In 2015, I finally managed to visit Kailash Mansarovar—something that I had desired for over three decades. The traditional route for the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra is through the Dharchula-Lipulekh Pass. As ‘La’ means a pass, I was under the impression that Dharchula is a pass, but at Dharchula, my unit officer, who was in command of his battalion there, told me that Dharchula is a valley and not a pass! The place gets its name from the two words ‘Dhar’ and ‘Chula’. The former means a range and the latter means a fire place to cook. The narrowness of the valley thus gives it its name.
Dharchula is a town in Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand. Situated in a valley, on the banks of the Kali River, it lies about 83 km north of Pithoragarh, along the route of the Kailash- Mansarovar Yatra and has been a major trading centre for the trans-Himalayan trade routes since medieval times. Lying 915 m above sea level, Dharchula is surrounded by Himalayan Peaks. The snow clad Panchchuli peaks located on the west of Dharchula separate it from the Johar Valley.Nepal has a district with a similar name, Dharchula District, across the Kali River, which acts as the natural border between India and Nepal over a long stretch. People of the two towns have similar traditions, culture, and lifestyle, and can move across the border without a passport or visa. We also crossed over into Nepal across the existing bridge and strolled in the market place.
Narayan Ashram, established by Sri Narayan Swami in 1936, is situated at an altitude of 2734 m. Due to heavy snowfall, the ashram remains closed in winter.For the rest of the time varioussocial and spiritual activities are conducted in the Ashram for the members. The road is narrow, manoeuvring over a steep gradient and overlooks scary deep valleys. One feels like venturing into the wilderness for almost two-third of the journey. For us, the Gurkha veterans, the journey was all the more pleasurable because of the fine hospitality of my paltan officer at Dharchula, who throughout our travelogue, gave us the benefit of his guidance.
Munsiyari is a small hill station at an altitude of 2298 m in Pithoragarh, which offers a splendid view of the snow-capped mountain ranges. Most prominent and the main attraction is Panchachul—a group of five peaks (altitudes ranging from 6,334 m to 6,904 m).Other magnificent peaks of the area are Nanda Devi (7,848 m), Nanda Kot (6,861 m),Trishul (7,120 m) and mountains of Nepal Himalayas.
Munsiyari is famous for its picturesque beauty and trekking routes. This place is popular with high altitude trekkers being the base of Milam, Ralam and Namik (source of Ram Ganga River) Glaciers. Munsiyari is also the base camp of various long and short treks into the inner regions of Kumaon Himalayas. It was previously a restricted area as it is wedged in between the borders of India, Tibet and Nepal. Hotels remain full here, especially during the peak season, so it is advisable to make advance bookings for accommodation.
Just 13 kms from Gangolighat lies Patal Bhuvaneshwar—a series of limestone caves—which has become popular as a pilgrimage site. At 1350 meters above mean sea level, it is mainly dedicated to Lord Shiva. One enters into Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave through a long and narrow tunnel. Other than Lord Shiva, the forms of Sheshnag, Kal Bhiarav, Ganesha and several other deities can be seen. As per legend, the caves were first discovered by Raja Ritupurna,who ruled Ayodhya during the Treta Yuga. Shankarcharya in Kalyug, during his visit to Himalayas re-discovered this cave. Since 1191, this has been a place of visit, both for sightseeing and worship. Religious rites at Patal Bhuvaneshwar have been performed by the same family—the Bhandari family—since the time of the Adi Shankaracharya, the present family being the twentieth in line since then. The place finds mention in the 103 chapter of Manaskhand of ‘Skanda Purana’. Photography and mobiles are not allowed inside the cave.
Almora was founded in 1568 by King Kalyan Chand, however there are accounts in the Mahabharata as well. It was the seat of Chand kings that ruled over the Kumaon Kingdom and is considered the cultural heart of the region. Almora was known as ‘Rajapur’ during the early phase of Chand rule. The name ‘Rajpur’ is also mentioned over a number of ancient copper plates. There is still a place called Rajpur in Almora.
In 1791, the Gorkhas of Nepal while expanding their kingdom westwards across Kali River, invaded and overran Almora. In the meantime, the British were engaged in preventing the Gorkhas from over-running the whole of the northern frontier. The Gorkha rule lasted for twenty-four years. Due to their repeated intrusion into British territories in the Terai from 1800 onwards, Lord Moira, the Governor- General of India, decided to attack Almora in December 1814, marking the beginning of the Anglo-Gorkha war. The Gorkhas lost the war after which they signed the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.
Almora traditionally depended upon its ‘naulas’ and ‘dharas’ (natural springs) for water. Surprisingly, a few naulas still exist on the ridge, which remains a rare occurrence for a water body on top of a ridge. The area has shallow aquifers that feed its springs. But over the last 150 years the number of springs has declined and those that remain are rapidly becoming seasonal with low flows. With the advent of piped water to the houses, the nails and dharnas have suffered neglect, many of them becoming polluted with sewage. Unplanned development, lackadaisical public attitude and state apathy to protect water sources and conserve the declining spring sources are scripting a water catastrophe for Almora.
In Almora, we enjoyed the hospitality of our colleague’s classmate from Doon School, Shri Lalit Pande, Padma Shri, a social worker, environmentalist and the founder of a NGO ‘Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi Paryavaran Shiksha Sansthan’(USNPSS), which promotes environmental education and has supported over 200 community based organisations in the state. Our travelogue concluded with a beer session in the officers mess erected by 1/3 GR in early 1880s, presently occupied by a battalion of the Sikh Regiment. The party was kind courtesy my paltan officer, Col Anirudh Negi posted with the local NCC unit.
Col RC Patial, SM, FRGS, PhD has served with the NSCS as a Senior Defence Specialist, with the NTRO as a Chief Editor of Open Source Intelligence and the first DD of the newly set up Training Academy. He has also served as Principal, Meritorious Residential School, Amritsar.