May 2012
#Ghost Stories , 1602 Views
Dak Bungalows

Photographs: Dileep Prakash/Photoink

The haunting spaces of remote, colonial-era rest houses.

In 2007 I began photographing dak bungalows, the traditional rest houses of travelling government officials, located throughout the isolated, hilly and mountainous areas of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal. A legacy of the British, these bungalows, built in the architectural style of the colonial era, were constructed as far back as the late 1800s along remote routes used by the empire’s administrators.

I embarked on this photography project to try to capture and revisit some of the memories and emotions I associate with dak bungalows, and to also document these spaces. In this series, I have sought to document only the bungalows – some now quite dilapidated – which still retain their original character.

My memories of dak bungalows go back to the 1970s and early 1980s when, up until I was about 16, I’d accompany my parents to these rest houses – my father’s post with the Uttar Pradesh government took him regularly around the hilly regions of what is now Uttarakhand – where we’d typically stay for one or two nights. The bungalows were often poorly connected by road and we’d have to journey by horseback, jeep or on foot to reach them.

These spaces always seemed very lonely, and haunted to me. The bungalows normally consisted of two or three rooms, a veranda orientated towards a picturesque view, and an outhouse for the staff and horses. Most of them did not have electricity or running water and they were often not in good condition as it was difficult to maintain such remotely situated properties. But I liked their handmade nature, the unevenness 62 of the lime plastered walls, the locally sourced wood and stone used in their construction and the way cobwebs and spiders would hide in room corners. These were stark spaces, and when night fell, for a child sleeping in the pitch black in their own room surrounded by the eerie quiet of the forest, the rustle of a breeze, the scampering about of a wild animal outside or pine leaves falling on the roof could be unnerving sounds. Animals such as leopards were not uncommon in these elevated areas, and it wasn’t safe to be outdoors after sunset. And once one was ensconced in a room at night, the idea of something wild lurking about outside, coupled with the creaky spookiness of the indoors, could bring on a sense of there being no escape.

The chowkidars, the caretakers of the bungalows, who were solitary characters with the pronounced idiosyncrasies of people who have spent days on end without any company and have done so for many years, would recount stories of haunted souls. I recall staying in one bungalow located by Dodital, a lake in Uttarakhand that was said to be haunted. In those days, it was forbidden to swim or boat there because it was said that the souls of people who’d once stayed in the bungalow and had drowned would pull you into the water. The chowkidars’ stories carried similar strains, and were centred on death, sometimes very violent demises, and would occupy my thoughts while lying in the dark. It was only when I started taking my own children to stay in dak bungalows that their uneasiness at night replaced my own.

Of the scores I have stayed in, I have only photographed about 15 rest houses. If they have been renovated, as it has happened to bungalows along the tourist trail, under the initiative of the government bodies managing them, I won’t photograph them. Most of the ones I have photographed have remained untouched and unvisited for weeks or months.

The journey to a bungalow is very important to my photographic process. The way I get to the place – following hazy directions, driving along unpaved roads, sometimes in the dark or through rain or sludge, often without any phone signal the deeper I go into the forest and rarely encountering a soul along the way apart from the odd person who can provide directions or may ask for a lift – builds up a mood for what I will find and photograph when I arrive. Without that journey, I may not connect with that bungalow. I stay for one or two nights and then head off.

When I look at these images, some feel purely documentary, and others, the darker ones in this series, bring to mind certain things I felt when I was a child. Even the images taken in the daytime, with light coming in through a door or window, remind me of the way the shadows of branches would play on the bed sheet at night. I will often head out to a dak bungalow when it’s nearly a full moon to maximise the amount of natural light. I photograph deep into the night with very long exposures and in this way the moonlight can sometimes capture strange shadows and inexplicable reflections. As told to Annette Ekin.

Photographs by Dileep Prakash/Photoink (This series is a work in progress.)