Takeaway

Carpet Sahib lives here

Deepika Gumaste | Updated on June 21, 2019 Published on June 21, 2019

Kumaon’s own: Trilok Singh’s (seen here) father, Sher Singh, accompanied the Englishman on several hunting expeditions. - Deepika Gumaste

Jim Corbett’s legacy finds a loving abode in a village in Kumaon

In the early 1900s, a heartbroken young man made a promise to himself. Sitting on the banks of river Kosi, cutting through a vast jungle in present-day Uttarakhand, he had given up his chase of a tiger. Instead, he resolved to unravel the mysteries of the wild, study the vast green expanse that lay before him, and fill his lungs with the fresh oxygen that it supplied. His name was Jim Corbett.

I wasn’t exactly chasing a tiger the Corbett way, but was still disappointed at not being able to see it in its natural habitat. The tigers at Corbett National Park were nowhere to be seen. The ones elsewhere, too, were as elusive. The repeated no-shows taught my first lesson of the wild — that it reveals itself to only those who listen.

Manoeuvring through a broken red sand trail, our jeep came to a screeching halt in the Corbett National Park. I rubbed my tired eyes and looked up groggily. Alka, my friend and fellow traveller, whispered in my ears, jokingly, “Look, finally — a langur!”

Manmeet Singh Bhullar, our guide, disapproved of the disdain for the primate. “Langurs are the most important species in the jungle. They alert the entire place to an approaching tiger. Don’t underestimate them,” he said.

Alka and I suppressed giggles as we replied, “Yes, sir.”

The giggles soon gave way to a degree of regret. I had completed yet another visit to a jungle — the country’s oldest tiger reserve. And I was going back with glimpses of spotted deer, a lone nilgai, a hard-at-work woodpecker, an owlet resting high on a tree and two excitable barking deer darting around open grasslands.

Having sensed my mood, Bhullar offered a booster: “Most people come to Corbett for only the tiger. But the tiger isn’t the hero here. Let’s go and meet the real one.”

He stopped at that, offering no further clues as to where this hallowed hero was to be found. He kept the suspense alive on the drive back from the safari. A canopy of sal, khair and sissoo trees — interspersed with bamboo and chir pine — watched over the road that took us past villages.

We didn’t know that one such village — going about its daily chores of fetching water and collecting firewood — was our destination.

“Welcome to the heritage village of Chhoti Haldwani. This is where it all began,” said Bhullar as we hopped off the Maruti Gypsy.

We weren’t sure what began here, but we followed him on the road that led us to the houses of Chhoti Haldwani — nondescript mud structures with tin roofs. We met groups of children, some of whom, in blue uniforms, were on their way to school. Others followed us down the lane to the house that belongs to Trilok Singh.

A frail old man, Singh is the living connection between Chhoti Haldwani and Corbett the naturalist and author. His father, Sher Singh, was the trusted aide who accompanied Corbett on hunting expeditions in the jungles of Kumaon. It is said that Corbett had adopted the village in 1915, erecting a five-km-long stone wall to protect the residents and the livestock of Chhoti Haldwani from tigers. A raised platform — much like a machan one sees in forest areas — stood near Trilok Singh’s house. This was where Corbett discussed village matters with the people of Chhoti Haldwani.

Trilok Singh has been recounting his memories of “Carpet Sahib” to tourists for years. But there was no sign of boredom on his face as he brought out a single-barrel gun that once belonged to Corbett, from one of the rooms in his single-storey house. “Carpet Sahib gifted this to my father, before he left for Kenya [in 1947],” said the man as we sipped on tea in his courtyard. The gun licence for the weapon is renewed every year — a task that Trilok Singh didn’t seem to envy.

Some stories never die: A painting of Jim Corbett with villagers of Kumaon in a museum near Chhoti Haldwani. - Deepika Gumaste

 

The Corbett connection has brought Chhoti Haldwani a little more than just carloads of tourists trooping in for photo-ops with the Englishman’s rifle. The village now offers the homestay experience, tying in activities such as forest walks, cultural shows and farm tours.

While my fellow travellers pored over the historic firearm in Trilok Singh’s possession, I walked down to a huge mansion opposite the village. It is now a museum that traces the life and times of Carpet Sahib, his family and his expeditions — through belongings, paintings and photographs of the man who still holds a special place in the heart of Kumaon. Also integral to this legacy are the stories of Corbett’s loyal dogs and hunting companions, Robin and Rosina. Their graves lay in a corner of the fairly well-kept garden at the museum.

As I left the building to join my friends at the village, I felt a sense of victory. The most elusive resident of the region still remained a mystery, but the jungle had spoken to me — through Corbett.

Deepika Gumaste is a travel writer based in Mumbai

Published on June 21, 2019
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