We hit the road at six and were already an hour behind schedule! The 400 km drive to Binsar through Moradabad, Rampur, Rudrapur, Kathgodam, Bhimtal, Bhowali and Almora was going to be one long haul. Musafir had insisted on driving the ‘Jazz’ as the winding hill roads make him sick unless he is at the wheel. The other vehicle was entrusted to our good-old ‘Saarthi’ our comrade of many past adventures. The man speaks little but exudes a quiet confidence and is a good bloke to have with you when the chips are down.
We took the Highway to Lucknow (NH-24) and drove through Ghaziabad and Hapur, crossing the awe-inspiring Ganga to halt at Gajraula for breakfast at McDonald’s. The road was good and we had beaten the traffic thus far only to squander the early gains in a lazy breakfast. We now crossed Amroha, the birthplace of the famous Urdu poet Kamal ‘Amrohi’ who wrote the epic dialogues for Mughal-e-Azam and directed Pakeezah – the last film of his estranged wife Meena Kumari who died weeks after its release. The highway skirts the ‘Pital Nagri’ of Moradabad and we were still making good time when we turned left to leave the 4-lane highway and reach the erstwhile Princely State of Rampur.
Rampur became the capital of the Rohilla Nawabs after the rout of their military alliance with the Marathas in 1772 at the hands of the combined forces of the State of Oudh and the East India Company.
Nawab of Rampur with Sir Maurice Hallet, Governor of United Provinces – Carriage Procession escorted by Rampur Lancers from Nawab Station to Khas Bag Palace, Rampur (1940)
The town is today in a state of utter neglect if not outright decay but it still prides itself with the historic ‘Raza Library’ that has a priceless collection of rare Oriental manuscripts and Mughal miniature paintings. The library is housed within the splendid ‘Hamid Manzil’ – a palace constructed in the Indo-European style in 1904 within the walls of Rampur Fort that also contains the 19th century Imambara.
Hamid Manzil constructed under supervision of Chief Engineer W.C. Wright, in the reign of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan at Rampur (1940)
We were to now follow NH-87 till Almora and had managed to cover half the distance without event. The tough part of the journey had now started and we suffered a bone-jarring ride over the pot-holed 30 KM stretch amidst heavy tourist traffic from Rampur to Bilaspur. We refuelled and continued on the congested highway till Rudrapur. The towns of Uttarakhand are a pleasant surprise and present a clean, orderly look especially when compared to their shabby cousins in Uttar Pradesh. We now left the highway and took the refreshing forest road till Haldwani. We overshot the bye-pass and had to honk our way through the crammed market road until we finally hit the highway again.
We had fallen behind our planned schedule and were relieved to reach ‘Kath-Godam’ (literally the ‘Timber Depot’). The town came up in the foothills where the Gaula River disgorges from the Kumaon Himalayas to flow south to join the Ramganga. Its significance as a transit point for the transportation of timber brought down from the Himalayas increased in the late 19th century after the railway line from Bareilly was extended till the town.
Kathgodam Railway Station (1935)
Depots were established for stacking of timber by the merchants including the legendary ‘Timber King of India,’ Thakur Dan Singh Bisht, the ‘Maldaar’ of Kumaon. We halted briefly at ‘Udipiwala’ a welcoming budget restaurant with typical South-Indian fare, quick service and reasonably clean loos.
Binsar amongst the Himalayas
We left the highway again this time to take the Bhimtal – Bhowali road to escape the summer rush for Nanital. The ascent had started at Kathgodam and we drove up the pleasant hill-road gaining some 800 metres in altitude to reach Bhimtal. The hill-town is a terrible disappointment with a rather tired-looking lake, virtually in its death-throes, being pitilessly choked by the mushrooming architectural nightmares in concrete and the noisy potato-chip crunching tourists.
We left the valley and climbed up the road for ‘Bhowali’ which is famous for its fruit ‘mandi’ and its historic TB-Sanatorium. Therapeutic intervention for the treatment of tuberculosis started in India in the early 20th century with the setting up of ‘Sanatoriums’ at hill stations by Christian Missionaries and the British-Indian Government as part of the ‘Open Air’ treatment strategy that was in vogue in those times. Patients were expected to benefit from the salubrious climate of the hills coupled with the carefully monitored diet and lifestyle. A TB-Sanatorium was started in 1908 by the Church of Scotland near Almora and was intended only for women patients. In 1912 the Government established its first sanatorium at Bhowali that was named King Edward Sanatorium to commemorate the reign of King Edward VII. The Bhowali Sanatorium served as home for an ailing Subhas Chandra Bose in 1932. Later Kamla Nehru was brought here from Allahabad in October 1934 when she was diagnosed with TB. Jawaharlal Nehru was shifted from the prison at Naini to Almora Jail so that he could visit his ailing wife. He would read out chapters from his autobiography that he was writing in the jail to his wife. In March 1935, Kamla was shifted to a sanatorium at Badenweiler in Germany and from there in January 1936 to another sanatorium near Lausanne in Switzerland where she died the following month.
We crossed the busy bazaar of Bhowali at 1657 metres and once again joined the NH-87 to progress northwards down the western slope of Bhowali Range. The highway descended into a narrow, picturesque valley with a creek running down northward between two parallel ranges. The hill sides were thickly wooded with pockets of terraced fields. The natural beauty of this enchanting valley was interrupted by the ugly plastic domes of polyhouse farms set up along the banks of the rocky creek.
We crossed the ‘Kainchi Dham’ – a bustling ashram-cum-temple complex dedicated to Lord Hanuman that was started in the mid-sixties by an ascetic, ‘Baba Neem Karoli’. The complex has built at the end of a reverse bend in the road – ‘Kainchi morh’ in local parlance. The ascetic was made famous by his American disciple Dr. Richard Alpert who was a PhD in Psychology from Stanford and a professor at Harvard until his dismissal in 1963 on the charge of giving a psychedelic drug to an undergraduate! Richard was born in 1931 to Jewish parents and arrived in India in 1967 on a spiritual quest. He became a disciple of Baba Neem Karoli who changed his name to Ram Dass. Richard wrote a book on yoga, spiritualism and meditation that was published under the title ‘Be Here Now’ in 1971. It soon became a cult with the Hippie Movement of the 70s influencing many, amongst others, Steve Jobs! The book has sold over 2 million copies and served as the inspiration for George Harrison’s 1974 song, ‘Be Here Now’.
The valley is also home to the erstwhile ‘Imperial Potato Research Station’ that was established at Niglat in 1943. It became a ‘Wheat Research Station’ during the Green Revolution years and was eventually made a Research Station for the Central Himalayan Region under the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.
The creek flows into a large seasonal nallah which in turn continues northward to join the Kosi River at Khairna. We crossed Garampani village (popular with tourists for its hot spring) to reach Khairna town at 888 metres, some 20 KM from Bhowali. Khairna has been famous for the successive iron-suspension bridges that were built by the British across the Kosi River since mid-19th century.
Khyrna Bridge on the road to Ranikhet; Lawrie and Company, G.W. (1895)
The town also had a staging bungalow for the European travellers. The cart road to Ranikhet Cantonment crossed the Kosi over the bridge at Khairna. Till the construction of a bridge across Kosi upstream of Khairna the only way to reach Almora was the circuitous one through Ranikhet. Lt. Col. Alban Wilson of the 8th Gurkha Rifles in his famous memoirs ‘Sport and Service in Assam and Elsewhere’ describes his stay at the Khirna bungalow and angling for mahseer that gathered in the pool below the bridge. It was 1899 and the Gurkha officer was on his way to attend the garrison class at Ranikhet. He had shot a barking deer and some partridges for the pot and had waited for the dinner with anticipation only to discover much to his chagrin that the khansamah fed his dinner to a travelling General and his staff who were also staying at the bungalow!
The Kosi River originates from the Bhatkot range near Kausani and it flows in south/ south-west direction through Binsar, Bhatkat, Syahidevi and Takula-Basauli hills till it meets its main tributary Suyal at Kwarab. The river then flows westward till Kakrighat from where it bends sharply to head south towards Khairna. At Khairna the river takes a westward course again until it bends southward near the Dangrani Gate of the Corbett National Park to flow through Ramnagar and join the Ramganga River south of Rampur.
We drove through Chhara and headed north along the highway that runs parallel to the left bank of Kosi. The tree cover thins out drastically after Khairna and the hill slopes look bare and eroded. 10 KM from Khairna we reached yet another temple-cum-ashram complex at Kakrighat. The site lies across the Kosi River and is famous for the ‘Samadhi’ of the ‘Sombari’ Baba. The ‘Baba’ was an early 20th century ascetic who was believed to possess miraculous healing powers.
Sombari Baba of Kakrighat
He organized a free community meal (Bhandara) at his riverside ashram at Kakrighat every Monday (‘Sombar/ Somvar’) and hence the name ‘Sombari’. The Baba led a solitary, austere life in his modest riverside abode (he lived in a cave as per some versions). He would cook his own meal, sufficient only for one and then divide it into three. He would eat only the first part, the second he would feed to the fish and leave the last part for an unknown companion. The Baba performed meditation surrounded by fires lighted in all four directions with the fire of the sun above him (the ‘Panch’/ Five-‘Agni’/Fire ‘Sadhna’/ Meditation) to experience his inner fire – the ‘Kundalini Shakti’. When asked the significance of the ritual, he explained, ‘Fire is me and I am fire – the whole universe is pervaded by fire – fire is that which sustains life – everything in this web of life is interconnected – our health and happiness are not separate from the health and happiness of others – our inner strength and spiritual wisdom affect the world outside us and vice versa.’
The ascetic was in a way echoing the ‘realization’ achieved by Swami Vivekanada at the very same spot when he meditated under a pipal tree at Kakrighat in 1890. The Swami awakened from deep meditation and wrote in Bengali in the notebook of his companion Swami Akhandananda, ‘The microcosm and the macrocosm are built on the same plan. Just as the individual soul is encased in the living body, so is the universal Soul in the Living Prakriti [Nature]—the objective universe … is analogous to the relation between an idea and the word expressing it: they are one and the same; and it is only by a mental abstraction that one can distinguish them. Thought is impossible without words.’
We drove along the Kosi for another 10KM till we reached its confluence with Suyal at Kwarab. We crossed the Suyal over a high bridge and climbed the southern face of the Binsar-Almora Ridge that extends from the north-east to south-west and separates the Kosi catchment area from the Suyal basin. A signboard at the outskirts of Almora directed us to turn for the Binsar bye-pass which took us through numerous bends and turns until our navigating guide – ‘Google Aunty’ was as clueless as the rest of us. We eventually found ourselves driving on the Almora-Ranikhet Road and were guided by the locals to leave the main road at Almora Filling Station and take the hairpin bend that seemed to put us back on the road to Almora!! ‘Google-maps’ was giving bizarre directions and I was afraid to admit to my fatigued and anxious companions that I had lost my way.
The signposts of ‘Khali Estate’ a heritage property inside Binsar forest eventually came to our rescue and we followed the way to Khali. We were now on the Almora-Bageshwar Road. We were a couple of hours behind schedule and I was worried that we might miss the time permitted for last entry into Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary at the Ayarpani Gate. Saarthi had sensed my anxiety and had stepped on the accelerator without the need for instruction.
It was 5 PM when we finally reached the drop gate of the Forest Department. The Ayarpani Gate has a Reception Centre (with loos) and a Nature Interpretation Centre. A friendly forest employee ushered me to the Reception and I purchased the entry tickets for visiting the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. The charges were modest – Rs. 250 per vehicle (inclusive of the driver) and Rs. 150 per adult visitor with a 50% student discount for the children.
Aayarpani Gate Reception, Binsar WLS
A single 9 KM long metalled road connects the Ayarpani Gate to the over 100 years old Forest Rest House nestled within the thick forest that covers the Binsar massif. The metalled road is the only track inside the sanctuary on which vehicular traffic is permitted. There are numerous jungle trails and village paths for reaching the private estates, villages and viewpoints. It was 11 hours of weary travel since we had started from Delhi and we were now standing expectantly at the gates of our latest forest adventure destination.
Drop Gate of Forest Department at Aayarpani, Binsar WLS
Aayarpani Gate to Jhandi Dhar (Binsar WLS)
Our story must now take a longish detour into the winding lanes of history of Binsar starting with the original colonial occupants of the 19th century bungalows and estates that were set up inside the Binsar forest. As one drives down the forest road from Ayarpani one encounters a board indicating the way up a hill top to the Khali Estate. Of the six private estates located inside the forest (only five are being operated currently) probably Khali has the best documented history – an enchanting tale of a long chain of owners, most of whom could be called dreamers, the not so ‘worldly wise’. For it does require a certain kind of madness to live a life of seclusion in the midst of a remote, pristine forest drunk on the love for the wild.
The 140 year old history of the present day ‘Khali Estate’ of Binsar starts with the purchase on 20th March 1873 by Lt. Col. Alexander Paterson of ‘Almorah’, of a parcel of land having an area of 16 (British) Acres 16 and 19 Poles and situated in ‘Lakhanpur Patti, Baramandel Pargana in the Collectorate of Kumuon’. The site was bound to the north by Mauzah Bhakuni, to the east/south-east by Mauzah Ullai and to the west/ south-west by Mauzah Bhatuli. Lt. Col. A. Paterson paid the treasury 101 Rupees and 9 Annas towards ‘redemption of land revenue’ that was payable to the Government for the site. Paterson served in the 3rd Gurkha (The Kumaon) as Lt. Col and Commandant from 9th Dec 1869 to 23rd June 1873 and as the Colonel Commandant from 1873 to 1879. The 3rd Gurkha was raised in 1815 as ‘The Kumaon Battalion’ during the war with Nepal and drew its soldiers from the hill people of Nepali, Kumaoni and Garhwali origin. The Kumaon Battalion formed a part of the 3rd Column led by Colonel Campbell that stormed the Kashmiri Gate in September 1857. The battalion was rechristened as the 3rd Gurkha Regiment in 1864. Col. Paterson gained recognition when he led his troops to victory in the famous battle of Ahmed Khel in 1879 during the Second Afghan War. He lived at Almorah, the permanent station of the regiment. He later rose to the rank of a General.
Paterson’s Estate was purchased by General Sir Henry Ramsay on 2nd April 1885 and was named ‘The Khalee Orchard’. He is said to have built a small weekend cottage at the property.
Major-General the Honourable Sir Henry Ramsay, CB, KCSI, Commissioner of Kumaon
The General had built a bungalow and an orchard higher up in the forest that he called the ‘Binsar Orchard’. The two orchards together formed the Estate of Binsur Gardens of Sir Henry that was sold on 22nd February 1893 for 25,000 Rupees to Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire a Scottish civil engineer then employed in the Public Works Department at Benares, North-Western Provinces.
Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire 1848-1923 at Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (1907)- Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson
Arthur Ross Wilson came to India in 1864 at the age of sixteen, followed by his father, Thomas Wilson, C.E. a few months later, to work on the rail track being constructed between Amritsar and Delhi. He employed a British/ Anglo-Indian manager to tend to his estates before shifting to Khalee on his retirement in 1899 as the Resident Engineer with the PWD at Benares. He is said to have pulled down the old cottage of Ramsay and to have constructed a Spanish-style Villa as his retirement home that stands on the estate to date.
Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (1905) – Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson
Wilson is believed to have been a progressive estate manager who added a small dairy farm, a tea-garden, a tea-processing plant, a fruit-canning plant, a forge and a leather tanning operation to the orchard at Khalee. The hardy Scotsman seems to have been equally good with the gun- judging from his Shikar pictures of Binsar forest.
Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire (1848-1923) posing with leopard kill, Binsar Forest
Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson
Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire (1848-1923) with wild boar kill, Binsar Forest
Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson
Wilson loved the hills and his estate and never returned to Britain at all after his retirement, not even for his children’s weddings in 1906 and 1908!! Arthur’s wife Margaret Methven died at Khalee in 1900. Both his children settled down in India and he continued to live at Khalee until his death on 22nd July 1923. Arthur and Margaret are believed to be buried in the Christian Cemetery at Almorah.
The Khalee Orchards then came to Colonel Norman Methven Wilson, I.M.S. the only son of A.R. Wilson who sold the estate (now measuring 16 Acres) on 2nd May 1932 for Rs.17,000 to Seth Jamnalal Bajaj of Warda, Central Provinces, the famous Indian industrialist, philanthropist, freedom fighter and follower of Mahatma Gandhi. It is said that Mahatma had visited Kasauni and had spent some days at the dak bungalow. He had fallen in love with the Himalayas and the estate was purchased at his behest and named ‘Shail Ashram’ by him. Shail Ashram seems to have been run as a dharamshala of sorts for invalids etc on payment basis under the guidance of Gandhi.
The ashram was then sold on 27th March 1935 for Rs.15,000 to Ranjit Sitaram Pandit a barrister from a cultured and wealthy Brahmin family of Kathiawar who bought it for a holiday home for his family and a recreation camp for Congress workers. Ranjit Pandit had got his education at Europe and studied in several prestigious institutions including the universities at Hiedelberg (Germany), Sorbonne (Paris) and Oxford (U.K.). This charming young man returned to India to practice law. He had many other talents. He was an avid sportsman, had a lovely voice and could play the violin. He was a linguist and was fluent in 11 European and Indian languages. He translated several Sanskrit classics to English including Kalhan’s ‘Rajatarangini’ (River of Kings), the saga of the Kings of Kashmir. It was probably his fascination for Kashmir that attracted him to Swarup Kumari (literally ‘Beautiful Princess’), the vivacious and attractive daughter of his senior colleague from law, Motilal Nehru, while visiting the family at Anand Bhawan – their home at Allahabad. The couple got married in 1922 and the austere wedding at Anand Bhawan was attended by Mahatma Gandhi. Swarup Kumari was renamed Vijaya Lakshmi in the tradition of those times.
RS Pandit with the Nehrus c. 1927
The Mahatma had a tremendous influence on Ranjit who gave up all comforts and got intimately involved with the freedom movement. During the struggle Ranjit, his wife Vijaya Lakshmi and his charismatic brother-in-law, Jawaharlal Nehru had to suffer imprisonment on several occasions.
Nehru Behind Bars with Ranjit Pandit
Soon after he purchased the Shail Ashram a summer study camp was organized at the place in May 1937 by the firebrand socialists of Congress like Yusuf Meherally, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayprakash Narayan. Ranjit was elected as the Secretary of the Provincial Congress Committee in 1938.
Chandralekha Mehta, the eldest of Ranjit and Vijaya Lakshmi’s three daughters has rendered a touching account of life at Khali in the time of her ‘Papu’ in her book ‘Freedom’s Child: Growing up during Satyagraha’. The estate is said to have been in a neglected state when it was bought by Ranjit in 1935. A romantic and a poet at heart, Ranjit named the estate ‘Ritusamhara’ after Kalidasa’s epic poem by that name. He laboured hard to restore the estate to its past glory in the days of Ramsay and Wilson. To make it the idyllic hill retreat of his dreams. Under his loving care the neglected orchard once again yielded apricots, peaches and apples. A spring was harnessed to produce electricity to supplement the kerosene lamps. The waste water from the bath was tapped for use in the garden. Poultry was raised on the estate. Chandralekha recounts her memorable trips to ‘Ritusamhara’ during her childhood. Of landing at the Kathgodam Railway station with her younger sisters at the start of the summer break at school. Of being picked up by their doting father who would then drive them up the winding hill road at a gentle speed to save them from getting motion-sickness. He would sing songs all the way up in his wonderful clear voice to cheer up his daughters. They would halt for breakfast at Mrs. Cotton’s Guest House at Bhowali – an Anglo-Indian lady who bred cocker spaniels!! Lunch would be at the roadside ‘aloo-puri’ shop at Garampani village that lay en-route to Almora. The father would stop at all the scenic spots to let his girls enjoy the Himalayan scenery. The family would stay overnight at the Kundan Lodge at Almora with their relative Basiswar Sen, an agriculturalist who later went on to pioneer the Green Revolution in the country. His American wife- Gertrude Emerson, was a scholar of Indian history and her book, Paegeant of India’s History was published in 1948. It would be a stiff 14-mile climb the following morning to reach Binsar from Almora and the family would be accompanied by Bhutia porters carrying their luggage and ponies carrying the provisions from the town. Chandralekha longingly recalls the towering deodars at the dream home of her childhood. The mulberry tree that the children loved to climb. The sundial of Ramsay. The Gomukh – a marble head of a cow brought as a souvenir from the Swaraj Bhawan – ingeniously installed by her father over the source of a roadside natural spring to make the water run out through the cow’s mouth! She remembers her lounging on the wooden ‘takhts’ in the front verandah – gazing at the distant snow clad peaks. The lovely brown eggs, the home baked bread and the delicious apricot and strawberry jam.
Chandralekha with Vijaya Lakshmi
But this fairy tale had a tragic ending. Ranjit was arrested during the countrywide crackdown triggered by the launch of the ‘Quit India’ Movement. While incarcerated in the Naini Central Jail in 1942, he finally completed his English translation of Kalidas’s, Ritusamhara (Garland of Seasons). Unfortunately, he contracted an infection while lodged in the Bareilly jail and passed away in 1944. His translation of Ritu-Samhar was published after his death.
Ranjit had been a much-loved person and was a special favourite with Jawaharlal Nehru who had spent many-a-happy-day with his sister’s family at their lovely hill home. On his release from the prison Nehru came to spend a night at Khali to mourn the loss of his favourite brother-in-law. Nehru’s love for Khali can be made out from his letter to Indira written from the Ahmadnagar Fort Prison in January 1945. He advises her to spend time at Khali especially for the sake of her son, the ‘young tyrant’ Rajiv (he would have been a year old at that time!) so that the child could learn to love the hills. ‘’I should like him,’’ wrote Nehru, ‘’to become acquainted as early as possible with the Himalayas, have sight of the snow covered peaks, looking down into the deep valleys and breathe the fragrant and health giving air of the pine clad hillsides.’’ He further advised her to take the bridle path to Binsar from Almora and not the motor road so as to get the real hill experience. Indira Gandhi stayed at her aunt’s hill estate in 1946 and wrote to her father from Khali. The letters between the father and the daughter have been published in the book, ‘Two Alone-Two Together’ edited by Sonia Gandhi.
After independence, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was appointed as the Ambassador to the Soviet Union and she sold the estate in 1950 to Swami Bhaskar who established an Ashram at the estate and named it ‘Yoga-Shikhar’.
The ashram was sold in 1959 yet again, this time to Navnit Bansidhar Parekh who was to be the owner of the Khali Estate for the next forty years till his death in May, 1998. Navnit was born to a devout Gujarati family based at Ahmedabad in 1923. His grandparents inculcated in him a love for the Sanskrit language and the Vedic scriptures. After finishing college he joined the family Clearing & Forwarding firm at Bombay, M/s Lee & Muirhead. The firm later shifted its business to travel and tourism. Navnit was, however, not cut out for business and his heart lay in travel and spiritual pursuit. In 1947 he accompanied his father on the 18 mile trek from Almora to Mirtola Ashram of Swami Krishna Prem and there was no looking back thereafter. He fell in love with the Himalayas and trekked deep and wide in the mountains from Kashmir to Arunachal. He made films of his Himalayan adventures that were screened for varied audiences. His film on Kailash Mansarovar was specially screened during the Congress Working Committee meeting at Bombay for the national leaders including Nehru and Patel. His insatiable spiritual quest led him to every sacred destination for pilgrimage in the Himalayas. He sought the answers to the questions of human existence in spiritual Gurus and Saints. He donated to charitable works like dharamshalas and rest-houses for Himalayan travellers and free medicines for hill folks. He travelled extensively in South-East Asia and described the influence of Hindu culture in his book, ‘On the Footsteps of Rishi Agastya.’ Much like his predecessor at Khali, Ranjit Pandit, he too embarked upon the translation of Sanskrit Classics and worked on the translation of the 3 books of Rishi Bhartru-Hari. He wrote extensively about his Himalayan travels in Gujarati. He was an Anthropologist of sorts and took deep interest in the life and culture of the hill-dwellers he encountered on his travels. He owned a large collection of books on travel and spirituality. Navnit settled down for good at Khali in 1963 and named the estate ‘Govardhan’ after the sacred mountain that was lifted by Lord Krishna on his little finger! In 1968 he married Prassana, a teacher at Almora who shared his passion for Hindustani classical music and the mountains. Navnit added a Shiva Temple and a ‘Kutir’ that he used for reading writing and meditation. He planted extensively in the area, planting deodars, rhododendrons, cypress, willow, eucalyptus and poplars. The orchard yielded apple, apricot, peach, pear, plum and chestnut. The cows and buffaloes raised on the ‘Gaushala’ yielded creamy milk. During his 4 decades of stay at Khali he had several important visitors from the world of spiritualism and classical music including Swami Krishna-Prem, Madhav-Ashish, Lama Angarika Govinda, Swami Ishwaranand Giri, Swami Pranavanandji, Ravi Shankar Maharaj, Swami Anand, Kaka Saheb Kalelkar, and Ma Anand-Mayi.
Navnit Parekh (1923-1998)
One may make a mention of the interesting history of Mirtola Ashram as a brief interlude to the narrative to get a feel of the curious lot who give up all to take to a life of solitude in the hills. The story starts with a young English Fighter Pilot, Ronald Henry Nixon who came to India after World War I in 1921 and took up employment in the newly set up University at Lucknow as a Lecturer in English. He became friends with the Vice Chancellor Dr. Gyanendranath Chakravarti, a well-known theosophist and his wife Monika Devi. In 1927 when Monica moved to Almora on medical advice, Ronald decided to accompany her. Monika took to the path of renunciation a year later and assumed the name of Yashoda-Ma. Ronald followed suit under the name of Sri Krishna Prem. The two then founded the Ashram at Mirtola in 1930. Yashoda Ma died in 1944. Sri Krishna-Prem now assumed the management of the Ashram and passed on the same in 1955 to his disciple, Alexander Phipps an English Aircraft Engineer who visited Mirtola in 1946 only to take up the path of spiritualism under the name of Sri Madhav-Ashish. Madhav-Ashish did pioneering work in hill farming techniques with local communities for which he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1992.
Navnit Parekh employed one ‘Mr. Pande’ on the estate as his manager and wrote most fondly of his son Himanshu Pande in his book ‘Himalayan Memoirs’ published in 1986. The family seem to have become the new owners of Khali after the death of Navnit in 1998. The estate is today said to be owned by Mr. Ghanshyam Pande who runs the property as a resort. While the cottage built by Wilson at the turn of the 19th century remains largely untouched some contemporary structures have been added over the years to add to the available accommodation. The ‘Khalee Orchard’ of Ramsay is today known as the ‘Khali Mountain Resort’, may be awaiting a new master, a new story and yet another name!!
Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (2007)- Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson
Our story must now tell the story of Binsar’s most famous resident, General, the Honourable Sir Henry Ramsay the King of Kumaun!
King of Kumaon – Indian Charivari Album (1875)
Henry Ramsay came from the famous Scottish Clan – Ramsay. The Dalhousie Castle near Edinburgh was the seat of the Chieftains of the Clan, the Earls of Dalhousie. His grandfather was the 8th Earl of Dalhousie. His father Sir John Ramsay retired as a Lieutenant General. His elder brother was the 12th Earl of Dalhousie. Sir Henry was the first cousin of Sir James Andrew Bron-Ramsay, the Marquess of Dalhousie who was the youngest and the last Governor-General of East India Company from 1848 to 1856. The Marquess was the author of the infamous ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ that authorized the automatic annexation of a vassal Princely State if its ruler was manifestly incompetent or died without leaving a male heir. This policy was used to usurp a number of Princely States that were under British Suzerainty including Jhansi and Oudh.
Henry Ramsay was Ensign with 53rd NI when in August 1840 he was made a Junior Assistant to the Commissioner of Kumaon. He was a Captain and Senior Assistant Commissioner, Kumaon Proper when he succeeded John Hallet Batten as the Commissioner of Kumaon Division in 1856. He continued as the Commissioner for 28 years from 1856 to 1884. The tradition of referring to the Commissioner of Kumaun as the ‘King of Kumaun’ actually started with George William Traill who was made the Commissioner of Garhwal and Kumaun hills after the British victory over the Gurkha invaders in 1815. Traill treated Kumaun as virtually his own principality and ruled it with the conviction that as a frontier administrator he knew what was best for his territory and even the successive Governor-Generals respected this tradition. Traill ‘ruled’ for two decades and the tradition of treating the Commissioner as the King of Kumaun continued till the time of Sir Henry Ramsay. He married Laura Lushington the daughter of Henry Lushington, Judge North-Western Province in 1850. Sir Henry’s father-in-law Henry Lushington is generally confused with George Thomas Lushington B.C.S. the 3rd son of the Right Honourable S.R. Lushington, P. C, Governor of Madras who served as Collector of Bareilly and Etawah and then as Commissioner of Kumaun from 1839 till his death on 25th October 1849. He was one of the first founders of Naini Tal, which was discovered in 1839 by Mr. J. H. Batten and his brother-in-law, Mr. P. Barron. George’s wife Marianne had died in 1839 after giving birth to a stillborn child and the couple did not have any children. Both were buried in the Cantonment Cemetery at Almora.
The Commissioner of Kumaon’s establishment was based at Almora the headquarters of the Kumaon Division. On 26th of April 1878 Sir Henry Ramsay purchased an estate atop a ridge south of the Binsur Massif from Khujanchee (treasurer) Jai Sah. The estate had an area of 26 (British Statute) Acres, 1 Rod and 25 Poles. It was located in the Lakhmandel District Almora (formerly called Kumaun District) bounded on the north by a government road, on the North east by forest and a ravine, on the South east by the village of Ullai and on the South by forest. Here he built his summer residence, a two-storey bungalow with a ball-room and a private chapel.
General Ramsay’s House
He planted fruit trees – Ribston apples, pears and apricots and named the property- ‘The Binsur Orchard’. He added the courts, staff quarters and a gaol! He would hold court from Binsar during the summer months. The British Union Jack (a White Flag as per some) would be hoisted atop the highest peak of the Binsar Massif (christened the ‘Jhandi Dhaar’/ Flag Staff Peak by the locals) to announce to his subjects that the ‘King’, Ramji Sahib was ‘At Home’!! Bothered by the theft of his precious apples Ramsay had his orchard protected by a stone wall that survives till date and is said to have been built by the labour of the prisoners lodged in his jail!
Rather than attempting a biographical sketch of the man the Tramp has selected for his readers two interesting accounts of Sir Henry Ramsay’s charismatic, larger-than-life personality and style of administration. The first is that presented by Major-General Nigel Woodyatt in his book, ‘Under Ten Viceroys – The Reminiscences of a Gurkha (1922).’ Lieutenat Woodyatt was transferred in 1884 from the Cheshire Regiment of the British Army to the Indian Staff Corps. He got posted to the 3rd Gurkhas sometime in the late 1880s. He landed at Almora – the headquarters of his new Regiment. This is what he wrote –
“On first arrival I found, as a resident, Major-General the Honourable Sir Henry Ramsay, commonly called the “King of Kumaon,” and until recently the Commissioner of Kumaon and Garhwal, an appointment he had held for thirty-five years. As a friend of his son Jack in the Cheshires, I got to know Sir Henry and Lady Ramsay very well and often stayed with them at Khali and Binsur, eight and sixteen miles from Almora respectively. At both places the late Commissioner had built himself houses where he cultivated apples and potatoes, moving to one or the other according to the season of the year. Binsur was a most beautiful place, on a mountain 8,000 feet high covered with oak and rhododendron. Above the house was, according to Sir John Strachey, a former Lieutenant-Governor, one of the finest views of the snows obtainable anywhere. Sir John Strachey’s India: Its Administration and Progress.
Sir Henry was a relation of that seven years’ Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, who ruled India between 1848 and 1856, and annexed more territory than any other Governor-General before or since. An erstwhile adjutant of the 3rd Gurkhas, a participant in the Mutiny, the Controller of the Prince of Wales’ tiger shoot in 1875, and the omnipotent ruler, for years, of a province bigger than Belgium, Sir Henry was extremely interesting to talk to, and the old man loved to talk and to reminisce. He soon told me what a free hand he had to start with, soon after the Mutiny, and how irksome he had found the orders of the local government later on. So much so that if he did not like them he returned the paper endorsed in red ink, “Not applicable to Kumaon”! Meeting him out for a walk he would stand for an hour or two and tell me the most enthralling stories of his life, stories you never see in books, and stories you could listen to for ever. How the Prince of Wales stayed up so late at night that on the second evening, in his shooting camp, Sir Henry approached him at 11 p.m. and asked special permission to retire always at that hour,” as I can’t burn the candle at both ends.” How, in the first day’s shoot though there were plenty of wild tiger it had been necessary to introduce a few tame ones to make the bagging of at least two or three by the Prince an absolute certainty. How, when the huge “ring” of three hundred elephants was closing in gradually, a shot was heard, when the Prince of Wales called out sharply, “Who fired that shot?” (It was Arthur Prinsep of the 11th Lancers, but he was never given away, and the matter wasn’t pressed.) How, a few minutes later one of the tame tiger would not go away from in front of Sir Henry’s elephant, and he had to pelt him with oranges to get him to move on! How, big lunches in hot cases on the backs of elephants were taken into the jungle, and how delighted the Prince was with his first tiger, etc., etc., etc.
Sir Henry Ramsey with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) 1875
If I remember rightly, Sir Henry only took leave to England once during his sojourn of some fifty years in India. It was then only for three months, and made in order to procure agricultural implements and machinery for his district. In those days it only gave him about three weeks at home, and he had much to do. Directly he arrived a summons came from Marlborough House, and there the Prince of Wales told him he was to go to Balmoral to stay with the Queen. H.R.H. also added that on return to London he must make Marlborough House his head-quarters. These were sad encroachments on the scanty days of his short stay, but it couldn’t be helped. On leaving, the Prince and Princess of Wales (now Queen Alexandra) each presented him with a large signed photograph. These, in his haste, he left behind in his room. “What on earth did you do?” I gasped. “Oh,” said the old man,” I had a nephew, an equerry, and he had to go and retrieve them for me!”
He loved his unofficial title of “King of Kumaon.” Once a High Court judge, on leave from the plains, put up in the Government bungalow of Muktesar in the Kumaon Hills, and now a bacteriological college. Here was a large area Sir Henry had devoted to apples and potatoes. The judge liked the potatoes so much he took a sack away with him, sending the three rupees to the Commissioner, as told to do by the European caretaker. “I sent the money back,” said Sir Henry,” with the words ‘Kings don’t sell’!”
He reclaimed thousands of acres in the Kumaon Bhabar (land below the foot-hills and dry, as opposed to the Tarai, which is marshy and jungly land lying along the foot of the Himalayas north of the Ganges River), and persuaded the hill people to migrate there in the winter with their flocks and herds, thereby greatly adding to their wealth by giving them all seasons’ crops. He also introduced the cultivation of potatoes, chestnuts, etc., all over Kumaon, another source of profit to his beloved people. These lived in what might well be called a model province, thanks to their king and father, Sir Henry Ramsay.
Some years after I joined at Almora, he was persuaded by his family to leave India and reside at home, where perhaps the cramped life speedily killed him, for he only survived about a couple of years, if so long. Like most strong men he had, of course, his enemies. I came across one who for years had been one of his subordinate officers and hated the sound of his name. Getting to know this man pretty well, I probed for the reason for this dislike. It turned out to be resentment at various official wiggings for slackness, which were well deserved, and also because he was “checked” for living with a native lady of Kumaon to whom he was not married. An amusing thing was that when this old bachelor moved anywhere, the good woman was always carried in a large packing case, the bearers of which were instructed, if questions were asked, to say it was the sahib’s “baja” (piano)!
George Smith included Hon. Sir Henry Ramsay, K.C.S.I., C.B., the “King” of Kumaon in his list of 12 Statesmen of the 19th century whom he considered to be chief amongst the builders of the British-Indian Empire. Interesting excerpts from his book ‘The Twelve Statesmen’ (1897) are reproduced for the readers:
“No Scottish family has done so much to extend and to consolidate the Empire of British India as the Ramsays of Dalhousie. The founder was ennobled by his sovereign, James VI., whom he rescued during the death-grapple in the secluded chamber of Gowrie Castle. The ninth earl, whose brother also succeeded to the baronetcy and estates of Panmure, was made a peer of the United Kingdom for his services at Waterloo, and followed Lord Combermere as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. His son was the greatest of all, the first and the last Marquess of Dalhousie. When hardly out of his boyhood, he was Sir Robert Peel’s President of the Board of Trade, and virtual author of the English railway system. Sent out to India, the youngest, and, as it proved, the last of the Company’s Governor-Generals, in the self-denying administration of eight years to which he sacrificed his life, Lord Dalhousie added to British territory an empire as large as Clive’s, gave to its millions all the latest reforms of the age, scientific, social and educational, and would have left it stronger than ever had not the home authorities turned a deaf ear to his military requests. Not a few of his kinsmen commanded in the British and the Company’s armies. General John Ramsay had a Division in Bengal; Colonel James Ramsay was long well known as Commissary-General there; Colonel U. Maule Ramsay was Brigadier at Gwalior.
But the last of all the Ramsays, and second only to the great Marquess in ability, was the Hon. Sir Henry, popularly known as the King of Kumaon, who spent forty-four years as an administrator in the North-Western Provinces of India. When his elder brother succeeded to the united honours and estates of Dalhousie and Panmure, as the twelfth earl, Henry was living in all simplicity in the heart of his Himalayan province, one of those patriarchal rulers who, as soldier-statesmen, won and then civilised the martial races of our extended frontier.
Born in 1816, he went out almost direct from the Edinburgh Academy as a Company’s cadet to Bengal in 1834. In the six months’ campaign of 1848-49, when, for the second time, the Sikhs contested with us the supremacy of the Punjab, Henry Ramsay won his spurs in a style of which his kinsman, the Governor-General, four years his senior, was proud. But the Marquess of Dalhousie was no nepotist; and it fell to Mr. Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces, to reward the young soldier long after. In the year before the Mutiny, Major Henry Ramsay was sent to the non-regulation districts of Kumaon and Garhwal as Commissioner. There he lived and there he reigned, amid the blessings of the people, and to the admiration of all men, till he came home to die. He had married the daughter of Sir Henry Lushington, Bart., who survived him, and he left more than one son in the Indian military and political services.
The country with which his name is for ever identified is just the size of Switzerland, but still more beautiful, with a million of hardy mountaineers. From the once rebel plains of Rohilkhand the Kumaon division rises up to the main range of the mighty Himalayas, and is arrested only by the border of Chinese Tibet. Lakes are rarely met with in the stupendous mountain system of North India, but this Province contains one of the most beautiful in the world, Naini Tal. Around it, as a sanitarium of rare beauty, the Europeans of the North-Western Provinces cluster in the hot season, and not far off, at Ranikhet and Chowbuttia, our British troops with their families find health and acclimatisation in the first years of their tropical service. From Almora, the capital, whence Henry Ramsay governed the million of his children for nigh forty years, thirty snowy peaks can be seen, all much loftier than Mont Blanc, while the giant Trisul (trident) and the two mightier Nandas tower up to almost twenty-six thousand feet. It is a land of great rivers, frequented by thousands of the Hindus from the parched plains below to worship at their sacred fountains…From two sources in Garhwal the Ganges takes its rise, and where the two affluents unite amidst everlasting snows, the shivering sun-stricken children of Mother Ganga find the holiest spot of pilgrim asceticism in the Brahmanical world.
Just before the crowning victory of Waterloo this land, which had been long ravaged by the Goorkhas, came under the British peace. First Traill, and then J. H. Batten, two administrators worthy of the noblest traditions of the Indian Civil Service, reduced to order the chaos caused by their Nepaulese predecessors, using the iron hand of a personal autocracy, tempered by equity and kindliness, to all who loyally obeyed the ruler. Henry Ramsay developed the policy of patriarchal administration, which Durand had been the first to embody in Tenasserim, under the name of “non-regulation,” and which had been splendidly carried out by the Lawrences and their officers, like Ramsay himself, after the Second Punjab War. He was soon recognised as the father of the people. In a region where roads and navigation, and even riding, was impossible, Ramji Sahib, as he came to be called, first fearfully and then affectionately, would suddenly swoop down on an offending village, or for the comfort of a suffering hamlet, like a bird from his eyrie. He could out-walk even his favourite paharees, or Highlanders. Promptly to right some wrong, he would emerge from the ravines or the forests of his kingdom before it was known that he had left Almora.
It was well that such a man had been for even so short a time as twelve months in charge of Kumaon when the Mutiny of 1857 blasted the plains of Northern India and, in the neighbouring division of Rohilkhand filled with Mohammedans, became almost civil rebellion. An Act was in due time passed to disarm the population. Mr. Colvin and his Government were shut up in the fort of Agra, where he soon afterwards died. Between him and Ramsay in their mountain fastnesses it could not be said that government existed at all. They could not be in touch. Ramsay heard of the Disarming Act, but would not believe that could apply to him. Were not his million of subjects peaceful and even actively loyal? The Commissioner of the neighbouring rebel division of Rohilkhand remonstrated with him, but in vain. Ramsay referred to Lord Canning and his Council the question whether he was to reward his Highlanders, Hindus, and Goorkhas for their loyalty at such a time by taking away the arms which they had used in our service. By that time the first Viceroy of India was learning to see facts for himself, and the Government of India decided in the indignant Commissioner’s favour. The paharees kept their muskets, and continued to use them against our enemies.
Henry Ramsay was his own engineer and forester and public works secretary for many a year. Perhaps the finest enterprise that he undertook and carried out single-handed was the revenue settlement of the waterless districts known as bhabar. The hill-tracts contained only some five hundred square miles of arable land, while the magnificent water resources of the country were running to waste, or became pestilential swamps as they collected at the plains. The streams found their way under the dry forests, and emerged below only to create malaria. Building drains and reservoirs on the higher uplands, he regulated the supply, and he carried it down to form small irrigating canals. He gradually wrought such a change on the face of the country that verdure and health everywhere prevailed. The people flocked to the new holdings, and they gladly paid an increasing rent to the State landlord and improver. The Public Works Department cast its eye on the enterprise, and sought to bring it under its own regulation control; but Ramsay long maintained his independent management, and was allowed to do so until the waste forest area ceased to exist, and the malarious (sic) swamps became smiling gardens. Lord Mayo, when Governor- General, visited the country, being himself an experienced agriculturist. He so admired the forest reclamation that he resolved, had his life and term of office been continued, to make it the model of similar works all along the lower Himalayas. His Excellency’s only complaint of the autocratic Commissioner was that he would not dine with him on Sunday evening, but preferred to keep to his custom of attending divine service. The Viceroy admired him all the more, and it was well known among both his native and European subordinates that Ramji Sahib would do no business between six and seven every morning, for that hour all through his life he gave to God.
The “non – regulation” system, under which the territories recently acquired by conquest or occupied by simple hill-men were governed outside of the elaborate codes and procedure and appellate courts of India proper, was necessarily temporary in its action. As a system it had its own codes, but these were simple, and were administered by civilians and soldiers of marked individuality of character and righteousness of aim, who feared no responsibility save to their own conscience and to God. The system was also educative, preparing the new subjects and their officials alike for the time when they must be absorbed into the Imperial machine of law and procedure. Henry Ramsay fully recognised this, with his marvellous tact and sweet reasonableness. At first he kept law, in the technical sense, far from him. “In my opinion,” he once remarked, when on the spot he was deciding a boundary dispute, “law is too often injustice. It can be twisted in any way, and can be made to defeat its own purpose. The best administration is that which deals out justice on intelligible principles, which never change.” But he, too, made mistakes, which he was the first to admit; and as every judge and magistrate cannot be a Henry Ramsay, or a John Lawrence, he paved the way for the High Court jurisdiction all over his territory. What Traill began he completed, till he left the Kumaon division of the North-Western Provinces a model administration…He ceased to be Commissioner in 1884, but so attached was he to the people and their interests, that he felt as if he could not leave. He remained for eight years afterwards, in a non-official capacity, doing them all the good in his power.”
Sir Henry bought the ‘Binsur Orchard’ in 1878 and interestingly enough two years later the Binsar forest was declared a Reserve Forest! It was a complete volte-face from his avowed opposition to excluding parts of forest from economic exploitation. He prided himself with reclamation of thousands of acres of ‘bhabar’ land in the Shivalik foothills for agriculture – paving the way for the mindless destruction of the ‘bhabar-terai’ habitat over the century that followed. Till as late as the middle of the 19th century Henry Ramsay and his boss Commissioner Batten, like everyone around them, were naive enough to believe that the forests of Kumaon were boundless. That the only real threat was of man being overwhelmed by the advancing forests and the wild beasts that inhabited them rather than the other way round. Such were the times!! The handful who foresaw the impending disaster were the laughing stock in their times.
Sometime in the middle of the 19th century a Mineral Survey was carried out by Mr. W.J. Henwood F.R.S. a distinguished mining geologist from Cornwall and his report highlighted the wanton destruction of pine forests in the vicinity of iron mines with the wood being used for preparing charcoal to be used as fuel for the furnaces for smelting of iron ore. He urged the authorities for adopting urgent measures to preserve and perpetuate the forests in the mining districts of Kumaon and Gurhwal, and to extend them by new plantations in the neighbourhood of the iron mines. He advocated banning of the clearing of forests for agriculture by burning and warned that a stage could be reached when no wood would be available for use.
The warning of Mr. Henwood was pooh-poohed by the Commissioner Kumaun Division, J.H. Batten, Esquire who found the report unnecessarily alarmist. He was of the view that Mr. Henwood had based his projections on his observations of denuded pine forests in the immediate vicinity of mining villages. Further that Mr. Henwood did not realize that this was a localized phenomenon and largely on account of the fact that the furnaces of the natives could not handle charcoal prepared from hard wood like Oak leading to over-exploitation of local pine forests. That once the mining and smelting operations were taken over by the Government using latest technology wood for charcoal preparation would be brought down from the thick virgin forests of pine, deodar and oak. He went on to make a bold claim in his letter dated 6th of August 1855 to W. Muir, Esquire, Secretary to the Government of the North- Western Provinces that the Himalayan forests were inexhaustible. His words are reproduced for the readers to realize how time makes a mockery of us all.
‘I venture, in opposition to the apparent opinion of Mr. Henwood—at all events, to the impression which, I think, the Report of that gentleman would leave on the public mind,’ he wrote, ‘to declare that the forests of Kumaon and Gurhwal are boundless, and, to all appearance, unexhaustible (sic); and that they require no human care to preserve them ; while, on the other hand, every encouragement ought to be given to their diminution for the sake of the inhabitants, who, in many places, have now to maintain a constant war (not always successful) against wild beasts, both those that destroy life and those that destroy food.’ Commissioner Batten, likewise, rejected Henwood’s suggestions for plantation and banning of firing of forests. He wrote, ‘The prevention of fire and cattle-grazing (for which firing the forest grounds is a necessity) and the planting of trees are the remedies for the evils complained of by Mr. Henwood, which that gentleman points out. I am afraid that no amount of authoritative prohibitions can prevent the conflagrations in the forest, which, except in very dry seasons, like the last, are confined to the grass and do not injure the trees. The passing of a torch at night, a spark from a hookah, may cause, in May and June, a fire which will spread over hundreds of square miles. Moreover, no good object would be attained by the prohibition of fires, except in any forest which may be preserved for special fuel near mines, and even there accidental fires could not always be avoided. The mere manufacture of charcoal may be expected to cause a considerable amount of unpreventable conflagration. Of course, if any forest or plantation of young trees is to be preserved for purposes of fuel, all cattle grazing and goat pasturing must be rigidly stopped. Ten goats or sheep will do more harm than a hundred fires of ordinary season. I consider plantations of seedling trees, taken from nurseries, to be an absolute impossibility. If made on flat ground, with easy means of watering, cultivation must be put an end to in the very places where it is most profitable, and the supply of food to the inhabitants must be proportionably (sic) diminished, and probably pine plantations would not succeed in such situations; while to plant oaks there would be an useless waste of time and labour. The oak forests, in all places where that wood grows naturally and easily, may almost, without exaggeration, be said to be untouched, and, if touched by periodical clearings of new ground for tillage, Nature bountifully (too bountifully indeed) renews the tree vegetation in the abandoned grounds. On bare hill-sides, the preservation of planted-out pine trees could not be effected without an army of watchmen, attended by another army of water-carriers (bheesties); and even with the latter in daily attendance, my own experience leads me to doubt whether cheer pine-trees will in these hills grow in artificial plantations. It is difficult in a small garden, with every means of watering at hand, to show a good-sized cheer tree after ten years of care. On the other hand, one wild plot of cheer trees, so long as only three or four old cone-bearing trees are left undestroyed, will present a larger supply of wood on the barrenest (sic) hill-side than twenty plots of planted trees would show, after many years of labour and expense.’
J.H. Batten’s views were echoed by his deputy, Captain Henry Ramsay, Senior Assistant Commissioner, Kumaon Proper. In his letter dated 30th of June 1855 addressed to Batten he wrote,
‘Mr. Henwood’s Report on the subject of preserving our forests from destruction …observations… appear to refer to all forests; he does not confine his remarks to those requisite to mining operations, but expresses a fear, that under the System of devastation now pursued, wood will soon be a scarce article. In most parts of the District where cultivation bears a small proportion to the waste land, the greater inroads made on the forest the better, because extensive undisturbed jungle harbours so many deer, bears and tigers, that the animals soon become more powerful than the villagers, and the destruction of life and crops becomes so great that the village is abandoned, the waste land before long becomes a forest; and its wild animals make their attacks on another village. The only way of keeping down the destructive denizens of the forest is to cut down patches at different places, by establishing cow-sheds and making temporary settlements; the villagers keep up communication between these and gain sufficient confidence to shoot or hunt the deer and destroy the beasts of prey as opportunity offers. If the practice of making clearings in the forests were prohibited, and the villagers were prevented using fire to get rid of the under-growth, the result would be increase of forest and decrease of cultivation, and I cannot think this would be a desirable change, seeing that such protected forests would be worse than useless and a curse to its surrounding villages.’
A first person account of the picturesque summer residence of the King of Kumaon is presented by Ms. Marianne North the famous 19th century British traveller, artist, naturalist, and botanist who travelled extensively all over the world writing accounts of her travels and painting the landscapes and plants that she encountered.
Marianne North (1830–1890)
She visited India in 1878 and stayed with the Ramsays at Binsar for some days. She was camping near Almora when she was paid a visit by a Captain K., the treasurer, to change her £ 2 note. Here is what she wrote,
“He very kindly came and paid me a long visit in the afternoon. He said that the people there were great thieves, and I ought not to go without a second chaprasi. He said also that the natives had quite a fancy for pictures, so that telling them what was in the heavy box would not save it, and he promised me coolies to take me up to the Governor’s, Sir Henry Ramsay, at Binsur, about fourteen miles off. After two days’ incessant rain, I had a tolerable morning for my start, and a lovely road all the way up to Binsur, 8000 feet above the sea. The house was most comfortable and unpretentious, with a verandah from whence one could see mountain above mountain, and two of the grandest snow-masses in the world (when visible). The morning after my arrival, which was glorious, I saw all the giants perfectly clear against the blue sky, and had time to sketch them. They all came upon me at once, five separate mountains, not a long chain as at Simla or Masuri. The oak-trees had their branches hung with lichens and mosses, while the rhododendrons were almost as big with pink bark. Lady Ramsey was a charming hostess; she had a garden round the house full of sweet English flowers –roses, sweet verbena, heliotrope and flowering myrtle in abundance. Her husband, who was generally called the King of Kumaon, a grand man, was most proud of his garden, in which he had grown and ripened the first gooseberry ever produced in India, and his Ribston Pippins might have taken prizes in any show in Europe. But as in Europe, he had been forced to build a wall round his garden to keep out “the boys,” whose ways are the same all over the world. The clouds were always rolling about and playing fantastic games in the sky, sending down wonderful shadows on the hills below. There were strange views on every side. Almora, with its scattered white houses, shone on a ridge in the middle distance on one side; on another there was an emerald-green valley, glittering among the blue hills. There were snow-peaks poking their heads through the black clouds above, and close below the house was a damp little valley with clear stream, and a Hindu temple covered with ferns and saxifrage. General Ramsey was a huge man, with great bodily strength. He rode forty miles home the day after I arrived, and played at back-gammon with his little wife all the evening. He used to dig and slave in the garden like an English labourer. He planned out an expedition for me (as it was too wet to go nearer the snows), and he lent me his travelling cook and canteen. The second chaprasi had orders to hunt up coolies for me. Poor things, they did not go away from their farms willingly, and were a poor weak set from working so constantly in the feverish valleys. I cannot say that travelling on their heads and shoulders was all enjoyment, and they preferred balancing the dandy on two heads to carrying it on their shoulders, folding up their plaids and putting them on the tops of their turbans first, which raised one to a great height above the ground. When going along narrow paths at the tops of precipices I occasionally found it best not to look too much over the side, but never met with any accident. I came down to Almora from Binsur with a regular gang of young ragamuffins, all howling and screaming at once, one of them playing a reed pipe, more classical than agreeable. I had sent on my old chaprasi to deposit my trunks with Dr. Pearson, so there was nobody to keep order, and the young savages nearly jolted me to death.”
Miss North painted beautiful landscapes during her stay at Binsar that are exhibited in the Marianne North Gallery of Botanic Art at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The gallery was built at her expense in 1882 to house the landscape and botanic paintings donated by her to the Royal Kew Museum. She painted the fascinating view from ‘From Lady Ramsay’s Garden’, the ancient ‘Temple in a Dell’ and the glorious ‘Panch Choola from Binsur.’
From Lady Ramsay’s Garden, Binsur, Kumaon, India, Marianne North 1878
Temple in a Dell, Binsur, Kumaon, India (1878)
Panch Choola from Binsur, with Oak Trees and Grey Apes in the Foreground
Marianne’s temple in the dell was none other than the 18th century, Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, believed to have been built during the gory reign of the fratricidal Kalyan Chand, who ruled Kumaon from 1730 to 1747.
Kalyan Chand’s accession to the throne at Almora was preceded by the deceitful murder of the debauched Chand Raja – Debi Chand in 1726 A.D. by his trusted Garhwali Ministers – Manik, a ‘Gaira’ Bisht – and his son Puran Mall. The late Raja left no heir so the Bishts installed a puppet on the throne, one Ajit Chand, who met the same brutal fate three years later when he denied the paternity of a child born to a female slave that had been sired by the licentious Puran Mall. Kalyan Chand an impoverished distant descendant of the Chand dynasty acceded to the throne in 1730 and avenged the murders by putting to sword Manik and Puran with their families. Having tasted blood he now ordered a systematic purge of any potential Chand claimant to the throne. Fear of a Brahman-led Khasiya uprising triggered a mass blinding of Brahmans with seven earthen vessels filled with the gouged-out eyes of Brahmans being placed at his feet by his murderous Police Chief – Bhawani Pati Pande of Bairti. The Khasiya followers were butchered en masse and their bodies cast into the ravines of River Suwal to serve as food for the jackals and the vultures.
Binsar was the favourite country residence of this blood-thirsty Raja where he built the temple to Maha-deo, Lord Shiva. The name ‘Binsar’ is a British distortion of ‘Bineshwar’ that may itself be a distortion of ‘Vishveshwara’ – the Lord of the Universe, Shiva. Kalyan Chand seemed to be aware of the risk of divine retribution for his sinful ways and appeased the Gods with liberal grants to temples and priests including Badrinath, Kedarnath, Jageswar, Baleswar in Champawat, Ganesh Temple at Almora, Briddh-Kedar, Ghatotkacha, Naganath in Charal, Sitala Devi in Baraun and Kalika Sitala.
Almora was sacked by the Rohillas during Kalyan Chand’s rule with the temples being plundered and the idols defiled. Kalyan Chand sought an audience with the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah and carried the jewels of Jageshwar Temple as a tribute (the temple was saved the depredations of the Rohillas by the swarms of bees unleashed on the violators by the Gods!). The Rohillas eventually withdrew from Almora and Kalyan Chand died in 1748 and predictably enough had turned blind with age. Such is the tale of the builder of the Binsar Temple!
Yet another account by a visitor to Khali and Binsur Orchard was published in the Gardener’s Chronicle 1886 (Vol. XV). Dr. John Firminger Duthie was an economic botanist who specialized in the study of fodder grasses and was the Superintendent of the Saharanpur Botanic Garden from 1875 to 1903. He went through Almora in August/ September 1886 on a plant collection expedition into Higher Himalayas to cross the 17500 feet high Lipulekh Pass to reach Kutti, a Bhutia village on the bank of the Kutti-Yangti River on the Tibetan Frontier. He stopped at Khali on the way up and at Binsar and Khali on the way down. Here is an excerpt from his account published in the Gardener’s Chronicles-
“I left Naini Tal for Almora on August 9, breaking the journey at Khairna, a close steamy place at that time of the year. There had been a week’s heavy rain, and the road was badly broken in several places. A good deal might be said about the vegetation all the way down from Naini Tal, and the changes from temperate to tropical forms…. Almora, which I reached on the following day, is 18 miles from Khairna, and about 2000 feet higher. Transitions from tropical to temperate vegetation were observed similar to those already alluded to. The vegetation round about Almora is not nearly so luxurious as it is at Naina Tal, there being no higher hills immediately connected with the plateau on which this hill station is situated. From Almora I went to a place called Khali. The climate both here and at Binsar is very suitable for the cultivation of English fruit trees, and Sir Henry Ramsay, who has for many years paid great attention to their cultivation in this province, has very extensive orchards of his own containing many excellent varieties of Apples and Pears. We remained at Khali the night, and on the following morning started (or Bageswar on the Satju River, descending through forests of Pinus longifolia to the level of tropical vegetation, and on the next day we reached Kapkot on the same river… The camping-ground at Dolchini is about 5600 feet above the sea, and is on the south-west side of a low portion of the Binsar range. Early on the following morning we sent off our tents and all our baggage by the direct road to Almora, my companion and I taking the path along the crest of the ridge to Binsar, a beautiful walk of four to five miles. We had a splendid view of the snowy ranges we had lately visited; this being our first sight of them since we had left them. At Binsar I took the opportunity of inspecting the very fine fruit orchards belonging to Sir Henry Ramsay. The site is evidently very suitable for Apple culture, especially of the Ribston kinds. This last season appears to have been a very good one for Apples throughout Kumaun. From Binsar we went down to Khali, where we met Sir Henry Ramsay, who kindly gave us breakfast, after which we resumed our journey to Almora.’
F.W. Seers yet another botanist and the Superintendent of the State Gardens of the Alwar Princely State lauds Sir Henry’s Apples in an account of his trek in the Himalayas published in the Gardener’s Chronicles (1893). He wrote,
‘Having reached the ridge in question, which is some 7000 feet in elevation, we make an equally long desent, during which Binsur, the former residence of General Sir H. Ramsey, was clearly seen in the distance at some 8000 feet elevation. Sir Henry was for nearly half a century the ruling genius of Kumaon, and was not unfittingly called the King of Kumaon. From every side one heard a good many tales of the Brilliant General whose work was more civil than military, but he had a fine combination of the iron hand beneath the velvet glove. The general possessed the finest collection of Apples in all India, his method was to root up any kind that did not succeed, and by constant adding during something like forty years, he succeeded in getting a really grand lot of Apples that do well in India. I hear, however, at this date that the real demons of Kumaon, viz., hail, has played great havoc with the fruit this year, as it has in so many other places in Kumaon.’
Sir Henry left India in late 1892 and was residing at Number 4, Lynham Road, Gipsy Hill, Upper Norwood, London, England when he sold the Binsur Gardens in February 1893. He died the same year at the age of 77. It was a tragedy that he had been persuaded to leave Binsar just before his death for a King should rest in his Kingdom!
Laura died in 1914 at 26 Highland Road, Upper Norwood, England. Sir Henry’s elder son Lt-Col Henry Lushington Ramsay, was in the Indian Political Department and published a book on the languages and customs of Ladakh. He married Anna Maria Sophia Thomas and their son Captain Archibald Henry Maule Ramsay (‘Jock’ to his friends) was wounded in the First World War. Jock was admitted to the Royal Company of Archers and represented Peebles and Southern Midlothian as Member of Parliament from 1931 to 1945. In 1939 he founded a rabidly anti-Semitic secret society that allegedly bordered on Nazism – the ‘Right Club’ that was infiltrated by Mi5 and he was interned at the Brixton Prison London from 1940 to 1945. Archibald died in 1955 trying to retrieve the family name.
Sir Henry Ramsay’s Family Tree
After leaving India, Sir Henry sold off the orchard-estates at Binsur and Khali on 22nd February 1893 to Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire. He had already sold his estate and bungalow at Nainital, Ramsay Park, in 1879 to the Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus for the setting up of St. Mary’s Convent High School. The school is known amongst the natives as Ramnee School, Ramnee being a corruption of the name Ramsay.
Not much is known about the sale of the Binsur Orchard by Arthur Ross Wilson. As the story goes the estate came into the hands of one Col. Martin by the 1920s. The adjoining estate of Dr. Govan had by then been purchased by a Sah family of Almora which did not enjoy a good neighbourly relation with the Colonel. Harkishan Lal Sah (grandson of Jai Lal Sah, the Khuzanchee who had originally sold the estate to Ramsay in 1878?) eventually managed to purchase the Binsur Orchard in 1931 despite the Colonel’s resolve to not to sell the estate to his neighbours! The property was passed on to the descendants of Harkishan Lal. His son Jagdish Lal is today nearing ninety. His great-grandson Sindhu Sah Gangola runs Ramsay’s Bungalow as a heritage hotel with his wife Shikha. The estate has been named the Grand Oak Manor, the name being taken from an imposing oak tree near the entry to the estate. The oak tree is believed to be older than the bungalow and its massive boughs arch menacingly over the tiny private chapel built by Ramsay.
Ramsay’s Chapel under the ‘Grand Oak’ Binsar
The search for Col. Martin did not prove fruitful. One Stephen Joseph Martin from Guernsey, Channel Islands did however, live at ‘Binsar House, Almora’ probably at the turn of the 19th century and his daughter Margaret de Carteret Martin married Theodore John Chichester Acton son of Lt. Col. Thomas Hampden Evans Acton in 1913. Nothing more could be found about S.J. Martin.
Neither Lt. Col. Alex Paterson nor Sir Henry Ramsay was, however, the first amongst the British officers to have an estate or to have set up a home at Binsar. The earliest reference to a British occupant of a home at Binsar that could be traced out by the Tramp was in the ‘Handbook to the English Pre-Mutiny Records in the Government Record Rooms of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh’ compiled by Douglas Dewar ICS (1920). The Chapter on the ‘The Pre-Mutiny Records in the Record Room of the Deputy Commissioner, Almora’ has the entry in 1852 ‘Land taken up at Binsar by Major Evans’. Again there is an entry in 1855 ‘Sketch of Binsar Hill around the buildings of Captain Perry and Major Evans’. The estate of Major Evans at Binsar measured seven acres as per some sources.
A search for Major Evans revealed that he was Major Francis Robert Evans the eldest son of Major-General R. Evans, Royal Artillery of Limerick with the family seat at the Carker House, County Cork, Ireland.
The Carker House (1906)
He married Mary, daughter of William Eccles, of Eccles Street, Dublin. F.R. Evans joined the 26th Bengal Native Infantry in 1826 and was a Major when he was made the Commandant of ‘The Sirmoor Rifles’ an infantry regiment of British-Indian Army with Gurkha troops in 1846. He later became the Lieutenant Colonel and Commandant of the regiment. The Sirmoor Battalion was raised at Nahan in Sirmoor State in 1815 at the end of the war with Gurkhas and recruited from the disbanded soldiers of the Gurkha Army. Lieutenant (afterwards General) Frederick Young was the commanding officer till 1843. The Regiment was stationed at Dehradun. The regiment was later rechristened as the 2nd Gurkha Rifles and distinguished itself during the Mutiny in 1857 in the protracted battle on the Delhi Ridge. The regiment was granted a Truncheon by Queen Victoria in 1863. In 1876 the Regiment was given the title of “The Prince of Wales’ Own”. Later in 1902 when the Prince ascended the throne it was rechristened as the 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles). At the time of Independence the Regiment went to the British Army where it eventually got merged with the Royal Gurkha Rifles. The 4th Battalion of the 2 GR, however, joined the Indian Army as the 5th Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles (Sirmoor Rifles). Mary died in 1847 and was buried at the cemetery at Dehradun. The inscription by her husband on the tombstone tells us something about the man, ‘While sorrow weeps o’er virtue’s sacred dust, Our tears become us, and our grief is just. Such were the tears he shed, who grateful pays, This last sad tribute of his love and praise; Who mourns the best of wives and friends combined, Where female sweetness met the accomplished mind : Mourns, but not murmurs, sighs but not despairs, Feels as a man, but as a Christian bears.’ The Sirmoor Battalion was moved to Almorah in 1847 where the Kumaun Battalion was also stationed and stayed there until it marched to Meerut on the outbreak of the Mutiny. After the fighting was over it was garrisoned at the Delhi Fort till 1859 and thereafter the Regiment returned to its home at Dehra Dun.
No further information could be found about Captain Perry who had a house at Binsur in 1854.
Major F.R. Evans was not the only officer of the Sirmoor Battalion to have taken up residence at Binsar. The 12th Volume of Allen’s Indian Mail for the year 1854 reports the death of the infant son of Captain C. Reid at Binsur on the 9th of June, 1854. Digging up of some old history established that the Captain was none other than General Sir Charles Reid K.C.B., G.C.B. (1819-1901). The son of George Reid the Esquire of Jamaica he joined the service of the East India Company in 1835 in the 10th Bengal Native Infantry. He served in Upper Sind under Sir C. Napier, saw action in 1843 during the Sutlej Campaign at Badiwal, Aliwal and Sobraon and again in 1852-53 in the Burma War. He was a Major and the commanding officer of the Sirmoor Battalion when it marched to Delhi on the outbreak of the Mutiny. Saw action at Badli-ki-Sarai and Delhi Ridge. Commanded the 4th Column and was severely wounded. Was promoted as Lieutenant Colonel and participate in the Oudh Campaign in 1858-59. Became full Colonel and one of Aides-de-Camp to Queen Victoria. He was made a Major General in 1867 and a full General in 1877.
Yet another name that emerged was that of Captain Honourable Robert Vernon Powys HEICS of the 12th Bengal Native Infantry who was reported to have died at Binsur, Almora on 26th May 1854 in the 196th Volume of the Gentleman’s Magazine & Historical Chronicle. He was the son of Thomas Powys the 2nd Baron of Lilford and was born in 1802.
Coat of Arms of the Powys
He married Jane Beckett daughter of William Beckett the Esquire of Enfield in 1825. She died in 1842 at Kanpur. He was transferred to the HEIC Invalid Establishment on 1-1-1846 as he was found unfit for field service and was permitted to reside at ‘Nynee Tal’. It must be during this period that he set up a home at Binsar. He was lucky to have died early at the age of 51 as it saved him the pain of knowing that his younger son, Lt. John Powys 61st BNI, Executive Engineer (PWD) who was posted as the Superintendent of Irrigation works in ‘Bundelcand’ got massacred on the 8th of June 1857 along with his wife Caroline Louisia and infant daughter Caroline James at the Jhansi Fort by the mutinous troops of the 12th BNI and the 14th Irregular Cavalry. Lt. Powys was holed up inside the Jhansi Fort along with the other officers and their families and servants. Powys and the other officers including Major Skene, Captain Burgess and Captain Gordon were firing desperately at the mutinous troops besieging the fort. Captain Gordon got shot in the head while exposing himself on the parapet. Just then Lt. Powys spotted the ‘Khidmutgar’ of Captain Burgess removing the stones that blocked the gates of the fort from the inside. Powys shot the ‘traitor’ only to be cut down by the sword of this man’s brother who in turn was shot by Captain Burgess. Some 75 British were killed that day with the majority being put to the sword in a garden inside the fort after Major Skene had surrendered. A memorial with the following inscription was placed by his unit at St. Luke’s Church, Jullundur – “To the memory of Lieutenants John Powys, Edward Kemp, and Ensign Herbert Durnford, of the 61st Regiment N.I. who fell in action whilst serving in the earnest performance of their duty, during the rebellion of 1857-59. This token of esteem and sorrow is placed here by their comrades, the officers of the late 61st Regiment N.I.” R.V. Powys elder son, Robert Horace Powys died decades later in 1913.
On the southern face of the Binsar Masiff is an estate that faces the Binsur Orchard of Sir Henry. It is said to have belonged to a Doctor Govan before it was purchased by the Sahs of Kumaon in 1912. Search revealed the likely owner, one George Moncrieff Govan M.D. who was born to George Govan M.D. and Mary Maitland on 3rd March 1829. He obtained M.D. and L.R.C.S. from the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh in 1851 and joined the Bengal Medical Service the same year as Assistant-Surgeon. G.M. Govan served in the Burmese War of 1852-53 and was present at the capture of Rangoon and at the storming of the stockade of the Dragon Pagoda for which he received the medal and the clasp. He took part in the action near Delhi during the Indian Mutiny in 1859. He was promoted as Surgeon in 1864 and he served in the Bhutan expedition in 1865-66 and took part in the capture of Buxa and the Tazagaon attack on the Bala stockade for which he received the clasp. He was made the Surgeon-Major in 1871 and became the medical incharge of the 3rd Gurkha Regiment that was headquartered at Almora. Col. Alex Paterson was the Commandant of the 3rd at this time. It is likely that Govan bought his estate at Binsur around the same time as his C.O. Lt. Col. Paterson. The regiment marched off to Afghanistan on 11th October 1878 under Paterson to participate in the Second Afghan War. Govan, however, got invalided while the regiment camped at Meean Meer and recouped at England for the next two years. He retired from the Indian Medical Service as a Brigade-Surgeon in 1877. He died at Almora on 1st April 1898.
We may speak a little more about the Govan family. George M. Govan’s father Dr. George Govan M.D. (1787-1865) was the Civil Surgeon of Saharanpur in 1817 when he proposed the setting up of a Botanic Garden at Saharanpur in 1817. It was the third such garden to be set up under the East India Company after Calcutta and Bangalore. Dr. George Govan was the first botanist to collect plants at the Subathu Hills near the newly founded hill station at Simla. While at Simla he became a companion of the Indian Governor General Lord Amherst and his wife in their post-breakfast walks to guide their search for plants. He became the first Superintendent of the Saharanpur Botanic Garden in 1819. A species in the genus Nepeta – Nepeta govaniana, Benth. is named after Dr. George Govan. Dr. George Govan was married to Mary Maitland daughter of Charles Maitland of Rankeillour and Lindores and niece of Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland who accepted the surrender of Napolean after Waterloo as the Captain of Bellerophon.
Dr. G.M. Govan married Frances Marion Short and the couple had three sons and three daughters. The eldest Rev. George William Govan was born in 1861 and became the Rector of Wittycombe, Carhampton, Taunton. The second son Henry Maitland Govan was born at Almora, India, and was educated at Rossall School and Edinburgh University. He was a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries, London and a certificated civil engineer. He took up a post in the uncovenanted civil service in Burma in 1887 and hunted dacoits as a civil officer in one of the Upper Burma campaigns. He was made the secretary and engineer to the Akyab municipality in 1894. He married the daughter of Mr. J. C. Schmidt, a grantee of the Mount Joy Estate, in the Akyab district.
Henry Maitland Govan
The third son Douglas Moncrieff Govan was born in 1875 and became a Major in the 1st Battalion of the 5th Gurkha Regiment. Major Govan died in action at Gallipoli on 28-6-1915 during the First World War and is buried at the Helles Memorial, Gallipoli Turkey.
Yet another estate in Binsar is Goralkot that lies on the western extreme of the Binsur Massif. Goralkot (Ghuralkot) – the fort of Goral takes its name from the mountain goat-antelope Goral that was once numerous on this heavily wooded ridge. The number is said to have come down drastically due to loss of habitat on account of grass-cutting and timber harvesting. Maurizio Locati a wildlife biologist from Italy estimated the Goral population at 250 in 1987 for the entire Binsar region. The bungalow at Goralkot is said to be over 155 years old (built in late 1850s?) and was bought sometime in the past from the original colonial-age owners by the Sahs of Kumaon. As per the folklore many of the British owners of the hill-estates sold off their picturesque properties to the Sahs of Kumaon to settle their unpaid liquor bills! Goralkot was sold by one L.R. Shah in 1956 to Vivek Dutta a Punjabi businessman from Delhi. Dutta a doctor in philosophy married Marie Theresa, a Belgian musicologist, who had come to Kumaon to record folk music of the region for a UNESCO-sponsored project. The two settled down in the midst of the oak-rhododendron forest at Binsar. Their daughter Mukti Dutta founded an NGO, Jan Jagaran Samiti (a society for the empowerment of the native population) in 1987 with the objective of involving the locals in her campaign to preserve the forests and wildlife in the Binsar region. Earlier in 1986 she got a shot-in-the-arm when the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi personally responded to her letter that had urged the PM to take personal interest in the protection of the unique biodiversity of the Binsar forests against threats from poachers and the timber mafia. Rajiv encouraged the twenty-three year old to continue with her struggle. In 1988 the Jan Jagaran Samiti received a Government grant of Rs. 8 lakh for reforestation work in Binsar area. A year later in 1989, Binsar was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary. The NGO under Mukti’s stewardship helped set up a Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre at Almora. Next came the ‘Panchachuli Women Weavers’ Cooperative’ to impart vocational skills to the Kumaoni hill women particularly the spinning and weaving of pashmina shawls, wool fabrics, carpets and blankets with the help of Bhutiya tribeswomen from Mansiyari. Training Centres and Production Centres were established allover Kumaon and the cooperative today employs several hundred women. The products are sold from retail outlets at Mussoorie, Nanital and Almora and at exhibitions in Northern cities. During the phase of struggle a benefactor appeared in the shape of Dena Kaye, the daughter of the Hollywood actor, singer, dancer, and comedian – Danny Kaye. Dena was in India in 1997 to look for projects to fund through UNICEF (her father became the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF in 1954 and received the French Legion of Honor in 1986 for his years of work with the organization). She was impressed with Dutta’s initiatives and pledged $1 million to the Samiti in 1998. Dena later also funded a hospital set up by the Samiti on land donated by the gram sabha of the Matena village. The Dena Hospital (it is named after its principal benefactor) later received the support of the Tata Group. The Samiti has also set up 5 primary schools and 2 junior high schools in the Almora district. The property is today run as a heritage hotel – Nandadevi with accommodation being offered in the colonial-age Goralkot Bungalow and the Writer’s Cottage thus named after its most famous occupant Tiziano Terzani, a famous Italian traveller, journalist and writer who sought solitude and refuge at Goralkot from 2000 to 2002.
Goralkot Bungalow, Binsar
Terzani loved to refer to himself as ‘Anam’, the one with no name and spent the time in meditation, trying to come to terms with his terrible illness (stomach cancer). He found a friend and a philosophic guide in Vivek Dutta as he grappled with the questions of life and death. Terzani had led a life of adventure and had travelled extensively all over east Asia. He had witnessed the fall of Saigon to the Vietcong and nearly got executed by the Khmer Rouge while covering the fall of Phnom Penh in the 1970s. He wrote several books in Italian and English including ‘The End is my Beginning’, the story of his life, travels and his philosophy of life and death as narrated to his son that was published posthumously in 2006 and was translated into several languages. It was at the cottage at Goralkot that he wrote ‘Letters against the War’ (published in 2002) and began writing ‘One More Ride on the Merry Go Round’. He returned to Italy from Binsar in 2002 and died at Orsigna, a quaint little village in the Apennine Mountains in Italy in 2004.
While Terzani was easily the most famous guest of Goralkot yet this picturesque mountain retreat also served as home to a rather mysterious guest – Arun Singh, a close friend and confidant of Rajiv Gandhi. Arun was born in 1944 to Prince Karamjit Singh the son of Sir Jagatjit Singh the Maharaja of Kapurthala by his 4th wife Rani Kanari. Arun studied at Doon School with Rajiv Gandhi. He graduated from St. Stephen’s College in 1964. Attended Cambridge. He was working with Reckitt and Coleman when Rajiv got his school time buddy inducted into the Rajya Sabha in 1984. When Rajiv became the Prime Minister after the assassination of Smt. Indira Gandhi, Arun was made a Parliamentary Secretary to the PM. He accompanied Rajiv during the election campaign in 1984/85 as his close confidant and advisor. After the landslide victory in 1985 Arun managed the establishment affairs of the Prime Minister’s Office until he was made Minister of State for Defence. There was a falling out between the school time chums when the ‘Bofors Scandal’ broke-out. Arun Singh resigned in 1987 and sought refuge at Goralkot with friend Ramola, closing himself up completely to politics and contact with the outside world. He refused to be drawn into the media controversy triggered by this sudden self-imposed exile. He briefly reappeared on the scene when V.P. Singh became the Prime Minister only to return to his secluded life at Binsar. The media was intrigued at this apparently strange conduct and Arun’s steadfast refusal to disclose the reasons for his having withdrawn into a shell. He was jokingly referred to as India’s ‘most famous recluse.’ He made a last public appearance as Advisor to the then Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh during the Kargil conflict.
Yet another estate on the southern slope below the Binsur peak is ‘Edinpur’ that stands between Goralkot and Dr. Govan’s Estate. It is said to have belonged to one Major Edin. No further details could be found by the Tramp.
Major Edin’s Bungalow
On the eastern fringe of the Binsar Massif below the early 20th century Forest Rest House lies the ‘Budden Estate’ that takes its name from Mary Budden of the legendary Christian missionary family of Reverend John Henry Budden. John was born at London in 1813 to William Budden and Elizabeth Hanson. Rev. John Budden joined the London Missionary Society at Mirzapur in 1841 and was invited in 1850 by Commissioner J. H. Batten and his Assistant, Capt. Henry Ramsay for setting up a Mission at Almora that was by then a major cantonment town in Kumaon. Rev. Budden soon established a chapel and a school at Almora. The Almora Mission School got an Indian Headmaster in 1852 and with the increasing number of pupils it was first upgraded to a High School and then a College and was named ‘Ramsay College’ in 1886.
London Missionary Institution – Almora, Uttarakhand c1880’s
The mission took over the running of the Leper Asylum that had been established earlier at Almora in 1840 by Sir Henry Ramsay.
Leper Asylum at Almora 1868
Mrs. Sarah Odell Budden and her daughter Mary started a school for girls. Sarah died in 1859 but her Girls’ School grew and flourished under the energetic Mary who also started a hospital for women. The Almora Mission also ran orphanages and rescue homes for the homeless.
Sarah Odell Budden (d.1859) & Rev. John Henry Budden (1813-1890)
In the 1870s John Henry Budden made a trip to Pithoragarh with his son Hanson Odell Budden. He found the town to be located on a busy crossroads and hence ideal for starting a mission. The London Missionary Society was, however, not keen on setting up a new station and the opportunity was passed onto American Methodist Episcopal Society. A hospital and a small Church was built at the station and a medical mission started under a young doctor Richardson Gray who arrived from America in 1873. Richardson married Budden’s daughter Margaret in 1875 and the couple together ran the mission at Pithoragarh. In 1877 Margaret was joined by her sister Annie who took over the running of a fledgling Girls’ School. A Boys’ School, a Widows’ Home and a Leper Asylum were added over time. The Grays had many children including Mary Louisia Gray who was born in 1881. Dr. Gray withdrew from the mission ‘under charges’ in 1893 and he was succeeded by J.L. Humphrey and later by Dr. S.S. Dease. The Grays left for America in 1894 and Annie continued the work of the mission at Pithoragarh that she called ‘Isaikot’ (The Christians’ Fort). She worked as a member of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Bhatkot Mission and later at Phulbari Mission.
Rev. Buddens in the meantime retired from active service in 1887, and died at Almora in 1890. The church at Almora was named the ‘Budden Memorial Church’, in remembrance of his years of service to the people of Almora.
Rev J.H. Budden 1890, The Chronicle of LMS May 1890
The Almora Mission was now run by Mary Budden whose no-nonsense spirit and her fierce defence of her independence as a single working woman earned her the epithet – “the tigress”. Her status as the de-facto Superintendent of the Almora Mission after death of her father was resented by many of her male colleagues.
Mary Budden with orphanage girls, Almora, Uttar Pradesh, India, ca. 1880-1890
On 8th of July, 1899 Mary bought a 5-acre estate at Binsar from General W.J. McGregor through his attorney Sham Lal Sah the son of Lala Budha Sah, a General Merchant in Almora town. She was still serving the Almora Mission when it was transferred to the American Episcopal Mission in 1926. She is believed to have died sometime after 1931.
The Grays upon their arrival in America settled down in New Jersey. Richardson died at Hazen, New Jersey in 1915. Margaret continued to stay in touch with the family friends at India including J. R. Chitambar, the first Indian Bishop of the Methodist church. In 1917 Bishop Chitambar gave Margaret a Bible, translated into the Urdu language. The Bible was full of photos and pasted-in prayers. The Bishop and his wife visited Mary in 1932 at New Jersey. She recorded in the Bible in 1935 that it was to be returned to these dear friends upon her death. Margaret died in 1940 at the Mary Fisher Home, Tenafly, New Jersey and the bible came to her daughter Mary Louisa Gray. Mary Gray had married Robert Armstrong Smith Junior and she died in 1966 leaving the bible to her daughter Mary Williams Smith. Mary Williams married Jacob Adrian van Brederode and upon her death in 1986 the bible passed onto their daughter who traced out the late Bishop’s descendants and returned the Bible as per Margaret’s wishes but not before a niece Tara van Brederode had posted the entire story in a blog post “Mission Accomplished” on her blog God, Politics, and Rock ‘n’ Roll! The post included an undated photograph of Mary Budden taken from the Bible’s collection that is happily reproduced by the Tramp for his readers!!
An undated photo of Mary Budden from Bishop J. R. Chitambar’s Bible given in 1917 to Margaret Budden Gray
All four daughters of Sarah and John – Annie, Mary, Margaret and Helen worked in Missions. Their son Hanson Odell Budden was working as an Inspector with the Indian Educational Service in 1885. It is not clear as to when the estate was sold by Mary Budden. It changed hands several times until it was sold by one Mr. Bhandari in 1990 to Ashwani and Serena Chopra who also inherited some of the Mary Budden memorabilia. The couple run the property as a heritage resort.
Mary Budden Estate, Binsar, Almora
The search for the history of the estate’s original owners, starting with General W.J. McGregor led the Tramp to the purchase of a thickly wooded hill estate, Mayavati (Maipat) on 2nd of March 1899 by Captain J.H. Sevier for the setting up of an Ashram of the Ramakrishna Mission. Capt. Sevier purchased Mayavati from General McGregor of the late Bengal Staff Corps for Rs. 7000. The General was residing at ‘Janakpore’ in Almora District and sold his property through his attorney, the same Sham Lal of Almora who later negotiated the sale of the General’s estate at Binsur to Mary Budden. At the time of the sale Mayavati was called the Glengyle Estate. It was located about 130 KM east of Almora, in the present day Champawat District. The estate had extensive acreage and three commodious houses that were used for setting up of the Advaita Ashram and the publication of the Mission’s Journal ‘Prabuddha Bharata’ or Awakened India that was earlier being published from Madras. No further information about General McGregor could be unearthed.
A surname that figures repeatedly amongst the owners of estates in Binsur is Sah (Shah). It is a small but wealthy and largely urban community of Kumaon that generally claims descent from Rajputs (Kshatriyas) of Uttar Pradesh. It is primarily a trading community though some own land and are also engaged in agriculture. The community is divided into different clans that take their names from their ancestral villages, trades, titles received etc. The prominent clans include Kumaoiya (from Kumaon), Thulgharias (literally ‘the owner of a large house’ – claim origin from Jhansi), Gangolas (named after the area Patti Gangoli – claim origin from Badaun), Jagati, Tamkia, Chaudhary (the largest clan – claim origin from Jhansi-Allahabad), Chukurait, Jakhwal, Kholibhiteria, and Salimgarhia. The claim to Kshatryia-hood is, however, disputed by their detractors who point to their roots in trading and money-lending to label them as Banias (Vaishyas).
J.H. Batten in his ‘Final Settlement Report of Kumaon (1848)’ talks of one Toola (Tula) Ram Sah, the treasurer of the Almorah Collectorate who purchased in 1847 a part of the Zamindari of Askote for Rupees 1600/-. Batten doesn’t seem to have thought much of this wealthy ‘khuzanchee’ whom he blames for not investing in the improvement of his lands and for making irregular exactions from his tenants. The Report also mentions that farming leases were obtained by Purma Sah, a Bunneea (Bania) from Almorah for Mauzah Khurhai and by Kurree Sah and Damoo Sah for land on the banks of Surjoo. He speaks of the Sahs of Almora and Bagesur as ‘Capitalists’.
George William Traill, Esq. Commissioner Kumaon in his ‘Statistical Report on the Bhotea Mehals of Kumaon (1832)’ sheds some light on how the Sahs of Almorah may have made the transition from the ‘Bania’ trader-capitalist to the ‘Rajput’ Zamindar. He writes in his report that during the time of Gorkha occupation of Kumaon in early 19th century the Bhutias came in for severe punishment for their dogged resistance to the Gorkha conquest. Their villages were made over to the Gorkha military commanders who exacted a high tribute from them. The tribute, jumma, had to be paid half in cash and half in kind. The right to collect the half that was to be paid in kind was generally sold off at a discount for ready cash by the rapacious Gorkha Overlords to the Sahas of Almorah who in turn made a fat profit on the transaction.
Prominent among the Sahs/ Shahs of Kumaon in the 19th century was a building contractor Lala Motee (Moti) Ram Sah (Shah). He owned the Hotel Victoria in Naini Tal that was bought by the Government in 1855 for 4000 rupees for use as kutchery (Court) of the Junior Assistant Commissioner at Naini Tal. He had also built the Temple of Naini Devi by the side of the lake in 1840s. The temple as well as Hotel Victoria (then owned by one Captain Harris) were completely destroyed in the calamitous landslip in September 1880 that was triggered by torrential rainfall and unregulated construction on the hillside. Lala Moti Ram was amongst the top donors in the list of contributers for the setting up of a dispensary at Almora in 1869. His contribution of 1000 rupees matched that by the Kumaon Commissioner Col. H. Ramsay and by Rajah Sheoraj Singh, the Zamindar of Kashipur who was bestowed the Order of the Star of India for his services to the British in 1857. The list of donors gives interesting insight into the wealthy status of the Sah community. Khuzanchee (Treasurer) Jai Sah who later sold the estate at Binsur to Sir Henry contributed 400 rupees as did the Thulgarias (Motee/Moti Shah, Huree/Hari Shah & Koondun/Kundan Lal Shah) and the Gungolahs (Nathoo/Nathu Shah, Oode/Uday Lall Shah & Motee/Moti Shah). The other Sahs in the list of donors included Sree (Sri) Ram & Koondun (Kundan) Lall Shah (Rs. 200); Kashee (Kashi) Dabee Shah (Rs. 200); Toola/ Tula Ram, Banee (Bani) Ram Shah (Rs. 200); Koondun Lal Shah Juggatee/ Jagati (Rs. 200); Shib/ Shiv Lal Shah Juggatee/ Jagati (Rs. 150); Punee Shah (Rs. 100); Ram Kishen Shah (Rs.100); Jewa Dabee Shah, Mohun Lal Shah, Shib Lal Shah Gomshta and Purma Shah. The wealth of the Shahs can be judged by the fact that more than half of the total donated amount of Rs. 6500 or so was contributed by the Sahs of Almora!
The Tramp has pieced together the family tree of Param jyu Sah Gangolah who would date back to end of 18th/ beginning of 19th century with the Gangolahs of Binsur being his direct descendants. Many of the names of the relatives of Jai Sah, Khuzanchee who were his contemporaries also figure in the 1869 list of donors for Almora dispensary.
The Family Tree of Sah Gangolahs of Binsar
The long list of mavericks who at some point of time owned a bungalow in the Binsar forest includes one Myron Henry Phelps a wealthy New York based lawyer of Irish descent. A man of many interests, Phelps, is best remembered for his principled and passionate opposition to the British Imperialism and his literary works on the Bahai and the Radhasoami faiths.
Myron Henry Phelps (1856-1916)
Myron was born to Major George Phelps (a Civil War veteran) and Cornelia (Rogers) Phelps at Illinois in 1856. He graduated from Yale and obtained his law degree from the George Washington University. He had an extensive practice as a patents lawyer in New York City. It was probably his Irish roots that imbued in Phelps a hatred for colonialism, particularly by the British. He was vocal in his criticism of the British Rule in India and was first noticed in 1907 when he wrote a series of eight long ‘Letters to the Indian People’ that were published in the Irish Catholic Newspaper the ‘Gaelic American’ and were reproduced in the ‘Hindu’ published from Madras. In his letters Phelps drew parallels between the Indian, Irish and American experiences with colonialism. He exhorted Indians to draw lessons from the American struggle for independence and to boycott British manufactured goods. He advocated the Swadeshi Movement and asked the Indian Muslims to whole-heartedly support the cause. He encouraged Indians to write about Indian experiences under colonial rule that could be shared with the American people to evoke sympathy and support for the Indian struggle. The same year Phelps established the ‘Indo-American National Association’ at Maine with Dadabhai Naoroji as its Honourary President to assist Indian students in America. To share the Indian experiences with the American press and the American sympathies through the Indian Press. To support the cause of self-rule for India. The following year Phelps established the ‘India House’ at New York for providing affordable lodging to Indian students. He negotiated the concessional fees for Indian students with some of the colleges. The experiment did not work out too well due to wrangling between student groups and financial difficulties. In January 1909 Rabindranath Tagore wrote an open letter to Phelps to express his view that India needed to absorb modern ideas from Western thought and art before it could aspire for self-rule. The letter is believed to have convinced Phelps to shut down the India House in March 1909.
Earlier in January 1909 the American President Theodore Roosevelt lauded the British Rule in India in his address at the Diamond Jubilee of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Washington. Phelps published a strong rebuttal with a list of several eminent Americans who had signed the same in opposition to Roosevelt’s views. Phelps open opposition to British interests resulted in his inclusion in the list of ‘Undesirables’ who were kept under surveillance by the Government of India in the US. In 1909 Phelps relinquished his practice in New York and travelled to Europe. At Paris he met the firebrand Indian revolutionary Krishna Varma. He proceeded to London to enlist the support of the Socialists and the ‘Friends of India’. While at London Phelps met Mahatma Gandhi and he later wrote about his Satyagraha Movement in South Africa in the Springfield Daily Gazette in August, 1909. Phelp’s opposition to the British was well-known and in July 1909 he was unceremoniously evicted by the manager of Hotel Waldorf where he had been staying as the Waldorf did not ‘wish to create a clientele of that kind’! Phelps was planning to travel to India and feared reprisal by the British Indian Government. Apprehending an assassination bid the moment he set foot on the Indian soil he is believed to have ordered a coat of mail that was to be constructed of aluminium by a Viennese armourer and was to be lined with cloth and covered with leather. It was to weigh two pounds and cost two guineas and to be guaranteed to withstand any attack from a dagger or a revolver of low calibre! Phelps even executed a ‘Last Will & Testament’ to nail his would-be assassins. The operative part of the Will read as follows, “Being about to proceed to India and other adjacent countries: direct my executor in case of my death while upon said journey to set aside from my estate the sum of £ 2500 the whole or such part of said sum as my executor shall determine to be used by him for investigating the cause of my said death and if it appear that the same was not due to natural cause, then in fixing the responsibility therefor and bringing those responsible to judicial account.’
Phelps travelled to India via Sri Lanka to devote himself to his passion for the comparative study of religions. Phelps love for Hindu spiritual thought probably started with his admiration for Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society established by him at New York. He first saw Swamiji at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 and was overawed by the handsome monk in orange robes and turban who took the vast audience by a storm by his brilliant address. Phelps met Swamiji on numerous occasions in the following three years and hosted him as a guest at his house. Phelps evinced interest in the Theosophist Thought though Annie Besant did not allow him to join the Theosophical Society due to his vociferous opposition to Britain. Phelps also studied Buddhism.
In 1902 Phelps travelled to the ancient coastal city of Akka (Acre) in Palestine (present day Israel). He stayed at Akka for a month as a guest of Abdu’l-Bahá (1844 –1921) the eldest son of the Persian nobleman Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith who was jailed in the penal colony of the Ottoman Empire at Akka. Phelps was accompanied on this journey by Countess Miranda de Souza Canavarro, the American socialite wife of the Portuguese Ambassador to Sandwich Islands. The Countess was in a ‘spiritual marriage’ with Phelps. Initially a theosophist, she converted to Buddhism in 1897 and settled in Colombo as a nun, Sister Sanghamitta. Phelps wrote a about stay at Akka and his encounter with Abdu’l-Bahá in his book ‘Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi’ (1903) that was later printed under the title, ‘The Master in Akka’. Phelps dedicated the book to the Countess.
He toured the country addressing varied audiences on the Hindu ideals and values, the traditional Gurukul education system, Vivekananda’s teachings etc. He exchanged ideas on social-political issues with Tagore at Shantiniketan. He also interacted extensively in 1913-14 with the spiritual leader Mādhav Prasād Sinha (‘Babuji Maharaj’) the nephew of Shiv Dayal Singh (Soamiji Maharaj) who founded the Radhasoami Satsang at Soami Bagh, Agra. Phelps took notes while attending the discourses by Babuji Maharaj and the same were later published as “Phelps’ Notes” that form an important part of the sect’s literature.
Sometime around this time Phelps purchased a bungalow at Binsar for twelve thousand rupees. Amongst the distinguished visitors to this forest retreat of Myron Phelps was Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (1878 – 1965) was an American anthropologist, Theosophist and writer who is best known for his pioneering work in the study of Tibetan Buddhism including the famous English translation of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ (1927).
Walter Yeeling Evans Wentz (1919)
Myron H. Phelps died of tuberculosis in December, 1916 in a hospital in Bombay.
The Tramp’s search for the earliest Colonial occupant of a home at Binsar did not rest at Lt. Col. F.R. Evans and instead led him to the story of the Stracheys. Sir John Strachey GCSI, CIE (1823-1907) was a distinguished British Indian civilian servant. He was the fifth son of Edward Strachey, the second son of Sir Henry Strachey, 1st Baronet of Sutton Court in the County of Somerset. He joined the Bengal Civil Service in 1842 and initially served in the North-Western Province. He rose to the rank of Chief Commissioner of Oudh in 1866. In 1868 he became a member of the Governor-General’s Council. He briefly acted as the Viceroy when Lord Mayo got assassinated by a vengeful Afridi Pathan, a convict at Port Blair in 1872. He was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces in 1874. He returned to the Governor-General’s Council in 1876 as the financial minister under Lord Lytton and continued till 1880 when he quit over criticism over having wrongly estimating the cost of the Second Afghan War. He returned to England and was rehabilitated as a Member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India from 1885 to 1889.
Sir John’s elder brother Lt. Gen. Sir Richard Strachey (1817-1908) G.C.S.I., F.R.S., F.L.S., joined the Bengal Engineers in 1836. He was mentioned in the despatches in the Battles at Sabraon and Aliwal in the 1st Anglo-Sikh War. In 1846 the elder brother of Richard and John, an intrepid explorer – Lt. Henry Strachey (1816-1912) of the 66th Bengal Native Infantry defied the Tibetan ban prohibiting entry of Europeans to enter and explore western Tibet and discover the channel between the Tibetan Lakes Manasarovar and Rakshastal. The same year he also meticulously estimated the elevation of places between Almorah and Gangri from the temperature of boiling water and or barometrical measurements. On 21st of November 1846 he estimated on the basis of the temperature of boiling water the elevation of ‘J. Strachey’s Hut on Binsar Almorah’ at 7400 feet above sea level nearly 600 feet below the top of the hill (7969 feet). His measurements were recorded in his journal and map. The hut referred to by Lt. H. Strachey in his journal can be safely presumed to be that of his younger brother John whose oft-quoted account of the breathtaking view of the Himalayan peaks from atop the Binsar peak shall be reproduced later. In 1848 Lt. Richard Strachey joined J.E. Winterbottom for further exploration of the Tibetan region around the lakes. The same year Henry became the first European to find the Siachen Glacier while working as a member of the Boundary Commission under Alexander Cunningham to delineate the boundary between Tibet and Ladakh. The brothers Henry and Richard briefly re-entered Tibet by following the Niti Pass out of Garhwal in 1849. Henry was awarded the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographic Society in 1852 for his surveys in Tibet and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. Richard was chiefly employed in the Public Works Department and was the Director-General of Irrigation from 1867 to 1871 when he left India. He returned to serve briefly on the Governor-General’s Council. So many of the family served on important positions in the Government of India that it was at one time sarcastically described as the Government of Stracheys!
Sir John Strachey and Sir Richard Strachey, 1876 (by Elliott & Fry)
Sir John Strachey was invited by the University of Cambridge in 1884 for delivering lectures on India on a wide array of topics including the country’s geography, Government, public finances, law and justice, education, agriculture etc. The lectures were published in 1888 in a consolidated form in his book titled ‘India’. The introductory chapter of this book had a beautiful account by Sir John of the unmatched grandeur of the Kumaon Himalayas that is reproduced here for the readers.
“The province of Kumaon,’’ he wrote, ‘’has an area of more than 12,000 square miles. Its whole surface is covered by mountains. They rise like a wall with strange suddenness from the plains of India… I spent many summers in the higher regions of the Himalaya, sometimes among the almost glaciers at the sources of the Ganges and its tributaries, or visiting the passes into Tibet, one of them more than 18,000 feet above the sea, or on the forest-covered ranges immediately under the snowy peaks. I have seen much of European mountains, but in stupendous sublimity, combined with a magnificent and luxuriant beauty, I have seen nothing that can be compared with the Himalaya…after you have left the plains for 100 miles and have almost reached the foot of the great peaks, the valleys are still in many cases, only 2000 or 3000 feet above the sea…conveying the heat and vegetation of the tropics among ranges covered with perpetual snow…the traveller may obtain at a glance a range of vision extending from 2000 to 25000 feet…Tigers…are common in the valleys; and it is not very unusual to see their footprints in the snow among oaks and pines and rhododendrons 8,000 or 10,000 feet above the sea… Indian mountains are grander, their forests are nobler, their whole vegetation is more rich and varied, and nowhere in Europe will you find the splendour of the atmospheric effects and colouring of the Himalaya… whole of the Bernese Alps might, it has been said, be cast into a single Himalayan valley…Among earthly spectacles, I cannot conceive it possible that any can surpass the Himalaya, as I have often seen it at sunset on an evening in October from the ranges thirty or forty miles from the great peaks. One such view in particular, that from Binsar in Kumaon, stands out vividly in my remembrance. This mountain is 8,000 feet high, covered with oak and rhododendron. Towards the north you look down over pineclad slopes into a deep valley, where, 6,000 feet below, the Sarju runs through a tropical forest. Beyond the river it seems to the eye as if the peaks of perpetual snow rose straight up and almost close to you into the sky. From the bottom of the valley to the top of Nanda Devi you see at a glance almost 24,000 feet of mountain. The stupendous golden or rose-coloured masses and pinnacles of the snowy range extend before you in unbroken succession for more than 250 miles, filling up a third part of the visible horizon, while on all other sides, as far as the eye can reach, stretch away the red and purple ranges of the lower mountains. ‘In a hundred ages of the gods,’ writes one of the old Sanskrit poets, ‘I could not tell you of the glories of Himachal.’”
Sir John Strachey, Lt. Governor of NW Provinces, a cartoon appearing in Indian Charivari Album (1875)
In finding the Himalayan view from Binsar an unforgettable experience Strachey was echoing the sentiments of many a Himalayan traveller who halted at this famous 19th century stage-point for expeditions into higher Himalayas – especially the Pindari Glacier and the Mansarovar lake in Tibet.
Anthony George Shiell in her book ‘A Year in India’ (1880) beautifully captures the mesmerizing grandeur of the ‘Mountain Monarchs’ in her account of her stay in the Kumaon Hills sometime in 1876. She came via Moradabad to the picturesque Dak Bungalow at Kaladhungi on her way to Nainital from where she proceeded through Almora to a ‘native bungalow’ just below the Binsar Peak. This what she wrote-
Chief of all the sights of a Himalayan hill station are of course the snows, to behold which at Naini Tal daily pilgrimages are made to a place called ” the snow seat,” supposed to be the best point of view. Not that these mountain monarchs condescend at all times to make themselves visible. For days together they remain shrouded behind curtains of clouds. I remember I made several fruitless journeys before my toil was rewarded. At last, as I was walking along the hill -top path one morning, my companion exclaimed, “There are the snows!” I looked up to what I supposed would be the greatest height of any mountains in existence, but could see nothing. “Look,” repeated he, ” cannot you see them; they are quite distinct?” By degrees I raised my eyes higher and higher, till I seemed to be scanning the very centre of the sky; and there, floating in mid heaven, as it were, beheld cloudlets of silver,—these then were the topmost peaks of those mighty mountains, piercing through their fleecy canopy of cloudy As I continued to gaze they took shape and consistency, and one could perceive that they must be mountain summits after all, for they appeared too hard and white to be nebulous. Gradually they divested themselves of more and more of their clothing of cloud, till finally they stood before us in all their sublime nakedness, from summit to base. A snowy barrier of stupendous slopes with fretted crest of peaks, pyramids, pinnacles, and domes, shutting out heaven and earth across one entire horizon. That vast rounded mountain, nigh 26,000 feet in height, is Nundi Devi—the bull of Siva, his vehan or chariot. That cluster in the centre, of three points, each upwards of 20,000 feet, is called Trisool, the trident of Mahadeva, a symbol that glitters on the apex of every Shivala upon the plains of Hindostan—for these are the summits of Kailas, the “crystal ” habitations of the greater gods of a mightier Olympus. As I continued to look, I felt what others have told me they have experienced in the same presence, how unearthly pure they are, how coldly calm, and how loftily unattainable, till the heart seemed to sicken with a fruitless longing.
As we progressed on our way to Almorah the snows grew nearer and more vast. The Kumaoni Capital is a picturesque little town, lying like a Highland clachan at the top of a wild glen. It is said to have the prettiest and cleanest bazaar in India—smoothly causewayed, the shops with fronts of carved wood, and at one end a white temple; while in the gardens of the English residents, as we passed, home flowers, such as roses and dahlias, were blooming. The furthest point we reached was a hill called Binsur Peak, a tree-clad isolated cone, with a native bungalow near the top, and empty, which we obtained permission to occupy. Here we were so enchanted with the prospects and the delightful remoteness of our situation that we resolved to spend a day or two in our mountain home. At a little distance from the bungalow, and at a point still higher, was a cairn of stones erected by the Trigonometrical Survey. Early in the morning, before the sun had arisen, we used to sally out, and walking through the pinewoods take our station upon it with field glasses in our hands. Over the tops of dark hills that rolled below us up to the base of the snows, their deep valleys filled with fleecy vapours, rose, in close proximity now, the vast flanks and towering summits of the giant chain. As when one has entered some great opera-house before it is lit up all is gloom, till, the flamelet travelling from jet to jet, there blazes forth a circle of light, so these lay dull and leaden, till, far away at the eastern extreme, Morning with her torch of dawn touched first one slumbering peak and then another and another, and all the enkindled line coruscated with silvery sheen.
Evening, as the sun was sinking, found us again at our vigil on the cairn. If possible the view then was even more lovely than by sunrise. The warm tints of sunset suffused the snows with a hectic flush, which, gradually as the sun declined, faded from off them, till they grew pale and cold like marble masks, and the stars came out one by one flickering like tapers on the faces of the dead.
Shiell describes the bungalow as being close to the Binsar Peak. In all likelihood she stayed either at Goralkot or at Maj. Edin’s Estate.
An interesting comparison is made of the views of the Snow Peaks from Nainital and Binsar in an article published in the ‘Calcutta Review Vol. 26 (1856)’ by an anonymous contributor who wrote,
“During the latter part of the rains, the visitor to Nynee Tal will never be wrong in taking a trip to Almorah. It is lower, and therefore warmer, but freer from damp than its more favoured rival: and the clouds that sweep through the houses of Nynee Tal rarely condescend to visit those at Almorah. More over the first two marches afford an excellent specimen of the scenery of the lower ranges of this noble chain of mountains. The view of the snow from the Bungalow at Pewrah is remarkably fine—though not equal to the view which we first had of it—from the ridge over Nynee Tal ; and still less to be compared with the glorious view from the Binsur hill, about fourteen miles beyond Almorah. This latter has been pronounced by good judges, as the finest view to be had of the snow from Simlah to Darjeeling. It undoubtedly surpasses, in its awful grandeur, the view from the Nynee Tal ridge. Over Nynee Tal one is wrapt in admiration: at Binsur, one is struck with awe. Over Nynee Tal, one thinks of the plains as well as the hills: at Binsur, one can think of nothing else, save that long, living, ever-varying, time-defying wall of snow. Over Nynee Tal, one is charmed with the beauty of the fore-ground: at Binsur, the fore-ground is passed over without a thought. Over Nynee Tal, the snow is the grand finish to an exquisite view: at Binsur, the snow is all in all. Therefore, no one should be a season at the lake without giving at least a fortnight to a visit to Almorah and Binsur. The last fortnight in April, or the first in October, is perhaps as good a time as can be chosen…”
It was to this panoramic view of the snow-clad Himalayas that we were headed as we drove up expectantly along the metalled road through the Chir-pine forest. The Ayarpani-Binsar Forest Rest House road follows the ridge-line of the NE-SW Binsar-Almora Range. As we gained in altitude the pine trees were replaced by the thick cover of Rhododendrons and Oaks that the Binsar Forest has been famous for down the ages. ‘Siyahee-ka-Sulla, Binsur-ka-Banj,’ – the pines (Sulla) of Siyahee and the oaks (Banj) of Binsur – is an old Kumaoni proverb. As the story goes the demand for timber for building of the capital of the Chand Kings at Almora was met by the soft pinewood from the Siyahidevi Hill and the hard oak-wood from Binsar. The Oak-Rhododendron forest of Binsar is one of the last naturally occurring moist temperate broad-leaved forests of the Middle Himalayas. The forest is home to the graceful leopard -the craftiest of hunters amongst the big cats that relies on its superb camouflage and stealth rather than brute power for bringing down its prey. Leopards are frequently spotted in Binsar and they prey on the still plentiful gorals, kakars (barking deer) and the langurs. The forest also has a sizeable population of rampaging wild boars and the pesky rhesus macaques, the bane of the hill farmer. The other major species of wildlife include jungle cats, yellow-throated martens, and jackals. The Serows and the Black Bears are all but gone. The sanctuary reportedly harbors 166 species of birds including black francolins, koklass pheasants, kaleej pheasants, hill partridges, great barbets, hawk eagles, Himalayan griffons, lammergeiers, and yellow-billed magpies.
An excerpt from Rev. James Kennedy’s account of the ‘wild beasts’ in Kumaon in his book ‘Life and Work in Benaras & Kumaon (1884)’ is reproduced to give the reader an idea of the abundance of wildlife in Kumaon when he visited the Mission at Almora around 1868. He wrote,
‘Notwithstanding the extension of cultivation and the increase of population in Kumaon, we may travel for many miles over hill and forest and not see a trace of man’s presence. Cover for wild beasts has been somewhat abridged, but it is still sufficient to shelter them, and to make it unlikely they can be exterminated. Both in the hills and in the country beneath, hunters of wild beasts, European and native, still find abundant employment. Not a year passes without persons, sheep, and cattle being killed by tigers, leopards, and hyenas. They live so much in the gorges of the mountains, and in the depths of the forests, ready to pounce on their prey when opportunity presents itself, that the destruction caused by them is seen, while they themselves disappear. The first thing we saw on our first approach to Almora was a horse which had been killed by a leopard the preceding night. A woman, who had been cutting grass before the door of a house we occupied for a few days, was killed an hour afterwards by a tiger in the adjoining forest. One afternoon we heard the cry of a herd, and running out we saw a goat with its throat cut, but the leopard that had killed it had disappeared in the jungle beneath. On another occasion my pony, picketed near my tent, had a narrow escape from a leopard. I have often heard huntsmen relate the encounters they have had with these terrible brutes. On one occasion I saw four dead tigers brought in by a party that had killed them a few miles from the place where my tent was pitched. Tigers are very migratory. They live in the cold weather down in the Bhabhur and the Terai, and as the hot weather advances they follow the herd up the hills on to the verge of the snow. The bears of the hills feed on fruit and vegetables, and usually make away when human beings are seen, but they are very formidable to those who attack them, or come suddenly across their path. In some places wolves abound, and children and animals require to be guarded against them; but they never hunt in packs as in Russia, and they are not feared by grownup people. In the lower hills and the Bhabhur there are herds of wild elephants, which do much injury to the crops of the people, and cannot be safely approached. I have been again and again in their track. There are also serpents, but they are not so numerous or venomous as in the plains. The dangers to which the inhabitants are exposed is shown by the annual statistics of casualties, in which the first place is given to the ravages of wild beasts, the second to landslips, and the third to serpents.’
It is clear from the accounts by Sir John Strachey and Rev. James Kennedy that while the stealthy leopard may be the apex predator of the forests in the Higher Himalayas yet the magnificent tiger was not completely unknown at these heights. The tiger was known to follow the migrating herds from the forests of terai in the summer months right up to the ‘Alpine’ meadows just short of the snow-line. This was of course only till the early 20th century when the trophy hunters armed with the modern post-World War weaponry mindlessly slaughtered the tigers in a one-sided contest. The Tramp was successful in locating an over 100 year old newspaper account of a strike by a man-eating tigress in a village field in Binsar. The same is reproduced for the readers.
Dealing with a Man-eater
The World’s News, Sydney (Saturday, December 13, 1913).
A most interesting story about a man-eating tigress comes from Binsar, Almora U.P., India and is vouched for by Lieut. Col. Molesworth. For some time the tigress had terrorized the natives of the villages in the locality as much by its sudden and stealthy appearances as by its depredations. On one occasion a native woman was busy stacking hay up a tree—the usual custom in the Kumaun Hills—when the tigress made its appearance. Catching sight of the woman in the tree, it lashed its tail from side to side, and then calmly prepared to wait until she should come down. The woman, however, had seen the brute just as it had seen her, and, knowing that some natives were working in the jungle close by, she called them to her assistance. They responded at once, and, although only indifferently armed, did not hesitate to advance upon the tigress. After much shouting and brandishing of hoes and sticks, the natives succeeded in driving the brute away. Then, calling out to the woman that the tigress had disappeared, they returned to the jungle, and she, with the usual apathy of the native, continued her work up the tree.
But the tigress was more cunning than its adversaries. It went away, but only for a short distance. There it lay hidden, watching its human prey all the time.
When the woman did eventually cease work and come down, the tigress sprang from its hiding place and was upon her before she was well aware of its presence. The spring of the tigress brought the woman to the ground and did not stun her, and she was able to call loudly for help.
This time the only person in the locality was another woman, who, though only armed with a hoe, advanced upon the tigress and attempted to drive the brute away. All her efforts were unfortunately of no avail. The tigress killed its first victim, and had sprung upon and severely mauled the woman who attempted the rescue before the villagers arrived on the scene and again drove the tigress away.
On the day on which the tigress met its fate, about a month after the event recorded, two ladies; who reside on a large fruit estate in the locality, and both keen sportswomen, got word that an animal of some sort had killed a small wild pig within 200 yards of the house.
It was a pouring wet day, but sportswomen of their stamp are not to be deterred by a trifle of that sort. At 5 o’clock in the evening they were both perched in their machan—a platform built up in a tree with a lire goat tied up as a bait. They prepared themselves for the usual monotonous wait.
But within five minutes of seating themselves, not without the least warning, they heard a sudden rush through the jungle, and in the same instant the animal was upon the goat.
“Tiger!” whispered both ladies as they cautiously raised their rifles.
In another couple of seconds the brute rolled over, quivering its last, with a well-directed bullet through its shoulder. Two or three bullets followed from both rifles to make assurance doubly sure, and then, feeling that it was quite safe, the ladies came down from the machan.
Within a few minutes of the firing of the shots, every native employed on the estate had made his way to the kill, and great and varied was the rejoicing when it was found that it was the “man-eater” that had terrorized a large district for some time.
The tigress (says “Country Life”) measured over eight feet and such an event as a tiger shot at Binsar had never been known before.
This truly terrible scourge to the timid and unarmed inhabitants of an Indian village is now happily becoming very rare. Man-eaters of a bad type are seldom heard of, or if heard of rarely survive long.
Before there were so many European sportsmen as there are now in India India, a man-eater frequently caused the temporary abandonment of whole tracts of country. The terror inspired by a man-eater throughout the district ranged by him is extreme. The helpless people are defenseless against his attacks. Their occupations of cattle s grazing or wood cutting take them into the jungles, where they feel they go with their lives in their hands.
Though the blood-thirsty monster is perhaps reposing with the remains of his last victim miles away, the terror he inspires is always present to everyone throughout his domain. The rapidity and uncertainly of a man-eater’s movement are the chief elements of the dread he inspires. His name is in everyone’s mouth; his daring, ferocity, and appalling appearance are represented with true Eastern exaggeration; and until some European sportsman lays him low thousands live in fear day and night. Bold man-eaters have been known to enter the village and carry off a victim from the first open hut.
The man-cater-as previously explained in “The World’s News”—is often old tiger, more frequently a tigress, or an animal that, through having been wounded, or otherwise hurt, has been unable to procure its usual food, and takes this means of subsistence. The man-eater is as cowardly as cunning. It flies before an armed man, between whom and a possible victim, it discriminates with wonderful sagacity.
Having driven a little over 5 KM from the Ayarpani Gate we reached a small level clearing, a beautiful green meadow nestled within sharp slopes covered by thick stands of deodars, oaks and rhododendrons. A rocky brook ran through the meadow and on its south-eastern edge was the nearly 300 year old Binsar Mahadev Temple. We had reached the ‘Temple in the Dell’ of Marianne North.
The Binsar Massif – the southern face
Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, Binsar WLS
Atop the hill rising on our south-west was the 19th century ‘castle’ of the King of Kumaon. Facing us to the north was the thickly wooded Binsar hill with a steep trail leading up its southern face to its peak, the Jhandi Dhar. Parallel to the trail to its east ran the stone-wall of Dr. Govan’s Estate, now owned by the Sahs of Kumaon. The estate looked neglected and its extensive terraced fields were overgrown with grass. The colonial-era bungalow with the characteristic red tin roof gave a forlorn look, dwarfed by the stately deodars that engulfed it.
Dr. Govan’s Bungalow
The only sign of activity was in the stone outhouse with a slated roof.
The Govan Estate, Binsar WLS
We parked next to a locked outpost of the forest department (or may be the PWD) – a modest brick and mortar structure with a chimney and a sloping tin roof.
Post near the Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, Binsar WLS
An arrow on a wooden signpost affixed to the entrance this room indicated the way to the Binsar Retreat up the trail to Jhandi Dhar. As we got off our vehicles a handsome, golden bhutia sheep-dog (probably a cross-breed) gazed at us with a friendly curiosity. It was Simba, the ‘Lord of the Bineshwar Meadow’, and the sole companion to the priest at the temple.
Way to Binsar Retreat and Simba
We had informed our host of our arrival on reaching Ayarpani and presently a rugged looking Bolero Camper trundled down noisily over the roughly paved jungle path. As the pickup drew closer we could make out a Gurkha standing in the cargo section in a gaily-coloured Nepali cap grinning at us cheerfully as he skilfully dodged the overhanging branches. Our host emerged from behind the wheel – a tall sturdy man with a thoughtful frown fixed on his sunburnt face – his hair curly and unkempt – dressed in a casual sport gear – looking every bit as rugged as the 4X4 he drove. We were meeting after eight years and he looked a changed man. He had spent a decade alternating between the corporate straitjacket and a carefree existence in the Himalayan wilderness until the allure of a quiet life in a mountain forest overwhelmed him completely. And like all the rest of the ‘crazy’ men who had preceded him at Binsar – he decided to drop everything and step into the wild – never to return. Binsar had got its latest Ramsay!!
As we trudged up the steep path we came upon a landing that functioned as a parking for vehicles that lacked the ground clearance or power to continue the journey up the Binsar ridge. The gradient sharpens steeply thereafter with hairpin bends that can be negotiated only by a 4X4 off-roader with ample ground clearance and a driver having the stomach to risk his neck and that of his trusting passengers! Our teenaged children clambered aboard the open-to-the-sky cargo section to take a joy ride to the retreat. The adults carried on foot. It was getting dark as we crossed the arched stone gateway to the Govan Estate and walked through the Oak-Rhododendron forest to the Retreat.
Entry to Govan Estate, Binsar
The jungle trail was littered with fallen leaves and dried-up Rhododendron flowers. We had missed the April bloom when the forest is said to be on fire with with the striking red flowers of the Rhododendron trees. We reached a fork and as instructed took the path on the right. We were completely out of breath by the time we reached the Binsar Forest Retreat – a nature camp set up on Major Edin’s Estate that was now being run in a partnership by our host. The estate has numerous terraced levels each occupied by quaint little wooden cottages with sloping roofs of slate and tin amidst a riot of poppies and other wild flowers. All around us was an unimaginably thick forest that sent a shiver of excitement down the spine. We were greeted with Rhododendron Sharbat served in steel tumblers. The children were ecstatic and could barely keep still as our host gave us instructions to respect nature, to conserve water and electricity (the camp runs entirely on solar power and draws water from a seasonal spring) and to not venture out into the forest after sunset. The camp was done up in the classic ‘Fabindia’ finish, stylishly ethnic with a woody feel to all furniture and fixtures. Everything was understated. The theme blended completely with nature. Some of the cottages had been named after the trees in their vicinity. Others were named after the glorious Himalayan peaks that are visible from the Jhandi Dhar on a clear day. We were lodged in the Walnut and the Rhododendron Cottages.
Rhododendron Cottage, Binsar Forest Retreat
Walnut Cottage, Binsar Forest Retreat
It had been a full twelve hours since the start of our journey that day and we shamelessly raided the chocolate cake that was served with tea. This was followed with vegetable pakoras (the camp serves only vegetarian fare) and an early dinner. We settled down in our cosy beds awash with excitement for the two days of adventure that awaited us.
Our host had most thoughtfully decided against rushing us for the trek and we woke to the happy camp sounds and the gaiety that is so typical of a Banjara Camp. A large stainless steel dispenser filled to the top with hot tea had been placed in the dining hall for the guests. I happily downed several tumblers-full as I shook the sleep out of my eyes. The spirited camp-followers (more Gurkhas than the local Kumaonis) sped up and down the camp busy with the morning chores. Musafir, an early riser, had stolen a march on me in the latest round of our never-ending contest in bird photography. He had managed a trophy picture of a Grey-winged Blackbird that would be impossible to better.
Grey-winged Blackbird, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)
Nuthatch, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)
Flycatcher, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)
I scanned the forest around the camp hoping to spot some interesting bird and try and even the contest.
Joey, the resident cat, meowed and purred as it was shaken out of its slumber and noisily chased by a sprightly little girl who giggled impishly behind her glossy eye-mask. Her worldly possessions safely tucked away in her colourful shoulder-bag!
Joey- the Camp Cat (Photo courtesy Gazella)
I enjoyed my tea sitting amidst the brightly coloured poppies nodding cheerfully in the breeze with yellow butterflies flitting from flower to flower.
The floral treat (Photo courtesy Gazella)
We had missed the Rhododendron bloom but had apparently landed in the middle of the butterfly season. The forest was teeming with wonderful varieties of brightly coloured butterflies.
I could manage only a modest photograph that morning of a ‘Scaly Thrush’ skulking in the mushy undergrowth near the outlet of the camp’s drain pipe.
Scaly Thrush, Binsar WLS (June)
We finally started for the morning trek around half-past ten.
TO BE CONTINUED
The Tramp owes special gratitude to Nicholas Wilson the great grandson of Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire the Scotsman who succeeded Sir Henry Ramsay as the owner of the orchard estates at Binsar and Khali in 1893. Nicholas rendered invaluable assistance in piecing together the history of the two estates in the time of his industrious ancestor and most kindly airmailed pictures of his Great Grandfather and his Khalee Estate dating back to 1905-06.
- Papers regarding the forests and iron mines in Kumaon; The Records of the Government of India, Home Department (1855)
- Recollections of a Happy Life: Being the Autobiography of Marianne North; Marianne North, Janet Symonds (1892)
- Life and Work in Benaras & Kumaon; James Kennedy (1884)
- The liberator of Kumaoni women- Mukti Dutta, Business Today, January (2008)
- Sport and Service in Assam and Elsewhere; Lt. Col. Alban Wilson (1924)