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Kumaon: Call of the mountains
By Parag Ranjan Dutta
The Himalayas have fascinated me since childhood. I was a keen reader of adventure stories and travelogues, especially about the Himalayas. This travel document is precisely 40 years old when I travelled to the Kumaon hills with one of my friends and hence could be little off the track.
It was a bright October morning of 1979. The Lucknow-Kathgodam express was running in full steam through a forest of tall grassland of the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh. The sun was basking in full glory when we reached Kathgodam.
Kathgodam is the gateway to Naini Tal, Almora, Ranikhet and a host of other hill stations of the Kumaon. Kathgodam is so called because this small town is one of the largest timber yards of India. It was the time of Durga Puja and hence there was heavy rush of tourists. There was a long queue at the ticket counter and we managed two bus tickets to Naini Tal.
According to legend, Sati’s (Durga) eye fell here and formed the Naini lake. It is believed that the word Naini has come from the Hindi word ‘naina’, which means eye. The crescent shaped lake gets wider at the northern end of the town. The cantonment town of Naini Tal was founded by a British sugar trader from Saharanpur in 1841 and constructed a house called ‘Pilgrim Lodge’.
Around that time, the wife of a British army officer fell in love with this place so much that she bought an entire hillside and constructed a bungalow and today this Naini Tal property is known as Bara Bunglow. The famous hunter conservationist Jim Corbett was a friend of this British lady.
Next morning, after breakfast in a roadside restaurant we enquired about the easiest route to Naina peak, the highest of Naini Tal. We found a short-cut road and started climbing the hill through a dense forest of pine and reached Naina peak or China peak at an altitude of 8593 ft. The magnificent bird’s eye view of the mango shaped lake and the town was breathtaking from the top. We missed a vantage point, Tiffin Top popularly known as Dorothy’s Seat on Ayarpatta hill.
After lunch, we went for a local excursion to two lake towns of Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal, so named because it is a nine cornered lake. It was the Astami day of Durga Puja so in the evening we had a visit to Naina Devi temple, which is located at the northern end of the town and dedicated to Goddess Sati, an incarnation of Goddess Durga.
On the third morning, we set out for Almora. After about an hour the bus stopped at Bhowali, the gateway to many Kumaon hill stations. Bhowali is an orchard country and an important fruit market. It is a lovely town in wilderness. We stayed here for a day and moved to Ranikhet.
According to local belief, Rani Padmini, queen of Raja Sukherdev, a local Kumaoni ruler, was fascinated by the beauty of the place so much that they decided to stay here. Located at a height of 1,800 meters, Ranikhet, nicknamed ‘Queen’s field’ or ‘Queen of meadow’, is known for its serene beauty.
Ranikhet was later developed by the British who built a cantonment for its troops in 1869 and today Ranikhet is the headquarters of Kumaon Regiment.
On the fifth day, we reached Kausani, a perfect abode of peace and tranquility. The bus dropped us below Gandhi Ashram from where we had to climb a small hillock to reach the ashram premises where we would be staying for a night.
The ashram was full of guests and the manager was unable to provide any accommodation and even apologised for that. We lost all hopes but who would have thought that a gentleman standing nearby was listening to our conversation. He offered us to share his room. We were speechless for a moment and then expressed our gratitude. The nature was bountiful and had taken its own time out to create Kausani.
Coniferous trees all around made Kausani look so beautiful. Mahatma Gandhi aptly called Kausani “Switzerland of India”. It is a real paradise among the hills overlooking the mighty Himalayas.
We sat for hours just gazing at the mighty Himalayan peaks. After twilight, darkness descended fast and a chill breeze greeted us. During dinner, all guests were made to squat on the floor and roti dipped in pure ghee, dal and a mixed vegetable were served. After dinner we took refuge in the warmth of the comfortable makeshift bed on the floor.
The next morning we got up very early not to miss the first ray of the sun touching the peaks. There were chirping of birds and the veil of mist was gradually being lifted and there was an aura of mystical charm all around.
The view of a number of mighty Himalayan peaks like Trisuli, Panchachuli, Nandadevi, Kedarnath was awesome.
The next day we planned to visit Baijnath after lunch and then travel to Gwaldam, our last destination. Baijnath is a small temple town situated by the Gomati river. There are a group of 18 temples built by one Kumaoni king. We moved around in the temple complex for a while. It was getting darker. We found a tea stall near a streamlet, had cups of tea and samosas. There was no sign of Gwaldam-bound bus from the other side. An uncanny feeling gripped our minds, not because of the fear of being robbed or intimidated but not for finding any accommodation.
It was so quiet and only the murmuring sound of the streamlet was breaking the silence. When our patience was losing fast the locals decided to walk back to Garur, the nearest settlement where they promised us to find a hotel. In the wink of an eye two of them almost snatched our backpacks and put on their shoulders and started walking. I said hey what are you doing? There was prompt reply from one of them ‘sub aaplog itne dur se aye ho, aap to hamara mehman hai’.
Is this what is called hospitality? We walked back for five minutes and heard the sound of a bus engine and within moments two powerful lights were greeted with cheer. Frantically we waved at the bus. Finally, we reached Gwaldam.
October night was pretty cold and there was no sign of life to be seen anywhere. The only road looked deserted and the picturesque hamlet had the look of an abandoned ghost town. Gwaldam bathed in full moon night and looked like a fairyland. Trisuli peak was glistening under the moonlight as if someone had coated it with molten silver. I choose to wait at a small tea stall by the road side while my friend went in search a night shelter. Suddenly I saw him coming down from the opposite side of the road where he found a shelter in the government guest house, located just up the small hill.
Some surprises were in store for me when he told me that there was not a single room available but the manager, Joshi offered us to share his room for the night. I told the tea stall owner to bake some rotis and brinjal fry, the only available menu, and promised him to return just dumping our luggage in the guest house.
The next morning unwillingly we got up from the bed early. Joshiji was not in the room. After some time, he was back with two cups of tea and some snacks. We were overwhelmed at this gesture. That morning, we discovered the real beauty of Gwaldam. The sleepy village is known for apple orchards and the stunning beauty of the mighty Trisuli peak. We had a brief stroll around the place.
Across the road and a little away from the guest house we climbed a small hillock to have a better view of the Trisuli. It was shinning in full glory in the October morning.
The mighty peak was so close as if we can touch it. It was so quite up there that only the fluttering of the pine leaves along with the gusty chilly winds broke the silence. From this vintage point we had a bird’s eye view of Gwaldam with terraced fields and scattered houses. Had Thomas Hardy lived in India he could have chosen this sleepy village of the Kumaon for the backdrop of his novel ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. Till today, forty years after my travel I still remember Brijmohan Joshi, the manager of the Gwaldam guest house.
(The author is former head of the Department of Geography, St Edmund’s College)
Photos of the hilly terrain & Gandhi Ashram in Kasauni from Google Images