An unexpected break in a business trip left us stranded in the sizzling heat of Delhi, desperately looking for a secluded cool retreat somewhere not far from the Capital. Ashok, my semi-Delhi'ite friend sympathetically quipped that such dream places do not exist any more. Given the exodus of rowdy vacationers to Mussoorie, Nainital, Ranikhet et al., all the so called 'hill stations' of India were a big 'no-no' for us. In the end, we were at the Old Delhi station, waiting on a hot evening for the Mussoorie Express to pull up to the platform. The place was already teeming with holiday crowds bound for Haridwar, Dehradun and thereon to Mussoorie or Rishikesh. Mercifully, we were part of half a train, not so crowded, which detaches itself from Mussoorie Express somewhere along the way, taking overnight passengers to a quaint destination called Kotdwara, surprisingly a district town, not very far away from Haridwar. Our co-passengers were mostly routine travellers who either lived in Kotdwara, or were visiting relatives there. The platform of Kotdwara, at a dead end, lies in a sort of a trench and you have to climb a steep flight of stairs like a tube station to get out. As we panted our way out, waiting jeep drivers immediately pounced upon the handful passengers that had emerged from the train. Striking a bargain was not difficult and before we realised, our bags were atop a rickety bright 'traffic yellow' painted jeep nicknamed 'Kotdwar ki Raani'. Our dream destination was an eminently British sounding hill town --Lansdowne! My sole familiarity with this name is a prominent road in Kolkata which has since been renamed Sarat Bose Road.
As the 'queen' panted and puffed its polluting diesel engine over the steep mountain toad, we plucked on the not so ripe bunch of first lichis of the season that we had picked up from the Kotdwara market. A few kilometres up, we passed the town of Dugadda, which connects to Haridwar and is also known for the famous elephant corridor connecting Rajaji National Park with the Corbett National Park on the right. Most of the pachyderms, we were told, had already moved on to Corbett for the summer. A pamphlet from Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam had informed us that Lansdowne is a quiet Cantonment town with lush forests and a cool climate. Located barely 40 km from Kotdwara at a height of 1780 metres above sea level, it perfectly answered our dream calls.
Named after the British viceroy Lansdowne in 1890, this area was earlier known as Kaludanda. The Britsh, enamoured by the Rhodendron, Oak and blue pine (Cheed) forests and the beautiful mountain views, established a cantonment here. This tradition continued after independence and Lansdowne remains the headquarters of the famous Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Army.
First View of Lansdowne
Thankfully, Lansdowne is a little known place on the tourist map and in absence of the usual 'hill station' 'attractions', has very few visitors even at the peak of season. Cantonment management and restrictions have ensured that there is no mushrooming of hotels and resorts. For a nature and bird lover, it is a virtual paradise with fascinating views, winding mountain roads, vast oak forests, old churches and bungalows from the British era. During the last 100 years, most of the two hundred odd bungalows have been acquired by the army. Interestingly, almost all the bungalows have their own tales of friendly spooks and ghosts. And the signboard for each bungalow recalls its history as also all the stories associated with it.
We were delighted to find that our makeshift cottage type rooms were located at the most vantage point of Lansdowne called 'Tip-in-Top' which offered a panoramic view of the Northern part of Lansdowne. The establishment did not have a kitchen, but a canteen opposite, adequately catered to our basic needs.
A quick fresh wash in the room and we were ready for a birding tour. The ridge below the hotel seemed a prospective place to start with and we were amazed to find brown fronted woodpeckers on virtually every oak tree in the valley.
Brown Fronted Woodpecker at Lansdowne
A Hungry Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch
Chestnut Nuthatch inspecting a Prospective Home
A Nuthatch Defending its Territory
Green-backed Tit-- Lansdowne
Black-lored Tit - Lansdowne
Bar-tailed Treecreeper-- Lansdowne
Another common, but very beautiful bird was the Black-headed Jay. But surprisingly, we did not find its counterpart, the Eurasian Jay there.
Black-headed Jay-- Lansdowne
We would have loved to carry on birding for a few more hours, but were scheduled to get back in the evening. Amongst the various places of interest around Lansdowne, we decided to visit the highly recommended Shiva Temple at Tarkeshwar Mahadev for its unique setting amongst the Deodar trees. Situated 38 km away from Lansdowne, the temple is surrounded by a cluster of tall Deodar trees and is popular as a picnic spot.
The Tarkeshwar Dhaam- Set Amidst Tall Deodar Trees
It is an irony that branches of Deodar trees are rampantly used in worshipping of Shiva. The authorities of the Temple have now put up signboards everywhere, urging worshippers not to destroy the beautiful Deodar trees, some of which are several hundred years old. On a dead deodar trunk, we found a large colony of Plum Headed Parakeets, that had made their nests on a dead deodar trunk. Interestingly, the entire colony of parakeets consisted only of females and not a single male parakeet was to be seen anywhere around. Soon, we realised our mistake that these were grey headed parakeets where males and females look similar. The beauty and serenity of the place was overpowering. Situated at 1800 ft., it must rank as one of the unique Shiva temple in the world.
Nest of Grey Headed Parakeet on Deodar Tree Trunk-- Tarkeshwar Dham
Deodar Trees at Tarkeshwar Dham
On the way back,we stopped at Deriakhal which offers a panoramic view of the valley.We were also tempted to follow a
recommended 8.5 km trek from the place back to Lansdowne.
But lack of time prevented us
from doing so. The road beyond Lansdowne takes you to Pauri, an important junction and yet another beautiful stopover point. But our yellow painted 'Kotdwar Ki Rani' was now waiting to take us back to the earthly world of Kotdwara and beyond. We stopped for a short while at Lansdowne, only to catch the harsh buzzing of a group of Verditer Flycatchers.
Verditer Flycatcher - Lansdowne
The old charm world of Lansdowne was a revelation in itself. As driver Kailash chugged his jalopy to take us back, each of us decided to return to the valley for a longer time and with space on hand. For the present, we had to be back to the cruel realities of Delhi and Ghaziabad.
Picturesque Town of Lansdowne
May 2011 at Lansdowne
copyright Jitendra Bhatia