What started as a customary visit to the Kumaon hills, covering Haldwani, Nainital, Almora, Kausani, and Ranikhet became more like visiting home every summer.
Right from savoring pastries at Standard Confectioners (when it was the only bakery shop in Haldwani) to shopping for jumboo, bhatt, gahet, pahadi muli, pahadi nimboo, bhanga, gaderi, pahadi kheera in Haldwani, which are essential Kumaoni kitchen ingredients that add extra taste and spice to our lives since forever. From eating buckets full of varieties of mangoes at Bua’s (aunt) house at Ramlila Maholla to gazing at the vast expanse of green fields in Mukhani, most of which has now succumbed to rapid urbanisation in and around the area.
From enjoying the Aloo ke Gutke and Kheere ka raita with extra raai, which is quintessential Kumaoni breakfast/snack at Khairna, to stopping and paying our heartfelt homage to Neem Karoli Baba at the Kainchi Dham enroute Almora. From gasping in awe at the multitude of bells and letters that lay hanging at the Golu Devta temple at Ghora khaal, to loitering around in the quaint roads of Kausani offering the most beautiful sunsets and sunrise. From countless boat rides at Naini Jheel, to enjoying flavoured milk while walking down the Mall road in Nainital. From enjoying the rustic smell of the morning and evening tea at Lala Bazar in Almora to buying kilos of Baal Mithai and Singhauri from Khim Singh Mohan Singh Rautela which could last us until our next visit.
We have weaved a lot of colours into our tradition, every festival which is native to Kumaon is celebrated with much furor. The authentic ornaments like teep, Pauchi, gulband, nath and champakali along with the beautiful Rangwali-Pichauda have been adding colours and relevance to our deep yet beautiful culture, and Lala Bazaar in Almora has housed all of these in its shops from times immemorial. The skill of making Aipan during Deepawali, the excitement of preparing Khajure during Kaale Kauwa, celebrating the sanctity and warmth of one’s house through Deli Pujan/Phool Dei, fasting for the goodwill of family and children through Dor-Dubjaur and for the spouses during Batt Savitri, the colorful vibe of Holi ki baithaks, sowing seeds during Harela while praying for a good future harvest, celebrating the young girls in the house through Bhitauli: it is quite impressive how bountiful Kumaon’s culture is.
The narrow stream of clear water in the Kosi, housing a beautiful and tiny hamlet on its banks renders the natural music for the soul. About a couple of kilometers away from here lies Katarmal’s Sun Temple, another gem in the hills of Kumaon, which also finds its place along with Jageshwar in the Heritage Circuit Project ‘Swades’ for developing tourism infrastructure in Jageshwar-Devidhura-Katarmal-Baijnath sites.
While October reminds me of the famous Dussehra festival celebrated in Almora, summers remind me of Nainital and mulberry. The wavering sound of Maharaj, as he sings Kumaoni songs while preparing the first batch of tea, he was synonymous with happiness and humility. Every morning, we walked down the Thandi Sadak paying a visit to Paashaan Devi and Naina Devi. On our way back we gulped a couple of mulberries which tasted sweet back then, while its precious memory feels the sweetest now.
Kumaon is vivid. Whether it’s the colours of nature or the colours of everyday life, every hue has a tinge of passion in it. It was in 2015 that I visited Kumaon for the last time and since then a whirlwind of events has taken place around the region, from carrying out relentless efforts to ban single-use plastic to a village becoming Open Defecation Free (ODF). The news of a small village tucked away in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, Kusauli becoming ODF spread like wildfire. The village, which not only got itself free from open defecation practices in June 2017, also made efforts to cover drains and use vermi-compositing to make manure out of the organic waste that was generated from households.
Going by the IMD data released for the percentage of rainfall witnessed in the region, we have experienced an 18% deficit compared to the last couple of years, it is quite saddening to note that though the rainfall has decreased but the rampant and unchecked development taking place has provided momentum to the incidence of natural calamity which the region experiences today thus taking a heavy toll on all our lives.
Walk through the hamlets practicing traditional agriculture; descend through forests of oak, cedar and rhododendron to ancient stone temples, or relax in the mountain sunshine and cool breeze, surrounded by birdsong and the fragrant smell of pine. It is a serendipitous experience; one can never really get enough of this place.
Ruskin Bond very aptly said, “It is always the same with mountains. Once you have lived with them for any length of time, you belong to them. There is no escape.” While I have a gazillion memories of the ‘pahad’ (mountain), I would want that whenever life gives me a chance to come back–I am able to enjoy the same moments, just like living them all over again. I have had the absolute honour of spending the best times in my home away from home, witnessing culture from the very roots where all of it originated. The infectious tranquility that I receive every time I think of the mountains, makes me yearn for them even more, and all I can do is gasp in anticipation– “To the mountains, I shall return.”