By: Ganesh Saili
By the time we grew up, Rai Singh and his brother Mor Singh Bhandari could be found sitting in their shop at the very edge of the bazaar selling stacks of coarse blankets. In better times they had been contracted by the Rajah of Tehri to move mail from and to Mussoorie for onward distribution in Garhwal. To do this efficiently they bought mules from Landour’s Remount Depot in Khachhar-Khana or what is now called Laxmanpuri. Every Monday saw a string of mules plodding the forty miles to Tehri and returning a week later. During one of our freak summer storms, lightning struck and, yoked together by chains, three mules perished instantly outside Volga Café.
These thunderstorms are something else. An old schoolmate, Jayanta Sarkar, who once lived above St Paul’s Church recalls: ‘Hit by chain lightning, just two or more flashes repeated without intermission. Our ridge came alive with static at the approach of a summer storm, the trees took the thunderbolts at least five times leaving our window-panes rattling.’
‘Forked lightning was superb, the thunder resounded from hill to hill, the hail and rain fell heavily: for about two hours the storm raged.’ Writes Fanny Park on March 23rd 1838 in her Wanderings in Search of the Picturesque. Our pioneers must have been as hard as these oak trees, like Mrs Robert Moss King, the wife of the civil magistrate in Meerut, who wrote in A Civilian’s Wife in India (pub:1884) ‘There have been some heavy thunderstorms this last week, accompanied by the increasing roll of thunder which I have never heard the like.’
Strewn above the road to Tehri are the remains of the ancient bridle path along which stands Dhanolti’s wisteria wrapped dak bungalow that was built in the tradition of the old caravanserais to provide rest and sustenance to weary travellers. They were like staging posts for the postal service built every twelve or fifteen miles apart.
There was Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood Kipling – who wore many hats – English art teacher, an illustrator and museum curator – who observed that these dak bungalows were about ‘as handsome as a stack of haystacks.’ Of course, they doubled as inexpensive accommodation for government officials and also as cheap lodging for travellers, who variously referred to them as posthouses, rest-houses, or travellers’ bungalows. In each one you would have found the dakwala (or postman), the durwan (or caretaker), and sometimes a cook. Guests were supposed to pay for any damage caused and for the costs of supplies used. Bedding was uncommon, as the Raj officials were expected to travel with their own bedding and servants. The cook could provide dining, which most of the time consisted of egg curry and chicken.
During the Great Uprising of 1857, many British civilians and soldiers had sought shelter in some of these bungalows. Afterwards, the use of thatch for roofs in official buildings was forbidden as it was easily inflammable.
Kipling found that ‘A fair proportion of the tragedy of our lives out here enacted itself in these places and many men have died or gone mad in them… nothing is too wild, grotesque, or horrible to happen in a dak bungalow.’ While many fell into disrepair, others carried tales of hauntings. In Kipling stories the old cook was slightly touched and referred to the dinner he made for guests as rataab or dog-food. While tales of many a headless ghost still linger around these places, my favourite has the redoubtable hunter, tracker and naturalist, Jim Corbett, out in pursuit of a man-eating tiger, when at day’s end, his local companion scurries off home to his nearby village, leaving Corbett to his own devices in the wayside bungalow. Next early morning on his return, he found the hunter seated by the roadside. Obviously ‘something’ had happened to the great shikari that night. But Corbett never wrote a word about it in any of his books.
Personally, if you were to ask me, I think one of these dak bungalows, seated on a knoll under the towering deodars, would be an awesome place for a rendezvous.
(Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.)