Interludes of Wind and Water - The New Indian Express

Interludes of Wind and Water

Published: 24th August 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 22nd August 2014 01:33 AM

Often doing nothing can be quite a lot. It is an art, the perfect zen of indolence, which disguised as introspection makes some holidays seem meaningful. At the end of these, nothing much has been seen, or achieved. There’s just a sense of having been there, and luxuriated in doing nothing. That’s why you should go to Banethi.

The old traveller, who did not believe in Bisleri but in mountain streams, who eschewed energy bars and chewed on greasy paranthas at wayside dhabas and worked off the calories later, used to stop over at unmapped havens by obscure forest trails and find quietitude and calm, away from the beaten path. This was before builders from the plains began hoisting architectural monstrosities in the hills for tourists with baying children, braying in-laws and blaring music, and resorts serving butter chicken tikka masala and dum aloo converted quaint discomfort into a discomfort from the past.

Banethi is a synonym for the old quaint disorder.

Nobody has heard of it, natch. It’s not on any tourist map and there are no hotels here. There is not even an adventure camp nearby, like the ones that spring up after a failed travel entrepreneur or amateur travelologist discovers his inner Livingstone. Trekking may have become modern travel’s greatest ecological good health bane: anyone with half a pair of boots and a travel guide fancies himself or herself as an avid trekker. But Banethi has little to offer the trekker.

A river runs through it. A thin but merry pretender of water that skips and tumbles along rocks and small stones, slaking the thirst of the villagers’ herds and offering fine fish to residents who are willing to sit in the mild sun with a twine and hook tied to a stick. There’s nothing much even for the villagers to do except to sit and try catch the one that won’t get away.

That’s Banethi.

A small hamlet on a rise of a crest of rock. A curve in the road, where a couple of ramshackle shops on stilts peddle wafers and cigarettes. A stony path that is steeper than tomato prices and trots uphill towards a small yellow building with smaller yellow arches and a tin roof. It was once the hunting lodge of the queen of Nahan, who built it for herself when she was mad at her husband, the king, for some reason lost to history. A charming little relic of the Raj times, when arches and pillars were fashionable and the haute monde built residences with alacrity, as if they wanted to turn all of India into angles and curves of Victoriana. Today it’s a tourist bungalow, run by the Himachal Pradesh forest department.

The fireplace works, although the furniture is unapologetically ghastly and of government issue. The curtains are a PWD nightmare. Still, there is hot water in the bathroom from an antiquated geyser that is fighting extinction. Pitch a tent on the overgrown lawn under a great tree that looks out into the valleys like a guardian waiting for an omen. Negotiate the crooked turnstile to step on to the slender track that takes you through pine forests, skipping along fallen acorns to the haunting tune of the mountain wind. Follow it and you pass tiny village homes, some on a rise and some by the road, among fields bright with mustard and maize. A cow lows softly, softening the afternoon with idyllic nostalgia. And the fog suddenly comes, soft with playful ghosts, obscuring all with mountain mischief, masquerading as mystery loaded with eternal, careless enigmas.

Twenty-four km below Banethi lies Nahan, an entrance to Himachal. It’s an old cantonment town, with an entrance guarded by two World War I cannons, standing beside the impeccably painted Lytton Gate. (The Lord had deigned to come to Nahan when he was Viceroy.) A serene, small pool on the banks of which the temple of goddess contemplates eternity is the jewel of Nahan; nearby is a site where a Company fell to maraudingGorkhas who came down the passes to conquer Nahan and its king in the eighteenth century. The soldiers’ bones lie interred in a moribund park where the willows weep. The palace, meanwhile, is a dilapadated edifice and the current Kunwar is a politician of convenient loyalties.

On the other side of Banethi is Renuka lake, beside which lions live. It’s a holy body of water that has a place in the misty legends of Parasuram. But that is a story for another place, another time.

(To reach Banethi, take the GT Road from Delhi, turn towards Nahan from Saha and drive towards Sirmaur.)

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