As we sat over cups of tea after an adventurous walk to the cliff at Sunset Point, a low purr penetrated the crisp mountain air. We had barely made it back to Binsar Retreat before it was dark. The purr returned, as if a bike was winding up a slope somewhere in the valley below. ‘Is that a bike someone’s riding? ‘No, that’s a leopard’, replied Prashant Singh Bisht calmly. ‘Leopard?’, we asked incredulously, nearly choking on our chai. ‘Of course! Binsar is a wildlife sanctuary and we are right at the top near the core of the sanctuary, so…’
The way he left his sentence hanging was disconcerting. The prospect of spending the night in a canvas tent didn’t seem very cheerful but as the purrs grew faint, we braved the short walk to the warmth of our bed. Soon, the snores of our neighbour drowned out all the sounds of the jungle.
It was still dark when we got up for our hike to Zero Point on the summit of the Jhandi Dhar hills. The birds were quiet in the trees and as we scrunched on the fallen leaves, our torchlight caught some leopard scat on the way. Once at the top, we realized why the Katyuri and Chand kings of Kumaon chose Binsar as their summer capital. An uninterrupted view of the snowy Himalayan peaks stretched over 300 km. Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Trisul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchchuli were lined up like troops in a morning parade ready for inspection.
Drawn by its exquisite beauty, Sir Henry Ramsay, the commissioner of Kumaon from 1856 to 1884, moved from his headquarters at Almora to build a bungalow at Binsar. Over time, he acquired another empty plot, which was known as ‘Khali’ Estate. Many such British-run estates were later converted into resorts. While Grand Oak Manor and Mountain Resort came up on the Khali Estate, Binsar Retreat stood on a patch once owned by Major Edin – and was still known locally as Edinpur!
The name Binsar too was a British corruption of its older name Bineshwar, an aspect of Lord Shiva. The forests of Binsar have been considered sacred since ancient times as the Saptrishis (seven sages) meditated here, giving it the name Satkhol. In the old days, people from far-flung villages trekked through the forest to pay homage at the Bineshwar Mahadev temple, located at the exact centre of a mystical cross, with Shiva and Devi temples 14 km north, south, east and west of it.
After a hefty breakfast we left from Binsar to Jageshwar, an important Shiva shrine that lay on the ancient route to Kailash Mansarovar. We’d barely crossed the Binsar check-post, the Gollu Devta temple and entered the forest tract when our guide exclaimed, “Sir, aapka joota…” He held up the rubber sole of a size 8 like a trophy. We scrambled to find something to hold the two pieces together – the lace was too short, the haversack chord too frayed, even chewing gum couldn’t do the trick…
Then a fragmented memory of Man Vs Wild came to our rescue. Spotting some forest vine, we tied it around like Roman sandals and suddenly the 16 km hike through forests of broad-leaf oak and pine was a breeze. We noticed the herringbone slits on the barks of the pine trees; the sap is collected for essential oils used in Ayurveda and making incense, turpentine and aromatic insect repellents.
After a tea break at the mid-point Dhaulchhina, we finally reached the temple town of Jageshwar. There, amid a grove of lofty deodars (Himalayan cedar), stood a complex of 125 temples of various shapes and sizes, built by the Katyuri (7-10th century AD) and Chand (11-18th century AD) dynasties of Kumaon. Most of the shrines were dedicated to Lord Shiva’s various forms – Baleshwar, Kedareshwar, Mrityunjay, Lakulish and Yogeshwar (or Jageshwar). The dense cluster of deodars (deo-daru, literally ‘wood of the gods’) cut off the sun and we walked on the cold stone floor like barefoot ballerinas on an ice rink. Soon, we were picked up by the resort jeep and fast-tracked to Binsar.
We made a pit stop at Dandeshwar nearby with its 14 subsidiary shrines and by evening, reeled in to Kasar Devi, a tiny hamlet on a pine-covered ridge. A panoramic view of the Himalayas from Bundarpunch on the Himachal border to Api Himal in Nepal greeted us. We got down instinctively. Little did we know that we had just stepped onto a piece of history. Kalimath, a picturesque ridge stretching from Simtola Hill to Kashyap Hill, where the Kasar Devi temple is located, was legendary in the 60s as Crank’s Ridge or Hippie Hill. Timothy Leary wrote much of his ‘Psychedelic Prayers’ here while DH Lawrence spent two summers. Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Cat Stevens all made pilgrimages to the ridge.
But it was more than just freely growing marijuana on the slopes and a spectacular view that drew spiritual seekers, writers and bohemian artists. Crank’s Ridge allegedly lay in a gap in the Van Allen Belt, a radiation zone of high-energy particles trapped by the earth’s magnetic field. Untouched by it, one could apparently harness one’s meditative powers to the optimum, both halves of the brain firing like a well-tuned twin-cylinder engine. It was like hacking into the mainframe of the universe.
This was where Swami Vivekananda meditated in the 1890s. In the 1920s and 30s, it attracted western mystics like Sunyata Baba (Alfred Sorensen) and Lama Govinda (Ernst Hoffman), the world’s foremost authority on Tibetan Buddhism. Poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore, dancer/actress Zohra Sehgal, sitarist Ravi Shankar and his brother Uday Shankar stayed here in the 1930s and 1940s. Indian mystics like Anandamayi Ma and Neem Karoli Baba too arrived here, attracting followers like Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) and musicians Krishna Das and Jai Uttal. In 1962, Allen Ginsberg turned up with other Beat poets like Peter Orlovsky and Gary Snyder to visit Lama Govinda. Ginsberg found the ridge similar to the Catskills, ‘readily accessible, only more spiritual’. Even now, hundreds of Israelis on Bullets descend on Kasar Devi in high season to pay tribute to this hippie Power Centre.
We watched the sun go down and lingered till the sky turned dark. A wisp of smoke rose up from a home and we were hypnotized by its ascent into the gathering mist. For centuries, Binsar and its surroundings have seen unabated footfalls of saints and seekers. They come and go… yet, the mystical energy that exudes from this region encircled by the Himalayas, the divine abode of the Gods, remains unchanged.
Getting there: Binsar is 33 km north of Almora town in Uttarakhand. From Delhi, take an overnight train to Kathgodam, from where it’s a 3½ hr drive.
When to go: Binsar’s charms vary with each season; between March to May the forests are aflame with rhododendron blooms, the monsoon months are misty with dramatic sunsets, autumn promises crisp air and unparalleled views while in winters, the slopes are carpeted with snow.
Where to stay: