Takeaway

Guests, hosts and ghosts

Shriya Mohan | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on January 05, 2018
Hair-raising: At Daan-kudi, a once-abandoned heritage structure now turned into an adventure home, hungry leopards are a common sight. Photo: Shriya Mohan

Hair-raising: At Daan-kudi, a once-abandoned heritage structure now turned into an adventure home, hungry leopards are a common sight. Photo: Shriya Mohan

The road to green: A bamboo bridge leads to a tree house nestled between the branches of a shady mango tree. Photo: Shriya Mohan

The road to green: A bamboo bridge leads to a tree house nestled between the branches of a shady mango tree. Photo: Shriya Mohan

Teaming up the hills: A bunch of nature lovers, the folks at Wildrift adventures have all the juicy tales to tell. Photo: Shriya Mohan

Teaming up the hills: A bunch of nature lovers, the folks at Wildrift adventures have all the juicy tales to tell. Photo: Shriya Mohan

Deep in the forests of the Kumaoni hills of Uttarakhand, adventure junkies have their fill at a “haunted” homestay

At 3 am in the December cold, there is a growl outside the thick stone-and-mud walls. It is a low and stubbornly steady call, refusing to budge until it incites movement. After some time, there is one last dare before it trails off into the hilly forests. In the morning, Dinesh Kumar confirms it was just a hungry leopard searching for prey. At Daan-kudi, a 150-year-old stone house nestled in the forests of the Kumaoni hills, 18 km from Uttarakhand’s Ranikhet, strident leopard calls are as common as stray cow moos on Delhi’s smog-filled roads. Kumar and a team of nine together run the Wildrift Adventures homestay; they have five similar campsites at Sattal, Mukteshwar, Corbett, Ramganga, and near the Namik Glacier of the Himalayan region.

Daan-kudi is a pahari (hill) heritage property, made of wood, stone and mud. Located in Galli Bashura village, it is surrounded by sloping hills and a sprinkling of small houses, animal sheds and vegetable gardens. The villa has nine rooms divided between the ground floor, the low mezzanine section and the attic. A set of ornate wooden doors open into each of the rooms, where you can lean out of the large, carved oakwood windows. Outside in the compound, a huge mango tree spreads its branches into every corner; a bamboo bridge leads into a tree house nestling among the branches and spacious enough for a group of four to comfortably nap in.

The story goes that the villa belonged to a diwan sahib (finance minister and tax collector) deputed by an Indian prince during the British rule. “The diwan was a ruthless administrator, extricating taxes from the poor farmers,” Kumar tells a group of us gathered around a crackling bonfire. The villagers used to hear sordid tales of the diwan’s cruel ways, including scooping out the eyeballs of those who failed to pay taxes, leaving them to bleed to death. The eyeballs he gathered in his lifetime “would’ve filled a giant kadhai (frying pan)”, Kumar narrates with ghoulish glee, delighting in the horrified expressions of his listeners. After Independence, the diwan’s descendants are believed to have moved out of Daan-kudi for good. Over the years, the abandoned structure remained at the mercy of invading giant spiders and bats.

Soon there were whispers of haunting. Villagers claimed they heard strange voices in the house. They told each other that it must be the spirits of the tortured souls. Some of them claimed that stones came flying at them when they passed by the house. Eventually, nobody went near it.

Ghost busting

Back in 2009, Kumar was a partner with Wildrift at their Ramganga camp, while also running his paragliding venture . A search for new paragliding zones brought him and Wildrift founder Manoj Chaudhry to Galli Bashura . On hearing about the “haunted” house, they decided to visit it on a whim. The door frames had fallen, the stone walls had crumbled and a faint light filtered through dense cobwebs, and, yet, there was something charming about the place that drew them. “Whatever it was, it must’ve been precious, we thought,” recalls Chaudhry.

He remembers Kumar, eyes twinkling, asking, “What will it take to bust the ghosts inside?” And just like that, they decided to meet the sarpanch to try and trace the villa’s owners. Soon they had taken the abandoned property on lease and renovated it into an adventure home-stay.

Along the way, they busted many of the resident “ghosts”. It took them no time to discover the source of the mysterious mutterings echoing in the house — the hundreds of residing bats. “The Himalayan bats make chattering sounds, much like humans talking very fast,” Kumar explains with a smile. Next, out went the hooting owls, the great big spiders, snakes and bugs. And what of the flying stone missiles? These turned out to be the fruits of the maloo creeper that rolled down the hills and burst open on the roof, showering their rock-like seeds on passersby.

With the last of the “ghosts” exorcised, Kumar brought in masons experienced in the building’s bygone construction style. It took a year to get the house back in shape and prepare the traditional flooring using wood and lipai — a mixture of mud, cow dung and wheat husk that needs a touch-up every 15 days.

Thrills and chills

Today, Daan-kudi is the kind of offbeat place that kids of alternative schools and corporate teams choose to go to for a break away from the bustle of big cities. The adventure activities on offer include paragliding, rock climbing, flying fox, day and night treks, and fishing by the Kosi river, birdwatching and camping in the woods. In the cold December off-season, we end up having the house to ourselves. Kumar and his wife, Sonia, also with Wildrift, run the place like their own home, filling you in on stories from the jungle as you toast yourself by the bonfire.

The food, made by the 60-year-old “chacha”(uncle) Govind Singh Bisht, is homely — pahari kulth ki daal, methi-stuffed paratha, tender country mutton curry, creamy chicken cooked in yoghurt, gulab jamuns and baby-sized malpoas — are delectable. What’s particularly memorable is being served the pahari lemon raita on a sunny cold afternoon. It is made using the pulp of the region’s large-sized lemons, curd, jaggery, honey, turmeric, crushed mint, coriander leaves and, the most crucial ingredient of all, bhang ka namak (a spiced salt containing crushed hemp seeds). Sweet, sour, spicy and tangy all at once, it is bursting with flavours.

As you pour yourself another drink after a long trek in the forests and curl up with a book by the fireside, there is no sound sweeter than the crackling of the burning wood, and no feeling more fragile than to know that the wilderness is yours only to borrow in moments, not ever to own.

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Published on January 05, 2018
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