Old houses in Kumaon

A wooden box of an upper story rests on thick stone walls which make up the ground floor. That is a rather common older style of building from Uttarakhand. There are little variations. Sometimes the shutters on the upper floor look out on all four sides. At other times, as in the example above, there are one or two walls made of stone. I suspect that the older houses use more wood, and as wood became scarcer in this region, you could say that there was less of it to go around.

I could find little written about the traditional domestic architecture of the Kumaon region. Most accessible books and articles concentrate on the temple architecture of the region. Edwin T. Atkinson’s multi-volume tome, The Himalayan Gazetteer, the usual source of information on matters Kumaoni, is pretty silent about vernacular styles of architecture. In the true imperial manner, government buildings and new churches are deemed more worthy of comment. Nor did later official sources bother to record the variety of vernacular expressions. The state Tourism Department’s website references one rather ornate style, hard to see examples of, as the only one worth a comment. I suppose there are detailed studies locked away in architects’ theses, or in architectural journals, which I have no access to.

I have been unable to find articles or books which trace influences across the Himalayan region, or the development of building techniques. It should be a fascinating study. The neighbouring Garhwal region has been important to Hinduism for a long time. Pollen records show that agriculture started in the Kumaon region 500-600 years ago, when it was still part of a Nepali empire. There may have been travellers and pilgrim here before that, but not settlements. The region became independent about two hundred years ago, and was assimilated into British India about a hundred and fifty years ago. The connection with Nepal, and the trans-Himalayan cultural sphere which filtered through it would have created the vernacular style, which would later have been modified by contact with the plains-based cross-oceanic empire of Britain.

I stopped the car when I saw this old building outside of Kausani. The driver informed me that this is a style which used to be common once. A paper by a group of engineers at CSIR documents the style, but dismisses it as “lacking proper light and ventilation”. The Pestalozzis, a Swiss couple, who visited Kumaon a decade ago, became interested in the architecture and documented it, call this style a row house. To my eyes it resembled Mumbai’s chawls. The lower part of the house is given over to storage here, but in villages they were meant to hold cattle. The upper floor has a row of independent flats.

Which way did the influence go? From Kumaon to the rest of India, or the other way around? Notice that the doors to individual flats are not recessed and protected from the weather, unlike the doors of other traditional houses. Based on this, my guess is that the style is imported from the plains. But this is a guess, and direct work on dating these houses will be needed before the question can be settled. Such a wealth of questions exist here, and they connect to the deeper history of the region.


Driving through Uttarakhand we can see many of the hillsides terraced into fields. Where there were no terraces, there could still be houses straggling down hillsides. Several times I stopped to confirm that were no roads to many of these places. How were goods to be transported then? The few trucks we passed on these roads were the ones which carried a few tons. There were no industries up there which needed the multi-axle behemoths which ply on highways in the plains, not were there large dams and power stations which might require them now and then. But strangely, there were very few light trucks either.

In the hills of Bhutan I had seen people carrying logs of wood for construction up such slopes on their backs. I had the feeling that the extensive agriculture and construction that I saw here could not have been accomplished if human muscles were the only powered transport. The mystery was cleared up on our drive down from Kausani. When we began to pass packs of mules on the road I realized that these must be the backbone of the off-road transport network in these hills.

The botanist and spy, Frank Kingdon Ward, wrote some bestselling books about his journeys through the Himalayas. In the book In the Land of the Blue Poppies (1913) he wrote about a variety of pack saddles for mules, ranging from “a wooden frame, with such a multiplicity of bends and hitches that you feel it can never be undone again” to a Chinese “wooden pack-saddle made in two halves hinged like the covers of a book” and the “Indian Government mule harness [which] is provided with two iron hooks on each side, and the loads are attached by slings”. Perhaps the makeshift packs of re-purposed gunny bags, often splitting open at the seams and spilling loads on to roads, that I saw are a jugaadi innovation, created by an economy which takes all skilled workers out of villages and into towns, leaving the former empty of all skills except agriculture. If the pandemic reversal of this traffic lasts long enough, it could be of long-term gain to these communities, as trained people drift back and jugaad is replaced by genuine innovative skill. Long drives lead to new thoughts.

Anashakti Ashram

Gandhi changed Indian politics. He mobilized India between the non-cooperation movement, which ended in 1924 with his arrest, and the Salt March in 1930. In the five years between, he toured the country, constantly meeting and talking to ordinary people. Passing through Kausani in 1929, he decided to take a two week break. The place where he stayed is at the top of a low hill near the center of the town, and has come to be known as Anashakti Ashram.

Where did this name come from? I found that during these weeks he wrote his commentary on the Bhagwat Gita’s philosophy of judging the need for an action by its morality rather than consequence. The article is called Anashakti Yoga. He wanted to make this the core of his political method, satyagraha. He tried to live by it, and he died by it. In any case, the ashram is a quiet and beautiful place. Small panels of hand-carved woodwork decorate the otherwise simple pinewood buildings.

The day was overcast. The clouds and smoke from forest fires filtered out the sunlight. A brisk wind made the hilltop rather colder than the bazaar below. We walked around, but there was no feel of the political morality of the mahatma in the air. The main hall had a permanent exhibit of Gandhi’s life and work. We’d seen it before, but we wandered through it again, looking at pictures of people and meetings that influenced the early course of independent India’s history. They are familiar images.

Off at one end were the ashram offices. I decided not to peek in. The door to this block had an old-fashioned red post box. Was it in use? Once the next collection time used to be posted in that little window at the bottom. There was no time on it. The lock looked like it was in use. So perhaps the letters are collected on a regular schedule which the staff knows. The lack of visitors made the ashram a rather boring place, we thought, as we left. Gandhi strikes you as a man of action, not one who would shut himself away in a secluded ashram.

Kausani bazaar

“Why don’t we have lunch in Kausani?” The question came up at breakfast. We would check out soon, and the drive was a short one. We’d got in late the previous evening. It seemed like the right thing to do. I remembered Kausani as a busy little town, and it had been a long time since we had seen a town, little or big. We set off towards the center of Kausani late in the morning.

It was a ghost town. A large plaster statue of a blue Shiva dressed in skins looked down at the empty bazaar in the middle of town. Lots of empty cars were parked around the junction of roads. Very few people passed by. A general store was open, a couple of ATMs, many restaurants were open and empty of customers. I walked up to the man lounging at the base of the streetlight at the very center of the town.

I’d not seen a single customer come to him, but he was very cheerful when I asked him what he was selling. Local herbs for your home garden, he said. “I’m not buying anything now,” I explained, “I just want to look.” He didn’t mind. I recognized coriander. He held up a couple of other seedlings which I hadn’t seen before. “Used in cooking,” he explained, helpfully un-enlightening. He had a plot of land just outside of town, and managed to sell a few of these every day, I gathered.

Across the street a sweet shop was just going through the motions. The owner was looking out at the empty road hopelessly. His listless eyes met mine for a moment and then drifted away. He realized the futility of waiting for customers, and hadn’t even bothered to make enough sweets to display a full counter. The many open but empty restaurants around the bazaar was a reminder of the complete collapse of Kausani’s tourism dominated economy.

In spite of the hardships, construction work had clearly not halted in the neighbourhood. The one shop which was definitely open and doing business was a hardware shop, with a shed full of sacks of cement outside. The situation reminded me something I’d read long ago. Talking of export oriented economies, Raghuram Rajan wrote in his book Fault Lines, “Unfortunately, even as exporters like Germany and Japan have become large and rich, the habits and institutions they acquired which growing have left them unable to generate strong sustainable domestic demand and become more balanced in their growth.” Excessive reliance on tourism is similar.

One place had bucked the trend: a small bakery which I’ve written about before. Ramesh had to leave a job in a hotel somewhere abroad and come home for the pandemic. He opened this bakery, catering to a daily demand for bread, biscuits, and a continuous trickle of orders for birthday cakes. He and the baker were cheerful. Why do cakes sell but not sweets? There was a clue in the prices; cakes are more expensive. The pandemic had not been even-handed. The poor suffered more, many lost jobs and livelihood. Those who can eat cake have also lost, but haven’t been wiped out. We had coffee and biscuits as we chatted with Ramesh, and decided to come back for lunch later.

Monkey business

We reached Kausani late. The hotel spread down a cliff facing the valley. I’d chosen it for the views we would get of the Himalayas, but on the way in to Kausani, I was dismayed by the ring of fire on the surrounding ridges. It was a wonderful hotel, but there was a smell of smoke everywhere. We decided to cut our stay short, and leave in the morning. Perhaps we could be back some other time.

As I packed in the morning I looked out to see monkeys sunning themselves. They are highly conscious of status, and one monkey was afforded a bubble of serenity. He surveyed others to make sure that they kept the proper distance. A very old song popped into my head as I watched this: “Mere monkey Ganga aur tere monkey Yamuna mein, bol Radha bol sangam hoga ki nahin.” Looking at the way they move, probably not.

A tiny garden

Outside Kausani I found a shop selling rhododendron juice and a variety of beans. On my travels I like to collect beans to use in salads. I’d finished my shopping and sat in the sun outside the shop, waiting for The Family to tear herself away from her shopping across the road. I was enjoying sitting on this hillside full of deodars and pines when I realized that a patch of ground I’d been looking at was a garden.

It was all local wildflowers, which is why I had taken it to be untended, but soon a design was visible. The different flowers were segregated. The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, featured photo) were placed at the edge of a rise, the best place to catch a breeze and launch the seeds into the air. The carpet of pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata) was restricted to its own patch. I love these flowers which grow at altitudes of about 500 to 3500 meters, unlike the dandelions, which seem to thrive in any weather. The mat of knotweed creates its own small ecology which allows other flowers and grasses to grow. I haven’t progressed to the point where I can identify the tiny anemones peeping out from under the knotweed.

A sunny patch held ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) common European flowers which have naturalized to these middle heights. The flower-hunting botanists of the 19th century are well known for trafficking flowers out of the Himalayas, but there were imports as well. I could not identify the stand of racemes that lay under the daisies. A clump of gazanias (Gazania rigens) grew right next to the door of the shop, another import which has naturalized. The urge to tame nature into gardens seems to spring as easily in the human heart as the flowers which we call weeds.

The Himalayan Bakery and Cafe

The main bazaar of Kausani had the usual unprepossessing look of a typical small Kumaoni town. There were hardware and general stores, one shop of local handmade woolens, a few small eateries. We looked at the queue outside an ATM; we needed cash, everything runs on cash here, but decided to come back later. A few paces down, The Victory, stopped at a shop and gestured to me. Yes, this was worth it. We walked in. Coffee? The Family asked for a cappuccino. Sorry, we can only do an ordinary coffee, the man behind the counter said. Four coffees then, The Family requested.

The shop was tiny, four pinewood tables, little stools. We fulled two stools up to a table with a long bench. A high glass counter was full of their sweet pastries. The price! The Victor said, unthinkable in Mumbai. What were those biscuits? The big rounds were sweet. I can give you two to taste, the man said. They were wonderful, crisp and flaky, mildly sweet. We’ll take a packet of those, and one of the flaky salty ones too.

Ramesh, the man at the counter, had started the bakery during the pandemic. He was a local boy, he said, born and educated in Kausani. Then he had gone to Dehra Dun to study in the catering college. From then on to jobs in Delhi and abroad. He mentioned a few well-known names. He had been caught in his home town on vacation when the world shut down. He was waiting for flights to resume, embassies to reopen. His old job was waiting, and he had to go when the hotel reopened. In the meanwhile he started this little cafe, and was sure that it would run after he had left.

The master baker was a genuine master. He took great pleasure in showing me the little gas powered oven in the kitchen. Small, he said. We use it continuously. Ramesh stood by and said he plans to install a bigger oven when he can order it from the plains. The second wave has paused things here for the moment, as the hill state begins to check everyone at the borders. The master said he’d just put in a bunch of pastry puffs. The Victor asked why don’t we come back for lunch? No dissent there.

The signage was in Hindi. About a third of our clients are like you, tourists, Ramesh told us. Have you listed yourself on Tripadvisor? No, I wanted to grow first, he said. The Victor said, please list your business, it requires nothing. The Family told him you’ll get four great reviews immediately. Other customers? People stop by to pick up biscuits, we have a contract to supply bread to the Ashram up the road, and a lot of people like to have birthday and anniversary cakes. The puffs were perfect, the pastry flaky and crisp, the potato filling absolutely melting in the mouth. We ordered pizzas and sandwiches. We could have farm fresh tomatoes, capsicum, onions on the topping. All, we asked. The sandwiches has crisp lettuce and olives with the veggies. The bread was nicely crusty. The cream roll was crisp and light. The filling of fresh cream, mildly sweetened, a perfect end to the meal. When I pass through Kausani again I’m going to drop in again. Ramesh may have left, but his master baker will still be holding the fort.