A long weekend, granted by one favourably positioned Id, afforded a memorable winter trip. We started on the Delhi- Ambala Highway early on a cloudy Friday morning equipped with packed breakfast. Two kilometres after Shahbad, we took a right turn by the side of hotel Prince. Following a much needed tea and breakfast break we drove on past Shazadpur petrol pump and Narayangarh to Kala Amb 28 kilometres away. A detour brought us to a fossil museum set up by the Geological Survey of India to house the Pliocene and Pleistocene (10,000 to 2 million years from now) remains excavated by the Department over the years from Sirmour, Dehradun and Jim Corbett areas. The approach was through a ramshackle path (5 to 6 km from Kala Amb), on the eastern bank of the Markanda River, but the collection of mammoths, crocodiles, sabre toothed tigers, hippos, hominid and bovid fossils, including a human tooth was magnificent and truly worth a visit.
We also passed through Nahan, at present a non-descript hill station and had lunch at the Grand View Resort at Jamta Heights, affording a breath taking view from about 4500 ft. The weather had been hovering between cloudy and soggy with drizzle thrown in. By the time we reached the Himachal Tourist hotel – a small 10 roomed one and the only such in the vicinity – at Renukaji by 4 in the evening, needless to say, we were exhausted. The pristine wooded surroundings and hot tea by the lake side, however, infused enough energy to take a quick trudge down to the lake side. But, as it began raining again, we resorted to snuggling up indoors.
Renukaji, with its circumference of 2.5 km, is one of the largest lakes in Himachal Pradesh and situated at an altitude of 672 m above sea level. Shaped in the profile of a woman reclining on her side, the lake is considered the embodiment of Goddess Renuka, mother of the fearsome sage Parshuram. Legend says that once sage Jamadagni really infuriated with his wife, Renuka, and ordered his son Parshuram to chop off his mother’s head. And Parshuram, like an obedient son, did exactly so. Jamadagni was pretty pleased with his son’s compliance, and granted him a boon. Parshuram then immediately asked for his mother’s life, thereby ensuring her immortality. There’s however another story about Renuka. It is believed that once Jamadagni and Renuka played host to King Shastrabahu and his huge army. The king was surprised at resourcefulness of the humble sage’s kitchen. On enquiry, he found that the holy kamdhenu cows (mythical cows known to be the source of infinite wealth) were the reason for the sage’s affluence. Now, the greedy and ungrateful Shastrabahu demanded the cows from Jamadagni. Obviously Jamadagni refused. The king turned wild with anger – killed Jamadagni and attempted to abduct Renuka. But Renuka flung herself into the waters of the lake. The Gods later restored her to life and the lake became her embodiment. When their son Parshuram heard the tragedy that had befallen his parents, he fought a fierce battle against Shastrabahu, killing him and his entire army. And as the legend continues, Parshuram comes every autumn, for a day, to meet his mother Renuka. This the locals celebrate by arranging festivities on Karthik Ekadashi each year in November.
The temple on the lake shore was built in 1814 by the Gurkhas and the divinity accorded to this region has ensured its protection. The total area of the Renuka Wildlife Sanctuary is 402.8 hectares. An area of 300 hectares that lies outside the Sanctuary, but contiguous in boundary, has been declared as a buffer belt. The area of the Sanctuary falls in the bio geographical zone IV and bio geographical province IV as per the classification of Wildlife Institute of India (WII). According to forest types classification by Champion and Seth, Renuka forest falls under group 5B/C2 i.e. dry mixed deciduous forest and group 5/051 i.e. dry Sal forest. The area forms the northern limit of natural Sal forest which itself is limited to Badaun Dhar. The forest of the area has a mixed crop of Anogeissus, Lucinea, Terminalia, Khair, Shisham, Carrie, Cordia and a variety of climbers in moist depressions.
The night treated us to heavy rains and hailstorm, rat-a-tatting the tin roof – even the ceiling sprung a leak to our dismay! But daybreak, despite being cloudy had let up the rain. I grabbed the opportunity to undertake a parikrama of the lake on foot in about 2 hours, savouring the sights and sounds of a variety of terrestrial and water birds perched about the lake. A mini-zoo, designed as open enclosure, oldest in Himachal, houses a pride of Asiatic Lions, leopards, chitals and an aviary.
By mid-morning it was raining again and since the place is vegetarian, and also alcohol free, we ventured to the neighbouring (2 km) village of Dadahu across the bridge over Giri river for breakfast of omelettes at a dhaba. Enroute we chanced by a dam, supposedly an angler’s delight. Chatting with a local, about the sinister prospects of landslides on our way back – a discussion about snowfall cropped up. His casual remark about fresh snowfall about 20 to 30 km up, a third of the way to Haripurdhar (2500 m), made us jump with such revelry that any casual bystander would be considerably astounded. Moments before, I was contemplating to return the same day as the inclement weather had not done much good, and here was a godsend opportunity to witness one of the most beautiful sights of the world – the mesmerising Himalayan slopes covered in sheets of white fluff. A truly resourceful young man, warning us that the route was through a ‘single’ road and driving in the rain could be hazardous, he located two groups of locals who were also going up to see the snowfall. Urging us to join the lot, which included the local MLA, Sadanand Choudhry’s, the area’s biggest liquor contractor, his men and the photo shop owner with his gear, he look our leave. Our plan was to tail them on the way up and with the dhaba man who agreed to accompany us, as he too had never witnessed snowfall.
We were driving through overcast dark skies, with even lower visibility when the clouds weaved its foggy tentacles around us. Raindrops were steadily falling on the windshield and icy winds raged outside. Our continuous ascend was interrupted only a couple of times by transporters going downhill. Two km before Sangra village the raindrops hitting the windshield stopped making its customary music and ‘drops’ appeared denser yet lighter than earlier. I recall commenting and asking the dhaaba wala but of course he had no clue – it was his first experience too. Lo and behold! These were snowflakes! The skies turned lighter and everywhere there was powdery snow. No wind. No sound. By the time we reached the village it was stark white all around. We started driving on the snow that was steadily turning into sludge under the pressure of the wheels and heat of the engine, when a couple of km away our guides waved us to stop. Their vehicle had stalled and even to push it was hazardous, as the foliage on the edge of the road was also covered in a blanket of snow. We relied on the elevated culvert to prevent us from tipping over the edge while taking the u turn and I applied the brakes cautiously, as any additional force made the Qualis dangerously slither.
And then we were out in the open. Photos, squeals, hurling snowballs, the whole works!! It was a snowfield all to ourselves. The snowfall had become heavier by now and the tyres were beginning to submerge. As the dangers of driving back caught for our attention we departed, after hot tea and milk cake at the village shop. The evening and night was judiciously spent drying our clothes without a word of complaint. On Sunday morning the skies cleared mysteriously and revealed the glistening snow covered peaks against a brilliantly blue sky. To me it appears we were witness to a special show by nature!