Rest Houses can occasionally offer bizarre experiences, often educative but always interesting. Sometime in 1996-97 I was consigned to the dog house for some misdemeanour and, quite appropriately, posted to the Animal Husbandry Department. I decided to visit the department’s institutions in Dodra-Kwar, an area dependent on subsistence agriculture and sheep rearing. Dodra-Kwar is a remote tehsil, tucked away in the north-east corner of Shimla district, bordering Uttarakhand. History records that it was given to the Rampur Bushair state as dowry by a principality in present day Uttarakhand. Ever since then, the joke goes, Himachal has been trying to return it but Uttarakhand is having none of it ! It too, like Bara Bhangal, was landlocked till very recently, but is now connected – a road was constructed in 2009 over the 12000 feet high Chanshil Pass to connect it to Chirgaon/Larot. In 1997, however, I along with a Veterinary Doctor and a couple of pharmacists, trekked from Larot, over the Pass (probably the most beautiful one in the state), through the dense forest on the other side known as Kala Van, and by evening arrived at the first village, Kwar.
Dodra-Kwar lies in the valley of the Rupen river (a tributary of the Yamuna) and is so named after its two villages, Dodra and Kwar (there is also a third village further up towards the Rupen Pass named Jakha, taken over by the Radha Soamis ! ) Kwar lies in the shadow of Chanshil and appears to have acquired the grim ambience of the bordering Kala Van: it has none of the cheerfulness and geniality of the typical mountain settlement, and is a forbidding place. The FRH is some distance from the village and was quite decrepit at the time. Lacking any choice, however, we settled in for the night, beginning with the customary drink on its lawns while the chowkidar (a local) cooked dinner inside.
After some time I noticed that the two pharmacists had also planted themselves in the kitchen and were watching every movement of the cook like a hawk! I suggested to the doctor that maybe he could ask them to come and join us for a drink too. He made no effort to call them, so after sometime I repeated my suggestion. The doctor flatly refused and, on my looking offended, finally explained to me the reason for his reluctance – and what an extraordinary explanation! According to him there existed a legend that the natives of the valley had historically distrusted outsiders and considered them fair game for plunder, sometimes even murder. Their SOP had been to administer a poison with the food at night and dispose of the body in the Kala Van. The pharmacists were in the kitchen to ensure that did not happen to us!
I certainly cannot vouch for the authenticity of this fable: all the local people I asked denied it vehemently, while the outsiders (mostly govt. employees) maintained a discreet silence. But it persists, and all I can speculate is that it may perhaps have been true in the distant past (most remote areas have these sinister myths) but improving connectivity and expanded intercourse have immutably changed such attitudes and practices, if they ever existed. I certainly found the residents of the other village, Dodra, very welcoming and hospitable – they even invited us to take part in a local chess tournament! I was eliminated in the first round, but my friend Sashi from Bilaspur won it!
Never underestimate the chowkidar of a rest house ! Having served hundreds of guests, and being privy to their conversations and worse, he is a deep repository of institutional knowledge and instinctive wisdom, as I found out in an amusing way. In June of 1980 I was hustled off as DC Bilaspur: soon it was the start of the annual planting season and in August I was invited by the Conservator of Forests to preside over the Van Mahatsov function at Ghumarwin. I left for Ghumarwin the night before and landed up at the PWD rest house there. It was (and is) located adjacent to what was then a huge barren field, above a khad. (Nowadays, of course, the field is covered with buildings and staff quarters of varied descriptions). I was received by the Tehsildar who soon left after ensuring that the dinner arrangements were in order. After a solitary dinner, enjoying my nightly cancer stick on the lawns, I asked the chowkidar where the Van Mahatsov planting was to be held the next day. He looked a bit puzzled, and then pointed to the empty barren field next door: “Here, sir. This is where the planting has been done every year for the last ten years!”
The patch was as bald as Anupam Kher’s polished nationalistic pate.
And there you have in a nut shell the answer to the question: why is Himachal’s genuine green cover declining inspite of Van Mahotsavs, Compensatory Afforestation , CAT Plans and what not ? Nineteen years later the wheel came full circle: I was posted to the Forest Deptt., and every time the PCCF trotted out the impressive figures of survival of plants, I harked back in time to that humble chowkidar and tried hard to suppress a smile. For a bureaucrat the real learning process begins when he shuts his files, opens his eyes and steps out into the wide world – preferably into a Rest House !
If tomorrow Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim Jong Un were to stop exchanging words and graduate instead to exchanging nuclear missiles, and I was given the choice of just one place where I could live out the rest of my life in a devastated world, I know the place I would choose – Dhela Thatch ( pictured below):
Dhela is a gently sloping meadow perched just below the ridge line that divides the Sainj and Tirthan valleys in the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu. Surrounded by thick stands of oak and deodar, with dense thickets of dwarf rhododendron and hill bamboo on one side, it is an ideal camping site: there is even a little brook which provides water. The Forest department has built a stout log hut at its upper edge for use in the winters (at 12000 feet Dhela can get a lot of snow) – for the rest of the year one can happily pitch tents anywhere on the dale. The height, mix of vegetation and undergrowth and the open spaces make it an ideal habitat for the highly endangered Western Tragopan (Jujju Rana) and sightings are quite common. The crags below it are home to the “ghoral” (mountain goat) which can be easily spotted sunning themselves in the morning sun. The view of the GHNP landscape from here is stupendous, framed by the majestic 16000 high Khandedhar range to the north, the even higher Pin Parbat massif to the north-west, the Tirthan ridge to the south-east, and beyond that the bleak ranges on which is located the holy peak of Srikhand Mahadev. There is a small ‘jogni” or religious cairn at the top, bedecked with colourful prayer flags which is ideal for meditation. This is Omar Khayyam territory for me:
“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse- and ThouBeside me singing in the Wilderness-And Wilderness is paradise enow!”
I have been here four times and have kept my rucksack packed, waiting for the ICBMs to start flying in the Pacific.
Which brings me to my final point. Is the Forest Deptt. aware of the priceless wealth of history, tradition, anecdotes, individual accounts, legends that reside in its rest houses ? It should be, and therefore it should immediately begin archiving them, before they are lost for ever with the passage of time. The Deptt. should commission an exhaustive documentation of each of the heritage rest houses and bring out a coffee table kind of book that will preserve their memories long after the physical structures themselves are long gone. The project can be funded from the budget of the Eco-Tourism Society. I had initiated the process in 2009-10 but could not see it through owing to my superannuation. A number of readers have written to me suggesting this and a friend informs me that the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand has already brought out such a compendium. We should not lose any more time in emulating them.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/