In the map of British-ruled India, the Doab or ‘two waters’ is the region of Uttar Pradesh between the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna. A great escape from Delhi, It is one of the most populated and fertile lands thanks to the historic Ganga Canal, a gigantic infrastructure built in the mid-nineteenth century by the British East India Company to irrigate a vast area after a terrible famine.
This journey begins in New Delhi and passes through the Upper Doab, where wonderful sub-montane and river views alternate with stories of warrior queens, tiger hunters and Vedic mythology.
The best way to travel is by private car or by motorbike. It gives you the freedom to explore the area according to your own pace and interests. My suggested itinerary for this escape from Delhi is through Ghaziabad, Meerut, Sardhana, Bijnor (night stop), Naziabad, Kotdwara (night stop), Chilla and finally Rishikesh.
The first 50 km of this ‘escape from Delhi’ is nothing more than an extension of the Delhi metropolitan area, but after Meerut the rural landscape slowly appears in front of your eyes. You are on the road to Muzaffanagar, Roorkee and Dehradun (NH 58), the ‘pilgrimage road’ leading up to the Char Dham yatra and the four sources of the river Ganges.
Sardhana and the warrior Queen Begum Somru
My first stop is Sardhana, 22 km from the national highway. The history of this land is linked to a warrior queen, Farzana or Zebun Nissa, better known as ‘Begum Somru’. She was the beautiful and intelligent daughter of a nobleman of Arabian origin who settled near Meerut. After the death of the father, she became a dancer at the royal courts. She was only 15 years old when she married a French official, Walter Reinhard, a mercenary who was at the service of the King of Bharatpur.
After her husband’s death, she inherited the principality of Sardhana and his private army that she put at the service of the Mughal emperor in Delhi. She had a turbulent life through many battles to defend her kingdom and an overwhelming love story.
The only visible legacy of Begum Somru in Sardhana is a big church known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces built at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In fact, Farzana was born as a Muslim, but she converted to the Catholic religion in 1781, adopting the name of Joanna, perhaps inspired by the French heroin Joan of Arc.
The church, modeled on the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is today an important pilgrimage center and not just for Christians. The architect was an Italian military engineer, Antonio Reghelini, from Padua, who was at the service of the Begum.
Inside, on the left side of the altar is her tomb, a large marble monument made by a student of the famous Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. In a bas-relief, the Begum, who died in 1836 at the age of 85 years, is depicted sitting on the throne, smoking hookah, with European and Indian noblemen around her. According to some authors, the marble structure was sent by ship from Italy to Kolkata later carried by boat on the Ganges and finally brought to the church on bullock carts.
In addition, the Christian cemetery of Sardhana is worth a visit, where the descendants of Begum are buried. It is under the care of the Archaeological Department, but unfortunately, it is in a state of decay.
From Sardhana you can follow a small road along the Ganga Canal to the city Kathauli. It is a picturesque landscape of bamboo canes and pampas grass. There is not much traffic, only farmers and some tea vendors near brick bridges dating back to the colonial period.
The city of Bijnor, between Uttar Pradesh and Uttarkhand, is a gateway to the Himalayas. From here, you get the first glimpse of the mountains on the horizon. The city is chaotic and has no attraction, apart from an impressive number of schools and colleges. However, the countryside is very beautiful, especially in the North, in the direction of Corbett Park, the oldest reserve of tigers in India.
Depending on the season, the Corbett Park can get very crowded, especially if you enter from the main gate of Ramnagar (Nainital direction). Since a few years there is a new entrance, approximately 40 km from Kotdwara, located on the western side of the reserve that is less popular. Not many tourists go there and the jungle is dense. From the Vatanvasa gate, you can take your vehicle inside the sanctuary.
Nonetheless, when I arrived at the gate this was not the case. The forest guards told me that the access to the park was closed because of a ’man-eater’ tiger that had been sighted in the buffer zone. Therefore, the entrance to single motor bikers was restricted for that day!
Despite that, I did not abandon the idea of having a jungle safari. From Kotdwara it is possible to access the Rajaji Park, established in 1983 along the foothills of Shivalik ranges and home of hundreds of species of birds. You can the 25 km buffer zone through a dirt road until Laldhang Gate. There is some wading to do, but fortunately, the river had dried. The shortcut links you back to the NH 58, a few kilometers from the holy city of Haridwar.
To go to Rishikesh (23 km), my final destination, I chose a lovely alternative road called “Canal Road” which passes through Chila Dam and Pashulok Barrage. There are almost no vehicles there. After the dam, the road climbs up the hill until Laxman Jhula, the upper part of Rishikesh, and the one preferred by foreigners.
From Rishikesh it is a hard climb of 8 km, but it is worth the fatigue. One must do the trek to the famous temple of Neelkanth if you like Hindu mythology and nature walks. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and represents a legend of the God drinking poison and becoming blue in order to save the world. The name “Neelkanth” derives from this myth, meaning ‘the one with the blue throat’.
The main pilgrimage to Neelkanth is in August when the ‘kanvarias’ (Shiva’s devotees) go barefoot to fetch the holy water from the Ganges with jars which should never touch the ground. In the past, you could see thousands and thousands of ‘kanvarias’ even in New Delhi. Nowadays the tradition is less popular. When it is not the pilgrimage season, the narrow path to Neelkanth is mostly empty except for a few devotees. They were barefoot, evoking the name of ‘Bhole’, another appellative of Shiva.
The temple is at the bottom of a valley and it is built on a sacred natural spring. Shiva’s devotes take a holy bath here. The last part of the trek has unfinished buildings, makeshift restaurants and dozens of souvenir shops. There is a road that goes until Neelkanth and thousands of pilgrims come here every day with hired jeeps.
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