The instant you get off the bus and look up at the little church perched on the slope above, you immediately sense there is something special about this place. Your “suspicious” get confirmed soon after. After all the trapped-in-time, idyllic hill resorts you have been reading about, Kasauli is one that fits the bill. A totally benign, peaceful air pervades the place, inviting one to explore, look around, before catching your ride back to civilization.
Kasauli, in itself, is quite small. Like most hill resorts of north India, it has its upper and lower Mall roads – you pick one at random, because it really does not matter which. A few hotels, shops and Tibetan market stand interspersed in the centre of town, as you pick a quiet road that appears to leave town, wondering what lies beyond the next bend. Cottages with quaint hillside names mark the meandering route, while you sit on a roadside stone bench, trying to soak in the tranquility and experience the moment fully.
The army presence is spotted from time to time, reminding you that Kasuali is essentially (though not jarringly) a military outpost. Legend has it that crucial, high-level talks have been held here, during times of crisis. But perhaps the most endearing feature of the place is the warmth and old-world grace of the people, including shopkeepers, that wins you over completely – unlike the ‘tourist trap’ nature of most hill stations. A cloth trader, seeing you scout around for inexpensive lodgings, asks if you are looking for a room. A peek on his first floor reveals an amazingly cozy space with all the comforts of home – at a price to match.
Later in the afternoon, near the bus stand, at the town entrance, groups of monkeys put up a show, as if on cue by a professional entertainers’ troupe. For the next half hour or so, spectators are exposed to a series of dizzy antics and acrobatics that would make the Russian Circus look like a six-year old showing off to visiting relatives. A walk on a misty road, one evening, throws up two surprises – Khushwant Singh’s family mansion and the cozy looking Kasauli Club, which looks like it could be the envy of most city slickers.
Perhaps the best-known thing about Kasaui is its hundred-year-old market – a string of shops lined along a cobblestone-path, where the soul of the town resides. With entry barred for vehicles, one can idly amble down, past tea-stalls, dhabas, barbershops and assorted establishments; taking in everything and nothing in particular. Occasionally, you pause to pick up some knick-knack (mainly because you don’t have the heart to say ‘no’ to the kindly aged face behind the counter).
Old-world charm resides at every corner, be it the hotel with kitschy film stars’ portraits from the black-and-white era to antique establishments with their septuagenarian owners; selling everything from picture frames of neighbouring public schools (Lawrence, Sanawar is just down the road) to portraits and cameras. The final clincher is when the guest house owner invites you to stay for an extra day, even if you haven’t brought along enough money; allowing you to send it after you go back!
A night meal at a simple dhaba, consisting of dal makkhani and parathas (with the mandatory dollops of butter and accompanying six million calories) keeps the spell going, which you wish would never break. The evening mist, permeated by sodium lights through which strollers pass as faceless shadows, creates an outworldly ambience right out of a time warp. Finally, sitting on a bench, in the market, late in the night, ensconced in the essence of the fragrant ‘raat ki rani’ (Queen of the Night) flowers, watching shopkeepers down their shutters as business comes to an end for the day, before reopening the next morning, as it has for a hundred years; one is enveloped by a sense of absolute timelessness – Kasauli yesterday, today and forever.