We journey down a pulsing hub of art, poetry, mysticism, and hippie subculture - all that Kasar Devi, a small hilltop village in Uttarakhand is.
By: Tejashee Kashyap
Posted on: October 26, 2022
That one benefit of living in Delhi NCR is getting the frequent chance to escape to the Himalayas every now and then. However, the pandemic turned me into a beach person who snapped selfies of toes on beaches, thinking I had seen most of the hills. My mental image of myself became a beach person, to use the cliched expression.
A clear, starry night at The Kumaon.
It wasn't until later that I realised that you could equally love the idle life at the beaches and the delightful walk down the hills and valleys while enjoying the magical view of the peaks. And the onset of the fall season provided me with the perfect opportunity to relish my fondness for the hills once again.
But no, I did not escape to the clichéd tour operator-driven hill stations like Shimla, Mussoorie or Manali. The vacation equation must be simple: why go again to a crowded place that will make you choke? I simply believe in reaching a place, unpacking and relishing the luxury of slowly getting acquainted with the life and culture of the place. And the small hilltop village of Kasar Devi helped me have my much-needed solitude. Silence has a greater pull at times.
Kasar Devi has always attracted people from different corners of the world and from all walks of life. Beautifully located within the stunningly silent hills of Kumaon, Uttarakhand and 20kms from Binsar-Almora, the place treats you to the most beautiful of vistas. With a crisp air, a glorious sun flirting with the pine trees, and a rousing breeze ruffling the hair, what more could you ask for from a vacation?
Some come here in search of the spiritual energy emanating from this place frequented by Swami Vivekananda, Timothy Leary, and Bob Dylan, some as a part of the Hippie movement, and some to capture the place in words and pictures like yours truly.
A stunning mountain view at The Kumaon.
In my opinion, you should visit any destination at least twice to get a good understanding of the place. I had been to Binsar-Almora valley once before the pandemic. Having heard about Kasar Devi on my first visit itself, my curiosity only peaked this time. Some come here in search of the spiritual energy emanating from this place frequented by Swami Vivekananda, Timothy Leary, and Bob Dylan, some as a part of the Hippie movement, and some to capture the place in words and pictures like yours truly. As you approach the location, the atmosphere changes: quaint cafes and bohemians strolling along one single road atop a hill, framed by magical peak views on both sides.
And when a retreat like The Kumaon nestled against unadulterated nature invites you to explore the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, forests and lakes, you just readily pack your bags!
Embracing the Energy of Mysticism
On the first morning of my arrival at The Kumaon, I met Abhinav, the retreat’s General Manager and a wildlife photographer - a gentleman who I quickly learn is accommodating and warm, just like a Pahadi’s soul. Being the 8th day of the Navratri season, it felt right to make my first trail to the Kasar Devi temple - made famous by Swami Vivekananda who meditated in a cave at the highest point of Kasar in 1890 where this temple now stands.
The Kasar Devi Temple.
At the retreat’s lounge, I met Suraj, the hotel’s on-call naturalist. My hike involved a 10-minute drive to a nearby forested area. We are immediately immersed in the forest as we make our way through it - moving up and down the pine forest. Although the constant elevation of the route made it somewhat taxing, the view from up above the hill overlooking the valley is worth every ache on your body. A little more uphill walk and my gaze is transfixed on an orange hint of a temple, dotted with pines. As I stand on the temple stairway, I think of all the footsteps that have preceded mine - from Danish mystic Sunyata Baba (Alfred Sorensen), Western Buddhist Robert Thurman, and even the famous psychologist, Timothy Leary.
The temple is of particular importance because the region is believed to have an enormous geomagnetic field as it falls under the ‘Van Allen Radiation Belt’ - the third in the world apart from Machu Picchu in Peru and Stonehenge in England. Now I’m no scientist, so I can’t comment on the actual magnetism, but I can tell you I feel a pull - there’s a kind of homely magnetism that emanates from the Kumaon region.
On our way from the temple to the retreat, I decided to walk around the narrow ridge road, and look around a few cute cafes. Suraj suggested I go to this small tin-roofed cafe, Baba Cake. The place is lined with Buddhist motifs, replete with the hippie charm and I can assure you, it serves the most delectable desserts. Locals say that the owner of the cafe was a wanderer once who married an Italian tourist, who made Kasar Devi her home and baked the mouth-watering cakes. And it’s true, I had a simple chocolate brownie which was the most delectable one I have had in the longest time.
The temple is of particular importance because the region is believed to have an enormous geomagnetic field as it falls under the ‘Van Allen Radiation Belt’ - the third in the world apart from Machu Picchu in Peru and Stonehenge in England.
Kasar Devi has other mystical temples as well dotting its streets.
As you wander around the roads of Kasar Devi, you will realise how popular this rustic rural place is among foreigners. After all, it is easy to fall in love with the nature and people here. You will see that the single road atop the hill is filled with foreign hippies dressed in their chic laidback style more than Indian travellers. But I wonder if it’s so easy to find peace and if any of these travellers have found peace. Maybe ‘peace’ is a very strong term, but you certainly can let go of some stresses or more in these beautiful locales.
Through the Woods of the Gods
Another tiny hamlet in the region of Kumaon is Binsar which has a rustic charm and offers spellbinding sights of sublimely snow-sheathed Himalayan peaks. Quaint hamlets encircled by blossoming apple orchards amalgamate with lush green meadows to form this another picture-perfect piece of land. But it’s the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary that makes this place a worth visit - being an ornithologist’s paradise. And the hikes can help you get mentally restored and physically rebooted. The common trail is to Zero Point, which gives a 360-degree view of the high Himalayan peaks, from Himachal in the northwest to Nepal in the east. Having trekked to the Zero Point the previous time I was there in the region, Abhinav came up with a special trail that’s signature to only The Kumaon. I was already invested.
Binsar's 8-km uphill trek is an adventurer's delight.
This time, I am met by Nandan, another in-house naturalist, but more chatty than Suraj. We drove from the retreat at around 9.30 AM to the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Nandan fills me in on the mythological stories that surround the area. Basically, Binsar translates to ‘without a head’ and is believed that a battle ensued between the King of Binsar and the local deity, Golu Devta. In the battle, Golu Devta was beheaded. According to legend, his trunk fell near Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, and his head at Kaparkahan near Binsar. There are ancient temples dedicated to Golu Devta in both of these places.
The 8km-trek is more of an uphill climb and an adventurer’s delight. Despite being on this jungle trail for the second time, the trail got me feeling refreshed and calm almost immediately. The pines and aged oaks on the way, undulating terrain strewn with flat fern and the crisp mountain air leaves you relaxed. The trees seemed to sway, dance and sing with the wind; and there was a symphony in the air that made the trail all the more alluring.
Now we are met by a slippery, steep downhill climb, which did frighten me and I pondered whether I had made the right decision to come on this trek. My gaze is drawn to Nandan, who looks unfazed, assuring and encouraging me to reach the end of the trail, promising me that it would be the most worthwhile.
The dangerous Hunter's Rock offers a once-in-a-lifetime view.
Hunter’s Rock has its own share of tales. There is a connection between the rock and Indian ornithologist and naturalist, Salim Ali, alias the "Birdman of India".
After my badly suppressed panting throughout the narrow, rocky and steep downhill path, it was time to do some rock climbing. Seeing the height of the rock and the edge of the hill from where we were standing, I was prepared not to move an inch backwards or forwards for the rest of my life. In the end, the view that I witnessed after climbing the 'Hunter's Rock' after much self-talk and humongous support from Nandan, would be etched in my memory forever. A panoramic view of the Himalayas is immediately evident - the faraway, clear snow-covered mountains, the surrounding towns, green valleys, and a hill of pine trees. I’m more than happy to have shown the guts to climb the rock and to be in Binsar. Just then we pass a carcass that Nandan confirms is a leopard kill.
Hunter’s Rock has its own share of tales. There is a connection between the rock and Indian ornithologist and naturalist, Salim Ali, alias the "Birdman of India". Abhinav told me before that Salim Ali took pleasure in birdwatching among these evergreens and the rock to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the different bird species that can be found here. His keen eye and interest in ornithology helped identify a huge diversity of native birds in this area. The Binsar expedition was a thrilling adventure.
Call of the Roaring River, Kosi
For Uttranchal, the Himalayan river Kosi is the river of life. As you make your way towards Kasar Devi through the roads, Kosi flows along with you - its pristine aqua-blue water against the lush-green landscape provides a soothing vision. So when Abhinav said we would be trekking down to the river from The Kumaon which sits at almost 1,800 metres above sea level, crossing four villages and if lucky, a rare sighting of the leopard - I was more than eager to stroll around.
The trek to Kosi River is the most breathtaking in terms of scenic beauty.
This time, Suraj accompanies me. I started my hike down to the Kosi river early evening by 3.30 pm. The eight-kilometre downhill walk from the property itself should have been relatively easy. However, I soon discovered the steep descent path had been hard on my knees, confirming my belief that I have bad knees. Throughout the trek, Suraj helped me with all of the steep steps and answered all of my constant questions about the valleys, people, and flora along the way patiently. My personality changes when I'm on vacation -- I'm cheerful even with aching legs and talkative.
The walk began from the backside of the property - following a downhill walk down the valley. Even though the steps were steep and needed to be placed with caution, the pine trees and tall grasslands around provided much-needed refreshment and encouragement to keep walking. The trail along the start of the trek is of high quality, for the most part, roughly paved with stone. It went through tiny villages, farms and forests with beautiful snow-capped mountains above. The weather was mostly fine, however, the cloud cover kept the mountains hidden most of the time. It was like the clouds were playing hide and seek with us - clearing every now and then to reveal some of the amazing snow-capped mountains above, adding to the already beautiful scenery.
In terms of scenic beauty, this trek was worth it the most - we passed through different terrains, sometimes steep hills, sometimes downhill valleys and sometimes wide village paths. Stopping often to rest and take in the amazing scenery, I began to see how the people live in this area and how truly happy they seem to be with their lives. I seemed to be sharing the trek with all manner of animals - goats, chickens, donkeys and dogs all making their way along the road without seeming to have anyone telling them what to do or where to go. The more I walked, the more I learnt about the local people, their farming style, how they collected wax from the pine trees and their beliefs.
Clear waters greet us along the banks and I soon find myself rolling up my jeans and wading into the cool water, letting my feet relax. The hotel staff met us there and set up a scrumptious picnic full of tidy sandwiches and freshly baked cakes and biscuits.
The Kosi River has a clear, cool, soothing water.
After a walk of fewer than two hours or so, I could hear the gushing of the river and feel the soft, cool breeze blowing through my hair. Clear waters greet us along the banks and I soon find myself rolling up my jeans and wading into the cool water, letting my feet relax. The hotel staff met us there and set up a scrumptious picnic full of tidy sandwiches and freshly baked cakes and biscuits. Suraj points up to a cliff area, which he mentioned was riddled with leopard caves. I stare at the caves with his binoculars for a long time in the hope of sighting a leopard.
Although I couldn’t sight any, it gave me a reason why I need to come back to this region again. During our conversation back in The Kumaon, Abhinav tells me how leopards wander the roads of Kasar Devi after sunset, allowing one to see them in their natural habitat. Some of the images he shows me are stunning.
The fact is these quaint little towns of Kasar Devi and Binsar keep you calm with the true yet quiet essence of the Kumaon region. And here, after bird watching, river play, and stunning hikes, I feel like life has a different cadence and meaning deep in Kumaon’s deodars, that I am ready to keep coming back to!