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Road Trippin’ with an Infant Ally: Srinagar-Leh-Manali with a 9 Month Old

Riding the MountainThis wasn’t a chuckle. It was a loud gurgle expressing a form of delight she had never before displayed. Stretched on her stomach, lying first in her mother’s, then her father’s lap, she had been lowered closer to the water so that her tiny hands could touch it. Who would have imagined that our nine-month-old baby would find such joy running her hands through the placid Dal Lake in Srinagar on an evening boat ride.

Parents are usually judged by their ability to be responsible and caring, certainly never for being adventurous. When the opportunity of a road trip from Srinagar to Leh and back through Manali presented itself, we knew our accompanying infant wouldn’t mind. After all, her travels had begun from the womb, as the only companion on her mother’s work trips to Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jaipur and as part of an entourage on a wildly rushed pleasure trip across Europe.

Ladakh, though, was different. At this high-altitude region, adults were known to experience terrible sounding things such as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Parental phobia (discretion?) would consider it an unwise trip choice with a child. But in reality, and as our research prior to the trip showed, children older than three months can adapt to high altitudes as well as adults can. Our infant would actually come out better.

As we left the verdant views of Srinagar behind and began our slow ascent to Leh, our daughter showed us a precursor to what became a routine throughout the 10-day trip. She was rocked to sleep by the undulating motions of the car and raised her head every time we stopped, as if to ask, “Where are we now?” She posed atop a boulder in Sonmarg, got onto a gondola after bracing serpentine peak season queues at Gulmarg and displayed discomfiture only at the top when the cold winds blew.

Her smiles weren’t dampened like ours by the treacherous road leading to Kargil, our second night stop after Srinagar. En route to the town made famous by war and victory, we broke our journey for a windy visit to Vijaypath, the war memorial in Dras, which was followed by tea watching the sunset and the owner pointing in the direction of Tiger Hill, whence the enemy had come. Over the last few kilometres leading to Kargil, the lights on the road went out. The only sound, in what was late evening but seemed like the dead of night, was that of the river rushing beneath us as the tyres turned on the edge of the road that was nearly a rubble. This was National Highway 1D, an erstwhile Central Asian trade route connecting Srinagar-Leh-Yarkand.

RidingBack on the road the next day, we faced a blockade for a couple of hours, which threatened to undo our trip and made all adults churlish for good reason. The child, however, remained curious, sleepy, hungry by turns, helping us forget the situation. Entering Leh was a study in how awestruck nature can leave you, with its varied hues and stunning topography. Those who fly in directly to Leh need one day of acclimatisation. For precaution, even road trippers popped pills to keep their heads steady. Our girl stretched her arms in the wind and squinted at the sun, getting the driver to admit never having seen (in his 20-year driving life) a child enjoy a road trip so much. As we traversed high-altitude roads, her cheeks reddened by the sun and wind and body kept hydrated as suggested by web research, she had begun to resemble the children of the mountains. People wanted pictures with her at the Hemis Monastery and watching her made a woman at the Stok Palace Museum lament leaving her grandson behind.

Road trips nearly never stay true to course, least so when taken with a young companion. But they certainly promise (im)perfect adventures—whether in the form of a yak ride through a secluded open field, raucous cries at a double-humped camel’s face, special prayers and blessed intonations from a monk or when a moment of quietude beside a picturesque lake is punctured by shuffling sounds of a tiny hand, lifting a stone to devour.

This article appeared in The New Indian Express

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A Date with the Queen

Pachmarhi, sitting atop a plateau within the Satpura Range in Central India, is often referred to as the ‘Queen of Satpura’. And she is full of surprises. The wondrous beauty created by both history and nature can leave many a traveller spellbound.

In 1920, Captain James Forsyth, who is credited with discovering Pachmarhi, described his first glimpse,

We suddenly emerged…on to an open glade, covered with short green grass, and studded with magnificent trees…altogether, the aspect of the plateau was much more that of a fine English park than any scene I had before come across in India.

On an extended weekend in August this year, an overnight train from Delhi got us to Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Two hours of mostly-patient waiting was followed by the second train ride to Pipariya, the closest railway station to Pachmarhi. Scratched windows let in sepia-tinted views of endless greens and curiously-named stations celebrating India’s 66th Independence Day.

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Independence Day

Country Road

At noon we stepped into the smoke-filled air of Pipariya amidst shrill cries of ‘Pachmarhi’ from drivers. Options for the one-hour ride to Pachmarhi vary from INR 60 bus ride to INR 900 AC taxi. We settled for a shared taxi in the form of elephant-sized silver vehicles driven by mercenary men intent on squeezing 13 people in a space for 9. Haggling helps as rates per person range from 60 to 100 rupees, depending upon travelling as chickens or in comfort.

Driving through the Satpura National Park, a biosphere reserve that houses Spotted Dear, Indian Bison, Tigers, Leopards, among others, is an experience to be relished in an open vehicle with enough room for wind-swept hair. Countless monkeys and thick forest cover dot the landscape on the 54km stretch. The seamless green expanse is broken only by muddy waters of Denwa River that originates in Hoshangabad district and is often flooded in monsoons, cutting off Pachmarhi from the rest of the state.

Denwa River

Welcome Aboard

Pachmarhi greets newcomers with a busy marketplace close to the main bus station that sells plastic toys, neck-pieces with gods attached on end and other curios found elsewhere. Lord Shiva remains prominent among the figurines on sale, having four main temples in this hill-station. Beyond the bustling lanes lies a small lake with its still and desolate waters, except for a few boats that line the shore.

As the car sped across the bridge overlooking the lake, the views on both sides transformed into flatlands of a vibrant shade of green.

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Pachmarhi Welcome

We chose to stay at Champak Bungalow, a State Tourism property renovated to retain architectural aspects of its colonial past. It lies in a quiet enclosure on Dhupgarh Road, leading to the highest peak in the Satpura Range. Accommodation includes bungalow rooms and AC tents, with rates ranging from INR 2,500 to 3,000 per night. A children’s park and an under-construction swimming pool are added amenities. Behind the compound lies the Pachmarhi Lake, accessible through a narrow road running along the property. Here boating, horse and camel riding are available as leisurely past-times. Peddle boats provide views of misty mountains and greenish waters, punctured only by the eerie silence of bare Nilgiri trees that stand tall in the distance, stripped of their wondrous plume.

Nilgiri trees

As we walked along a narrow path opposite the Pachmarhi lake overlooking an expanse of green, the skies bathed in the glorious evening sun suddenly made way for rain. I shuffled, trying to pull out the umbrella, but in a few minutes the overcast skies had welcomed the sun. Looking up, bewildered at this unexpected change of scene, my eyes shone with the brilliance that filled the sky. Beyond the trees was a giant rainbow.

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And it begins

Day tours in Pachmarhi are undertaken by four-wheel drive Gypsy cars for easy uphill riding. Companies that operate taxis from Pipariya station can also help with these tours at INR 1,000 – 1,100 per day.

Day zero was lost getting to Pachmarhi and could only accommodate lazy boating. So we began day two early with a visit to Priyadarshini Point, formerly named Forsyth Point after Captain Forsyth who chanced upon Pachmarhi in 1857 from this spot. The view from this deep ravine is a good way to start the trip but can easily be traded in for superior sites in and around town.

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Forsyth Point

Taking the high road

Serious mountain climbing was next on the agenda and the taxi got us to Mahadev temple at the southern edge of town. This temple is located at the foot of Chauragarh, the second highest peak in the Satpura Range at 1,326 metres. Getting to the top requires traversing endless steps, (approximately 1,260) along a steep 3.5km climb. A hill-top temple dedicated to Lord Shiva beckons pilgrims who can be found singing joyful songs when they’re not waiting to catch their breath. Old women and children, some with bare feet, groups of rowdy young men and scores of monkeys are all fellow climbers. Make-shift shops lie along the path selling water, soft-drinks and packaged snacks. Others advertise freshly prepared lemonade and black chanas.

The sight of the moss covered temple in dark stone sitting resolutely atop the mountain brings cheer to pounding hearts.

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Beside the temple stands a colourful array of Trishuls raising their spears up to the sky. These are carried up by devotees who believe that offering a trishul at the temple will answer all prayers.

Trishul

Outside, the air is thick with the collective feeling of triumph. Within the temple walls worshippers maintain muted tones of reverence. Beyond the boundary wall enclosing the temple are soothing sights of mountains covered in thick green cover.

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The walk downhill is not as easy as it ought to be but the entire trek (up and down hill) can be completed in 4 -5 hours by the relatively fit.

The next stop is Jata Shankar, a cave that derives its name from the peculiar rock formation that looks like the matted dreadlocks of Lord Shiva and requires stepping into a dark cave while watching for head bumps. The only light inside emanates from an incense stick lit by the pujari sitting crossed-legged on a rock, blessing each passer-by as they wade through freezing water.

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History in stone

As the sun began its slow descent behind the mountains, we trespassed onto the park encircling the Protestant Church built in 1875. This Gothic style red stand-stone structure stands quietly hidden behind thick tree cover and the steeple looks over empty green fields where cows had stopped to rest. The door was closed and the windows were barred with barbed wire. Our driver had spoken of regular Sunday mass but the silence belied any congregation for several years past.

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In search of the sun

The next morning, our last day in Pachmarhi, we awoke to the sounds of rain that did not bode well for a visit to Dhoopgarh, the highest peak in Satpura Range. It held promises of breath-taking views of sunrise, which had been missed in Pachmarhi for the last few months. Not to be undone by the weather, we drove to the hill on a rocky road, with the fog following us a few metres behind. The top of the hill was covered in thick fog, even as the rain had taken mercy and was reduced to a light drizzle. After walking to the edge of what should have been wondrous views of the mountain range, we returned to the pot-holed road, having taken in only the white blanket views around us.

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Centre of gravity

The next stop was Reechgarh, so named for the ferocious bears that once roamed these deep caves and ravines. After walking a few steps on flat ground with deep tree roots running through, we reached the top of a giant cave. Treacherous stones took us deeper and what appeared out of the clearing was right at the centre of the earth, preferably middle earth, conjured up for a scene from Lord of the Rings. Precariously balanced moss-covered boulders lay atop each other, leaving room only for tall trees that all but blocked the light from above. On the left, two large rocks had put their heads together and welcomed lone travellers to pass through. Standing in the centre, looking up and around at the rocks, one could experience the utterly bearable smallness of being.

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The buzz stops here

Once outside, the sky, and life, looked larger. The car was making its way to yet another attraction created by nature. The Bee falls, also called Jamuna Prapat, begins as a stream that jumps into the valley with a buzzing sound (hence the name) and can be enjoyed by those who don’t mind cold, very public, showers. Getting to the bottom involves walking down steep steps, making the post-shower climb up its uninteresting side-effect.

Bees Fall

Brothers in arms

The last place on our Pachmarhi trail was a quick visit to Pandav caves. Legend has it that Pachmarhi dates back to the period of the Mahabharata, the name panch (five) madhis (caves) referring to the five caves where the Pandav brothers are said to have spent a considerable part of their years of exile. Conspiracy theorists, however, allege that this story is hogwash and Hindu propaganda, as these caves are actually Buddhist caves from another time. For countless visitors to these caves in the centre of Pachmarhi town, the origins matter little. With panoramic views of the manicured gardens below and the mountains beyond, it is perhaps the perfect place to round up a visit to this hill town in Central India.

View from Pandav Caves