Dr.T.G. Longstaff, an internationally acclaimed mountaineer had once remarked – “After six visits to the snows, I still believe that Kumaon is the most beautiful country of all in the continent of Asia…. Mountain and alp, birds and animals, butterflies and flowers all combine to make a sum of delight unsurpassed elsewhere”.
The impressive Kumaon hills with their magnificent ridges, snowy Himalayan peaks, gurgling mountain streams, shimmering mountain lakes, and lush green valleys is where we headed for our annual Spiritual Retreat organized by Belur Math – the worldwide headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math & Mission. Apart from lay devotees, the tour comprised of a couple of monks from the Ramakrishna Order.
We departed from Kolkata by an early morning flight to Delhi and thereafter by coach all the way to the picture-perfect hill station of Almora. The distance of approximately 380 km. was covered in 8 hours and the drive was beautiful as we took the Hapur-Moradabad-Haldwani-Garampani-Almora route and the wayside beauty of the Kumaon Himalayas mesmerized us all.
Our love affair with Kumaon began even before we could check-in at the splendid Victorian-style Kalmatia Sangam Resort.
Swami Harirupananda, a well-traveled monk who accompanied us had been a guest of this resort once, and upon his recommendation, we decided to lay anchor at Kalmatia Sangam Resort for our weeklong Spiritual Retreat.
Since most of us hail from metropolitan India, we eagerly look forward to this annual getaway for a week where apart from spiritual discourses, Yoga, and meditation, we also engage ourselves in meaningful nature pursuits like trekking, angling, rafting, visiting rural hamlets, interacting with tribal folks, etc….
Given the nature of the holiday, which is the rejuvenation of the body and mind, the choice of destination, as well as the hotel or resort, is of utmost significance. Here, it is not luxury that is demanded but an experience that is transcending and we found the Kalmatia Sangam Resort to be an ideal base to distress ourselves.
The resort itself is ideally located in the undulating Kumaon hills and is run by Geeta and her German husband – Dieter Reeb both of whom take a lot of pride in running this magnificent property and extend their fabled hospitality to the jaded world traveler.
The best part of the resort is that no matter which room you check in, you are guaranteed breathtaking panoramic views of the snow-clad Himalayan peaks. The architecture is a fine blend of vernacular with that of the contemporary and the stately Cedar, Mimosa Cypress, Pine, Oak, and Rhododendron trees surround the resort gracefully.
For us city dwellers, the faith that knit our lives together slowly unraveled with the intrusion of science. The paradigm shift in the worldwide view over the past century has rendered God, if not dead, at least coolly marginalized. It is the “spiritual outlook” that gives meaning to life.
It is the spiritual approach to life that recognizes that our lives have meaning and that there is a purpose and a goal. Here, at the very heart of the Kumaon hills, that ethereal ambiance or the spiritual well-being and the characteristic features of rural Himalayas easily makes it an “Eden on Earth”.
There is quite a bit of history attached to the Kalmatia Sangam Resort and owes its origin to an adventure-loving British Army officer by the name of – Col.E.S.Jackson who in course of one of his inspired hill saunterings, stumbled upon this place of magical beauty, way back in the year 1867, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Towards the latter part of the century, this charming hill estate was taken over by the then-District Commissioner of Kumaon – Edward Thomas Chowdhury. Today, this magnificent Himalayan property is looked after by Mr.Chowdhury’s granddaughter – Geeta, and her resilient German Husband Dieter Reeb. The couple’s hard work and ingenuity have paid rich dividends and the Kalmatia Sangam Resort is the proud recipient of the – “New Face of Indian Adventure Travel Award – 2009”.
Once inside the resort, we knew we were in a very fortunate place and Swami Harirupananda revealed to us that this place of outstanding natural beauty has been blessed by the visit of great men and women like Swami Vivekananda, Anandamayee Ma, numerous Tibetan monks like Lama Angarika, etc.
In the present times, if one flips through the resort’s Guest Register, it has already become very popular with visitors from abroad who are absolutely delighted not only by the resort’s vantage position vis-à-vis the snow-covered Himalayan peaks but also due to the easy access to the surrounding villages where the natives of Kumaon lead a fascinating lifestyle.
During an informal conversation with the resort’s owner – Dieter Reeb, we were informed about the resort’s single-pointed determination to promote Tourism that is Sustainable in nature and true to their commitment, not a single tree had been felled during the construction of the resort, in spite of the manifold objections of the architect.
What is more, in keeping with the principles of “Sustainable Tourism”, most of the staff that the resort presently employs had at one point of time also worked at the construction site?
Due to inadequate hill planning, Almora like other hill stations of India is faced with a serious water crisis but thanks to the visionary approach of the resort’s management, they have to a large extent solved the water problem by setting up tanks with a capacity of approximately 1.2 million liters and I could see the message board in my room that made me aware of the significance of being economical with water use.
Kalmatia Resort is regarded as a pioneer in Uttarakhand when it comes to recycling garbage. They actually have gone in for composting of organic waste and discourage the use of non-biodegradable waste.
After dinner, as I was about to switch off the lights after a day’s delightful outdoor pursuits, I heard a shrieking noise from outside. At first, I ignored it. But the noise persisted, which compelled me to venture out of my room. It must have been around 11 P.M. – too late by Kumaoni standards and from the adjoining room, I saw Swami Harirupananda coming out of his room with a flashlight.
From his earlier visits to this resort, the Swami was certain it was the screech of a Leopard, and given the fact that during his pre-monk days, he had served in the Simlipal National Park as a Ranger, I had nothing to doubt about the Swami’s veracity.
Soon enough, a wildlife drama of sorts was being enacted in the outer periphery of the resort. On a bushy strip, a Leopard was gazing with gleaming eyes. As the Swami’s flashlight feel on the Leopard, it began to scream even louder.
Meanwhile, most of the resort’s security staff had by now traced the Leopard. A section of the security staff was of the opinion that they had heard from the local village folks about a Leopard who after giving birth to a baby cub had to encounter the wrath of another Leopard as the pregnant Leopard had trespassed into the later’s territory, resulting in a bitter brawl.
Ultimately, the mother leopard had to retreat without the baby cub, which in a way was making her mad, leading to frenetic searching on her part.
Early next morning as we sipped piping hot tea at the lounge, one of the support staff of the resort who witnessed last night’s Leopard episode said that such encounters were quite normal in this part of the woods and that apart from Leopards, visitors often sighted Porcupines, Jackals, Wild Hares as well as Pine Martens.
One thing that touched me very deeply was the simplicity of the Kumaoni folks and their fascinating rituals and traditions. This region of the Himalayas has sheltered fleeing populations not only from Central Asia but also from the Indo-Gangetic plains as a result of which this region has absorbed the varied cultures, ethnicity, languages, and religious beliefs.
Much of its ancient customs and traditions that draw succor from the Vedas and Upanishads are still intact courtesy of the indomitable spirit of Kumaoni folks.
The best way to savor the rustic charm of Kumaon is by embarking on a fascinating Village Tour, which is one of the hallmarks of Kalmatia Sangam Resort. They organize enchanting Village Tours and offer discerning guests a lifetime’s opportunity to experience the unique Kumaoni culture.
The entire group under the stewardship of Swami Harirupananda who was also provided with a local escort decided to go on one such Village Tour with the option of an overnight stay at the concerned village’s well-appointed huts.
These Village Huts have been innovatively renovated with much of their original features intact so as to provide guests with an experience that is every bit Kumaoni. The only modern additions to these huts are the sparkling toilets and hygienic kitchen.
During the daytime, we trekked extensively. Of course, the pace was slow and with regular halts at places of interest. The altitude varied between 1450 m to 2250 m. Since we were traveling in the month of March – a time when the Kumaon hills are a riot of colors with Rhododendrons in full bloom made for a truly kaleidoscopic vignette.
It was a joy to behold – the sight of native Kumaoni folks engaged in agriculture in their terraced fields. A close-up of their residential hutments revealed intricately carved wooden doors and windows. We also had a glimpse of the local “Weekly Bazar” where the simple Kumaoni mountain folks conduct trading on a wide variety of items ranging from agricultural produce to ethnic jewelry.
We never imagined we would be so fortunate to savor the lip-smacking Kumaoni cuisine that was specially cooked for us by a local villager on the advice of the resort’s Manager.
Since the tour comprised of two couples, the wives had the rare opportunity to have a first-hand experience of how a typical Kumaoni meal is cooked. The use of firewood is rampant and for a change, it was great fun to see the resident chef wiping tears every now and then when it got too smoky.
Apart from a wide range of trekking options, the resort is in close proximity to interesting places like the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary and hill stations like Nainital, Ranikhet, Kausani with Mukteshwar are easily accessible. Of special interest are the lakes of Sattal, Bhimtal, and Naukachyatal that are a rage with the discerning visitors.
Not many are aware of Almora’s Gorkha heritage – those hardened Himalayan mountain tribes known for their gallantry and fighting qualities, which the British regime tapped to their advantage. The Gorkha Regiment is one of the most exclusive brigades in the armed forces and they do have a sizeable presence in Almora and its surrounding areas.
In one of my leisurely strolls along with the resort’s well-informed guide in the outer periphery of Almora, I was shown a few Gorkha settlements that have been residing there for more than 100 years.
Reportedly, the Gorkhas had captured Almora in the year 1790, and to consolidate their position, they had built two impregnable forts – one at the eastern end and the other in the western part of Almora town.
However, in the year 1815, the Gorkhas, unable to withstand the firepower of the British East India army had to consequently give up their hold on Almora.
Nonetheless, the small Gorkha community adds a unique charm to the Kumaon hills with their colorful traditions and rituals that impress the outside visitors. I was completely swept aside by the melodious “Dohori Geet” sung by a few Gorkha village belles as they celebrated the marriage ceremony of one of their tribesmen.
Towards the end of our “Wellness Tour”, Gita Reeb, the resort’s proprietor came up with a novel idea – that of visiting the Binsar Hills which is located in close proximity to the resort. The altitude here is all of 2412 meters and we were told that in the days of yore, Binsar used to be the summer capital of the erstwhile Chand rulers.
Being a sunny day and with hardly any cloud cover, Geeta escorted us to a vantage position, rife with Oak, Pine, and Rhododendrons at Binsar from where we savored the breathtaking Himalayan panorama – Kedarnath, Chowkhamba, Trishul, Nandadevi, Nandakote, Panchchuli, Miraghunit and Devidarshan peaks, all lay exposed before our naked eyes like a fairytale mountain scenario stretching all of 340 Kms.
By mid-afternoon the snowy peaks took a tinge of golden hue by the piercing rays of the sun that made for a surreal feast and to round off a spectacular day of mountain viewing, we assembled at Zero Point and saw the ethereal sight of the red molten ball dipping across the awesome Himalayan horizon. For most of us, it was an experience of a lifetime.
On the penultimate day of our stay at Kalmatia Sangam, we decided to add some good “Karma” into our lives by paying a visit to the holy Katarmal temple, dedicated to the Sun God, which is believed to be very potent spiritually. Swami Harirupannda escorted us to this 800-year temple built at an elevation, which is all of 1554 meters.
We also paid a visit to Sitalkhet temple, 36 km. from Almora, which is dedicated to Goddess Durga.
All that trekking and mountain touring was great fun indeed and the resident cook was basting a butterfly-boned leg of a lamb on the barbecue, with his secret marinade as we climbed the lawn. Thrilled by our mountain adventure we planned some action that night.
Tribal Kumaoni dancers performed a dance to the percussion beat of native Kumaon. A starlit dinner was exactly what the doctor ordered to finish off a truly memorable Kumaoni sojourn. Memories of Kumaon will linger on for a lifetime.
Traveler’s Fact File
If You Go
Almora is easily accessible from places like Delhi and Lucknow both by road and train. From Delhi the drive to Kalmatia Sangam Resort is all of 380 Kms. and can be covered in 8-9 hours.
The route from Delhi to Kalmatia Sangam Resort:
Hapur Bypass – Moradabad Bypass – Rampur (Take Left Turn) – Bilaspur – Haldwani – Garampani – Almora. From Almora town take the road that leads to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary and on the 7th Km. is the Kalmatia Sangam Resort.
The nearest landmark to the resort is the Kasar Devi Temple (1 Kms.)
If you decide to travel by train from Delhi, there is Ranikhet Express that departs Delhi at 10.40 P.M. and arrives at Kathgodam at 6 A.M. From Kathgodam, on prior information to the resort, arrangements can be made for pick-up. From Kathgodam to Kalmatia Sangam, the driving time is 2.5 hours.