With characters from Ruskin Bond’s books popping out from every corner and a cave with robbers becoming the ideal spot to bask in the sun, Dehradun makes for a fun holiday
Suddenly the red slipper came off and the fast flow of water was carrying it out of the narrow passage. Clinging on to the wet limestone rock, a DSLR slung around my neck, the phone in one hand, the pebbles beneath my feet, standing in ankle-deep water, I wasn’t exactly in a position to run after it. Thankfully, another wader heard my frantic call and caught the slipper, else my wallet would be have been lighter by INR 100 (fine for losing the slipper). Now, I knew exactly why the man renting me the slippers at the entrance was worried about the fit. It cost just INR 10 to rent the pair! This was Robber’s Cave, a natural wonder in Dehradun.
Better known as Guchhupani by the locals, this is a natural cave with the river flowing through it. Almost 600 metres long, the slightly dark and wide entrance doesn’t actually prepare one for the pulsating walk against the current. The adventure begins here–for you slowly wade through the high rock passage, with just a trickle of sunlight streaming in, dry leaves keep falling into the water, which is surprisingly clean. And this leads to the small waterfall from where the river drops, where you look up to a bright sky. I could have been in a Famous Five adventure series written by Enid Blyton. I rotated my head in all directions, until a small girl wading with me said, “What if we were here at night?” Sinister, the word flashed in my head. My smiling answer was, “Thankfully, they close it in the evening.” Guchhu literally means ‘water in a cup’, perhaps this was just a cup for the mighty Himalayas, but for me it was pure magic. Locals believe that robber’s hid here during the British era.
Been There, Doon That
Little explored by most, Dehradun is now the rapidly growing capital of Uttarakhand. Like many, I also knew it as the town with educational institutions, a hub for retired people and a training ground for army entrants at the Indian Military Academy. It is also the town where M.S. Dhoni got married–at the Vishranti resort, near the Forest Research Institute.
But on a walk with Sargam Mehra, co-founder of Been There, Doon That? (BTDT), I relived the childhood days of the famous author Ruskin Bond. Those were the days of canals, orchards, forest, bakers, and some bankrupt people. A PhD student, Mehra, along with Lokesh Ohri, has been conducting heritage and food walks for the last four years. I was on the 172nd walk! BTDT is part of the INTACH Dehradun Chapter.
“Spell Dehradun,” she said, standing on a raised platform at Gandhi Park. Some said, “Dehradun”, “Dehradoon”, and she cleared the air saying it was “Dehra Dun”. Dun means valley and Dehra is camp. It was founded by a Sikh guru Ram Rai (belonging to Udaseen sect) who had his camp here, way back in the 17th century. A gurudwara stands at the original spot.
However, our walk was focused more on Colonial times—in the 1940-50s. Standing under a shop in Astley Hall, Mehra pointed up and said, “This is the room where Ruskin Bond wrote his famous book, The Room on the Roof.” The room exists; only it’s part of a jewellery showroom. On the ground floor was the kirana shop run by Bibiji, his stepfather’s first wife, and the room (which she had rented to him) was where he wrote 30 short stories. Like many others who went bankrupt in Dehradun in those days, Bibiji also couldn’t pay her electricity bill and young Bond wrote his stories in candlelight and lantern lights. His first story was published when he was just 19 in The Illustrated Weekly.
Reliving Bond’s Childhood & Characters
Tales of colonial times, battles, architecture continued during this two-hour and 2km long walk. Mehra enlightened that the town once had the most successful canal system in the country; there were five canals here and only portion of one is left now. The canal system was laid down in the times of Rani Karnavati (when the town was part of the Nepalese empire). On the East Canal Road, we stopped in front of Hotel White House (I guess named so only because it’s white). Pointing out the art deco Colonial era architecture, Mehra continued with Bond characters. “He would come to this place often to meet Colonel Wilkie (of When Darkness Falls And Other Stories fame), a defence personnel who had a turbulent relationship with his wife. Bond liked hotels as he would meet many interesting characters there. Another one he frequented is the Savoy in Mussoorie.”
As someone who has read his novels with care to conduct the walks, Mehra kept regaling us with facts like Bond ate chaat near Clock Tower, his grandmother had an account in Allahabad Bank there and that he was wary of making friends in the same age group. But he did manage to find two friends, Somi and Daljeet, and went hiking with them in the nearby forest (which is now Rajpur Road). Many of these people found their way into his book Rusty Runs Away and memoir Town Called Dehra.
Continuing on the East Canal road, we heard about Tutu, the monkey, and Popeye, the parrot–his grandmother’s pets. An avid gardener with an enviable collection of flowers, she didn’t like to show them off. But one of the relatives, Uncle Ken, stole some and exhibited them in a flower show and even won a prize. And a battle took place in the family. A flower show is held even now in March every year at the Rajbhavan.
Hearing stories, taking pictures, walking fast for the policeman asked us not to stop outside the headquarters of the Uttarakhand police, we reached the crossing of Old Survey Road. Pointing to a white house, Mehra said it was believed to be the location of the grandmother’s home. In fact, BTDT had even gone searching for his stepfather’s house in Dalanwala but not succeeded.
While I visualising the long gone mango orchards from where Bond would steal mangoes, a drop from the dark clouds broke the reverie. The walk was over, it was drizzling and stomach yearned for breakfast. But I wish I had seen the old cinema hall—Odeon, near Astley Hall. There, the cash-strapped teen author had made a barter deal. He gave his English records to be played during the interval and in return got to watch all the Hollywood movies for free.
Back at the Seyfert Sarovar Portico hotel, I put some pillows under my feet, ordered fried babycorns and fresh pineapple juice, and watched Ed Sheeran groove out Shape of You. Some helpful teens had given me the names of more places to see–bakeries, chaat wali gali, George Everest for the sunset and Malsi Deer Park. So, there was reason enough to plan another getaway to the cup-shaped valley with its delightful tales.
How to reach
There are daily trains from Delhi (Dehradun Shatabadi, Nanda Devi Express, to name two) and other major cities. The airport, Jolly Grant Airport, is about an hour from the centre. Taxis can be hired from there for Rs 800-1,000.
More Attractions in Dehradun
- Entrance fee for Robber’s Cave is INR 25. There are cafes inside and one can enjoy a good picnic here.
- Tapakeswar temple, dedicated to Shiva, is housed in a cave. Within this is another cave, where a stone inscription says that Drona’s son Ashwatthama was born there, dating the site to Mahabharata era.
- The Tibetan settlement at Clement Town is an interesting area to walk around. There are souvenir shops, cafes and the beautiful Mindrolling Monastery. It is modeled on the one in Tibet and houses a school and college for monks.
- Sahastradhara falls are another popular attraction. There is a ropeway leading to a Sai temple on a hill.
- Malsi Deer Park is also another good place to spend time in nature.
- Go shopping in Paltan bazaar and end up buying the famous rusks from Sunrise, Ellora’s and sticky jaws from Kwality.