalls and resorts for a quick get-away.
On a day devoid of the sun and replete from the rain, Mulshi is heaven. The roads are washed black, the trees painted green. Winds rustle the leaves to make music. One can drive down the long winding roads for hours admiring the landscape of cut hills and small peaks. A general tendency of the traveller here is to stop the vehicle on the side of the road to either enjoy the waterfall or a snack or a beer to keep the spirit high.
But for the lucky, Kaa is always in the Jungle!!!
A friend told me about a jungle – untouched and uncut. “It has its own legend”, is what she said, as we drove into Mulshi.
The Devarai Forest is near a village in Mulshi, just off the main highway before the turn to Pimpri. To reach the forest, one needs to walk through the fields of the common folk, cross a couple of small rivers on foot, both of which were in full flow during the monsoon. Not sure of the way, we sought help from a lad from the village. He dropped us near the second river, but would go no further.
We saw a house, abandoned and moss laden – thick and green in colour. We walked by the house and voila!!! We entered a most dense settlement of trees. A completely new world was in front – leaving behind the vast fields and the flowing Mutha river. Just a few steps and I was inside!! Not sure about Meri and Pippin; but I had the same look on my face as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli when they entered the Fangorn Forest.
I never really had many opportunities to go into a forest. As a kid journeys to National Parks and Forests were limited. My parents preferred visiting cities and beaches. When I grew up I inhabited the same likings. Consequently, standing in a dense forest surrounded by trees was a unique feeling. I was out of my comfort zone.
The trees were old. In their grown up years some of them must have fought with each other…their branches tangled in a permanent arm twist. Some must have been friends…lovers maybe too…they bent and stood the same way. They were tall – even lifting my head I could not fathom the top of the tree. I needed a Bilbo moment when he climbs the tree to find the direction to the Lonely Mountain.
Legend goes that the forest was protected by a Goddess who pronounced that if anyone cut so as much a leaf in the same, he or she would face her wrath. And hence the Devarai has seen many seasons of staying the way it was.
After sufficient exploration of the forest, we walked back, to have our lunch near the river Mutha. In a distance, a family splashed water on each other – drunk on Whisky and Coke, unaware of the tree treasure just a few steps away.
From a formally educated photographer this could be unusual. But the events leading to the thoughts mentioned are such that it is compelling for me to put this down in words.
Education doesn’t make a photographer. No amount of it can. There is enough literature within the world that talks about how photos are experiential – they are borne when the six senses of the photog come together. It is then, the photog’s fortitude to push the limits and create pictures that stun sensibilities before normalising to satisfaction.
On travel a couple of months back, I found myself managing a Lubitel. The Lubitel is a fully manual medium format camera; popularly also known as a Twin Lens Reflex. In one roll of film, one can shoot 12 square photos. One can modify a few settings in the camera to bump up the number of shots to 16, but I like it as it is – 12. To operate the Lubitel, one needs to hand-complete all activities of creating a photograph. Loading the film and winding it to a shoot – ready position, looking through the waist level viewfinder to get the composition correct without the help of grid lines, managing the exposure settings in a half imaginative state – a light meter or a digital camera help partially in pre empting what the photo would look like; is what my life became as I went about creating photographs of the trip.
Processing of these photos is done by experts. So I sent my film rolls (210 photos in 8 different films) for processing to the experts and after three weeks of waiting they handed me 92 photos. Just that. The rest were all washed out. As I peered at the photos that the agency was able to process; the sense of longing for the ones that they could not took a back seat.
As I saw these photos, the memory of the process of creating each one came back. I was in Goa in the last week of March – and that is perhaps the last week before the hot and strong summer sets in. Moving out the hotel between 10 AM and 5 PM is sacrilege. It is also sacrilege to not spending time by the pool in the same time zone. But shooting with film took me out. Armed with a bag full of film, a tungsten powered light meter and a small digital camera I rode out to places that I thought would be fit to be shot. So while beaches remained a easy go, climbing Fort Aguada and Fort Chapora in the severing heat, being chased down a small hillock that overlooks the Vagator Beach by stray dogs and losing my way and landing up in a small village while on my way to Arambol. I never reached Arambol though – turned back because at the point of losing direction I realised that I was 15 KMs away. Making a picture using a TLR attracted attention of all kinds. People stopped by, confirmed if it was the camera of the olden times; some wondered as to why would I spend time doing this if I could easily create digital pictures. Most people ask the cost.
The thing about shooting with film is that it makes a photog look at his or her trade awfully lot more closely than they would. It made me “look” and “wait”. The key to success was not to press the shutter at the wrong time – the moment had either just passed by or had not come. It made me work to getting to the place in light that mattered.
And I realised that while doing all this to create the pictures that I was, I had discovered a new face of Goa. I ventured up a hill, a fort that I had never climbed, into roads that always looked deserted and boring. I stopped near fields and small pools. I saw chapels and houses of locals. I got into a village and spent time talking to a lady about how my way was lost.
It was then a realisation that has eluded me for the most of my travelling life. It is imperative for a traveller to push the boundaries on a trip. An extra kilometre, an hour less of the normal sleep time, a conversation in the middle of no-where – might just lead to that all important moment in the trip – where you find the picture that sums it up.
To me, Nepal was a place that I could go anytime. As and when I heard about family and friends going to Nepal; “I can go anytime…Its just here!!!” is what I always thought. I was told that its fairly easy for Indians to go to Nepal – didn’t need Visa; sometime back even a passport was not required (this information may need validation). You could just show any Govt of India authorised identification card and get into Nepal. Some people get into Nepal without it as well. Nepal is easily accessible – by air and by road through the North Eastern part of UP and Bihar.
In 2015, a devastating earthquake rocked Nepal. Close to 10000 people perished and countless went missing. Sitting in my house in Pune, I could only imagine the horror of the earthquake as news channels streamed in information and visuals which brought the tragedy to my living room.
Perhaps the trigger for the trip was a late evening phone conversation with my friend and fellow Nepalese photographer, Sachindra Rajbansi, who was in Kathmandu at the time of the quake. He and his family had rushed down from their apartment when the building started swaying. He told me that after 50 days or so, things were coming back to normal and they were not as bad as they seemed.
I was puzzled. How can things be not so bad after a tragedy as horrifying as this?
I fixed a trip to Nepal with another photographer colleague Shiv Kiran. We were disaster tourists; we wanted to see the extent of the damage; the rubble on the street; people sleeping on the pavements et al. While traveling to Nepal, I wondered if there were any happy picture stories that I could bring out.
Air travel from New Delhi to Nepal is pretty smooth. There are multiple air carriers that operate flights to and fro. We booked ourselves on an Indigo Airlines flight that landed us at the Kathmandu Airport promptly in four hours post take off. For a tourist destination, Kathmandu Airport was a bit of a disappointment. Some satellite town airports in India have better airport facilities.
In the first two days of the trip we had the chance to visit the ancient city of Bhaktapur and the settlements besides the river Bungmati. I saw first-hand the destruction wrought upon the land by nature. Heaps of rubble everywhere, making small dunes that one can walk over, without even thinking that a human body could be buried inside. Beautiful ancient structures – reduced to mud and in some places standing partially on their own and partially on wooden supports, made me wonder – what did this place look like when I was a kid. I was beginning to rue my decision of not coming to Nepal earlier.
Sachindra took us to Pokhara for a couple of days. A long dusty road trip in heat gave way to an accommodation in his restaurant, Samay Restaurant, by the Phewa Lake. For a two good days we ate, slept and drank beer with the awesome staff of this lovely place that nests on the banks of the lake and has open air seating and awesome food. Samay (hindi for time) literally stands still here as the sound of the gentle water getting rocked by the oar of a boat brings tranquil to the heart. The trip had now started.
The beauty of Pokhara is in the landscape. Pokhara serves as the foot hills for the Annapurna treks and is haven for those who like a calm and rested life, whose days are accompanied by waits for evenings and evenings await the next day’s sun. I found Pokhara seeping in my senses and as time went by my desire to walk about the land, meet the locals and record these transactions became stronger.
Sachindra talks to a local farmer who asked us 500 nepali rupees when I photographed his buffalo.
Residents of Pokhara at Phewa Lake
Scenes from Pokhara
The most memorable part of the trip was the walk to a nearby village, to reach which we rode on two wheelers towards the mountains, then crossed a small river by a wire boat and then walked through the fields. The first settlements of the village greeted us with a site that for me was a never before – settlements on a mountain in front of us. The remaining of the day was spent riding across Pokhara’s small roads, visiting the Shankar temple and the Stupa. We didn’t really get to Stupa – came back as rain started to pelt down and we were in a hurry to reach back to Samay.
At the mid-way between Kathmandu and Pokhara comes a spot where the Nepali version of the thali is served. Its called the Thakali. People who love rice and meat, must stop here to relish this sumptious ensemble of unlimited rice, chicken or mutton curry, spinach vegetable and yellow dal. Down it with some coca cola and move out. All for 100 Nepali Rupees.
Back in Kathmandu, we made a trip to Patan, the second settlement in the capital city. Patan was also badly hit by the earthquake and Sachindra informed us that the place was sealed immediately after the quake and returned to operational efficiency within 48 hours. One reason of the same was the fact that Patan has a lot of precious idols and they had to be safeguarded.
One of the key highlights of the trip were the Virgin Goddesses – Kumaris of Bhakatpur and Patan. While at Bhaktapur, the Living Goddess gave us her glimpse from the window, in Patan we got audience with her in her chambers. Her father carried her to the throne and seated there she saw us for a minute or two before we moved out.
I couldn’t have completed a trip to Nepal without visiting PashupatiNath, one of the most revered shrines of Lord Shiva. Other than the architecture, I was struck by the evening aarti which is a spectacle in itself. The aarti starts softly and grows in crescendo and beats; the crowd joins in with claps and shouts and suddenly someone loses their head and starts dancing in ecstasy. For the faithful this is a blessing; for the observer, a celebration of being human.
A view of the Pashupati Nath temple premises
Devotees at the Arti
Devotees at the Arti
It was time to go back home. Leaving Nepal, I felt like a kid going back to school after a vacation full of vocations and happiness. Sadness filled me and I tried my best to delay every minute that took me to the airport. The land takes you in, the stories cradle you to sleep, food is benign and people are warm. The bustle of daily life in Kathmandu mixed with pollution amidst the history of the city makes for an eclectic mix of emotions. In Pokhara, the mountains and Phewa Lake come together to seduce the traveller’s senses. Happiness seeps in the heart with the blues and greens of the land and it becomes just so important to walk to the nearest village to strike a conversation with the locals.
Growing up, I knew umpteen numbers of people who would go to Nepal – either for the casinos or shopping or prayers in Kathmandu. I had not heard of Pokhara, nor of the architecture and neither of the beauty that lies hidden in the nooks and corners of this wonderful mountain laden land. Nobody told me about the beautiful early sun rise and the golden sunsets and I was yet to see the content in the smile of the passerby who uses a rope – dinghy daily to cross the river to get to work.
In 2009, I had the chance of going to Binsar, a pristine hill station in Uttarakhand in North India. I was on the prowl looking for a destination which involved hills and a road trip and a short research led me to discover Binsar. You can see the photographs from the trip here.
Now before I travel, I try and ensure accommodation is confirmed. Landing up in a new place with no idea of where will the night be spent is a little too deviant for my soul. Hence I read all the options and decided on staying at the Mountain Khali Resort after reading about its “story”.
What a road trip without some rain? As I drove towards Hapur, the first rain drops started to fall. Towards Moradabad, the rain became extremely heavy. The roads from Hapur towards Moradabad can at best be described as troublesome. The work on some express flyovers was in full swing resulting which instead of increasing speeds, the unfinished flyovers became deterrents. In rains, the roads got muddy and replete with waterholes. This was a bumpy, back breaking and neck aching ride, which left me and my car messed up – car on the outside; me inside.
As I crossed Moradabad towards Haldwani, the weather turned more gloomy. Heavy rain which I termed as torrential while driving. Visibility was extremely low and driving speeds reduced to 40 KPH. The rain kept company till such time that I started my ascent from Haldwani at around 11 Am. As I drove towards the hills, my eyes & heart constantly seeking some sun.
Driving through the markets of Haldwani, I noticed glimpses of small town life. Small chaurahas, manned by police women, more people than vehicles, lots of road side stalls, a clear mix of footpaths with the roads which inevitably means that people walk on the roads and cars have to find their road.
Binsar is around 135 Km from Haldwani. Expected driving time of around 3.5 hours. Route- Haldwani– Bhimtal – Bhawoli– Almora – Binsar. Slight rain accompanied me to Bhimtal. The sight of clouds amidst the lush green mountains made for awesome scenery and I had to stop multiple times to admire the sights in front of me.
Hill driving can be easy & interesting if the driver knows the rules. Keep to the left, honk as minimal as possible, never go on neutral, if the vehicle in front be blinking his right indicator, then overtake ASAP.
As I went higher up the Komaon ranges, the scenes kept getting prettier. Writing about them wont be of much; I’ll probably just let them be seen.
I reached Bhawoli and it was time for the schools to close for the day. I guessed this from the huge queues of parents and guardians picking up their kids from various point, which I think were the schools. A prominent feature were the black umbrellas.
The drive from Almora to Binsar lasted a couple of hours. Primarily because I wanted to stop and photograph all that I could see. There were times when I looked at the valley and a “gosh” just came out of me. My eyes wanted more of the green mountains covered slightly by the white cloud. The roads had a orange hue due to the leaves falling off the tree. Houses, scattered across the valley, step farming.
I reached the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary at around 1.45 PM. Made the entries in the official register, paid the fee of Rs 90 for three days stay and drove towards the Khali Estate. At sharp 2 Pm I rolled my jeep into the drive way of the Khali Mountain Resort. I was greeted & welcomed by Himanshu, the owner of the estate, who showed me round the estate and then to my room.
At the Khali estate they make & serve only vegetarian fare – most of the vegetables are grown in their farms which at the time of my visiting them were not functional. There is around 8 – 10 people staff at the estate to take care of guests and they do take care of their guests. I met BishanDa, who has been working at the estate for the last 40 years. He served me food on the table and throughout the meal kept asking me if I wanted some more ghee on my roti or dal. Simultaneously I chatted up with Himanshu who gave me a brief history of the estate and also told me about his business ventures.
Himanshu is now the owner of the Khali Estate. He inherited it from his father who in turn inherited it from Mr. Parekh, who was the owner after his death in the late 90’s. Since then father and son have been running the estate and successfully too. Himanshu also has co founded another tourism business venture called Village Ways (http://www.villageways.com/). The project is to highlight village life in the hills as a major tourist attraction. Small guest mud houses have been set up in 5 villages in Binsar. Guests are invited (for a price) to spend a few days at the mud houses. The mud houses have the same facilities as the the other houses in the villages. So the interested can come and spend his vacation living life like a villager.
This venture has made a lot of noise outside India. It has won several international traveller awards. But Himanshu laments that this venture has not picked up In India. Which is understandable. A common Indian may not have the appetite for such experiences. He would rather and rightfully enjoy the luxuries that come with hotels – abundant water, air conditioning, no power cuts, room service. Anyhow, village ways seemed to be a very interesting concept.
After lunch I decided to take a short nap. With the weather all rainy and gloomy and nothing better to do, I decided to rest my senses. In heart I was feeling a little lonely and had already started to make my plans to move back to Delhi the next day itself. I am not sure why.
My room was a circular cottage, all wooden and with two french windows which overlooked the valley. On the far side of the view were the Himalayas which I could not see because of the heavy cloud cover. A comfortable bed and amazingly soft blanket put me to sleep. I woke up with a start…probably a dream or a phone call. The first thing that I saw was the view outside. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The cloud cover had lightened. The sun was shining brightly on the valley, clearly highlighting the greens of trees and the blues of the sky. And on the far end, the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas were clearly visible.
I rushed outside all half sleepy and dazed to photograph the spectacle. Green valleys in the foreground flooded with sunlight. Peaks of the mountains covered with snow interspersed with colors of blue and black. The white clouds against a perfect blue sky. As the sun started to set the colors changed to golden and black. It seemed as if two pictures had mixed to give a painting containing blue, white, black, green and golden colors.
The sun finally set around 7 PM. Night insects started to make a noise. It was then that BishanDa showed me another spectacle. A wild flower called “Nisha” in Hindi which only blooms once the sun sets. I saw quite a few flowers bloom and also took some pics. A long day was coming to an end.
Hills have this amazing capability to lift and drop moods. Some folks I know just cannot survive a hill vacation since they find them extremely melancholic. I went through such a phase as I rested and made my mind to move back to Delhi the next day itself. My resolve to return became stronger when I discovered that two giant spiders were my room mates and that it was raining all night.
Its amazing how people connect. While I was in that hotel room all alone in the resort, 3 friends called me…all of whom are great friends and those whom Ive not spoken in ages!!! Killing my loneliness was my cell phone. I slept late after watching a couple of movies on my laptop. Thank God for technology.
10th July started at 9 AM when I woke up to bed tea. Expecting another spectacle at the hills, I peeped out my window. And this time it was a spectacle of a different kind. Clouds all around in the valley. No chance of the sun peeping in and absolutely no chance of me seeing the Himalayas. As I stepped out to walk towards the lunch room for my breakfast, I saw mist. After a while I realised that I was walking in the clouds.
On the 9th I was the lone guest at the resort. Himanshu and the staff had told me that members of the sales team of SBI Life Insurance were slated to arrive on the 10th.
After breakfast, I decided to take some pictures at the resort and also explore Binsar on foot. So I set off and in the next 4 hours walked for almost 15 – 18 kms across Binsar. Amazing tree formations, clouds, lush green leaves, amazing birds.
On my return walk to the resort, the bus with the SBI folks passed by me.
I returned to the resort and had lunch straight away at around 3 Pm. I decided against taking a nap and instead drove to the nearby temple of GoluDevta. Tradition goes that if you write a letter to GoluBhagwaan asking for something and it comes true, then a bell needs to be offered at the temple. I spoke to the pandit for a little while. The Pandit turned out to be a local shop keeper who sold me GoluBhagwaan’s photo for Rs 40/-. While coming down, I saw a large black rock bang in the middle of a garden. I wanted to go aroudn the rock but that would have resulted in me interrupting a couple in an intimate moment. Leaving them to that, I left them to enjoy their privacy and started for my ascent to Point Zero.
Point Zero is the pinnacle of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. It is around 12 kms from the entrance to the park and is the most famous spot for a view of the Himalayas and a sunset in Binsar. My drive was quite adventurous. Midway, a tree had fallen partially on the road. As I tried to manoeuvre my Scorpio, मेरी फट गयी। I turned back and went back to the resort leaving the sights from Point Zero for another time and day.
While driving back, I felt the loneliness come back again. I reached my room and settled in the chair. As I sipped my tea, 2 people from the SBI Life team knocked on the door. They requested me if I could accompany them to the Dina Hospital where a colleague of theirs had been admitting after he started to complain of chest pain and vomiting. We left immediately and after a ride of 20 – 25 minutes we reached the Dina Hospital.
The drive from the resort to the hospital was a quiet one. A few questions and simple straight answers amongst the passengers made me realize that all was not well with their colleague. The darkness increased as we drove to the hospital and after my last trip to Barog, I got another chance to drive on the hills in the night.
The staff at Dina hospital was unable to treat the patient due to inexperience. They recommended that he be shifted to the Almora Base Camp Hospital since the facilities would be better. The shifting had to be done by a Scorpio since the ambulance had yet not arrived. Meanwhile I suggested to the leader of the SBI team that he call up Himanshu who would have good networks in Almora and might be handy in this crisis. And handy he was!!! He rushed to the Dina Hospital and then took charge of things. As they moved from Dina Hospital to Almora, I came back to the resort along with the resort guard and a Mr Sharma from the SBI Life team who told me about his stay in Gujarat and the warmth of Gujarati’s. At the resort I was invited to the bonfire and snacks party by the SBI team.
I spent sometime in the room, speaking with a few friends. The weather was pleasant and I sat at the open verandah for an hour or so. It was cool and breezy and in the halogen lights of the resort, I could sense the clouds moving in again.
Lost in my thoughts, I kept admiring the beauty of the hills. Sometimes you start enjoying solitude; this was one of those moments.
I was shaken out of my solitude by frantic movement, The SBI team was hurrying to get into a nearby hall, and the tour guide was making frantic calls and trying to explain a situation. From the looks things did not look very good. Suddenly the hall door opened and a few people came out looking distraught. A couple of ladies sobbing. Inside the room, men sat with their heads in their hands, staring at things and yet looking empty. Upon enquiring from the tour guide, I got to know that Mr. R P Singh, 42, Husband and father had passed away while being wheeled out of the Almora Base Hospital.
It seems that that Mr Singh’s condition had worsened as he was driven from Dina to Almora. At the base hospital, the doctors realized that he was not fit enough to be treated at the hospital and that he should be shifted to Delhi ASAP.
I cant deny that I was shaken up a little. Life has no guarantee.
Things had to move on, I ate my dinner while Bishan Da told me about his times at the resort an along with Mr. Parekh, the Gujarati businessman. He told me about Mrs. Parekh and her ability to make people comfortable, of how she was cremated at the hills and then the subsequent taking over and running of business by Himanshu and his father after death of Mr Parekh in 1997 – 98.
I could sense the feeling of loss in Bishan Da’s eyes. After all we are all humans. Especially the sense of loss becomes extreme when the loss is monetary as well.
By the time dinner finished, it was 11 PM and I made up my mind to drive back home the next morning. A couple of more calls to friends and I drifted into dreamland.
Morning tea was yumm and so was the light bread and butter breakfast. Sometimes beauty is in simplicity. Bread & butter is one of those simplicities. I paid my bills, bid goodbye to the staff and set the Scorpio up for the journey back. Another interesting episode was when I was stopped at the Almora Police Check post. For the next 25 kms to Bhawoli, I had company in the form of Constable Dinesh Kumar who was traveling to Nainital from Almora for official purposes.
Dinesh Kumar has been with the Uttarakhand police since the time that the state got incepted from UP. Though he belongs to Badayun in UP, he got his permanent address listed in Pant Nagar and at the time of the Uttaranchal state being carved out from UP, by virtue of the Govt’s policy of assigning policemen the state where they are permanently based, he got transferred to the Hills. Dinesh spoke in detail about his problems – the partisan attitude of his colleagues from the Kumaon region, the problems that the police face in the hills due to terrain and more importantly the unity in the peoples from the hills. He gave me a fresh perspective of life in Hills, how people in remote areas die because of hunger when food supplies are down to nil during the rains, landslides and snow. He also spoke about the systems of policing in the hills. Due to geographical constraints, all places do not have a police station. The village “patwari” carries the authority to file a report and submit it in court of law.
I dropped Dinesh at the Bhawoli Chowk and wished him well. Coming back to Delhi was a breeze.
After the trip my mother remarked that it hardly made any sense to go 400 kms one way and come back in less than 72 hours. I could only smile.