Who first referred to the area around Nainital as the `Lake District’ is not actually recorded, but it’s an apt sobriquet. This region, contained within a barely 25 km radius of the central town of Nainital, is really one of lakes- there’s literally one lurking around every corner, encircled by rolling hills covered with pine and oak forests. The lakes around here are a dime a dozen, and with names that are exotic even to Indian ears: Naukuchiataal, Lokhamtaal, Khurpataal . . . a taal is a lake, and there are many taals here, each lovelier than the last.
Our trip to Kumaon was not long enough to cover all the lakes (we left out the smaller ones, which include Khurpataal, Malwataal, Harish taal and Lokhamtaal), but we did manage to see four of the best: Nainitaal, Bhimtaal, Naukuchiataal and Saat Taal.
Nainitaal is not just a lake, but an entire town -- and the oldest tourist destination in this part of Uttaranchal. The lake spreads, green and beautiful, lined all along one shore by a boulevard known as The Mall (with shady poplars, Oriental plane trees and pretty wrought iron benches) and on the other by a road climbing steeply up through dark woods of deodar. The Naini Lake has an interesting legend attached to it -- it is said that the Hindu God Vishnu (the Preserver, in the Hindu Trinity), in order to stop the destructive taandav dance of the god Shiva (the Destroyer), was forced to kill Shiva’s consort Sati. After slaying Sati, he chopped up her body and scattered the pieces- and one green eye of the goddess landed at this spot, changing immediately into a green lake, to be named after her nain (`eye’).
That’s the legend everyone knows. There is another myth attached to Nainitaal; and this one centers around the fact that the lake has another, less popular name: Tririshi Taal (the taal of the three sages). Legend has it that three ancient sages -- Anni, Pulastya and Pulaha -- formed the lake by bringing water to it from the sacred Mansarovar Lake, in present-day Tibet.
Nainitaal is pretty, and was especially so when we visited it, during the offseason. When the tourist season reaches its peak, you can’t see the lake for the sailboats, rowboats and paddleboats on it!
Bhimtaal, 22 km from Nainitaal, is the largest of the area’s lakes, although the town that spreads around it is much smaller than Nainital town. It’s a fairly nondescript sort of town, with little to attract tourists, except for holidaymakers who like to go boating on the lake. The lake, by the way, also has mythical connections -- it is named for a legendary hero named Bhim, one of the five Pandava brothers, heroes of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharat. It is believed that Bhim (who was renowned for his strength) dug this lake out of the earth to quench the thirst of his four brothers and their wife, Draupadi. Bhimtaal is all right for a few photographs, but we really didn’t find it terribly fascinating.
What was next in line was equally disappointing, especially as we’d heard much praise for it. The lake closest to Bhimtaal, just 4 km from it and 26 km from Nainitaal, is Naukuchiataal. The lake has nine corners, and it is said that if you catch a glimpse of all nine at one time, you are assured of nirvana. What that belief doesn’t say is that you might need to be airborne to manage such a feat- we tried and tried, but couldn’t get anywhere past five corners, and that too with a bit of cheating! Anyway, not much here again- just a bit of so-so fishing; a few boats for people who want to go out on the lake, and a large of lovely pink waterlilies.
After Bhimtaal and Naukuchiataal, we were not very hopeful of Saat Taal (`seven lakes’), so the breathtaking beauty of this last set of lakes -- and especially of the first lake, Garuda Taal -- came as a pleasant surprise. Saat Taal consists of seven interconnected lakes, of which only Garuda Taal is separated from the rest by a low hill. The lakes -- Garuda Taal, Ram Taal, Sita Taal, Laxman Taal, Hanuman Taal, Bhiyun Taal and Sukha Taal -- are surrounded by thickly forested hills, covered with oak, pine and rhododendron, and at the time we went, the monsoons had made the entire area a gorgeously stunning green all the way. Sukha Taal, Bhiyun Taal and Hanuman Taal are seasonal lakes and fill up only at the height of the monsoon, so we couldn’t see them -- but Ram Taal, Sita Taal and Laxman Taal were there, nice enough (and with the ubiquitous boats!).
But best of all, worth every litre of petrol and enough compensation for all the lakes that seemed so-so, was Garuda Taal. It’s completely untouched by tourists, a pretty little lake deep in the woods. It’s currently on land owned by the Methodist Church of India, but everybody’s free to wander around, so do head off and take a few pictures -- it’s worth it.