Among Bhabar villages

While jungle Safaris in Corbett National Park remain the main draw for tourists, one should never miss a trip to the nearby villages, says Dyuti Basu


Kunkhet

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Updated: May 13, 2019, 08:46 PM IST

“But I swear in the days still left we'll walk in fields of gold.” This line from Sting’s iconic song Fields of Gold kept playing in my head as we took a stroll in Kunkhet Village in Nainital, Uttarakhand, although we walked through wheat fields and not barley. The last village in this district, the village (kun-corner, khet-fields) is a heavenly corner of acres of agricultural lands framed by lush green hills.

Ghost Stories

“The village used to be on top of the hills,” narrates our guide, the local expert and Taj Corbett’s leading naturalist, Kunwar Singh. “However, in the village, there were two lovers who eloped and were eventually hunted down and killed by the family. Their ghosts haunted the village and the family, until they had to relocate here.”

The twinkle in his eye makes us wonder about the veracity of the tale but in as the late-afternoon sun slowly gives way to an eerily quiet evening, anything seems possible. A more practical yet equally interesting tidbit is that stinging nettles that grow wild here can be used in making tea, which China sells for an exorbitant price. Marijuana plants grow in wild clusters as well – the seeds from these plants are ground into a chutney that doesn’t cause any intoxication.

Jim Corbett’s Village

A short walk from Kunkhet leads to the Kosi river, which borders the Corbett National Park. Taj Corbett’s Riverside Experience had us taking our chairs right into the shallow waters of the river and enjoying canapes in the rapidly falling dusk as tiny fish skirted around our bare feet.

While most people go to the Kumaon region, specially to Corbett National Park, to experience the jungle safaris, the villages in the area present an idyllic lifestyle that shouldn’t be missed out.

Perhaps the most iconic village of all is Choti Haldwani. The village was adopted by Jim Corbett himself in 1915. Even after the renowned hunter and environmentalist went to Kenya, he continued to pay the taxes for the people in the village.

A five kilometer-long, five feet high stone wall surrounds the village, a testament to Corbett’s efforts to keep his village safe from wild animals. Now, with rolling fields of wheat, interspersed with mangoes, the forest sometimes seems almost a dream in the midst of the domesticity. But one only has to go a few miles to take a plunge into the wilderness.

Sher Singh Negi, Corbett’s assistant, was gifted a rifle by the latter. While he may no longer be around, his grandson, Trilok Singh, who is well into his seventies, still remains in possession of the gun. We met him in the village chaupal, where Corbet once used to hold meetings at the village. “I was very young when Jim Corbett used to come here,” he recalls, one creased hand on the shoulder of his own grandson. “He used to sit on a charpoy and he’d give us kids batashas.”

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Hillside industries

The third village that is now a part of one of the latest Taj Experiences, is Manikanthpur in Nainital district. Here, we were taken to Sabitri Garjola’s house. The head of the Swayang Sahayata Sahyog in the village, which has 12 women members, Sabitri and her son Gaurav Kumar are advocates of simple organic living.

Using mixed cropping, the fields are used to grow a number of herbs as well as the usual wheat and rice paddy. Chamomile flowers grow in abundance, are made into tea and sold. Gaurav also shows us the Agarkara herb, which helps with dental problems and bad breath if one simply chews on the flowers. Wild mustard and other fruit-bearing trees also intersperse the fields.

Here, we are treated to a traditional lunch at Sabitri’s house as the matriarch and her fellow Sahyog compatriots cook up a storm of delicious dals, potato curries, chutneys, sweets and more. As we chowed down on the delectable fare, listened to the women talk about their endeavours to create their own enterprise (Hameri brand, through which they sell local produce and handcrafted items), the common thought on everyone’s mind, was that we would love to never leave.