Gustasp and Jeroo Irani explore the sparkling world of Uttarakhand’s Lake District and come away with a bagful of legends and memories
A cool breeze skittered through the trees that formed an archway over the narrow, unpaved trail snaking through the hilly tracks. Sunlight filtered through the branches and formed lace-like patterns on the red soil. We climbed up to a rocky ledge that broke free of the trees, and below us a splash of water sparkled amid a green forest. Blue, green, turquoise… We groped for words to describe the colour of the lake and found none that captured its brilliance.
We were at Garur lake, one of the seven Sattal lakes in the Lake District of the Kumaon region in Uttarakhand. Locals say it is haunted and that eerie sounds waft up from its depths. It probably has to do with the whoosh of the wind skipping through the surrounding trees and across its waters, but we preferred to believe that there was something mysterious about this place. We would not have been surprised if the head of the Loch Ness monster suddenly broke its surface.
Garur lake is a part of the Lake District, which has the shimmering green Naini lake as its epicentre. Every freshwater lake in the district is unique in its beauty, each embraced in legends. Bhimtal is the largest and possesses an unvarnished loveliness. Naukuchiatal, or the lake with nine corners, is the deepest and nestles in a hollow surrounded by hills mantled in trees and shrubs. The limpid lake fields reflections of the green woods around it.
Sattal is a cluster of seven lakes, of which three are interconnected. This is a great spot for birdwatching and fishing, though boating is the most popular tourist activity in this region. There are excellent trekking trails around the lakes as the Kumaon hills that fringe them soar to an altitude of 1,938m.
The Kumaon hills soar to an altitude of 1,938m and there are excellent trekking trails around the lakes
Back on the trail, we came upon the lonely Church of St John, a stone chapel with a green roof, kneeling in prayer in a forest clearing. Further down, there was a shimmer of deep blue – another of the Sattal lakes. A small amphitheatre embraced one of its banks. On the forested slopes across the water, a white crucifix smiled down at us. We decided to do a spot of yoga and meditation in that magical setting even as the canopy of trees above us showered us with a confetti of dry leaves as we went through the asanas. Relaxed and refreshed, we followed the pathway up to the Sattal Ashram, which had been set up by Dr E Stanley Jones in 1930 “for all who sincerely desire to find God”. From there, we looked down at colourful row boats that plied the waters of the three main interconnected lakes.
It brought back memories of an earlier trip to these parts. It was the beginning of the monsoon when we had set off on a trek up a trail at the far end of the water body only to abandon it in minutes! We had stepped into a landmine of blood-sucking leeches. But all was not lost, as we drove with our picnic hamper to Naukuchiatal and ploughed through the feast our hotel had packed for us, gazing down at the sparkling emerald waters of the nine-cornered lake. Thankfully, we were unable to see all its corners, as local belief has it that anyone who does so, dies within a year. The only way one can achieve this feat is by flying over the valley, which, given the folklore, is not a very good idea.
However, Naukuchiatal is not the largest in the region. That distinction goes to Bhimtal, which, legend has it, was dug out by Mahabharata’s Bhim. The island in the middle of the lake is believed to be the vessel he used to excavate it. Though, the mythological hero is also credited with having built the Bhimeshwar Mahadev temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the structure that stands there is more recent – the 17th century.
The origins of Nainital, the most happening place in the Lake District, are rooted in cosmic time. It is believed that when Lord Vishnu cut up the charred body of Sati with his chakra to stop a grieving Lord Shiva from destroying the world, one of her eyes fell in this valley. It then took the form of a lake, which we know today as Nainital. Looking down from the Kilbury forest, we could have been fooled into believing that Nainital was a quiet hill resort town. However, as we descended into the valley, it acquired an urban buzz. The town’s once stately Mall was a throbbing marketplace. Tourists thronged the boathouse to grab their slice of fun, out on the water speckled with colourful boats.
Away from the lake, we stumbled upon little nooks and crannies that still retained the air of an old-world hill station. The sprawling greens of the golf course, the elegant Raj Bhawan rising over stately pines, the majestic High Court, the sprawling grounds of Sherwood College, the brooding church of St John in the Wilderness…. There were constant reminders the town still retained the romance of its past.
- Dhalipur lake
Located at a distance of 43 km from Dehradun- Chandigarh-Shimla highway, Dhalipur lake is situated at the confluence of river Yamuna and Asan
A popular tourist spot, Maneri lake and its surrounding area serve as a picturesque stopover for pilgrims en route Gangotri and Yamunotri.
- Dodi tal
Named after a kind of trout, Dodi Tal is famous for its clean waters, which is considered good for the skin. It originates from natural springs, which are also the source of River Asi Ganga.
- Kedar tal
Situated at a distance of 17 km from Gangotri, Kedar Tal’s route passes through a scenic Himalayan birch forest and involves a steep rocky climb along the narrow Kedar Ganga
- Vasuki Tal
Situated at the base of Mt Vasuki and Satopanth in Garhwal region, Vasuki Tal redefines the idea of a picture-perfect lake. The tal is usually thronged by tourists.
- Satopanth lake
Dotted with lotus flowers, Satopanth is 22 km away from the town of Badrinath. Triangular in shape, it is believed that each corner of this lake is occupied by a Hindu god.
- Kagb hushandi Lake
Located at an elevation of 5,300 m, Garhwal region’s this lake is one of the few high altitude lakes in the Himalayan region. It is flanked by a wild profusion of colourful flowers.
Approached from Gobindghat on the Rishikesh-Badrinath highway, Hemkund is a glacial lake surrounded by seven mountain peaks, each adorned by a Nishan Sahib on its cliff.
- Sahastra Tal
In the lap of the Kumaon region, Sahastra Tal is tucked away at the western end of the Khatling glacier and allures a number of trekkers.
- Deoria tal
This lake in Garhwal region is an excellent spot for camping and stargazing. Just 2-km away from Sari village located on Ukhimath- Gopeshwar road, this tal is a trekker’s dream-come-true hiking destination.
- Sat Tal
Surrounded by beautiful oak trees, Sattal, or Sat Tal, is an interconnected group of freshwater lakes situated in the lower Himalayan range, near Bhimtal. The lake is also extremely popular with anglers.
- Shyamla Tal
En route to Pithoragarh when you enter the Champawat district, a trail of rare varieties of roses leads you to Shyamla Tal. The lake is also famous for Vivekananda Ashram established near the lake in 1911.
- Naini Lake
Nainital’s centrepiece, Naini Lake, is said to be one of the emerald green eyes of Shiva’s wife, Sati that fell to Earth after his dance. Placed among the seven serene mountains, the lake is famous for boating and draws a number of tourists every year both from India and abroad.
Bhimtal is the largest lake of the Kumaon region and hosts a thriving ecosystem of fish, migratory ducks and geese. The lake is a scenic spot with an island at its centre.
“Lake with nine corners” or Naukuchiatal’ is the deepest of all the lakes in the Nainital region. The lake is fed by an underground spring and is famous for the annual Escape Festival, which is a popular art and culture extravaganza.