Into the jungles of Kumaon

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on May 30, 2019

Food coma: Kumaoni thali at the Taj Corbett Resort & Spa served up some local dishes such as pahadi raita, mandwa (millet) roti, millet kheer and aloo ki sabzi

A quiet night at the Corbett National Park is rewarding for all of one’s senses

Most physicians and fitness instructors advise walks post dinner. It increases body metabolism, they say, thus helping the digestive system break down the mounds of food we ply it with. A post-lunch walk should also serve the same purpose, I infer, when I am told of a visit to Kunkhet, a village near the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, right after the meal. The meal — a Kumaoni thali — is extraordinarily large and nearly impossible to finish at a single attempt. But the hospitality of the hills doesn’t believe in the word ‘no’, especially when it comes from the mouth of the visitor from the plains. A bowl of millet kheer sits firmly between me and my visit to Kunkhet, on the banks of the River Kosi. And my server keeps a watch on my progress with the dessert.

The drive to Kunkhet, with a team of naturalists and guides from Taj Corbett Resort & Spa, meets with two pleasant interruptions. Both are caused by elephants, munching on branches of trees lining the road. They humour us with multiple photo-ops, walking from one side of the forest to the other at a leisurely pace. One among them is a calf who shows an interest in jeeps. The vehicle I am in moves back by inches every time the mother elephant tries to pull the inquisitive calf back into the herd.

It’s almost 4 pm when we reach a suspension bridge above the Kosi. The water beneath is as clear as a shining mirror, strewn with pebbles of all shapes and sizes. I walk across the bridge with small steps, pausing to look over the edge at the river. Kingfishers, in search of food, break the surface with streaks of blue, red and brown. Tigers, too, come to the riverside in search of food --- thirsty deer or cattle belonging to villagers in the area. A dead calf had been spotted that morning, informs Kunwarji, our elderly and experienced guide. “Barely a kilometre from here,” he adds for heightened effect. It’s likely that the predator will return to claim its kill, so I follow Kunwarji down to the banks of the Kosi, through the village of Kunkhet.

Kunkhet is a cluster of houses, mostly strung around rice fields ripe with golden crop. The fading sun brightens the surroundings with slanting rays of warm yellow light that filter in through mulberry trees. I criss-cross the patchwork of fields to reach a spot where a mud track leads to the bank of the river. Apart from the music of the flowing water, I arrive to a light picnic spread that a team from the resort has laid out for the group of tourists I am part of. I dip my feet in the cold water, seated in a foldable chair that comes with comfortable armrests and a cup holder for that kulhad of adrak chai (ginger tea). vol-au-vents with cream cheese filling and canapés with watermelon and soft ricotta are served on small plates with biodegradable cutlery. The most atmospheric sundowner of my life looks complete despite the elusiveness of the country's national animal.

That night, after treating my skin to a refreshing salt-based body scrub and a turmeric ubtan (pack), I slide into the bed of my cosy two-room cottage. The décor of this Taj property is a world away from the luxurious look of the chain’s hotels in the cities and beach towns. The colour palette is earthy, in keeping with the camouflage clothing one needs to get by in jungles. The furniture is minimal and the the rooms spacious but not overwhelmingly big. It's clear that, at Corbett, the hotel experience is not about enjoying the comforts of the indoors --- step out, walk around, sample the beauty of the jungles that Jim Corbett loved all his life, build an appetite, taste the local flavours and come back to a good scrub and sound sleep.

I sleep well that night, waking up at the crack of dawn for the safari to the national park’s Dhikala zone. I vow to pin-drop silence as the Jeep rolls past the gate and into India’s first national park. Even in the warmth of an early summer morning, it isn’t difficult to imagine the beauty of the rainwashed greenery of the park in the monsoon. The vehicle follows a herd of elephants to a vast open stretch in the midst of the Dhikala zone. And there, another baby jumbo shows interest in chasing nimble-footed deer across a swamp. A child at play in the most natural of surroundings — my forest safari, even without the tiger, is complete and rewarding. I think even William Blake would agree if he were at Corbett that morning.

Aditi Sengupta; The author was in Corbett at the invitation of Taj Corbett Resort & Spa

Published on May 30, 2019

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