Viraatkhai: Gorge is gorgeous
As the name suggests, there has to be a Viraat and also a khai. We have both here. In Hindi, khai is a gorge and that is quite deep here. But word ‘Viraat’ has two meanings. One is big or huge and the gorge here is really worth calling viraat. In that sense, name Viraatkhai seems quite logical. But actually the place Viraatkhai associates itself with king Viraat of Mahabharata, where Pandavas spent last year of their thirteen year exile anonymously. Either ways, located in Jaunsar-Bawar region of Garhwal, Viraatkhai is beautiful to the core and thoroughly adventurous place to be. Located on a pass at an altitude of 1950 mts overlooking Dehradun-Mussorie on one side and Himalayan peaks on other, Viraatkhai is so quiet that you can even hear yourself breathing until a strong wind blows past you. And mind it, being a pass, wind is very strong here and can be bone-chilling if it rains. This part of hill is greener and rich with pine and oak tree forests. Locals say there are many wild cats such as leopards too in the jungle, but if you are lucky then you will certainly be able to spot some porcupines, wild boars, gorals (a kind of Himalayan antelope) and fox as well.
Local beliefs in Jaunsar region have deep roots in epic of Mahabharata. It is well reflected here in social structure as well as traditions. Besides Viraatkhai you also have Lakhamandal (a magnificent temple complex on Naugaon-Barkot road) which is said to be the place where Duryodhan tried to burn Pandav brothers to death by putting them in a palace made of shellac. Similarly, there are also some villages which are said to be worshipping Kaurava King Duryodhan. In villages around Viraatkhai you will find a tradition, what locals call as Panchali tradition where all brothers in the family marry same women, just as Draupadi was married to five Pandavas. Though the villagers of Jaunsar region do it in name of tradition, they also try to attach a rationale to it by saying that, it keeps the family together. However, with changing times this tradition has gone weaker; still you may be able to find a few persons among local staff at your camp itself who may be religiously following this tradition. Talking to them would be very interesting.
Things to see and do
On a clear day you can see as far as Dehradun and Mussorie towards the south-west. But it is actually the view towards the north-east, which will enthrall you the most. From the top at Viraatkhai (2 km from campsite) you can view snow-clad Himalayan ranges from Dhauladhar peaks in the west to Bandarponch, Black Peak, Kedar Peak, Sumeru, Kedar Dom, Swargarohini and till Chaukhambha in east. It is a fascinating sight of all Garhwal peaks. Try to have an early morning view and nothing better if you brave cold and manage to catch a sunrise glimpse of the Himalayas. For a more uninterrupted morning view you can go up to Jhulke Danda. It is actually the top of a hill nearby. You can trek upto the top right from the camp. It will take almost one and half hours to top. To make it easier, you can drive upto Viraatkhai top and then do a half hour trek to Jhulke Danda. The top also has a small temple of god Bhadras. He is actually god of rains and you might find his temples on every other hill top as well. There is also a sunset point at a half hour trek till the top of another hill overlooking campsite. You can watch sun setting in the Dehradun valley from here.
Four km from camp is Garh Viraat, a hill which houses at its top, what local calls as remains of erstwhile palace of King Viraat. From Viraatkhai top one need to drive two km towards Chakrata and then there is 15 minute moderate trek to the top. There you can find remains of few walls and an old well. 21 kms from camp towards Yamuna Bridge is a village called Lakhwad. Seated there is a beautiful but recently made temple of local god Mahasu. Mahasu is one of the most revered gods of Jaunsar region. Village with a population of over 1100 is actually a tourism promoting village. Besides a PWD dak bungalow you will also get homestay facilities here. Another few kilometers from Viraatkhai towards Chakrata is Chaurani, which used to have a guest house built by Britishers. Now that place is used as for various adventure related activities. Another temple is at Nagthatch, eight km from Viraatkhai. Besides, you can also explore some caves and few waterfalls in the area around. It can be adventurous. But take care to have a guide to accompany you.
Viraatkhai is located on what locals call as Chakrata-Mussorie highway, a road built by Britishers during the time of the Raj. Chakrata is 25 km east from Viraatkhai, whereas 28 km down west is Yamuna Bridge on way to Mussorie. After crossing this bridge one road goes north to Yamunotri. But if you are heading straight to Viraatkhai than just after crossing Kalsi on Vikasnagar-Chakrata road, take a right turn on Yamunotri road. Another five km later leave the Yamunotri road and take a small hill road northwards to Viraatkhai. It is another 26 km from there (24 km till campsite).
Where to stay and eat
Himalayan Eco Lodges & Camps, Viraatkhai. It has eleven huts and fifteen Swiss style tents.
Don’t forget to ask the camp cook to prepare some local leafy vegetables. Uttarakhand is famous for that. The taste would be entirely different from whatever you would have had at any other place. Specially go for leaves of Stinging nettle, often referred to Bichoo Ghass or Kandali in local dialects. A leaf that stings badly when on stem and turns out to be a delicious vegetable when cooked.
If you love a drink or two, you can also taste local homemade wine prepared from wheat or rice. Request the kitchen staff to arrange it from any nearby village.