It was the 25th of December, my dad’s birthday and Christmas. It was also time for another adventure. It was time for our two-week tryst with the Himalayas. Our winding journey would take us through Bangalore > Delhi > Kathgodam > Almora > Hawalbagh > Joshimath > Kuari Pass > Joshimath > Rishikesh > Dehradun > Bangalore. We took the 3:00 p.m. flight to Delhi. To my in-law’s place, where great people and food was waiting for us.
Catching the early morning Shatabdi Express (Delhi to Kathgodam)
Heading off early morning to Kathgodam via the Shatabdi Express had its own share of adventures. The Ola cab I had advance booked overnight cancelled on us right when we were supposed to leave. We had to wake up Mohit — the mint-new son-in-law at the Badsiwals (my in laws) — to drive us to the railway station. Early in the morning, without a grimace he dropped us to the station. What a sport!
Delhi to Kathgodam is a five-hour forty minutes train ride. Train leaves at 6:00 AM and reaches its destination at 11:40 AM. Pretty neat.
Chanchal and I boarded the train. Our friend Navneet Bajaj (fondly humara Bajaj) was part of the Hawalbagh leg and joined us at the train station. Off we went. The usual swapping of seats to make sure all three of us got to sit in the same compartment ensued and so did gut wrenching laughter with Navneet’s amazing sense of humour keeping us in high spirits.
Up the winding road to Hawalbagh
We took a shared taxi (two fifty rupees per seat) to Hawalbagh from outside the Kathgodam station. Chanchal took the seat next to the driver, I was in the middle and Navneet sat at the back seat of the Tata Sumo. Of course, there were others and comfortable seating was a luxury not available in that ride. We snaked through various villages and habitation clusters and our co-passengers kept changing. Transportation in the hills is not taken for granted and people still wait for the next bus or shared taxi to arrive (sometimes for hours).
My moment with the Sadhu
We took a pit stop for lunch at a small village. One of our co-passenger was a Sadhu. We realized that he did not come into the restaurant for lunch. I was not sure why. I assumed maybe it did not go with his spiritual practice to eat outside. After hesitating for a few minutes, I asked him would he like to eat something. He smiled and nodded in agreement. I later realized that he did not have the money to pay for the lunch. So, we ordered a standard lunch platter for him. It is amazing that how in our civilization and culture spiritual pursuits are central, valid and even a mainstream purpose of life. Earning a livelihood is not a qualification to living life. Living a certain life is. He was solely relying on the universe to take care of him and was not planning on anything. I just happened to be there and think of his lunch. If not, either someone else would have or he would have gone hungry. And for him it would have been just alright – a way of life that aligned with the choices he made. I did not feel like taking a photograph for keepsake with him. But his face is now lodged in my memory. We all live in such paranoia about our jobs, income levels, the next promotion or whatever. Here was a humble man who owned nothing and was so much more at peace with what life had to offer and so much open to what lay ahead. I realize that ‘he is who he is’ not because ‘he is in that that state’ but ‘he is in that state’ (through choice) because of ‘who he is’. Free.
We reached the Kosi Bridge where we planned to meet Arjun Venkatraman (and his wife Deepta Arjun) who we know through a common friend. The sun was almost setting for the day. The bright ochre light was giving way to a cooler blue hue. There was a definite chill in the air.
We had reached Hawalbagh.
Hawalbagh comes a calling
Hawalbagh is a missing page in a lost book. Glad it is so. Most of the tourists reach Kathgodam and may be Almora if you will and then most of them head off to the touristy Nainital, Ranikhet or even the quaint Kausani. You typically get to a page like this either by some interesting connections (either people or fate), plain dumb luck or just ignorance. I am happy for us it was a heady mix of all three and a dash of pure intentionality.
Once the sun comes out, Hawalbagh is a paradise for uncollared men and women or canines. Everyone is at ease. No rush. No pretence. You look left there is a beautiful mountain, you look right there is a glistening stream, you look straight down there is a beautiful valley, you look straight up there is an inviting blue sky. You look around there are colourful butterflies fluttering away. You look within you see how you were meant to be.
Hawalbagh or as the locals call it ‘Haol bagh’, for its foggy mornings and evenings, is an intriguing place. Visit it once, visit it a few times, live there if comes a calling, don’t crowd or kill it with city think and talk. You will know if you deserve to be here for a day, forever or even once when you close your eyes and look within. Go on… feel it for yourself.
Innisfree at Hawalbagh, a beautiful British-era Dak Bungalow converted into a homestay
We were booked at the Innisfree, Hawalbagh. A place run by Lat Singh and Julia. They were Arjun and Deepta’s friends and that is how we got the reference. We had read loads of praises online about the location, the hospitality and food at Innisfree and we were not disappointed at all. Lat was an amazing gentleman, caring and fun.
What can I say about the place? It is magical. The Britishers back in the days got the best location for their circuit houses and Dak Bungalows. This was one of them. A four-acre property overlooking the Kosi river and valley with wide open views of the town below and the jungles where Leopards roam and prowl. You could start and spend your day in the nurturing blanket of the warm ochre sun, lying down under a tree, reading a book or just taking a nap. We did all of that.
One of the coolest thing about Innisfree is their dogs. It was endearing to see them chase squirrels or start barking on spotting a fox or just hang around you when you are lounging.
Our leisurely walk to the Shiva Temple and nearby Waterfall
On day 2, we had our leisurely breakfast and headed off to the nearby waterfall in Hawalbagh. Lat mentioned that we should stop by at the small ancient Shiva Temple, which was a short detour from the road that led to the waterfall.
Navneet, Chanchal and I, started our walk and were soon lost to the beauty of the hills. No vehicles and I mean none at all were plying on these roads. Only an occasional cow or a herd of goats will cross us by. Everywhere you turned you could spot a small stream or a rivulet by wayside. Butterflies were everywhere, yellow, red, blue or black, you just have to think of a colour and you could spot a butterfly wearing those colours a few steps away. This is fantasy stuff. The sun was out in full force and it was clear day. I had not had this much quiet and time to myself in a while. It was so therapeutic to be with great company, in the lap of nature and have moments to yourself.
A small pit where the stream water collected itself before it danced down to the valley below was our signpost to take the narrow goat path up to the Shiva Temple. A ten-minute walk up got us to a cluster of houses above which the temple stood quietly.
We passed by a house with a couple of cows tied to the patio. It was a humble village home and we asked the man standing outside which fork in the path to take up to the temple. He pointed us to the one on the right and said I will come along. We city folks are always suspicious when people try to help us out. Why is he doing this? What is in it for him? It now runs in our blood. This caustic suspicion.
Well enough said, turns out he is also the temple priest and caretaker. He was just happy that someone had come to pray. That was his reward. He felt great just by guiding us to the temple, opening the gates for us and also feeding us home grown bananas. He was in fact more than happy, he was thrilled. Thrilled just to do his job. How often do you see that? He gave his time, energy and his food to us without expecting anything in return. We were total strangers and he had humble means. This is the proud heritage of my country. A culture that is ready to share the physical and the metaphysical with the world.
He is a special guy. He needs a mention. His name is Gopaldas Pant. He is, according to Arjun Venkatraman, perhaps the most eco-friendly, organic and sustainable cattle owner in the Hawalbagh local community. He loves his cows. Feeds and baths them with his hand. Secures them at night to keep them safe from the Leopards and only takes enough milk for his family and leaves the rest for the calf to drink. This guy right here is living in balance and harmony with his surroundings. His consumption and contributions balance out. How many of us can say that?
Magical moments at the Waterfall
We rolled on. Reached the local waterfall spot. The temperature dipped suddenly. It was a thin stream that flowed down from the mountain. We stood near the foot of the waterfall and looked up. Somethings are best left unsaid. These are special moments that you cherish within yourself. This was one such moment.
Our trek to the Katarmal Surya Mandir (Sun Temple)
On Day 3, we left after our breakfast to trek up to the Katarmal Surya Mandir about eight kilometres from Hawalbagh. From Innisfree, first it was a forty-minute walk down to the Kosi bridge. A nice walk downhill with beautiful tree cover and valley views. As we walked closer to Kosi, we could hear the gushing sound of the river. We took a few shortcuts to reach the bridge. We met Arjun and Deepta at the Bong Book Cafe. They directed us to a pathway up the mountain adjacent to their property that would take us on a trail to the Katarmal Surya Mandir. We started climbing. The sun was beaming beautifully and it was nice and warm when you were in the line of sunlight. The moment you were covered by the trees line the temperature dropped suddenly. So practically, you could feel warm one moment and cold the next.
The mountain we were climbing up was burnt in a forest fire. So, all we could see was burnt brambles and ash. We also spotted the geometrical ‘V’ patterns on the pine trees used to extract Turpentine oil. They carve these concentric Vs on the bark and fix a metal cone below so the Turpentine oil could flow into it.
We kept climbing before we were lost — sort of. I spotted a house on the hill a little far away. I walked up closer and two ladies were washing clothes at a community tap. I asked them the direction to Katarmal temple and they pointed me in a general direction and said “just climb two more mountains that way and you will reach the temple”. It was strange to get directions in terms of number of mountains to climb. How many times can you boast of being in such a situation? So, we continued to climb mountains, two more to be precise in a general direction.
We reached the congregation spot after which vehicles were not allowed. Yes, one could drive up to this spot and avoid climbing mountains. We wanted to take a break from driving cars or being on motorable roads for a while, so our choices were already made.
Chanchal has a fascination for Sun temples. She has visited two of them. One in Modhera in Gujarat and the Konark temple in Odisha. For her, this was the third Sun temple. I had been to Konark Sun Temple and was curious how this one looked like.
Come to think of it, we all are solar powered creatures. There is very little right going to happen in our body and minds if the Sun was not around. The entire planet is a solar-powered park. So, it is befitting that we pay homage to the one who sustains life on this planet.
We climbed up the last stretch to reach the entrance of the Katarmal temple. It was idyllic stone temple built back in the 9th Century and the Lord Burhadita idol (old sun god) dates back to roughly the 12th Century. The temple was built by Katarmal, a Katyuri King. The architecture is done in a way that the first rays of the sun pass through a series of keyholes to land on the main idol inside the sanctum. The main temple in the centre is surrounded by forty-four smaller temple structures.
After resting on the temple floor for a while, we started our trek down.
Hawalbagh evenings and crackle of firewood
Come night, we would huddle into the fireplace shed for a couple of hours and were transported to another century with the firewood keeping us warm and listening to stories of Leopards or the local mystique experiences. We would step out of the fire shed and gaze at the clear night sky that was glittering with thousands of stars. Nothing like the sky you see from city. Once you leave the cramped concrete jungle and the light pollution, you rediscover how beautiful the sky really is.
Twinkle Twinkle little stars, How I forgot to wonder what you are!
Kumaoni Cuisine is to die for…
We were treated to some amazing Kumaoni cuisine at the dinner table every evening. We would come out of the fire shed after couple of hours of chit chatting and soulful discussions and would be treated to this amazing burst of local aromas. One day, we had Gauth Daal with steamed rice on one night and on another Bhatt ki Daal and Bhang ka namak.
On all days, I indulged in Malta juice. What a refreshing beverage it is. You must try it if you are in the hills of Kumaon.
I would be remiss if I did not pen down our morning ritual during our stay in Innisfree, Hawalbagh. Chanchal and I would start our day with Yoga on the terrace (overlooking the beautiful sun-kissed valley). There is something surreal about meditating in the Himalayas. Far from the madding crowd and you turn inward. Just in a moment.
We would come down and seat ourselves to have our breakfast in the open space with a valley in front of us. The sun would slowly warm our body and peak our appetite. Both Chanchal and I do not have breakfast but at Innisfree we could not resist. Maybe it was the mountains or maybe it was just great food. On some days, Lat Singh would give us company during breakfast and talk about the Kumauni folklore or experience with other travellers to Innisfree or tales of local villagers. These were extremely educational and deeply engaging conversations. You do not come to Innisfree just to stay. You come to immerse yourself in the local lifestyle. We sure did.
Meeting and making new friends
We made new friends. Now that does not happen every day. Does it?
Arjun Venkatraman and Deepta Arjun are friends with a couple we are friends with. So that is the connection point. Both of them are interesting people to get to know. Their choices, experience and world view merit long chats on soulful nights.
Just ten feet away from the Kosi Bridge is TechZone Academy at the ground floor and Bong Book Cafe on the first floor. Arjun is a partner at TechZone and Deepta owns and runs the cafe. Social entrepreneurial couple. If there is such a thing. Way to go! Arjun and Deepta have two dogs – Fuchka and Cola.
Two People, Two businesses and Two Words
- Deepta and Arjun,
- Bong Book Cafe and TechWorld Academy,
- Reverse Migration
Deepta and Arjun have impressive professional credentials. They both are sensible and sensitive. They are driven to make a positive difference in the world. They both take risks. They both are not living by the conventional rules. They both are pursuing their social change enterprises in the hills of Kumaon not because they cannot crack it in the Concrete and Corporate Jungles. They are doing this because they are super confident that the Concrete and Corporate Jungle is a walk in a park that they don’t care for.
Chanchal and I are evaluating reverse migration as a serious life option for the long term. We travel to understand which place would be our calling, to explore what would we be doing when not living in the city, to educate ourselves on what do we need to be thinking about. We have this romantic notion about moving to the hills or the foothills and leading an eco-friendly and sustainable life. That is all we got. And we are going for it.
Deepta and Arjun have done this gig for a while at many different offbeat locations. We were eagerly looking forward to learning from them — the reality, the mechanics of it, the highs and lows, the essentials, the trivial, everything. We learned a lot. Hopefully, I will share the learning over a separate blog when I have more information to contextualize and compare.
Until then, let us talk about how these two have created an ecosystem around themselves and have legitimate business running in the hills.
Bong Book Cafe: Mouth-watering food and an eclectic ambience
From Katarmal Surya Mandir, we got back to the Bong Book Cafe wherein Deepta prepared sumptuous Peas Poori for us, which we wolfed down in a blink of an eye. The Pooris were delicious. The rest of the items in the menu were alluring. If you are in and around Almora or Hawalbagh or just passing through, make sure you have a slow and long lunch at the Bong Book Cafe. While you are at it, you can indulge in some literature, poetry or even in debates about the constitution of India. After all it is a book cafe. Deepta, the lady of the cafe, by the way is great company. If the city life with its monotony and corporate zombies has dulled your mind, both Deepta and Arjun are great intellectual therapy. Here is the thing, if you are local of Almora and have not visited the Bong Book Cafe they you are absolutely missing out on something. So, rush!
Hear Deepta talk about Bong Book Cafe and more in the video.
हैकरgram, TechWorld and much more: Galvanizing the rural youth
It is strange to see a board by the Kosi River that reads: TechWorld Academy and has high tech lingo alongside including ethical hacking, cryptocurrency, digital security among many others. This is what high-level skill, perseverance and acumen along with a riveting desire to make change happen can achieve. An offbeat place where most people would feel technologically handicapped or even experience tech withdrawal, Arjun has created a technology ripple in the local ecosystem. He is working with the local youth of the area to create awareness, develop skill and entrepreneurial spirit.
Arjun also runs हैकरgram a social change movement that brings together deep end of technology, local challenges, human ingenuity and curious minds. He says to survive in the hills you need multiple skills. One just would not cut it.
Hear Arjun talk about what he has been up to in the video.
Early morning bus to Karanprayag
Well, Hawalbagh is one among the many villages in India. Perhaps a dot in the larger canvas, but aren’t we all just that?
It was time to head forth in our journey, we were off to Joshimath to start our alpine trek to Kuari pass. We had an early morning bus from the Kosi Bridge to Karanprayag. The story continues.
Read about our Kedarkantha Trek.