Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill

Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Parasnath Hills are a range of hills located at the eastern mete of Chota Nagpur Plateau, as if born to add mountain flavor to the touristry platter of woody Jharkhand. The highest peak of Parasnath range is Parasnath itself, marking its dominance as the tallest peak in Jharkhand, with a decent altitude of 4,429 feet. Parasnath is one of the holiest pilgrimage destination for Jains, and more popularly addressed as ‘Shikharji’ or “Sammed Sikhar”. A casual Google-search can fetch you all these info. But, what you still won’t get to know is whether Parasnath Hill is worth visiting for travellers who’re not religiously inclined, or those who follow other religions. That’s the reason why you’ve landed onto this blog. Keep reading. Last week I rode to Madhuban on a scooter. Those of you who already know me as a motorcycle obsessed individual must be wondering why I rode on a scooter. I’ll come to that part later. It was my second visit to Madhupur, with almost similar eagerness to hike Parasnath as I had back in October 2016. Madhuban is a tiny town in Giridih district dotted with a number of Jain temples. The usual hiking trail to Parasnath peak originates from one fag end of this pilgrim-packed town. Once the motorable road ends, one needs to walk 6 miles up to get onto the Parasnath top.
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Parasnath range of hills as seen from the Delhi-Kolkata (NH-2) highway.
Hope 2019 has shown you its pleasant face as yet. It has been friendly with me so far, at least in travel department. To tell you the truth, the very idea of a long scooter ride followed by hiking to Parasnath top in the first half of January seemed like the perfect way to open my 2019 travel diary. Have a glance at my simple travel plan: 
Day 1: Scooter ride from Bardhaman to Madhuban (roughly 250 kilometres). Overnight halt. 
Day 2: Hike to Parasnath Hill, and return by afternoon (about 21 kilometres). 
Day 3: Ride to Topchanchi Lake en route to Bardhaman, with content heart and nagging muscles. 
Today we’ll primarily focus on the second day of the above itinerary. In a subsequent blog I’ll recommend you few worthy destinations which can be easily clubbed with your Parasnath trip itinerary. For road-travellers, getting into Madhuban is pretty easy as it is just half an hour drive from the Delhi-Kolkata national highway (we still love to call it NH-2). Rest of you are free to explore the railway connectivity through Parasnath station (station code- PNME), which is again half an hour drive from Madhuban. 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Jain pilgrims cover a mountain trail of 18 miles on bare feet as a part of their religious obligation.
Although there’s very little mention of the alternate walking trail in all resources available online, I got it confirmed from few local inhabitants that there still exists a 10-11 kilometres path from Nimiyaghat to Parasnath top, which is broken at few places due to lack of maintenance for decades. As Madhuban has gained its popularity as the base-camp for Parasnath pilgrimage, the southern trail is only used by local villagers, and as of now it lacks tourist amenities which are abundant in the northern trail. Government is planning to revamp that unsung route, probably as an effort to boost tourism. According to locals, full fledged construction works shall be undertaken in another 2 years. I tell you, my soles are itching to hike Parasnath from Nimiyaghat side and narrate you the firsthand experience, before it gets inevitably populated with tourists in subsequent years. Let’s chain down that impulse till next winter. It was early evening when I reached Madhuban. Riding 250 kilometres on a gearless scooter is much different than a powerful motorcycle. It is not only the slow pace which is a limiting factor for highways, but also its minuscule wheels (also, less capable suspension setup) which transmit unsettling vibes to your spine the moment they hit bad patches. 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Pilgrims who are not in a state to walk can avail 'Doli' facilities for the entire Parasnath trail.
There are more than a dozen of Jain temple complexes at Madhupur which offer accommodation at affordable price. Warning you from my first time experience, many of them do not entertain non-Jain tourists. You’ll be judged and scrutinised more by the reception guy if you arrive there solo. To avoid prospective rejection, I directly headed to Yatri Niwas. Oops, the old manager whom I had met earlier was no longer working there. This one was polite but it was difficult for him to digest the fact that I had travelled solo on a scooter to hike Parasnath Hill. I had to reply to multiple disconnected queries. My driving license wasn’t convincing enough. Thankfully, the scan copy of passport in my phone gallery helped him to stop disbelieving me and allot a room. It was an air-conditioned VIP room good enough to accommodate 3 persons. “Take it or leave it” was clear from what he said. I was too tired to wander around in search of a budget alternative. Remember, Yatri Niwas is very cheap. Make sure to book in advance. Eateries drop down their shutters early at Madhuban. I topped up my tummy, purchased adequate food stock for the next morning and surrendered to the warmth of double blanket. It was quite cold. A sound sleep was mandatory. 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Finally you get a clear glimpse of an appealing white structure- the Parasnath Temple.
Pilgrims usually start their journey very early, at about 2-3 O’clock in the morning, because they have 18 miles to cover on bare feet and plenty of halts to make along the trail to offer prayer at various temples. Throughout the year thousands of Jain devotees hike to Parasnath Hill, or circumambulate (Parikrama) the hill at its base as a part of their sincere religious endeavour. They believe that Sammed Sikhar is the holy site where twenty of the 24 Tirthankaras attained salvation (Moksha). My purpose of revisiting Parasnath was anything but religious. Simply I wanted to enjoy nature and warm-up my sedentary limbs. Periodic self-evaluation of your stamina is not a bad practice, especially when you’ve got family history of cardiac ailments, diabetes and what not! Few hours of mountain walk through woods to reach a point (Parasnath Temple) from where every other element comes into the bird’s eye view is definitely an inviting idea. With no obligation of rituals to perform, I took my own sweet time to commence the trek. It was already eight. A smart chap doesn’t overload his hiking backpack. So did I. The backpack contained a litre of water, a packet full of different chocolate bars (Ouch!) and the face towel. 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
At every few hundred meters you'll come across a stall selling essential snacks and beverages.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, do make it a point to get yourself a walking stick before you leave the motorable road. I am not talking of expensive trekking poles. A simple cane of 10-20 bucks would do just fine. Unless you’re a pilgrim, or barefoot walker like Milind Soman, oblige your feet with a pair of comfy sneakers. Hiking boots are not really necessary as the entire trail is paved. Yes, the route to Shikharji (Parasnath Temple) is paved with concrete all the way up and there are several places where steps have been cut out. After every short interval you’ll come across a stall selling beverages and snacks. Winter morning chill condensed inside the forest and chirping of birds as the sun rises make the ascent more enjoyable for nature lovers. As I had started late, sunrise magic show was not on the cards. In my humble opinion, day treks are best done solo. When you trek solo, you take better care of yourself, as you know deep within there’s none to participate in your pity party. As distractions are lesser, you tend to absorb the surrounding more. You start tracking every wrong footstep, each shallow breath and even mildest muscle twitch. Believe me, it’s a beautiful experience when you interact with our body so intimately for hours in a natural surrounding! 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Unlike last time, weather at the top was quite clear.
Pilgrims who are not in a state to walk those strenuous 18 miles, either due to physical or mental barrier, can avail ‘Doli’ (palanquin) facilities for the entire Parasnath trail. A Doli can be reserved right from any guesthouse at Madhuban. Locals carrying pilgrims in Dolis is the visual hallmark of Madhuban street photography. It is probably one of the main sources of income for a huge number of natives hailing from poor socioeconomic background. A Doli is either carried by two or four bearers depending on the weight of the client. Accordingly the price varies from two to eight thousand bucks. As you hike up, you’ll come across a number of Doli bearers with empty Dolis who would find opportunities to convince you to hire them. Although they are benign, such nagging can prove detrimental to your hiking spirit. When you’re breathless and fatigued, cheap availability of an option to reach the top (ultimate goal of any hiker) can easily dampen your killer instinct. Unless you decided to opt for a litter, avoid interacting with Doli-walas. Keep breathing, document the surrounding natural grandeur and walk at a pace such that you never run out of breath. 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
There are more than a dozen of Jain temple complexes at Madhupur.
After 4 kilometres from the base there’s a gurgling stream called “Gandharva Nala”. Although, visually there’s no beauty associated with this spot, devotees consider the trail beyond Gandharva Nala very sacred. About 7 kilometres up the trail you’d find a prominent bifurcation. Unless you are a pilgrim, take the right steep path which would directly take you to the top of Parasnath Hill in another 3 kilometres ascent. Pious Jains first reach the Gautam Swami Hill, then head towards Chandra Prabhu Hill, then back to Jal Mandir, and finally ascend to the Parasnath Temple. Devotion can make you do feats which are beyond your apparent physical abilities. Peak was my destination, so I took the right. Do not get browbeaten by countless gangs of red-faced monkeys throughout the Parasnath trail. Keep walking with your cane, without feeding or disturbing them. Your world is different from theirs. So, keep it that way. I was very focused to reach the top steadily. As it was winter, thirst didn’t bother me much. Yet, timely righteousness advised me help the body with few calories and hydration. As I zipped open the backpack very first time in the trek, I found only a bottled water! It became obvious that I left those chocolate bars in the rest-house itself. It was frustrating but not risky. In few hundred meters I found a food stall to customise a wholesome breakfast. 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Devotees were circumambulating the Parasnath Temple clock-wise before offering prayers.
A kilometre below the top, you’ll come across a dak-bungalow where pilgrims could halt overnight by reserving from Madhuban. Right now this facility is suspended. Sudden increase in the frequency of eateries and spotting of large tiled steps shall mark the arrival of your ultimate destination. Although you’ve been tracking the Parasnath Temple since quite sometime, finally you get a clear glimpse of its appealing white structure, slightly veiled by mist and clouds (minimum in a winter midday). Unlike last time, weather at the top was quite clear. Majestic vista constituted by adjacent cliffs and the vast plain lying below was too ethereal to be captured in any digital camera! Being a road freak I tried to locate the NH-2 from the temple balcony. Most probably, the highway was so insignificant to that lordly panorama that it beyond the capacity of any mortal trace it. Devotees were circumambulating the Parasnath Temple clock-wise, before offering prayers inside the hall. I had collected my reward. It was time for descent. Do not misjudge the downhill walk. This part is equally muscle agonising. Prolonged walk down the steep gradient puts substantial stress to your toes and knee joints. Along with the walking stick, a pair of knee caps should give you some relief though. 
Winter Hike to the holy Parasnath Hill
Do not get browbeaten by countless gangs of red-faced monkeys throughout the Parasnath trail.
In a couple of hours I climbed down to Madhuban and concluded my Parasnath hike. It was time to eat, rest and pamper my nagging limbs. I forgot to mention a couple of things before. Although the administration prohibits entry of two-wheeler into the Parasnath trail, many locals use their motorcycles illegally to ferry tourists up and down the hill. This practice not only harms the forest ecosystem of Parasnath Hill, but also affects the business of traditional Doli bearers. So, please refrain from encouraging such practice just to save few bucks. As I mentioned earlier, there are no commercial hotels at Madhuban, if you’re running low in cash, or fail to manage accommodation at various Jain Ashrams, contact any Doli-wala. He’ll guide you to some local home-stay which are very cheap. Above all, engrave it in your heart- Parasnath is a very sacred destination for Jains. Be respectful to that fact and think thrice before experimenting anything uncommon. By now, you know that Parasnath Hill is an amazing hiking trail in eastern India. As I mentioned before, I’ll try out hiking Parasnath from Nimiyaghat side someday soon. In my upcoming blog post I’ll highlight few destinations worth visiting from Madhuban. Tomorrow, I’ll be flying to Uzbekistan. Catch you with tales of Central Asia after I return.

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I really appreciate your efforts in exploring my poetry of roads. Thank You!