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Uttarakhand- The dak bungalows of Kumaon.

Summary: Set in the best of locations in the forests of Uttarakhand, these rest houses are easy on the pocket and heavy on atmosphere. Choose one or do the whole circuit for an unforgettable holiday.

The sun was just beginning to set as the car pulled up the kuccha road that led to the Dak Bungalow. The orange light filtered through the trees casting long shadows. The air was heavy with the smell of pine and oak and there was snow--still on the ground--in the shade of the trees. In the horizon was the full magnificent view of the Kumaon Garhwal and Nepal Himalayas. A slight nip in the air and a freshly painted sign board announced our arrival at Kilbury Forest Rest House.

I have always been fascinated and drawn to the Raj-era dak bungalows, now known as the Forest Rest Houses. Their architecture, the remote and idyllic locations and the many stories that come to be associated with places such as these, had made my imagination run riot with images of weary travellers making arduous journeys on horseback or on foot, British officials, ware peddlers, gentleman shikaris or adventurers just passing through.

My fascination got the better of me and drove me to do a small circuit of my own in the Nainital division in beautiful Kumaon, in Uttarakhand. After a long six hour drive from Delhi to the hills, Kilbury did not disappoint. A beautiful oak forest rife with bird calls and a picture perfect view permeated peace. A quaint isolated Bungalow built sometime in 1890 stands on top of a ridge. Much has changed through various stages of renovation but it still carries with it some of the ethos of an era gone by.

A broad verandah wraps itself around a fairly simple structure of stone and wood. The main sitting area centred with two rooms that open out on either side. High ceilings, quaint little fire places with wooden mantles, simple but functional rooms. That has served as a temporary abode to numerous travellers over the century. Aptly written in Rudyard Kipling's words in My Own True Ghost Story, "I lived in dak bungalows where the last entry in the visitor's book was fifteen months old. It was my good luck to meet all sorts of men, from sober travelling missionaries and deserters flying from British regiments, to drunken loafers who threw whisky bottles at all who passed".

There is no denying the eerie ambience of these lonely sentinels of time that provided the perfect setting for stories by great writers like Rudyard Kipling and Ruskin Bond, and having read my fair share of ghost stories I finally settled in bed in front of a crackling fire with dreams of strange supernatural beings.

The story of the dak bungalow is intrinsic, a small imprint on the memory of time. It was in the mid 1840s that the British set up dak bungalows to relay the post or 'dak' in stages across the country. These dak bungalows also served as rest stops for travellers; for a small fee the traveller could book his seat in any coach, boat or cart carrying the mail and could rest on his way at the dak bungalow where the mail would halt.

British life in the Indian subcontinent was dictated by travel. Whether it was the annual summer migration from the hot plains to the cooler climes of the Himalayas or an official tour, the British were in some way or the other always on the move. The officers of the Indian Civil Service were meant to tour the districts under their jurisdiction, occasionally accompanied by their memsahibs and children, to familiarise themselves with the 'real India' and its people in the process of dispensing with their office duties. It was to this transience that the dak bungalow provided stability.

A system was put in place and the entire sub-continent was soon sprawling with a network of rest spots for travellers and dak bungalows that would relay the mail as well as provide a temporary abode. A travellers respite, from the discomforts of having to sleep in tents and ward off wildlife. The next day, we drove 10 km up to Vinayak and further 12 km to Kunjkharak both affording beautiful views set in the midst of dense forest and built sometime in the early 1900s. Quiet and secluded both beckoned us to stay but we decide to retrace our steps back to Nainital and to Bhowali to Mahesh Khan.

Booking yourself in a forest bungalow is fairly easy, as was graciously explained to us by the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Dr Parag said that the system has been highly decentralised to encourage people to go to these places. Earlier a traveller had to first go to Nainital to collect his slip (or a permit) and then proceed to the desired destination but now you can reach your place of choice by booking via email or phone and the necessary arrangements will be made. Technology does have its boon.

Nine kilometres from Bhowali, an inconspicuous dirt track just off a bend in the road marks Mahesh Khan. Not a soul in sight and a metal chain and lock barring entry did make me wonder for a minute if anyone had heard that we were coming and did the process actually work in reality or was it all very theoretical. To our relief we heard someone running up the road with a key in hand; the care taker. The chowkidar at the bungalow also had word of our arrival.

Mahesh Khan, sedate yet modest, a bungalow built in 1911 is at a height of 2,075 meters. The bungalow stands alone on a ridge, amidst a verdant deodar forest. On the mantle on the fire place I found the framed copy of the rules for the occupants of forest rest houses as laid down in 1902. It made for an interesting read with some of its curious rules. As one rule read in particular, "no animals may be tethered inside the rest house compound and no other animals than horses or ponies may be kept in the stables".

Another interesting piece of literature that you come by at a FRH is the visitors log book and, as I sat on the steps of the verandah, in the light of the fading sun while a wood pecker got busy tap tapping on a tree close by. Leafing through its worn out pages I became aware that Rabindranath Tagore had found inspiration for the Geetanjali right here at Mahesh Khan and Jim Corbett had killed the Man Eater of Mukteshwar, here, in this forest. Wildlife abounds in these forests. A walk in the woods around the bungalow I startled a sambhar, a cautious barking deer and on my return was informed by the chowkidar that had I gone a little further ahead I might even have spotted a Himalayan black bear.

From here it was on to Pahar Pani and Okhalkanda the day after that. All along the road was dotted with rhododendrons in full bloom and the cherry red blooms attract a host of birds. The visage of the Himalayan range at plain sight. As I descended the foothills to Rani Bagh just a little before Haldwani, to the last FRH of my circuit I felt I had trudged a little into the past that makes its presence felt today.

5 Great Dak Bungalows

Kilbury: Built sometime in the 1890s it is one of the oldest in the region. Stands secluded on a ridge with amazing views of the peaks.

Mahesh Khan: Spacious yet cosy, in the middle of a thick forest, it is well maintained with a polite and courteous staff.

Kanda: Located on a ridge in Corbett National Park, has full views of the reservoir of the Ram Ganga River and the vast plains.

Haldu Parao: In Corbett, one has to ford a stream and a river to get here.

Airadeo: Near Ranikhet it is interspersed with a mixed forest. In flowering season this is a riot of colours.

At a Glance

Contact

Almost every district in Uttarakhand has forest rest houses. To book call the Divisional Forest Office, Upper Danda, Tallital, Nainital, Uttarakhand. Tel: (05942) 236 718/469; dfo_nainital_uta@yahoo.com; www.nainitalzoo.org.in

Eat

The chowkidars have utensils and will cook for you. Carry your own rations from the nearest town before reaching the bungalow.

Carry a set of clean linen and maybe even a sleeping bag as bedding and blankets can sometimes be inadequate.

Activity

Children can have a great time exploring the forests, bird watching and going on walks.

Must do

Carry your own flash lights; although most FRH have solar lighting, it can come in very handy.Reproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2013. LMIL. All rights reserved.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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