Binsar – Cloud Forests & Bell Temples (2017)

Binsar – Cloud Forests & Bell Temples (2017)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gollu Devta is the patron-saint of justice in Kumaoni pantheon. His message is loud and clear. He wears brass bells, thousands of them to send out his message. When you visit the temple, you literally pick your way through clusters of brass bells slung about everywhere – not just the pillars and beams, but even the stately pine, oak and birch trees. Some trees even wear garlands of brass bells.  The bells are packed so tightly together that every gust of wind produces a collective tinkle.  The ambient hills and valleys reverberate with Gollu Devta’s message.

After a brief pranam to the deity, we drive through fruit-laden orchards to Binsar, about a couple of hours away.  Mangled by the British to Binsar, Bineshwar, named after Shiva, sits astride a massive spine of mountains and overlooks an even more massive range that is dotted with snowy-crowned celebrities. On a clear day, you can spot several Nandas –  Nanda Ghunti, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Nanda Khat and the three spikes of Trishul apart from other assorted eminences. But today, they all seem to be sulking behind a purdah of mist.

Our cottage at Mohan’s Retreat hangs over another mist-laden valley. Whistling thrushes flit from branch to branch on soaring pines, well, whistling gently, unmindful of the mild drizzle. A giant cactus attracts smaller birds, mostly nectar-hunters, chirping away furiously. Predictably, a huge troop of monkeys occupy vantage positions on a tree opposite, ever ready to sneak into your room and carry away your snacks and fruits.  At night, the cottage floor is strewn with phosphorescent bugs of every hue while the valley fills up with fireflies. As dusk settles, fairy lights from the valley villages valiantly try to pierce the misty miasma vying with their celestial counterparts for your attention.

Bipin Joshi arrives even before daybreak to escort us into the forest. Binsar is the only forest in India where you can not only drive in your own vehicle, but can even walk, if you choose to, although the sanctuary has its fair share of big game – leopards, ghorals and red foxes, wolves, pine martens.  In fact, there are 62 kilometers of designated walking trails. If you choose to walk, you will probably be treading the same path trodden by Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Uday Shankar and Henry Ramsay.

Better still, you can stay inside the forest in one of the many resorts available within the reserve. Apart from KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) and forest rest house, there are six estates inside the sanctuary, almost all of them built by the British who made it the summer administrative capital of Almora district.  The same Brits also cut down a lot of trees to make the railway to Haldwani and Kathgodam, enabling us to access this town easily.

The forest canopy is so thick that you can hardly see the sky. The pine and oak forests now share space with rhododendrons and other high-altitude vegetation. Many trees sport cobweb like moss, giving them an eerie wild look. Like all forests, there is a lookout tower, all wreathed in cloud cover and giving away nothing of the splendorous wonders of snow-clad celebrities.

We are intrigued by the black burnt out tree trunks – invariably all of them have these scars. Bipin tells us forest fires are common and not infrequently, started by insiders themselves wishing to utilize the generous World Bank grant to tackle forest fires. Pine bark has turpentine which burns brightly and even other trees have enough oils to keep the fire going. Rolling pine cones do their bit to spread the fires lower down the valley. Once started, a forest fire is almost impossible to contain. “Now there is no fear of fire, see, the trunk is wet with the drizzle of the last few days” says Bipin.

We spot only those two ubiquitous species –  langurs and deer. A flash of tail that disappears into the foliage is attributed to a pine marten. A haunting call that sets your teeth on edge is identified as the cry of a wolf, but all these creatures remain invisible. But the birds come out in their numbers to entertain us with their energy and melody. There are more than 160 recorded species of birds and the forest echoes with their incessant chirp and chatter.

On our way back, Bipin offers to take us to his village located deep inside the forest. It is an hour’s trek through a gently sloping path strewn with boulders and moss. Dalar is a cluster of six villages, most of them with no more than seven or eight dwelling units. Bipin’s family seems to enjoy an idyllic self-contained existence where almost everything they need is grown on their own land. Figs, apples, apricots, pears, peaches, guavas, grapes, pumpkins, beans, lemons, you name it, it is there, apart from rice and millets. The kids from his extended family,  seem to adorn all these trees, helping themselves to the fruits before the langurs snatch them away. We are treated to refreshing mint tea and given a tour of two homestays which he has built in these hills – Spartan but with a splendid view.  Dalar is just one cluster, there are other clusters of villages strewn all over the forest, each having its own homestay options.

The next day we drive to Bagehswar, about 60 kilometers away to see the confluence of Saryu and Gomti.  The following day is reserved for the ancient temples of Jageshwar, also around the same distance in another direction. Shafts of sunlight filter through the dense foliage to limelight a gorgeous cluster of ancient temples. Deodar and pine tower at the confluence of Nandini and Jataganga.  Most of the 124 large and small stone temples were built from the 7th to 13th century AD by the Ghand dynasty and renovated by subsequent dynasties. Jageshwar, incidentally, is one of the twelve jyotirlingams.

At 390 kilometers requiring a 11-hour drive, Binsar is too far away for a quick getaway from the searing heat of Delhi. One needs to linger and savor the pine-scented air and wait out the sulk of the snowy gods to get a glimpse of their grandeur. That requires a leisurely visit. We vow to go back when the rains subside.

(Published in The Tribune dated July 28, 2013)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *