During my travels around the country I try to imbibe the local vibe of each place I visit, and yet after a million trips to Corbett over the course of 15 years, I had never closely experienced the Kumaoni culture. Corbett remained the relaxed weekend getaway for me, and visits to the National Park were spent whiling time at a resort or splashing about at the banks of a river or a stream. I never considered that this place could have a culture deeply routed to its community and surrounding villages. A recent visit arranged by Corbett The Baagh- Resort and Spa changed the way I looked at Corbett, making me realize that in all these years I had barely brushed the surface of all the wonderful things that lie just beneath the surface of a tranquil getaway, waiting to be unearthed. Traveling with the locals is like being let in on the biggest secrets of the place one is visiting- age old stories and myths are unveiled, along with the lesser discovered places, festivals and food; and just for a little while we live a life very different from our own.
We went where the wild things are, and lived to tell! Watch this video on our trip for more:
The bus dropped us 28 kms before the resort, at a tea stall serving local soy momos (delicious and refreshingly different from the cabbage filled dumplings we get in the city). We boarded two jeeps here, thrilled and a bit reckless on our one-hour ride through the narrow curvy roads of Jim Corbett National Park. A guide working with the hotel drove our jeep and remained with us through the trip, sharing anecdotes and stories along the way. There’s nothing that makes you feel like you’re in a national park quite like arriving in a local jeep.
Once settled, a consulting naturalist took us on a walk through the village, on the periphery of the forest. The village was in preparation of the Haka Hak festival. Given their proximity to the forest, the villagers are up all night in shifts, keeping the animals off their property. Constant vigilance during the harvest season can get pretty tiresome, and this is a locally invented festival where the farmers open up their houses to visitors. The visitors (in shifts) guard the fields for the villagers, in a beautiful ceremony that exposes tourists for the local life. We walked past the village and into the forest, gathering information on the different wild berries that grow in the area, often stopping by to admire the parasitic relationship between two trees, to spot an occasional woodpecker and to admire the loud and clear song of the Bluethroated Barbet. The forest was only coming alive that evening, and though we didn’t spot a deer during our walk, we heard the alert call of a barking deer just as the last rays of the sun fell on the Sal, Kher and Sisso trees that make up the thick forests of the national park.
We were visiting during the Lohri weekend, on a particularly cold winter evening. With the wind lashing out at us as the night drew close, we were only too eager to plonk ourselves beside the Lohri bonfires, warming ourselves against the fire while swaying to the beats of four enthusiastic dhol singers. The mountains echoed the loud, clear sound of the dhol against the silence of the night. Bonfires were lit, popcorn was tossed into the fire and Lohri snacks were brought out. Sitting in a large circle around the fire, we heard stories about tiger sightings and scary experiences from the local guides and from some members of the forest department who had made their way to the resort to meet us. As is customary in the hills, ghost stories were also shared. The evening ended with a few soft songs sang in unison by the tune of a guitar, under the light of the moon and the warmth of the fire.
Though the National Park was shut when we visited, a corner section of the park was opened for us to experience the safari with a guide from the forest department. We drove through the narrow forest, past the stream and into the forest searching for the wild things. In a quick briefing the previous night, we were told that there are 9 ways to experience a tiger, which includes watch it cross the street, hearing the Langur’s call of caution, catching a glimpse of their territory markings on the trees and often even it’s excreta. While we weren’t lucky enough to see any tiger droppings; fortunately we hadn’t started the safari with such a mindset at all. We were happy to spot anything at all, and our enthusiasm knew no bounds when we saw a Barking Deer 50 meters away from us. Our enthusiasm, in fact, was the reason it fled for its life within 20 seconds of our sighting. We ended the safari with two Barking Deer sightings and one Sambar Deer sighting.
On our way back to the resort we stopped by at a local Saturday evening market. It was a small gathering of vendors selling different things: from food to utility items, grains and spices to jewellery: there were approximately 10 vendors that gather once a week. Famished from our safari, we wolfed down the soy momos, aloo tikki chaat and gol gappa; eventually stopping by a jalebi vendor who prepared and packed fresh jalebis for us as we watched- part fascinated, part impressed.
The night was still young and we were offered a trip to a village house. We eagerly set out in the darkness for tea and conversations with a village family. The house was at the end of a tiny orchard, and inside the bedroom doubled up as a sitting room. Past the kitchen was the courtyard, where we sat by and watch the lady of the house make a Kumaoni festive snack called the “Gughute” made from dough, jaggery and a few other ingredients deep-fried in a pan. We sat around the fire designing the Gughute as the first batch came out of the pan and was distributed amongst all of us. We ended up loving them, and greedily packing some to take back to the resort with us. We were told that “Gughute” are the special festive snack of the Kumaoni region, cooked and served at this time of the year only. It’s a crucial offering in the festival of Makkar Sakranti and Haka Hak, where little children tie them together into a necklace and wear them around their necks as they visit the different houses in the village on the morning of Makkar Sakranti. As is the case in different cultures, there’s an old tale of a bird who traveled for two days without food and water to visit his newly married sister. When he got there, his sister was touched to know he had traveled all the way just for her in the cold and rain, and so she made this Gughuti for her brother. Many other stories did the rounds as we rolled the dough into different shapes and designs, relishing them to the very last one.
We were beckoned early morning for another walk through the woods. Just as the previous one, this too was very informative. Amusing even, as we stumbled upon some tiger excreta. Our guide from the forest department was a man who knew the forest very well and was adept at picking up the signs of the jungle. This particular walk was all about the birds and the different relationships between plants (parasitic, symbiotic).. until we chanced upon the tiger droppings. It’s almost funny to think of it now, but we dissected it just a little bit (with a stick of course) and were told that it was approximately 2 or 3 days old. It was lined with brown skin and white fur, indicating that the tiger’s last meal was deer. We heard the songs of the Kapil Dev bird (a name kept by the villagers because their chirping sounds like they’re calling out Kapil Dev), a communication between two flocks of birds on either side of the forest, singling to each other at the crack of dawn that everything is okay in their part of the world.
During this walk we also learned many things about life around the forest, and the magnificent way in which humans and animals co-exist, often co-dependent and adding to an ecosystem that is mutually beneficial. Life around the forest is enchanting but also an entirely different world that sets itself apart from any other regular village in the plains. It’s one where the entire ecosystem grows together; where harm to a single species upsets the entire ecosystem, disadvantaging everything that falls
Of all my trips to Corbett, this one has been the biggest learning experience about co-existence and the power of growing together. Most importantly though, I learnt that sometimes we travel in search of luxury and fun, often ignoring so much information and culture and even the essence of a place that is lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered.