The blinding winter sun adds a touch of warmth to the cold morning. Towering pines whiz past us as we drive uphill from Tanakpur to Champawat in Uttarakhand, a distance of about 73 km As we swerve along the winding roads, the journey feels longer than just a couple of hours. The dense forest cover morph into valleys as the cloudless skies fan out, creating a deep blue parasol above our heads. It reminds me of the stories around the infamous Champawat tigress who had claimed 438 people. She was eventually put down by the legendary Jim Corbett who had penned his misadventures in his Maneaters of Kumaon. Champawat is a district in Uttarakhand and it comprises towns like Tanakpur, Lohaghat, Purnagiri, and Barakhot among others with Champawat, the town as its headquarters. There are many more tourist places in Champawat than in Tanakpur and although we had just a day here, we explored some of the places to visit in Champawat.
Legends of Champawat
Located in the lower Himalayas in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, Champawat has its own mystical and divine legends. It is believed that Lord Vishnu appeared here in the avtaar or the form of the tortoise or “Kurma Avtaar.” There is also a temple dedicated to Ghatotkacha, the demon son of Bhima of the Pandavas. The Gahtku temple is where Ghatotkacha fell when he was killed in the war between the cousins, Pandavas, and Kauravas in the Mahabharata. Another temple is dedicated to a local deity called Golu or Gwal Devta who the Kumaonis worship as the Lord of Justice. The temples are some of the main tourist places in Champawat as Uttarakhand is often referred to as the Dev Bhoomi.
Another legend however refers to it as being the capital of the Nagas and there is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva called Nagnath temple. However the city seemed to have been named after their sister, Champawati who meditated in the Baleshwar temple dedicated to Shiva, Even today, the Goddess here is referred to as Champawati and a shrine stands here in the ancient temple complex.
It is probably why the Chand dynasty who built the Baleshwar temple complex named the region after the deity and made it their capital between the 10th-12th century. The Goddess also became their patron and guardian deity as well.
Ancient Baleshwar Temple Complex
The Baleshwar temple complex located in the heart of the town is ironically tucked away in a little lane. An ancient naula or spring stands right at the entrance as we make our way toward the revered shrines. There are three shrines inside, the largest dedicated to Bhagwan Shiva, while the other two are dedicated to Kala Bhairavar and Champawati Devi.
While these temples are sheer poetry in stone, with exquisite carvings, I can also see some erotic art on the walls of the shrines. There are also several carvings and sculptures stacked away along the walls, probably reclaimed from shrines.
There are also several Shiva Lingas some unusually carved along with sculptures of Nandi in the temple complex. One of the priests told us that a very darshan of the Bhagwan Shiva here is like having got a darshan with the Lord himself in Varanasi.
Champawat has many more temples dedicated to Lord Shiva besides Baleshwar like Kranteshwar, Maneshwar, Tadkeshwar, Rishneshwar, Dikteshwar, Mallareshwar. There is another cave called Patal Rudreshwar where a temple stands. However, we could not go to any of these shrines which are now some of the popular tourist places in Champawat and hope we get another chance to be back in Uttarakhand.
Places to visit in Champawat
But there are more than just temples here. There are formidable forts like Lohaghat and Banasur located beyond Champawat but we decide to explore them another day. However pottering around the town, we see a few scattered monuments.
Besides the Naula in front of the Baleshwar temple, we were told that there is another intricately carved Naula called Ek Hathiya Ka Naula, located just 5 kms from the town. It was believed to be carved by a sculptor who had just one arm. Although we could not visit there, we went to another fascinating structure called Kotwali Chabutra , one of the places to visit in Champawat, which was probably a remnant of the monuments built by Chand dynasty. One of the older residents who was walking around told us that this is probably where the kings sat and addressed the public or held court.
We wander around the town, soak in the sights and sounds of the local market and speak to the farmers about the seasonal produce that included a variety of lentils. The vegetables and fruits are fresh while the local spices are full of flavour. You must try the local sweet – Baal Mithai which they locally call chocolate without the white licorice-like dressing on top of it. I cannot have enough of the local lentils – Gahat ki Daal and Bhat Ki Daal. I even decide some local Bhaang seeds. The colourful Rajma is piled up in sacks as we buy the Munsiyari variety in shades of purple and white. There is always something about colourful local marks and I just love the sights and sounds.
Tourist places in Champawat
A visit to Champawat is not complete if you don’t visit the verdant tea plantations, which are some of the places to see in Champavat. Losing myself in the carpet of green, I am more fascinated by the birds that flit around.
The Himalayan bulbul comes calling as it’s joined by the mellifluous Himalayan whistling thrush and the streaked laughing thrush.
The elusive red-billed blue magpie flits around the trees as I catch a glimpse of its blue feathers, but it finally settles on a branch for a few seconds.
There are many more birds and I am content to just lose myself in their songs as I leave back to Tanakpur.
Ideally, we should have spent at least three days in Champawat, exploring the neighbouring towns and sights as well or just taking in the natural beauty of the Himalayan town. I would have either liked to go to Pithoragarh or Almora from here but perhaps that’s for another trip.
I was invited to Tanakpur by Uttarakhand Tourism. Perhaps we will have a well-planned itinerary the next time around and visit some of the popular tourist places in Champawat and around that we missed this time.