Ramblings in the Corbett backwoods

Encompassing portions of the Bhabar foothill and the Tarai forest belt, the dense jungle of Kaladhungi is spread at the base of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. Located at a distance of about 30 km from Ramnagar, on the road to Nainital, the interconnected forests have always swarmed with wildlife. For centuries this has known to be the tiger-land. However, for over a century now, the region is best known by its most popular human face – Jim Corbett.

Jim Corbett House, now a state-run museum, at village Choti Haldwani

Jim Corbett‘s Irish Cottage, now a state-run museum, at village Choti Haldwani in Kaladhungi, Kumaon

If you are heading to the Corbett National Park or the Nainital area, spare a day for this region where Jim Corbett, fondly remembered as Carpet Sahib by the natives, grew up from just a wilderness sportsman to one of the most popular wildlife conservationists of the pre-independence India. Although, Corbett shifted out to Kenya after partition but the heritage he left behind at village Choti Haldwani in Kaladhungi, meaning black rock in local dialect, will forever continue to inspire Corbett lovers and motivate generations of wildlife enthusiasts. For the uninitiated, however, it would make more sense to have read his accounts before relating to such heritage sites.

The chief attraction of the region is the winter house of Corbett, now converted into a museum by the state Forest Department, located bang on the tri-junction of the road to Nainital in Choti Haldwani, a village which was set up by Corbett after he bought land – 221 acres, for agriculture purpose, from the then British government. It was in the backwoods of this farmyard that Jim acquired the near-perfect knowledge of jungle telepathy and took to larder hunting; starting with shooting birds. The wilderness-craft helped him become the Sherlock of the wilds, an acclaimed sportsman-cum-wildlife photographer and a pioneering conservationist.

Right from his childhood, at his family’s initial property – the Arundel, now in ruins – Jim used to go off into the jungle for several days at a stretch or took extended walks in the backwoods on moonlit nights in search of wildlife, birdlife or even butterflies. Here he mastered the art of imitating the calls of wild animals or birds and the jungle code of conduct including how to keep the predators away in the night by lighting a fire. According to Corbett, his backwoods supported at least five tigers, eight leopards, a family of four sloth bears, two Himalayan black bears and a number of hyenas.

Baur Canal

Drawing water from the Baur river, this canal was built by Henry Ramsay, the then Commissioner of Kumaon, in 1860 primarily for Kumaon Iron foundry. Stretching over 8 km, the canal now irrigates more than 40 villages of this region. A walk along the canal amidst Sal and Semal trees is still very much a refreshing experience. The canal marked the northern boundary of Arundel compound, located at roughly 2.5 km from the canal head. Photo-credit: Rajesh Panwar, Milieu Hosp.

It has small ghats (bathing places) made all along and has three panchakki (water-driven flour mills) along it.

The canal has small ghats at regular intervals as well as three water-driven flour mills along it. This ghat, located near Arundel ruins is the one, as described by Corbett in his books, where the girls used to bathe. Photo: Rajesh Panwar

The forested setting of his parental summer-home Arundel sparked the naturalist in Corbett even before he reached his teens. The Arundel farmyard was surrounded by rain-watercourses on two sides and the Baur canal by one where all sort of wild animals came to quench their thirst, whereas, the sandy beds of watercourses recorded wildlife as well as birdlife movements round the clock. Later he built his own house, part of a sizeable farmland, which he bought in Choti Haldwani village.

Located opposite the Corbett estate, the Murray Hotel used to be a preferred stopover for the night for those heading towards Nainital through a 15 mile climb on a bridle path. The hotel was later bought by his neighbour and friend Rai Bahadur Jai Lal Shah.

During those days, the Murray Hotel used to be a preferred stopover for those heading towards Nainital. Now in ruins, the property was later bought by Corbett’s neighbour and friend Rai Bahadur Jai Lal Shah. The Arundel was located towards its backside, not more than 300 m as the crow flies.

Jim used to hard walk up and down the bridle path while his mother and sister Maggie and Doyle preferred dandies.

Jim used to hard-walk up and down the 15 mile bridle path, visible towards the right of the frame, between Nainital and Kaladhungi while his mother as well as sister Maggie and Doyle preferred dandies.

The mango tree at Ghatgarh, a birdlife paradise, where Corbett used to take a smoke break on his way to Nainital

The mango tree at Ghatgarh under which Corbett used to take short smoke breaks on his way to Nainital. The spot has been converted into a cafe and the surroundings offer excellent bird-watching opportunity.

By way of his determined generosity as well as cooperation, Corbett enjoyed the reputation of a patriarch in his village. His house was open to just about anyone in distress day or night. He had earmarked a couple of cemented platforms under mango trees in his garden where he even attended to medical needs of aid-seekers. Apart from his extraordinary ability to hunt and kill maneater tigers or leopards, it was his generous and helping nature that brought him respect and deep admiration from the villagers which is why he is very much alive through his accomplishments and the heritage which he left behind. The museum house still stands on a raised platform surrounded by a garden comprising bamboo and other big trees. Currently, more than 140 families reside inside the walled Corbett estate.

A scan from Kala's book

A scan from one of his biographies portrays Corbett with the Bachelor of Powalgarh, the mammoth tiger-kill, in the courtyard of his Kaladhungi cottage. The event happened in 1930.

The cottage compound now in 2015. Still robust, the old Kanju tree bears a testimony to kill

The cottage compound as of Feb 2015. Still robust, the old Kanju tree (the left one) bears witness to the kill of 1930.

Initially, Jim, who stayed at this house along with his sister Maggie, had identified a concrete slab in the garden as his tented bedroom to spend the night but later on, after 1924, he got a separate room set built for him. Both his dogs Roshina and Robin lay buried in the bungalow compound to the right of the initial building. Facing north, the temples of Hanumangarhi at Naini Tal could be seen from the museum house on clear days.

Initially, Jim, who stayed at this house along with his sister Maggie, had identified a concrete slab in the garden as his tented-bedroom to spend the night but later on, after 1924, he got a separate room-set built for him visible towards the left of this frame. Both his dogs Roshina and Robin lay buried in the compound to the right of the initial building. Facing north, the temples of Hanumangarhi at Nainital could be seen from the museum house on clear days.

A sizeable portion of the 6 km long 5ft high anti-pig wall which he himself built surrounding his village exists to date. The network of cemented waterways, which he himself built to check unnecessary seepage of water, is still operational. As his farming progressed, Jim provided newer houses and gates in the boundary wall for villagers and gradually, the estate developed into a model village. Corbett’s initial attempts in account narrations won him many friends. Subsequently he was often found hobnobbing with governors, collectors and viceroy etcetera arranging hunts for them in the forests of Kaladhungi on his invitation and their interest.

The Forest Rest House at Kaladhungi remained host to the likes of Linlithgow and Hailey on their gaming escapades with complete assistance of Corbett.

The Forest Rest House at Kaladhungi remained host to many high profile visitors including Linlithgow and Hailey on their Corbett-assisted gaming escapades. The other half of it is now shared by the PWD. Corbett along with Maggie would often take a walk to the FRH compound to tea with dignitaries or official visitors.

Inside the souvenir shop at the museum

Inside the souvenir shop at the museum.

The museum showcases paintings, his belongings, photographs and Corbett's letters, etc.

Reflecting sorry state of affairs, the state administration thought it fit to keep the legend alive by showcasing just a handful of photographs and letters associated with him at the museum.

Some of the furnished items owned by Corbett

Some of the furnished items owned by Corbett. “The odds and ends displayed there are what the villagers have not rifled from the untenanted house,” observed Kala, author of Jim Corbett of Kumaon.

The village Chaupal, a common meeting place, built by Corbett at Choti Haldwani

The now renovated village Chaupal, a common meeting place, built by Corbett at Choti Haldwani. Photo: Rajesh Panwar

Another site of note includes the 20m high Corbett Water Falls, located within a walking distance of about three km from his house. A refreshing walk through the Sal woods would take you to the falls of Dhunigar stream, which Corbett regarded as one of the best spots to sight tigers or leopards. The falls could alternatively be reached from the forest gate located, on the road to Ramnagar, at a few minutes of driving time from the Baur iron bridge.

Start from the Baur canal-head towards the Corbett Falls crossing the FRH, the Arundel ruins, the family bathing site by the canal, the museum, boundary wall, Moti Singh’s house, the chaupal as well as the iron bridge on the way to complete the Corbett heritage trail. A majority of such sites or landmarks including interiors of the forests could be visited in a day-long walk. Once at Kaladhungi you could hire a guide or join the conducted walks to visit and relate to his accounts.

The popular Corbett Falls are located a little off the main road in the Nayagaon Range

The popular Corbett Falls are located a little off the main road in the Nayagaon Range

Other tiger-related sites within reach of Kaladhungi, where he carried on his lone war against poachers, includes Pipalpani, Powalgarh and Mohan, etc. Later on, when he took to photography, he had set up his own jungle studio in his farmyard in 1938 and succeeded in filming many a wild tigers.

A water pool on the Dhunigar stream

A stream pool in the Dhunigar. Unless disturbed, such spots are usually favorite with wild animals and birds

Average Altitude: 350m
Best time to visit: Winters; April for birdlife
Travel Lure: Corbett trail, wooded walks, birdlife rich forests
Accommodation: Limited; confirm in advance

21 Comments on “Ramblings in the Corbett backwoods

  1. A very interesting and off-beat take on the usual association people have with “Corbett” (which is invariably the National Park). The place seems worth a visit and I’d love to peek in here some time. Thanks for the post, and great pics!

  2. Thanks for dropping by my blog. I enjoyed this post, except for the dead tiger. As they are an endangered species, it’s difficult for me to appreciate the great white hunter of the past.

    • I appreciate your feelings. Like they say pick up the good part. Keep visiting bNomadic for more such stories 🙂

  3. As a matter if fact, this was a very rich post by all means. I could see many strings that are beyond common reach, and quite interesting for me as a travel agent. Will try to keep this account handy, as and if I happen to visit the park. You write well, enjoy reading your posts.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Love your account of the place! Photos are beautiful! The waterfall one becomes most favorite 🙂

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