Occasionally, the sharp call of a bird floats across the valley. Fluffy mountain dogs let out a friendly bark or two. Apart from that there is complete silence in this neck of the Kumaon Himalaya. If you prefer peace over pep, Mukteshwar is for you. It’s also for those hungry for adventure and keen to commune with the great outdoors. There’s plenty for them to do here. Then there’s the view of the legendary peaks of the high Himalaya on a clear day, a sight for sore city eyes.
The drive into Kumaon in early February was beautiful. Once we left Bhimtal’s busy sprawl behind, there were two options: to drive via Ramgarh or Dhanachuli. We chose the latter, ostensibly shorter route, made good progress, and then ran into some snow in Dhanachuli. While fresh snow falling is a sight to behold, our attention was taken up by our car which was skidding on the ice that had hardened on the road. The beauty of India is that there is always assistance at hand. It did not take much to coax a bunch of sprightly boys to help push our car—they were rather interested in the insta-worthy video they ended up creating out of the situation. And we lurched on towards Mukteshwar.
At a height of 2,171 metres, Mukteshwar is set at the junction of the Gagar and Lohaghat ranges of the Kumaon hills, surrounded by forests of pine and common oak and peppered with streams and waterfalls. In other words, a place of rare natural beauty and a salubrious climate. Its name, which it owes to a small, hilltop temple, belies Mukteshwar’s rich colonial heritage. The town—if one can even call it that; it’s really just a ridge—came into its own with the establishment of the Imperial Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) on a 3,000-acre campus here, the cool climate being suitable for the preservation of vaccines. The institute actually began life as the Imperial Bacteriological Laboratory, which moved here from Pune in 1893, but was renamed as IVRI in 1925. Following independence, the ‘Imperial’ was replaced with ‘Indian’. The sprawling campus is still there—looming over the town, with a few shops, a bank, a post office and a ‘human hospital’ latched on—but now that the main institute is in Izzatnagar, Bareilly, this outpost has become the hill campus, housing the Division of Virology and the Division of Temperate Animal Husbandry.
The town is also the setting of Jim Corbett’s story, ‘The Muktesar Man-Eater’, featured in The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Some of the places associated with ‘Carpet Sahib’ and the story can be seen even today. “Eighteen miles to the north-north-east of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west... This range, and all the hills that lie between it and the plains of India, run east and west, and from a commanding point on any of the hills an uninterrupted view can be obtained not only of the snows to the north but also of the hills and valleys to the east and to the west as far as the eye can see. People who have lived at Muktesar claim that it is the most beautiful spot in Kumaon, and that its climate has no equal.”
I was staying at Jüsta Mukteshwar, a new resort on the other side of the Mukteshwar ridge, in the village of Saliyakot. And I can vouch for the view. From my balcony the peaks of the Nanda Devi range appeared to be within kissing distance. Built on a tricky swathe of land, Jüsta seems a bit higgledy-piggledy, so it’s difficult to obtain a composite sense of the property. But it comes together eventually.
The rooms, all with original artwork, are stylish, while the restaurant sports a more cheerful décor. There is a spa, which gives them an edge over the competition. I had some excellent therapies here, and the view did half the healing to be honest. But, perhaps, the centrepiece is the indoor, temperature-controlled pool with a jaw- dropping view of the mountains.
The property is in the excellent care of Sanket Singh, a General Manager who loves the region, knows more about it than most and has made it his home. He told me Jüsta Mukteshwar has been imagined as a wellness and rejuvenation space, and there are plans to conduct wellness retreats with yoga, meditation and a variety of therapies.
The food is excellent, the highlight being the Kumaoni thali. Served on a terracotta plate and bowls, with additional items arriving in copper vessels, it turned out to be a sumptuous affair. While the dishes change seasonally, the one I sampled came piled with plump madua (ragi or finger millet) rotis, to be dipped into bhatt ke dubke, a mushy preparation of black soybean unique to the region, and accompanied by jahikya aloo, mooli ki thechwani, home-style chicken curry, and bhang ki chatni. All in all, a rustic and charming affair.
Out and About
Mukteshwar is noted for the waterfalls in its vicinity. I visited Bhalugaad. It’s a pleasant trek to the fall—uphill and downhill, and then along a stream—but you can cut the distance in half by ziplining part of the way. The route is littered with enticement in the form of tea stalls and cafés. When you reach the waterfall, you’ll know it’s been worth the trouble. Even in winter, the flow is impressive, and the water’s force has created a massive pool at its base. In warmer weather, it doubtless tempts many to take the plunge.
Mukteshwar’s most remarkable natural feature—and, consequently, its most popular attraction—is the Chauli ki Jaali, a rock formation that juts out from a cliff close to the Mukteshwar temple. Serendipitously, it also faces west, and tourists congregate here every evening to witness the spectacular sunset and for di rigueur masala maggi and freshly-squeezed malta juice. Rappelling and rock-climbing are also on offer. It’s a lively scene, and great to dip your toes into should the quiet start getting to you.
One morning, when the air was crisp, I went down to a stream below the property. Under a bridge, a picnic table was laid out and I had breakfast in the most tranquil of settings. It’s these little nooks and corners that make this far-from-the-madding- crowd corner of Kumaon special.
Mukteshwar reminded me what our hill stations are supposed to be like—small, not trampled by too much development or overrun with visitors. If peace was a physical space, I think it would be Mukteshwar.
Nearest Railway station Kathgodam (56km, 2.5hr drive)
Drive from Delhi to Mukteshwar via Moradabad, Rampur, Rudrapur, Haldwani, Bhimtal and then via Bhowali or Dhanachuli
Where to Stay
The brand-new Jüsta Mukteshwar Retreat & Spa is an excellent choice with a view to die for.
x Has a spa and indoor heated swimming pool.
x Offers village walks and meals at local homes, besides other excursions
What to See & Do
x Chauli ki Jaali Mukteshwar’s most popular attraction, it’s a sight to behold
x Mukteshwar post office (pic) Established in 1905, jim Corbett sent a telegram to his mother from this charming, little post office about his safe arrival in ‘The Muktesar Man-Eater’ story
x Bhalugaad Waterfall A not-to-be-missed attraction
x There’s no denying it. Mukteshwar is all about the view. The classic one of the high Himalaya has Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Nandaghunti, Trishul and Panchachuli in the frame
x This region is the fruit bowl of Kumaon. In summer, the trees are laden with apples, peaches and apricots, making for a pleasing sight
Do Not Miss
x Mukteshwar temple This small shrine atop a hill gives the town its name. Don’t forget to ring the ancient bells on your way up