On a clear day, a panoramic view of the Himalayas—from Nanda Devi to the five snow-capped peaks of Panchachuli—unfurls above Kasar Devi, a small hilltop village near Almora in Uttarakhand. A single road runs along the top of the ridge, with about 200 homes dotting the slopes on either side. I first went there on a school picnic nearly 15 years ago. Everything beyond Kasar Devi temple was deemed out of bounds and we were especially warned to steer clear of “Hippie Hill.” Over time I learned that the area, also known as Crank’s Ridge, used to be a pulsing hub of art, poetry, mysticism, and hippie subculture. This history still brings backpackers to the village where homestays, old general stores, and new cake shops cater to their needs.
I couldn’t wait to discover more, especially once I moved to Binsar, just 30 minutes away. From Swami Vivekananda to Timothy Leary and Bob Dylan, Kasar Devi’s roster of stars and their goings-on was the stuff of legend. A band of hippies populated this tiny ridge during the 1960s. Among them was psychologist Timothy Leary who was fired from Harvard University for advocating the use of psychedelic drugs. President Richard Nixon called him the “most dangerous man in America.” While Leary is most famous for his experiments with LSD and the catchphrase “turn on, tune in, drop out,” he was also a believer in the theory that gaps in the bands of radiation that surround the earth (called the Van Allen Belt) endow certain spots such as Machu Picchu and Stonehenge with a special cosmic energy. He believed Kasar Devi was one such place.
Whatever the merits of this theory, the region has certainly drawn many extraordinary poets, philosophers, and spiritual leaders.
One of the earliest pilgrims was Swami Vivekananda, who wrote in his diaries about meditating near Kasar Devi in 1890. German philosopher Ernst Lothar Hoffmann, later known as Lama Anagarika Govinda, who was the first European to be ordained a Buddhist monk, also lived here. He had met renowned Tibetan Buddhism scholar Walter Evans-Wentz in 1931, at an All India Buddhist Conference in Darjeeling. Later, he and his wife Li Gotami, a Parsi artist and photographer, went on to live in Evans-Wentz’s house in Kasar Devi. Govinda also set up a Tibetan refugee centre and monastery in Kasar Devi. Other mystics who visited and lived here include Danish hermit “Sunyata” Alfred Sorensen and two British Vaishnava sadhus: Ronald Henry Nixon or Sri Krishna Prem, founder of the Mirtola ashram near Almora, and his successor, Alexander Phipps or Sri Madhava Ashish. The latter earned a Padma Shri for environmental education and his contribution to sustainable agricultural practices.
During their time here, Timothy Leary and his group tried different paths to spirituality. His friend and Harvard colleague Richard Alpert arrived here in 1967 and became a disciple of Neem Karoli Baba of the Kainchi Ashram near Nainital. Alpert eventually became known as Ram Dass. The eccentricity of Leary and his followers, who experimented with nudism and smoked wild cannabis, gave Crank’s Ridge its name.
On my return to this hill many years after my school trip, I was searching for stories of Crank’s Ridge. I had the good fortune of finding 76-year-old Bishen Singh Mehra, who met both Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan when they came here. Now wrinkled and wearing thick glasses, Mehra was then a young schoolteacher who spent all his holidays on the ridge hungry for the passionate conversations that could be had here. In hushed tones, Mehra told me that he also “sampled some LSD with Leary.” Mehra went on to become a close follower of Lama Govinda, whom he would meet every Sunday, “without appointment,” he said with a hint of pride.
American writer and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman came to Crank’s Ridge in the summer of 1971 to study under Lama Govinda. His daughter, Hollywood actor Uma Thurman, spent part of her childhood here. Other creative people who visited include Buddhist American painter Earl Brewster. He lived at Snow View Estate, where he was visited by his friend, writer D.H. Lawrence. Snow View is now a defunct hotel. Beyond it on Simtola hill is the spot where classical dance maestro Uday Shankar and his troupe rehearsed when Uday Shankar’s dance academy was located in Almora during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Further afield, about 13 kilometres north of Kasar Devi, Binsar’s tranquil oak and deodar canopied forests inspired Italian writer Tiziano Terzani’s most memorable work The End is My Beginning, which was published posthumously in 2006.
Jawaharlal Nehru vacationed in Binsar too, at his sister Vijaylaxmi Pandit’s Khali Estate. He often rode on horseback to the house of Rai Bahadur Harkishen Lal Shah Gangola, a trader and philanthropist from Almora, to play badminton. Gangola hosted many distinguished guests, including D.H. Lawrence, at his home which was the former residence of British Commissioner Henry Ramsay. Incidentally, I am married to Gangola’s great-grandson and we run the renovated building as a heritage hotel. Many other estates lie scattered across the region, some well-kept, others shabbily maintained.
In Binsar, I met two Americans on a quest to find out more about the history of Crank’s Ridge. Paul and Margie Manners told me that they were compelled to visit this little corner of India after reading Sunyata’s book Dancing with the Void. Paul was a student at Harvard when Leary was teaching there. They hoped to meet Alan Gold and Alvaro, a Brit and an Italian who came to the ridge in the 1960s and never left. As the Manners departed at dusk, little lights popped up in the valley, mirroring the stars twinkling in the sky. Looking around, I felt that this really is a place with magnetism strong enough to attract wandering souls from faraway places.