A trek to remember

- November 1, 2018
| By : Ambica Gulati |

Virgin trail, daunting trek, travellers turned explorers trying to find the elusive Singhnapur caves near Raigarh “It keeps saying 140 m, but I can’t see any path. The caves are close by, but it doesn’t look like we will find them in these rocky hills. The internet took us for a ride,” I sit on […]

Virgin trail, daunting trek, travellers turned explorers trying to find the elusive Singhnapur caves near Raigarh

“It keeps saying 140 m, but I can’t see any path. The caves are close by, but it doesn’t look like we will find them in these rocky hills. The internet took us for a ride,” I sit on a rock, quite irritated with Google maps. The conversation has been flowing like this for the last 30 minutes. A light shower forces us to put our gadgets inside our backpacks. Along with two fellow travellers, Abhinav Singh and Dipanshu Goyal, I am around 20 km from the small town of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh. Hitesh, our guide and driver, has not been to the Singhnapur caves either and he is as puzzled as we are. The caves were discovered by CW Anderson in 1913.

I sit on a rock, hiding under some green branches, trying to protect my head, giving up on seeing the caves which house 30,000-year-old rock paintings. “They look like the paintings of Bhimbhetka,” Singh is trying to convince us to keep the search on. But there’s no clear path and the steep rocks are deterring. Besides, we are not carrying any climbing equipment and 140m doesn’t mean we need to go up higher—140m means somewhere around the corner. We forget this is a hill, not a plain road and 140m could be anywhere. A little tired and no help forthcoming from the GPS, we begin the trek down.

Disappointment is hidden as we need to keep protecting ourselves from slipping down the loose red rocks. We don’t see a single soul. The hills are green, silent and intriguing. “Even the villager collecting wood has disappeared. I wonder if the caves really exist.” But there is a board on the road which we did follow up. It said the caves were just 1.5km somewhere in the dense trees.

It’s been almost two hours in the rocky terrain. Suddenly the villager appears again with his children. “We didn’t find the caves. Can you come with us?” Even a princely sum of Rs 300 for two hours up and down doesn’t entice him. He doesn’t know,” I say. But Hitesh says that the villagers are superstitious about going to the caves. Apparently one had died there. The caves are home to honeycombs and bees, and bats too, as we later discover.

I nod, happy to be down on concrete road. It’s been quite a few hours since breakfast and I long for a cup of tea. Near the car is a tea stall and the village of Singhnapur. Singh finds a guide willing to climb up. “We can see the caves now. He will take us.” I don’t want to go up again but I don’t want to miss the chance of seeing the rock paintings either. We decide to have tea before beginning the journey again. “Shot glasses!” I exclaim, a huge smile on my face. City habit!

Ready to brave the red rocks, we follow Krishna Kumar. Wearing normal rubber slippers, carrying an axe on his shoulder like a swag, he is a swift climber. Goyal and Singh are following this young man who is as nimble as a goat. I huff and puff, sipping water every few minutes. My thyroid reminds me I should walk more in the city to build my stamina.

Krishna decides to skip the visible path and is taking us on a path which is perpendicular. It’s a little scary to look down, like hanging from a creeper and seeing only green shrubs and no land. Finally, we find ourselves in a narrower space. Krishna points out the Raja Chakradhar Singh, the famous Gond tribal king, had fallen there, chased out of the caves by the bees. He had been saved by Krishna’s ancestors. My city brain doesn’t quite believe this almost 100-year-old legend but the rain gets me more worried about my DSLR. And I need both my hands to find a grip on the slippery rocks.

The cave is up there, Krishna points. It’s a slippery climb and the boys go up to find the rock paintings. I sit on a wet rock, waiting for a signal to climb up or walk another narrow path. There is nothing here, no painting, only the stink of bats. The honeycombs have been broken and the honey taken out. One man’s superstition is another man’s profit.

On to the next cave, just a few metres away. But we have to sit and climb down to a narrow ledge, remove a few branches from the path. The view from here is spectacular. We can see the Jindal Steel Plant in the distance. A train is crossing too. The clouds are dark, the area windy. The cave is stinky and the boys say they see only one man drawn on a rock. I point out some patterns on a rock close to where I am sitting. The rock paintings have disappeared over time, or so Krishna says.

Off to the last cave. The path is even more treacherous. I walk slowly, but the boys are patient. They climb up to the cave which stinks of bat poop. Hitesh even takes a selfie. The exploration is over. No paintings, no history, no path but what an exhilarating experience. I can’t go up and down more rocks. We take a comparatively simpler path down.

After six hours the hills don’t look so daunting. And the rocks did have a smile on their face or maybe I just need a siesta. Luckily, there are no wild animals or poisonous plants in this part. Thanking Krishna for his help, we head back to Raigarh for the missed lunch.

Raigarh comes alive during Chakradhar Samaroh, navratris and Dussehra. Known primarily for the Jindal steel plant, school and colony that it houses, the little town is a quaint one with narrow streets, small shops and a main bazaar. The city administration website claims it to be the ‘Cultural capital of Chhattisgarh’. At the birth of this tribal king, Chakradhar Singh, belonging to the Gond clan, his father Raja Bhupendra Singh organised a Ganesh Puja and fair. This was 1905 and Chakradhar ruled from 1924-47. A connoisseur of music and dance, he played the tabla and pakhawaj. He also wrote many classics and with him a new form of kathak rose. Since during his reign, many stalwarts mushroomed and bloomed here. The Chakradhar Samaroh is a 10-day annual event. And his home, Chakradhar Palace, the town’s landmark, is a dilapidated affair.

Ram Jharna is an eco-park. It is said to go to the Ramayana era when Ram, Lakshman and Sita were in exile. Ram had put an arrow in one place and water had sprung out. There is no jharna now, but a kund.

The area is dotted with devi temples. The city’s Gauri Shankar temple has beautiful interiors. Then there is the famous Maa Chandrahasini temple, located on the bank of river Mahanadi, around an hour’s drive away.

In the same region is the longest bridge in Chhattisgarh called Surajgarh bridge. Going over the Mahanadi, this 1,830 meter-long bridge connects Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

While I don’t take this route to Odisha, I do enter it from another highway. My Raigarh sojourn ends at Koili Ghughar, which is a beautiful natural rock formation with a small waterfall. In this lies hidden a shivalinga. But I see only the temple at the shore and the ducks warning the visitors to stay away.

How to reach:

  • Raipur is well connected to most major cities of India by road, train and air.
  • From Raipur, it takes five hours by train to Raigarh. There are many budgets and a handful of nice hotels here.