I spent the last 5 days in Kumaon with my parents. For the uninformed, Kumaon is the region in the Himalayas where my parents, grandparents and every other ancestor was born and brought up. I wasn't born there nor did I ever live there but have always considered Kumaon as the region to which I belong. Ever since I can remember my whole family (and other friends who my parents would take along) would drive up to the hills in the summer and spend most of our time driving around in a convoy, staying with relatives and in old tourist resthouses. For my parents it was always a sort of homecoming as they spent a significant part of their childhood in the hills. For my brothers and me, it was a respite from the heat in the plains and a time to go for long, leisurely walks, enjoy some spectacular mountain views, play games in the old houses we stayed in and meet aunts, uncles, cousins and lunatics (some of whom were aunts or uncles).
Nainital and Almora are the two big urban centres of Kumaon. My mother studied in Nainital till 16 and my father spent most of his summers in Almora and though both towns have now become dirty, ugly and congested for my parents they still retain the charm they had in the 50s and 60s. In the 60s Almora became popular with hippies including the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary. Somewhere around that time my father, who was in his teens, befriended a lot of the lesser known hippies. My father's parents were fairly strict and conservative but he managed to convince them that he was going to the temples as part of a religious awakening and not because of the crazy hippies hanging around. Every year, my brothers and I would be regaled with crazy stories of those years and somewhere that part of him hasn't gone away. On the other side, my mother went to a strict christian missionary school in Nainital and part of the training she received in those years hasn't gone away either. A trip to the mountains is a bit like a geography, history, sociology and family history lesson. As a result, even though my brothers and I didn't spend much time there we developed a strong attachment to the hills.
Since this was just a 5 day trip without my brothers or other friends or relatives, it was very different. There were no long walks, no chilling beer in a stream, no 2-3 day drives to reach what seemed like the end of the earth to us at that time, or late nights of board games and cards huddled underneath blankets. We spent 2 nights in Bhimtal at a cousin's house which resembles a resort. It was easily the most opulent place I've stayed in and there were more bedrooms than guests. One night in Almora at our ancestral home and one night in Jageshwar. The most we walked was about 30 mins and we stopped for tea almost every 15 minutes. This was also the first trip where we all put on weight after coming back.
The drive up consisted of stretches where the highway resembled world class roads which was a welcome relief after so many years but in between there were stretches through villages, dusty towns and potholes which reminded me of how tiring roadtrips in India can be. Throughout the drive my parents insisted on stopping every hour because a particlar town was known for mangoes, another for potatoes and a small 20 minute stretch for corn. My grandparents used to be like that years ago and seeing my parents behave like that was amusing. I went back to Kumaon after 7 years and the weird and unnerving part was meeting relatives who had aged rapidly, a favourite uncle who wasn't around anymore and cousins who were no longer kids but getting ready to join college.
Almora seems to have aged but going to Jageshwar was a refreshing change. Jageshwar is a town which seems to have been bypassed by inflation, development and globalisation. For a tourist it's reassuring though I'm not sure how the locals view the lack of progress. The claim to fame of Jageshwar is a stunningly beautiful stone temple built somewhere between the 8th and 10th century in the middle of a thick deodhar forest. It's quite mindboggling to think of how they managed to build a temple like that more than a thousand years ago. I went for a short walk one afternoon and since it was raining off and on, I followed the main road and resisted jumping into the forest and following some trail. Spent most of the afternoon sitting opposite the Dandeshwar temple and reading a book in a small tea shop. There were about 10 other people sitting around doing nothing except talking about the activities of the three monkies jumping around the temple. Sat and talked to the tea shop owner in halting Pahadi and he cursed the local politicians. After almost 3 hours of sitting there and endless cups of tea the bill came to about 10 Rs. It was about 2 Rs for a cup of tea - things haven't changed in a long time.
I didn't take a camera with me and really regretted it. Since it's the rainy season, the mountains are beautiful and almost every turn we took resembled a picture postcard like shot with low lying clouds over lush green moutains and red tin-roofs standing out prominently. Maybe next time.