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Dak Bungalows & Forest Rest Houses

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, said Lao Tzu, the Chinese sage and a contemporary of Gautam Buddha, who himself was lighting the path of a troubled humanity seeking salvation and nirvana. These two, friends, philosophers and guides of mankind, were perhaps talking about metaphorical journeys that were long and exhausting, while their countrymen were in the pursuit of worldly goals that saw them trudging across terrains that were often fraught with discomfort, sweat, sore feet and aching bodies. On such travels, the sight of a shelter, a roof, water and a warm fire was a treasure of no small measure. The longer the journey the more sought after were places that afforded safe, secure and comfortable lodging for the night that would help restore the strength of the legs and lungs to meet the further challenges of the road that lay ahead.

Closer home, India had a cherished tradition of providing for wayfarers, and this tradition was rooted in history. Enlightened emperors like Ashoka, Sher Shah Suri, Jahangir and other royals provided means for those undertaking journeys through their kingdoms. Shade and fruit providing trees, wells, tanks and choultries, dharamshalas, and more elaborate caravansarais, were considered pious acts as well as state policy. Ashoka’s rock edicts and Jahangir’s twelve ordinances for the comfort of travellers are a matter of record and worthy of emulation.

Coming to more recent historical times, the East India Company and its successor, the British Raj, followed the example of the earlier rulers in practice though not so much in the spirit of their predecessors.

One of the idiosyncratic manifestations of the British Raj was the near perpetual travelling by its functionaries in discharge of their duties connected with the governance of the vast subcontinent. Back home in England, the journeys were usually of a couple of stages of halts and that too at conveniently located inns that provided much of what was needed for a night of comfort after an enjoyable meal and welcome ale.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, much of the Indian subcontinent was already under the administrative control of the British and the scale of their empire was enormous in terms of territory, terrain, culture, language, religion and ethnicity. There was no way that this complex geopolitical landscape could be effectively controlled without the governing elite coming in close contact with the subjects they governed. This dilemma persisted from the onset of the Raj, which meant that the bureaucracy of all shades and levels moved perennially across the country. It goes to the credit of the officers and supporting functionaries that they weathered every imaginable horror of travel when the much needed travel comforts were not available to start with. Survival under canvas tents, trees or even under an open sky was not an enjoyable affair for an officer who was often on tour for close to nine months in a year.

The first initiative that came to the rescue of the touring Gora Sahibs was the “Dawk Bungalow” (Dak Bungalow) that was created for the postal department for relaying of mail to the different parts of the country. These simple structures were far removed from the comforts of even the smallest of hotels. They consisted of a couple of rooms with a thatched roof, a shed for horses and bullocks that pulled the ‘dak-gharies’ from one stage to another, which often was eight to ten miles apart. These dak bungalows did allow for providing shelter to travelling officials who nevertheless had to carry their own bedding, rations, and utensils for cooking of meals for themselves and their retinue.

But aware that the health of the empire depended on the health of their officials, soon enough, by the mid-1800s, the Public Works Department started construction of more spacious and better designed bungalows. The essential feature of these bungalows was a big central room, around which were either two or four smaller rooms. A spacious covered verandah invariably covered the front and often the sides of the rooms. The roof in the early days was made of locally available thatch. The building materials were also locally sourced. For economy, stone walls covered with clay and plastered with lime were the standard. Later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, some of the dak bungalows started to be roofed with plain tin sheets and, yet later, with corrugated sheets. Other amenities like the kitchen and toilets were usually at a distance away from the main accommodation and in cases a covered walkway was provided to connect the two. These bungalows also had functional accommodation for the staff like a caretaker and a cook.

On an another dimension, the need for convenient rest houses arose with the emergence of forest management. Forests constituted a large part of the territories under the British Raj and their commercial value was enormous. Thus, in 1864, the Imperial Forest Service was put in place with the help of Dietrich Brandis and in 1878 the Forestry College was started in Dehradun under Col Frederick Bailey.

In pursuance of its charter to commercialise the forests, several Forest Rest Houses (FRHs) came up in remote locations in the forests of Dehradun. Ranipur FRH on the extreme east was built in 1835 even before the IFS; Dholkhand (1858), Phandowala (1886), Asarori (1886), Kansrao (1891) and Motichur (1934), and several similar FRHs were put in places for their strategic locations as well as scenic charms that have remained till the present day. These FRHs were often connected with each other with gravel roads called “motor-lines” that were a pleasure to travel on as they were meticulously maintained unlike their present state. These quaint and inviting places usually had a river like the Suswa, Song or the Assan flowing close by or some stream coming down from the Siwaliks. These solitary abodes in the forest have spawned a genre of romantic writing with ghosts and supernatural spectres haunting the dark desolate corners. Kipling to Ruskin Bond have delighted us through their imagination and literary flair about these FRHs. Dak Bungalows and Forest Rest Houses are today the sentinels of the treasury of biodiversity that has survived and now there is even more the urgency to safeguard the same for the future.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun; and Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun.)