Takeaway

Creative highs of Almora

Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu | Updated on September 14, 2018

Famous stay: Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s favourite retreat in Almora is the present-day cantonment board office   -  PUNEETINDER KAUR SIDHU

For a tiny hilltop village in Uttarakhand, it has proved a fount of inspiration for an astonishing number of artists and littérateurs

There is something about Almora. A magnetism that has drawn all manner of seekers to this tiny hilltop village, about 8 km from Kumaon town, in Uttarakhand. The local Kasar Devi temple is believed to be endowed with a cosmic energy similar to that of Stonehenge in England and Machu Picchu in Peru, thanks to gaps in bands of radiation — called Van Allen belt — surrounding the earth. The cavernous rock shelter of the eponymous deity was made famous by a visit by Swami Vivekananda in the 1890s. Over the decades, Kasar Devi has played host to mystics and mavericks alike.

It was here, following his first visit in 1934, the Dane Alfred Sorenson became Sunyata Baba. It was here English writer DH Lawrence spent a couple of summers with his friends, painter Earl and Achsah Brewster. It was here German philosopher-turned-Buddhist monk Ernst Lothar Hoffmann (aka Lama Anagarika Govinda) lived with his Parsi wife Ratti Petit. It was at Drikung Kagyu, the monastery established by Anagarika, that Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman later resided with wife Nena von Schlebrügge and daughter Uma Karuna Thurman — yes, the Hollywood actor. And it was in this Himalayan hamlet sacked Harvard professor Timothy Leary performed his famed experiments with nudism and psychedelic drugs in the 1960s. Singers Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, George Harrison were also here. As was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

Almora’s salubrious surrounds were equally attractive to luminaries of Indian art and literature.

Tucked away in the forest of Falsima, accessible only on foot, is the Uday Shankar Academy, where the eminent dancer blended Indian classical with Kumaoni Ramlila to create a style all his own. His stellar troupe included, besides younger brother and sitarist Ravi Shankar, the music maestro Baba Allauddin Khan and his daughter Annapurna Devi, as well as actors Guru Dutt and Zohra Sehgal. Another regular visitor to Kumaon in the 1930s was Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who stayed in what is today the cantonment board office.

Almora style: A heritage building with the region’s distinctive architecture   -  PUNEETINDER KAUR SIDHU

 

On a recent visit, while on the Almora Heritage Walks, I learnt that the region was a favoured retreat for some of the biggest names of 20th-century Hindi literature.

Rahul Sanskritayan, justifiably anointed Mahapandit for his prolific travel writing, was among them, although it’s not known which of his innumerable works — including Tibbat Mein Savva Varsh, Meri Europe Yatra,Kinnar Desh Mein and Ganga Se Volga — he penned here. Another stalwart, Yashpal Sharma chose the rambling Diggi Bungalow in Paltan Bazaar to churn out Jhoota Sach, his acclaimed two-volume account of events surrounding the Partition. An association with the Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Army (HSRA), alongside legends Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, had, after all, accorded him a ringside view of happenings.

After completing his higher education, Sumitranandan Pant returned to his hometown Almora for drama instruction at the Uday Shankar Academy in 1941. Heavily influenced by the Romantics, he went on to become a major poet of the Chhayavadi School and the first Hindi poet to receive the prestigious Jnanpith Award in 1968. Around the same time, Gaura Pant — better-known by her pseudonym Shivani — made her appearance on the horizon. A trailblazer in women-centric literature, and the author of Krishnakali, her unabashed observations on the plight and pleasure of Kumaoni women found their way into leading magazines as serialised stories. Two of her daughters, too, went on to become wordsmiths — Mrinal Pande, the journalist, author and television personality; and Ira Pande, an editor and the author of Diddi, a biography of her celebrated mother.

Almora’s undeniable romance with the written word continued with the arrival of Shailesh Matiyani and Manohar Shyam Joshi, both contemporaries of Shivani. Best known for his short stories, Matiyani wrote extensively about the marginalised and the subaltern, earning himself the moniker ‘Jankathakar’, or teller of people’s stories. Joshi wrote India’s first television serial, Hum Log. It dealt with the everyday travails of a middle-class family, the characters soon becoming household names. He also penned Buniyaad, a serial about the struggles of a family displaced by Partition, and a political satire called Kakaji Kahin.

Poet Girish Tiwari, better known as Girda, had a long association with the Chipko and other Uttarakhand movements. He founded PAHAR, an organisation for the promotion of Himalayan culture. On my visit, I stayed at a re-purposed Kumaoni home in Naikana village. On offer were several immersive experiences of local life, including an excursion to the brass bell-festooned Chitayi Temple. Here, entreaties to the deity, Golu Devta, are petitioned only through letters, which flutter in their hundreds from every nook and corner.

There’s certainly something about Almora.

Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu is a writer based in Chandigarh

Travel log

 

Getting there

The nearest railhead is Kathgodam (90 km); the nearest airport is Pantnagar (125 km). Taxis are easily available for the onward journey.

Stay

Kot Naikana, a homestay(www.mountways.com)

BLink Tip

Visit during the monsoons to catch the Sawan Fair at Jageshwar Temple.

Published on September 14, 2018

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