Many years ago a colleague at work, who was aware of my footloose nature asked me if I could advise him, where to spend his next short vacation. I immediately whipped out a load of pictures taken during my ramblings with the remarks that if he wanted to enjoy his holidays, he should do so away from cell phones, television and wrist watches. I was deeply gratified that he took this advice and is now an avid member of the ‘footloose club’.
There are two ways to manage these trips. The first method is recommended if one is travelling without the family. This involves carrying a portable one man shelter and camping gear. It offers total independence, but can become a nightmare if the company is not right! I say so because this form of vacationing requires willingness to share work and a passion that overrides discomfort.
The second method is suitable in a situation if you are accompanied by a carload of boisterous brats. In this case, one is advised to make use of a facility called the dak bungalow or rest house. Now a dak bungalow, as the name implies, had a one-time linkage with ‘dak’ or the postal service. Years before the first European arrived in the subcontinent, letters and missives were carried from one place to another by runners or couriers in relays. These runners staged their journey at designated spots where they exchanged messages and rested. The British used these staging spots and some new ones on different postal routes to construct bungalows that could accommodate travellers. The basic layout of a dak bungalow was more or less standardised into a central network of interconnected rooms with deep verandahs to the front and rear and sometimes on all sides. Architectural details of these structures varied with the region they were in and the weather conditions. For example, those in the plains were built of bricks, had thick walls and flat roofs, while ones in the hilly regions had a wooden superstructure and sloping roofs.
While dak bungalows were essentially along a postal or ‘dak’ route, other departments such as the canals, railways, public works and forests adopted the concept and constructed similar structures in their areas of jurisdiction and called them ‘Inspection Bungalows’ and ‘Rest Houses’. One thing that manifested itself in all these establishments was the caretakers’ hospitality and willingness to please, driven perhaps by hopes of getting a substantial ‘tip’ by the guests.
I was lucky that, in the course of my long career, I had ample opportunity to stay in these rest houses and undergo some unforgettable experiences. Many of my readers may remember my column about the paranormal encounter with what can only be explained as the disturbed spirit of the young child Margaret in the Canal Inspection Bungalow near Kamalia.
There are, however, two of these ‘bungalows’ that have captured my fancy to the extent that I return to them, even though it may be for one hour, whenever I am in their vicinity. One of these is the Forest Rest House at Charhan. Located a short distance from the road that goes from Lower Topa to Patriata, this remarkable facility is surrounded by one of the largest cedar forests in the Murree Hills region. Water supply here is augmented by an ingenious rainwater catchment system consisting of a tin-funnel like contraption. The dense growth of black cedars that surround the building creates a dark mystic aura that is accentuated by the constant presence of mist to the extent that the ambience begins to play tricks with one’s imagination.
The second spot that has me hooked also belongs to the Forest Department. As you cross Kashmiri Bazar on the way to Bhurban, you are liable to note a single metalled road ascending up the hillside on the right. A drive or walk up this road is like moving through a verdant tunnel. This effect is created by the dense canopy of pines, chinars and walnut trees that line this route. Moments later, you emerge into a lush green clearing bordered by blue pines with a white jewel of a rest house sitting at one end. I was told during one of my visits to the place that the facility had been closed to the public, as it was much favoured by some political VIPs.
There was once a time that dak bungalows and similar facilities were open to members of the public, who used them against payment of a certain fee. This also generated funds for their upkeep and maintenance. While priority of their use should undoubtedly be given to the department concerned, their development as picnic spots may perhaps be considered, when not in use by officials.
n The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.