Uttarakhand: Walking the Doon Valley

Uttarakhand: Walking the Doon Valley
The forests of Dehradun wrapped in mist, Photo Credit: Been There, Doon That, The Walking Group

When one is walking through a valley as verdant as the Doon, history and nature make wonderful companions.

Lokesh Ohri
October 31 , 2021
12 Min Read

It began with a small argument. “There is nothing of historic value in Dehradun, other than the odd colonial building,” remarked a co-passenger on a flight. To add insult to injury, he commented callously, “I am heading straight to the hills, the moment I land there. At least they are green and the weather is pleasant. On the way back I shall pick some Basmati Rice and Pistachio Cookies.”

For someone who has grown up in the Doon valley, the casual remark was nothing short of an affront. My beloved valley had much more to offer. As I sulked, pretending to return to my book, the realisation dawned that the comment was perhaps justified. Other than the odd British Gazetteer, there was nothing in the public domain to educate visitors about the city’s origins and heritage.


From Ruskin Bond to school kids attending nature clubs (and there are quite a few!), everyone has lamented the loss of built and natural heritage, but very little, not even a definitive history, is available. Something had to be done, and it had better be more than just writing another book!

By the time we landed at the Jolly Grant Airport after the 45-minute flight from Delhi, I had already made good use of my boarding pass to draw up a list of 20 sites that I would go to and document.

The next morning I woke up early to undertake my task. I would begin with the Guru Ram Rai Durbar that gave Dehradun its name. The Doon Valley, as we know it today, has undergone many baptisms by fire. Perhaps the latest jolt came in the year 2000 when the town grew overnight into the capital of Uttarakhand. Clearly, this once sleepy little town of grey hair and green hedges has seen better days. Reminded of Ruskin Bond’s aching denouncement, “Dehra, I may stop loving you, but I will never stop loving the days that I loved you,” I set out, looking for his lost Dehra.

Guru Ram Rai Durbar's murals depict intricate portraits

The ‘Dehra’ in the valley’s name comes from the vernacular dera or camp. One visit to the camp site of Guru Ram Rai, established in the valley since the spot was exactly equidistant from the rivers Ganga in the east and the Yamuna in the west, leaves one baffled at the oddity of a 17th century Mughal emperor, vilified in history textbooks for his fanaticism, befriending another figurehead disgruntled with the Sikh faith; their friendship laying the foundations of a city in the foothills, Dehradun, as we know it today. Guru Ram Rai became udasin or dissatisfied with mainstream Sikhism and was granted land by Aurangzeb, in the foothills of the Himalayas. His followers soon congregated and the camp became a bustling settlement.

The Guru Ram Rai Durbar, or the mausoleum of the Guru built by Aurangzeb still stands in the heart of Dehradun with a hundred foot-high sacred pole called the ‘Jhandaji’ as its centerpiece. The Durbar is an integral part of life for people in the bazaars around and the faith professed by the followers of Guru Ram Rai has generously fused together tenets of the Sikh faith along with elements of Sufi traditions and local Garhwali culture. What make the mausoleum even more unique are the numerous murals from the Garhwal School of Painting that appeared around 1900 that adorn its walls. Painted by the maverick Tulsi Ram, a descendent of the legendary Pandit Maula Ram Tomar, one of the walls also has a selfportrait, the artiste lost in thought, brush dipped in paint.

The murals transport one to more eclectic times when British ladies walking to the horse-races could rub shoulders with Naga Sadhus, both depicted on the same wall; and a lady in typical Mughal regalia, her face adorned by a large nose-ring from Garhwal, could be depicted breastfeeding a dark Ganesha. Like the hybridised tenets of the dera’s faith, Redcoats have replaced the traditional dwarpals guarding the main door, rifles ready to fire!

Nuances of the Garhwal school of art at Guru Ram Rai Durbar

As I walked around this fascinating monument, I realised that a visit gave me a new perspective that was at completely at odds with history textbooks. Young people, who come in droves to the educational capital of India, rather than head for the McDonalds every weekend, ought to come here more often. Driving back through the bazaar, negotiating one traffic snarl after another, I realised that one could easily walk the distance from my home to the monument.

Visiting one heritage site after another, it became evident to me that Dehradun was indeed meant for walking through, and driving somehow diminished the thrill of spotting the one of the more than two hundredodd species of bird easily seen here, or the simple joy of discovering a British-era letter box embellished with brass fittings. That was when I began to coax and cajole my friends into joining me for the walking trips. Soon, we had a vibrant group and Sunday walks had become a staple.

When one is walking through a valley as verdant as the Doon, history and nature make wonderful companions. One can never be partial to either. For instance, taking the Kipling Trail from Rajpur to Mussoorie is as much a nature lover’s delight as it is a course in colonial history. Negotiating the first five killer turns, colloquially the paanch kainchi or the five scissors, you come to the Half- Way House at Jharipani. Huffing and puffing from the effort, you begin to breathe in what Ruskin Bond describes as “diamond cut air”. With legs a little shaky under you, one look at the Doon Valley, stretched out for miles with the two mighty rivers on the extreme ends threading their way through thick Sal forests, and the Shivaliks in the distance, fill you with wonder. In your own Kiplingesque manner, you begin to fall victim to the smell of wet pine cones, the same smell that the celebrated author of the Jungle Book said, if it gets under the skin, forces a man to return to the Himalaya, to die.

Crossing the old post office and the railway school, you walk past the Kamal Castle and Castle Hill, sad looking palatial homes concealing within them tales of riches turning to rags. While the Kamal was the home of the exiled Shah kings of Nepal, Castle Hill housed Duleep Singh, son of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a young boy of nine separated from his mother Rani Jindan Kaur and his rich ancestry, because the British were too frightened the chiefs of Punjab would regroup under him. Converted to Christianity, Duleep Singh finally left for England on self-imposed exile to lead the life of a village squire. The story of the prince is indeed one of intrigue and treachery, giving valuable lessons in British statecraft.

Lying tucked away on another hill in the valley is the tale of unmatched valour, displayed in a battle that could have changed the course of Indian history. The Gurkha of Nepal who managed to take the valley from the King of Tehri in 1802, ruled over most of this Himalayan region then. Their reign lasted until 1814, a watershed for the hills. The year saw the British enter north India, eying Dehradun due to its strategic location on the trade route to Tibet, home to the bustling trade of Pashmina wool and Afghan horses. But before they could covet the valley, that so reminded them of Scotland, a stone’s throw away from the heat and dust of the Indian plains, they would have to contend with the Gurkha to take the mud and brick fortress of Khalanga. What was to follow was a battle fought between 600 poorly armed Gurkha and the more than 10,000 strong British contingent.

The Gurkha, under their young chieftain Balbhadra Thapa, fought with so much pluck that the British were left dumbfounded. On the first day of the battle, the Gurkha had more or less wiped out the entire British top brass, including the much decorated Major General Sir Rollo Gillespie. Had the British not blocked the Gurkha water sources, north India would have remained a Gurkha bastion for long. So impressed were the British with Gurkha bravery that they erected a memorial, probably the only one ever by the British in honour of the enemy, and even began inducting them in their own armies. Today, the Gurkha serve not just in the Indian, but also the British and Singapore armies. The memorial, known, as the Khalanga or Gillespie’s Memorial is the starting point of the trail, leading to where the fortress once stood, now marked by a memorial. En route, we come across boulders shattered by British cannons and cavities where the Gurkha hid their weapons.

The Forest Institute in Dehradun is an architectural marvel with immense natural wealth

The history and nature trails always existed. It was left to the group, quirkily named ‘Been There, Doon That’, to interpret them for the visitor. Today, there are 25-odd trails in the Doon Valley that people regularly tramp through. Many of them point to the British, romancing the hills. Despite the urban nightmare that is unfolding in the city, it takes less than 20 minutes to reach a forest from any given location. Lush fields, canals, litchi and mango orchards and cool weather brought the British, as it does urban Indians today. The British wanted the Doon Valley to be an institutional town and set up the likes of Rangers’ College, Asia’s first forestry school, Imperial Forest Research Institute, Survey of India, the Doon School, besides the countless tin-roofed bungalows with fireplace chimneys, some of which still stand proudly in the valley. The British fancied Dehradun so much that before shifting the union capital to Delhi, they mulled over bringing it to Dehra. Thankfully, that was not to be. Even amongst the hill stations, while Shimla became the summer capital of India, Nainital remained the summer capital of the United Provinces. Dehradun and Mussoorie were the only resort towns where you could let your hair down without a superior staring at you. This made the twin towns spaces of romance, leisure and scandalous love affairs.

George Everest's Bungalow's rustic facade

Keeping up with the spirit of lasciviousness and intrigue that manifested the twin towns, there is also a ghost trail. As one walks through the cold mists on densely forested trails, one can almost sense the presence of long dead British officers and their mates ready to tap your shoulder asking for a drink at the seedy bars that once dotted the town. Or you could run into the ghost of Sir George Everest who spent a considerable part of his life here as the Superintendent of the Great Arc Survey, finally measuring the exact height of Mount Everest. The Survey of India campus still houses the bulky instruments used in the Survey, carried through the entire sub-continent by Everest himself, some of them weighing half ton!

Another awe-inspiring space in the valley is the Forest Research Institute (FRI), testimony to the all-embracing nature of Doon’s environs. The town is quite a large-hearted host and almost any plant species, from plantain to almond, takes root here. The copious Monsoon further justifies grandma’s remark that in the Monsoon, even walking sticks begin to grow roots and shoots. Small wonder then that the FRI was set-up here, an iconic edifice standing to perfection of line without steel or cement! Designed by Bloomfield in the Greco-Roman style, the grand building shows how nature and architecture can complement each other.

Your heart will also skip a beat at the sight of the few surviving canals of the valley that were notorious for devouring uncles and aunts. Drowning in them was as easy as just whiling away time on warm afternoons. The masonry and streams still exist and instantly put you in a time warp.

Dehradun has so much to offer to the avid walker that encapsulates nature’s bounty with a rich historical past. The good news is that walking the valley as an educative pastime has assumed epidemic proportions. It is the endeavour of the group, ‘Been There Doon That’, supported by INTACH (contact: +91-9634564434; intach.org), to get people to walk and savor the delights of the valley without leaving a negative footprint. Eminent experts volunteer to conduct trails like the Madevta Geology Walk, The Mussoorie Ghost Walk, The Landour Infinity Walk, The Mindrolling Footprints Walk or even a Dehradun Street Food Walk. At ₹500 per head, each walk is a steal to the delights of heritage and nature walking.

How I wish I could invite my friend on the flight to come, and strum along with the Beatles, who visited the valley in the late 1960s and were inspired to sing,

See them move along the road in search of life divine

...beggars in a goldmine

Doon Dehra Doon Dehra Doon Doon...

many roads can take you there, many different ways

one direction takes you years, another takes you days

Doon Dehra Doon Dehra Doon Doon...

This article is from our Story Bank. It was first published in December 2016.


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