The hills kept us company
as the road wound its way out of Ramnagar, Uttarakhand, in the sturdy Mahindra
that our driver Govind had managed to wrestle to the railway station two hours
after our train arrived one early May morning.
We’d left Delhi the night before. It was my first journey to erstwhile Corbett country and Philip’s second. As the Ranikhet Express rumbled through the night I’d lain awake, recalling episodes from Jim Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon. We passed Moradabad at half past three, then Aliganj, Kashipur and finally Ramnagar.
The night before, I had arranged with Manoj, the manager of a hotel in Mohan, or resort as they’re advertised, to have a vehicle meet us at Ramnagar station.
“I’d have to find somebody that early to send,” Manoj had said. It meant he would have to find someone who’d leave at 4 a.m. to have him present in time for the train. “He’ll be there,” he’d assured us.
Manoj had sounded far away over the crackling line, as if buffeted by storms wreaking havoc in a remote valley in the middle of nowhere. It set my imagination roaming, of a settlement encircled by hills with ridges crested by tall Sal trees the sun had to fight to break through, where tigers roamed in the night.
The contrast with Old Delhi railway station couldn’t have been starker. We’d descended, in the faint light of mercury lamps, into the cauldron of platform 12, a scene that might have come straight from an old Partition film with a sea of refugees awaiting the last train to safety.
Before leaving, Philip
and I had debated our options, notably Dhikuli, before settling on Mohan. Both
are located, 14 km apart, along the boundary of Corbett National Park.
“Dhikuli’s too crowded with hotels, Mohan is better,” Philip had insisted with an eye on bird-watching in the vicinity.
I only hoped Mohan was not so far that we’d find it difficult to get to the park’s entry points, notably the Amdanda Gate near Ramnagar to the Bijrani zone.
Bijrani is tiger land,
everyone who knew anything about Corbett had said online.
At Ramnagar, 5.45 a.m. turned to 6, but there was no sign of the jeep. We’d watched the crowd of autorickshaw drivers at the station entrance compete fiercely for customers before leaving for the Ramnagar bus stand and beyond, to hotels in Dhikuli. For `10 you can hitch a ride to the bus stand that takes you to other destinations in Nainital district. An SBI ATM, provided for the convenience of tourists, stood by the exit alone but for the mosquitoes that droned about it.
“The driver’s coming,” Manoj reassured me when I rang him again. I doubted if the tiger would prove as elusive. We’d hoped to use the early morning for a foray in the forest about Mohan.
A lone rickshaw remained, the driver trying to convince us to ditch the hotel transport. “If everyone waits for them, what’s to become of us? They (the hotels) take away our business.”
The goods unloaded off arriving trains had been taken on carriers improvised from Vijeta scooters, not unlike the improvised Bullet 350 cc carriers in Rajasthan, typically Indian jugaad.
“Bas paanch minute mein pahoochta hoon, saar (I will reach in five minutes),” Govind, the driver, said each time I checked on his progress after each “paanch minute” had turned 15. He eventually turned up at 7.15 a.m., two hours after the Ranikhet Express. In the days ahead I would grow accustomed to the roar of the Mahindra, enough to alert the wildlife we hoped to see.
Thin to the point of
being skeletal, Govind was built small and had a ready smile, pearly white
teeth set off by his dark skin. He found it hard to change gears without using
his shoulder. In time we would warm to his effusive personality. He was full of
stories about Corbett’s tigers and their exploits from the moment he turned the
jeep towards Mohan.
Mohan, or Mohaan as locals pronounce it, Govind too favoured it, is 21 km north of Ramnagar. We drove along the eastern boundary of the Corbett National Park barely deviating from the course that the Kosi etches in the mountains.
Over 80 years ago, also in May, one Edward James Corbett alighted from the 1 p.m. train at Ramnagar and set off on a 24-mile journey by foot to Kartkanoula, halting at Gargia for the night.
Over 80 years ago, also in May, one Edward James Corbett alighted from the 1
p.m. train at Ramnagar and set off on a 24-mile journey by foot to Kartkanoula,
halting at Gargia for the night. Next morning he left for Mohan village. He
halted briefly at the forest rest house where he met locals from Mohan bazaar
who, as he notes in The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, filled him in on stories of the
maneater terrorising Mohan. Jim Corbett then left for Kartkanoula, a
“four-thousand-foot” climb with his entourage of two servants and six
Garhwalis, where the tiger later known as “The Mohan Maneater”, had killed
three villagers in the week gone by. Our journey to Mohan took just a couple of
Our choice was in no way influenced by the fact that it figured as the setting of an epic hunt in 1930, but it’s worth noting that a little over a year ago a Corbett tiger turned maneater and preyed on villagers in the forest hamlets adjoining Mohan, namely Gargia and Sunderkhal.
Sunderkhal is an illegal encroachment of settlers and a determining factor in the rise of man-animal conflict in this part of the country while Gargia is home to a temple dedicated to Gargia Devi as Goddess Parvati is known here. The temple is perched on a massive rock rising from the Kosi.
“On Karthik Poornima, the fair is worth coming for. People from far and wide offer prayers here,” Govind interjects in the silence. We had pulled over to the side of the road while I photographed the Kosi and the temple in the distance.
The river ran dry in some parts but in a few areas water had collected in inviting pools. Standing on the edge of the hill where it drops sharply down to the Kosi, I looked for breaks in the green canopy and photographed devotees enjoying a dip in the pools. The sight was a far cry from the furious brown surge that in 2010 swept away all it could reach, trees, animals, people, homes, hopes, everything.
The water level of the Kosi floods of 2010 is marked prominently on the retaining wall of the Kosi Barrage at Ramnagar where visitors cross to the Ramnagar Forest Division en route to Sitavani. The floods of 2010 are part of the local patois now.
Talking to Kundan in Mohan Bazaar one evening I don’t initially get his reference: “Dus mein toh sangathan waley bahut dey gaye (In Ten they gave us a whole lot)”, “Dus mein tho aisi aisi cheezein di gayi ki … logon ney … kapda-shapda, kambal-shambal, duniya bhar ke cheezein … par hissaa nahi diya kisi ne.”
“Dus mein” has a
significance formerly restricted to events such as births and deaths. Along the
Kosi past Ramnagar, 2010 is a divide in the timeline—a before and
after—sharpened by resentment among the displaced who view their plight as
unresolved to this day. The story is no different along the stretch on either
side of Gargia, a stretch on the faultlines of human-animal conflict since the
days of Corbett. Only, it’s a lot worse now.
We approach Gargia on the NH-121 shortly after leaving Dhikuli behind. The
road bisects the corridor between the Corbett Tiger Reserve and the Kosi all
the way to Mohan.
The corridor, known as the Kosi River Corridor, is critical to the success of TAL (Terai Arc Landscape), a series of protected areas proposed by wildlife organisations to ensure a network of contiguous forests and wildlife corridors along the entire arc of the Terai, stretching from the Parsa Wildlife Reserve in Nepal to Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand’s Dehradun district, spanning over 49,000 sq. km, with India accounting for 60 per cent of the landscape.
Contiguity is essential for the genetic diversity of wildlife. Block the corridors and wildlife zones turn into islands, threatening their long-term survival. It is in this corridor, along the busy NH-121 that passes through it that Govind points out a spot in the trees set back from the road: “Here, a motorcyclist was killed by a tiger last year.”
According to Govind, who seems to know everything concerning tigers on his beat between Mohan and Ramnagar, the youth was talking on the phone with his fiancé at the village nearby when the tiger pounced.
Gargia lies a kilometre away, and Mohan 9 km further on.
“There was a big
demonstration, with villagers blocking traffic and pelting stones to protest
the killing and pressure the forest department to declare the tiger a maneater
and kill it,” says Govind. “The boy was to get married soon, and his relatives
swore they’d delay his final rites until they had avenged his death.”
The pressure worked and the shooters descended on its trail. The culprit was declared a female. But on capturing a tiger and finding it to be a male, the officials released it back into the National Park and continued in search of the man-eater.
Apparently the first reported killing was of a woman who had ventured into the forest for fodder. She belonged to Sundarkhal. Subsequent killings were reported in the vicinity, the fourth victim taken just off Gargia Chowki, which Govind shows as we ride past police barriers on the road. There’s no one manning it.
“See that road there,” Govind points out a road lined by trees that disappeared round a bend in the direction of the Gargia Devi temple. “The tiger pounced on a woman up there,” he says as we stretch our necks to follow his finger. “There.”
Then he described her terror-stricken companions running helter skelter as the tiger carried the poor woman off. “Nobody in Mohan, Sundarkhal, and Gargia ventured out of their homes in the months the maneater picked off eight-nine victims,” he said. “They bolted their doors and stayed inside. The woman was half-eaten when they found her remains.”
Eventually the tiger
went down in a hail of bullets near Sundarkhal. The hunters paraded it on an
elephant to cheers from the affected and revulsion from others. It was a male.
The officials explained it by saying the tiger possessed female-like
characteristics, raising further questions.
The final tally stood at six dead, not including the tiger.
Lalit, whom we meet the next day in connection with renting safari rides into the park, winces at the memory of the kill.
“I photographed her remains. It was a gruesome sight. She was torn apart, flesh trailing out. I have the pictures. I can send them across to you if you want to see them,” he offers. I don’t.
Their narratives evoke a strong sense of déjà vu: tiger, Gargia, Mohan, Kosi, women foraging for fodder, maneater, hunters, terrified villagers, bloodied remains. Like keywords around a consistent theme, they renew events from another time.
Their narratives evoke a strong sense of déjà vu: tiger, Gargia, Mohan, Kosi, women foraging for fodder, maneater, hunters, terrified villagers, bloodied remains. Like keywords around a consistent theme, they renew events from another time. But this is a new story, with fewer victims than Corbett’s Mohan maneater took so long ago. His book, which I have in my hands, never felt as alive as when I take in the terrain and the locations Govind brings to life as he tells us what it was like in those months barely a year ago.
The terrain is the same and the trails too probably existed in Corbett’s time, but there are differences: motor transport for one, and pucca roads for another. Gargia was nowhere near as populated in Corbett’s time, and the hunters tasked with shooting the maneater had several options for the night halt, unlike Corbett. He had only the lonely forest rest houses to spend the night before continuing by foot the next morning to the scene of kills. Evidently much has changed, and much hasn’t.
“It’s somewhere there,” says Philip, pointing as we approach forest department quarters by the roadside in Gargia. “Not these,” he clarifies, “but somewhere up. I remember we climbed a hill to get to the Gargia Forest Rest House.”
Philip visited the park with a group over a decade ago. They stayed the night at the rest house. And he’s certain it was the place Corbett mentions in his narrative.
Behind the newly built quarters a hill rises in a tangle of trees. In the canopy break we see a large structure side-on hinting at a sloping roof. Its location, commanding a view of the corridor fronting the Kosi and high cliffs across the river, hints it’s a forest bungalow.
“That’s the one,” says Philip, tracing the stiff but short climb up the hill that leads straight to the rest house. “We took that path up years ago.” But we will take a circuitous route by jeep that circumvents the quarters.
After he had accounted for the Chowgarh tiger, Baines, deputy commissioner of Almora, reminded Corbett in a letter of his promise at the district conference to eliminate the three maneaters operating in Kumaon division. He asked Corbett to go after the Mohan maneater, and soon, as it had killed three humans just the week before.
I had left home in a hurry on receiving Baines’ letter and had not had time to ask for permission to occupy the Gargia Forest Bungalow, so I slept out in the open.
Corbett writes: “I had left home in a hurry on receiving Baines’ letter and had not had time to ask for permission to occupy the Gargia Forest Bungalow, so I slept out in the open.”
Govind’s words from
the day before come to mind, of villagers locking themselves in and restricting
their ventures to the absolutely essential in the months the maneater ranged
through Mohan, Sundarkhal, Gargia and beyond, creating an atmosphere of fear as
palpable as Mohan’s residents would’ve experienced in Corbett’s day.
It isn’t until the last day of our visit to the park that we get to the bungalow, driven as much by Corbett’s reference as from a desire to experience, however faintly and far removed from his time, the lie of the land and the views it presented to “Carpet Sahib”, as the natives called him. He came to view the tiger more as a victim than an aggressor and was instrumental in pushing for its protection, eventually leading to the establishment of the national park that now bears his name.
Returning from Dhikala en route to Ramnagar for a ride to Ranikhet, Mahesh turns the jeep onto the mud road at Gargia and sweeps up a bumpy incline before bringing it to a halt outside a gate shaded by a large tree in a clearing that fronts the rest house. A low ridge runs to the back. Tall trees rise on the slopes of the rocky ridge. The house faces north.
A man to whom we gave a ride to Dhikala the day before is sweeping the front. He recognises us and smiles. Another is carrying water out to the front. “We can’t refuse a ride to forest staff, never know when they can be of help,” Mahesh had explained after we dropped the man off at Dhikala gate. Mahesh works for Lalit and drives Gypsy safari jeeps for a living. He and his colleagues, Rakesh, Babloo, and Arun rotate their duties between three Maruti Gypsies. Their lives revolve around Corbett’s legacy, tigers, officials, the fiercely sought safari permits, jungles and, occasionally, forest rest houses.
I’d been intrigued by
forest rest houses ever since I got hold of Maneaters of Kumaon in school. Long
before I saw Hugo Wood’s forest bungalow in the Anaimalai jungles, perched as
if poised to leap into the valley below, I imagined them from Corbett’s
accounts of Kumaon.
Their appeal derives equally from their portrayal as outposts of civilisation in the unforgiving jungle, as from functioning as the last line of protection between the hunter sheltering behind its door, rifle clutched in sweaty hands, and the maneater prowling in the dark of the night outside, scenting the human behind the door.
I was drawn to the thought of visiting the bungalows Corbett stayed in or was associated with in his hunt for the maneaters that terrorised Kumaon in the early 20th century. He pitted his wits against a wary adversary, manoeuvring his way across a landscape as unforgiving as it is beautiful. I hoped to experience the spirit of the man himself and the sense of awe and wonder he brought to bear from his experience walking the terrain. The rest houses contain the only tangible remnants of association with the legendary hunter turned conservationist in tiger country.
We squeeze through the wires of the solar fence ringing the compound, a measure of protection from wildlife, particularly big cats, and approach the double-storied structure laid on a rectangular plan and raised on a low plinth.
A wide porch runs along the front, shaded by a lean-to roof supported on seven pillars. There’s little to indicate if the pillars are stone or for that matter the walls. The cement lends them uniformity, along with a coat of paint common to all forest department structures, erasing any distinctive characteristics. The lean-to roof is covered with a corrugated sheet and appears to be of recent origin.
Three doors, each
flanked by two windows, open onto the porch where cane chairs stand against the
wall. The floor, contrary to my expectation that it would reveal the weight of
years, is laid with material requisitioned by government tenders offered to the
lowest bidder. Like the lean-to and the coat of paint, it’s of recent origin.
Above the entrance that leads to a sitting room that might have functioned as a
common dining room before, a wooden board notes the year 1884, and the year of
its renovation, 2010.
To the back lie more structures, most likely outhouses, one of which look as if it’s been untouched through the years. The others have succumbed to renovation. A banyan lets its roots hang mid-air. Silence throws a light blanket over us.
To the east the hills run steady, shepherding the Kosi along. Cliffs rise hundreds of feet in the air. The scrub is burnt brown, the colour of mud. Summer has shaken the leaves from trees. It was somewhere in this very clearing, or maybe at some distance between here and the Kosi, that Corbett slept in the open, vulnerable to the tiger of which William Blake wondered in “The Tyger”, at once contrasting its majesty with ferocity.
“What immortal hand or
Could frame thy fearful
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
Indeed what hand dare seize the fire if not the creator who framed its fearful symmetry?
Corbett describes his night in the open thus: “On the far side of the Kosi river at Gargia there’s a cliff several hundred feet high, and while I was trying to get sleep I heard what I thought were stones falling on the cliff below. The sound was exactly the same as would be made by bringing two stones violently together. After some time this sound worried me, as sounds will on a hot night, and as the moon was up and the light good enough to avoid stepping on snakes, I left my camp bed and set out to make investigations.”
The Kosi and the hills
along its eastern banks were a constant on our travels, and so were sounds that
occasionally crashed through the silence, freezing us mid-stride in
anticipation of a tiger breaking cover or retreating from our presence. Each
sound was as potent as the imagination that rode it, and as keenly awaited as
the anticipation willing it to reality.
Imagination constructs anticipation in much the same manner as it recreates landscapes lost to time—in elaborate detail. And nowhere was this as evident as when Philip and I returned to the old forest rest house in Dhikala from a tiger sighting that morning.
We saw the tiger as it padded through the grassland where the waters of the Ramganga back up along the Patli dun (valley). Named after Shiva’s tresses, the Siwalik range is separated from the Lesser or Lower Himalayas to the north by valleys or dun, Patli dun among them. It is through Patli dun that the Ramganga flows into Corbett National Park past the grassland at Dhikala. From the grassland, the Ramganga slows down to a pool of deep blue among the hills and forests. Deer and elephants roam in their hundreds, partial to early mornings and late afternoons before retreating to the trees along the edge of the grassland. The forest seems to have tiptoed to the edge of the grassland before stopping mid-stride, so abruptly does the landscape change from open ground to thick jungle. And every so often an alarm call reminds everyone that a tiger is making its way across the grassland, past the Dhikala Tourist Complex, back to the forests that ring the grazing.
We had arrived in Dhikala after gaining an entry permit for an overnight stay that entitles us to two safari sessions. There’s much jostling for the 30-odd permits available daily, with resorts booking them in advance for their clients. Without them you can’t go to the wildlife areas. Philip and I ran Manoj ragged over permits for each of the four forest zones, except Durgadevi.
Each permit allows for a safari jeep and driver, hired from local tour operators. A forest guide is mandated, his fee separate from the entry fee.
Lalit, Mahesh’s boss,
makes sure we understand how lucky we are to get a permit for Dhikala and stay
the night. “Visitors book up to six months in advance,” he says, waving the
papers as he emerges from the Corbett Tiger Rerserve Field Director’s office in
We had little hope of
a permit for Dhikala when we pulled up at the director’s office. We saw many
green Maruti Gypsies parked along the road. I thought they were there on the
same mission as us. Most were in fact on a protest to draw attention to a tiger
found dead in Jhirna a day or two earlier. The Jhirna death was the latest in a
series of tiger deaths over the last two years. They had been explained away as
due to old age and territorial fights.
But two of the protestors claim they have information to suggest a cover-up by forest officials. “How can they pass this off as territorial fight when the tiger’s head has been hammered in and the body shows unmistakable signs of struggle to free itself from a steel trap?” one of them asked.
“They (the poachers)
bludgeon a tiger caught in a steel trap to death,” he says, just as Madanji, a
local activist, joins the conversation. He’s been trying to channel local
dissatisfaction over the recent tiger deaths. We are given to understand by a
protestor that there have been 20-25 deaths in the last two-three. Madanji is
obviously a popular figure for each time he ventures into a sentence he’s
hailed by passers-by before he gets to the end of it. He greets everyone with
folded hands and bowed head, every inch a politician.
It was time to leave for Dhikala, 51 km away.
“The afternoon safari opens at 3 p.m., we need to reach Dhikala by then,” says Mahesh, the safari driver. “The drive from Dhangarhi Gate to Dhikala is a safari in itself,” Lalit quips. We drive 33 km through dense forests of Sal, Khair, and Shisham among others. Dhangarhi Gate is the entry point to Dhikala and 18 km from Ramnagar on NH 121.
Lalit is right about the ride being a safari in itself. It takes us over two and half hours to reach Dhikala Forest Complex where we have two bunks in a dormitory for the night. We swap it for accommodation in the annexe after four young Punjabis settle down for drinks and loud chatter while we’re still delighting in the afterglow of elephant watching in the grassland a short distance away. With the morning safari scheduled for 5.45 a.m., Philip doubts if we’ll get any sleep amid the “celebration” in the dormitory.
Past Dhangarhi Gate, under overcast skies and a light drizzle that petered out, we had driven along the northern boundary of the park. Each sighting, mostly birds, slowed us down while other jeeps sped past to make the most of the afternoon safari. We reached the tourist complex at 5 p.m. before making for the grassland immediately after registering our names.
Across the Dhikala
Forest Complex and the Ramganga, somewhere in the high reaches of the Siwaliks
lies Kanda and a forest rest house inaccessible for several months, or so
Mahesh says when I ask if we could make a quick trip up the hills to see it. I
wanted to experience the setting of the third maneater Corbett had promised
Baines to get rid of after the Chowgarh and Mohan maneaters—the Kanda maneater.
From the grassland across the Old Forest Rest House (OFRH) at Dhikala, Mahesh had pointed out Kanda in the general direction of a tapering ridge and said the Kanda rest house lay around there.
It was enough to fire my imagination about the encounter Corbett narrated in The Kanda Maneater, particularly where he writes of the two weeks spent in the heat of May climbing “innumerable miles up and down incredibly steep hills, and through thick thorn bushes that left my hands and knees a mass of ugly scratches, in search of a very wary maneater”.
On the evening of May 15, he finds a deputation of villagers waiting for him at the “two-roomed Forest Bungalow” in Kanda. It was on the same ridge at whose extreme end lay the village where they had spotted the maneater. Corbett believed its remoteness meant it suffered more from the depredations of the tiger than any other village in the district. The Kanda rest house is on the northernmost ridge of the park. It’s the highest of the three parallel ridges at over 1,100 metres. I left Uttaranchal without visiting it.
“The road has caved under landslides else we could’ve crossed the Ramganga and made it up the hill,” said Mahesh. “There’s another but more circuitous route,” he offered. I let it be and instead made for the old forest rest house or Old FRH. The gate is closed.
It’s here that Project Tiger kicked off in 1973, an ambitious project to pull the Indian tiger back from the brink of extinction.
Mahesh’s observation that the Kanda forest rest house “was not as big as the Dhikala one” was of little consolation. The Old FRH as it’s known now traces its origin to the early 1900s and finds mention in Corbett’s book in the context of the Kanda maneater he set out to hunt in 1933.
Corbett’s narrative dwells admiringly on the fortitude and courage of Kanda’s villagers in the face of an unrelenting adversary, equalled in intensity by the parts where Corbett writes of the actual tracking and killing of the maneater.
The Old FRH consists of an upper storey with large screened windows looking out on a verandah that stretches across the entire front, sheltered by a sloping roof. It’s an impressive sight from the front. Philip and I dragged a cane chair under it, posing for photos in caps with “Corbett” on the front. Then we settled in the cane chairs and gazed at the peaks across the Ramganga.
Typical of forest bungalows during the Raj, the verandah is for lounging while you take in the view, forest, hill, river, valley, or meadow. It’s supported on rounded pillars rising on a low plinth. Entry to the rooms is barred, however.
The rest of the accommodation, including the annexe to the new forest rest house, only a few metres from the Old FRH, is not a patch on the original.
Removed from their history, forest rest houses or bungalows are little more than brick and mortar structures. There’s usually a porch running along the front, opening into a central dining hall through a living room, with bedrooms clustered around the dining hall to allow for easy access. The kitchen at the back overlooks outhouses for the entourage of the visiting party.
Restore the historical context and it’s soon wrapped in layers of adventure, mystique, and mystery. The forest rest house experience is one that time has layered over the years. For the modern day traveller, it comes to life in imagination. So imagine Jim Corbett in the early decades of the previous century, hunting maneaters in the hills and valleys of Kumaon, holing up briefly in these lonely places before heading off to encounters that played out mostly in tragedy, human or animal.
The Dhikala rest house, which Corbett mentions only in passing, nevertheless
found in my thoughts a connection with the Kanda maneater. It’s possible that
Corbett stood at the same wooden railing on which I leaned as my eyes swept the
distant ridge where he had hunted the maneater.
The villagers of Kanda had stayed home to avoid the tiger. Once they ran out of fodder, they were forced to travel “further afield to get their requirements”.
It was on one such
foray, Corbett writes, “The party of twenty-one, after crossing the cultivated
land, went for a quarter of a mile down a very steep rocky hill to the head of
the valley which runs east for eight miles, through dense forest, to where it
meets the Ramganga river opposite the Dhikala Forest Bungalow.”
From the verandah of the same bungalow I can see a wall of dense jungle across the Ramganga. So those 21 men had descended to in the very terrain that stretches in front of me. I trace a meandering line down the high hills into the jungle along the base, a mass of impenetrable green. Nothing moves. Somewhere in that impenetrable mass the Kanda maneater had concealed itself from the lad who’d climbed a Bauhinea tree to cut leaves for his cattle.
Corbett tells of the fate that befell him and the sorrow of a father who set out in search of his son: “A man brought up in these surroundings, and menaced for over a year by a maneater, who, unarmed and alone, from sunset to sunrise, could walk through dense forests which his imagination peopled with evil spirits, and in which he had every reason to believe a maneater was lurking, was in my opinion possessed of a quality and a degree of courage that is given to few.”
The Kanda maneater met its end at Corbett’s hands three years after he shot the Mohan maneater in Kartkanoula (1930) some distance from Mohan bazaar.
Mohan seems a world away from Dhikuli where it is nigh impossible to spot the Kosi through the innumerable hotels vying for “Tiger Tourists” as Mahesh labelled them.
Life in Mohan, when it does not revolve around Corbett National Park, centres on a bazaar that seems to have changed little since that day when Corbett met the locals before setting out for Kartkanoula. He had reached Mohan on foot from Gargia that May morning in 1930.
Corbett writes: “After a very early start next morning we did the twelve miles to Mohan before the sun got hot, and while my men were cooking their food and my servants were preparing my breakfast, the chowkidar of the bungalow, two Forest Guards, and several men from the Mohan bazaar, entertained me with stories of the man-eater, the most recent of which concerned the exploits of a fisherman who had been fishing in the Kosi river.”
The bazaar is little more than a traffic corner straddling two roads. The NH-121 brings visitors from Ramnagar to Mohan, passing Dhikuli, Gargia, Dhangari, and Sundarkhal before crossing Mohan and continuing past Durgadevi to Chimtakhal, Marchula and beyond, terminating at Buwakhal 236 km away. The other road branches off the NH-121 at Mohan, passing an old forest bungalow near the bazaar before climbing in the direction of Ranikhet, through Bhatrozkhan and other villages high up in the ranges.
On our journeys we were rarely away from the hills, either ascending or descending them in the company of tall, stately Sal on narrow roads. At the corner of the bazaar in Mohan, a forest checkpost sits with its back to a forested hill along the boundary of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Barely a stone’s throw from the checkpost on a hill, are the offices of the “newly created” Mandal Range.
The Mohan Forest
Bungalow that Corbett refers to, and where he probably stopped for a few hours,
may be the one located barely 100 metres from the bazaar, off the road to
Ranikhet just as its gradient gets steeper. But it could as easily be the other
one, among the Mandal Forest Range offices on the other side of Mohan bazaar.
We visited both.
We weren’t aware of the Mohan Forest Bungalow on Ranikhet road until we got to the Mandal Forest Range. We saw an old bungalow, typical of Raj era buildings, lying in disrepair among relatively newer constructions.
No one stirs from the offices as we walk to the old structure. Is it the one Corbett mentions? A chimney rises from the sloping roof with a dormer window. A flight of steps runs up the side to the verandah on the upper storey. We want to find out if it really is the one Corbett mentioned so we ask the forest staff. A middle-aged man roused from an inner room by his junior comes out to meet us. He isn’t sure if it is the one we are looking for. In fact, he has little or no idea if Corbett stayed over.
Summoning his junior he asks if, before the bungalow fell into disrepair Corbett’s photograph had graced any of its walls, for he explains, “If Corbett had visited or stayed in it, a picture of him would be framed on the wall.” I find this reasoning about as plausible as Mahatma Gandhi’s photo in a government office confirming his association with that office.
“I don’t know, maybe there wasn’t any photo of Corbett,” the junior replied. “I don’t remember seeing any.”
I get the feeling we’ve interrupted the afternoon siesta. I’m sure there’s a forest bungalow, for Corbett refers to it. The senior official informs us that an older forest bungalow lies barely 100 metres away, on the other side of Mohan bazaar, and that he has heard of Corbett’s association with it. “It’s definitely old,” he repeats.
Of course, he doesn’t say, “It’s likely you’ll find Corbett’s picture on the wall there.”
As for the second
quest, the foresters’ hut where Corbett stayed the night after leaving for
Kartkanoula, which the shopkeeper at Chimtakhal had pointed out earlier the
same day, its location and description seem to match Corbett’s narrative: “The
hut is on the ridge of the high hill overlooking Mohan”. The foresters’ hut was
on a little knoll some 20 metres to the left of the road. The senior man is
aware of that structure but of little else.
“Did you see Corbett’s picture on the wall,” he enquired, probably loath to turn us away with a simple “I do not know.” It’s not often visitors come looking for minutiae from nearly a century ago.
I explained that the hut was in disrepair and maybe Corbett’s photograph did grace its wall before the place was abandoned. “There’s usually a photo if he was there,” he repeated, addressing no one in particular.
I realised it was time to go out and seek the other forest bungalow in Mohan. His junior led us to the edge of the clearing where, among the trees, the roof of a large structure was visible on the other side of Mohan bazaar. The junior said, “The forest bungalow you’re looking for is probably that one. It’s old, very old, from his time. That is the Mohan Forest Bungalow.”
If the demarcation between the two forest divisions, Mohan and Mandal, existed in Corbett’s time he was probably right. So we drove to the other bungalow, past Mohan bazaar before turning off onto a gravel path that led up to a gate. The road continued to Ranikhet.
Built in the early 1900s, The Mohan Forest Bungalow is in the centre of a compound looking out to the Kosi on the west. The outhouses are in a corner of the compound, home to the caretaker’s family and an elderly guard who had only recently been transferred to Mohan and knew nothing about Corbett except that he hunted maneaters. Behind us, thatched huts crowded the roadside and the the Kosi ran dry, a far cry from “Duswa”, the floods that swept much away along this very stretch. Kundan, the elderly man in salwar kurta I met in Mohan bazaar, had said that he gave away his 12 head of cattle after the floods destroyed the grass. “What does one feed them?”
“Now, you may find a single cow in households, a small one, kept so they can perform its puja, use its manure to plaster the floor, and its urine for traditional and religious purposes.”
Kundan was pacing up and down the bazaar when he noticed me with the camera, walking over to talk to me. He seemed to command some influence in deciding who displayed their wares in the Saturday bazaar.
About then, a thin middle-aged man clad in shirt and trousers came and stood to attention before me without uttering a word, in a pose not unlike the one struck in a photo studio. He plucked his identity card from his shirt pocket and held it in front of his chest so his photo and details were visible. For a moment I didn’t know what to make of this display. Then it struck me.
Noticing my camera and seeing me in conversation with Kundan, the man had probably assumed I was a newspaper reporter and decided he wouldn’t or shouldn’t be forgotten when I filed my report on the aftermath of the floods two years ago. I dutifully photographed him, and he moved away, disappearing silently in the weekly bazaar crowd. Not a word had been exchanged.
For a few moments after that I thought about the the floods of 2010. I wondered if it was any different in 1930 when the maneater menaced Mohan. I doubted it. Human misery repeats itself in myriad ways.
I imagined the locals gathered in Mohan bazaar waiting for “Carpet Sahib” to emerge from the bungalow and warn him of the perils that lay ahead even as they pinned their hopes on his reputation and his shooting eye. They may have trusted Corbett’s gun as the nameless man had probably trusted my camera to bring resolution to their woes. Corbett succeeded, I didn’t.
Early on, I had drawn a blank locating the foresters’ hut that Corbett placed in the vicinity of Kartkanoula. No one in Mohan seemed to have heard of the village. It didn’t occur to me then to provide the necessary context: the village where Jim Corbett shot the Mohan maneater. Someone who had heard of the story, and many have, might point a location in the hills above Mohan and say, “Kartkanoula should be somewhere there”.
Corbett says as much
about Kartkanoula after making the climb from Mohan:“After many halts we
reached the edge of the cultivated land in the late afternoon, and as there was
now no danger to be apprehended for my men from the maneater, I left them and
set out alone for the foresters’ hut which is visible from Mohan, and which had
been pointed out to me by forest guards as the best place for my stay while at
A chance discovery of R S Dangwal’s book among stuffed tigers in a souvenir
shop inside Dhikala Gate reveals Corbett’s Kartkanoula to be Kath-ki-naw,
variously spelled Kartkinaul and Katkanau among others, obviously corrupted
from Corbett’s time or vice versa. I believe our new pronunciation better
matches the current usage and could lead us to the foresters’ hut.
The next day we take the Marchula road from Mohan to get to Chimtakhal. It’s alive with birds this early in the morning. Philip, especially, is ecstatic. We note the Greyheaded Myna, Indian Redbreasted Parakeet, Himalayan Slatybreasted Parakeet, Chestnutheaded Bee-eater, Blossomheaded Parakeet, Rosy Minivet, Shama, Himalayan Bulbul, Longtail Minivet, Himalayan Tree Pie, and also Magpie Robin, Redvented Bulbul, and Spotted Dove.
We decide to extend our birding morning. Govind, Philip, and I drive six km further north up the incline to Durgadevi Gate in Mandal Range, the entry to C.T.R’s Domunda Zone. Lohachaur is 15 km from the gate in Domunda.
Durgadevi finds favour with visitors in the event they fail to procure entry permits to Bijrani Zone, Dhikala Zone or Jhirna Zone. A small temple, dedicated to Durga Devi, is across the road from the gate. We wash at a tap near the temple. The air is cool. We are 600 metres above sea level.
The staff in the office outside the gate tell us of a leopard sighting by visitors the evening before. I ask for directions to Kartkinaul.
“Kat-ki-naw? Yes, yes.
Keep to this road,” a man tells me. “Continue for 2-3 km more and you’ll come to
a crossroad at Chimta (Chimtakhal). There, a road branches off, past the PWD
office. Take it. You’ll come to Kath-ki-naw.”
At Chimtakhal we stop by a chai shop to make further enquiries. A board across the road marks the boundary of Almora, announcing the beginning of Almora district to travellers heading towards Marchula.
Borah, the bespectacled owner, is stocking his shop front. Behind, on an open wood-fired stove his two workers are preparing a deep bottomed vessel for pakodas to go with tea. One corner is heaped with onion peels.
Govind settles on one bench, sipping tea with a plate of fresh pakodas at hand. Borah speaks at length, and eloquently—of tigers, Jim Corbett, government policy, his origins, of the cycle of life, of politics.
“Asal mein woh raasta bandh ho chuka hai (Actually, that road is closed),” he said when I asked about Corbett’s route to Kartkinaul. Maybe he’s referring to the old district board road that is in disuse.
“Where your vehicle is now parked, right behind it,” he says. There was a bungalow that had functioned as the Mohan Range Office before it shifted to Mohan. “The office was transferred from here to Mohan. Mohan was divided into three parts. This (Chimta) Mandal ho gaya, yeh Kalagarh (referring to the section of the C.T.R. along the road, aur woh road (indicating the one that ran past his shop), woh Almora Range hai.”
He has mixed feelings about Corbett’s legacy, but he’s familiar with events and locations from Corbett’s pursuit of the Mohan maneater. About the foresters’ hut from Corbett’s narration, he points to the ridge across the road and says, “Yehi tha woh.” (This was the one).
We can’t see it from his shop but it’s visible 20 metres away round the bend. Kartkinaula, I learn, is 3-4 km from this point along the road to Bhatrojkhan. Corbett had that the hut was near in Kartkinaul, one reason why I’m doubtful about this place in Chimta that Borah pointed out. To my surprise, we discover two old structures side by side. The approach appears to align with Corbett’s noting in the book: “The Foresters’ Hut was on a little knoll some twenty yards to the left of the road, and as the door was only fastened with a chain I opened it and walked inside. The room was about ten feet square and quite clean…”
The structure also appears to match Corbett’s description, and we discover “1920 Corbett” etched into the wall above the entrance. But there’s no other indication of a connection with Corbett’s time in Mohan pursuing the maneater.
A small verandah fronts two entrances at right angles to each other. One leads to a single room; the other with the fireplace exits to the back. Two more rooms open likewise onto the verandah. One has a rusting safe. None of the rooms is locked. Four rooms, while Corbett had mentioned three.
The other structure has three rooms. That Corbett didn’t mention the second dwelling nags at me. Maybe it’s a later construction, but it looks older than “1920 Corbett”. And Corbett shot the maneater in 1930. This is more like a hut. And it has three rooms. But there’s no veranda, or a back door that Corbett mentions opening: “The hut would make a nice safe shelter for my men, and having opened the back door to let a current of air blow through the room, I went outside and selected a spot between the hut and the road for my 40-lb tent.”
He doesn’t sleep in the tent, dissuaded by alarmed villagers fearing for his safety. It was a wise decision. Corbett writes: “I am a light sleeper, and two or three hours later I awoke on hearing an animal moving about in the jungle. It came right up to the back door. Getting hold of a rifle and a torch, I moved the stone aside with my foot and heard an animal moving off as I opened the door—it might from the sound it was making have been a tiger, but it might also have been a leopard or a porcupine.”
The absence of a back door does not in any way lessen the suspense he painted so eloquently. The jungle is just outside the door. But we’re not convinced it’s the hut. So it seems we have to go to Kartkinaul, 3-4 km up the road from Chimtakhal. Even in this place, though, we can reach the edges of the world so precisely described by the great hunter.
As to what happened to the Mohan maneater, that is best left to the book. Suffice it to say that Jim Corbett, possibly at the very moment of reckoning and certainly in the moment after, experienced regret, born of respect and empathy for its condition which, even though he pursued them with single-minded focus, moved him to describe the tiger as a “large hearted gentleman”.
The forest rest houses, the principal tangible remnants of Corbett’s world, combine with his stories to provide a portrait of the jungle and the ways of its most powerful inhabitant. Although our search is not entirely successful, the journey shows us the landscape Corbett walked. It’s largely similar to his time, and helps crystallise the drama of his encounters with the dreaded maneaters of Kumaon.
It’s perhaps because these dwellings, however brief the halt, lend a fixed address to what happened, a living memory if you will, of a moment long dead. In the wider context of today’s conflict between man and animal, the forest rest houses remind us of similar conflicts from a long ago and the incidental role they played in resolving them, a situation that eventually brought home to Corbett the need to minimise the conflicts. Failure would mean the end of the tiger.
I don’t need to go further than Borah’s eatery to be reminded of the simmering friction. Borah is not entirely convinced that the tiger has to be saved at all costs. At one point he says: “Har cheez matlab systematic hai, uparwale ne banayi hai …. purey system se banayi hai. Aap dekhiye, log kehtey hai tiger ko bachao.
“Thik hai tiger ko bachao. Lekin tiger ko bachane… Doosra kuch bakri ko bachane ke koshish kyun nahi kartey? (There’s a system made by God. You see, people say, save the tiger. Ok, save the tiger, but why not save the goat too?).”
A vehicle roars past, drowning out his words. I resist being drawn into a comparison between the life of a goat and that of a tiger. In Borah’s life the tiger was incidental, as it possibly is for many others, and he says as much early on.
“Hum usko (tiger) is tarah se nahi dekhtey jis tarah se log (tourists) dekhtey hain. Hamara liye ek part ka hissa hai.” He probably meant “just as any other creature”.
Implicit in his observation is—why bother too much or so much about the tiger; if it has to die it will die even if its death results from a conflict for the same habitat for survival. That tigers are on the brink of extinction and need to be given a long rope, even at the cost of inconvenience to humans does not figure in his scheme of things. Many others share his perspective even if I don’t.
“Duniya kehti hai ki tiger bachna chahiye, par hum kehtey hai ki tiger bhi marna chahiye. Agar tiger, tiger ho gaya tho saala …. Dimag kharab ho jayega. Aadmi ghar se bahar nahi nikal payega.” What he appears to be saying is that the tiger needs to be treated on par with humans. If humans struggle to survive, fighting adversity not of their own making, why should the tiger not make its own stand without humans leaning in its favour?
If it survives, so be it. If it dies out, so be it. “Prakrti ka niyam hai” (it’s the law of nature). Here are the fault lines of man-animal conflict, for co-existence is only possible if the actors do not fear or inconvenience the other, else it’s a co-existence more of compulsion than desire.
I can see where this is going but it’s depressing all the same. The views of people like Borah are no doubt reached from years of coping with life in the critical conservation zones. I think of Corbett’s preface to The Man-eaters of Kumaon: “There is, however, one point on which I am convinced that all sportsmen—no matter whether their viewpoint has been a platform on a tree, the back of an elephant or their own feet—will agree with me, and that is, that a tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated— as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support—India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”
Corbett saw it and understood. The sahibs, white and brown, hunted the tiger for pride and machismo but it was man-animal conflict driven by a competition for scarce resources, even if not as acute in his time as now that classified tigers as vermin and gave bounties for each dead one. That was what pushed Corbett as early as the 1930s into lobbying then UP governor Malcolm Hailey to establish the Hailey National Park in 1935, now Corbett National Park.
The terai was a largely unpopulated swamp then; malarial, exotic and wild but after 1948 the UP government of newly independent India saw it as a vast fertile land going waste. That was what drove its transformation into settlements of demobilised soldiers of the erstwhile British Army and refugees fleeing Pakistan and others drawn to the prospect of new life, bringing humans right to the door of the national park, saved only because it was gazetted a decade earlier.
Chimtakhal, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed that it was sheer providence
that Corbett Tiger Reserve exists at all, a case of the right person making a
decision at the right time. Otherwise Philip and I would not be making this
journey at all.
It is in what survives that loss is measured, experienced, and grieved.