The forest rest house is at the top of a hill which looks across a valley in which a river divides along a round wooded island. The hills rise to a great height, retreating range upon range into the distance; those on the foreground are thickly wooded. On the last lap the road swings round the hill and halts at the rest-house verandah. There is a broad terrace with a low-parapet, below which the hillside drops away sharply down to the river. There is a perpetual sound of the torrent and the great hills in the tremendous Indian moonlight have a quite unearthly beauty… It is, infact, quite breathtakingly beautiful”, wrote the British writer Ethel Mannin, describing the Sitabani forest rest house in 1948. Seventy years later, the description still fits perfectly. Time unwinds slowly in Uttarakhand’s hinterlands, perhaps more in the forests of Kumaon. Sitabani, in Ramnagar forest division that abuts the Corbett Tiger Reserve, is one such place.
The charming bungalow at Sitabani was built in 1940. However, the association of humans, and even Gods, with Sitabani is much more ancient. Sitabani literally means Sita’s van (forest) — where she was exiled after leaving Ayodhya, gave birth to sons Luv and Kush, and finally took samadhi by descending into the earth. The spot where sage Valmiki’s hut, which was Sita and her boys’ residence in exile, is believed to have once existed, is now the site of two ancient temples, including a spring-fed pond where Sita is believed to have bathed. The entire complex, about a 100 m west of the forest bungalow, is an ASI-protected monument deeply revered by the locals. Further up the slope, and predating the rest house, is the crumbling forest chowki manned by a handful of forest department staff led by a forester.
There was a nip in the October air — “gulaabi thand”, as the locals call it. Seated at the edge of the same parapet where Mannin stood, my father and I could hear birds flutter and sing in the canopies of grand old trees, while a small herd of chital crossed a large waterhole in Khichdi river in the valley below. Just then, Gopalji, the affable bungalow chowkidar whispered — “It is not unusual to see tigers appear in that pool. When you don’t see them, you are sure to hear them every now and then. During monsoons, this particular tigress called somewhere from the valley below almost every night, like clockwork!”
“Last year during the hot weather, one called just below the bungalow every evening,” Manning writes of being informed by MD Chaturvedi, her host and the then head of the forest department of United Provinces. Time, indeed, unwinds slowly here.
Things haven’t changed much for Gopalji either. Now in his late 30s, he and his family have had an enduring association with Sitabani. His father was one of the longest serving chowkidars at the bungalow. Gopalji is a child of the forest. Born at Sitabani, he didn’t go to school, and the little he studied later at his village Kotabagh was too little too late. The loneliness of growing up in the forest was overbearing at times, he recounted. Once his father retired, he was the natural successor as the bungalow’s caretaker.
However, while he took over his father’s designation and responsibilities, he didn’t inherit his father’s status of a department employee. Strangely, unlike other states in India, he and almost all other daily-wage workers serving the forest department in Uttarakhand, were technically not department employees. The department had outsourced their daily-wage staff requirements to private firms, who then paid these men barely half the amount that they charged of the department per contracted personnel.
“I have made peace with the fact that my life will be like this. My efforts are now directed at educating my children for a better future,” Gopalji sighs. Unlike his father, he doesn’t keep his family at Sitabani no matter how much he may miss them. He does bring them once in a while here when the children have holidays.
Gopalji takes to tidying up the kitchen. Like most forest rest houses, Sitabani’s doesn’t have electricity. “So how exactly is water lifted up this hill? A solar pump?” I inquire. “Come with me”, he says, with a broad gutka-stained smile, “I’ll show you something interesting”.
We trail Gopalji down the bungalow. Past the temples, a few metres west, a spring drains into a small cement tub, to the other end of which is attached a thick pipe running down the slope. We negotiate the boggy soil along it. After about a hundred metres, we see a mysterious structure. An antiquated 5 ft x 5ft x 5ft wooden hut, at the base of an old ficus tree, worn out by the ravages of time. A strange huffing sound emanates from it. Suddenly, we see misty squirts of water like an engine emitting steam. Peering inside the hut, a large part of which has been conquered by the aerial roots of the ficus, we see a curious contraption.
“This is what brings water to the bungalow up there, this hydram,” Gopalji says, pointing at the cylindrical rocket-head hydraulic pump. He also explains the mechanism: the pressure of the water coming from a high gradient powers the pump in a cyclical manner which then ejects it with an even greater force, thus pushing it via output pipes to an even higher gradient. And so, through this process, known as “water-hammer effect” among students of mechanics, the water reaches not just up the hill to the bungalow but even up its roof into a water tank. Gopalji says this self-powered pump, powered solely by the flow of spring water, has been working non-stop since its installation during the bungalow’s construction. “The only thing we have to worry about is the washer ring, and the pipes which are often broken by elephants moving around this area,” he says.
As we trundle back up the slope, the lone pujari at the temple is getting ready for his prayers. The chorus of cicadas rings across this forest, complementing the pujari’s chants. It seems to be a perfect finish to all that I have experienced here — the history, both human and divine, the hypnotic beauty of the forest, the quaint bungalow, and, hidden behind this beauty, the predicaments of those sworn to protect Sitabani and its heritage. What would have become of Sita’s memory, if not for these men and women, locals and field staff alike, who have protected her grove through generations? They are, perhaps, the true servants of the faith, protectors of Sita’s memory, and guardians of her last home — her beloved van.