21st May 2017, Sunday….Amritsar-Dhaliara, 175 km
22nd May 2017, Monday….Dhaliara-Nagrota Surian-Rancer Island, 50 km
Whenever I saw photos of a group of white birds flying in the blue sky over a large water body with snowclad mountains in the background, I felt like flying to the spot instantly and immerse in the heavenly surroundings. Yet I was not there, may be because the urge was not strong enough even though the place was not very far away from where I live.
I have been close though, crossed Pong Dam many times while driving to Himachal Pradesh and beyond. The vastness and beauty of Maharana Partap Sagar always seemed to hide in its fold many mysteries and secrets, as the vast area was once throbbing with life before hundreds of villages and life along with it got buried in water samadhi in 1975 when a large man made reservoir was created.
A friend of mine Mr Harsh Khullar had once mentioned an island in Pond Dam Lake, called Rancer. For the matter of fact, the islands and mysteries surrounding them have always fascinated me. It was playing on my mind ever since and I tried to know more about it from the internet but with very little success.
And then for the past few days I have been hearing a lot about a group of temples which remain submerged in the lake for 8-9 months and were seen from the month of March till June. Thereafter, they submerge again during monsoons, not to be seen again till March next year. The phenomenon keeps repeating every year even though the temples have been dipping underwater for over 35 years now.
Since we are building our new home these days, I seldom get long break and hence travel. when we got up that day, on Sunday, 21st May 2017, dark clouds were hovering in the sky, cool breeze was blowing and which meant rain was round the corner. It was a perfect day for long drive and beat the simmering heat of the plains.
I rang up our contractor who confirmed that there was going to be no work that day due to rain. Thus freed, I decided to drive and explore the above places. Asked my wife to accompany but she refused as my son had his last engineering test the next day. So left with no other option, I decided to drive solo.
Checked up the internet for routes to the submerged temples but since no authentic information was available, decided to drive through Amritsar-Hoshiarpur-Dehra Gopipur side as the traffic on the route keep flowing and many dhabas, tea shops remain open throughout the night.
I started from my home in Amritsar at around 2pm afternoon and after driving leisurely, stopping at many places, reached Dhaliara at 8pm evening. At Dhaliara, I decided to break the journey for few hours and then continue in the wee hours the next day.
The atmosphere at Dhaliara was pretty good. Many dhabas and shops were open. The traffic was good too. Night Buses, maxi cabs bound for Delhi and Dharamshala were carrying passengers from all strata of life, travellers, businessmen, monks, students, colorfully dressed local men and women.
Before dinner and resting inside the car, I wanted to enjoy few drinks. Checked up the entire bazar and surprisingly, did not see even a single theka, very unlike Himachal.
After enquiry I came to know that due to the latest Supreme Court ruling all the thekas on the highways have been shifted some 200 meters away and since most of the towns of Himachal are located on the ridges, 200 meters means going down a valley or climbing up a hill.
So it was not before a little effort and spying that I got hold of a bottle of vodka. Bought chilled soda, lemons and had nice time sipping on cool vodka while relaxing inside the car, air conditioners running and music on. Observing the excited commuters alighting from the buses, hurrying for their share of tea, smoking and chit chatting after getting divided into small groups, was quite interesting.
After few drinks, I came out of the car and began walking on the road with cool breeze blowing. Stopped at one of the dhabas and enjoyed dal tadka with hot tandoori chapatis. Walked up to the car and slept for few hours.
Got up at 3am, took tea from one of many tea shops open. I asked the man how he manages sleep. He smiled and told that he sleeps for few hours every day and that since he has been into it for over 15 years now, it has become a habit.
It was 3.30am morning, bit early when I began driving towards Dehra. After crossing the bridge over river Beas at a square the road to the right leads to Jawalaji. I turned left towards Dehra town and since no one was awake so early, it took me a little guessing in finding the correct road towards Haripur.
The narrow, potholed, bad road to Haripur runs along the Pong Lake. It was still dark and no one on the road, except a couple of jackals running into the bushes.
When I reached Haripur milky dawn was setting in. I saw a man hurriedly walking on the road with a pot in his hand. I asked him the road to Nagrota, he showed me the way and suggested visiting a fort nearby.
The road to Haripur fort ran through the main town. It was a good one kilometer steep hike, still 5am morning when I reached the fort. No one was awake. Perched on a hillock, the fort looked in ruins. Later, I came to know that the fort was a private property and not in use as of now. A caretaker lives inside the fort.
The drive from Haripur thereafter was quite good. The day was breaking and the landscape looked fantastic. Had nice time driving through the town of Guler and along the small gauge dhauladhar rail. Sadly all the pictures of the area and the train got deleted by mistake.
I reached Nagrota Surian at 8am. Had light breakfast from a shop near the bus stand, made some enquiries and drove to Nagrota Surian Wetlands, the bird watching site. No other visitor was at the site. Me and Lalpari were the only visitors that day.
The wetlands looked very vast. Apart from the huge lake, it had large green and yellow grasslands, marshes, and islands. The grasslands are dotted with a number of gujjar tents and deras. Gujjar men, women and children were seen tending to large groups of cows, buffalos and horses. Hundreds of birds were flying over the lake and grasslands.
Many gujjar men and fishermen were seen speeding motorbikes and tractor trolleys though the vast grasslands. A specific area was fenced and earmarked for parking the bikes. After parking the bikes they can freely go fishing, on the other side of the lake or tend to their herd throughout the day.
The sights around were just amazing. Fishermen were rowing the boats in the lake, birds were chirping and flying everywhere, horses, cows and buffaloes were grazing on the green grass. Gujjars were speeding the bike and women were running after their herd.
It was bit hot though and there were no migratory birds as well. Snowclad Dhauladhars were engulfed in thick fog. I could visualise, how beautiful the sight would be, in winters. But then one could not go so far deep into the wetlands as the water level is quite high in winters. Moreover you can not see Bathu Ki Ladi in the winters and can not ride to Rancer Island on bikes either.
While talking to a gujjar family, I came to know that Rancer Island was around 10 kilometers from the place and was accessible via a bike ride these days as the marshes connecting the wetlands to Rancer Island has dried up.
The distance between Nagrota Surian wetlands and Rancer Island is around four kilometers from shore to shore and usually accessible via a boat. The forest area inside the Ranser Island which houses a forest rest house too, is a further six kilometer walk or ride through the grasslands.
The marshes connecting the wetlands to island dries up for a short period around May-June every year and becomes drivable. Since the marshes had not dried up fully, the path was ridable on bike and not drivable for car.
I requested the man in whites, Kaku Gujjar, to take me to the island on his bike. Initially he was reluctant and refused, but later agreed on my insistence.
We rode through the marshes. Kaku navigated the marshes very skillfully as he was used to riding on this kind of terrain. A little later, after crossing the marshes, we reached the other shore and into Rancer Island.
Reaching Rancer Island was a wonderful feeling. Till few days ago I was searching it on the net and no authentic information was available and here I was in reality ridden on a bike to the island.
The island was more in length than in width. It had a cluster of forest area on left which also houses a built area. From the shore it looked quite close but when we rode it was quite far in reality, approximately six kilometers.
After riding on a grassy ups and down path we reached at the fenced entrance to the forest area. It was, in fact, the back gate of the fenced area. The access to the main entrance was through the waterways from the dam side.
Opened the door and started walking on the well paved cemented path. Nobody was around. There was a kind of mystery in the surroundings. It felt as if some dancing tribals would emerge from the jungle, imprison us and take us to the head of the tribe.
It also resembled a scene from a famous bollywood movie ‘Gumnam’ when this famous song was being played in the background.
गुमनाम है कोई बदनाम है कोई किसको ख़बर कौन है वो अनजान है कोई गुमनाम है कोई …
After walking for around 5 minutes we reached a constructed area housing a forest rest house. We walked in and yelled ‘koyee hai’. After a while a woman arrived, I asked for the caretaker. She called and a lean middle aged man emerged from nearby.
The caretaker told us that the rest house was under renovation for the last so many years and was not operational. There was no electricity, potable water or other facilities and was not sure when it would be completed.
He told us that he was living at the island with his wife and finding it very difficult. There were a small number of peacocks and a large number of snakes including king cobra at the island.
After a little chit chat we took leave from Girdhari Lal, the caretaker and walked towards the main entry gate on the other side of the island. Boats from Pond Dam and other nearby villages dock on that side of the island.
From the entry gate we decided to have a round of the island. The path around the island was unpaved but well marked trek. It was fenced from both the sides, on its one hand being lake and the other dense forest
Soon we arrived at the point where our bike was parked. Clicked few pictures and started riding back.
Many villages got submerged into the reservoir while building the dam. It included a village named Rohru, which is now called Rancer or Ramsar drawing its name from the Ramsar convention.
Maharana Pratap Sagar also known as Pong Reservoir or Pong Dam Lake was created in 1975 by building an earth filled dam on the River Beas in the wetlands of Shivalik Hills in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. The reservoir is a well-known wildlife sanctuary and one of the 26 international wetland sites declared in India by Ramsar Convention.
The large reservoir attracts migratory birds from the plains of India, Central Asia and Siberia. More than 220 bird species have been recorded. The two-day waterfowl census, which ended on 1st Feb 2015, recorded over 130,000 birds in the Pong Dam Wetlands.
Healthy gujjar buffaloes munching on the green grass at the wetlands.
After a fascinating ride of over two hours in Rancer Island, we reached back at the place where Kaku’s family was waiting for us. Thanked Kaku Gujjar and his family and I left the wetlands fully satisfied for the next destination of the day, which happened to be Rock Cut Temples at Masroor………!!!