This is my third pilgrimage to Chhoti Haldwani. I call it pilgrimage because a visit to Jim Corbett’s home will be a pilgrimage for any wildlifer. For those who may not know, Corbett has been the legendary man-eater hunter and conservationist.
We used to call this place Kaladhungi. I notice Kaladhungi is a larger place and includes several villages around. My earlier two visits have been in 1980s when I used to regularly Corbett National Park nearby. Chhoti Hadwani falls on a road joining two towns, Ramnagar and Haldwani, around 50 km long. I still vividly remember, the drive on this road used to be wonderful – this single lane road used to have lush fields on both sides and sparse habitation; scenic hills on the left and planer landscape on the right. There would be hardly any vehicle, and one felt like breezing through a dream. Midway on this road, another road goes up the hills to Nainital, popular hill station of North India and a well known tourist destination. Bang on this tri-junction spot is located the heart of the place, Jim Corbett’s house, now a museum. I remember this has not been conspicuous– just a normal house, British style bungalow with one small block on the side. The place was not maintained those days. There was very little stuff in the place and one used to be done with the visit in five minutes.
No more so now. Things have changed. As far as the drive is concerned, it is no more wonderful. It’s a broad two lane road. Lot of fields are gone taken over by habitation and commerce. The traffic is thick. All that drive fun is gone. As far as the museum is concerned, this too has changed, but changed for better. The place is with the Forest Department, which has turned this into a real museum.
Corbett’s Bungalow is restored, maintained and suitably painted. The surrounding area has been developed into lawns. Suitable slab have been put with biographical note on Jim Corbett. Two busts of the Corbett are adding dignity to the place – one in the lawn and another on the verandah of the house. An effort has been made to fish out some old pictures, documents, and stories and displace them for visitors to see and read, and be better informed. Some paintings have been done to recreate history. Whatever little furniture was there has been displayed. There is a souvenir shop for tourists to spend time and spend money. The shop has been named after his accomplice and regular companion in jungle, Moti.
This house was developed in 1915 by Corbett as his winter home to avoid cold at his ancestral home in Nainital. The interesting part of the story is that it is not only the house he developed but an entire village, which is now known as Chhoti Haldwani. He had bought 40 acre land and let it out to about a dozen families. He helped them build houses, develop fields, make canals, build protection wall and raise corps and flourish. He did not take rent on land or share in farm yield. This was his family. Entire village was his home.
Another thing that has changed is that Chhoti Haldwani has now been developed into ‘Jim Corbett Heritage Village’, promoting nature walks, bird watching, home stay and providing unusual experience to visitors at a nominal price. This has been the effort of Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti (Community’s Society). Mr Pandey, one of the key persons associated with the Samiti facilitated our visit to the village.
One thing worth mentioning is the gun Corbett gifted to Sher Singh for crop protection. This muzzle loading single barrel gun is now the pride possession of his son, Trilok Singh. In the village we visit Trilok Singh, he brings out the gun and shows it to me! I lift the gun and find this unusually heavy. It is a different matter that I am not able to recollect lifting any other gun before. I feel, may be one need not fire this. Just throwing it on an animal would kill it!
Another feature of the village is an old Chaupal. Chaupal is a raised platform in open area of a village, where people collect for formal and informal meetings. Corbett had developed several Chaupals, one of which is still intact. Incidentally, this happens to be adjacent to Trilok Singh’s house. Thus, we have the gun and Chaupal together in one picture.
One good new addition in the village is a rustic, tastefully built and furnished hut to serve as restaurant for visitors. The interior, furniture, and display are all work of art and highly appealing. The Samiti offers us tea, and, thus, an opportunity to spend some time in the hut and with them and reflecting back on Corbett.
I am sure any wildlifer will love this pilgrimage.