Visit to Kausani - The Switzerland of India
It struck to us that the last vacation we had taken together was nearly 5 years back. We had then gone to Dalhousie, Khajiar and Chambha in Himachal Pradesh. We felt that a vacation was long overdue and therefore decided to go to the Chandralok Building on Janapath for exploring tour options. When we located the office of the Uttar Pradesh Tourism and mentioned that we wanted to visit Kumaon we received a cold response. Kumaon was now in the new State of Uttaranchal and no longer a part of UP. We were advised to call on the office of the Uttaranchal Tourism on the Barakhambha Road. We were not too enthusiastic to move around in the peak May heat and would have returned home but for an unexpected offer by Mathur, the official in the UP Tourism, that he could help us in fixing accommodation in private hotels in Nainital and Kausani. He pointed out that from the Hotel Krishna Mountview in Kausani a panoramic view of Himalayas can be seen and the hotel is good. We hastily drew our travel itinerary and within minutes accommodations were also booked in the Hotel Krishna at Nainital and in the Hotel Krishna Mountview at Kausani. Mathur also offered to make bookings for us for the overnight journey by bus from New Delhi to Nainital. We were told that the bus is air-conditioned and has reclining seats comfortable for sleeping. We least expected that by having agreed to travel by the so-called luxury coach we had fallen in a trap and we were now destined to experience nightmarish adventures. Agony and ecstasy, pain and pleasure come together and get enhanced by their intensity. In what follows I will share first the agony and conclude with ecstasy.
We reached Scindia House the boarding point for the bus well in advance of 9.30 p.m., the reporting time mentioned in the ticket voucher. A sense of fellow feeling relaxed us when we saw other would be co-passengers waiting for the bus. The bus pulled in at 10 p.m. Crescendo of excitement common at the start of journey soon subsided and we adjusted the inclination of our seats for obtaining a comfortable night sleep. But misadventures were in store for us. The bus abruptly stopped after moving for about 100 m. The conductor informed that the air-conditioning system of the bus has developed fault and the bus is being taken to Kashmiri Gate in the Old Delhi for getting it fixed. We were sitting captive as hostages for our ticket jackets in full were collected in spite of our protests and we were now at the mercy of the travel agency for our safe transportation to Nainital. Soon after we reached a crowded street near Kashmiri Gate where at 11 p.m. it appeared as the peak hour for the dhabas and small cabins of travel agencies. Dhabas were doing brisk business of serving meals to rickshaw-wallahas, music bandmasters and many others who after putting in hard day's work wanted to eat before calling it a day and sleeping on street. Stray cows were competing with human beings in eating and were scrapping from the street leftover food and litter. The place was a mess for it was stinking but life was going on in full swing. No better evidence of child labour was needed than to see boys who were 10 years old or less in age cleaning dishes in plastic tubs filled with dirty water and serving food to customers of dhabas. When I lost interest in the street scene I decided to see what was being done to our bus. Mechanics were busy fixing the fault using candlelight under the watchful eye of the owner of the bus who had showed up in response to the panic message sent by the conductor. By 1 a.m. it was announced that the fault had been fixed and the bus was ready to leave. Some passengers asked for part of the travel coupon for record, the owner of the bus shouted, " Rath ke ek baje kalesh mat karo aur bus ko chalne do (Don't create confusion at 1 a.m. and let the bus move)." We reconciled ourselves to our fate and prayed for a safe journey.
In the cool comfort of air-conditioning I soon fell asleep but was awakened by the loud announcement of the driver that passengers could have tea-coffee and snacks. It was 3.30 a.m. and we were stopped by a wayside dhaba at a town called Gajraula. I decided to skip early breakfast and continued with my sleep. Around 7 a.m. when we should have been at Nainital I woke up to find that the bus was parked by a dhaba called the Mountview. There were no mountains for another 150 km. On the other side of the road there was a long queue of trucks that were waiting for lifting wheat produce from the agricultural bowl of the western Uttar Pradesh. I thought that perhaps the bus had been stopped now for passengers to take their regular breakfast. As almost all the passengers were inside the bus and there was palpable tension I decided to get out and find out the reason for the unscheduled stop. I found out from a panwala that there is a big traffic jam and the traffic is stranded because of it. I also came to know that the bus was standing parked at this spot for over two hours and the driver of the bus had been soundly sleeping in the front cabin. Some of the passengers were by now quite upset at the callous attitude of the driver. Traffic, though in trickle, was moving but we were now sitting inside the bus with the air conditioning switched off and no prospect of continuing with the journey as the driver was sound asleep. Driver was woken up and asked to try to drive out of the traffic jam instead of meeting the need of his well-deserved sleep. He was cajoled and made to see his responsibility towards the passengers, many of whom had come out for a weekend vacation and were feeling miserable at having lost a day sitting in heat at some obscure wayside place somewhere between Muradabad and Rampur. Precious three hours had been lost but now the driver drove as though a man possessed. Bus started cruising by carving out narrow spaces in between parked trucks and incoming traffic through a two-lane road. Before long our good luck ran out. A police constable exercised his authority by threatening to smash the headlights of our bus for moving without paying to him his rightful consideration. He signalled to the driver to stop the bus. Now the driver looked back and challenged the passengers to come out to his help. We were now running five hours behind the schedule. As a gesture of mercy we were allowed to proceed but our luck failed us once again. No sooner we were out of the artificial traffic jam, as it was not due to heavy movement of vehicles but because trucks were waiting for daybreak for proceeding to granaries, our bus stalled, for it developed a major engine fault. We waited with bated breath while the driver and his helper tinkered with the engine. It was 11 a.m. now. We had not even brushed our teeth for there are no washrooms on highways.
After half-an-hour of tinkering the driver realised that he had no clue of what had gone wrong with the engine and decided to take the bus to Rampur, the nearest town where there was some chance of getting the fault fixed. Our bus moved like a tractor making phut-phut sound. Each kilometre covered brought a sense of relief. By 12.30 p.m. we reached Rampur. An expert mechanic examined the problem and declared that a crucial part of the transmission system has broken and it needs to be replaced. But the catch was that part could most likely be found in Haldwani, which was more than two hours away by road. Mechanic raised the sinking hope of the passengers by declaring that he was no less competent than the expert mechanics of Delhi and that he would weld the broken part and fix the fault and the bus can reach Haldwani.
I had recently come across a parable on the best way to face situations when man proposes and the God disposes. It is prudent to reconcile to the fate and not curse it. But many fellow passengers were by now so agitated that free expressions were given to feelings instead of exercising more patience and restraint. One woman who was travelling with her husband and four-year-old son entered the driver's cabin and gave him a piece of her mind. I overheard her telling the driver,"Your concern is only to earn profit for your owner by driving a bus unfit for road journey and sleeping coolly for three hours without any concern for the passengers." One of the passengers suggested that for teaching the owner of the bus a lesson we should each pinch wall-fan from above our seat as souvenir. Good sense prevailed and there was no vandalism of the bus by the passengers. Some passengers hired taxis and left for Nainital.
By 2.30 p.m. the fault in the engine was fixed. We were told that the bus was now fit to reach Nainital. Without any more breakdowns we reached Nainital by 6 p.m. We covered a journey of 9 hours in over twenty hours and that too in the peak heat of May without the cooling effect inside the air-conditioned luxury bus. The ordeal of the tortuous bus journey was over as soon as we settled down in our accommodation in Nainital. The worse was over and we had suffered enough agony to enjoy the ecstasy of the grand view of the Himalayas from Kausani and the beauty of the natural Nainital Lake.
Baba Neeb Karoli
We hired a Maruti Omni for our journey from Nainital to Kausani. On our way we passed Kainchi, which is a hamlet with the Ashram of Baba Neeb Karoli. We stopped there to visit the Ashram. I had first met Baba when I was 13 years old, as my parents were his devotees. Baba was childlike and full of love. Nobody knew his age. My grandfather when he was young also knew him and the story was that Baba looked the same to his devotees spanning several generations. He would appear and also disappear without any prior information. His devotees would contact each other to inform the presence of the Baba. I would like to share a small incident that I remember vividly even today. I went to see the Baba. When he saw me, he said, "Tu Bhola ka ladka hai? Tu padhane me acha hai (Are you Bhola's son. You are good in studies.)."
After spending some time in the peaceful environment of the Ashram we continued with our journey to Kausani. We reached Kausani by 4.30 p.m. It was raining and therefore valleys were covered with clouds, which blocked the Himalayas. Mahatma Gandhi had come to Kausani in 1929 for spending two days. He was so happy to see the unobstructed view of the Himalayan range spanning over 300 km that he called Kausani the Switzerland of India. He extended his stay by another 12 days and wrote his book on Anasakti Yoga. In memory of Gandhi's visit to Kausani the place where he had stayed has been made into Anaskati Ashram. Kausani is also famous for it is the birthplace of the poet laureate Sumitranandan Pant.
In the four days we spent at Kausani the weather generally was clear except for the evening rains, but throughout the day there was haze that blocked the view of the Himalayas. Only for about 30 minutes before sunrise, which was around 5.15 a.m. the majestic Himalayas could be seen. We woke up each morning much before sunrise for seeing the Himalayas. Before the daybreak in the starlight it was easy to make out the outline of Trishul, which is the highest peak in the range. But with the sunrise clouds would rapidly move up and cover the range. All the same even the brief glimpse of the majestic Himalayas shining in the first rays of the sun created ecstatic feeling.
In the Indian mythology there is story of primordial churning of the Ksheer Sagar(primordial sea of milk) using the Meru Parvat(the Mount Meru) which was pulled on one side by the gods and on the other side by the demons for extracting out the Amrit(elixir for immortality). One morning we saw a sea of white clouds covering the valley. In the sea of clouds a hilltop covered with trees rose out like the Meru Parvat.
Words are inadequate for describing the aesthetic feelings experienced in witnessing that scene.
About 25 km from Kausani in the valley is the ancient temple of Baijnath. It is said that the temple is more than 1000 years old and the legend is that from here goddess Parvati went to marry Shiva and that this temple was built in one day.The temple is by the side of a river from which on a clear day Himalayan peaks are visible. We were told that the best time of the year to visit Baijnath is from January to March because then sky is crystal clear.
We next visited the Nanda Devi temple about 10 km from Baijnath. Like all temples in the hills the Nanda Devi temple is also on a hilltop and commands a towering view of valley below and snow covered peaks in the distance. Slopes of the hill were covered with pine trees. The beautiful green of pine needles appeared to me like the green of dancing peacocks. On that day in the temple two newly wed couples had come to seek blessings for long and happy married life. The brides were beautiful and wore large nose rings. It reminded me of a story of a girl who only wanted to marry a person who would give her a large gold nose ring. Her father found her a husband who was prosperous and agreed to give her a nose ring large enough to be envied by women of the village. But the mother-in-law of the girl made a condition that each time her son would become richer additional gold would be added to the nose ring. The husband was a contractor. Soon after the marriage he made profit in a building contract and the bride happily accepted the additional gold in her nose ring. Now each time the husband earned profit more gold got added to the nose ring. The nose ring became too heavy and too painful to wear. The wife complained of the pain to her mother-in-law and asked her to get the weight of the nose ring reduced. The mother-in-law declined the request of the wife, for removing gold from the nose ring was considered unlucky for the husband. The weight of the ring cut opened the nose of the wife. It was promptly stitched back and the wife suffered the gold nose ring for the rest of her life. In my heart I wished happiness for a long and happy married life for the brides and hoped that they would live comfortably with the prosperity of their husbands.
Life of local people of Kausani is tied up with tourism. There is hardly any economic activity other than tourism. It was common for people to accost tourists and offer them some service. But the people of Kumaon are simple and polite. It is hard to decline their offers. One day while taking a stroll a local tea seller suggested that instead of eating meals at the hotel we eat meals prepared by him. He was ready to prepare aloo paranthas (stuffed potato pancakes) and typical Kumaon meal. We opted for lunch of local preparations and enjoyed it.
We had come across a newspaper report that on 20th May the hundred and first birth anniversary of Sumitranandan Pant was celebrated at Kausani and that the girls of a local orphanage called the Lakshmi Ashram had put up a cultural programme. We were drawn to the Lakshmi Ashram because only a few months ago at Porto Nuovo near Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu I had visited another institution for girls from poor fishermen families. A Danish woman inspired by the basic education programme of Mahatma Gandhi started that institution in 1919.
Lakshmi Ashram was about 1.5 km from the city bus stand. Asking for directions at a few places we managed to trek to the Lakshmi Ashram. We were happy to see girls who were studying and living in this Ashram. In the office of the Ashram among other teachers we met an Englishman who spoke chaste Hindi. He was living here since 1980. When he came to know that my background is in education he complained of the terse style of the school textbooks. He mentioned that in the social science textbook only cosmetic changes have been made.As a follow up to the political changes in the erst while USSR the only change that has been made in the geography textbook published by the State Education Department is the replacement of the name USSR by Russia and the rest of the content has remained the same. He was apprehensive of the relevance of the content of the upper-primary textbooks. He found them generally irrelevant to the needs of the students living in the interior areas of Uttranchal. We also found out that his daughter studies in the school run by the orphanage.
Surprising it might seem but the majority of the tourists who come to Kumaon particularly to Kausani are from West Bengal. They travel in groups. They like to see the sunrise in the background of the Himalayan range. It is an interesting sight to see them huddled together with expectant look waiting for the sunrise.
We had spent four days at Kausani. We were advised to return here after the monsoon season i.e. in October and November, for then there is no haze and the view of the Himalayas is almost assured. The other good time to visit is in February and March.
We had to return to Nainital for taking the bus back to New Delhi. We decided to stop at Naukatchiatal a natural lake bigger than the Nainital Lake.
The Naukatchia Lake is impressive as it is enclosed by hills covered with trees. Unlike the Nainital Lake Naukatchiatal is not crowded for tourists like shopping and here there are no shops. We took a round of the lake in a boat. The boatman mentioned that he worked for the Electricity Board as a lineman.The government service provided him ample time to moonlight as a boatman and also for running a photography shop.He himself was a freelance photographer. He offered to take our picture as a memento of the good time that we had in the beautiful Kumaon Hills.
We got on to the bus at Nainital at 10 p.m. As we already had had our share of misadventures during the journey from New Delhi to Nainital the law of probability favoured us for an uneventful journey. We felt relaxed and soon fell asleep by reclining our seats. When we woke up in the morning we were happy to note from a milestone that New Delhi was only 18 km away. We reached Scindia House at 6.30 a.m. and our vacation came to a happy ending.