India - Top Ten Places of Natural Beauty
And now (drum roll please), here is the first of Sandeep Gupta's Top Ten Lists (Top Ten Places of Natural Beauty to Visit in India). I wrote this some months ago, and have made a few revisions to it. This one focuses on places to visit in India. Ours is a vast and beautiful country, and there is plenty to see. I have used the October 23rd, 2006 edition of India Today as a guide for compiling this Top Ten List.
Of course, since this is my Top Ten List, it will be biased - my bias towards the Himalayan foothills is pretty obvious. The list could even have more than ten places - possibly thirteen or fourteen (hey - this is my Top Ten list, remember???).
So, here goes (another drum roll, preferably accompanied by a beautiful scantily clad woman prancing around, waving a placard):
Number 1: Sandakphu (West Bengal): I know what you guys are thinking. Where??? Sandakphu is a 10 hour trek from Darjeeling, and probably the only place in the world from where, on a clear day, one can see three out of the world's four highest peaks - at very close range. The three peaks are (a) Mount Everest (I prefer to call it by its Tibetan name Chomolungma which means "Mother Goddess of the World", instead of "Everest" which is the name of some long-forgotten Victorian mapmaker). Chomolungma conveys the majesty and grandeur of this mountain, which Everest does not (b) Kanchendzonga - the third highest mountain in the world, and probably the most beautiful (c) Makalu - I think Makalu is the fourth highest mountain in the world - anyway, you can see the fourth highest mountain in the world from Sandakphu. Watching the sun rise and set on these giants is something that will transport you to heaven, at least for some time.
Number 2: Dhakuri Pass (Uttaranchal): I have been here. After a 16 kilometre slog up to 10,000 feet on the way to Pindari Glacier, when one has despaired of ever stopping, one suddenly goes through the green pass in the mountain to suddenly come face-to-face with the mighty Trishul ridge and Maiktoli (23,500 feet) at a distance of about 5 kilometres. This view is enough to take your breath away (not that you have much breath left at 10,000 feet when you are struggling to get used to the altitude). One is close enough to the Himalayas to see a gust of wind cause a snow-swirl on the ridge directly above you. One feels that one is close enough to reach out and touch the peaks. In the presence of such grandeur, one feels naked and defenceless, yet ennobled and privileged. The view is guaranteed to silence even the most talkative trekker for at least five minutes. Come face-to-face with your innermost thoughts and aspirations. Meet yourself at the crossroads.
Number 3: Mahseer Fishing at Marchula (Uttaranchal): Marchula is a river that lies just outside the boundaries of Corbett National Park. The river Ramganga here is clean, clear and fast-flowing. It is also home to the king of river fish - the mahseer. The combination of the lure of the mahseer, the pristine, forested foothills, the soothing sound of the rushing river, the occasional sightings of deer and even possibly tiger, and the great weather between November and March make this something that I will definitely do before I die. And of course, the pleasures of night fishing are something else altogether. It deserves a separate paean dedicated to it.
Number 4: The Binsar-Jageshwar Eco Trek (Uttaranchal): I have done this as well. This 34 kilometre long trek begins at about 3,000 feet in the beautiful, historic and sacred Jageshwar Valley. One winds past the beautiful, 1,000 year old stone temples of Jageshwar and treks upward to Binsar at 8,000 feet. Along the way, the weather changes, along with the foliage and forests. The half-way point is the tiny town of Dholchhina. There is a strange, other-worldly quality to the afternoon light in the mountains, and if one is lucky (as I was the last time I was there), one may get a glimpse of the majestic Himalayan eagle, soaring and circling high above the sunlit valleys. When the weary, footsore trekker finally sees the lights of Dholchhina at dusk on the first day of the trek, they look like the lights of Hobbitton in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. 'Nuff Said.
Number 5: The Silent Valley Trek (Kerala): I understand that Kerala's Silent Valley is one of the world's ecological hotspots, and one of the last untouched places in the Western Ghats where the forests and wildlife still remain they way they must have been a thousand years ago, before greedy builders, politicians and bureaucrats destroyed wide swathes of India's natural heritage forever. It is still not too late to stop the destruction and save what is left of our forests and wildlife.
Number 6: Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh): Tawang is at 10,000 feet in Northern Arunachal Pradesh, close to the China border. It sits at what is the tail-end of the Himalayas, surrounded by dense oak and rhododendron forests, in the midst of some of the most beautiful Tibetan Buddhist monastaries one can find. The opportunity to learn about ancient history, a gentle and sophisticated yet endangered culture, forests and the Himalayas – life can be really sweet.
Number 7: Kaziranga National Park (Assam): This is one of India's best managed national parks, where heroic, poorly paid forest guards have kept poachers at bay. It is the last home of the one-horned Indian rhino, and is also home to many species of deer, the tiger and other magnificent animals. In addition, beautiful scenery in the shape of hills, rolling grasslands and forests make this a must-visit.
Number 8: Lakshwadeep Islands: I am not a beach person, but I have seen pictures of the Lakshwadeep islands, and they look beautiful indeed. Blue, clear waters, white sands, the works. And hopefully, not too many pesky tourists hanging around either.
Number 9: River rafting and body surfing in the Himalayan Ganges (Uttaranchal): The very sound of a mountain river gurgling over rocks and boulders is enough to make me ecstatic. The sound is therapeutic and reminds of us a pristine bygone age when our ancestors lived in harmony with nature, and treated it as an ally, as opposed to a force that needs to be conquered. Combine this with purple forested gorges, rigorous physical exercise and the rush of adrenaline as one avoids huge boulders in the river, and you will realize that heavy breathing was never so much fun.
Number 10: The Evening Prayer at Rishikesh (Uttaranchal): I am not religious. I saw this more than twenty years ago one evening at Rishikesh. I was very moved by the sound of melodious bhajans wafting through the dusk, and the sight of “diyaas” being lit and floated down the river. The experience is beautiful, serene and life-affirming, irrespective of one’s religious affiliations (or lack of them). The experience is spiritual and has nothing to do with religion.
There are many places in India I would most like to visit. I have seen some of them, but even the places I have seen have left me begging for more. There are many other places I would like to visit as well.
Some of these places are easily accessible (the Ganges delta in Bengal) which is worth a visit in the winter. Some of them are truly remote, such as the Nanda Devi biosphere in Uttaranchal (bordering Tibet) and the Sunderbans in Bengal – home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. But if I had the time and a choice, the Top Ten List above would be my priority. So, wish me luck and join me if you can!