• Dr Githa U Badikillaya

Sherlock of the Wilds

A third generation legendary Irishman ‘s life story is now folklore in the Kumaon hills. His love for the wildlife, shooting dreaded man-eating tigers and subsequently its conservation has seen the naming of UP’s and India’ flagship Tiger Reserve in his memory and Project Tiger undertaken to Save The Tiger in 1973. Col. Edward James Corbett popularly known as Jim Corbett. As versatile as the jungle, well conversant with wild life habitats, the calls of the birds and animals, he shot his first man eater when just ten years old.

Meandering through the verdant manicured landscape and graveled path to the heritage Corbett Museum, one gets a majestic sweeping view of the dense protected teak forest and rolling hills in the background with the tall and medium sized grasses called Chaurs so characteristic of the area. This artistic cottage with bay windows in Choti Haldwani, a 40-acre hamlet, was the winter residence of Jim Corbett. Situated on the highway, it is 30 kms from Ramnagar, 3 kms from Kaldhungi and 65 kms from Nainital, this blue and white coloured building with a low roofed attic and bay windows cannot be missed.

It is a well-maintained museum showcasing his memorabilia of personal belongings of almirahs, tables, chairs, cups, plates, his first edition books, and some letters, from which we come to know of his donations to various temples. There is a gun stand that holds a cracked walking stick at the entrance. Amongst the other artifacts is a cot, some family photographs, fishing net, hurricane lamps and his hunting chair which looks like a palanquin. Maybe that was the only luxury he allowed, as he hunted alone and on foot with his trusted Robin, his gun dog who lies buried in one corner of the estate. As simple as the man himself, the drawing and dining rooms flank a central gallery with three bed rooms at right angles with wooden floorings. The kitchen would have been in a separate building.

At the entrance the visitor is introduced to Choti Haldwani, Kaladhungi and a map of the heritage, the ‘Trail’ organized by the Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti. Walking into the museum one is brought closer to the story of the house, its incredible owner and of his life and his times. Face to face with the bust of Corbett near the house, myriad snippets of his jungle adventures from his Man eaters of Kumaon’, (translated into 9 languages and a Hollywood movie) ‘My India’, ‘Man eating leopard of Rudraprayag’, etc, jog a train of thoughts in the labyrinths of memory.

Inside, the boards tell the visitor of his family background and career journey as a Fuel Inspector in the Bengal North Western Railways that did not dampen his enthusiasm for the wild as he killed three notorious man eaters. A handsome and uniformed picture of Jim is that phase of his life as an Army officer being enlisted in WWI and rising to the ranks of Colonel. There are some rare photographs of his family of 13 siblings.

This multifaceted persona then was associated with many business enterprises, even operating a tour company from Kenya where he settled and died after Independence, not sure of the turn of political events under Indian rule. He was an agriculturist and a carpenter too. There is much more to this celebrity as we are informed that he was a taxidermist, who could adeptly shoot with the camera and adroitly wield the paint brush. His artistic bent and flair was further heightened with his being an excellent guitarist besides playing the banjo and flute.

The huge picture of a tiger and shikar scenes and a mention of all his Indian associates speak of his legacy that is inspirational even today for scores of wild life enthusiasts and conservationalists. For his courage he was fittingly decorated with the ‘Kaiser- I- Hind’ on killing the notorious leopard of Rudraprayag. He was also knighted with the OBE and CIE by the British government. Fondly remembered as “Carpet Sahib”, the locals’ still sing paeans in his praise.

It took me back to an era when the place would have bustled with caravans of oxen driven carts enroute to Nainital or further ahead into the hills. Thus, this sneak peek into his life showcased what he was- An extraordinary icon, passionate about his work, while he cared for the villagers of Choti Haldwani, when he conceived village conservation in terms of types of agricultural produce grown, protective fences to restrict man-beast conflicts for the overall peace and harmony of the villagers that is seen today in their eco -friendly Vikas Samiti.

He is long gone but we still pay our tribute to his greatness and munificence surviving in the museum and Corbett Reserve. The museum is a must visit for heritage lovers and wildlife enthusiasts and open throughout except for government holidays from 8am to 6pm in the summers and 5pm in the winters.

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