There is nothing better than bringing back stories from your travels. New experiences, fascinating people, and appreciating different cultures – all of these make travel worth it. People move on, and places change, but these stories remain for long.
And if the artist inside you yearns for a land where your mind will be free to wander and augment some soulful inspiration, then grab your backpack and head on to the lesser-known hilltop town of Kasar Devi in Uttaranchal.
During my recent journey to Kasar Devi, I realised that it is actually a jewel hidden in the crown of Uttarakhand - beautifully located within the stunningly silent hills of Kumaon and a couple of kilometres away from the horseshoe-shaped town of Almora. It is only as you approach the location that the atmosphere changes - more quaint cafes and hipsters in their laidback style than Indian travellers strolling along the single road framed by breathtaking peak views on either side.
The many charms of Kasar Devi
On a late evening, I reached Kasar Devi and sat on the balcony of my retreat, gazing at the hills - some too far away, some not. As dusk settled in and little lights began to appear in the valley below, reflecting the twinkling stars in the sky, it makes you feel like there’s something special about the place that draws wandering souls from around all over. For many city dwellers, a clear night sky is an elusive fantasy. It also makes for a perfect place for stargazing. I was enchanted as I gazed upon the night sky, spotting constellations, Jupiter, and two shooting stars (thanks to an app I downloaded to identify them).
The next morning, the alarm was set for 4 am to witness a spectacular sunrise. As the first golden rays of the sun hit the mountains, the peaks were stark white, heralding the promise of what was yet to come - revealing the majestic peaks of Nanda Devi, Trishul, Panchachuli, and the entire Garhwal range. Changing from blues and violets to oranges and yellows, the rays painted a colourful canvas over the Himalayas.
Even if you aren’t a morning person, watching the sun rise against one of the world’s tallest mountain ranges is an experience worth getting up early for. At Kasar Devi, you don't have to be at a crowded observation deck to watch the sunrise. Take a walk down the ridge road to watch the morning glory of the mountains in absolute silence, being in harmony with nature and taking in the panoramic views all to yourself.
The quaint town is entirely walkable. As you wander around the roads of Kasar Devi, you will realise how popular this rustic rural place is among foreigners. I stumbled upon this small tin-roofed cafe, Baba Cake. The place is lined with Buddhist motifs, replete with the hippie charm and I can assure you, it served the most delectable desserts. Locals say that the owner of the cafe was a wanderer once who married an Italian tourist, who made Kasar Devi her home and baked the mouth-watering cakes. And it’s true, I had a simple chocolate brownie which was the most delectable one I have had in a longest time. I had also spotted a lot of homestay signboards in the near vicinity and most of these English-looking cottages will catch your fancy. Despite the homestays and cafes popping up everywhere, it still retains a peaceful and non-commercial atmosphere.
The mysticism around
Before heading to this serene village, I had read how the area used to be a pulsing hub of art, poetry, mysticism, and hippie subculture and was visited by many notable personalities of the world.
As I was searching for stories of this town, I had the good fortune of finding a local lad who was accommodating, warm and volunteered to take me to the infamous Kasar Devi temple. I am usually not thrilled about visiting temples, but trekking through village roads and hills to reach a place where artists, poets, writers, and spiritually inclined people formed a vital presence made it different.
While you can reach the temple with your car, going through a forested area with the cool autumn air blowing and a glorious sun flirting with the pine trees was definitely worth it. Although the constant elevation of the hike made it somewhat taxing, the view from up above the hill overlooking the valley made the climb worth it. A little more uphill walk and my gaze was transfixed on an orange hint of a temple, engulfed by ancient cave formations and dotted with pines. Dedicated to the Goddess Devi, the Kasar Devi temple overlooks the soaring Himalayas. It has been into two parts - one is the Devi temple and the other of Lord Shiva. As I stand on the temple stairway, I think of all the footsteps that have preceded mine.
Throughout the hike, I was told stories about the valleys, the local people, their farming style and their beliefs. The most fascinating ones included how Kasar Devi found its earliest mention - when Swami Vivekananda, meditated on top of the temple’s hill in 1890. After he described the healing powers of this beautiful place in detail in his diary, the place became recognised and popular.
Kasar Devi’s roster of Western stars began arriving then - from American singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, British singer Cat Stevens, and George Harrison to Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman and his wife with their daughter-actor now, Uma Thurman. Then, a band of hippies populated this tiny ridge during the 1960s. The popular Danish mystic and writer Alfred Sorensen, also known as Sunyata Baba, wrote about Kasar Devi in his book, Dancing with the Void. The place was also frequented by American psychologist, Timothy Leary who performed his famed experiments with psychedelic drugs there. The eccentricity of Leary and his followers who streaked around on the slopes at the time of the hippie movement also gave Kasar Devi its two other names, Hippie Hill and Crank’s Ridge. It is also said that way back then, he firmly believed that the holy hilltop town had some form of special cosmic energy.
Cut to the present day, the region is actually believed to have an enormous geomagnetic field as it falls under the ‘Van Allen Radiation Belt’ - the third in the world apart from Machu Picchu in Peru and Stonehenge in England. Despite a number of people claiming NASA has supported Kasar Devi's claims, there hasn't been any official confirmation and it might as well be a myth.
Yet the locals strongly believe that both positive and negative energies can be stubbornly felt all around you. Now I’m no scientist, so I can’t comment on the actual magnetism. However, there’s a kind of homely magnetism that emanates from the Kumaon region - a feeling of tranquillity and fulfilment.
As I returned back from the temple, the sun had begun to set with golden-red clouds darkening over the hilltop town with now only a silhouette of the Garhwal mountain range visible. When I looked around the town going to a dark mode, I realised places hold so many memories only for you to return to them again and again.
How to reach Kasar Devi:
Pantnagar airport is the closest airport. A Shatabdi train runs daily from New Delhi to Kathgodam, from where one can hire a taxi to Kasar Devi; or share a cab to Almora and take another one to Kasar Devi.
Where to stay:
1. The Kumaon, Kasar Devi
2. Rudra Himalayan Retreat, Kasar Devi
3. Kasar Himalaya Holiday Home, Kasar Devi
4. Mohan’s Binsar Retreat, Binsar
5. Mary Budden Estate, Binsar