In hindsight, I can say it must have been a fortuitous moment when I revisited Kasar Devi near Almora. It was the long Holi weekend in March 2018 and the trip had began with great difficulty from Delhi. It is a well known fact that migrating workers from across India go back home for celebrating holi and diwali. The trains from Delhi to Kathgodam were running full and our only hope was the bus. Even though we had an advance bus ticket from Delhi to Almora, the chaos at Anand Vihar Bus Station had a different story to tell.
The Bus that never Arrived!
Since the Delhi to Haldwani buses were all full; we had tried a smart choice (or so we thought) – after much deliberation and found two seats in the Uttarakhand State Transport bus from Jaipur to Haldwani. There was a small hitch though; the boarding point of the bus wasn’t the ubiquitous ISBT Kashmere Gate but the faraway ISBT Anand Vihar. We’d taken an Uber Cab and were well ahead of time and yet the car moved like a snail and we were finally left off outside the choked ISBT Anand Vihar.
Long story cut short; the crowds at the bus stand were in kilometres and it was so chaotic that my brain went numb. The scheduled bus timing was 10 PM and when the clock crossed 11, it became clear that it wasn’t coming because the information department at the bus station was as clueless as we were! We finally decided to somehow jump into and grab seats in one of the special buses that the Government had ran on that day from Delhi to Haldwani. Needless to say, the queries for refund have all fallen on deaf ears.
Arriving in Almora on Holi
We ‘d seen the most scintillating sunrise from the conductor’s seat in the bus. The great ball of fire had risen from the farms somewhere in UP/Uttarakhand and it sort-of served as a signal that our luck had changed. After arriving in eerily quiet Haldwani in the morning, we boarded one of the small buses to Almora since the shared taxi union had decided an astronomical price that day – for it was holi. We somehow endured another ride in non-existant space in that tiny bus but were finally in Almora by around noon.
I scampered to Kheem Singh Mohan Singh Rautela’s shop to lay my hands on the Bal Mithai and Singhaudi. The heart had found sweet reasons to be happy and with a box of Bal Mithai in our hand, we trundled to the shared taxi stand in Almora. More troubles were in store; shared taxis to Kasar Devi were not plying that day due to Holi. We were supposed to go to Balta Badi, Papersali which was hardly 6-7 kms from Almora. Locals asked us for an astronomical sum of 300 Rupees; we found a middle way and found ourselves in Balta Badi.
A chance internet deal had resulted in prior booking of an exceptional-looking remotely located cottage for only 280 Rupees including breakfast. Three years ago, I’d ended up spending around 2 weeks in Kasar Devi at Arjun Bhai’s place; whose kindness and his wife’s cooking had made it a nice package along with stunning sunset views from the guest house. It cost only 200 Rupees per day in those days. There was almost no one on the main road and when the sumo dropped us in Balta Badi, if it were not for Google Maps – we may have got lost on the road.
Alternative Living in Kasar Devi, Almora
After a monumental 12 hours of madness – we huffed and puffed on the ascending road and were pleased to finally reach this place called ‘Ayush Cottages’. The cottages and rooms were located in a widespread area and involved ascending and descending walks. The genteel young owner showed us our cottage room and we went into a tizzy with happiness at the sight of the mud plastered room set in a green space, with an open café made with natural elements and a stunning view of the Himalayas.
The air was crisp and the sun briefly flirted with the pine trees; a rousing breeze blew ruffling the hair and causing me to wear my jacket. We’d asked the owner for strong Masala Chai and after the chai, he invited us to his office and a round of the property. The office was made entirely in wood and and held a rustic beauty. The owner lamented that there were not enough bookings for him to make a sound return on his investment and how he was having trouble repaying the loan.
He was open to selling individual cottages and I wondered if it made sense to buy one of them and start living in this quaint paradise. I decided against it as it didn’t make sense to chain myself to one place. Kasar Devi has a strange magnetism and a high range of foreign travellers end up spending months here. At the outset, we told him that we’d like the packaged plastic water bottles replaced with filter mountain water. I had a work project to submit and it was nice to make this gorgeous open air sit-out in Kasar Devi my workplace for the day!
We decided to go for a walk in the evening before sunset and were pleasantly surprised when a shop cum café on the main road to Kasar Devi was open. In my customary style, I asked them to make masala chai with ginger and cardamom while supervising the onion and chilly omelettes with sweet buns! Its funny when I hear people saying backpackers should have no preferences – I say its possible to be a backpacker and yet have all the preferences.
On our way to the main road, we had also spotted other homestay signboards in the near vicinity and a particular English looking cottage had caught our fancy. While coming back, we decided to go inside the gate and have a look. There were huge open spaces and a pretty colonial English cottage stood tall in the middle of it complete with chimneys and grand sunshine. It was also surrounded by flowers of different colours and petite plants but the most outstanding feature was a solitary plum tree in the garden on the right side. It had incredibly white plum blossoms that made us slip into a spring reverie.
Barking of a dog from the inside of the cottage put paid to our other exploratory conquests and in the absence of a human presence we ran toward the exit gate and closed it lest the dog create an unpleasant situation!
Ayush Cottages, Kasar Devi
Over a conversation with the young owner at Ayush Cottages, he’d told us that he was proud of the fact that the food served in his homestay was made in-house. We had wasted no time in requesting a full Kumaoni dinner for dinner that night. He had tried to protest due to other engagements but we found a way and asked him to prepare whatever was easy for the ladies of the house!
The cottage itself had quaint windows and a small sitting space near the windows. With warm lights, it felt very rustic and homely and yet had all the modern comforts with a geyser and tea maker. We made some rose tea that we were carrying with us. The colours of the sunset and the ones subsequent to that were indescribable as the sky was painted in hues of orange and pink – and to put icing on the cake the Himalayan peaks of Nanda Devi, Panchachuli, Chaukhamba and Mt. Trishul were all visible. I wasn’t carrying my dslr and was lucky to have been able to enjoy the glorious sight with full attention.
Dinner was served to us in a lovely tiffin box and we gobbled up the heavenly food – it was mandua ki roti (millet flour roti), chickpea soup, mint leaves and coriander chutney, and the sizzling mountain greens in a delicious flavour. We ate well and finished all that was served to us; wholesome fresh food in this serene setting – whats not to like!
We slept to the sound of rustling pines; the cottage felt cosy as the cold increased. A few years ago, there was almost no network in any of the places in Kasar Devi – but now 3G and 4G internet worked quite smoothly even in the room. We woke up late to a chilly morning but the sun was out and we were greeted with masala chai as we went out in the sunshine!
Holi Festival in Kasar Devi
It was Holi festival that day and the sound of distant drums began reverberating from far away. As a lovely custom in the mountains, families and relatives visited each other on Holi. In simple terms what it meant was that the Ayush Cottages family also wanted to serve us breakfast quickly and then head off to meet their relatives who lived in a nearby village. They were ok with us locking the cottage when we checked out later in the day. We had no further plans of where to stay; even though our return tickets were booked only for 2 days later!
Usual city folks might shudder at that thought of having no prior bookings in a tiny mountain village on a public holiday; but there are some things that define you as a traveller and for me unplanned journeys make the cut.
Around afternoon; we ‘d checked out of Ayush Cottages; left the keys hanging on the door and made the ascent to the main road. Along the way, we witnessed the mountain folk celebrating Holi festival; the men celebrated separately with their drinks and bidis – while the women were crazier as they ran on mountain slopes throwing coloured water on each other. A solitary cherry blossom on a forlorn branch reminded us we still had to make a detailed perusal of the British-era cottage and explore the possibility of a homestay there.
Plum Blossoms in Kasar Devi
This time the huge gate at the colonial cottage was ajar and when we were loitering around the owner of the house invited us in for a round of chai. We gleefully entered the compound and went straight to see the white plum blossoms. The scene was akin to a movie playing and the glistening mountains just amplified the pleasure. A tiny swing beneath the plum blossoms completed the fairytale.
After a few minutes we realised that the house owner was drunk and politely declined his offer of tea. He called his young son who told us that they run the place on airbnb and it was possible to stay if we wanted to stay there. We were shown the different rooms and enquired the prices but they were a little too pricey for us so we wished them happy holi and left. There were a lot of homestays and we also wanted to check out a quiet place that someone had tipped me about.
We were a little apprehensive of drunk people creating trouble on the road due to holi. We were pleased when we found no one and continued walking in the shaded part of the road to Kasar Devi. After walking for around half an hour, we took a winding turn; I spotted a little signboard hanging on a tree. It simply indicated ‘Tranquility Guest House – Follow Blue Dots’ signalling some sort of a treasure hunt. We became instantly interested and started following the path indicated on the signboard.
Treasure Hunt : Tranquility Guest House
Few trees had been marked with blue dots; it felt like a secret hideout that we were only very keen to discover quickly. After walking for 10 odd minutes on a descending path through the forest – the blue dots disappeared for a bit and reappeared after 20 more steps. We were finally at a small garage in the forest where another signboard indicated that Tranquility Guest House was only a 5 minute walk away. The path disappeared and we were confused whether all of this had been a wild goose chase! After tumbling down a steep slope, we finally found a structure the entrance to which was blocked by bamboo poles. Bingo! We had made it to Tranquility but we weren’t quite sure of it back then!
We went ahead, came back and separated the bamboo poles to find a middle-aged man in the home when we shouted hello-hello. He informed us that usually he isn’t keen on giving the cottages to people without prior bookings but we told him we wanted to stay for 2 days and he agreed to give us the same for 500 Rupees per day and showed us a choice of cottages. We chose one which had a nice sit-out with cherry blossoms hanging overhead – and the interiors also had a small kitchen. It instantly gave a feel of arriving in a home! I knew I might have just stumbled upon an alternative way of living. This was perfect; it was where I could live forever.
The tiny kitchenette also had a cute little moka pot and since I was just arriving from Kozhikode, Kerala – we had the good fortune of carrying fresh coffee as well! On our late afternoon walk to the ridge in Kasar Devi; we had a closer look at the surroundings. The cottages of Tranquility were all located on different small hillocks and could be called mini-homes in themselves. One of the cottages was painted in bright blue and was run as a seasonal café by a French lady who had settled here.
In the jungle, an Italian lady was seen making a video call to her mom back in Italy – since we were unsure of the way, she gave long and detailed instructions in her broken english. We were also told to be back before evening as a leopard had recently made a meal of a small cow in the vicinity. We shared a hearty laugh when she connected with her mother and also made us video chat with her in the jungle!
It was easy to fall in love with nature here. We passed tiny hamlets with a cluster of houses on the long but pleasing ascent to Kasar Devi. Village folk waved hi to us from their houses and we waved hi back! There was a strange kind of magnetism to this place. I had felt it way back in 2015 and had ended up returning twice in a period of 2 months.
We’d got back some provisions and veggies for making our meals in the kitchen since the utensils and gas were there. After returning back to Tranquility, we sat on the rustic wooden chairs that blended in so effortlessly with the surroundings. The cherry blossoms were shedding their flowers and one fell on my cheek. It was as simple as nature’s way of kissing.
A scientific explanation for the magnetism of Kasar Devi that travellers rave about
Kasar Devi is a collection of houses scattered over a ridge and is a recommended walk for an hour or so. The slopes are covered with pine, oak and rhododendron trees and are flanked by the towering Himalayas. Kasar Devi has held an enigmatic appeal with eminent personalities from the spiritual, music and art scene who have been visiting it since the 1920s. It is conveniently located at a higher altitude from the hustle bustle of Almora town and yet provides the convenience of a big town nearby.
Apparently, scientists from NASA have visited Kasar Devi. There’s a popular belief that Kasar Devi temple runs through ‘Van Allen Belt’. Van Allen Belt is a magnetic field on earth that traps solar winds and cosmic rays. I’m not sure but these cosmic radiations may have some effect on the human brain and aid in meditation. Science enthusiasts and specialists might be able to shed more light on this Van Allen Belt and the magnetism theory.
Eminent Personalities and Kasar Devi
The solitude and mesmerizing natural beauty or the magnetic effect that makes one contemplate the higher forces of universe have attracted poets, painters, artists, mystics, philosophers and thinkers to Kasar Devi for more than 100 years.
Swami Vivekanand meditated at the Kasar Devi Temple way back in 1890. The Kasar Devi Temple was built in the 6th Century AD.
Alfred Sorensen (Sunyata Baba) the Danish mystic and writer came in 1930.
American anthropologist Walter Wentz translated the Tibetan book of dead into English. Ernst Lothar Hoffmann (Lama Angarika Govinda), a German poet and painter who studied Buddhism to become authority on Tibetan Buddhism. He was the first European to be anointed as a Buddhist monk.
English writer DH Lawrence stayed in Kasar Devi for a few years. American psychologist Timothy Leary, known for his experiments with psychedelic drugs stayed in Kasar Devi for a long time and was convinced of the Van Allen Belt theory of the magnetic belt of Kasar Devi.
Italian writer Tiziano Terzani stayed in Kasar Devi and wrote his most celebrated work ‘The End is My Beginning’ here. In 1961, poets – Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gary Snyder visited Kasar Devi. The superstars of the counterculture movement, such as Bob Dylan and George Harrison, they provided fuel for the hippie subculture in this hamlet. The hippie feels of Kasar Devi are true to this day and a lot of Israelis can be smoking top class weed that grows on the nearby slopes.
Crank’s Ridge in Kasar Devi
The naming of Crank’s ridge on Kasar Devi hill has an interesting story. In the 1960s, Timothy Leary – an American psychologist and writer who was experimenting with the potential of psychedelic drugs streaked naked on the thin strip of land in Kasar Devi. Kasar Devi and its narrow ridge became a prominent center for the Hippie movement.
The wave of travelers who came here throughout 1960s and 70s were not all spiritual seekers but freedom-loving hippies from across the world. After Timothy Leary’s antics, the ridge came to be called as Crank’s ridge and became a part of the Hippie trail.
It is also a known fact that gentle slopes of Kasar Devi grow a fine form of cannabis, which also attracts hippies to Kasar.
Goodbye from Kasar Devi
Our last evening was spectacular, the snowy peaks were in a shade of pink and orange. The mountains soon felt like an open-air art gallery where God was painting the canvas.