By Roli S
“Ram, Ram Saab.” An army jawan saluted smartly and greeted us when we reached Kumaon Villas, the army guest house cottages at Kumaon Regiment Centre, Ranikhet. We were finally at Ranikhet, a hill station and cantonment town, near Almora Town in Almora District, home to the Kumaon and Naga Regiments.
I had been hearing about Ranikhet from relatives, friends and travelers since childhood. Despite visiting Nainital and other parts of Kumaon, I had still not visited Ranikhet before. The legend behind the name Ranikhet fascinated me. The name, ‘Queen’s Meadow’, was given to the place because Rani Padmini, who was married to Raja Sudhardev, a Katyuri ruler, chose the area for her residence. No palace or fort existed in the town or around it to confirm the legend though, but Ranikhet remained captivating – abounding with flowers, trees, and green meadows in the midst of heavenly Himalayan surroundings, still very much a cantonment town!
It was in 1815 when Kumaon was handed over to the British by the Gorkhas. A few rebellions later, the Cantonment established at Almora was shifted to Ranikhet in 1846. Many European groups acquired land in the Ranikhet region in the hope of establishing tea gardens. In 1869, the British established the headquarters of the Kumaon Regiment here and used the station as a retreat from the heat of the Indian summer. The forests around Ranikhet were declared reserved forests in 1873 by the British. On 3 December, 1915, a portion of the cantonment was notified as a reserve forest under the Indian Forest Act of 1878. Ranikhet carries a centuries old imperial and colonial legacy, and the beautiful garrison town is the land of many brave men like General Kashi Nath Adhikari. Today, it is known for having the headquarters of the Kumaon Regiment.
The Kumaon Villas, our home for the next two days, was exactly how I had imagined. One look at it and I was transported to the ‘British Raj’ era. That old building was still shining as new with freshly varnished furniture and doors. The roof of the room I was living in was as high as one could imagine and the adjoining high walls had ventilators, where the daylight was seeping in through the glass. The creaking sound of the wooden floor under my feet and the heavy wooden doors with antique iron latches reminded me again about the age and architecture of the imperial past! The fireplace stood apart and the old painting hanging above it made me think of many period Bollywood movies that I had seen. A large smart TV hanging on the wall with a remote kept near by brought me back to the times I belonged! My companions were already out looking for the WiFi password and complaining about the poor internet connectivity. I just sat on the leather sofa provided in the room and lived the part in the ongoing movie. I was finally in Ranikhet, and eagerly waiting to explore that army town in the single day that we were going to be there.
When I told my friends that I was visiting Ranikhet, most of them told me to see the highest golf course of Asia that the town boasts of, but not many were aware about a well-maintained museum at KRC (Kumaon Regimental Centre) that showcases the glory, top notch achievements and triumphs of the Kumaon Regiment. Before the golf course, I was really looking forward to visiting the museum, my first visit to any such museum maintained by an army regiment. I was told that all the regiments had their museums. As far as I was concerned it was my first visit to any such museum. Real museums are places where time is transformed into space and museums are about as close as a secular society dares to go in facing up to the idea that a good building can change your life. I was looking forward to my museum visit. I have begun to believe that if you do not know history then you don’t know anything.
The interior of the museum showcases endless photographs on its walls depicting many wars related to the Kumaon Regiment. Displays of weapons used by the armed forces and enemies, medals and uniforms of the brave soldiers, the flags of rebels captured during battles, stone tablets depicting information about various wars and stories of the First and the Second Param Vir Chakra, which belong to the Kumaon Regiment, keeps everyone interested and fills one with feelings of pride and patriotism. Pictures associated with the Kargil War, wireless field telephones operated by the Japanese, and Chinese rifles captured during the 1962 war are some of the impressive collections of the museum. But I was very much impressed by all the ‘firsts’ that are a source of pride for the Kumaon regiment. The first two Param Vir Chakras and the First Regiment to have three Army Chiefs is no mean achievement for any regiment.
After soaking up all that the tastefully done museum had to offer, I came out more informed and also prouder of the Indian Army’s feats of the bygone era. The tradition continues, to say the least.
Finally, it was time to visit the highest golf course in Asia. I always feel happy when I am at a golf course. I feel calm and the vast open green fields lying in front of me make me a better person, I suppose. I was told that the entry to the The Ranikhet golf course is restricted, but on introducing ourselves, the golf course gate was opened for us by an eager young caretaker. The undulating, picturesque golf course with perfectly textured grasses was a thing to behold. The rolling meadows of the golf course were breathtaking, something I had not seen in India at such an altitude before. The tall pine trees, majestically standing here and there, add a different charm to this golf course. This golf course is often used by the officers and cadets of Kumaon Regiment (KRC) & Naga Regiment. When I enquired from the staff about celebrities who visit the golf course, the name that figured prominently was that of Tamil film industry’s superstar Rajnikant, who visited the golf course on many occasions while on his way to visiting the sage Maha Avtar Baba’s meditation cave.
Next, there was time to visit the Kumaon Regiment Centre, KRC Woollens, a rehabilitation project for Veer Naris and Dependants of Veterans. With a lot of hard work and skill, having over 40 years of experience, fine quality of Kumaoni Shawls and Kumaoni Tweeds are made at the centre. The courteous staff and reasonable price made me one tweed coat rich at the completion of the visit. I was so happy to see the superior quality, world class product being made at this rehabilitation centre of the Kumaon Regiment. Again, my first visit to any such rehabilitation centre of the Indian Army. I was once again filed with admiration and pride.
When in Uttarakhand, one has to visit gardens, parks and temples. Our one-day visit to Ranikhet did not go without it. Instead of visiting The Kumaon Regiment Park, we decided to go to the famous Chaubatia Garden known for its apples and fruit orchards. There are plantations of apricots, peaches, chestnuts and almonds. The garden was looking in need of attention and was deserted as we visited the place in October, which is an off season as all the fruit trees looked dry, devoid of leaves and forlorn, and also the tea shop looked unvisited and lonely. Positioned at a height of 1850 m, the park offers a view of neighbouring Himalayan ranges like Nanda Devi, Trishul and Nilkanth. I would surely love to come back and wander among plenty of trees growing fruits like apricot, apple, plums, and peaches that I saw lined in the Chaubatia Garden’s vast scenery on the day.
Without the visit to Jhula Devi Temple my visit to Ranikhet would not have been complete. I have been watching and following this temple in pictures and videos. The story behind the origin of the temple had always fascinated me and the countless bells of different sizes festooned all around the temple had captivated my imagination no end. To find myself at the temple, seeking blessings from Ma Durga, who the legend says, had protected the villagers from attacks of wild animals, I was humbled and totally at peace. The female pujari at the temple took the little bell that I brought here to offer and gave it back to me with the blessings that I would come back to tie it there along with all the other bells when the Goddess would call me. With great humility I respected all that she had to tell me. The spiritual force surrounding me at that time was powerful. I knew that located in the vicinity of Jhula Devi Temple was the Ram Mandir, which had a monastery where students are taught ancient Vedas along with Vedic and modern mathematics. I real wanted to see students learn the Vedas, as I had never done it in my life, but the time constraint made me skip that temple. I made the promise in my heart that when I would come to tie the bell at Jhula Devi, I would definitely visit the Ram Mandir in the future, sometime. The five hours of outing and our on the move schedule made me and my companions tired.
The visit to this Cantonment town Ranikhet left me mentally and emotionally satisfied, as I had experienced the valour, skills and sacrifices of the army personnel, the beauty, tranquility and serenity of nature and the Himalayas and the ecstasy of devotion and spirituality all in one single day.
(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author, School Reviewer based in Thane)