The Burning Binsar

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series Kumaon Itinerary

I first heard about Binsar, after my terrible grilling by Club Mahindra marketing team when I went to their sales office to collect a free voucher that seemingly I had won in a lottery. It required all my Taurean stubbornness to subvert their intentions of selling Club Mahindra membership to me. Even today, many years after the incident, it is hard to forget those resigned but annoyed faces who handed us the voucher. It made me resolute to use those vouchers that we had earned after spoiling the whole evening. We planned to use them for a trip to Binsar. But even, when I was hell-bent on using them, I could not and they lapsed.

The Jungle of Binsar

The Jungle of Binsar


For the planned vacation to Kumaon, the research to know more about Binsar and the available accommodation there, made me realize that the ‘Paisa Vasool’ place to stay in Binsar is KMVN. I checked the availability of rooms at KMVN, but it was completely booked by that time. Our taxi operator, Mr Jaggu, consoled me that it was not a big deal as Binsar is close to Deenapani and we could visit Binsar from there.

Just a few days before our trip, I read an article published in the Indian Express newspaper that talked about beautiful Binsar, but the author’s primary focus was frequent fires in the Binsar forest. He talked about the imbalances in economic growth of urban and rural sectors and concluded that those forest fires were intentionally caused by disgruntled villagers to protest against the fact that the money meant for their development never reaches them and is siphoned off in between. I was not convinced, nevertheless it made me curious.

In the previous article, I wrote about our travel to Deenapani. The plan was to travel to Binsar on the day of arrival at Deenapani. Every one of us was keen for a visit to Binsar; so as planned after a quick nap we all were ready for the drive.

Binsar is twenty-three Km from Deenapani, still it took us around forty-five minutes to reach at the forest entry point. It was already four o’clock and the forest guards insisted that our vehicle should be out by 5:30. Entry inside forest area of Binsar was costly, so we were in a doubt, should we enter or leave it for some other day? Eventually, we decided to enter.

Binsar, situated in the heart of Kumaon, was the summer capital of Chand dynasty from seventh /eighth century onward.

These days it comprises of fifty square km of protected area on a mountain rising about 2310 meters above sea level. The name Binsar is actually a British distortion of Bineshwar, one of the many names given to Lord Shiva. The bulbous stone temple of Bineshhwar Mahadev inside the forest area is venerated by the locals and is believed to have the powers to bring rains. This forest is considered sacred since the time of mythological Saptrishis (seven sages on whom constellation Great Bear is named). Legend is that the Saptrishis meditated there and even today that part of the forest is known as ‘Satkhol’.

Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, sister of Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru not only owned renowned Khali estate in Binsar, but was also a regular visitor there. At that time there was no road from the rail head at Kathgodam, so she would ride up to Binsar, along with her family, over a span of few days camping en route.

We drove to the top of the mountain on the road that coils and recoils along it and passes through a dense, beautiful forest of oaks, pines and rhododendron. The possibility of spotting a wild animal kept us alert, though in the end we could not spot any. At the top, we drove till zero point. It was a cloudy day; else we were told that we could have got excellent views of the Himalayas.

Binsar

Binsar

Many of the old and traditional water harvesting methods are abandoned these days. So it was pleasing to notice a water harvesting system in the forest rest house at the zero point. Later on we realized that in Kumaon it is quite common to see systems to conserve rain water. Commendable!

Rain water harvesting at KMVN, Binsar

Rain water harvesting at KMVN, Binsar

The time was limited and it was not permitting us to trek. But, for Jaishree, mountain means trekking. She strongly feels that the trekking is the only way to communicate with nature, to imprint everlasting memories in minds and to breathe its beauty in lungs. So she was complaining, “This visit is almost of non-significance. What is the fun in visiting a beautiful mountain forest when we just cross it in the vehicles, without traversing through its dense vegetation on foot”?

At that time, our driver, Dewanji, commented, “Why don’t you trek down from here”? And then pointing down his finger he indicated that we could meet at a natural reservoir of water that we noticed while driving up. I don’t think that anyone of us could make out that reservoir from there, in the direction of his finger. It’s a gift that only people on hills have. The suggestion pepped all of us; especially kids were jumping at the prospect. Rachit has inherited the trekking genes from his mother. Finally assertive nod from Vinodji, my brother-in-law, made all of us conclusively and happily dump the vehicles and the gang started trekking down.

Trekking in Binsar

Trekking in Binsar

Walking through the dense-green Binsar forest on a well-laid out path was fun. The knowledge about the presence of the Panthers in the forest brought a fear factor and made us cautious to trek together. We occasionally noticed red rhododendron flowers, but the season was almost over and so we could not spot this flower in its extravaganza when the whole forest has this crimson flower blooming like flames.

Binsar

Enjoying rains

On the way down, we noticed the cones hung to the pine tree to collect resin. The bark of the pine trees were scratched in ‘V’ shape and all the resin from the tree got collected in those cones. It was a dark green color liquid with high viscosity. It should not be touched by hand as it is difficult to remove it even after vigorous cleaning. The collected resin is used to extract turpentine oil. Turpentine oil is used as a solvent for thinning oil-based paints and for producing varnishes. After collecting a few pine flowers we walked ahead.

Collecting resin from a pine tree, Binsar

Collecting resin from a pine tree, Binsar

A close up of the resin from pine tree in Binsar – Golden Gift to mankind

A close up of the resin from pine tree in Binsar – Golden Gift to mankind

A souvenir from Binsar - Pine-Cone

A souvenir from Binsar – Pine-Cone

Soon it started to drizzle. We realized that it was not for nothing that the Bineshwar Mahadev is adored for His special powers to bring rains. It was a beautiful idyllic walk in that drizzle through the forest, with the trees getting their leaves wiped and cleaned off the dust. The leaves then looked freshly colored in green. The wind brought with it the scent of the moist earth. We were enjoying the drizzle but at the same time we increased our speed as we wanted to reach the decided spot before it starts raining heavily.

Dense and Green Binsar

Dense and Green Binsar

Finally, we reached and got down exactly at the same spot that our driver was able to see from the zero point. Or was it that all the treks from the top lead to Rome 🙂

A fresh water reservoir in Binsar

A fresh water reservoir in Binsar

Our vehicles did not arrive by that time. This is the added excitement of trekking in hills, most of the time, even while walking leisurely on these jungle paths one can beat vehicles by big margins. Luckily, the vehicles arrived in a short while and we hurriedly took our seats looking at the moderate rain fall from the windows. As we drove ahead the rain was over, perhaps it rained only in that part of the forest to present a picture perfect green image of the jungle.

On the way back, we crossed a simple old temple of Golu Devta. The local deity ‘Dana Golu’ is said to reside in the forest. He is believed to appear as a white horseman who guides lost people and offers protection to its denizens. I have learnt that an average Kumaoni has little time for daily religious rituals owning to the rough, rugged hilly terrain and the general shortage of water. However, they are emotionally attached to Kuldevi or Kuldevta, usually the main idol in the village temple. Even in my office, when I talked to my Kumaoni colleagues it appeared that a visit to these village temples has a significant religious importance to them.

An old temple of Golu-Dev, Binsar

An old temple of Golu-Dev, Binsar

The village deities of Kumaon behave like human beings. They win or lose battles, have joint family system and are offended by trifles. The powerful rulers of the Middle Ages, the folk heroes who come to the relief of the common people when called upon, are passed into myths as Devtas and have been incorporated into local divinity. It is similar in my hometown, Udaipur in Rajsathan, as well.

A temple of Sagasji Baoji in Udaipur

A temple of Sagasji Baoji in Udaipur

The Kumaoni local Gods are further classified as meat-eating and non-meat eating Gods that signifies that some accept blood sacrifices and some don’t. To illustrate their prevalence it could be suggested that in about a thousand villages there are around ten thousand temples of these Devi-Devta (God and Goddesses). It has seeded a sub-culture subsisting on a parallel tradition of fairs, melas, customs and practices that are peculiar to Kumaon. Among these God and Goddesses Golu Devta, God of Justice, is pan-Kumaon folk hero.

Kumaonis have so much faith on Golu Devta’s justice that when every other system of justice fails them, they seek His divine intervention. The victims, who can’t visit the temple physically, write letters to bring matters to His notice. On the delivery of fair justice and fulfillment of the desire the obliged people hang bells to show their gratitude.

I wonder about the choice of bells as a symbol of thankfulness. Probably, one day when He will realize the general prevalence of injustice over justice, all the bells will ring together and there would be terribly loud noise that would be enough to scare those causing injustice. It will then act as a warning to them to mend their ways and the old saying will echo …
यदा यदा ही धर्मस्य, ग्लानिर भवति भारता
अभ्युत्तनाम अधर्मस्य, तदतमानाम सर्जमी अहम

Day-dreaming! Hallucination under the influence of a heavy dose of Bollywood movies.

Why Golu Devta is considered as the God of justice?
Legend goes that his father was a local king who married his stunningly beautiful and intelligent mother. In due time, she got pregnant and gave birth to him. The other queens, who were jealous of king’s special regard and love for her, conspired and placed a stone in the newborn’s place. They put the child in a basket and let it flow into the river. When the king came to know that her beloved queen has given birth to a stone he severed all communications to her. The floating basket and the child reached a fisherman. He adopted the child and raised him like his own son.

One day the King was around the fisherman’s place. When little Golu came to know about it, he took a wooden horse to the river and started to force it to drink water. When the king saw it, he laughed at the kid’s innocence and told him that wooden horses cannot drink water. Pat came a terse reply, “if a woman can give birth to a stone then wooden horses can also drink water”.

The small kid made king acutely aware of his own injustice to his favorite queen. He immediately returned back and started an inquiry. The investigations revealed the truth. The King punished the guilty queens and crowned the boy, who went on to be known as Gwalla devata. As a King also Golu Dev was equally effective in distinguishing between an innocent and a real culprit. Soon he got the trust of the common man and got elevated to the status of God.

There is nothing as pleasant as driving through a forest just after rains. But then there were occasional eye-sores, big trees gutted by the forest fires and the smoke rising from the various part of the forest.

Our driver explained that it is common to put fire in the forest after autumn. Otherwise, the leaves that fall on the ground, does not allow grass to grow and creates the serious problem of pasture for livestock. The fire is started from the top of mountain and is allowed to recede from top to the bottom. In this manner it burns only the leaves on the ground. This fire never reaches the stem of a tree to cause high flames. These are controlled fires.

The serious uncontrolled forest fires are caused by the careless throwing of beedis or cigarettes, but most of them are done on purpose. Binsar, unfortunately, fell prey to such vested interests, many a times. In the beginning of 20th century it began falling prey to the axe. First the coal kilns decimated many of the ancient oaks, and then the trees were gutted down for the timber. The gift of turpentine oil to mankind also caused tragedy for the pine trees. The resin generated on these trees is highly inflammable and so it is easy to put these trees on fire.

There is sufficient in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed. – M.K. Gandhi.
And, then there is no end to Human Greed.

Once even the Government had its hand in the destruction of this jungle. When Uttaranchal was still a part of UP, then UP Government came along with a grand plan to convert the main high ridge of Binsar into a tourist complex – complete with the hotels, shopping and entertain malls.

Will we ever be able to replenish this treasure?

Will we ever be able to replenish this treasure?

Just like its flora, the wild animals of Binsar were also killed by poachers and in some cases the killing was aided by villagers as well, who find the wild animals a threat to their cattle; A conflict between wild animals and human beings that is augmented by shrinking habitats. In the absence of a genuine policy, the compensation the villagers receive for their cattle falling prey to the wild animals is petty.

The driver of the other gypsy shared an incident. Once, while he was driving through the hills he run into a tiger on the road. He got anxious and frightened and could not drive further. He stopped and waited for the tiger to cross the road. When he shared this incident with his fellow driver, he was appalled at his fear and suggested him that he should have hit the tiger. He reminded him that a dead tiger is a treasure box and condemned him for the lost opportunity.

Recently in Bandhavgarh, there were at least two cases when these beautiful cats were run over by vehicles, once by the tourists and the other time, allegedly by the forest department itself. When sometimes murders are conveniently committed in the disguise of road accidents, it is difficult to save these animals, especially when the common man becomes blind with the greed.

I compare the situation with the Maldharis are sharing the space with Lions and even with all the losses of their cattle; they are in-fact biggest savior of Lions. Hat’s off to the Maldharis, for their grit and determination to save our heritage.

After reaching Deenapani, around dusk, we all went over a watch tower in the village. From there, the eye-catching but painful-sight was of the fire in the forest.

The Forest Fire, Binsar

The Forest Fire, Binsar

There were also news reports in local newspaper of protests by villagers over the inability of forest department to control those fires.

Burning Binsar

Burning Binsar

Here, I would like to share another incident of the same trip. It was while we were driving towards Jageshwar. In the dark, at a bend, I noticed a human figure smoking and waiting for something. His presence was conspicuous as otherwise there was nobody around. After a while, I saw a tree that was recently put on fire. I am sure that I witnessed a murder on that day.
It reminds me of the beautiful lines of Rabindra Nath Tagore’s couplet on tree:

लकड़हारे की कुल्हाड़ी ने वृक्ष से मून्ठ की याचना की,
वृक्ष ने वो दे दी |

Even with all these negative incidents, I feel there is a hope. The UP Government’s Grand plan of destruction were halted by one person, Mukti Datta, who took the cause of protecting Binsar and almost single-handedly managed to persuade the Govt to notify Binsar a sanctuary.

Also, I wish that what is generally believed about Binsar turns out true, “Should anyone take away anything belonging to the God or his worshipers and avenging spirit and conscience compels him to restore twenty folds”.

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