Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Legends of Deoria Taal (Rudraprayag, Uttarakhand)

For the short trip planned from Haridwar in the interiors of Garhwal region, our highlights were a trek to Deoria Taal, a trek to Tungnath temple ( and if possible, the Chandrashila Peak) and stay at the Magpie Eco Camp in Duggal Bitta. With a preliminary information, all I was agog about was our trek to Tungnath Temple (the highest Lord Shiv Temple in the world and a part of ‘Panch Kedar’ group) and it indeed turned out to be a wonderful trek. But I underplayed the grandeur of Deoria Taal. Thanks to all the research done by my roadie friend, Ashish Sharma (@ashish0712).

Saari Village 
After completing the 200 odd km journey from Haridwar to Ukhimath, we were so relieved to see the first glimpse of the mighty Chaukhamba peak which has four summits and the highest (Summit 1) having an altitude of 7138 m being the part of Greater Himalaya. And the air became cooler. After having a simple and yet sumptuous meal at Banswada, we proceeded towards the Saari Village. There are many people who can arrange your stay in the tents or forest houses on the top of mountain near Deoria Taal. We had earlier contacted Mr. Negi. And he had arranged our accommodation up on the hill top near Deoria Taal.

Rhododendron Bloom

We  reached Saari village by 3.15 pm and met Mr. Negi. The plan was clear. We started trekking to Deoria Taal at 4.45 pm. It is a steep gradient 3 km trek and if in no good shape, will make you huff and puff every 5 meters.  However, as you keep on elevating, you are greeted by a wonderful view of the Saari village and the distant snow caped Chandrashila peak which was our destination next day. We were lucky to have arrived here in April as we were greeted by the full bloom of buraans (rhododendron) everywhere on our trek. Such a beauty this Buraans tree is! The flowers of Rhododendron are crushed to extract juice which is supposed to be good for the heart. I rather will ask you to come all the way trekking here both your heart and your eyes will be thankful to you! J

It took us almost 1.5 hours to reach the top where the generous Umendra Bhatt who runs a small restaurant welcomed us. We had the much deserved piping hot tea and Ashish had his power nap for the next half an hour. We walked through the dense forestation for slightly more than couple of minutes and we were simply zapped by what we came across.

Deoria Taal with Chaukhamba in the backdrop
A huge bugyal with an extremely calm lake surrounded by buraans trees on one side and on the other side, just fabulous, Gangotri Range of Himalayas. In the hilly areas, as I heard and confirmed, the weather changes drastically. So by the time we reached the hill top, it had started drizzling and was getting cloudy. At 6.45 pm when the light was fading rapidly, it was getting difficult for us to differentiate between the Himalayan peaks and the clouds. However, the weather cleared slightly and we realized that we were indeed gawking at the grand Gangotri range of Himalaya and the most striking of the peaks was the highest in the region, Chaukhamba. We had seen this first time.. a peak with four summits in four directions and hence the name, Chaukhamba!

With the fading light, the air started becoming colder and we bumped off with the fellow campers who had just lit a bonfire. After spending some time at the bonfire, we returned to Umendra Bhatt’s hotel. Being an eco camp, there is no electricity supply. I had experienced it in the Binsar Retreat in Binsar, Almora in Kumaon region of the same state and now I was in Garhwal. Again a crescent moon night with zillions of stars in the sky. We hardly exchanged words as we were gazing at the sky and were relishing the silence in the jungle. Deaoria taal comes under the Kedarnath Wildlife Conservatory famous for musk deers. In the darkness, I could only spot a leopard cat which looked more curious than me for getting introduced but it shied away.

The hot rotis, potato subzi and rajma (kidney beans) resulted in an exquisite dinner. We talked with Umendra and Sandeep, Mr. Negi’s nephew for a while before falling asleep. How many times do you go to bed at 9.30 pm? It felt as if it is already 12 midnight by that time. Sheer silence and the rhythmic sounds coming from the jungle was indeed a lullaby. It didn’t take much time for us to go to sleep and we had to get up early to capture the morning beauty of the Himalayan range and Deoria Taal.

Greater Himalaya, Gangotri Range
One doesn’t need an alarm or a special effort to get up early in the morning if you are staying in a jungle or in 
the mountains. We got up early and rushed towards Deoria Taal. And this time, we were double zapped. The skies were clear and the snow peaks of the Himalaya were glistening in the morning glory. And Mr. Chaukhamba stood like the most handsome guy in the range directly looking at us. Simple answer to why Uttarakhand is called as Devbhoomi (The Land of Gods). In so many years, I had never come across such a beautiful site… a bugyal with a calm lake lined with rhododendron trees and reflections of the grand snow peaks in the calm waters of the lake.. and in all silence…the sound was silence!

Rhododendron Tree on the bank of Deoria Taal
Deoria Taal is probably the most mysterious lake I have ever come across. I was somehow getting the feeling that there is something very  very clandestine stuff about this lake. The water is strikingly calm. You could see very small fish swimming lazily near the edge. For the time we spent near the lake, no bird came there to drink water or catch a fish. There is this eerie silence surrounding this lake. I enquired to Umendra as well as the forest guards …lo and behold…this turned out to be the most legendary lake I have ever visited in my life.

The famous incidence of ‘Yakshaprashna’ of Mahabharata is believed to have happened at this particular lake only. The same lake where all the Pandavas except Yudhishthir were poisoned to death after drinking the water without answering the Yaksha (the spirit guarding the lake) question. It was only Yudhishthir who answered the questions diligently and revived his brothers.

I also observed stone idols on the banks of the lake. They are dedicated to The Nag Devta (Serpant King). The lake is believed to be the abode of the Serpant King and he’s worshipped there. The lake’s depth is yet to be measured and is supposed to be abysmal. Many scientists have tried measuring the depth of this lake but have failed. Some things go beyond scientific explanation and  you tend to believe them.

It is also said that if somebody dies in the lake after drowning (Swimming is strictly prohibited in this lake) the body comes up only after a month. That’s very unusual. In a normal case, it floats in 24-48 hours. This lake certainly is very very beautiful but at the same time very mysterious too. And it is thrilling to experience these feelings together here at Deoria Taal.
Chaukhamba and The Deoria Taal - Dream Summit

A Vipashyana meditation looking at the Gangotri range of Himalayas and finally spotting a ‘Himalayan Magpie’ was the concluding part of our visit to this enchantingly beautiful place. All I wish is to come back here as early as possible and savour the nature and the stories to the maximum extent.


Deoria Taal (Altitude 2387 m) 
12 km motorable road from Ukhimath till Saari Village
Recommended – Vehicle at disposal to roam in this area as the local cabbies charge stratospheric sums for short distances. We hired cab from Haridwar (204 km) and was at our disposal for 4 days for Rs.8400
Stay – Contact Mr. Negi - +91-94102 41543 Devria Tourist Home Stay for very basic stay in Saari Village as well as near Deoria Taal (Rs.600 per head) – No food included
Contact Mr. Nautiyal for accommodation in bunglows for family near Deoria Taal - +91- 97592 44881
Food – Umendra serves delicious but basic food at the hill top

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Haridwar : Gastronomical Search In The Spiritual Hub!

Haridwar is such a holy city. The Ganges enters on the plains in Haridwar only, after gushing all the way from Gangotri, in the Himalayas from where it originates. Indeed a gateway to Chota Char Dham, the important Hindu pilgrimage places, the city is always thronged by sadhus, pilgrims, devotees, tourists and travelers. Almost all the roads are dotted with some or the other ashram or dharmshalas. Crowded and hot, every other shop selling the Pooja-Samagri (essentials for performing pooja, in and out of Haridwar) and the same shop playing Anuradha Paudwal’s (absolutely) unforgettable melody “Ganga Maiyya mein jab tak ke paani rahe, mere sajnaa teri zindagaani rahe” from the movie Suhaag Raat (1968) . Quite an unusual plot for a foodie like me! But as per the Hindu mythology, it is believed that Haridwar is the place where few drops of elixir were spilled after the Sagar Manthan, might I would find some places to really relish for…!

Ganga Aarti @ Har Ki Pauri
After attending the ‘evening aarti’ of Ganga at Har ki Pauri, it was the time to go for some serious food hunting or better described as ‘Pet Pooja’ in Hindi. A genuine foodie comes with a thorough research, be it a village or a metro. So going by the research I had done, I had few names in my mind. The brand ‘Chotiwala’ seems to be very popular in Haridwar. The first restaurant started in Rishikesh and the brand now being ravaged by many in Haridwar. The problem with finding a good restaurant in North India is the unstoppable plagiarism. Almost every restaurant bearing the same name of the legend claims to be the original (The Board has adjectives like ‘Asli Mashhoor’). I had spotted at least 6-7 ‘Chotiwalas’ in Haridwar claiming to be the original.

The rickshaw pullers in Haridwar seem to have a certain affection with Chotiwala. I approached one to ask if he could take me to ‘Chotiwala’ and he claimed that he will take me to the ‘asli’ (the original) Chotiwala restaurant. This particular one is located at the start of the Upper Road which is thronged by numerous restaurants and appears to be a food den of Haridwar. A small tip – if you wish to save few bucks and build up a good appetite then I would suggest you walk through the bylanes behind Har Ki Pauri to reach the Upper Road.

Finally, I reached the Upper Road and was facing the famous Chotiwala restaurant. I entered and sat at a table. And suddenly realized that I was the only soul in the ‘customer’ category. Such a famous restaurant and nobody was willing to eat? Was I very early by Haridwar standards for dinner? I was handed over with a menu card and…What a big disappointment! Nothing ethnic, nothing traditional…all the stuff you get in any restaurant anywhere in India was printed on the menu card. That was it. I kept the menu card on the table and stormed out of the restaurant. Dejected, but still I didn’t want to go empty handed (I mean empty stomach)

Another name which was on the agenda was ‘Hoshiyarpuri’! Mind you, Punjab and Punjabis will never fail you on gastronomic affairs. Situated on the same road at a distance, Hoshiyarpuri has been in existence for 75 years and still has patrons following from the current generation. I worked a good appetite by walking to the restaurant. I have earlier mentioned that compact menu cards are such a delight to start with. Few items, but very well prepared and satisfaction guaranteed… I am talking about food. It is a tribute to the restaurant if the customer sticks to the originality and I did the same (since I didn’t have much time to spend and I was alone.. :)) I ordered an Aloo Paratha (Flat bread stuffed with mashed potato with spices and condiments) and a big glass (stainless steel…Punjabis drink their lassi in stainless steel glass…mind you!) of creamy lassi! Basic stuff but was outstanding. I have already found a Gold Standard of Lassi in Ahuja Lassi at Amritsar but I can also vouch for Hoshiyarpuri’s thick, creamy lassi any day.

I got another opportunity to visit Hoshiyarpuri with my friend Ashish Sharma, who is a red blooded Punjabi and doesn’t compromise on taste. We binged on missi rotis, lachcha parathas, kadhai paneer and daal makhani and of course, the big stainless steel glasses of cold, thick, creamy lassi. The vegetables were docile on spices but went well with missi roti. Honestly, I have lost interest in all other lachcha parathas after having it at the legendary, Kesar da Dhaba in Amritsar. So I will suggest choosing between aloo parathas or missi roti amongst the breads and subzi of your choice. However, don’t miss the Lassi…!

Hoshiyarpuri Hotel, Upper Road, Haridwar
Taste – 8/10  Ambiance – 7/10  Service – 8/10  VFM – 8/10

But Punjabi dinner is not something Haridwar should be proud of! Being in Uttarakhand which was an erstwhile part of Uttar Pradesh should have its originality in the food stuff. I had read about it before coming here and spotted it on the way to Hoshiyarpuri Hotel. As I mentioned that if you wish to build an appetite before partaking food then you must take a stroll in the bylanes of Haridwar behind Har ki Pauri. The eclectic smell of food being prepared and the sight of different delicacies along with a hearty walk builds your appetite for a typical Haridwar breakfast.

Two restaurants bang opposite on either side of narrow road – Panditji Pooriwale and Hariram Pooriwale. I entered Panditji’s restaurant since I saw it first...J. Again another restaurant with a very compact menu card…didn’t take much time for me to order. In the first course, I ordered Khasta kachoris served with ‘Aloo Ki Sabzi’ in a spicy gravy as depicted in the pic. Let me clarify that all the items there were DEEPLY friend in desi ghee (or the clarified butter) so just don’t go by sheer quantity offered to you. Two morsels…you’ll start feeling full. The Khasta Kachoris are thick puffed breads with spicy filling into it. Goes very well with aloo ki sabzi. I got the taste of what was on the platter.
Khasta kachoris

After finishing the khasta kachoris, I ordered for Poori Subzi. The waiter gave a strange look to me. Probably he was not expecting that. He came back with four pooris (again thin puffed breads deeply fried in clarified butter), dry potato subzi and the very interesting Kaddu ki Subzi (red pumpkin preparation). I just enjoyed eating pooris with the sweet and tangy Kaddu Ki Subzi. This special subzi reminded me of ‘Launji’ which is a part of typical Amritsari breakfast. I didn’t believe that red pumpkin can be rendered so tasty in the ‘subzi’ form.

The meal is never complete without sweet dish. And I have a sweet tooth. Go Charlie go! And there was this ‘Chandrakala’ on my table. Chandrakala appears to be a pretty cousin of our regular balushahi and tastes very similar. Needless to say that within no time, it was finished.
I was happy with the breakfast which in calorific value would have sustained me for next 10-15 days!
Pooris with Aloo and Kaddu ki Sabzi

Panditji Pooriwale, Near Har ki Pauri, Haridwar
Taste – 7/10 Ambiance – 6/10 Service – 6/10 VFM – 7/10

Haridwar is also famous for its chaat which is sold on the hand pulled carts across the roads of Haridwar. You can choose either boiled or just sprouted brown chick peas for your chaat. Then a mish mash of various veggies and spices will render you the ‘chanaa chaat’. I didn’t find it so tasty and was slightly harsh for my tongue and already loaded guts J

Haridwar is of course not so famous for its food for the demand for food here is very basic. There are free langars (where food is freely distributed), small shops selling rajma chawal, kadhi chawal and it is unlikely to expect somebody to come here in search of exquisite food and taste. All I can say is Hoshiyarpuri is an ever reliable institution and if you wish to experiment with local taste the Poori with Kaddu ki Sabzi is a must have. Bon appetite!