Seventy-four year old Steve Lall has a lifetime of stories to tell. He sits on the porch of his charming little cottage in Jilling Estate every morning, sipping filter coffee and reminiscing about his childhood, the years he served as a fighter pilot for the Indian Air Force and his early years at the estate. From his adventures of flying jets in the Northeast and camping with his dog at the Nameri National Park in Assam, to riding across the country on his motorcycle and ‘dancing with young and beautiful dames’ in the late 60s and 70s, there is never a dull moment in a conversation with Steve. Although his stories and language obviously seem to be from an earlier, much different era, Steve is not completely stuck in rewind. Technology has caught up with him in little ways as you can see from the attachment he has to his Kindle Paperwhite. Though he clarifies with much pride that he prefers hard copies of books any day.
Steve’s wife, the feisty and witty Parvati, is a true woman of the soil. She was born and brought up in and around Jilling. She is the daughter of a man who used to work for Steve’s mother when she managed the property in the 60s. When Steve visited his mother here, he met Parvati, instantly fell in love and got married to her. Perhaps the air of Jilling Estate is conducive to such whirlwind romances with happy endings. For, a few decades later, Steve and Parvati’s daughter Nandini also happened to meet and fall in love with Karthik, who is now her husband, when he visited Jilling. It’s almost as though there is some magic in the air here. You may or may not find the love of your life atop this hill, but as it happened with me, you will surely fall in love with the place, its people and the many animals that live here.
Rejuvenate mind and body in the welcoming and scenic environs of Jilling Estate
When I boarded the Kathgodam Shatabdi from New Delhi on a cloudy September morning, I wasn’t entirely sure what would be awaiting at the end of the long journey. After reaching Kathgodam, located in the foothills of the Kumaon Himalayas, I took a 1.5-hour-long cab drive to Matial, a little village beyond Bhimtal, from where the trek to Jilling starts. I met Ramlalji, the iron man of Jilling at this point. From what I had heard of him from the cab driver, Ramlalji could carry up to 100kgs of luggage to the top of the hill with ease! To my surprise, he turned out to be a man in his 60s! As we made our way up the hill we spoke about his life and his encounters with leopards in the region. He also introduced me to a few people and their dogs that we met on the way. Forty-five minutes, many beautiful views and a couple of short breaks (that I had to take to catch my breath) later, we were finally at the entrance of Jilling.
I was welcomed by not one but five fluffy dogs of varying ages at the main cottage in Jilling Estate. Leela, Titly, Dhanno, Choti and Muchchi (the grandma) keep Steve company on the porch of his house even as everyone else is busy running errands during the day. I was introduced to the rest of the staff, all local farmers who like Ramlalji, have been working with the Lalls for decades. After this little introductory session, I headed to my cottage to freshen up before meeting my hosts over coffee.
The five cottages built to accommodate the family and its guests are located in different corners of the 100-acre forested property. The one I stayed in (Nandini and Karthik’s cottage) had a living room, bedroom and a pantry. Its warm orange and green colour scheme and the added attraction of a fireplace gave it an earthy, comfortable appeal. Its walls were decorated with several posters of motorbikes. The homely vibe of the cottage kept me from feeling lonely or scared at any point in the day or night since I had the cottage to myself. I would have loved to lounge around but it was time for me to meet the family. I was greeted by the lively and warm Steve Lall. We spoke about my south Indian roots and his days in Hyderabad, Kerala, Maharashtra and the Northeast. In the middle of this engrossing tête-à-tête, I learned that the 74-years-young Steve is an avid motorcyclist (that would explain all the posters).In fact, he continues to use his motorcycle as a preferred mode of transport despite a couple of serious injuries he suffered in the past. The rest of the family joined us at dinner soon after. I realised that they make a perfect team. While Nandini and Karthik take care of the guests and run around to do all the paperwork to manage the property (which includes saving it from intruders and encroachers who keep eyeing the property to destroy its forests), Parvati breathes soul into it by making sure everyone is healthy and well fed, including the resident cows, goats, dogs, etc. Then of course there is Steve, who gives Jilling its true character. Filled to the brim with intriguing stories, a peg of whiskey and some delicious Kumaoni chicken curry and dal, I retired to my cottage for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, I headed to the Lalls cottage for breakfast where Karthik insisted I try the Kumaoni-style cheese omelette flavoured with local spices. “It’s one of my favourite things about the estate,” he told me. At first bite I realised why Karthik left his fancy corporate law job in Delhi to be here – the simple joys of Jilling are irresistible. He is living the life most of us overworked, worn-out corporate slaves can only dream of. Nandini, on the other hand, has always been well aware of the magnetic charm of Jilling. Growing up, she had been so attached to her home that she refused to go to school in a bigger city along with her brother (who now lives in Australia) and instead chose to be home-schooled at Jilling. It is probably this attachment to Jilling that has ensured that the estate thrived even in its most difficult times.
Over 50 years ago, Steve’s mother Hope Violet Lall acquired this land. The entire expanse of the hill was originally owned by the Stiffles, a British family, in the early 1900s. Back then, Jilling was called Jilung. Its former owners had planted several chestnut, peach and apricot trees on the property. In the 70s, after Steve left the Indian Air Force and moved to Jilling, he was presented with a new predicament. “I was broke and I had a family to feed. So my old friend Klaus bailed me out by advising me to take in guests,” Steve informed me. Klaus, who was working for the German embassy at the time, used to send his German friends to experience life at Jilling. “Back in the day, I used to make food and take care of the stay arrangements for the guests all by myself. Now we have all these chaps to help,” he added. As time passed by, the Lalls started hosting more people. Eventually, with the boom in tourism in the region, hordes of people began visiting. With more people came the danger of construction and the bane of environmental degradation.
The Lalls have vehemently conserved the environment and with more people coming to the area, their efforts have only increased. They refused to sell their property to opportunistic builders and planted more trees, thereby increasing the green cover manifold in an effort to preserve their immediate environment. They have also prohibited guests from bringing non-biodegradable items with them. If guests choose to ignore these instructions, it is packed and handed back to them when they leave Jilling. Today, even as oak trees have been felled and buildings have taken their place on most of the surrounding hills, the mighty oaks of Jilling stand tall as a testament to the grit, determination and pure passion that its people have to protect their land and the surrounding forests.
That afternoon, I accompanied Karthik, Nandini and Parvati to visit their friends the Chaudharys, who built a lovely little retreat for themselves in the neighbouring village below. The city-dweller in me was caught off-guard as a visit to the ‘next door neighbour’ in Jilling meant taking a 30-minute walk in the hills. The side dish on the Chaudharys’ lunch table was a plateful of gossip about their village! On our way back, Karthik burst my little bubble of bewilderment, “We have a pretty happening social life here, unlike what you would have expected.” Only a former city slicker like him could have understood my perplexed state of mind there. During the walk Nandini and Parvati were busy plucking out weeds (locally called kala jhaad, which has rapidly spread in the mountains) that they found along the way. “It spoils the soil and restricts plants from growing in that area and becomes fuel for forest fires,” Nandini told me. It struck me that this is something most of us in the city would never bother to do.
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After a quick coffee at the estate, we headed to meet Klaus for an early dinner. Klaus stays at the Lalls’ estate for most months in the year. The discussion at the dinner table involved politics, travel, reminiscing about the past and protecting Jilling’s green cover. Except this time, we were sitting right under a star-studded sky. The next morning, which happened to be my birthday, I went to the Lalls’ for breakfast and Karthik was waiting for me with binoculars. “Happy birthday! You’re lucky, you can see the Nanda Devi and the Nanda Kot mountains today,” he exclaimed. The sight of those majestic snow-capped mountains, albeit from a distance, was one of the best birthday gifts I’d ever received. The sighting also left me excited and energetic for the hikeI was going to take that morning with Parvati to a nearby temple. On the way, she showed me a 200-year-old house, the boundary demarcations of their property, chestnut trees, trees burned down due to unexpected forest fires and various picnic spots. On our way back, we stopped by a barn where we played with a couple of baby goats that she had been taking care of. That night, Nandini baked a cake for me, making me feel completely at home.
During my stay, it dawned on me that every little thing that the people here were doing was to protect Mother Nature. And it is due to all this hard work that Jilling is still home to a variety of species of plants and animals. Later that night, which was my last at Jilling, we saw a sambar deer close to the main cottage.
No great story ever ended without an even greater climax. The next morning, after I bid farewell to everyone at Jilling and headed back to Matial with Ramlalji, we heard a leopard growl from the bushes next to the path. In that moment, defenseless, Ramlalji and I walked away as fast as we could. However, I soon realised that the leopard’s growl was a “thank you for visiting, come again soon,” sign from the universe. On our last leg of the trek to Matial, I found myself inadvertently picking up all the non-biodegradable waste I spotted en route, just like the people of Jilling, a home I found away from my own, would have done.
Inputs by Karen Faye D’Souza & Priyam Bagga
- Non-biodegradables not allowed
- Plastic free
- Tree planting drives to increase green cover
- Farm life orientation
When to go: All year round; winter for best views
Where: Above Matial Village, PO Padampuri, Nainital district - 263136, Uttarakhand
Check their Facebook page here
W jilling.net, jillingestate.com
Tariff â¹3,500–4,000 per person per night plus taxes
- Nature walk
Air Nearest airport: Pantnagar (60km/ 2.5–3hrs). Taxi would cost around â¹2,000 (negotiable)
Rail Nearest railhead; Kathgodam (40km/ 1.5hrs). Taxi to Matial about â¹1,200–1,500. From here its an hour’s climb. Pony rides available for about â¹350 per pony per trip, pony for luggage is â¹250, porter â¹200
Road From Kathgodam, drive to Bhimtal and at the Khutani Bend, turn right at the tri-junction towards Matial via Chanfi. Make arrangements for parking at Matial (which is a kilometre shy of Padampuri) with your hosts ahead of the trip.