Bhimtal is the largest among a cluster of freshwater lakes huddled in the mountains of Uttarakhand’s Kumaon district. The region’s landscape of waterbodies, including Sattal, Naukuchiatal, and well-known Nainital, set in thick forests and sweeping valleys, is no less picturesque than England’s famous Lake District.
When I visited in the month of June, Bhimtal was fringed with lavender jacaranda trees in full bloom. Fenced by a cheerful blue railing, its glassy surface uncluttered by boats, the lake changes colour with the season and time of day. On a clear summer morning, when puffy white clouds sail across a deep blue sky, Bhimtal is sea-green. On moonless nights it is a cloak of inky black velvet. Under a full moon the velvet surface ripples with streaks of silver. When storm clouds gather, it turns a brooding grey, and when they burst, strong winds churn the water into a wild frenzy.
The town of Bhimtal, set on the slopes around the lake, is a stark contrast to touristy Nainital nearby. Bhimtal’s novelty lies in its utter and complete lack of a USP. It doesn’t have the colonial vestiges of Nainital nor the resort hotels typical of popular hill stations. It was never a major centre of trade and there’s no prominent religious shrine either. Instead, Bhimtal has in abundance an honest, straightforward charm that creeps up on visitors like the mountain breeze that ruffles their hair. The town is fairly ordinary, but with a stunning lake at its centre, who needs extra trimmings?
Calm Bhimtal turns grey-brown in the monsoon. It hosts a thriving ecosystem of fish, migratory ducks, and geese. Photo: Arjun Kale
The mountains demand that you wake early. And in Bhimtal, the crisp morning air, chirping birds, and gentle sunshine are complemented by the serenity of the big, beautiful lake. Ducklings bob in the water following their mother as they learn to swim around the lake. Boys in uniform linger on their way to school, some even take flying leaps into the water and I wonder if they’re playing truant.
The lake is rich with aquatic life, and I whiled away hours watching fish dart around. Hotels can organise fishing equipment and a license (angling is prohibited during breeding season, so check in advance; licences cost ₹50 per day, and can be obtained from the Fisheries Department, near the police station on Bhimtal Bypass Road, at the lake’s north bank). Or visitors can rent a colourful canoe or paddleboat for a slow ride (₹300 for canoe, ₹350 for paddleboat for 30 min). The lake has a tiny forested island accessible only by boat, with an aquarium (entry ₹60 for adults, ₹30 for kids).
There’s very little traffic on the road that winds around the lake, making it perfect for an evening stroll with a shawl wrapped around. I shivered in delight as the cool evening breeze skimmed over the water and touched me.
At one end of the lake is the bright, whitewashed Bhimtal Dhat or dam with terraced flower gardens on its inside walls. Walk beside the dam and then stroll down to the 17th-century temple of the local deity Bhimeshwar Mahadev nearby (open 5 a.m.-7 p.m.). According to legend, when Bhim the mighty warrior from the Mahabharata felt thirsty, he cracked the earth with a blow from his mace, forming the lake that was named after him.
The area’s calm and beauty create a setting in which imagination takes wing and appropriately, the Hesse Centre in town offers residencies to artists and writers (www.facebook.com/HesseCentre).
While the landscape is painted in deep, cool shades, it is also dotted with bright birds and butterflies. Gardens and trees are flush with blossoms and meadows carpeted with jolly wildflowers.
The Bollywood film Koi Mil Gaya was shot here and locals can point you to a cottage high up on the hill where the hero, played by Hrithik Roshan, kept the alien Jaadu in hiding.
Many kinds of fruit trees and flowers like hydrangea thrive in Bhimtal’s cool weather and clean air, attracting butterflies. Photo: Ambika Gupta
Bhimtal’s climate is ideal for floriculture. On its outskirts, on the road to Sattal, there are greenhouses and fields of scarlet roses, exotic lilies, and shaded hydrangeas nodding their heads in neat rows. It’s no surprise then that Bhimtal attracts so many butterflies. The town’s Butterfly Research Centre displays a staggering variety of these insects, with dazzling designs on their wings (drive 3 km uphill to the museum on June Estate road, just before the bridge on the lake’s northwest bank; 05942-247043; open Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-5 p.m., entry ₹100 per person).
At Bhimtal’s small Dhat Market, visitors can purchase locally produced wooden handicrafts and hand-woven shawls. The Himjoli outlet on Mehragaon road stocks organic food and cosmetic products made from local herbs and ingredients like Himalayan nettle, cedar, and apricot (94129 63640; try the ginger lily night cream, apricot oil, and cedar lip balm; between ₹100-500). Take home the locally grown bhat dal which is said to be good for the liver, and madua atta or finger millet flour, both available at grocery stores (bhat ₹80-90/kg; flour ₹20-30/kg).
Sattal, on the other hand, is a hub of activity. Renting a canoe is a fun way to explore the lake. Photo: Ambika Gupta
Sattal, a series of seven interconnected lakes, is located at a 9 km/15-minute drive from Bhimtal. The 1-kilometre easy hike to Sattal, through the hills, is a popular excursion. Start at the June Estate road on Bhimtal’s northwest bank. The dirt road clambers up the hillside and winds past forests of gnarly oak, small mountain pools, and the lovely Fredy’s Bungalow. The colonial-era house that belonged to a German is now run as a heritage retreat. Catch your breath and have some tea while marvelling at the private collection of butterflies, quaint antiques, and a library stocked with comic book versions of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.
If you drive to Sattal, stop at St. John’s Church, 7 kilometres from Bhimtal. The beautiful church with a green roof, surrounded by tall deodars, is part of the Christian Ashram established by Methodist evangelist E. Stanley Jones in 1930.
St. John’s Church, en route to Sattal, is part of Christian Ashram, which combines the Christian faith with a Hindu ashram way of life. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
Unlike the calm of Bhimtal, in Sattal you’ll encounter scores of tourists enjoying soft adventure sports like kayaking, zip lining, and zorbing. If you prefer the quiet, find a restful spot on the lakeshore. There are plenty of waterfront stalls where you can get a hot snack for a little picnic.
The stone temples of Jageshwar are hidden in deodar thickets, and inscribed with ancient epigraphs in Sanskrit and Brahmi. Photo: Aruna Bhat/Alamy/Indiapicture
Jageshwar, 95 km/3 hours northeast of Bhimtal, is buried deep in Kumaon’s forests and conjures up images of sages meditating in remote spots amidst untamed nature. The road to Jageshwar goes through oak and deodar thickets. Equally sturdy and austere, rising from the forest floor like mounds of carved earth, are the stone temples of Jageshwar Dham that date between the eighth and 18th centuries. You’ll find them scattered along the way, but in the surprisingly small main complex at Jageshwar, there are 124 Shiva temples. There is a temple dedicated to Bal Jageshwar (Shiva as a child) and one to Vridh Jageshwar (Shiva in his old age). Hindus also believe Jageshwar is the site of Nagesh, the eighth out of 12 mythological shivlingas installed by Vishnu.
The museum of this tiny temple town houses rare carved idols from the area. A ninth-century idol of the popular local king, Pona Raja, that was stolen in an infamous heist and later recovered, is on display behind lock and key (open 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry free; closed on Friday).
A slightly longer route to Jageshwar via Almora (100 km) goes via the temple of Golu Devta. This Kumaoni god, believed to be a champion of justice, is locally revered, and you’ll often find the slogan “Jai Golu Devta” emblazoned on taxis and cars. People deposit legal documents and affidavits in the temple in the hope of securing speedy justice. The temple is strung with hundreds of bells in all sizes offered by devotees; the size of the bell is supposedly proportionate to the wish they’ve made.
Fredy’s Bungalow is a colonial cottage on a quiet, wooded hillside. Ringed with deodar and cypress trees and crammed with colonial curiosities, it has a delicious vintage flavour. This bungalow is the perfect place to curl up with a book from the collection in its wood-panelled library (98187 05508; 61 June Estate; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles from ₹6,053).
Lake Retreat commands a stunning vista of Bhimtal from its sprawling, shaded deck overlooking the lake’s southern end. Soak in the view while feasting on stuffed parathas at this family-run hotel, while Jhumroo, the fluffy resident dog, warms your feet (94567 29408, 94115 89568; Mandir Marg; email@example.com; doubles from ₹3,150).
Fishermen’s Lodge is also located on the lake’s southern bank, and its large bay windows offer scenic lookouts. The tastefully decorated, cheerful homestay brings back sunny memories of childhood holidays (94111 07854; Mandir Marg; www.thefishermenslodge.com; doubles from ₹8,000, including meals).
Emerald Trail is about 9 kilometres from Bhimtal, the only drawback of this otherwise wonderful farm-stay high in the hills, surrounded by rhododendrons. The location makes it a paragliding hub, but there are lots of other activities to keep children and pets entertained (98339 49954, 78300 25532; Jungaliya Gaon; www.emeraldtrail.in; doubles from ₹4,000).
Map: Aashna Jhaveri
Bhimtal is located in Uttarakhand’s Nainital district, 22 km/50 min southeast of Nainital and 300 km/7.5 hr northeast of Delhi.
Air The closest airport is Pant Nagar Airport (50 km/1.5 hr), which has daily Air India flights from Delhi. Taxis charge ₹1,800-2,500.
Rail The closest railway station is at Kathgodam (22 km/45 min from Bhimtal) which is connected with Delhi by a daily Shatabdi and other trains. There are frequent buses from Kathgodam to Bhimtal throughout the day. Taxis charge ₹1,200-2,000.
Road Daily buses from Delhi’s ISBT Anand Vihar leave for Haldwani (29 km/1 hr from Bhimtal). From Haldwani, taxis to Bhimtal cost ₹1,200-2,000. Taxis on a sharing basis ply regularly and charge ₹100 per person.
Bhimtal is a great place for leisurely walks and easy hikes, so carry a pair of sturdy shoes. For excursions, taxis are available through hotels and homestays.
During summer (Mar-May), the temperature in Bhimtal does not go beyond 30°C. Days are warm but evenings remain cool. During the monsoon (Jun-Sep), the weather is cool (13-26°C) and the hillsides sprout gorgeous shades of green, though mountain trails may become slippery. Winter (Oct-Feb) is chilly with the temperature sometimes plummeting to -3°C.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Lake of Leisure”.
Just beyond the north end of Bhimtal (2.5 km/15-min drive) is the Museum of Folk Culture and Rock Art(Lok Sanskriti Sangrahalaya, opp YMCA, on the Bhowali-Bhimtal-Haldwani Road). The erudite yet unassuming curator, Dr. Yashodhar Mathpal, is a recipient of the Padma Shri award for his contribution to the study of rock painting, and has authored several books on the subject. The museum houses a remarkable collection of animal and plant fossils from the Higher Himalayas. Fascinating rock art is on display and reproductions of Stone Age paintings can be purchased as souvenirs (10 a.m.-5 p.m.; 94120 94613, 97563 68039; 05942-47100; entry adult ₹50, child ₹30).
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