Ranikhet, tucked away in the mountains of Uttarakhand, is actually named for a queen: Rani Padmini, the consort of a local king named Raja Sukherdev. Padmini visited this area and liked it so much that she decided to make it her residence—and that was how Ranikhet got its name.
I’ve been travelling in the hill areas of Western India, from Ladakh and the rest of Kashmir to Himachal and Uttarakhand ever since I was about ten years old. My father was in the Indo Tibetan Border Police, and this was their area. Papa did a lot of travelling, and if it happened to be during our summer vacations, we went along too. We saw a lot of far flung places, a lot of places which have now become popular destinations but were, back then, tiny one-horse towns (Leh, for instance, which, when I first saw it, had a market consisting of one short stretch on which old women sold vegetables and there was a shop that stocked jewellery made from garnets, turquoise, and rice pearls).
But I digress. The point is, in all those wanderings (followed, after I got married, with more travels with my husband) I somehow never ended up really visiting Ranikhet. I passed through it occasionally, but never stopped. So this time, thinking of places to visit for a longish weekend break, I suggested Ranikhet.
Getting there: Up in the hills of Kumaon in Uttarakhand, Ranikhet lies at an altitude of a little over 1869 metres ASL. The 344 km drive up from Delhi takes you through Moradabad, Simbhaoli, Haldwani, Kathgodam (the rail head) and then through miles of mountains with silver oak (right now covered with rust-orange flowers) and jacaranda, all masses of deep mauve blooms. Higher up, there are oaks, chestnuts (covered with candles of white-pink flowers) and pine.
There are wild rose bushes with white flowers, the occasional pomegranate tree—gorgeous little fire-red flowers—and hundreds of little white daisies dotting the grass.
Past Bhimtal, the road rises even further to Ranikhet. Ranikhet is a military cantonment, the regimental centre of the Kumaon Regiment as well as home to various other military and paramilitary forces, including battalions of the BSF and the Garhwal Rifles. This means that while there is the military neatness and discipline so common in Indian cantonment towns (and some very atmospheric-looking colonial buildings, including the Kumaon Regiment’s Community Centre, which is housed in a deconsecrated church), large sections of the town are off limits to civilians.
It took us a total of nine and a half hours (including a couple of ten-minute stopovers to pick up coffee and snacks) to drive from Delhi to Ranikhet. The roads are good through most of the way, though the mountain stretches are narrower and therefore make for slower traffic. Note that the main places for loo breaks and snacks or coffee (other than roadside dhabas) are in the plains.
Where we stayed: Ranikhet has its share of hotels and lodges, though thankfully, since it’s not as commercialized as (say) Nainital, it has a quiet and pleasant charm about it. We stayed at the WelcomHeritage group’s Windsor Lodge, which dates back to 1909. This is situated beyond Ranikhet town, near the golf course: you drive right through the cantonment to get to it. The hotel spreads out over several levels, with some sections (the front, including what is called The Raja of Sheikhupura) looking definitely colonial, while the back—Harkison Hall—resembling, at least from the outside, a rather worn-out student hostel.
Our room, with a view of pineclad hills, also overlooked a lovely little garden known as Kafal Bagh, for the kaphal (box myrtle) trees in it. With garden furniture, oak and kaphal trees and flower beds (and plenty of birds to be seen) this became one of our favourite places to sit and have coffee in the evening.
The lodge also has a small spa, gymnasium, business centre, and none too dependable WiFi.
Our room was a combination of nice and not so nice. The wooden floor and ceiling, the wood-panelled wall with its old-fashioned still life with flowers, the simple dark wood furniture: all very pleasant. There was a TV too, a wardrobe, plenty of tables and chairs of various sizes, and lots of large windows (what’s the point of a good view of you can’t see it from within your room?). The less pleasant part was the bathroom, which—while being large enough—had stains on walls, floor, and shower curtains; traces of cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, and peeling paint. Not what I’d expected from WelcomHeritage.
Still, this is a pleasant place to stay, and the staff are warm, helpful and friendly. And, since Windsor Lodge isn’t in the heart of town (it’s about 6 km outside Ranikhet), it’s quiet, with birdsong filling the air. We paid Rs 18,000 for three nights, inclusive of breakfast and one major meal a day.
Where we ate: Always at the Windsor Lodge’s own restaurant, The Kumaon Room, which is entered through a lovely little portico with a grapevine (loaded with young grapes) along the sloping glass ceiling. The restaurant is somewhat dimly lit, with heavy curtains (beaded edges and all) at the windows and doors; paintings, a chandelier, and even a faux marble statue of a woman on the mantelpiece.
The Kumaon Room serves a mix of Continental and Indian food. We ordered Continental food—cream of mushroom soup, tomato and basil soup (both awful), lamb chops and lamb stew, with buttered vegetables and mashed potatoes (both so-so, not great), and caramel custard and chocolate mousse (both good) on one day. The conclusion we came to was that, like a lot of similar establishments, these guys don’t do Continental well.
They do the ‘typical Indian’ somewhat better (the dal makhni was a little oversalted for us), but what they excel at is the local food. Over the course of the three days we spent at Windsor Lodge, we sampled just about every local dish on the menu: pahaari baakar tari (mutton curry), Kumaoni paalak (chopped spinach cooked with tomatoes and a good bit of fresh ginger), Kumaoni raita (made with grated cucumber and local mustard mixed into the yoghurt and tempered with zeera), and pahaari aaloo (potatoes cooked in a thick yellow gravy). All of these dishes were excellent: not too spicy, full of flavour, and so good that I was, even as I was eating, thinking, “I must look for recipes for this.”
Where we went and what we saw: Ranikhet’s attractions are probably best enjoyed if you’re a nature lover. The views are lovely, though, because of a lack of rain in the previous year, Kumaon is right now so tinder-dry that frequent forest fires have played havoc with the trees, and the smoke has resulted in a haze that blocks views of snow-capped peaks like Trishul, Nandadevi and Hathi Parbat. But you can still see lots of trees, wildflowers, birds—and, if you’re really lucky, animals like sambar, barking deer, leopard and Himalayan black bear.
But, there are sights to see. These are the ones we visited:
1. Chaubatia Gardens. Though known primarily for the government horticultural gardens (at 265 acres, Asia’s largest government-owned garden, so we were told), Chaubatia is a military-controlled area. When the Viceroy, Lord Mayo, visited Chaubatia in 1868 and stayed at a local mansion known as Glen Pennock (now the Officers’ Mess), he liked it so much that he ordered a cantonment for the cavalry to be established here.
In 1832, a tea garden was planted at Chaubatia; the tea did poorly because Ranikhet, with its snows, is not hospitable to tea. In 1869, therefore, the tea was replaced by apples—and that has today become a horticultural garden that grows mostly apples, but also various other trees and plants. You can wander around by yourself (there’s no entry fee), but since no plants or trees are labelled, and there are branching paths all over, it’s best to hire a guide. For a tour of the apple orchard only, a guide costs Rs 200; add the forest near by, and it’s 300; add the Bhalu Dam further on, and it’s 500, and so on. We opted just for the orchard, since we had a toddler in tow. This tour too requires a bit of climbing and going up and down rocky sloping paths, 100 mt down and then 100 mt up, so don’t attempt this in stilettos.
Our guide pointed out various trees and plants, telling us of their uses (especially medicinal). The deodar cedar, for example, the oil of which is a cure-all for skin diseases; the hydrangea, the roots of which, made into a paste, can flush out kidney stones—and so on. We saw different types of fruit trees: apple, peach, plum, apricot, red nectarine (a cross between peach and plum) as well as walnut, chestnut, and almond; herbs and wild plants like the stinging bichhoo-booti (which is, paradoxically, a good cure for injuries); rosemary, wild strawberries, daisies, buttercups, and wild roses.
Also within the gardens are two shops that sell Kumaoni produce. One, deeper within the garden, is a combined eatery (very basic: Maggi noodles seems to be the norm) and sale counter for squashes, juices, pickles, chutneys, etc, made from local fruit and vegetables. The other, close to the exit, sells these, along with other products—woollens, herbal infusions, soaps, and so on—made under the aegis of various NGOs.
2. The Jhoola Devi Temple. Right at the gate to Chaubatia is one of Ranikhet’s most famous temples, the tiny Jhoola Devi Temple. The story goes that 700 years ago, the local villagers were being tormented by predators—tigers and leopards—carrying off their cattle. Their prayers were answered when the goddess Durga appeared in a dream to a shepherd and ordered the building of a temple to her at this particular place. That done, the goddess satisfied, the villagers found themselves (and their cattle) now no longer being preyed upon. As time passed, the local children began frequenting the temple and playing in its vicinity, and the goddess gave another command: that a jhoola (a swing) be installed here for her to relax. And that’s how the name came to be.
This is a tiny temple—it takes no more than five minutes to admire it from the outside and inside, to go in and do your darshan, receive prasad, and come out—but it’s one of the most unique I’ve seen. Thousands of brass bells, of different sizes, have been tied on railings all along the periphery of the temple: they’re so dense, they form walls of their own. Quite a spectacle.
3. The Kumaon and Naga Regiments Museum: The most decorated regiment of the Indian Army, the Kumaon Regiment has its regimental centre at Ranikhet—and, appropriately enough, a small museum that documents the history of the regiment. Situated near the Nar Singh Ground (named for one of the regiment’s heroes), the museum lies just inside the Saklani Gate, past a dilapidated and long-abandoned building called the Globe Theatre.
Outside the neat two-storey building housing the museum are two green-painted guns which the Kumaon Regiment won from the Turks during World War I. Inside, there are more trophies, more spoils of war, and more of the history of the Kumaon Regiment and its brother regiment, the Naga Regiment. After a couple of panels describing Nagaland and Kumaon, the history of these two regiments is explained through a timeline that includes text, paintings, photographs, and objects. With its roots way back in the Malhar Paltan, set up in 1730, the regiment took form as the Hyderabad Regiment under its founder, Russell, later in the same century. Over the centuries since, the regiment has undergone numerous changes, splitting, changing names, incorporating soldiers from across the country—and going into battle just about everywhere, from China (suppressing the Boxer Rebellion) to various theatres of war in both World Wars, to the Indo-Pak War, the Indo-China War, and the Kargil War.
The artefacts, all arranged in chronological order and extensively labelled, are very varied. There are uniforms and bullet-riddled helmets; certificates and citations of valour, photographs, and a plethora of captured items: guns, bayonets, swords (including a samurai sword), soldier’s diaries and letters, a wireless set, telephone equipment, an LTTE boat—and most historic of all—the sceptre of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi.
It’s not a brilliant museum, though it’s pretty informative and well-maintained. You do have to be a bit of a military history fan to fully appreciate it, but even if you’re mildly interested in Indian history, this shouldn’t be a completely worthless visit.
Entry to the museum costs Rs 20 per adult. The museum is open from 8 to 12.30 and 3 to 5 in the summer, and from 8.30 to 1 and 3 to 5 in the winter. On Sundays, it opens from 8.30 to 12.30. It’s closed on Tuesdays. Photography isn’t allowed inside the museum; all cameras and cell phones need to be deposited at the reception counter, which is where the soldier on duty will also collect the entry fees.