‘Hill Station’ is a typically colonial nomenclature. Seasonal recreation in the Indian hills brought prestige to the vacationer, says author Dane Keith Kennedy in The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj. But seasonal recreation was not a new idea; trips to coastal towns along the south of France, sojourns to the Brighton beaches, or taking the Bath waters for recovery and convalescence were all well-known leisure activities in England. However, in the ‘colonies’, when the fearful cholera epidemic struck between 1817 and 1821, a fillip was given to the establishment of ‘hill stations’ for their curative nature as well as their salubrious climate. By the 1830s, spending time at such hill stations had become popular among the British administrators in India.

An impetus to this idea came particularly after the Revolt of 1857, when it was resolved to increase the ratio of British troops in the Indian Army as it was deemed fit to have more Whites than Indians. It became necessary to provide a sanitary environment where Europeans could recover from the vagaries of heat, humidity, cholera and malaria, which took its annual toll. Here, ‘natives’ could be relegated to do all menial duties, almost as a sub-human species. This was the nature of colonial rule, be it French, Dutch, German, or British, or even the deep south American plantation culture, which too was maintained by coolie or forced labour.

In 1868, Sir William Mansfield, the then Commander in Chief of the Indian Army, sent Surgeon-Major Lang of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers in search of suitable sites for the British troops. A report by the Royal Commission on the Sanitary State of the British Army in India, in 1859, stated a particular need for a station for the army. While Nainital was founded in 1842 and designated a hill station, Ranikhet, some 60 km distant, later came into being in 1869 as a cantonment town of Kumaon.

However, it is the town of Nainital that best typifies a British colonial hill station of the Kumaon hills. The discovery of Naini lake by the British is a fascinating story in itself. It is commonly held that George W. Traill, the then Commissioner of Kumaon, was the first to discover the lake, but being sensitive to local myth, did not reveal its location, fearing the rush of his compatriots to the site. Traill was a great trekker and was the first Englishman to set foot in the shrine of Kedarnath, hewing out an improved path for pilgrims. P. Barron, a sugar merchant from Shahjahanpur, who used the pen name ‘Pilgrim’ to publish articles in local newspapers on his ‘Wanderings in the Himmala’, wrote that the locals referred to Traill as only second to the Hindu god Vishnu.

Later, in 1842, Barron, who was both an adventurer and entrepreneur, decided to search for the lake, but no one would tell him where it lay, till he hit upon a ruse. Hiring a coolie to carry a heavy stone, he began his trek up, the story goes. The perspiring coolie was anxious to offload his burden. After a few days, he revealed to the coolie that he had come in search of the lake and would only allow him to put down the stone when he reached it. Willy-nilly the poor, exhausted simpleton guided Barron to the sacrosanct lake to get rid of his burden. Thus, by trickery, the new tourist destination of Nainital was placed on the British colonial map!

Many myths abound about the origin of the Naini lake. One says that in the hoary past, the eye of goddess Parvati fell into a pit that immediately filled up with water.8 According to another legend, a Bhil tribal girl offered berries to Lakshman, brother of Lord Rama, at the site of the lake during their exile. In yet another legend, it is called the Tri-Rishi Sarovar, or the ‘Lake of the Three Rishis’, named after the ancient Hindu sages Atri, Pulsatya and Pulaha, who came here on pilgrimage. They meditated upon a hill, but when they looked down, they couldn’t spy water. They then prayed to god Brahma,9 and, miraculously, the valley filled with water. It subsequently became the abode of the goddess Narayani Devi who, it is said, lives at the bottom of the lake. A temple dedicated to her stands at the bend of the lake on a promontory, commonly known as Smuggler’s Rock.

This resort town was once set between densely covered oak and conifer forested hills; Ayarpatta to the west, Deopatta, clad in giant cypresses, to the north, and Sher-ka-Danda to the east; hills that are sadly denuded now. Interspersed, in these green forests, came up pretty, red, tin-roofed bungalows. Nainital’s first place of residence for visitors was Pilgrim’s Lodge, just above the present-day Nainital Club, once leased at an annual rent of two annas. In 1844 came the hill station’s first church, St. John in the Wilderness, on Ayarpatta hill, meant for British soldiers, residents and visitors. Meanwhile, Traill was succeeded by J.H. Batten as the Commissioner for Kumaon (1836–1856). But it was Batten’s successor, first Captain and later Major General Sir Henry Ramsay of Scotland, who became the best-known administrator of the region. He worked here for nearly 44 years, out of which he was Commissioner of Kumaon for 28 years (1856–1884).

Considered among the architects of British Kumaon, Ramsay was reputedly so popular that he passed into local folklore as one of the heroes of Kumaon. He earned for himself the epithet of Ramji Raja, an incarnation of Lord Rama, and was also affectionately known as the ‘King of Kumaon’. He became a romantic figure in local history; his story is one among many of the British white rajas. However, some accused him of being cruel and capricious, claiming that those who supported him were given plum posts while others who opposed him were thrown into ditches.

Conversant with the language and customs of the people, Ramsay spoke the local dialect and mixed with the local populace with ease. He was often seen visiting farmers, writes his friend and historian Pandit B.D. Joshi, eating madua ki roti, or chapattis made from ragi flour, with the locals. Some also claim that Ramsay was a great proponent of Christianity and wanted to convert the whole of Kumaon. He initiated many development works to benefit the region, such as a high school, and initiated a Leprosy Mission by building huts at a locality in Almora called Ganesh ki Gair. Later, this initiative was extended by other administrators and missionaries who followed. Ramsay married the former Commissioner, Sir Henry Lushington’s daughter, and stayed on in Almora after his retirement in 1884 until his sons forcibly took him back to Scotland.

As early as 1844, the Government of India made an official announcement making it mandatory for applicants to possess knowledge of English for government employment. Given the increase in the expatriate population, it was but natural that the summer capital of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (present-day Uttar Pradesh) required Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries to build schools where Englishmen and Anglo Indians could send their baba log; schools that were unfortunately built with free coolie labour or coolie begar. The British needed to perpetuate the scaffolding of the British Empire, as a result, Nainital, which was quietly transforming into a European resort, became famous for its schools. Since those early beginnings, the Anglo-Indian community here continued to contribute towards the development of education in the state. In the 1990s, sectarian and political motivation led to attacks on the well-known schools in the Doon Valley, in the Garhwal division of Uttarakhand. This smacked of reverse prejudice that traces its roots to the early years of colonisation, in which the schools of the Kumaon and Garhwal hills played a major part.

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Manju Kak