Like all buildings that have hoary pasts, Rest Houses too have all kinds of stories attached to them and this gives them a mystique and distinct identity, perhaps a tourism value too if properly marketed. Take for instance the Forest Rest House (FRH) at Purthi in remote Pangi district. It was constructed in pre-Independence days by a British Range Officer called Todd. Situated above the Chandrabhaga river in a thick wooded grove, it is part of the Range office complex. Made completely of wood, which was the only material available in those days (and in abundance), it is a pleasant sight, with flat, green lawns laid out all around it, interspersed with pathways. The Forest Department has renovated and furnished it on the inside in a glitzy, Baba Ram Rahim kind of fashion but fortunately the exterior has not been altered. It used to be the RO’s residence and is therefore known as Todd’s Bungalow. Later, it was converted into an FRH.
Todd appears to have been quite a beaver at building things, because he also built the Forest complex at Killar (the district headquarters). To relax from his strenuous activities he was fond of taking walks with his dog on a narrow trail above the river. On one such amble the dog (who was on a leash) was apparently startled by something in the undergrowth and darted back, wrapping the leash around his owner’s legs and unbalancing him. Both Todd and the dog fell into the Chandrabhaga and drowned. But Todd Sahib never left his beloved bungalow, it appears. People who have spent nights in the FRH swear that he visits his house at night – he is reported to come down the chimney and fireplace of one of the bedrooms. There have been too many reports of such “sightings” to dismiss them out of hand. The whole apparition is rarely seen; what people usually sight are two sturdy legs in the fireplace, which is enough to give them such a fright that they don’t hang around to see the rest of the torso. The spectre has never harmed anyone, or created any ruckus, or thrown things around like a poltergeist: apparently it is content to walk around the building that was once its own.
Todd continues to live on through his bungalow, and adds another legend to the rich folk-lore of these mountains. I’ve spent a couple of hours in the rest house but could never spend a night there, regrettably, because of tight schedules. But I can appreciate why Todd keeps such a tight vigil on his beloved bungalow, given that the original wooden flooring has already been replaced by mustard coloured vinyl, and at any moment the govt. might decide to replace the quaint, old fireplaces with four rod heaters !
Forest Rest Houses are a god send for the committed forest officer, most of whose work lies in isolated and inaccessible areas, far from any habitation. After a day spent tramping up and down valleys and mountains, marking trees and counting stumps, it is a relief to be able to betake oneself of an evening to a place that has a roof, beds, bathrooms and a kitchen, no matter how elementary – even a 7-Star hotel cannot provide a fraction of the bliss that an FRH can at the end of a gruelling day, as I’ve discovered for myself many a time ! A typical example is the FRH at Bara Bangal.
Bara Bangal is the only remaining land-locked valley in the state (though a mule road is now coming in from the Chamba side). To access it from Billing (the present road head and world famous para-gliding site) one has to undertake an arduous, sometimes dangerous, four day trek over the 17500 feet Thamsar pass and its permanent ice fields. If ever a village needed an FRH it was Bara Bangal, but it didn’t get one till the early years of the first decade of this century. The delay is easily explained – no officer above a Deputy Ranger (or equivalent rank in other departments) ever goes there! Actually, the govt. has a monumental dilemma here, caught between a rock and a hard place, or (to be more accurate) between a mountain and a river. In an area of 1200 sq. kms there are only a dozen or so govt. employees! No one ever goes to check whether they are working, or are even present. The employees are quite fearless, confident in the (correct) belief that they are already stuck in the most difficult posting in the state and hence have nothing to fear: the govt. can do nothing worse to them ! The village has a primary and a middle school with five teachers. As expected, they usually come to take their salaries and then disappear ! I made a surprise visit there, my second, in 2005 or thereabouts and found that all seven had decamped to Baijnath! They were all suspended, of course, and even their subsistence allowance was made conditional on their collecting it in Bara Bangal. However, coming back to rest houses: Sometime around 2002-2003 the local Forest Guard, displaying the initiative of a Head of Department, decided to take matters in his own hand, secured some funds and approvals with great difficulty, and built the FRH himself !
As you can see for yourself its a very basic structure, but its better than the Hyatt for someone who has been walking and climbing for 70 kilometers, spending four nights in the open with some smelly sheep to keep him warm (if he’s lucky!), fallen into innumerable ditches and crannies, frozen his posterior every time nature issued a summons, and living off dal-roti and siddu. Its actually quite large from the inside – two rooms, a dining area, an out house for ablutions (with running water from a nearby stream conveyed by open PVC pipes!) and a kitchen. There was no electricity then (there is now, from a small micro-hydel project in a nearby nullah) and the villagers burnt the roots of pine trees called “jagni” for lighting. The hut is situated bang in the middle of the thickest stand of deodar you’ll see anywhere, on a protruding plateau above the Ravi river. And just remember – the whole thing was conceived, designed and constructed by a Forest Guard, with no help from anyone! Generations of trekkers will forever be indebted to this enterprising and far-sighted official, God bless him !
My group spent an enchanting two days in this FRH, recouping our energy and washing off the accumulated dirt, before moving on to the even more dangerous trek to Nayagram in Chamba. My greatest satisfaction ? – that we were the FIRST visitors to this FRH: our names are there on the very first page of the rest house register, the Abu Ben Adams of Bara Bangal! Go check it out !