Lost worlds

off beaten path

Lost worlds

Nature becomes your travel companion when you take time out in these off-track destinations and live life in the slow lane... There you may well find the answer to your unnamed longings.

Sojha

The journey to Sojha village in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh literally took our breath away. The road wound past plunging ravines and, at other times, snaked past lush fields of wheat and serene hamlets bypassed by time.

As our car climbed up to Jalori Pass (at 10,281 ft), which links Shimla and Kullu districts, it swept past secret cedar and pine forests and sighed to a halt at the pass. A quick cup of tea thawed us out and we were soon driving downhill toward Sojha, 5 km away.

The minuscule village (90 km away from Shimla), draped on the slope of a hill, is the last one in the Seraj valley, and as remote as you can get. With just a couple of homestays by way of accommodation, the Banjara Retreat and Cottage is the pick of the lot. Essentially comprising two wood houses perched on a ridge with wraparound verandahs, the Banjara Retreat and Cottage lassos views of the snow-cuddled Dhauladhar range in the distance, and in the foreground, cedar-clad slopes that seem to plunge into bottomless valleys.

The next day, we rose to see the sun shining on isolated hilltop villages, below which unrolled green terraced fields. Post breakfast, we had the option to trek 6 km to Serolsar Lake in the mountains or plunge into a dense coniferous forest to a waterfall. We opted for the latter and walked through the one-road hamlet, brimming with time-stopped cameos like a shepherdess herding her flock of goats with fond clucking sounds, and locals cooking on wood fires.

Later, we burrowed into the tangled depths of the forest spangled with wild flowers where mushrooms sprouted on mossy tree trunks, and streams and brooks trickled from unseen heights. A thunderous roar rent the quiet and we saw a foaming cascade of water pounding down to earth as though attempting to break its ancient bones.

When we trekked back to our hotel, our guide told us how Sojha got its name. The British colonialists loved this serene Eden and built a picturesque guest house (now a PWD bungalow) amid shimmering green lawns.

There they rested their fevered brows in an attempt to ease the burdens of running an empire. The ‘natives’ christened the village ‘Sojha’ (sleep) because that’s what the colonialists liked to do.

Today, the occasional tourist and wayfarer who stops in this pretty little village does more than just relax; there’s trekking, hiking and fishing... Ultimately, in Sojha, nature still calls the shots.

Contact: HP Tourism at www.himachaltourism.gov.in

Orchha

Orchha, 125 km south of Gwalior, exists in an other-worldly dimension. We explored the two-sq-km riverside town, nagged by the feeling that it was a movie set, unreal almost, because of its crumbling palaces and a forest that threatened to swallow it up.

The forest almost did, but Orchha emerged in recent times from obscurity to become a tourist draw. Thanks to its grand edifices and its middle-of-nowhere feel, it is easy to imagine the town brimming with nautch girls, pampered concubines and portly potentates.

Indeed Orchha’s monuments are storytellers in stone. They whisper tales from the past to the traveller who cares to listen... of Rani Kunwar who travelled far to seek Lord Ram’s darshan. He appeared to her in the form of an idol but cautioned her that his final resting place would be the spot where she would first place it. The queen set off once again for Orchha, a journey which in the old days took eight months, while her husband, Madhukar Shah, proceeded to build a temple to enshrine the Lord.

However, construction took longer than anticipated and Rani Kunwar placed the idol in her bedroom. When it was time to move it to the Chaturbhuj Temple, the idol could not be budged. So it remained in a small room of the palace which was converted into the Ram Raja Temple. The empty Chaturbhuj Temple waits with bated breath for the divine guest who will never arrive.

Today, the Ram Raja temple is the only place in the country where Lord Ram is said to visit at night. In the day, he stays in Ayodhya, and at night, in Orchha; an evocative evening aarti welcomes him home.

Another oft-told story is of Rai Parveen Mahal, a petite structure dedicated to the paramour of Raja Indramani (1672-76). When Emperor Akbar heard about the stunning beauty of Rai Parveen, he summoned her to Delhi. She went to the Mughal court, but there she told the emperor in verse that only a dog or crow would eat another’s leftovers. The emperor sent her back, untouched.

Jehangir Mahal is another Mughal legacy. An imposing palace crowned by chhatries, it was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo in the 17th century to accommodate Emperor Jehangir when he visited Orchha. But once the royal guest had left, the palace was abandoned. So too with the Raj Mahal adorned with rich murals of Krishna and his gopis, kings and commoners.

We left behind that world of powerful kings and queens, scheming courtiers and lonely nautch girls, to walk amidst the 14 cenotaphs of the rulers of Orchha, a ghost city on the banks of Betwa river... Yes, Orchha is like a stage where royal lovers and godly figures strut and sashay, playing their assigned roles in the grand scheme of things.

Contact: MP Tourism at www.mptourism.com

Chuikhim

Tucked away in the secret folds of Kalimpong Hills in North Bengal is a rustic getaway called Chuikhim.

In that village that spreads over a couple of hills with terraced fields sloping away into the valley, we did not find the paraphernalia of modernity, but a deep serenity. There, 1,800 local residents live a life in consonance with the seasons and nature... waking up at dawn to milk their cows, tilling their fields, tending their gardens that flare in colourful profusion in front of their minuscule cottages, cooking on wood fires, and eating earthy organic meals together as a family in their homes bright with warm floor rugs.

It’s a life devoid of wants and desires, where nature is an ally rather than a capricious foe, and most inhabitants of the village live a life stripped down to the bare and most important essentials.

Chuikhim is an ideal no-frills rural break for the city slicker who yearns to hear the soft sigh of the wind in the trees, the sight of hills blueing into the distance, a clay-coloured river snaking away into a valley way below, and vistas of neat homes with doors left hospitably open... The villagers are friendly, soft-spoken, and more than willing to invite tourists into their homes.

Chuikhim is a great starting point for treks — into the forest and to the river. In the evening, we would head out to Sunrise Point from where we would gaze at sunsets, their magnificence undiluted by pollution.

Our days were filled with visits to nearby Loleygaon (24 km), another rural and scenic mountain village, and Charkol (39 km), which is the ideal place to view the Kangchenjunga massif. Charkol, located at 5,000 ft in the Eastern Himalayas, is a wooded haven wrapped in a forest of oak, pine and cedar. There, rare Himalayan birds flit, as do gaudy butterflies, while sprays of orchids daub the forests with colour.

The hill resort of Kalimpong is located 30 km away from Charkol, and forms an attractive circuit with Chuikhim as a base. Located on a ridge overlooking the Teesta river, Kalimpong has unmatched views of the Himalayas.
Contact: West Bengal Tourism at www.wbtourism.gov.in

Champaner

In the late 19th century, two Englishmen, Henry Cousens and James Burgess, decided to plunge into a dense forest 46 km outside Vadodara/Baroda, Gujarat, and check out the ruins that peered over the treetops. Enduring thorns and twigs that tore at them, the two soldiered on, past ancient twisted trees, till they were confronted by an amazing sight...

Crumbling fort walls, abandoned palaces, towering minarets and vacant mosques stood like silent sentinels guarding the secrets of the lyrically named city of Champaner; a city that thrived through the 14th and 16th centuries as the capital of Gujarat under Muhammad Begda. Sadly, in 1535, the armies of Mughal Emperor Humayun ravaged the medieval city that was soon reclaimed by the forest. 

We too followed the trail of the two explorers across a parched landscape when, almost without warning, we found ourselves within the crumbling fort walls of the ghost city that was once protected by five massive gates and defended by 76 giant catapults that hurled enormous boulders and fireballs at enemy forces.

The wind that rustled eerily through the ancient ruins spoke to us — of battles lost and won; of handsome princes galloping into battle; of princesses in rustling silks waiting for them to return...

The royal enclave stood tall and fairly well-preserved, and an artificial lake rippled blue under a clear sky. Jami Masjid, one of the many mosques, with minarets pointing heavenwards, was most riveting. The Indo-Saracenic style of architecture was evident in the intricately etched stone screens and the finely carved reliefs on the walls and minarets.

From there, we rode up a ropeway to the 14th century pilgrim town of Pavagadh (part of the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park), perched on a hillock, 1,470 ft above sea level.

Contact: Gujarat Tourism at www.gujarattourism.com
Nameri

The trees that lined the highway that cut through Nameri National Park that straddles Assam and Arunachal Pradesh cast eerie shadows against a velvet-black sky. Our eyes, however, scanned the all-engulfing darkness for something more real and threatening: elephants. Just as we started to breathe freely, a menacing shape emerged on the road ahead of us. Our driver brought the vehicle to a halt and killed the lights. The behemoth turned to confront us, waving his enormous trunk ominously in our direction. And then, thankfully, it turned and melted into the forest.
Driving in the northwest reaches of Assam at night is definitely not for the faint-hearted. But we had no choice! For travelling across the scenic states of the North-East during the day, we found ourselves stopping ever so often to admire the scenery: lush meadows, tea plantations, snow-dusted peaks, quaint villages... This self-indulgence had wreaked havoc with our schedules.

So we checked into a back-to-nature tented camp well after nightfall. The next morning, we awoke to the song of birds and emerged from our thatched-roof cottages to be greeted by deep secretive forests on either side, snow-kissed mountains in the distance, and a jade-green river.

Down by a rustic pier, a rubber dinghy and a smiling boatman greeted us. Soon the dinghy, with us perched precariously in it, floated down the river. We rode the rapids and our own waves of exhilaration. It did not take us long to realise that the Jia Bhoroli river was a temperamental waterway — sometimes slow and easy, occasionally fast and perky. So we rolled with the punches and gazed at the landscape as it unravelled along the banks.

We cruised past a herd of elephants, flotillas of wild ducks, little waterfront hamlets and island outcrops before disembarking downstream. On our way back to the camp, we crossed paths with cowherds shepherding their flocks into a smoky sunset.
Contact: Assam Tourism at http://assamtourism.gov.in

Nameri

The trees that lined the highway that cut through Nameri National Park that straddles Assam and Arunachal Pradesh cast eerie shadows against a velvet-black sky. Our eyes, however, scanned the all-engulfing darkness for something more real and threatening: elephants. Just as we started to breathe freely, a menacing shape emerged on the road ahead of us. Our driver brought the vehicle to a halt and killed the lights. The behemoth turned to confront us, waving his enormous trunk ominously in our direction. And then, thankfully, it turned and melted into the forest.

Driving in the northwest reaches of Assam at night is definitely not for the faint-hearted. But we had no choice! For travelling across the scenic states of the North-East during the day, we found ourselves stopping ever so often to admire the scenery: lush meadows, tea plantations, snow-dusted peaks, quaint villages... This self-indulgence had wreaked havoc with our schedules.

So we checked into a back-to-nature tented camp well after nightfall. The next morning, we awoke to the song of birds and emerged from our thatched-roof cottages to be greeted by deep secretive forests on either side, snow-kissed mountains in the distance, and a jade-green river.

Down by a rustic pier, a rubber dinghy and a smiling boatman greeted us. Soon the dinghy, with us perched precariously in it, floated down the river. We rode the rapids and our own waves of exhilaration. It did not take us long to realise that the Jia Bhoroli river was a temperamental waterway — sometimes slow and easy, occasionally fast and perky. So we rolled with the punches and gazed at the landscape as it unravelled along the banks.

We cruised past a herd of elephants, flotillas of wild ducks, little waterfront hamlets and island outcrops before disembarking downstream. On our way back to the camp, we crossed paths with cowherds shepherding their flocks into a smoky sunset.
Contact: Assam Tourism at www.assamtourism.gov.in

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