Set amidst the Shivalik Hills in Udhampur district, the picturesque Mansar Lake has for long beguiled the interest of pilgrims and picnickers. Lately, it has also emerged as a popular destination among those who love savouring the delights and dangers that trekking offers.
“Mansar is home to a number of routes for trekking, which make for a more luxurious and quieter experience. These routes might not be available in your internet searches, but they do exist,” says Nagendra Singh Jamwal, former CEO, Surinsar Mansar Development Authority, who is among those who can be credited for having discovered these routes and throwing them open for trekking expeditions.
He adds, “These are fresh and offbeat routes that get you to explore the untainted beauty of the region with nothing to compare it to. These routes are as original as they can get.”
One of these trekking routes starts from Sarain, passes through Dhergarh Fort, and ends at Mansar Lake. It can surprise anyone with luscious verdure, changing terrains, rustic settlement, and traces of the past along the way.
Considered to be moderate in terms of difficulty, the trekking route begins as soon as you get down from the motorable road of Sarain village (Dhar road) of Samba district, and start walking or driving through what can be called as a sandy river.
Though it continues for about four kilometers, this almost curvilinear trail of the sandy river– formed when gradual weathering of sedimentary rocks of the locale is followed by humongous sand deposits in the water – is likely to appear endless to many but, be that as it may, it is thrilling to gently unconceal the covert beauty and find countless Instagram-worthy-photo spots.
I myself prefer and recommend walking, for it will not be detrimental to nature and the route. Besides, when the feet touch water, it cleanses our tiredness from deep within. Mind the sinking sand spots though!
“It feels like a beach hiding in an alcove. Come here early morning for a walk, see the sun rising, inhale the freshness and coolness of the breeze. Come here for solitude, or with friends and family. Come here and see your spirits lift instantly,” says Vikas Manhas, an ardent traveler from Jammu.
Now, if you can catch a view of the hill forts on either side, you have successfully completed the first stretch of the route. You can sit down to rest and prep, for you have a tough climb ahead to reach any of the forts.
Dhergarh Fort is not a run-of-the-mill fort, for it tells a story that no one told us.
The fort is counted as a part of the Hill Forts of Samba along with Mahoregarh, Bhupnergarh, Bharatgarh and others, built over four centuries ago as impassable forts, or garrisons.
It is surrounded by the Shivalik Hills, thick forests, long and deep water channels, which might have kept this ‘state protected site SRO 72 dated 07-03-2011’, obscured from most of the people, for years.
Describing the Dhergarh fort in his book ‘Duggar ke Durg’, Padma Shri Prof Shiv Nirmohi writes, “The fort is situated to the North-East of the Mahoregarh Fort, on a hillock. Covering an area of 426 acres, the fort has a sarovar, a bathing ghat, a mango orchard, and an old peepal tree (sacred fig). Near the sarovar, Chambyal Rajputs and Harijans reside in roughly 25 houses.”
The number of houses must have added up with an increase in the population.
“These people are simple, sweet, and looked after by Numberdar. They offer you food, water, and help you through the route,” remarks Vikas.
Embellished with stones carved into stars and lotuses, the main entrance to this fort, the splendid ‘Singh Dwar’, is very similar to the ‘Singh Dwar’ of Mahoregarh Fort. It lies at a distance of 100-150 meters from the Dhergarh settlement.
Found to be more like a deori (gateway), this entrance measures around 6 meters long, 4 meters wide, and stands 10 meters tall. It is constructed of big sandstones, mortared with lime and other ingredients, which have helped it stand the test of time. To reach the second level of the Singh Dwar, where there is an eight window room, 10.5 meters long and 2 meters wide, a staircase is located on the left side.
On the outer side of the Singh Dwar that faces the steep rocky slope you just climbed, there are three jharokha like windows, built above the lower arched niche and supported by bracket shaped stones, for ventilation as well as surveillance purposes. The Dwar is dotted by narrow gaps through which weapons were fired.
“An Arabic inscription is found on the right side of the central jharokha. It probably contains the details about who got this fort built and why,” says Prof Shiv Nirmohi.
Even the seven flame-shaped battlements – resembling those found in the Mughal Architecture – at the top of dwar also display some inscriptions, which seem to be Kalima from The Holy Quran.
Here, a sense of achievement engulfs you – you are a few of those who have ascended the hill to the main entrance of the fort and also witnessed a breathtaking panoramic view of the surrounding scenery.
However, what you can see today are the remains of the fort. The sentinel cabins on both sides of the Singh Dwar, the minars, and the small entrance situated opposite to the Singh Dwar, have turned into ruins, while the Singh Dwar is in a decrepit state.
The Directorate of Archives, Archaeology & Museums should consider preserving and documenting the fort before it falls victim to the apathy.
After a lesson in history and an acquaintance with rural life, we enter the third stretch of the trekking route – a dense forest to lead you to Mansar Lake.
This reserved forest comprises of Mahoregarh Forest Range contiguous with Surinsar-Mansar Wildlife Sanctuary, and boasts of a wealth of flora and fauna, with some of them being endemic too.
It is home to rock pigeons, parakeets, and other species of parrots, monkeys, Indian red jungle fowl, grey hornbill, and so on. Also, a large number of turtleneck doves migrate to this forest during the months of April and May. Grazing goats, sheep, horses, cows, buffaloes are a common sight.
If you are lucky enough, you can come across pheasants, especially Kalij pheasants, or freshwater crabs, and if you are not, a leopard can give you jitters.
Moreover, the forest embodies decades of accumulation and regeneration of vegetation, of which thick undergrowth, shrubs, tree ferns are only small components.
The leaves of towering Camel’s foot creepers (Bauhinia vahlii) found here are dispatched to Jammu, Udhampur, and Samba for making doona pattals (leaf plates and bowls).
If started early, you can see the sunrays filtering down through the forest.
Manasvi, who was visiting a ‘real jungle’ for the first time, was in awe to find the undersides of fern leaves having turned white without sunlight. “They leave an impression when pressed against the backside of the hand or any other surface,” she says.
This is the longest and diversely loaded stretch, so to say. Here, you can explore what most would have seen in pictures, and catch on the lives of local inhabitants and students who have to clamber over rocks, pick a way through gulley each day to reach their destinations.
WEAR SPORTS SHOES
CARRY WATER BOTTLES AND FOOD IN YOUR BACKPACK. OTHER ESSENTIALS CAN BE SWEETS, TORCH, SANITIZER, FIRST AID BOX, BATTERIES/CHARGERS
LEAVE ONLY YOUR FOOTPRINTS BEHIND.
START YOUR JOURNEY ATLEAST BY 10 AM AND REACH THE ENDPOINT IN DAY’S LIGHT.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: OCTOBER TO MARCH/APRIL
Sarain-Dhergarh Fort-Mansar Lake trekking takes a full day, and is a one-way route, that is, you can exit from Mansar only. Alternately, the trek can start from Mansar Lake, traverse the forest and culminate at Dhergarh Fort. But the time taken to complete any of the two depends on one’s strength and lung capacity.
“A trek on this route lets one unhurriedly absorb, and with gay abandon, enjoy the wilderness,” says Nagendra Singh Jamwal.
“The sheer delight of immersing yourself in nature away from the city life, and moving through the history will not only linger in your memory but also call upon you to revisit,” says Vikas Manhas, who has been here twice and wants to partake in every future trek organized on this route. Nature’s magnetism is such. You feel an overwhelming desire to return, again and again.
Furthermore, the Directorate of Tourism, Jammu, in addition to organizing/allowing trekking and promoting the fort, which it must, it can enhance the overall tourism potential of the route by introducing a variety of activities.
The whole trekking route is a natural adventure zone. The walls of rocks, carved by the action of wind and water, are ideal avenues for rock climbing and rappelling. The sandy river can play a host to All Terrain Vehicle from Nud or Sarain up to Dhergarh-Bhupnergarh foothills. Cross country paintball can also be organized in the same stretch. Camping, photo walks (avian, wildlife, nature, rural), open science walks, doona pattal making are some other special interest activities.
The Writer is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. She is actively covering stories and issues from Jammu & Kashmir, her homeland where she is becoming a recognizable name in journalism. Check out her dedicated blog on the internet: https://waliaharry.wordpress.com/