Our daughter Neerja’s office work schedule is very hectic with no breaks. She has to travel both within the country and abroad very often. Before leaving as part of the PM’s entourage to the US, she desired me to plan a short break trip, where Happy (Bhatia) her Lab could also travel in her car as long week end was drawing ahead from 2 Oct to 5 Oct. The first reaction of her resenting mother, not very fond of Happy was that she was NOT going anywhere with the dog. Much cajoling on Neerja’s part that she would sit on the front seat and that Papa and Happy would be relegated as backbenchers in her Duster, she agreed.
Neerja loves driving and desired that place being visited should be quiet to rest and rejuvenate, preferably a military cantonment with MH where we could be attended in any medical emergency and a few hours’ drive. I instantly proposed Ranikhet that befitted her desires but both, the mother and the daughter vetoed my proposal suggesting that they had lived there for many years and visited it there after numerous times and that we needed to explore and visit some new exciting destination.
They joyously agreed on my Lansdowne suggestion and persuaded me to arrange for some good accommodation. I must thank our family friend Gen Mohan Bhandari, who graciously agreed to do the needful. . On instructions from my daughter from New York, I had given a bath to ‘Happy’ 0n 1 Oct- a day before our impending holiday.
Neerja returned the previous morning from her hectic US trip. We packed quickly with plenty of snacks, fruits and thermos full of tea and left at 9 am on our onwards journey as per route briefing by Gen Bhandari and as down loaded from the Goggles.
‘Happy’ was very happy initially enjoying the car ride but when it became far too long and unending he was very restless, resulting in numerous short breaks to ease and pacify him. After we crossed Meerut, there was massive road block with hundreds of vehicles piled up on either side. There was a nasty roadways bus accident killing three youths riding a motorcycle of the nearby village.
The anguished villagers barricaded the national highway placing ploughs, tractors and trolleys across. A few brave hearts who dared to cross the barricade were brandished with lathies and their vehicles bludgeoned and wind screens smashed. We took Mawana- Khatuli detour to reach Bijnore delaying us over two hours. We had lunch at popular but expensive Monty Millions Restaurant at Mirapur tiraha (tri-junction). The journey from Bijnore to Najibabad and Kotdwar, but for traffic snarls around Najibabad was uneventful.
The traffic at Najibabad is bad around the year due to road widening and fly over construction. We saw more monkeys and the landscape quickly started changing from plains to foot hills under a magical charm. Kotdwar is the gateway to the hills and one of the last railway stations for Garhwal resembling like mini- Kathgodam.
The plains quickly vanished transforming into streams, dark deep forest, white, grey and black clouds and hills on a winding road!! This was one of the first of many breathtaking moments during our sojourn. One feels like standing at a threshold – seeing plains on ones back and the hills in front while embarking upon the roller-coaster drive from Kotdwar to Lansdowne. The hill climb lasting 40 km on the narrow serpentine road reminded us of our numerous road journeys to Nainital and Ranikhet.
We relished tea on the way side small tea shop and enjoyed seeing endless forests of pines, deodar, rhododendron and other unknown trees. Needless to say, my wife kept reminding our daughter on the wheels to drive carefully and blow horn on every sharp blind turn. We reached Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre Officers’ Mess around 5 pm and courteous JCO on the reception told us that we were booked in ‘Rudra 1 & 2’ guest rooms. We were led by L /Nk Raghubir Singh, the caretaker and our man Friday till our short stay.
A word about Lansdowne Military Station
Originally known as Kalu Danda (Black Ridge because of dense black oak trees and black clouds), Lansdowne was founded and named after then Viceroy of India Lord Lansdowne in 1887. Its population in 1901 was 3943. It was occupied by the Garhwalis on November 1887, as a tentative measure, with the view of testing its suitability as a Cantonment for Garhwali soldiers.
The place is merely a ridge running from North-West to South-East, and roughly about 3.2 km long covered with oak, pine, and rhododendron trees commanding a magnificent view of “the Snows” in the North and plains towards South. The elevation listed in one of the sign board is 5027 feet above the mean sea level (MSL) though many say it is 6065 feet. The climate is salubrious and pleasant. The winters are cold and bracing, frost is frequent, and snow often lies at Christmas time, when the scene is remarkably beautiful.
On 2 Oct as the evening unfolded, there was an absolute and divine serenity and silence in the vicinity. All of a sudden we found ourselves engulfed by clouds and visibility almost became near zero! Looking down the valley filled with clouds I felt as if standing on the threshold of eternity. There was nothing beyond dark thick grey volume of clouds existing so close to Noida.
And the Garhwali lineages
The Garhwal Rifles were raised on 05 May 1887 by Lt Col CP Mainwaring at Almora. The GARHWALIS marched all the way through difficult hilly and jungle terrain reaching from Almora to Kalu Danda, reaching their new home on 04 Nov 1887. Ever since Lansdowne Cantonment (Old Kalu- Danda) homes the Regimental Centre of one of the highly decorated and illustrious Regiments of the Indian Army – The GARHWAL RIFLES. The Regiment celebrates 1 Oct as the Raising Day of the Regimental Centre
Three Emotionally Rallying Points for the Garhwalis
Every Garhwali Bulla (bulla in Garhwali affectionately means younger brother) has three emotionally rallying points as under–
- Firstly, Garhwali Presiding Deity is Lord Badri Vishal Lal without His Blessings Garhwalis simply cannot start anything,
- Secondly, the Garhwali Regimental War Memorial located at Lansdowne is a unique Memorial in the world, and
- Thirdly, the ‘Red Lanyard’ (Royal Red Rassi) is worn on the right shoulder of every Garhwali soldier.
The Garhwalis t have to their credit 03 Victoria Cross, 01 AC, 04 MVCs, 14 KCs, 52 VrC, 46 SC, 10 PVSM, 01 UYSM, 08 YSM, 284 SM (including 06 Bar), 17 AVSM (including 01 Bar) and 40 VSM (including 01 Bar) and 30 Battle Honours. A GARHWALI can sacrifice his life on these three sacred and sacrosanct pedestals of NAAM-NAMAK and NISHAN.
There are many beautiful colonial bungalows and churches that were built by the British Regimental Officers in Lansdowne. These are maintained extremely well even today by the Regimental Centre and are occupied by officers posted to the Regimental Centre. Each and every Bungalow has its own history.
The GARHWALI Officers’ Mess
Perched atop a hill, three temporary rooms were constructed in 1888. By 1890, these were converted into a permanent structure after adding more rooms. The complex was converted into an Officers’ Mess. The GARHWALI Officers’ Mess today is beyond compare. The Game Trophies, Artifacts, Silver Collections/Trophies, crockery and cutlery and other Regimental accessories duly documented are easily ‘the rarest of the rare’ proud possessions of Garhwal Rifles Regiment By itself; the Officers’ Mess is more of a mini martial Museum and an extra ordinary heritage of the Regiment.
In addition, the GARHWALI Officers’ Mess Complex houses a number of well decorated and well furnished Guest Rooms; some in classic Garhwali Style; a Band Stand covered by Oaks; Gazebo; Gym; Bhattacharji Hall, Billiards Room of the yore, the Badminton and Tennis Courts, etc., etc. The entire area has been most beautifully landscaped and aesthetically developed over the years. As a mark of respect and also to preserve it, the GARHWALI Mess is only used for the selected Regimental functions.
There is a beautiful and spacious Regimental Institute constructed next door that serves as a proper working Mess. The Library housed on either flanks of the entrance to the Officers’ Mess has a vast collection of rare books, and are a ‘Readers’ Delight’. For every GARHWALI Officer, the GARHWALI Officer Mess is his life line.
Our first night
We had a quick dinner and being tired hit the bed. To our pleasant surprise there were many guests staying in the various guest houses and I was thrilled to meet Capt Kadiyan from the Indian Navy with his family. He is son of late Lt Col & Mrs GS Kadiyan of 6 Kumaon, whom I met as newly married couple in Ramgarh in 1961. Incidentally, torn, wet and crumbled issue of the INFANTRY India lying there was carrying my article on 6 KUMAON. The journal was being torn for packing the meals. Capt Kadiyan was thrilled to get it as a ‘gift’ from me.
As the night unfolded there was an absolute sound of unknown and divine silence in the vicinity. As I took ‘Happy’ out for an evening stroll I found myself engulfed by clouds and visibility was very poor! Looking down the valley filled with clouds I felt standing at the threshold of eternity. There was nothing beyond this point except white and grey thick volume of clouds. I could have never imagined that such a divine and mesmerizing place existed so close to national capital region (NCR). The dew had wet my clothes and in our rooms the linen and curtains had dampness around.
Visit to Tarkeshwar Temple
The next morning after breakfast of puris and alu ki sabzi, we drove down 40 km from Lansdowne to Tarkeshwar to visit the six century old Shiva Temple. We started in thick blanket of cloud with almost zero visibility but soon the clouds receded in unknown oblivion and the visual spectacle of the hills and valleys was restored. The life indeed for poor local villagers is tough as we saw many men and women, tugging their kids or heap of grass or wood on the heads walking long distances on the few road and tracks around. These people are hardy, simple and happy with minimal needs and produce best of soldiers, administrators, politicians, scientists and educationists in our country and many of them are senior scientists in NASA.
At Tarkeshwar, vehicles are parked about a kilometre from the temple where devotees start descending amidst dense forest of pine and deodar impregnating sunlight even on bright sunny day. We all did Pooja and were synergised with the unique divine serenity in the abode of Lord Shiva amidst unspoilt nature. This spiritual awakening experience of life time was marred only by one minus point-the Shiva Temple is visited by the thousands of devotees from all over India every day, but the management has not provided public conveniences anywhere. While the men folks unmindfully and unashamedly eased around the bushes and trees it must be nightmare for the ladies visiting the divines!
Since Rajni was too tired after visiting the Shiva Temple, she stayed back and both I and Neerja climbed down to Lansdowne bazaar to pick up some lunch. We both were disappointed to see the market that was too small -not even 150 m in length, yet over crowded by the tourists mostly from NCR, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh and cramped the few dirty eateries. Amusingly we entered the Aggarwal Sweet Shop and the first page of the menu carried the ad of small Aggarwal Cinema showing Mary Com.
The next few pages were devoted to various matchbox sized rooms and tariffs on top of his shop. The actual menu started thereafter. We were rather surprised he also made a ‘Bal Mithai’ type sweet which to our mind is only a Kumaoni bliss. We picked up chana bhatoras for the lunch and, I must admit, walking back uphill was a bit too much for a man over seventy. After late lunch, we cuddled up in quilts. The evening was spent gossiping, bits of fighting over Happy’s caring, few rounds of tea, dinner and sleep.
On 4th morning, while I went to see the Garhwali Officers’ Mess, Library, War Memorial and Museum, Rajni and Neerja went to URC (Unit Run Canteen) and picked up a jacket for me with the crest of the Indian army on the back. Unlike other Regiments in Garhwal Rifles, the junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs), a day after Dusshera are invited for drinks in the afternoon in CO/Comdt’s House and thereafter the Officers’ Mess. Since hectic preparations were on for impending event, there was no one to conduct and show me the mess.
The Museum is well maintained and an entry fee of Rs 20 is charged from serving and retired defence personnel while civilians pay Rs 30 for the entry. I felt sad as late L/Nk Jaswant Singh, MVC’s corner did not have the article I wrote on him in INFANTRY India. Sadly not a single Garhwali Officer including the Deputy Commandant that I talked had heard or read the article. If the professional magazines are used for packing food etc, alas, there will not be much to read.
After lunch, we went to see ‘Bulla Lake’-named so as it was constructed by Garhwali soldiers. It is a small manmade artificial lake but very popular with tourists as there are not many places to see around. For peddle boats, the GRRC ticketing counter and unit contractor runs a snack bar cum ice cream parlour.
Besides boating, sightseeing, eating, one can purchase herbal plants. In the evening we drove to URC and Gandhi Chowk and Neerja adamantly, much against my wishes purchased the duplicate of ‘Bal Mithai’. The evening was chilly with gentle breeze and since TV in our room (for which one had to pay Rs 25 a day extra) never worked without violently shaking the remote, after quick dinner we went to sleep as in the ensuing morning we were to go back home.
5th morning after breakfast, we thanked personally L /Nk Raghubir Singh, the cook and other staff and left for Noida around 9 am with bagsful of memories. We promised ourselves to visit Lansdowne again. Speeding back gently on the slopes on our way back home, we again midway stopped at Monty Millions, for both lunch and freshening up. We enjoyed quietness and serenity of this sleepy but vibrating small town.
The only fear that lingers in my mind is that like Ranikhet, Nainital, Mussorie, and Shimla, with heavy tourist influx, commercialization, no infrastructure, little drinking water, vandalisation of forests by politicians, contractors and bureaucrats mafia, sale of meager agricultural land to neo-rich of plains by the local farmers, felling of trees, construction of concrete jungles that cannot withstand earthquakes, would lead conversion of green thick jungles into concrete jungles. In a smaller military hill station, the Center Commandant-a Brigadier is the highest governmental authority.
He must ensure preservation of ecological balance and discreet control on commercial activities. Also the first motive of any military unit is to optimize combat effectiveness and all other activities ensure the prime motive and thereafter the maintenance of morale and welfare of the men. The after effects of diluting the ecology, serenity, spirituality, divinity and silence of supreme of this little hitherto unknown fragile military hill station would be colossal. With these thoughts, while travelling in the car my mind was humming Robert Frost’s-
‘The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.’
Shri.Harivansh Rai Bacchan has wonderfully translated the same in Hindi as –
गहन सघन मनमोहक वन तरु मुझको आज बुलाते हैं,
किन्तु किये जो वादे मैंने याद मुझे वोह आते हैं,
अभी कहाँ आराम बड़ा यह मूक निमंत्रण छलना हैं,
अरे अभी तो मीलों मुझको , मीलों मुझको चलना ।