NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles by Vaibhav on his great trip through Bastar and Amarkantak. 

I had a great fun trip from 20th Dec (evening) till 2nd Jan (morning). Roughly did this loop: Delhi-Pendra Road (for Amarkantak)- Raipur-Kondagaon-Jagdalpur (day trips to Tokapal, Dantewada, Chitrakot, Kutumsar) - Bhubaneswar - Konarak - Chilika - Delhi.

When I came back, I calculated using Google maps that the total kilometers clocked were about 4000! Travel was a combination of Train (most of the time), Bus (quite a bit), Bike (both self drive and pillion), Boats (couple rides), Auto and finally a car on a self-drive basis.

First, some "teaser pics" of my journey

 Amarkantak By vaibhav_arora

Here are some pictures of my trip. I'll report the trip in detail further below. 

 

Sunrise over Maikal Hills - Amarkantak

 

Sriyantra (tantrik) temple - Amarkantak

 

Narmada Udgam Temple - reflection - Amarkantak

 

Sarvadharmasambhav Hanuman Mandir - Raipur

 

Dawn - Kondgaon

 

Mahua seller (Gond tribe)- Benur Village

(Dried flowers of mahua tree are used by tribals as food and to produce liquor)

 

A bastar version of 'Volvo' ;)

 

Jagdalpur Road crossing

 

Cave formations - Kutumsar

 

Tirathgarh watefalls

 

Some more "teaser" pics

Here are some more pictures from the second part of the trip when I went, in order, from Tirathgarh back to Jagdalpur, to Chitrakot, Dantewara and the village market of Tokapal, to the surrounding areas of Bhubaneswar, Chilika, and so on. 

 

Chitrakot - permanent rainbow

 

Adieu to Jagdalpur

 

Konarak - truly a wonder

 

New marine drive - between konarak and Puri

 

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Temple detail - Vaital deul - 8 armed chamunda - Bhubaneswar

 

Mangaljodi on Chilika - Great Heron

 

Udaigiri - Bhubaneswar

The Start of The Journey

Part 1: I Almost Didn't Go!

Thanks to work pressure, I was itching for a break and hence had done research off and on for more than a month prior to my December break.

I posted several questions here on Indiamike (mostly in the Chhattisgarh forum) and thanks to fellow India Miker Delhiwala, decided against a backbreaking bus ride through the state. I got some helpful replies from Vonkla and few others - so thank you gentlemen!

I spoke with the CG tourism department (I do not like organized tours but in this case, given that they were responsive and the state isn't exactly on the tourist map, I could have opted for this). Their quote was prohibitive though - about INR 42,000 for two people for about an 8 day, 8 night tour (though i was going to go solo, that wouldnt bring down the costs significantly).

Finally, I simply booked four train legs - in the best class that i could get and decided to go with it. The first leg was in 3rd AC on the night of 20th December from Delhi to Raipur. This cost me Rs 1356 (including tatkal charges). I had initially thought of roughing it out in sleeper class but given the increasing cold and fog, just chickened out of it.

The second leg was a ticket from Pendra Road to Raipur on the morning of the 23rd on Jammu Tawi-Durg Special. The third was the hirakhand express to go to Bhubaneswar from Jagdalpur and the last was the Duronoto (3AC again) starting from BBSR on 1st of Jan till New Delhi.

After some half hearted attempts to carry a backpack (I did buy and still have a new Forclaz 60L for this trip) I decided to take a wheeled bag instead, a light sleeping bag, a small daypack and my trusted Lowepro slingshot camera bag.

On the day that I was set to leave, dense fog had caused cancellation and rescheduling of dozens of trains. I was a bit apprehensive but was not prepared for what happened that day.

In the morning the Northern Railway Website that I've often used and quoted showed that the train is delayed by 3 hours+ and will leave around 8:45 pm instead of the 5:25 pm scheduled start. This remained the status till 2 pm.

I had lunch and came back to check and to my surprise, the same website showed the train as cancelled! I called up IRCTC and they had no information regarding the same. Frantic calls to Nizamuddin Railway Station resulted in no response. On the 5th and final call to 139 (railway helpline), I finally got through to someone who knew the status (and this was already well past the original scheduled departure) and was told that 20:45 is the new departure time and I should go to the station accordingly.

My parents had agreed to drop me off (before leaving for Jaipur themselves the next morning) and we left for the station around 7:30 pm. It took us just about 45 minutes to get there through the crowded area near the bridge - I walked over to the station to learn that there're other trains scheduled to depart from the same platform before the sampark kranti but to my relief, the train would go! Yippee!!

I said my goodbyes to my parents and walked over with my luggage to the designated platform (number 7) and waited .... and waited ... and waited some more. Finally, the train showed up at 9:20 pm.

As all the passengers had gathered near the door I had some difficulty boarding but managed to get to my designated berth only to find no space for luggage. My co-passengers were a mixed lot but the two people who stood out were a Gujarati young man (traveling with his mother) and an elderly sikh gentleman (traveling with about 8 members of his family). The former was very helpful and polite and the latter was equally unhelpful, cursed as often as he liked and was in general unhappy with the state of the world.

Every single minute's delay caused some cussing to come from the gentleman and finally it ended only at 10:20 pm when the train left the station ... I quickly settled into my bed for the night (The middle berth)and tried to get some shut-eye.

Part 2: A Slow Beginning

The next morning (21st December) at 6 am the train was still at Jhansi. Thus we had actually been delayed further while traveling (the scheduled arrival for Jhansi was at 11 pm the previous night).

Soon, there were vendors selling tea, breakfast (bread-cutlets and hot aloo-bondas) all over the coach. I had no appetite and was more curious to walk around, stretch my legs and find out exactly when we would reach Pendra Road - as that would give me some idea of my next steps. Early enough and I could risk Achanakamar (without a booking in the rest house), any later and I'd play it safe and go to Amarkantak.

From that morning the scenery had changed completely from the usual sights of the north - we were clearly in MP - beautiful forest of Sal, Sagwan and other mixed deciduous trees passed by. I asked around for identification of some of the tree types and the elderly sikh actually came to my rescue (it turned out later that by profession he was a timber-merchant and had his own shop in Durg!!)

The train pulled into Katni-murwara at noon - it was hot in the sun! The garrulous old man just didn't stop cussing at the delays and I had had enough education about the varieties of timber available in MP. Just to escape this oppressive atmosphere I walked out and stood near the door for an hour.

The train passed through some scenic teak forests especially between Umaria (no stop there) and Ghunghuti. It also took many a turn and interesting station names such as Nowrozabad and a few tunnels appeared. The weather was perfect outside and I was in a holiday mood by then!!

I got down at Pendra road by 4 pm (the original scheduled arrival was 9:20 am!) and walked outside after a brief chat with the station master about the situation of the arriving trains.

Turned out that due to winter season there were no more buses going up on that day towards Amarkantak and I'd have to go with a private jeep / car. They all looked at me like a wolf at a well fed lamb and set about to throw wild numbers - Rs 500/-, 450/, etc, etc.

I finally paid up(I had been in a train for over 18 hours and in the same set of clothes for over 24) and decided to go up to Amarkantak with this man.

This was a bit of a bad deal (the couple in the seat behind had paid Rs 150/- for two people!) And he charged me Rs 300/- for the front seat. He also refused to drop me to my intended destination - the Sarvodaya Jain Dharamshala at Amarkantak, and instead suggested some other kutir that I didnt like (we did stop by there).

The route goes via Gaurella, Jwaleshwar and onto Amarkantak - the countryside is very peaceful - I got some photos but nothing too good due to the moving vehicle and my tiredness.

The evening was beautiful and the sun was setting as we reached.

I dumped my luggage in the Jain dharamshala (Rs 400/- for a three bedded room!) and quickly headed out for the star attraction - the Narmada temple.

Should anyone wish to stay there - basic, clean rooms are available (hot water on demand in the morning though) and their number is 07629-269450 (speak with Mr Satendra Jain or Gulabsingh). The place is a bit out of the way and closer to the Jain temple (under construction).

Upon reaching the temple, I made acquaintance with the older pujari and asked if I could take pictures of the evening Aarti to which they had no objections. The young priest holding the 'deep-dan' or the lamp-case had a flowing mane and did an excellent chant. There were around 20 people including some bengali families - no more than 10 tourists in total!

I stood there quietly and then clicked a few snaps - this is right next to the narmada udgam (or origin) tank.

The temple itself is an oasis of calm in the evening and is lit till late in the night.

Throughout my visit, no priest came forth to ask for any money and even the rates for various services in the temple are written clearly - it was such a nice change from many other temples I've visited (and was yet to on this very trip!).

I had dinner at Vasant Bhojanalaya (recommended by the priest) and called it a day.

Maikal's Daughter

Thursday the 22nd December - I woke up at 4:30 am with a start - had slept very well (Amarkantak is a small place and very quiet, the altitude is about 1000 metres and the place is treated as a hill station by the people of MP). It was exceptionally quiet when I was there as the narmada parikrama (I was told by a few taxi drivers) does not happen between 15th December to 15th of January (sankranti was the date from which it was to re-start). 

I felt very fresh and energetic that day and climbed up the roof to (unsuccessfully) attempt some shots of the night sky. The fresh water on demand facility had to be exercised and the nightwatchman Gulab Singh heated water on firewood for me. 

I left my room around 5:30 and headed to the main market ...dawn looked so pretty and the moon was still up high. 

I had learnt the previous day from Vasant bhojanalaya owner that there's a sunrise point called 'Sonemuda' - named after Sonbhadra (the mythical lover of Narmada - who was per mythology, Maikal's (Shiva) daughter. The river son also has its origin near the same spot. It was about a kilometer+ walk and I joined a group of morning walkers for the walk. It was cold - the ground was still frosty (seen below) 

One of the morning walkers - Pandeyji, who works in the Indira Gandhi Tribal University at amarkantak was full of enthusiasm and also full of stories about Amarkantak and told me this tale about Amarkantak 

Given below is a shorter version of the tale (which was relayed to me many times later that day in with some variations by other locals)

In the old days, Narmada (Shiva's daughter) in her mortal form was a princess and used to live and hunt in these hills. She, accompanied by her maid- Joila- was was out for a deer-hunt and aimed a buck far away. At the same time, Sonabhadra (the son of a local chieftain) was also out hunting and aimed at the same buck. Narmada missed but Sonabhadra did not. The princess and the prince reached the spot where the poor animal lay writhing in agony at the same time. One look at Narmada's face was enough to bowl Sonabhadra over and he offered that she carry away the prize. In her royal hauteur, the princess declined stating 'this isnt my kill and therefore I'm not entitled to it'. Sonabhadra, however had fallen and propositioned marriage to her. Over a period of time, Narmada agreed to his advances and a date for the wedding was set. 

Meanwhile, Joila, the maid grew very envious of Narmada. It is fabled that she was a beauty in her own right but was forced to work as a maid due to her family background. 

On the day of the wedding, Sonabhadra was delayed in coming over and Narmada got worried. Taking advantage of this, Joila insinuated narmada that she should go looking for her groom - and narmada agreed. 

Joila, meanwhile realized that her ploy was working and quickly changed into Narmada's wedding dress. After all, behind the veil, no one could tell who it was sitting in the mandap! Narmada couldnt locate her groom in the thick forests and Sonbhadra reached the mandap. They were almost married when Narmada reached the mandap, found out what was going on and kicked Joila hard. 

(and that would've been one powerful kick indeed) as Joila landed in Jwaleshwar - 13 kms away! 

Sonabhadra and Narmada were reunited and it was happily ever after for them. 

(a variation of this story - told to me by another taxi driver cum guide- said that they did get married and narmada didnt quite forgive her suitor and remained 'pure')

There is a small temple to Sonabhadra too near sone-muda. Seen below ... 

There's also a hanuman temple and a few other statues. 

The entire story did result in my missing the sunrise by a whisker but I did see the beautiful morning over Maikal hills ... the shots do not do justice to the serene beauty of this place ... 

Next: Read Part II of the Amarkantak trip report.