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Travel: Rest and reboot at Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary

With distinctly Kumaoni soul, the Mary Budden Estate in Uttarakhand’s Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary provides the perfect setting to hit life’s reboot button

The Mary Budden Estate in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, provides majestic views of the Himalayan peaks.
The Mary Budden Estate in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, provides majestic views of the Himalayan peaks. (Courtesy Raul Dias)

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I chanced upon the word komorebi a few years ago during a trip to Japan. This rather mellifluous-sounding expression is what dappled rays of sunlight that filter through trees are called, the ones that create a carpet of shapeshifting art on the forest floor.

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Sadly, my immutable urban existence over the last two years of the covid-19 pandemic ill-afforded me the luxury of waxing lyrical. Thankfully all that changed in May this year as I headed up the winding mountain roads on a five hour of drive from Pantnagar airport towards the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary.

An ornithologist’s paradise nestled in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, it affords views of majestic Himalayan peaks such as Chaukhamba, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Panchachuli, and Kedarnath, weather permitting. It was a place where I hoped to be both mentally restored and physically rebooted after a few anxiety-ridden months.

After passing through a dynamic kaleidoscope of colours and the komorebi of the mighty deodars and fragrant pines, I drove into the steadily thickening mist. I crossed bridges over untrammelled streams and respected the right of way of a herd of goats. “Would my final destination dare to rival the jaw-dropping beauty and allure of the journey?” I wondered cynically.

I soon realised just how misplaced my skepticism was the minute I reached the Mary Budden Estate. Located in the heart of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, overlooking Kumaon’s Jhandi Dhar Hills, this colonial-style estate is an hour’s drive from the erstwhile British cantonment of Almora. Spread over five acres of undulating terrain, strewn with flat fern, rhododendron and aged oak trees, the mountain retreat seemed almost frozen in time.

Meal times are something to look forward to as there’s something about the crisp mountain air that leaves you perpetually ravenous.
Meal times are something to look forward to as there’s something about the crisp mountain air that leaves you perpetually ravenous. (Courtesy Raul Dias)

Bought in 1899 by a British missionary named Mary Budden, the estate was converted into a school for local orphans with the help of a General McGregor who financed the buy. The school flourished until Budden’s passing a decade later. It would take almost a century for the derelict estate to be restored to its former glory when Serena Chopra, a New Delhi-based photographer and writer, purchased the property and turned it into her mountain home. For the past few years, however, it has been a luxurious boutique property, comprising the main Mary Budden cottage and four lodges at the far end of the estate, each with double rooms. My cosy perch above the main lodge was aptly called ‘Writer’s Den’.

This deodar wood-clad cabin came with its own much-needed fireplace (called a bukhari in Kumaoni) to keep me toasty in the single degree Celsius ‘summer’ weather. Antique furniture—with upholstery and soft furnishings reflecting the local Kumaoni fabrics and embroidery—and a stone porch completed my elegant mountain dwelling. But best of all was my ‘alarm clock’ in the form of a bunch of rambunctious langurs competing with the koel birdsong to rouse me.

There’s something about the crisp mountain air that leaves you perpetually ravenous. And so, an outdoor brunch was what the estate’s executive chef Naveen Adhikari had planned for me. The brunch featured beautifully reimagined dishes from the Himalayan belt that started with a mocktail of buransh (rhododendron) syrup, lime and soda.

A dry thukpa and a ragi tingmo (steamed finger millet buns) followed, along with Bhutanese ema datsi using the local Darima cheese from Almora. These were served alongside Kumaoni dishes like vedu roth, a lentil cake stuffed with spiced red rice. Celebrating the Himalayan pine, which is used to smoke the meat, were the medium-rare slices of goat with a side of baby spinach salad studded with bhat. A hint of the estate’s colonial underpinnings came to the fore with the apple upside-down cake and cheese board for afters featuring local apricots.

Perhaps the highlight of my time at the Mary Budden Estate will be those post-lunch sessions spent in the company of the four super-friendly, gorgeous pahadi dogs who are the estate’s resident mascots.

There are a number of rambles and not-too-challenging hikes to be done around the estate. I particularly enjoyed the relaxed pace of Darwin’s Walk. It has been curated along the lines of Charles Darwin’s walk of light and shadow which defined his famous Theory of Evolution, and goes through the evergreen trees of the surrounding buransh forest. As a wannabe ornithologist, my favourite would have to be The Hodgson Chronicles, a walk through the forest in gentle pursuit of the nearly 179 different species of birds found here. This one is in honour of Brian Houghton Hodgson, who served as assistant commissioner in Kumaon in the early 19th century. It was his keen eye and ornithological interest that helped identify a huge variety of native birds in this region.

Planned as my welcome dinner but rescheduled due to the torrential rain, the almost surreal Milky Way dinner was curated by the staff on my last night. They served a creamy horse gram soup, mushroom linguine in truffle sauce, a chicken a la ‘Kyiv’ and a sinfully rich single origin chocolate mousse. This candlelit dinner was served on a horizontally sliced tree trunk of a table, under the hazy arch of the Milky Way. With dozens of tea lights strewn across the lawn, mirroring the night sky, it was utterly beautiful and for once, divesting me of suitable hyperbolic adjectives. But I’m sure that there’s that perfect Japanese one for it somewhere.

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