I did a trek in 1996, when I was undergoing my Foundation Course training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie (LBSNAA). I visited Kedarnath through the route of Ghuttu, Boodha Kedar, Pawali, Triyuginarayan, Gaurikund and then Kedarnath.
This long trek has always been memorable for me, mainly because the route was such that it called for one to walk on the saddles of the mountain ranges of the region, parallel to the snow-peaked mountains, and sometimes even trekking such that mighty peaks seemed below us. Such was the grandeur of the trek, and it used to be one of the toughest ones at that time.
Similar treks are still a part of the training at LBSNAA and Officer Trainees are sent on them during the months of October-November, around the time when the snow-fall starts in these parts of Uttarakhand. At that time, I knew about the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary and also that the area is very rich in floral and faunal diversity, but I was unaware about the specific hotspots that truly make it what it is; since Kedarnath is a landscape, appreciating the exact spots that garner prosperous and rich biodiversity within this brilliant landscape and are must-visits, was something that took a few years and more trips.
When I came into the service, and the era of digital photography hadn’t caught on much and people were still using manual cameras, wildlife photography and bird photography used to be challenging. Buying and handling SLR cameras was a very costly affair and only true nature-lovers were the ones to undertake these activities. At such a time, whenever I visited the Forest Rest Houses in the Terai, I used to find photographs clicked by one Bhagat Singh adorning the walls – elephants, tigers, deer, and a plethora of birds. Rendered awe-struck by those beautiful close-ups, I used to wonder who this man is; wildlife photography was extremely rare and his work was a delight to behold.
Fortunately, when I was in Katarniaghat around 2005, I had a chance to get in touch with him, Mr Bhagat Singh, who was a naturalist, a birder, and a photographer. He had been engaged in nature appreciation for many decades then, when there was barely any wildlife tourism, and most were unware of what birding and wildlife photography was.
I got to know that after retiring from central government service, he spent most of his time in a small village called Mastura in the Kedar region, adjoining Chopta. This was also the time I was exposed to Chopta and its natural wonders, and since then, I have appreciated this gem, more through his eyes and his lens, rather than during my own visits.
Bhagat Ji had given some money to a local villager to build a small room for him there, with an understanding that he would be living there only as a guest, and when he wouldn’t be around, the room would be free for use to the villager. Half of the pension he received during those times was spent on the villagers of Mastura – their medicines, education, and welfare. While there, his time there was spent in birding, photography, and exploring the contours of the Himalayan ecosystem.
He wrote two books based on his travels and explorations in the region, The Life Cycle of Birds and Birds of Uttarakhand. The first one, has detailed accounts of the lives of 35 bird species with vivid images and lucid observations. It can only be imagined how challenging a task it is, to be able to observe and keep track of birds, through their entire lifecycle – from building nests, to laying eggs, hatching them, and raising the hatchlings. It becomes even more challenging to do this without disturbing the bird in its habitat or making it feel threatened – a task that he was able to carry out in the most effortless of ways. He was a true man of nature and his stories of Panch Kedar, Panch Prayag, the Mahabharata, the Pandavas, and the Himalayan peaks – the abode of Shiva, have left indelible images in my mind – each more vibrant, more rich, and more hued than the previous.
He wrote about the innumerable magnificient birds found in this landscape, from the Himalayan Monal, to Koklas and Khalij pheasants, Snow Partridge, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Himalayan Griffon, Fire-capped Tit, Scarlet Miniviet, Little Forktail, and Spotted Laughingthrush amongst many more; as well as the vegetation which made up their picturesque habitat.
Chopta is unique in its amalgamation of meadows, and forests of Birch and Rhododendron. In summer, the whole mountain facade is blooming with blossoms in varying hues of red, pink, and white. In winter, it is snow-clad and pristine white, nestled amongst the striking peaks of Kedar, Chaukhamba, and Neelkanth. And in autumn, it is covered by lush meadows, and cotton-candy clouds against the backdrop of a clear, azure sky.
He also mentioned three more places of significance in the region – Tungnath, Chandrashila, and Deoria Tal. Deoria Tal, in particular, is a high-altitude wetland where you can see the crystal-clear reflection of the majestic snow-clad peaks of Kedarnath and Chaukhamba in its waters, and is the abode of the Kasturi Mrig – the elusive Musk Deer, apart from leopards and Himalayan Bears. About Tungnath and Chandrashila, he talked about how both had been places of meditative reflection or tapasya, for Arjun and Lord Shri Ram, during their times, respectively.
The treks that take you up to these heights now, have become extremely popular, including a two-day hike that people take, between Deoria Tal and Tungnath. Over time, this area, which now falls between Kedarnath and Badrinath, has garnered a lot of popularity. A lot of people who undertake religious trips, are coming across Chopta and its full-bloom beauty. The place is a special favorite for birders and nature-enthusiasts who are sharing their experiences on social media.
There are multiple Guests Houses, campsites, and accommodation options in the area in and around Chopta, including a Public Works Department guest house in Dugalbitta constructed in 1925 whose sunny front lawns in the afternoons and fireplaces in the evenings are cherishable highlights of my visits. Chopta, Mastura, Tungnath, Chandrashila, and Deoria Tal can be accessed by two routes – either via Joshimath or via Ukhimath. Most importantly, the place is the most ideal nature spot – it is one to be visited, not in a hurry, but steadily, in order to imbibe the landscape, the sights and sounds, the flora and fauna, and the meditative refuge it provides.
The fact that Chopta is still not overcrowded by infrastructure, remains pristine, naturally vibrant and quiet, and houses the richest treasure, the grandeur of the Himalayas, makes it a place worth-visiting and spending time at. Aside from its religious significance, the area brings together forests, wetlands, snow-peaked mountains, and rare offerings of nature – in all the hundred hues of the Himalayas.
Photos: 1,2,3, and 5 Ramesh Pandey; 4 Sanjay Kumar IAS
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