The route was simple – Delhi-Meerut- Bijnor-Najibabad-Kotdwar and then Lansdowne. Six hours of a leisurely ride and a sudden tortuous uphill climb preceded one of our most memorable expeditions into the Himalayas. Lansdowne, about 1706 m above sea level, is one of the quietest hill stations in India, calm and so well hidden that you only realize you’re there when you turn into the gates of the elegant ‘Garhwal Rifles Cantonment’. Past the imposing gate lay a fashionable spiked fountain looking quite out of place against a backdrop of imposing British architecture, especially those fashioned to serve Viceroys and Governor Generals of an erstwhile colony. The whitewashed walls, sloping red corrugated roofs, tall wrought iron gates manned by a uniform clad young man and window boxes filled with splendid shades of purple and red blooms transported us to an age of lords and barons. We almost expected to hear the tinkle of polite laughter, fair maidens in billowing blue skirts and fitted bodices, and spot men in impeccable white decorated tunic and black trousers carousing in the green lawns.
The market a little beyond such structures dispelled all such visions. Very Indian, very congested, very vibrant with brisk day to day business underway. Porters scurried up and down pressing their filthy turbans into tighter convolutions with their frayed ropes hanging unceremoniously from their stocky frame. They delivered sacks of almost anything from grain to cement into the depths of the market that ran down the alley beyond the main square, kicking every bushy doggy butt that stood in their way. Quivering jeeps full of loaders from distant villages, deposited their burden at this market square.
At INR 35 per transit, jeeps worked out faster and cheaper than the infrequent, unreliable buses that plied the same stretch. Talking in a half Garwali and Hindi tongue a smooth talker invited us for a ride to one of the nearest villages, an interesting and enticing proposition, but hiked up the fare to such an astronomical amount that we had to politely decline. The most prominent of our experience was the meagre bakery apparently running for a considerable length of time, which served us the most delectable hot buns. As a sweet, fresh fragrance wafted out its blackened ovens, we followed our nose to the humble shop and gingerly requested for a taste. Out popped an oven hot, regular sized bun, placed over a piece of local newspaper cut to size. As the soft, sweet and spongy ‘bun cake’ as we later called it, melted in our mouths, we begged for more, confidently.
The houses of the ‘natives’ are set against the hill beside the market square. Scores of brick and wooden houses hug the slopes, jostling for space in the bright sunlight. Relatively clean, with hardly any plastic garbage strewn around, the cool matchbox homes looked alluring against the hot summer sun. The Lansdowne Cantonment area is under the strict auspices of the army and no sale or purchase of land by outsiders is permitted within the region. Thus, the social fabric of the town has remained more or less unchanged over hundreds of years. Even the adolescent boys loafing about in clumps readily remembered instances of societal discord or army interventions way before their times – and unheard of proposition in our jaded city life.
Beyond the market rises the lovely surroundings of sleepy Lansdowne. Tall oaks, rhododendron and blue pines rise like spires off the mountainside. A meandering road marks the lifeline of the bungalows that dot each pinnacle across the ridge. Army homes of captains and the like, these bungalows are apparitions from books on Good Living. Splendid flowered pathways lead to well-maintained green lawns. Beyond the lawns are typical porticos with wooden pillars that face the view side of the bungalow. Sipping flavored tea over a crisp cucumber sandwich while sharing a quiet moment with the Labrador, pausing to soak up the beauty of green slopes set against the blue skies-what more can a contented human ask for. The rest of the bungalow is designed with a fire placed hall and few bedrooms around. The service providers of these lavish bungalows lives further downhill in one room stone and mortar homes, with the kitchen and bathroom traditionally placed away from the sleeping quarters. Their lives, unregimented and dreary bear signs of a daily struggle to fetch water and other provisions.
Water is a scarce resource in the Garhwals. Unlike the eastern Himalayas, where water rushes over tiny brooks, gurgling and laughing their way downwards, most of the water sources here are underground and are tapped through indigenous methods. A pipe piercing a dry slope, at exactly where the water table dips, brings forth a torrent of fresh water cascading on to a cemented square. This source is then, not only used for all household and drinking purposes but also for the summer crop of mostly potatoes and onions. However, Lansdowne is deprived of such a ‘short’ or source, with provisions of a vantage point preceding other criteria. Thus, for its commoners, who need to wait for tankers and army-pumps to push water to their taps, it is a hard life.
On the education front, the situation is quite the reverse. With good schools and well taught curriculum, almost every child of the town seeks education. Little Meena and her friends recited an unending stream of poems with elan and extolled the virtues of computer with such confidence that I felt a surge of delight tinged with fatherly affection for these new youngsters of India.
Lansdowne is named after Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy of India from 1888 to 1894. The charming resort surrounded by thick forests is a perfect place for a peaceful stay. Earlier called Kalondanda it is now a Cantonment and the Headquarters of Garhwal Regiment. Rifleman Gabbar Singh Rawat of Garhwal Rifles was the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Also, famous for variety of birds, its nearest railway station is Kotdwar (37 Km) and is also well connected by road to Pauri (90 Km), Haridwar (111 Km) and Dehra Dun (166 Km).
Sites and Sounds
The Cantonment Board keeps the town fresh and green which has its upside and downside. Although the greenery is pleasing, locals complain of lack of provision stores and the like, within short proximity. The proud Garhwal rifles has the major presence in the town and are trained on the huge parade ground right in the middle of the town. They also pride in the second best kept Regimental Mess in Asia, complete with old armoury, weapons, hundreds of animal trophies and the regimental ghost. On November 5,1887, the first battalion of Garhwal Rifles migrated from Almora to Lansdowne. As the regiment shifted from Almora, Kumaoni culture was inherited by the soldiers of Garhwal Rifles in their lifestyle and food habits as well.
As with most such locales, there are many trek paths and forested corners that allure and entice. There are amazing mountain views of the profiles of Western Himalayas from a number of vantage points like Snow View and Tip in Top. Like other hill resorts in north India, Lansdowne too has its fair share of temples and shrines, most of them devoted to the various forms of the Mother Goddess. There is the Jwalpa Devi, 47 km from Lansdowne on the Pauri-Kotdwar Road, the Durga Devi temple (24 km from Lansdowne) and the Tarkeshwar Mahadev (30 km) with its special Shivlinga. This temple is one of the oldest Sidhpeeths in India and is perched at a height of 1,800mts. It is surrounded by thick forests of deodar and pine, which reposes a calming effect on the devotees. During the auspicious occasion of Shivratri, a special prayer is held here. Another well-known landmark is the Karnva Ashram, 14 km away, where Shakuntala, the heroine of poet Kalidasa epic, Shakuntalam, is said to have given birth to Raja Bharat, the forefather of the nation.
Lansdowne has a fair share of problems – especially that of fresh water that is surprisingly affecting so many of our Himalayan settlements. Its beauty is unsurpassed and its residents warm and indulgent. A memorable experience by far.