Nainital blooms across the verdant hills and the sun-dipped horizon as our car takes in the last of the steep mountain climb 10 hours away from Delhi.
Lights are flickering like a thousand twinkling stars spread out like a canopy over the hills. Nainital at night, in the guise of a heavily bejewelled Queen is holding court. As if on cue, temple bells clang long and joyfully into the darkness, and echo deep into the valleys.
And then, it starts to rain. A few drops splattered across the windshield give way to a steady drizzle and by the time we take the sharp steep curve that will take us to our hotel on an incline, the hills are drenched in a downpour.
It’s the sort of welcome that takes the strain out of travelling along long, desolate, dusty and hot afternoon roads from Delhi. It’s a stiff and sore ten hour ride that is leavened only by a lunch break. Before that long ride, of course, was the air travel from Mumbai, so if are tired minds are to work at the math, it’s been close to 16 hours worth of being in transit. 16 hours across a buffet of climates – humid, hot and arid, and now cold, drenched -and dreamy.
We awaken to a dream in any case. The hotel is sprawled luxuriously, straddling the hills, and ensconced in mist. Dew drops cling to the air, and if we just turn our faces upwards, we can feel their soft, cool presence. The air is so fresh, that your senses are instantly revived. It’s as if a gurgling swift clean stream passes through the mind and washes away all that is clogged and cumbersome.
There’s clearly something uplifting about being in Nainital.
Snugly situated in a valley in the kumaon foothills of the outer Himalayas, Nainital is called the Queen of the Lakes. And not without reason. A pear shaped lake, host to several romantic notions and the source of several backdrops to hindi film songs, it is flanked by mountains on all sides. As if the ranges were standing sentinels to the misty, mesmerising, shimmering and delicate waters. Several lakes, their surfaces rippled only by a passing boat or by a crane swooping down to catch a fish, dot this hill station. Really nothing comes between you and the serene view of the cloud topped mountains, except for the passing mist.
The gentle boat, the lapping of the oars and the view through this chiffon of mist – you get the strange feeling sometimes that you are directing your own dream.
But to get back to the famed Naini Lake. According to local lore, Naini Lake one of the 64 Shakti Peeths, or religious sites where parts of the charred body of Sati (Parvati) fell on earth while being carried by Lord Shiva. The spot where Sati’s eyes (or Nain) fell, came to be called Nain-tal or lake of the eye. Till today, the goddess Shakti is worshipped at the Naina Devi Temple on the north shore of the present day lake.
The Naini Lake is also famed as the ‘lesser Mansarover’ as a dip in its water is considered equivalent in ‘shraddha’ or devotion and piety to the actual Mansarover in Tibet. Set amidst the shadows of seven mountains, Naini Lake neatly divides the quaint hill town of Nainital into the Northern side called Mallital and the Southern side called Tallital.
What most of us basking in the tranquillity of the slanting sun rays that glisten through the leaves, – this play of light and shade making for alluring profile pictures- know, that this is peace. We take a row boat, and the boatman dips his oars gently, almost lovingly parting the waters as we stir ahead. There are others, more energetic, paddling away, their feet moving the paddles in rhythm with the soft lapping of the smiling waves. Everything has harmony here, even the birds that glide on the silken waters and the leaves that rustle in a whispering melody. Harmony and clarity. Though laden with mist the invigorating air somehow shifts invisibly deep mental planes to bring you to your core. Something alters in imperceptible ripples within your being.
In fact the entire town of Nainital and its folk have an affability and balance that echo the poise of its location. Colourful houses and wooden cottages are perched on hills that are straight out of quaint pretty picture books. Wild flowers burst into the scene at unexpected moments, and it looks as if the hills are playing holi.
Though the modern world has slowly encroached on Nainital with 5 star hotels- situated at breathtaking (literally!) heights and tar roads that can access remote regions, this enchanting hill town is primarily enjoyed through long and leisurely walks. Amble around with a camera and at every turn and incline, there is a scene, neatly framed and waiting, with natural soft-focus filters thrown in, for someone to snap it up. Stroll through the heart of the mall – as British as ever, with freshly painted wooden benches parked at inviting corners and black colonial lamp posts standing guard throughout the spruced up mall road that allows only pedestrians. Listen to the mountain birds chirp in their hill dialects and the school children, all smartly coated, freshly scrubbed with pink tinged cheeks, laughing and running down the roads as school winds up for the day. And marvel at how simple, really simple and clear life can be.
Of course, there are the usual touristy things to do: boating, a visit to the zoo that is home to several animals in their natural habitat, the cave gardens that are a treat for kids as they get to explore how a cave really feels from its deep insides –and at times one feels as if a tiger could just rouse itself from the darkness and accost you with his fiery orange eyes for encroaching on his territory without his permission! Then there’s the mandatory rope way that has become such a integral feature of all scenic towns situated at heights, and the ‘points’ such as the Snow View, China Peak, and even a Tiffin Top, but that is just to fill up the 3 nights and 4 day packages. The real Nainital undoubtedly resides in the peaks and crests but more importantly, lives elsewhere. In the ice cold streams that flow out of little wells pumped by little hands that cup this water and drink. In the open, welcome faces of the hill people as they greet you and point out places. In the fragrance of the longest, smoothest rice grain that is native to these hills and which makes for the most memorable biryani that you have ever eaten. The wholesome flavour of which never leaves your taste buds even after several years. In clothes being washed under a handpump, in the early morning light as the mist shifts and the sun begins to warm the cold hands flecked with soap suds. The rich aroma of tea being brewed at wooden stalls, the fresh flavoured steam mingling in the haze to give the bitingly cold air a refreshing feel. It’s an awakening of a wondrous kind!
And finally in the thousands of temple bells that clang in unison arising out of the sleepy small village of Ghorakhlal, a shrine to the Golu deity, revered for his ability to fulfill wishes. For every wish that has been granted by Lord Golu, there is a corresponding bell. There are literally thousands and thousands of bells, tightly tied closely all across the length and breadth of this otherwise modest temple, that has come to be known as the Bell Temple.
But you can hear their sound many miles away as you make you way back to your hotel, winding your way into the darkness as the last light leaves the hills, plunging the valley into pitch darkness. Save for the distant lights that illuminate houses and hotels, and the twinkling stars in the sky, all that remains in the hush that cloaks the Queen of Lakes, is the surreal sound of the bells that reverberate, as if into many pasts, and several futures. Echoing the thought that what you wish for today will be your destiny tomorrow. As your car serenades the hills, the bells keep in tune, ebbing and returning, their peals fading into the mist that settles like a blanket to put Nainital to sleep for the night.
And the dream goes on.