Since I have started talking about food already, I must mention how much I loved what they served us at the Ashok Vatika. From the ginger tea and boiled eggs along with the wonderful homebaked biscuits that they offered us as refreshments after our journey, to the buffet dinner and breakfast spread. Everything was brilliant. Not a very wide variety but the food tasted really good. The bhaturas were like we make at home. A bit tangy but not spongy like the Haldiram variety. The leavening being only from the curd fermenting through the night with no yeast or added soda at all. The best bit though was seeing six varieties of locally sourced jam! We liked strawberry best of all. Oh and the meals are served in the dining room within the bungalow so it is all very homey.
After finishing up we decided to walk around and explore the area, with an eye to seeing the remaining Ramgarh bungalows. The Ramgarh bungalows, I should mention, are six separate bungalows – or bungalow clusters in the same general neighbourhood. I had wanted to stay at the Vista Villa which has three rooms so we would have had the whole place to ourselves. But someone else had taken a room there so assuring us that no one would be staying in the fourth room of the Ashok Vatika, they had given us that bungalow. Given the homeliness of the place, I would strongly recommend planning for this if you are travelling as a group.
Three hundred metres downhill from the Ashok Vatika is the Writers’ bungalow and we decided to go there first. One of the people on the staff kindly came along to show us the way.
The Writers’ Bungalow is a stone cottage all over ivy. It is so named because Rabindranath Tagore stayed there while scouting for a place to build his World University somewhere close. To anyone who has been to this part of the world, the choice of location is hardly surprising. Corbett (and really you must not be annoyed by the number of Corbett references this post has. It is only going to get worse and the title ought to have tipped you off!) has this to say about Muktesar:
People who have lived at Muktesar claim that it is the most beautiful spot in Kumaon, and that its climate has no equal.
And Ramgarh is a mere stone’s throw away!
Unfortunately, it was not to be. His sister was ill at the time and died in the house he had moved to after his six month stay at the Writers’ Bungalow. With sad memories and a heavy heart, he left Ramgarh never to return.
That house has decayed and I believe returned to the jungle but the Writers Bungalow survives and this story adds a delicious touch of the historical. Like the fact of Nehru having stayed at the Ashok Vatika when in hiding from the British. I must say I always had a sort of idea of our freedom fighters enduring severe deprivations during such periods. Although of course the Ashok Vatika is perfect as a hideout. Last place they would look and all!
And while on the subject of the Muktesar man eater, Corbett had stayed in Ramgarh while on her trail. The Dak Bungalow he stayed at has been renovated and is in fact the main bungalow in the cluster, now called ‘The Old Bungalow’.
We were so charmed with the entire property that we asked the manager Shailendra if there were more such heritage bungalows thereabouts. His answer was disappointing. It seems that most people in the neighbourhood, far from valuing the beauty of these old structures, demolish them and use the doors and windows as firewood. Neemrana has at times got in ahead and picked up some of them. For instance, these windows, which are now part of the library at the old bungalow.
I have my own theory about all that burning though. Hillfolk are notoriously superstitious! In ‘The Temple Tiger’ Corbett tells the story of his helper Bala Singh who simply lay down and died when he believed the spirit that had entered him wanted to return. My own family, for all their years spent in the plains, are not proof against this.
On the very first night at the Ashok Vatika, beauty and charm notwithstanding, my mother in law expressed her disinclination to sleep in the little ante room adjoining the main bedroom where my younger brother in law and his family were to sleep. When everyone suggested that he sleep there instead, he, together with his oldest brother promptly moved the bed in. Simply put, he was scared to sleep all by himself!
For our part, my husband slept in the ante room while the kids had a grand time kicking me through the night. But on our second morning, there was a subdued sort of silence around the breakfast table.
My oldest brother in law had not had a good night’s sleep. He and his family had a room, instead of a suite, since their two small children co-sleep. All night (in that crowded bed) he had not been able to shake off the feeling of someone else sitting on the bed too. He had wanted to shout and ask it to leave but the words would not come out and in terror he woke up – to see nothing of course! While he was in the bathroom he thought he heard a child cry but returning to his room and inquiring of his sleeping wife whether one of the children had cried, he was informed otherwise. Thinking that it might have been my other brother in law’s son in the next room, he went back to sleep. This time undisturbed. On being informed the next morning that his nephew had not cried, all terror returned and they were loath to spend one more night in the place.
I should mention that after having had to sleep without a quilt all of the first night on account of my boys’ kicking it away, I had elected to sleep in the ante room all by myself. And our room was at the other end of the bungalow away from the other two rooms and with the unoccupied room in between. I had the best night’s sleep unmolested by spirits or crying children. However, I was intrigued enough to google a bit.
For the sake of the reputation of the Ramgarh bungalows let me state here and now that not a SINGLE person who has stayed there and written a TripAdvisor review has mentioned any sort of spooky occurrence. Also, my own experience. But Jim Corbett himself has had other worldly encounters during his wanderings on these hills. The shout he heard from the deserted village of Thak, the Talla Des lights and of course the night he spent in the bungalow while hunting the Champawat man eater of which his biographer has this to say:
“Quite what happened was something about which Jim was forever reticent. That he had a night-long brush with the supernatural is without doubt for…”
If it had been anyone but Corbett, I would have dismissed the story with scorn. But this is Jim Corbett we are talking of. A man who has lived his life in the jungles and hunted man eaters till the age of 63. He is no coward and between disbelieving him and wondering a little bit whether there might be something to this sort of thing, I would lean unwillingly to the latter. Oh and based on my researches, the bungalow where Corbett had this experience is The Abbey at Lohaghat. A notorious enough place even without that story to buffer up its reputation. Although I cannot imagine what that tehsildar was about asking Corbett to move to that bungalow and then spend the night there all alone. Was it a practical joke, or a test to see if the place was scary only to those who knew it was supposed to be? More importantly, what did Corbett say to the man the next day?
But coming back to more earthly matters, we went from the library at the Old Bungalow to the jam manufacturing unit. I call it that because it can hardly be called a factory. It is simply a small room where preservative free jam is made using local fruits. I went overboard buying for friends and family. However, we were left with only two small jars by the time we were done gifting. Both were excellent.
Having exhausted the entertainment potential of the immediate neighbourhood, I was content to do nothing for the rest of the day. But everyone else had other plans and we set off to explore Muktesar and the surrounding areas. It was a beautiful drive and we also explored some of the trekking paths to better admire the rhododendron trees in bloom and pick up pine cones. It was not the right time of the year for rhododendron squash, or as it is known locally, Burans ka sharbat, but there was some back in the fridge at Ghaziabad. By the side of the roads, little Kumaoni children were selling bunches of the Burans flowers which I bought simply because the children looked so rosy cheeked and adorable.
All this took up much time and by the time we decided on lunch we found to our dismay that most eateries had closed down. This is a small and non-touristy place after all! After much driving around, we chanced upon the Alankar restaurant who agreed to feed us.
The Alankar restaurant is a home run enterprise attached to a small shop selling essentials. The kitchen looked neat and hygenic even though they had a pet cat and small boy – about my older one’s age – running around the place. While we waited for our meal to be prepared, the owner’s son engaged my husband and the children in a game of football. It wasn’t all kindness – he was clearly glad to get out of attending his tuition, but as I watched him, my respect for hill children went up several notches. Not only because he was exceptionally athletic and a brilliant sportsman. That is after all the natural outcome of a life lived outdoors, in fresh air and with a lot of exercise. But because when the ball was kicked too hard, as inevitably happens, where our kids only have to go into a bush or negotiate with the neighbourhood aunty, this child had to race down a ravine and beat the ball at it! I need hardly mention that our civic minded tourists ensure that the whole place is littered with broken bottles.
Many years ago, Corbett had concluded a story set in this very region by feeling thankful for having made a small patch of earth safer for a brave little girl to walk on. I saw something of the same spirit and wished I could make this small patch cleaner for such a brave little boy to play on!
Moving on, the food at the Alankar was delicious even though we couldn’t have any of the pahadi items on the menu since they require advance notice. I’ll give a shout out to this place and you might need to hurry since their chef’s ears perked up hearing we were from Bangalore and he asked us many questions about employment opportunities!
Ramgarh is a great place for star spotting which is what we did at night. With some care and the assistance of Google we were able to spot a number of constellations. I also kept an eye out for leopards since one had been reported in the area last year and it is as well to be careful.
Ramgarh is a great place to walk and trek. After breakfast the next day, we headed off up the hill to explore. My family may be scared of ghosts and spirits but when it comes to walking up a steep hill, they are second to none! I found it very hard to keep up at first. But I am a Heidi at heart! Look how far up I got! That circled thing in the distance is the Ashok Vatika. And the drop in the next picture, if you can figure it out from the trees, is to show you how steep a walk up it was over slippery ground covered with dead leaves.
I was rewarded for my efforts by sightings of a number of amazing looking birds that flew faster than I could click. I later identified the bird in this picture below as the Blue Himalayan Magpie. If there had to be only one bird I could click on these hills, I am glad it was this one. Corbett lovers might remember how the chatterings of this bird gave the ageing Corbett whatever little sleep he got while waiting up on a tree for the Thak man-eater.
We had to leave soon after. I went away with memories of one of the best holidays ever! I usually want to stay back in places I holiday in but Ramgarh was something else entirely. Not only because it put faces to so many names I had read about in the course of my Corbett studies. Maybe because it connected me and my children to my husband’s side of the story. One that is more likely to be lost for being so remote and so local at the same time. And perhaps because it gave my children the sort of simple holiday with their cousins I remember from my own school days.
There is also one more compelling reason for me to love Ramgarh. Have you heard the joke about the new diet where you eat everything and pray for a miracle? Ramgarh is a bit like that. After all my hoggings of bhaturas and parathas, I returned home to discover I had dropped a dress size!