ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY base themselves at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley to explore the Kumaoni mountain retreat and wildlife sanctuary
From Kathgodam railway station, the winding mountain road took us via the pristine lakeside retreat of Bhimtal and further onto Kainchi Dham and Almora to the pine-scented air of Binsar. A heavy drizzle cleaned up the tarmac and the feathery branches of conifers shivered in the breeze, infusing a piney aroma with hints of earthy dampness. At Club Mahindra Binsar Valley Resort, a traditional welcome awaited us along with a cool glass of buransh or rhododendron juice!
General Manager Himanshu Mathpal led us to the cottages explaining how “The design is based on Katyuri architecture with two-levels, the upper level being a little inset.” In the garden stood beautiful aadu (apricot) and badam (almond) trees laden with pale white blossoms. After high tea and snacks on a grassy perch, we hiked 20 minutes to Club Mahindra’s annexe Manipur Villa, a cluster of wooden cottages on stilts set on a hilltop. It was the mystical night of the Super Moon perfect for a lavish dinner by a blazing bonfire, sharing stories about leopard encounters around Binsar wildlife sanctuary. Thankfully, we opted out of trudging back in the dark and hopped into a jeep instead.
We set off early next morning to catch the sunrise at Zero Point on the summit of Jhandi Dhar hills. Entering through the forest department checkpost, we noticed that buransh (rhododendron) – Uttarakhand’s state flower – was in full bloom. Soon, the entire hillside would be carpeted in a lusty explosion of red. Parking near the KMVN guesthouse, we hiked along a 2km trail to Zero Point past patches of snow, where a stone watchtower offered an uninterrupted view of Himalayan peaks. Stretching over a 300 km range stood Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Trisul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchachuli. Some movement in the bushes alarmed a group of Bengali tourists but disappointingly it turned out to be a furtive troupe of macaques.
As strips of mist rose and sunrays slowly gilded the panorama of distant peaks, it was easy to see why the Katyuri and Chand kings of Kumaon chose Binsar as their summer capital. Drawn by its exquisite beauty, Sir Henry Ramsay, the commissioner of Kumaon (1856-1884) based in Almora, moved the administration 23 km to the cooler climes of Binsar during summer. Binsar’s bracing climate and green forests attracted colonial officers to establish retreats in these hills; many are run as private resorts today.
The name ‘Binsar’ was a British corruption of its older name Bineshwar, a manifestation of Lord Shiva. These forests have been sacred since the time of the Saptarishis (seven great sages) who meditated here, hence its ancient name Satkhol. Even today, pilgrims trek through the forest to pay homage to Bineshwar Mahadev, whose temple is located at the exact centre of a mystical cross, with Shiva and Shakti shrines 14 km north, south, east and west of it.
We returned for a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant Bird Song, aptly named, as we dined to a chatter of Oriental White-eyes, tits and thrushes. It was a short drive to the temple town of Jageshwar, 34 km from Almora, considered as one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. Nestled in a beautiful valley ringed by lofty deodars or Himalayan cedar (from deo-daru, literally ‘wood of the gods’), the dense thicket cut off the sun as we tiptoed across the cold stone floor of the temple complex.
There are nearly 125 shrines big and small, built by the Katyuri (7-10th century AD) and Chand (11-18th century AD) dynasties, dedicated to Lord Shiva’s various forms – Baleshwar, Kedareshwar, Mrityunjaya, Lakulish and Yogeshwar, which got corrupted to Jageshwar. Priests sat on mats chanting or conversing while newly married Kumaoni couples came for darshan and selfies.
In a shaded grove by a stream we enjoyed our packed Gourmet Express lunch of kati rolls and sandwiches. On our return we stopped at another ancient shrine Chitai Golu Devta temple, believed to be over a thousand years old. Revered as ‘nyay ka devta’ or the arbiter of justice, ‘Golu devta’ was allegedly a fair Katyuri king of Kumaon who was venerated as a deity. We entered what seemed like a long tunnel of bells of every size tacked with heaps of paper sheets. Devotees scribble prayers on notes, even stamp papers and agreements to seek divine assistance in court cases and offer bells when their wish comes true. The priest smiled before adding “This is nothing, there’s much more in the godown!”
At Almora, we stopped to pick up some singaudi (khoa in cones made of screwpine leaves) and the legendary ‘bal mithai’ – a sticky caramel sweet studded with tiny sugar balls. A quick halt at organic store with a fabulous array of Kumaoni produce had us walking out with a big haul of flavoured honey, homemade pickles, exotic rhododendron juice and nettle salad dressing besides deliciously packaged nature-based cosmetics, soaps and handcrafted woollens.
Back at the resort, the information panel at the reception caught our eye. It flashed a list of ‘must try’ menu specialties at Club Mahindra’s various other properties in the region – steamed chicken roll at Kanatal, kapa ka tandoori chicken at Naukuchiatal, Murg Ghunghat at Mussoorie and chaandi bater musallam in Corbett – slow cooked quail spiced with cardamom, saffron and dry fruits! Interestingly, Binsar had Bhaang Murg and we couldn’t wait to try it out…
A lovely surprise awaited us that evening as we were led to an elevated patch. ‘Gaon ka chulha’ was a special theme dinner with a traditional Kumaoni meal prepared on wood fire. Seated on stools hand-painted by the talented staff and snug inside a kitchen-in-a-tent setting, the show began. Out came the much anticipated bhang murg – chicken marinated with hemp seed paste (looked like pudina chicken, but tasted more herby and nutty) and bichhu booti ki chutney made of tender leaves of stinging nettle.
On a traditional kansa platter that was differently shaped for men and women, was a royal feast – gahat ki dal (horsegram), arbi ke gutke (colocasia wedges), bhang ki jholi (kadhi), bhat ka jola (black soya bean), palak ka kaapa (smoked spinach gravy), jangora (unpolished red rice), madua ki roti (ragi or finger millet), bhaang ki chutney and lapsi (flour porridge).
Stuffed to the point of imbalance, we heaved ourselves out of the rustic feasting chamber, aware of the danger of rolling down the hillside and stopping only at Kathgodam! Binsar’s charms lie in its hospitable warm hearted pahadi folk and its bountiful nature.
Every season ushers something new – March to May the forests are aflame with buransh, in summers the cool mountain air brings respite from the heat of the plains, the monsoon months are misty with dramatic sunsets, autumn promises crisp air and unparalleled views while in winters, the slopes are carpeted with snow. We were indeed lucky to get all of Binsar’s shades in one trip…
Binsar is 33 km north of Almora town in Uttarakhand. From Delhi, take a train to Kathgodam, from where it’s a 120km/3½ hr drive to Binsar via Kainchi Dham, Bhimtal and Almora.
Where to stay
Club Mahindra Binsar Valley
Almora-Takula-Bageshwar Road, Bhainsori Post, Almora Dist
Ph 083929 10583 www.clubmahindra.com
What to Eat
Almora’s famous bal mithai and singauri (khoa wrapped in leaf cones), besides bichchu booti ki chutney, bhaang murg and Kumaoni delicacies at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley
For more info, visit https://uttarakhandtourism.gov.in/
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published in the April 2019 issue of Travel 360, the in-flight magazine of Air Asia.