Where the Pandavas had their last meal: A Kausani Diary
The scenic hill station of Kausani in Kumaon’s Bageshwar finds frequent mention in mythology and history, and is just the kind of place you would want to retreat to if you are in search of some inspiration.Updated: Apr 22, 2019 17:35 IST
The terrace of the Sumitranandan Pant Government Museum is like the ocean under the clear sky. Lodged in the heart of an uninspiring assortment of shops up a slope, the sprawling bungalow is the birthplace of the Hindi poet. The walls and the terrace are all stone, the mountains far beyond all snow.
In front of me, miles away, are the Panchachulis — the formidable five of the Kumaon, all of which stretch over six thousand metres high. The Mahabharata famously records the Pandavas as having transcended to heaven having cooked their last meal here (‘chuli’, derivative of ‘chulha’, means cooking hearth). I am hoping to just stand at the edge of the terrace, lean against the parapet and take in the view. I am hoping to take in boughs laden with the peach flower — an indigenous lookalike of the Japanese sakura — in the valley below.
But the museum docent gets up and motions for us to move inside. He shifts from one room to another, pointing to verses hand-painted on small cards placed over switchboards and to photographs that go back to Pant’s poet friends Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. We are shown the room the poet was born in, items from his attire including a sage green Nehru jacket, and an old writing table and lamp.
Named Gusain Dutt when he was born to a well-to-do tea garden administrator at the crack of the 20th century, in this very house, Pant started writing poems as a seven-year-old, and at 11, inspired by the character of the self-sacrificing Lakshmana in the Ramayana, gave himself the name Sumitranandan. In much the same way, as one discovers, Kausani seems to have relinquished every clichéd sobriquet bestowed upon it ever. Mahatma Gandhi once called the place the Switzerland of India, a title I have developed something of an aversion to, thanks to its proliferating usage on social media.
The reason is that Kausani is not your everyday hill station in the way of a Mussoorie or a Manali, with their fancy souvenir shops and mall roads. Not much of colonial-era architecture in the town proper, either. Cafés are still a long way off (but a garden restaurant at a bend in the road serves decent fare). Expecting a post-sundown stroll anywhere in the hills is pretty much a dumb idea, but this place is more shut than anything else to the idea of venturing out in the dark. This is decidedly not the best time to visit, but looking for a hill station in Kausani can be a mistake. Lying 50 kilometres further of the colourful, bustling, gorgeous (but also fast urbanising) Almora, it has lived for ages under the rock called Nainital.
That is why it must be looked at as a relic of history, of mythology, of literature. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder journeyed here in the 1960s and it was here that Mahatma Gandhi wrote about the Anasakti Yoga.
Indeed, in retrospect, in fact, Kausani is exactly the idea of a summer retreat for a reclusive writer — trails leading to remote villages with sparkling rice paddies and slate roofs vying to return the glow of the sun, a curious little observatory up on the way to the historical Anasakti Ashram, and local accommodation establishments with rooms that affords views of the mountains swathed in snow.
For history buffs, there is the Baijnath temple complex in the Garur tehsil, 15 kilometres from the town centre. Built in the 12th century on the banks of the river Gomti, the complex houses idols of the gods Shiva, his wife Parvati, their son, Ganesha, the god of wealth, Kuber, and the Sun god. One can also hike to the famous Rudhradhari temple — said to have been established by a mystic — caves and falls from the town square. All this is Kausani and Kausani is all this.
And yet, there’s more — the twin sights of the tea gardens and the shawl factory lie next to each other at the side of the road, five kilometres from the town centre. The extended bunch of shops adjacent to the shawl factory includes a pretty woollen emporium and a kiosk selling spices and herbs. Shawls, scarves stoles, rugs, blankets and other woollens hang everywhere inside the shop (do not miss the distinct Kausani touch and a hint of the beautiful Kullu print on the borders). The proprietor who doubles up as the salesperson talks incessantly and impressively and chides his little son in English. Run your fingers over the fine specimens, wonder at the stellar craftsmanship, and then shop with abandon. Then pick up Himalayan herbs, spices, and lentils, and a bottle of buransh squash from the kiosk.
Almost nobody talks of food when they talk of the mountains, except for the cliched triad of Maggi, momos and chai. Local eateries serve some divine rice and dal laced with dollops of fragrant ghee. A restaurant close to the tea estate has on offer mandwa rotis (crispy, nutritious millet bread), vadi (soya chunks) ki sabzi and bhatt dal (black soyabean). The town square has a clump of eateries with Gujarati breakfast specials (even the menu is printed in the Gujarati script). In the Garur market that is a ten-minute drive from here, the street is lined with chai dhabas and joints selling spicy momos and chowmein. The momo chutney here is spicy enough to draw smoke out of your ears, but the sweet, milky tea spiked with ginger will soothe your charred palate.
Talking of soothing, the charming old shanty adjacent to the woollens shop serves buransh juice as well as chai. Buransh (rhododendron squash), a sweet, red concoction with a divinely fruity scent, is said to cure stomachaches and even help in heart ailments. But does one really care about the health benefits of something that tastes this good? On another day, maybe.
Anyway, back to our final course at the museum tour, the poet’s abode, we are escorted into Pant’s personal library. Old-style book racks are set against all its walls like loyal courtiers, with their arms crossed and gaze set upon a dais covered in a damp red dhurrie. The titles include the best of the literary movement of Chhayawad, Pant’s own corpus, massive volumes on law and books on European theatre, including one on Konstantin Stanislavski. After a brief chat with the guide, we take on last look at the pristine mountains and step out for a plate of spicy momos.
- When to visit: March to June and the period of September-November is the best. Avoid visiting during or around festivals.
- Getting there: Kathgodam is the nearest railhead (65km). Take a private cab from here.One can also book a bus from Delhi Kashmere Gate ISBT to Haldwani. Private vehicles can then be arranged to Kausani, which is about 140 kilometres from here. One can also hop into a shared cab to Almora (making a day-long stopover) and then to Kausani. Road route: Delhi - Ghaziabad - Pilkhuwa - Hapur - Garhmukteshwar - Moradabad - Rampur - Rudrapur - Haldwani - Bhimtal - Almora - Someshwar
- Where to stay: Most of the accommodation facilities are clumped together near the Anasakti Ashram. The Buransh, Hotel Chevron Mountain Villa, Krishna Mountview and the KMVN Tourist Rest House are good options for different budgets.
- Baijnath Temple: The historical temple complex is located in the Garur tehsil, 15 kilometres from the town centre. Built in the 12th century on the banks of the river Gomti by the Katyuri kings, the precinct houses idols of the gods Shiva, his wife Parvati, their son, Ganesha, the god of wealth, Kuber, and the Sun god. Legend has it that Shiva and Parvati were married here.
- Rudhradhari Temple and falls: Situated amid verdant paddy fields and a pine forest, this is another historical site. Set off for an early morning hike from the town centre, which is located at about 15 kilometres from here. The temple is said to have been established by a wandering ascetic.
- The Shawl Factory: Located close to the tea gardens, the facility offers visitors tours to see woollens being woven using machines and even hand. The showroom has shawls, scarves stoles, rugs, blankets and other woollens for sale at affordable prices. Step out for some fragrant buransh sherbet or tea and also shop for Himalayan spices and lentils.