Work takes me to Uttarakhand frequently. The state is also known as Dev Bhoomi (the abode of Gods) for the presence of the four major temples & pilgrimages of Hinduism known as the Chhota Chardham – Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath & Badrinath. I will write more about the Chardham Yatra in a separate blog. This one is dedicated to the region of Guptakashi, the gateway to Kedarnath & the area’s temples, quaint villages, hidden pathways, gushing waterfalls & innocent children, the sights that are not so famous, are normally hidden from the more touristy traveller & are easily missed. Narayankoti Guptakashi is anything upwards of a 6 hours drive from Rishikesh (in mountains you measure distances in terms of journey time & not kms!) depending on the road condition. The route is prone to landslides at multiple places with unpredictable traffic jams and you would do well to start early from Rishikesh so as to make maximum use of the daylight hours. About 4 kms/10 mins ahead of Guptakashi is the small village of Narayankoti. Take a small pathway down to the right from the market & you come to a beautiful & ancient temple complex known as the Narayan Koti Mandir Samuh. In the cluster of temples you can see some magnificent ruins, including some where puja is still carried out & a couple of water reservoirs with beautifully carved spouts which are still used by the locals. The whole area gives a very ethereal look & transports one back in time. Kalimath From Narayankoti you can also go to Kalimath, another ancient temple complex which has the deity in the form of a ‘yoni’ & rituals much like the famous Kamakhya temple of Guwahati, Assam are practised there. You can either choose to drive the 14 kms/40 mins route back through Guptakashi or hike the shorter scenic distance from Narayankoti in about an hour plus thus getting your lungs some much needed fresh mountain oxygen! Maikhanda Village About 7 kms/20 mins further up the road you hit the little village of Maikhanda. Take a narrow track climbing up on the left through an arched gate with a bell & you begin to see some really mesmerising sights. Cattle lazily chewing on their grass, goats with tinkling bells being herded back to their shelters, a village dog sniffing you at your heels to establish your identity, kids with runny noses happily following you & saying Namaste...they’re all there. About 15 mins into the climb you come across a little temple around which most of the village life appears to revolve. The temple is dedicated to Maa Mahisasur Mardini (the slayer of demon Mahisasur). It serves as the hub of all religious & social activities & is also the ‘village square’. You can see men & women sitting or standing in their own gangs & busily talking about their affairs while also keeping a vigil on the little kids playing their kids’ games. The trail further takes you past cultivated fields, an odd temple again, past Dhar village & then an old iron bridge besides which lies a gushing waterfall. One is almost tempted to climb down the track & explore the scene further but for the lack of time. Right now you have to keep pace with the dwindling daylight & also have to complete your daily target of calories burnt! After passing Bairangana village you can take a staircase on the left to climb up the mountain to Nantoli Devi temple & Naagtal. You can read more about it on my blog at An Afternoon Hike to Nantoli Devi Temple & Naagtal The track then continues till the next major village of Phata on the Guptakashi-Sonamarg route though I haven’t gone that far yet. From a point you can see the three helipads of Phata & the helicopters taking-off & landing. There are also multiple places on the trail from where one can walk down & join the main road, one such being at the Phata helipads. Phata A few kms ahead on the road lies Phata. But the place of interest here is at the bottom of the valley. Just short of the village there is a ‘blink-and-you-miss’ steep track going down to the right. This is the route which the locals take to cross over to Rail village on the other side of the River Mandakini. Follow it right down to the valley bottom along a steep & winding path dotted with tall trees & small shrubs with wild flowers. The real reward lies at the bottom when you come across a decades old iron girder bridge that stood the test of time till the flash floods of Jun 2012 when it got washed away. I am however told by the locals that the government has since rebuilt the bridge. Sersi 8 kms/21 mins further down the road from Phata is the village of Sersi. You can climb down from the main road to explore the village which further connects to Bharasu a little distance away. If you want to explore uphill, continue a little ahead of Sersi & where the road takes a sharp bend look for a track going uphill from behind the shops. In all these villages you will find as if time has stood still. Life here is in a different era. Multicoloured houses with brightly painted wooden doors adorned with figurines of Gods & Goddesses on either side, cattle & horses tied alongside in the compounds, old men pampering their grandchildren, little girls stopping to stare shyly at this alien intruder...you feel like you're in a different world! Another peculiar feature of mountain life in the Uttarakhand hills is that women do most of the physical work in the fields while the men spend their time gossiping, smoking ‘bidis’ or playing carrom. Trijuginarayan A further 14 kms/about 40 mins of road travel with langurs for company will get you to Trijuginarayan. Its an old Vishnu temple & legend has it that this was the place where Shivji & Parvati got married. The main temple complex still has an ‘akhand jyot’. The temple architecture is pretty much in the same style as Kedarnath pointing to the similar ages of both the temples. I crossed a little girl who was probably skipping school to help her mother with household chores, woke up a startled shopkeeper catching his afternoon siesta to buy a packet of toffees & walked into a school to offer the sweets to the children. Even though still at a very basic stage, education is reaching the remotest corners of the country. The most beautiful part of travelling in the hills is that you're not made to feel unwelcome anywhere. Offers to take a break & rest, cups of hot chai & even fresh homemade lunch are aplenty. The mountains are brimming with gems around every road bend and a little walk into the woods. I'll leave you to explore and discover them further on your own.