Striking natural beauty aside, the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand is blessed with the memories of many Indian icons who travelled here for various reasons.
It was the Kumaon region’s hamlet of Kausani that earned the moniker ‘Switzerland of India’ from Mahatma Gandhi. Rabindranath Tagore spent time with his daughter for her recovery in a town in Nainital district. In Dehradun, Jawaharlal Nehru penned chapters from his iconic book and Swami Vivekananda spent days travelling these montane locations.
A view of the Kumaon hills in monsoonWikimedia Commons
Beyond this, the Kumaon region was also a significant part of British colonial history in India. There are a number of old cantonments in the region and the tea plantations here were started by the British in the 1850s. Though not as successful as the tea gardens of the east, these hills attracted wealthy Englishmen, many of whom made the Kumaon their home and holiday retreat.
One such retreat, within the ecological haven of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, is the Khali Estate.
A postcard-perfect heritage stay
Khali estate has a history dating back to the 1800sSomen Sengupta
Henry Ramsay, assistant commissioner of the Kumaon region under the East India Company, was popular with the locals and won the goodwill of his British bosses while keeping Kumaon loyal to the Raj during the time of the mutiny. With power returning to the Crown in 1857, Ramsay was made commissioner and subsequently bought two properties in Binsar overlooking a breathtaking panorama of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks.
Both of Ramsay’s properties are known by other names now. The first, which was his home, is the heritage stay Grand Oak Manor, and the second is the Mountain Resort Khali. Khali Estate, situated at an altitude of about 6,600 feet by the village of Ayarpani, gets its name from the Hindi word meaning vacant, which is what the 25-acre area was when Ramsay bought it.
When Ramsay returned to England in the 1880s, the estate was taken over by a fellow Brit, a certain Mr Wilson, who called it home for eight years and built a postcard-perfect colonial style bungalow of wood and stone overlooking the woods and mountains.
The estate has many picturesque spots to spend languid hours soaking in the natural beauty of the surrounding orchards, woods and mountainsbinsarkhaliestate/Instagram
The abode in the wilderness, surrounded by peach and plum orchards, has spacious rooms elegantly decorated with vintage furniture and fixtures, stone fireplaces and a well-appointed library. The estate has an interesting history of its own, serving as an ashram for Gandhi for five years and as a retreat for notable personalities, including the Nehrus. With the wildlife sanctuary set up in 1988, it became the heritage property Mountain Resort, Khali Estate.
Jungle sounds and mountain views
On a clear day, visitors are treated to a view of the snowy peaks of Nanda Devi, Trishul and other massifs of the Garhwal-Kumaon Himalayan rangeSumit Biswas
Situated within the boundaries of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, the retreat is as popular with nature lovers as it is with mountaineering enthusiasts, who stay here to explore the famed treks and trails.
On a clear day, the sky opens up to afford jaw-dropping views of the Kumaon range that you can soak in while sipping a cuppa on the lawns of the estate. In the panoramic frame are visible many well-known peaks. Nanda Devi, named after the goddess worshipped through the region, is the 23rd highest peak in the world and the tallest of Kumaon’s peaks at about 7,800m. The frame is dominated by the beloved duo of Nanda Devi and Trishul. The other peaks visible are Kedarnath, Kamet, Gangotri, Bandarpunch and Nanda Ghunti.
Kumaon Himalayas showcasing Nanda Devi, Trishul and other peaksWikimedia Commons
The Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is home to about 200 types of birds, along with animals like leopards, musk deer, jungle cats, wild boars and Himalayan black bears. So, one can imagine the thrill of staying in Khali, where after sundown brings sharp silence punctuated by the sounds of night crawlers. The knowledge that keen eyes are watching the bungalow’s inhabitants in a unique feeling only experienced when staying in a jungle retreat.
Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is home to about various birds and animal species including leopards and musk deerbinsarkhaliestate/Instagram
The zone is also a birdwatcher’s paradise. By keeping your eyes and ears open, you can find many Himalayan birds like monals, magpies, woodpeckers, parakeets, koklass pheasants and forktails among others. A binocular is a handy accessory to carry on the trip to spot not only the birds, but also a host of colourful, scampering wildlife including butterflies and squirrels.
A walk in the jungle is a great experience, but always in the company of nature guides who are available on call. Take an early morning jaunt to experience a magical sunrise standing in woods of cedar, pine and oak. The birdsong at dawn is enchanting, but the unknown sounds of unseen habitants may pass a chill in your spine.
The sanctuary is home to about 200 types of birds including (left) black-throated thrush and (right) white-collared thrushAllan Hopkins/Flickr
The jungle trails are off-limits after sundown by government order since the sanctuary is home to leopards and bears. But late afternoons and evenings can be spent exploring the other parts of Khali.
You can visit the nearby Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, home to the deity after whom Binsar is named. There are many things to experience within the boundaries of the estate as well.
The Bineshwar Mahadev TempleSomen Sengupta
There is a badminton court and a host of indoor games. Those interested in history should take a tour of the heritage wing of the estate. The grand staircase of the wing leads to a wall of photographs of some of the estate’s distinctive guests, including the Nehrus, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and spiritual guru Sri Ma Anandamayi. Furnished with a wooden floor and ceiling, this part of the property has many vintage artefacts adorning the space and among them are three paintings by Bengali painter Jamini Roy.
Among the memorabilia in the heritage wing is a wall full of photographs of noted guests and three Jamini Ray paintingsSomen Sengupta
- Mountain Resort, Khali Estate is about 370km (10 hours) by road from Delhi
- The nearest railway station is Kathgodam, about 100km/4hr away
- It is close to popular travel destinations Nainital (80km) and Almora (20km)
- The estate offers well-appointed individual cottages with a common dining room and vegetarian fare
- The heritage wing is closed to guests late evening
- The property is inside Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary borders, so adherence to government regulations is a must
- Mobile connectivity is poor and the area is susceptible to power cuts
- The Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KVMN) guest house is two kilometres further up from Khali estate. Nature guides are available here