Monday, September 24, 2012

Corbett: An Unintentional Adventure

For the first time, I am going to dig into my past trips for this is a story I love to narrate.

It was August 2007, when six of us decided to travel to Corbett National Park after the Bollywood movie, Kaal brought it into highlight. This was actually my first trip to a national park and I haven't stopped since!

We started from Delhi around 4 pm in a hired Toyota Qualis having no idea of the havoc that rains play in this part. The drive from Delhi was simple. We reached Rampur around midnight and asked a police car for directions to Corbett National Park. The policemen were quite amused to know that we wanted to go to Corbett at this hour. However, they told us that their are several small rivulets that are flowing across the road and we won't be allowed to travel to Corbett right now. As we were students back then with small budget to travel on, we went to a shady guesthouse for night-stay. The bedsheets were smelling due to humidity and the ceiling was dripping water all night. But, we hardly had any other option.

This is where we bathe
Early next morning, we hired a gypsy to travel to Corbett. We were told that the only Corbett gate open at this time of the year will open in sometime and we can travel to some other parts of the forest in the meantime. So we went there but there was hardly a dog to be seen on that route. We got down the gypsy near an old and huge tree and then climbed down a hillock to bathe in a rushing stream. After that, we came back to Rampur and prepared ourselves for a night inside the famed Corbett National Park. While we were on the outskirts of Rampur, our driver "Naeem" picked a Rangeeli deshi sharab( unbranded alcohol) to keep him company. On our way to Corbett's gate, we passed many rivulets that were gushing over the cemented road. However, they were small and didn't really frighten us as our gypsy moved across them with ease.

Inside Corbett
We reached our bungalow inside Corbett with some time to spare before our evening safari. While we checked out the bungalow, two of our group ventured into the forest on their own. Sometime later, the forest officer came to check on us and asked where are the remaining two out of our group of six. We simply shrugged and he hurriedly gathered his subordinates to find them. Within a few minutes, the two of them were brought back to the bungalow and were warned that venturing into the forest on foot isn't allowed. Also, we were told that CRPF snipers were given shoot on sight orders because of rampant poaching in the national park and that walking on foot, we can easily be mistaken as poachers.  We were truly shaken at that moment.

One side of the rivulet outside exit gate
At 3:30, we left for our evening safari with our driver, Naeem and we asked him to show us as much animals he can no matter what it takes. We had just left when we crossed a small river and found some tribal boys washing clothes there. We asked them, if they have noticed any animals around. We were told that a herd of elephants was heard crossing closeby. We asked a kid there to jump onto our gypsy and tell us their exact location. He came along and jumped off at a point and climbed at a mud hill from where he could see the herd. We immediately followed him and saw the purple eared elephants at some distance from us. Just as some of us were getting onto the mud hill, the forest officer and his subordinates reached there and ordered us to immediately hop onto the gypsy while asking for the whereabouts of our driver as it was his responsibility to ensure that we don't leave the vehicle at any point. He was nowhere to be seen and we were seriously threatened this time for breach of rules. Naeem appeared in sometime and seemed inebriated clearly. He was ordered to immediately take us back to the bungalow and our safari was over!! The forest officer went back while Naeem settled in his seat. In his inebriated state, he started moving further ahead instead of taking us back. As we also didn't want our safari to end so early, we again asked him to show us more animals. A few hundred meters ahead, there was a group of spotted deers grazing and we hoped to see a tiger stalking them. Some more distance into the forest, there was a 2 feet deep and 1.5 feet wide gorge on the dirt track. Understanding that the tyres of our vehicle would get stuck in it if he move forward, we got down again and filled it with some stones at a gap same as distance between the two front tyres of our gypsy. Having done that, we asked Naeem to carefully move the gypsy over the stones. However, alcohol had taken full control over him by then and he moved between the stones and our vehicle went down into it with a thud. By this time, it started raining and was also getting dark. All six of us used all our muscular power to lift the vehicle out of the hole for over 30 minutes. Finally, we couldn't see the vehicle coming out and asked Naeem to walk us back to the bungalow before it gets too dark to see. He didn't seem to hear us and opened his bottle of whiskey while we decided to walk back ourselves.  Afraid of being attacked by a tiger or being hit by the bullet of a CRPF sniper, that proved to be the longest walk of our life. Finally, as were just about to reach the bungalow, we were met by the forest officer and his subordinates who had themselves armed themselves with some weapons leaving into the forest searching for us. They had to arm themselves to protect themselves from being attacked by some aggressive animal. Upon seeing us safe, they were relieved and asked us for the whereabouts of our driver. We told them that he was drinking in the gypsy somewhere deep into the forest. We were told to stay inside the bungalow while they went to bring him back. 

You can't think of crossing that. Can you?
After an hour, we could hear commotion outside the bungalow as Naeem was brought back and was shouting abuses at the forest officials while they were threatening him with a cancellation of his permit. Next morning, we woke up early and were pleased to see Naeem back to his senses and also the vehicle was brought back.  While we ate breakfast, it again started raining heavily and we decided to move out of the national park before all the roads are closed by many rivulets flowing over them. 

However, the rivulets were already gushing across the roads and we walked on foot in them at the vehicle's tyre distance to ensure that the tyres don't get stuck in some pothole in them. We crossed over 10 rivulets this way before we reached the exit gate. But we got the biggest shock when we looked outside the gate. We could hardly see the road as whole of it was submerged under a huge 50m wide rivulet gushing across it. All six of us got hold of a long and strong branch of a tree and started crossing it on foot. Some of us got their feet stuck in it and were helped on by others thanks to the branch we held on to. After some time, although the rains subsided but we were completely drenched in the cold mountain rain and were shivering in the cold. With no dry clothes and the chilly air blowing into our face inside the open top vehicle, there was hardly any respite to be seen. All our expectations of early respite went down the drain as we saw a very huge and deep rivulet flowing across the cemented road again. Here, there seemed no hope of our vehicle being able to cross it anytime soon as even large vehicles were not crossing it and were parked alongside. So, we were again back to our old strategy. All six of us moving in line holding onto the long tree branch while the water level was over our waists. Some of us had our slippers flown away by the gushing water, but we managed to reach the other side where we hopped onto an auto-rickshaw which drove us to the guest house in Rampur. There, we changed into dry clothes and got back into our Toyota Qualis to travel back to Delhi. 
Between Rampur and Corbett

Back in Qualis, we assumed that the adventure was over. As it got darker, and the rains continued to come down heavily, our windscreen wiper stopped working. As we didn't wish to stop, we tied straps of cloth to both wiper hands which were pulled alternately by the driver and the guy sitting in front to operate the wipers manually.

 Finally, we were back in Delhi at 2 am in the night feeling happy to be alive and safe!!

P.S. Never get off your vehicle inside a tiger reserve. Its more unsafe then you think.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Agra: Land of the Taj

Taj in all its glory from Mehtab Bagh
It all started with a desire to experience the lately opened Yamuna Expressway to Agra. As we were planning to go to Agra, I suggested going on 1st September. It was one day after Full Moon and we could see Taj Mahal in moonlight as Taj remains open to be visited during two nights before and after Full Moon. Including Full Moon night, it makes 5 nights in a month. There are few exclusions: It remains closed on Fridays and during the month of Ramadan. However, the toughest part was getting the tickets booked for night viewing of Taj Mahal as one can buy tickets only one day before the day of visit and an identity proof is also required for booking tickets. Thus, unless you know someone in Agra who can buy tickets on your behalf, its impossible to book tickets.

A neatly landscaped Yamuna Expressway
We left for Agra around 12 noon hitting Yamuna Expressway by 1:15 pm. Yamuna expressway isn't yet much crowded and the 6 lane expressway is flanked by green farmlands on either side. The road is cemented and is probably the smoothest of all roads that you will find in India. The speed limit here is 100 kmph and is monitored using CCTV cameras. No police vehicle stops you while you are moving, however, you are liable to be handed a challan at the toll gates. There are restaurants and public conveniences at the Toll Plaza only. In total, there are 3 toll gates. If you are travelling to Agra, just pay a total of Rs. 320 in one go at the first toll gate and show the receipt at other two gates. Cruising smoothly at 100 kmph, we reached Agra around 3:30 pm.

Entance to Itmad-ud-Daulah' tomb
Itmad-ud-Daulah's tomb
I have been to Agra a number of times and have visited most monuments already. Only well known place left was Itmad-Ud-Daulah' Tomb and we went there straightaway. It is considered to be the inspiration for Taj Mahal and is also referred to as "Mini Taj" by some. This tomb was commissioned by Nur Jahan, wife of Jehangir, for her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who had been given the title of Itmad-ud-Daulah (Pillar of the State). He was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal of Taj Mahal fame.

The tomb sitting symmetrically in the center
Itmad-ud-Daulah' tomb from other side of the river
Located on the left bank of Yamuna river, the mausoleum is a commanding presence at the center of a large cruciform garden with hexagonal towers at each corner. The walls are made of white marble with semi precious stone engraved into them forming various images such as trees, wine bottle, cut fruits etc.

No, this is not a painting. These are semi precious stones engraved into white marble
Next, we went to Mehtab Bagh, which is located exactly opposite to Taj Mahal on the other side of Yamuna river. Their is also the foundation of a Black Taj Mahal here which was commissioned by Aurangzeb but was never really built. We came here in order to capture Taj Mahal with its majestic frame producing a beautiful reflection in the river. Also, it makes sense to visit this side when you wish to avoid the crowds at Taj and wish to absorb this brilliant piece of art in peace. With the mild evening sun illuminating the dome with its last rays, we managed to capture some good frames.

Small but nice rooftop pool of our hotel

Finally, we went to Hotel Taj Resorts, our stay for the night. Located next to Eastern Gate of Taj Mahal, we were pleasantly surprised to see the hotel. A 3 storey building with a rooftop pool and restaurant, this hotel was more than what we expected for the amount of money we were paying. We were unlucky as the weather was a bit hazy, but you can also see Taj Mahal from the terrace if the sky is clear. A short time in the rooms and we dived into the pool to relax our tired bodies.

Taj Mahal in the absence of any lights at 9:30 pm

Taj during morning haze

At 9 in the night, we reached Shilpagram from where the visitors are taken in electric vans to the eastern gate. At 9:30, we were escorted by armed guards towards the red sandstone platform of Taj Mahal. We can see Taj Mahal only from this platform as it illuminates in the silvery moonlight. Though marred by the hazy weather, the experience was still good. Back at hotel, we slept early as we planned to capture some pictures of Taj Mahal as sun rises over the eastern mosque.

A commanding presence it is

Fatehpuri Gate from the raised platform of Taj Mahal

We woke up at 5 am and immediately prepared ourselves for a photography tour of Taj. However, weather was still hazy and we entered Taj hoping that the haze will clear soon. Sadly, it never cleared and we had a normal visit to the majestic symbol of love. Even at 6 am, the place wasn't devoid of crowds and there were atleast 300-400 people already there before us. One very sad picture that I got there was of the many corridors inside the main dome of Taj Mahal. There were huge stains of Tobacco spits there. Back at hotel, we had breakfast slept again to wake up after two hours when we checked out of the hotel and went to visit Red Fort.
Inside the majestic Mahal

Moti Masjid

Red Fort of Agra was built by three generations of Mughal Rulers over 100 years. It was commissioned by Akbar, whose work was followed by Jehangir and later the construction was finished by his son Shah Jahan. While Akbar and Jehangir favored red sandstone for building, Shah Jahan used white marble for construction. Apart from the normal living palace of the kings, Mutthaman Burj or Jasmine Tower is a beautiful feature for its construction in white marble decorated with semi precious stones. Also, Shah Jahan was put under house arrest over the last 8 years of his life by his son, Aurangzeb here only. The view of Taj Mahal from here is not to be missed. Also, we were lucky to see the brilliant Sheesh Mahal from inside. This palace is decorated by thousands of pieces of glass and is also the shooting location of "Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya" song of Mughal-e-Azam, a timeless Bollywood movie. Finally, we left the commanding fort after two hours having visited only the 25% are of the fort. Rest 75% is under Indian Army's possession and is not open to general public.


  1. For night viewing of Taj, visit when the skies are clear and try taking a slot as late into the night as        possible.
  2. Do visit Mehtab Bagh during sunset to see Taj from a totally different angle.
Diwan-e-Khas at Red Fort with Taj Mahal in the background

Saturday, September 01, 2012

A Pilgrimage Part 3: Bhimashankar: A temple in the clouds

Bhimashankar is also a Jyotirlinga and the legend has it that a demon named Bhima lived here with his mother ages ago. Bhima was tormented as he didn't know about his father. After a lot of coaxing, his mother told him that he was a son of Kumbhkarna, brother of Ravana and his father was killed by Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. Upon knowing this, Bhima got agitated and caused havoc in three worlds and started torturing sages and gods equally. The gods then beckoned Lord Shiva for rescue who then reduced the demon to ashes and thus ended his tyranny. After this, the holy sages requested Lord Shiva to make this place his abode and he manifested himself here as Bhimashankar Jyotirlingam.
Lush Greenery enroute

Unlimited stretches of fresh vegetation

As we wanted to avoid heavy rush at the temple, so we left real early from Shirdi so as to reach Bhimashankar before 8 am. The drive to Bhimashankar from Shirdi takes you on the Nashik - Pune road till Manchar, from where you take a right turn towards the ghats. From Manchar, its about 65 kilometers. The route is insanely scenic and is as important as the destination to be savored. Most of the route is through ghats with fresh green vegetation to keep you company. I stopped the car thrice just to get out and enjoy the brilliant atmosphere and fresh air. However, the best part comes when you are about 5 kms from the temple as you are literally traveling in the clouds. The atmosphere is full of mist and visibility reduces to less than 20 meters. This part of the journey is through dense forests and is to be covered only during day time. 
Stairs through the clouds
Misty road
Finally, one has to park the vehicle and climb down about 200 stairs to reach the main temple. Even these stairs are covered with mist all around the year. The temple is built with black sandstones which lends it a rustic and ancient feel. It is a modest yet graceful temple dating back to 13th century. A big bell in hemadpanthi structure is a feature of Bhimashankar. Apart from Bhimashankar mahadev temple, there is also a Ram temple besides it. 
Main Sanctum

This area is a reserve forest and hence attracts jungle lovers as much as pilgrims. Even trekkers flock to this area as there are many trek routes through lush green vegetation such as to Gupt Bhimashankar, Hanuman Lake and Bombay point. The forest is full of wildlife such as panthers, sambhar deers, wild boars etc. If one is lucky, you may spot Giant Indian Squirrel which is found only in this area. A trek through here is highly recommended with endless stretches of greenery mixed with gushing streams and beautiful waterfalls.