A familiar part of nature’s charm is the chirping of birds at dawn. These beautiful creatures wake up, stretch a bit and noisily move out in search of food. This rigmarole is repeated day after day. I have grown up knowing this fact. So, when I was told that there are exceptions to this rule, it surprised me.
Large birds like kites, hawks and eagles (mainly birds of prey) do not fly out for food early in the morning. They wait for the sun to come up and the rocks beneath to warm up. The reason? Warmed up land-surfaces create a rising wind pattern called ‘thermals’ that helps them glide and soar in the skies for much longer than they would if they were to depend only on their wing strength.
I discovered this fact in Bir (pronounced ‘beed’ as in ‘beedi’) while I visited Bir-Billing to shoot the Paragliding World Cup (PWC) that was held in October 2015. While understanding the principles of this extreme sport, I was educated by a seasoned paraglider on this fascinating bit of trivia.
A paraglider’s secret to experiencing a longer, higher and more fulfilling flight is to ‘follow the eagle’. These large birds are not just known to glide around for a long time but are also known for flying higher than any other bird. Hence, an experienced paraglider knows to tail this graceful avian for a more thrilling flight.
Bir and Billing are 2 small towns near Baijnath. Billing is the takeoff point for paragliders and Bir is the landing site. Bir is exactly halfway between Baijnath and Billing; it is just 14 km from both.
Bir-Billing is considered the world’s second-ranked paragliding site after Valle de Bravo, Mexico. In fact, it might now be in the queue to replace its Mexican cousin as the world’s best paragliding site since the facilities have been enhanced for 30-35 pilots to take off simultaneously in a couple of minutes, allowing for almost 200 competing pilots to take off during a normal window of 30-45 minutes. In light of this encouraging development, Bir-Billing has already made a bid for the Super Finals, which will be held in 2017.
PWC forced me into drawing an unusual comparison – I likened the hordes of paragliders as a flock of birds dotting the skies. At times they were framed against the white, fluffy clouds and at times, they filled the clear blues of the sky with their own rainbow hues!
While shooting the paragliders was interesting, I did not want to miss out on a chance to experience this liberating experience myself. But just before takeoff, I got cold feet and backed out. But the next day, I was a lot more determined to take the plunge, literally.
Despite the Weather Gods not being too kind, I waited persistently to finally be rewarded with this exhilarating experience. The short duration I was in the air for was both thrilling and scary at the same time (see video above or for HD video, click here).
While shooting the paragliding event was my priority, it did not deter me from following my own eagle, figuratively. I decided to explore the surroundings to unearth lesser-known unexplored gems in the region.
Also read more about this scenic region at: When Palampur said – “Hail, Bloggers!”
The first such gem I discovered was the ancient Baijnath Temple, which is said to be over 800 years old. Though not very large, it is considered to be one of the most sacred Shiva temples in the country. According to some sources, it houses one of the twelve Jyotirlingas.
Not far from the Baijnath Temple is the Sherabling Monastery. It is a monastic seat for the study and practice of monk-hood. Ensconced in a pine forest, the monastery provides even a casual visitor a sense of unparalleled peace, right from its entrance. Prayer flags and a cluster of Gompas welcome you at the entrance. A short, circuitous drive later, you catch a glimpse of this architecturally magnificent Monastery.
Upon arrival, we found the trainee monks practicing ‘Cham’ (Tibetan for dance). In slow, yet rhythmic movements, they were covering the vast area of Monastery’s central hall with panache. I was told that the dancers wear colourful masks during formal performances.
The main shrine of the Sherabling Monastery houses one of the larger indoor Maitreya Buddha statues. It is quite large – 42 feet high (12.8 metres) – though nowhere close to the tallest outdoor Buddha statue that I have seen in India – a 32-metre hilltop Maitreya Buddha in Diskit, Ladakh. Its entrance is adorned by some of the larger Thangka paintings on display around the country.
Another lesser-known gem from this region is a 1200-year old rock-cut temple in Masroor. This temple bears a remarkable similarity to the much larger Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia and to the Western Temples in Khajuraho. Unlike most shikhara temples that are built with bricks, this one has been carved out of a rock.
We travelled quite a bit – Nangal, Nadaun, Dehra Gopipur – and wherever we went, the River Beas was with us; so were the pines. The high point of this excursion, though, remains my little tête-à-tête with the eagles. I went where the eagles dare; and so must you, to come back and proclaim – “The eagle has landed!”