Summer and the hills is a relationship humankind has developed for a long. It’s like zen for the parched soul. But we couldn’t make sense of this cliché thanks to climate change. We left Delhi in early May, when the maximum temperature was a salubrious 23 degrees centigrade, as against the usual 40+. We left early at 5.30 am. But soon, a pea-soup-thick fog impeded progress. Fog in May? Well, you had to see it to believe it. We nearly missed the highway. For 80 km till nearly Hapur, it continued.
On The Road
Our destination, Kasar Devi, with a break in the journey, was Naukuchia Tal in the Naini Tal district, 334 km away. I was driving with my wife, navigating us, eagerly watching the taillights and the disaster flashers. Beyond the first toll gate, the sun shone, and hope was on hand. The highway was butter smooth, and the speedometer shared our optimism.
Cities fell away on the highway, and the various bypasses were fleeting memories of how one had to, at one time, not many years ago, wrestle all manner of transport to get ahead. Soon, we were past Pantnagar, and the Sahyadris loomed ahead. Five hours on the highway, and we were entertaining ideas of an early arrival. But Haldwani ensured such ideas were just delusions. The climb began just after the traffic of Haldwani exasperated us.
A Future Foretold
The traffic intensified as we approached Bhim Tal a couple of hours later. Sitting in the traffic jam, we lamented the pace of development. In just four years since we had last been there, the hotels, the boat operators, and taxis seemed to have doubled. Climbing off the lakefront, the narrow road led past the Hanuman Temple to the Naukuchia Tal (the lake of nine corners), and here was the picture-perfect lake. Tiny restaurants, flowers, and various pines on one side and the lake on the other. Again, the inevitable crowds and careless drivers who parked where it suited them symbolised the overexploitation of resources.
Shooting for a film with a Serbian master director in neighbouring Garhwal (Dev Bhoomi - 2014) was forcefully brought to mind a year after the disastrous floods. There were entire buildings and parking lots brought down to the river. The rubble had nowhere to go. Stark reminder, I had thought, of a caution about the future. But political compunctions override ecological wisdom. We hear of the widening roads to the Chardham, regardless of what’s happening to Uttarkashi.
The Kasar Devi Stop
Leaving Naukuchia after breakfast for Kasar Devi was the license we could give ourselves since we didn’t have to rush for a reporting time or a fixed departure. "But not too late," we were warned by our friends living in the Lake District since it was the weekend and traffic would build up. The fragrant air was almost heady as we went up the hill, anxiously seduced by the myth of Kasar Devi.
It is said that Kasar Devi Temple is one of the three places on Earth under the impact of magnetic fields, a zone of energetic charge particles also called the Van Allen Belts. NASA sent its scientists to learn about this mysterious place. Only two other spots on Earth exist, Machu Picchu in Peru and Stonehenge in England, where such magnetic fields are experienced, making the area conducive to transcendental experiences. It is a common belief that due to the presence of these fields, you get a peaceful and relaxing experience here. This enormous geomagnetic field has a cosmic energy that anyone meditating can feel. It’s like a tactile presence. No wonder it made this the favourite of such varied personalities like Swami Vivekananda, Bob Dylan, DH Lawrence, Steve Jobs, Uma Thurman, George Harrison and me.
The drive there of 80 km was wending its way past tight twists and turns along the Kosi River.
Except for a traffic build-up on the narrow road at Kenchi Dham (abode of Neem Karoli Baba), now made famous after Virat Kohli and Anushka Shankar visited it, and Virat’s return to form was scenic and without drama. But the most dramatic encounter here was the sight of the snow peaks. Summer and spring had seen a lot of rain, so there weren’t many forest fires and smoke. And peaks glistened above us.
At The Mudhouse
The road climbed after the Almora Zoo past forests of Deodhar and Oak to arrive at our 7,000 ft destination—Kasar Devi. It is just a one-road town with a temple and various hotels, homestays, and restaurants. Our destination was Mohan’s Binsar Retreat and 40 metres downhill to the paradisical Mohan’s Mudhouse. Mohan was the pioneer hotelier here. It started with him finding Homestay options for travellers and then maturing into a small bakery making pancakes and coffee. That grew into the Binsar Retreat and the Mudhouse.
After lunch, we went down to the Mudhouse, our hideaway for the next few days. While the Retreat had cookie-cutter rooms with TV and room service, the Mudhouse is more basic but an experience second to none. An en-suite room, kitchenette, and a patio that had the valley fall off at its feet. Wild roses and fuchsia tumbled down. It was like the world was left behind, literally and figuratively. There’s no room service, but the café at Mohan’s Binsar Retreat or the Hobbit House will provide food to you even through the rain.
The Kasar Devi Effect
Rabindranath Tagore famously said, “You don’t cross the ocean by just looking at it”, yet when he got here, he just gazed at the peaks and the valleys and fed his soul deeply. It was in Kumaon that he conceived the Gitanjali. Where the sky bends down in salutation to the Himalayas. Leaving one dumbstruck.
The Kasar Devi effect works its magic on all who open themselves to it. The spiritualists, hippies, poets and writers have all come here searching for inspiration and gone back with much. But in a conspiracy of silence, they have all kept it a secret. Swami Vivekananda came in 1890; one wonders how he even heard of it or travelled there. He meditated in the cave below the temple.
Just beyond Cranks Ridge, made famous by Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD and the hippies, is the Sarada Math. Swami Vivekananda’s mission for the women Brahmacharins sadhus with its central inspiration being the Holy Mother- Sharada Mata. The temple is accessed by a series of steps that the pedometer said were 10 floors.
Just 30 km away is Binsar, the birders' paradise with unparalleled views of the Himalayan ranges. Drive through the forest that had neither seen any deforestation nor forest fires. Encounter thick forests and birds. En route, stop at Kasar Kitchen and have a rapturous Kumaoni thali.
Uttarakhand never leaves you; you will take it back with you.
To reach Kasar Devi Temple, visitors typically start by reaching Almora town, which is well-connected by road. From Almora, the temple is approximately 8 kilometres away. One can hire a taxi, take a shared cab, or even trek to the temple, with a moderately easy trekking route available. Trekking starts from Almora's Mall Road and offers picturesque views. Alternatively, inquire about local buses or shared taxi options at the Almora bus stand.