Thursday, 13 June 2019

Walking along the Bagmati River - from Thapathali to Teku Dovan

Republished from ECS. 

Most of my friends look with shock when I talk about swimming in the Bagmati River during school lunch-breaks in my early years. It used to be a clean river; we picnicked on its banks and fished in the river. But, within a few decades, the river has turned into a stinky, lifeless gutter of garbage. However, not all has been lost. Many organisations are working to clean the river and restore the beauty of its banks and surrounding areas. Especially, the newly-built parks along the banks at Sankhamul offer a pleasant experience. However, if you are interested in history, art, and architecture, the heritage sites along the banks of Bagmati on the Thapathali–Teku Dovan stretch are a must-visit.

Chess park is a calm and quite junction in Thapathali.

The bridge connecting Lalitpur and Kathmandu districts at Thapathali sees snarling traffic throughout the day, and not many passers-by notice a small park adjacent to the bridge at its north-west corner. Known as Chess Park, it attracts chess lovers from early morning till late evening, and regular tournaments are organized here. The bridge, built by Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher, is also known as Rato Pul, or ‘red bridge’, due to its colour.

Bagmati River bank at Thapathali

As you pass through the chess park and walk along the river banks, you will come across akhadas (rest houses built for saints and sadhus)—Dasnami, or Sanyasi, Akhada, Udasi Akhada, and Bairagi Akhada. The akhadas were built to offer accommodation and food to saints from respective sects visiting Kathmandu on pilgrimage. You can still see the sadhus staying in these akhadas, especially during Shivaratri, when they visit Pashupatinath Temple.

Pushpa Das, a caretaker sadhu at an akhada in Thapathali

Akhada is an open university for sadhus, where they’ve been getting trained since the Malla and Lichchhavi eras. People coming to Kathmandu for different work used to stay in dharmashalas and sattals (a resting/ gathering place) while the sadhus stayed in akhadas,” said Pushpa Das, the caretaker priest of one of the akhadas, who hails from Okhaldunga, but studied in Benares.

Jung Hiranya Hem Narayan Temple (as in March 2019). Most of it has been rebuilt now.

Nearby, you’ll see the Jung Hiranya Hem Narayan Temple being reconstructed with traditional materials like mortar, bricks, wood, and surki, containing brick dust and limestone. The temple was brought down by the 2015 earthquake. One of the most beautiful temples in Kathmandu, it derives its name from then Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana and his queens Hiranya and Hem, followed by Lord Narayan, or Vishnu. Interestingly, Jung Bahadur and his queens’ names precede the god's name. To the east of temple is a statue of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s mount, and next to it is Jung’s statue on a pillar taller than the Garuda! It is said that he built this temple to seek penance for the killings at Kot Parva, where he killed many high ranking officials.

Vaidhya Chowk

As you walk westwards, you’ll come across Tukucha Khola, also called Ichhumati. The river originates from Maharajgunj in the valley and meets the Bagmati at Kalmochan Ghat. Sadly, the river looks like an open drain. As you walk towards the main road, you’ll see a small door with a sign, Vaidhya Chowk, to the north of the road. The Vaidhyas came from Bhaktapur and started living here when one of them was summoned to cure an eye ailment of the queen of a Rana. This chowk is so-named because of Hutaram Vaidhya, an agricultural engineer turned activist, who dedicated his life to saving the Bagmati River. He is also called ‘Bagmati Ba’ out of respect for his commitment.

Shivalingas by the roadside

Walking for a few minutes westwards along the road, you’ll come across two 300-year-old Shivalingas established on the entrance to a road leading to the banks of the Bagmati. This road will lead you to Tripureshwar’s Mahadev Temple, built by King Rana Bahadur Shah’s wife Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari. The largest temple complex in the Bagmati area is being renovated, but when we enquired, the wood pieces were being carved by carpenters from Assam, and were not as detailed as the old ones. However, the gajur of the temple was being renovated by local artisans, led by Shailendra Tamrakar.

Tripureshwar Mahadev Temple (as of March 2019)

Further to the south is Hanumansthan, with a huge Hanuman statue. Nearby are Shivalingas, a statue of Uma Maheshwar, and a Chaitya belonging to either the later Lichhavi period or early Malla period.

Ancient sculpture of Uma Maheshwar at Hanumansthan

As you head westwards, you’ll come to Chandra Ghat, named after then Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher. It houses a guest house meant for royal guests, now occupied partly by the District Police Office and partly by the eye hospital.

Guest House at Chandra Ghat

Sattal at Purohit Ghat with graffiti on its walls

Further to the west is Juddha Ghat, followed by Purohit Ghat. If you carefully look at the bottom of the entrance of the sattal, you’ll see two conjoined lions having a single head. If you look at them sideways, you'll think that it's the statue of a single lion, the same from the other side! A French artist, Seb Toussaint, and Spag from the Outside Krew, painted graffiti on the walls of the sattal before the 2015 earthquake, and it created a huge uproar among the Kathmanduites. Everybody thought that the artist had defaced the ancient structure, but he said that he painted it after being requested to do so by the temple priest!

A conjoined lion at the Purohit Ghat sattal

As you walk west, you’ll come across the main sattal, which has beautifully carved windows. Then, further west is Kaji Ghat, with a sattal and a Krishna Temple, followed by Hanuman Ghat, which houses a Ram Temple and another sattal. It’s a hub spot for old people to hang out in the early morning.

Hanuman Ghat

On the way to Teku Dovan is Pachali Ghat, and this stretch houses many beautiful temples like Bombikateshwar Mahadev Temple and Lakshmishwar Mahadev Temple at Pachali, and Jagannath Temple and Radhakrishna Temple at Teku. At Pachali Ghat, you’ll see sculptures of Buddha, ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Shivalingas, and Ashtamatrikas.

Cremation site at Teku Dovan
Radha Krishna Temple

Teku Dovan is the confluence of two sacred rivers, Bagmati and Bishnumati. The confluence houses the shikhara-style terracotta Radhakrishna Temple and other stone sculptures of Hindu deities, along with Buddhist chaityas. The place is also called Chintamani Tirtha by the Buddhists. While you’re being awed by all these temples and sattals, don’t miss visiting Pachali Bhairav, one of the most revered shrines of Kathmandu Valley. To learn in detail about the shrines in the Bagmati Heritage Walkway, read ‘The Bagmati: Between Teku and Thapathali – a Monument Guide’ written by Shaphalya Amatya, and follow the Bagmati Hangout group on Facebook.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The conservationist and the woodcutter

The conservationist sighed his frustration
And rebuked the woodcutter:
"Because of you people
We're losing the forests precious
And environment pristine."


The layman put down the firewood
And heaved a sigh of relief:
"Because of our forefathers
You're seeing the forest conserved
And the wildlife preserved."


The man from the city went closer
And proposed:
"Leave the forests alone
And we'll make sure
You people are food secure."


The man from the village sat down
And replied:
"Leave us as we are
And we'll make sure
You'll get everything pure."

Republished from my Instagram account.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Chhedingmo was my name

I used to wear
A strange dress
Called ghalek and lungi.
I looked strange
While others around me
Flaunted their gunyu choli
I always thought
Why only me?
Why do I look so alien?

My vernacular words
Seemed tongue twisters
To my new neighbours
So I thought of
Learning their language
And ended up
Speaking their tongue.

My culture and tradition
Started looking ages-old
And I don't know
How I started following
New customs and traditions.
It all happened
Gradually and gradually
Till I lost
My own identity.

One day I decided
To get rid of
My old fashioned name
And started callling myself

Parvati Kunda is a religious high altitude wetland in Rasuwa district of Nepal bordering China. It's called Chhedingmo by Tamangs, the indigenous people of that region.

Republished from my Instagram account.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The rice fields and the wells

During the cold winter days
Whenever I talked
About the vibrant market
And the facilities in the city,
My grandma would say:
Child, a market is temporary
But the rice fields are permanent.
A spring is interim
But the wells are everlasting.

The job,
That pays for your bag of rice
That you're so proud of,
Will offer you pink slip someday.
The spring,
The source of bottled water
That you're so proud of,
Will run dry someday.

Then you'll
Return to your native place
In search of
Food and water,
Friends and relatives.
You'll then realize
The importance of
The rice fields and the wells.

Republished from my Instagram account.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Beyond bird-watching in Koshi Tappu

Birds of Koshi Tappu

Republished from ECS

Are you a bird-watching enthusiast? Then, Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in eastern Nepal is the must-go destination for you. However, when I was there with my friends recently, we ended up discovering more than the birds.

Home to migratory birds and wild water buffaloes
Famous for bird watching, the reserve boasts of being home to more than 485 bird species, especially migratory birds flying from as far away as Siberia. Since we were there in the second week of April, the migratory birds had already left, but we were welcomed by the resident birds. Early in the morning, an Asian koel woke us up with its sweet cuckooing, chorused by coots. Then, as we roamed around the reserve, we spotted black-hooded orioles, swamphen, moorhen, white-rumped vultures, jungle babblers, drongos, flycatchers, doves, rufous treepies, open billed storks, lesser adjutant storks, and a greater adjutant stork, not to mention the different types of wild ducks and so many birds that we couldn't identify. I was simply amazed! Had we had more time, we'd have easily seen the precious Bengal florican in the grassland.

Arna, the wild water buffalo
The reserve is also known for its herd of wild water buffaloes, called 'arna' locally. They are famous for their long and sharp horns. When we were there, the arna count had begun and the reserve was closed for domestic tourists. However, after requesting the park authority and the army, we managed to get inside and observe the arna counting process. But, we were saddened by the presence of domestic cattle in the reserve. They were everywhere. The sad thing is, the wild buffaloes might turn into a breed of hybrid buffaloes due to breeding with domestic buffaloes that get inside the reserve for grazing.

Arna horns
Noisy construction in the heart of the reserve
As we moved further, we were disheartened by the loud noise coming from a construction site within the core area of the reserve. A part of the reserve had been encroached by scores of construction workers, mixer machines, and tractors, and polluted by construction materials, the high volume of music played by them, and the sound of machines, motors, and vehicles. The reserve authorities could have allocated a piece of land away from the wetland to make the concrete pillars for the biodykes being installed at the banks of the Koshi River, and could have spared the precious habitat of so many birds!

Noisy construction inside the reserve
Seeing the sad scene, we asked our guide to take us to the site where the dykes were installed. Driving to the north of the reserve, we came across embankments and dykes on the banks of Koshi River near Prakashpur. This section was breached by the swelling floods in August 2008 that displaced more than 50,000 in Nepal and more than 3 million people in India. According to tourism entrepreneur Chakra Timsina, learning from the experiences of the People's Republic of China, the Koshi Barrage Management Authority (Government of India) started installing these dykes along with gabion wire embankment and spurs in between. And it has worked! But Timsina mentioned that a few greedy locals had been stealing the poles and selling them at Rs 700 (around 7 USD) apiece in the local market. They're used to manufacturing low-cost houses. They've still learnt nothing from the bank-breaching which happened as the embankment could not hold the waters. The fierce floods swept away the embankment, since a few locals had cut and stolen the gabion wires holding the boulders. The greed of a handful caused such great disaster in 2008, and we can't rest assured that it might not happen in the future, if people keep stealing these poles. God forbid!

Dykes at the banks of Koshi River

Sad fate of dolphins
Once we were done with the bird-watching and moving around the reserve, we set out to meet the reserve officers to inform them of the noisy construction going on inside the reserve. But, when I saw a dead baby dolphin displayed at the reserve's visitor centre-cum-museum, it made me cry. The dolphin was caught in a gillnet in the Koshi River few months ago. It finally died after struggling to survive. And, it's only the tip of the iceberg. Several other dolphins and rare fishes had had similar fates. Sadly, a recent dolphin count in Koshi in 2016 came up with just nine dolphins. Due to over-fishing and destruction of their habitat, their numbers are declining, not to mention the dangerous gillnets that wound them and finally kill them.
A dolphin that died after getting caught in gillnet
We complained about the construction with the officer who had arrived from Kathmandu to monitor the arna count. He assured us they would take the issue seriously. I was saddened by the dolphin’s fate, but once we came out of the reserve, I was happy again to see the fields of sunflowers on the way out. Once planted by gardeners, sunflowers are being preferred by farmers over other cash crops in Prakashpur and Koshi Barrage area. They've started planting them commercially. If you're a photographer, you won't be able to contain yourself from clicking loads of pictures of these sunflower farms!
Sunflower farming is on the rise in Koshi Barrage area
Delicious fishes of Koshi River
On our way back home, we decided to taste the local fishes from the Koshi River. When asked, everybody suggested us to visit Sambhu Hotel by the river. The eatery, established during the East-West Highway construction era, is in a narrow street to the south of the river's eastern banks. You'll never get lost getting here, as everybody in the vicinity knows about it and will happily tell you the directions to the hotel. Once you reach here, you can choose the fish of your choice, which are then cooked by an old man and garnished by the lady who runs the shop with her sons. The fish are sourced from the local fishermen who earn their living by fishing in the river. I bet you'll love the taste and decide to return again and again!

Fishing in the Koshi River
Fishes from Koshi River
Shambhu Hotel
After filling our empty stomachs, we decided to watch dolphins in the Koshi River. We waited for half an hour focussing on the river waters, but I could not see even a single dolphin, though my friends claimed to see a dolphin’s back. Rather than looking for dolphins, I was interested in a fisherman scouring the fierce waters with a hand net. Standing on the edge of the barrage foundation, on a sweltering day, looking for fish – life is so difficult for the locals!

Crossing the barrage, we came across small shanties put up by fishmongers. There were fishes everywhere. The barrage and the surrounding have some special kind of smell wafting around and if you're a fish lover, you'll love it. The fishmongers sell all kinds of fish, including buari, chitalpeti, kanti, tengra, bam, shrimps, and many other local varieties. Among them you can find small fishes growing one-three inches long, called koshia. They taste amazing!

And, finally we waited for the sunset, to capture the silhouettes of cattle on the dam, returning home after grazing in the reserve. It was an out of this world feeling!
Barmajhiyako peda, one of the most delicious sweets produced in eastern Nepal
It was already dark when we left the Koshi Barrage. However, we decided to indulge in a local sweet peda, made from pure milk. You'll find scores of shops selling peda in Barmajhiya, a small town on the way back from Koshi River. They sell the same product and have similar names. And all claim that they're the original shop established by an old man, Baidhyanath Sah. As suggested by the locals, we easily located the 'Budho Baba Peda Pasal', meaning old man's peda shop, adjacent to the Armed Police Force beat. And it happened to be the original one! The shop owner said, "Just look for this banyan tree next to our shop and you'll never fail to recognise our shop." The old man, who left this world a few years ago, started making peda and it became an instant hit among the locals and people visiting eastern Nepal, thanks to the quality of the product. Since then, scores of other shopkeepers have started selling peda, making this place a hub of peda business. But the peda from this original shop has something special about it. It tastes amazing!

Peda, a delicious sweet made from milk
We sped towards Lahan, a small town on the East-West Highway, to find rooms for the night’s rest, with the smell and taste of fish and peda still lingering in our memories.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Chepang Heritage Trail – a less travelled trekking route

A Chepang Village on the way to Shaktikhor

Republished from ECS

I had been on the lookout for a short but challenging trek. Since I had been to almost all the hiking routes around Kathmandu Valley and didn’t want to go very far from Kathmandu district, I couldn’t think of any appropriate trekking routes. Then, one of my friends suggested going for the Chepang Heritage Trail. As usual, I searched the internet and looked for information, but most of the sites suggested a trek of four-six days, starting from Kathmandu and ending in Chitwan’s Shaktikhor. And, even the names differed—some called it Chepang Hill Trek, while others called it Chitwan Chepang Hill Trail. But the mention of Chepangs, the once hunter-gatherer tribe, and Shaktikhor, was enough for me to pack my bags and jump at the proposition.

Hugdi Khola bridge
We started our trek from the Hugdi Khola bridge on the Kathmandu-Mugling highway, which is around an hour-and-half drive from Thankot. The trek, promoted by Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation Programme (TRPAP), takes you through Chepang villages to Hattibang and Siraichuli, one of the highest hills of the more than ten adjacent districts, and then to Shaktikhor of Chitwan. We had a sumptuous meal at Mauwa Khola nearby, since the eateries at Hugdi said they would take at least an hour to prepare the food. It was almost noon as we started ascending the steps from Hugdi Khola. There’s a big signage showing you the directions to Kathmandu, Mugling, and Siraichuli. We headed straight towards Siraichuli and followed the signages on the way. The trail passes through villages and is scenic. You’ll never feel tired or bored. Most of the villagers we met on the way asked us where we were heading to. I guess not many trekkers opt for this trail, that’s why they were so curious.
Dilapidated primary school at Jogimara.

As we climbed uphill and passed some villages, we came across a primary school, Shree Chitrakala Prathamik Vidhyalaya, established twenty-five years ago. It should have been celebrating its silver jubilee, but instead, it was in shambles. While Jogimara village isn't too far away from Kathmandu, the villages in the surrounding and the school haven't benefitted from the development drive going on everywhere. It was recess time when we reached there; the students were playing, and a lone teacher was out in the sun talking with two students. We should have taken at least few notebooks and pens for the students, that’s what came to my mind when I met them!

Beautiful village on the way to Hattibang.
The trek sometimes gets strenuous, and you’ll need to munch something to keep yourself going. Fortunately, we had plenty of dry fruits and bottles of water with us; the trek doesn’t have many shops on the way. However, the landscapes are stunning. We found a few decent shops as we reached Kot. It was a perfect stop for a cup of hot lemon tea. The tea and biscuits tasted heavenly after the long walk. Then, we resumed our trek to Hattibang.

Hattibang derives its name from this huge stone.
It took us almost four and half hours to reach Hattibang from Hugdi Khola. Hattibang derives its name from a big stone on the premises of a school. As per the locals, in Chepang language 'bang' means a stone, and since the stone resembles an elephant (at least like its head, to me), the area is called Hattibang. It takes around five hours to reach here from Hugdi Khola for trekkers. However, the locals can get here in less than three hours. There are several homestays, the biggest one is run by a ‘Ramji’, and anybody in the village will show you the way to his lodge.

A lodge at Hattibang
We had booked rooms at his place by phone from our starting point at Hugdi Khola. After arriving at his lodge, we dumped our bags, had tea, and went for a village tour. As you move farther from the marketplace, you’ll come across more traditional houses. And in fact, they look more beautiful. The Chepang houses were farther from the main bazaar, smaller than the other houses, and far from each other. However, the village looked vibrant, and people were talking in groups, laughing and making merry, which is hard to see in the city!

A traditional house at Hattibang.
If you manage to get to Hattibang earlier, you can go around the village and talk to locals about their way of life. Since it was getting darker and colder outside, we returned to the lodge and spent the evening in the dining room. We had local free range chicken, rum, and honey before dinner. It took away all the fatigue and pain, and we slept like babies! Next day, we started our climb to Siraichuli early in the morning. As advised by Ramji, we carried enough water and snacks, since there are no eateries and water sources till you get to Shaktikhor. On the way, we came across many wild flowers and fruits. If you’re an Instagrammer, I’m sure you’ll end up clicking hundreds of pictures on this route.

Wild berries
Finally, after one and a half hours’ uphill trek from Hattibang, we reached Siraichuli, the tallest peak in the adjacent twelve districts, as told by locals. There's a temple, a building, and a platform with railings from where you can see the Himalayan range, Chitwan bazaar, and even Kathmandu. But, since it was a hazy day, we could only see the mountain range and the surrounding hills. So sad! However, getting there was the ultimate achievement for us. The cool gusts of wind blowing past our faces refreshed us, and we were off for another leg of the journey—descending down to Shaktikhor.

Siraichuli view point
Siraichuli peak
We had an option to get to Gadhi, but it would take us another five-six hours to get there from Siraichuli, and then again more than four hours from there to get to Shaktikhor, so we decided to skip Gadhi. We came across a Chepang house as we descended from Siraichuli. Two babies were playing on the premises with a goat kid. The mud and bamboo house with its thatched roof looked beautiful, but the babies had minimal clothing, even though it was still a cold day. Sadly, we had only one chocolate with us, so we asked the elder kid to share it with his sibling. I wished we had taken some baby clothes with us! But the house had a solar panel on the roof, and it brought a smile to my face.

Jyandala, a Chepang village on the way.
As we descended further, we reached Jyandala, a beautiful village on the way to Shaktikhor. The houses there looked modern in comparison to the traditional Chepang houses. Talking with a farmer ploughing his field, we came to know that they also have homestay facilities in the village. But we didn't stop, we kept moving, as we had to reach Shaktikhor.

Siraichuli School
It was 9:54 a.m. when we reached Shree Siraichuli Rashtriya Prathamik Vidhyalaya, a primary school in Jyandala. It was neither a Saturday nor a public holiday. However, neither a single student nor a teacher had arrived. It was only six minutes for the school to start its regular classes, but there was pin-drop silence. This shows why people in this area are lagging behind. They've other priorities before education; rather than sending their children to school, they're compelled to make them work in farms, factories, and eateries. When will the little children be able to study without having the burden of earning daily bread for their families?

Beautiful landscape on the way to Shaktikhor
The trek route was full of scenic landscape, but it was sad to see wrappers of noodles and plastic bottles of locally produced spirits everywhere along the Chepang Trail, and at chautaris, the stop-overs with shady trees, there were scores of alcohol bottles. That’s the harsh reality of growing industrialization, too much packaging of products, so that the consumers find it easy to carry, and because of that single benefit you find litter everywhere. Can't we get back to the olden days of less packaging and do away with the polluting plastic bottles and wrappers?

Beautiful landscape on the way.
The last stop before the vertical descent to Shaktikhor was a flat piece of hill. From here, we could see the town below clearly, and I thought it would take just half an hour to reach the foot of the hill, but it turned out to be much more than that, and exhausting it was! On the route we saw beautiful houses on the edge of cliffs painted with the red clay found abundantly in the area. The laborious people living there have turned the barren land into agricultural plots and terrace fields for growing crops. While we enjoyed the calm and peace of the walk in the less frequented trail, it was a soothing experience for our ears to listen to the music played on high volume in one of those houses!

Grass promoted by a non government organisation.
As we continued our trek, we came across a hill full of dried fodder grass. Only when we asked a local, we came to know about its existence. The fodder grass was introduced to the Chepang village (on the way to Shaktikor) with the expectation that it would help lessen the deforestation. However, the villagers never used this grass as fodder; they continued lopping off tree branches, since their goats and cattle preferred the leaves. While the non-government organization promoting this grass spent a fortune on implementing the 'best practice' from somewhere else, its strategic advisors forgot that only 'best fit' activities work in a local context. While we talk about going global, we undermine the fact that every little strategy needs to be contextualized according to the local requirements.

Home-made alcohol
Once again, we came across a beautiful Chepang village at the end of the Chepang Hill Trek. The village has transformed into a modern settlement, thanks to its proximity to Shaktikhor, a fast growing town, and a bridge linking Shaktikhor with the villages. However, we were saddened to know the source of prosperity—home-made alcohol business. Almost all the houses were distilling alcohol from the rice brought from Shaktikhor. They not only made money, but were quarrelling with each other under the stupor. And that's a real bad sign!

A chiuri tree
As we descended, we came across many Chiuri trees. Also known as Indian butter, the trees are culturally significant for the Chepangs. According to development worker Rishi Adhikari, Chepangs give chiuri trees as dowry to their daughters during marriage, and along with the tree, the bride and groom also get the land occupied by the tree. But, apart from this tradition, one can extract oil and butter that goes into herbal soap making. The honey collected during the chiuri flowering season has something special about it. So, why not promote this multipurpose tree?

An eatery at Shaktikhor
Finally, we reached Shaktikhor after around six hours’ of continuous trek from Hattibang. We were tired, thirsty, and hungry, and back to the noisy city, but memories from the trek took away all the fatigue and pain!

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Mangmalung – here I come!

Sunset, as seen from Mangmalung.

It would turn out to be a lazy day. I was mumbling on my bed as the clock stroke 4:30 am. However, I had to catch an early night bus from Itahari that would take just one hour to reach Damak – our starting point of the unplanned trek. Generally, the local buses take up to two hours to cross the same distance.

It was raining cats and dogs and I unwillingly packed my laptop, diary, pen, toiletries and sets of clothes for the week-long trip. As I waded through the water-clogged streets, the street dogs barked at me and hadn’t it been so early in the morning, I would have howled back! Funny, isn’t it?

Finally, I jumped on a bus heading to Kakarvitta. Since it was coming from Kathmandu, all seats were packed and I had to stand while everybody was sleeping without any worries. And exactly in an hour I was at Damak!

I met with my friend and trek companion Dilli Rai at the bus stop and went to his house to have some breakfast before starting the journey. His sister-in-law fed us well and handed us a comb of bananas and a kilo apples which we tucked inside our bags.

Since it started raining again, we thought of buying raincoats. However, while buying biscuits and other tidbits in a grocery, the shopkeeper suggested an ingenious idea. We bought one and half metres of plastic sheets and he helped us tie them around our bodies as makeshift raincoats. It would, at least, save our laptops and cameras!

Then it was the turn to buy shoes and sandals. Since it was raining and we would need to walk through flooded rivers, I bought a sturdy pair of sandals and my friend bought a pair of Goldstar shoes for the stretch of trek following the crossing of the infamous river on the way.

Beldangi Refugee Camp
From Damak to Beldangi, the Bhutanese refugee camp, was the easiest part of the journey since we rode a city safari, a battery powered tuktuk. From there we started on foot and walked the whole day braving the rain, landslides and flash floods on the way. It took us an hour to reach Chapeti where we crossed the Ratuwa Khola.  

A wild flower, clicked on the way to Chapeti.
After three hours of continuous walk in the incessant rain we arrived at an eatery in Singphere run by a Limbu lady from Kurumba. She offered us hot coffee and noodles soup and while parting refusedto take the payment. The kind gesture is rare in the cities these days, however, it is still common in rural areas. The Limbu women treat visitors from their maternal place as special guests and my trek mate hails from the same place as the lady’s maternal house.

The river and the gorge
We then passed through gorges, with hills on both sides covered with moss and water dropping from the top. It felt like some rain forest adventure. After crossing the same river more than hundred times, we started climbing a hillock. Trekking uphill for almost an hour we reached Larumba and a scenic landscape was before our eyes. Larumba is dominantly inhabited by the Limbus and the area is famous for its black gram, called 'mas' in Nepali.

Scenic view of Larumba
Then we came across a fresh landslide on the way. The mud and stones were still flowing down with the landslide. We were afraid of the sight but when we saw two girls crossing the section, we followed them. They were busy washing their feet in a stream after the crossing the section but asked us where we were headed to. We said, "Panchami." "Oh, it's still five hours away," they said.

The clock stroke seven in the evening when we reached Banjho. Only few minutes ago I had fallen asleep near a graveyard and woke up only when my friend called me from uphill. I dragged myself up to the main road. But I could not walk further. It had been 10 hours and we had stopped only at some places for few minutes each. We decided to ask for shelter and the house owners kindly offered us free food and free stay. It was good decision that we stayed – it rained cats and dogs just after we laid down on our beds!

A traditional house on the way to Panchami
Next morning, we started early and passed through traditional houses, small tea-shops and community forests. On the way we came across fields of amriso. Ilam district in Eastern Nepal is famous for five 'As' -- aduwa (ginger), alainchi (cardamom), amriso (broom grass), aaloo (potato), and akbare (hot chilli).

Finally, after four hours’ walk we were at Chitre, a small bazaar on the way to Panchami. We talked with local leaders who would accompany us to Mangmalung the next day. We stayed at Panchami bazaar which was again an hour’s walk from Chitre. It was a stop-over for people travelling to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan in the earlier days. 

Together with local leaders from Mangmalung
Next day, along with the local leaders and the main priest of Mangmalung religious site, we headed to explore the area. This religious site spreading over 45 hectares comprises forest, caves and huge stones of different shapes and forms. ‘Mangma’ means a lady shaman and ‘lung’ means a stone in Rai and Limbu languages. According to the caretaker priest Yahanchang Bhavendra Mampahang Rai, Guru Jyotinanda discovered, excavated and identified the huge stones scattered here and there throughout the forest. Famed yogis and gurus like Falgunanda, Atmananda Lingden among others meditated in the caves sprawling around in the forest. 

Guru Bhavendra Rai
The area was a dense forest and travellers had to pass through it on their journey to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan,” said Kiran Rai, a local leader from Chitre. “According to legends, there lived a huge serpentine ghost in a pond and it used to devour the travellers, cattle and the local people frequenting the area.

The stone with seven cracks
To get rid of the ghost, the locals called a ‘bijuwani’, a lady shaman who used a brass plate to foretell the existence of the ghost and while doing so, the stone nearby got seven cracks. She was finally able to kill the serpentine ghost which slithered down a hole to the current Ratuwa Khola before dying. People still believe the river got its name after it turned red from the blood of the serpent. And Mangmalung got its name after this incident!

The pond where the serpent lived
It took us almost a day inside the forest to visit each of the stone of different shape and form. Guru Bhavendra Rai was generous to talk about the importance of each stone relating to the incidents mentioned in Hindu scriptures. The most mysterious among them is a huge rock balanced on another rock which moves easily even if you pressing its tip with your small finger. I tried it and it started moving up and down. It has been there since many years and nobody actually knows how it is balanced in such a way. People, in the past, tried to move this rock to another place but none were successful in doing so. 

Mysterious rock that can be easily moved by the tip of your small finger
A rock at Mangmalung

A rock at Mangmalung
We also ventured into two caves. At places we had to crawl like crabs and it was dark throughout with only small openings for light and air. However, one needs to be aware of bats and snakes in these caves. Since there are numerous rocks bearing interesting structures resembling animals, snakes, birds, gods and goddesses, you’ll need a local guide to learn more about the structures and the area. 
Mangmalung Tea Estate
In the evening we went to Mangmalung Tea Estate. The tea gardens offer a spectacular sight and it’s different from other tea gardens in Ilam. And if you stay till the sun sets, you’ll be able to see the breathtaking view!

So when are you planning your trip to Mangmalung?