Tracing Historical Legacy: From Nynee-Tal to Nainital

Tracing Historical Legacy: From Nynee-Tal to Nainital

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Tracing Historical Legacy: From Nynee-Tal to Nainital

“This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty”—Percy Byshee Shelly

Post by COL SATISH SINGH LALOTRA

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Few places in this sub-continent going by the name ‘India’ has within its  precincts such iconic locations that have been revered from centuries for their exotic locales , flora , fauna, and a mesmerizing past dwelling into their  mythological origins as has been the Himalayan hill station of’Nainital’.Since the formation of new state of Uttrakhand in the year 2000, this historical hill station of Kumaon region has been functioning as the judicial capital of the hilly state, as also the headquarters of an eponymous district. Located in the Kumaon foothills of the outer Himalayas at a distance of 276 kms from the state capital of Dehradun and 314 kms from the national capital Delhi, Nainital comfortably perches at 6358 feet above the MSL.

Set in a valley containing an eye-shaped lake approximately 2 miles in circumference and surrounded by mountains of which the highest are ‘Naina peak’ ( 8579 feet) on the north, Deopatha ( 7999 feet) on the west, and Aryapatha ( 7474 feet) on the south this place is one of the 51 Shakti –peeths based on the story of the death of the Goddess ‘Sati’.  It is also known for the revered ‘Nainadevi’ temple which stands on the edge of the main lake ‘Naini’. It is not only a famous tourist destination but is also known for its prestigious educational institutions which have stood since the British era.

Though having known this erstwhile quaint hill station for decades I have had my latest brush with Nainital about six months back in September 2023 while going with family to another equally quaint place located about 9 kms from this lake going by the name ‘Ghetiya’. While modern day Nainital is way off the quaint little hill station it was known during the ‘Raj days’ its aesthetics and culture have broadly endured the rough and tide of time. Nainital was the summer seat of the North –western provinces of the British India , summer headquarters of the ‘Eastern command’ , a place of residential missionary schools, and a holiday retreat for British administrators during the colonial period.

The genesis of this travelogue of mine  has its origin while having a short sojourn at ‘MadmeDurrel’s lodge’ in Ghetyia where I happen to chance around with its manager Mr Sanjay Tewari’ who gave me a mine of information of colonial era Nainital and Ghetiya too. His chance mentioning of colonial era ace photographer ‘John Edward Sache’ of 19th century to me further fueled my inquisitiveness of the prowess of this European photographer. This ace European photographer began his career in America and then surfaced in Calcutta in 1865 where he formed a partnership with Westfield. He worked in Bombay in 1869 and then with Colin Murray until 1870. During the 1870s John ran his studios in Lucknow, Nainital ,Merrut and Mussoorie.

A cursory glance ofSache’s photos of erstwhile ‘Nynee-Tal reveals a mine of information of the present day Nainital. The most common before –after images of this quaint town are from the era 1875 and 1882 when the ominous ‘Great Game’ was on between the Czarist Russia and British crown. These photos show the after effects of the disastrous landslide that happened in 1880 ,destroying Victoria hotel , located near present day Mallital rickshaw stand. It is just impossible to think that a hotel filled with partying sahibs & memsahibs in the very place where now stands ‘Sanwal public school.

Well having a casual stroll on the mall with family I was wondering how similar or different is Nainital from its past? Sitting at one of the coffee shops on the mall road I just happened to trawl the internet for the archival images of Nainital that Mr Sanjay Tewari had mentioned to me at Ghetiya a few days back. I soon came to know that the British spelt Nainitalas  ‘Nynee –Tal’ just like they spelt Kanpur as Cawanpore.Out tumbled the archival images of ‘Nynee-Tal with its e-papers, journals and websites giving a whale of information of this historical hill station. One of the photos of ‘Nynee –Tal’ taken by Lawrie and company in 1899 shows the Naini lake with its boat houses, etc that were just before the great disaster of 1880 struck . These photos were of the same vintage when Madame Russel had made her cottage at Ghetiya in 1899 where I was putting up with family for the last 4 days.

The sepia –coloured images take us back to the old buildings with their Gothic style architecture, schools, churches and paved pathways all of which are now totally transformed. However Nainital has maintained its cosmopolitan nature with a diverse population of Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. The Tibetan market next to the skating rink is still retaining its old world charm. Since I had served with these Tibetan troops I ventured into one of the Tibetan shops that was selling knick knacks like Tibetan trinkets and such like items and was surprised to find even small  wooden ‘Buddha heads’ that were carved out of ‘Deodar wood’ found in the higher reaches of the Himalayas.

The fact that Nainital was located at the cross –roads of huge military cum administrative network, with the Indian plains to the south and Tibetan highlands to the north the place attracted migrant populations from the surrounding areas including Nepal. Peasants from the erstwhile ‘Doti’ kingdom which roughly coincides with present day Sudurpaschim province of Nepal migrated to Nainital in the days of Raj, to be recruited to the Gurkha regiment and for employment in the public works being undertaken then. Their descendants still live in Nainital. The Gurkha regiment was stationed at ‘SipahiDhara’ with its barracks in the area where the present day  Governemnt college ‘Tallital’ is located. A famous song of the Gurkhas( raised in 1859 as part of the Indian army Gurkha regiment ) and based in sir John Moore barracks , shorn cliffe ,UK since 2001 is titled also as ‘Nainital’.

The ‘Tallital’ market had smaller settlements which once hosted migrants from the Terai region who found jobs here as masons, carpenters, and domestic help. Since my in-laws too have a farm at Bazpur in terai region that is just about one hour drive to Nainital that I have been frequenting enough , have seen even today these smaller artisans head towards Nainital for seeking any job from the terai region. The earlier road from Nainital to Kathgodam that had single –storey settlements have now given way to haphazardly concrete jungle. As luck would have it I happened to visit Nainital from Ghetiya on the day the famous ‘Nanda Devi fair’ or mela was being held and got sandwiched badly in a sea of people, cars, trucks, processions etc . That day it seemed as if all Indian roads led to Nainital.

Though Sanjay Tewari had cautioned me that today was the day when whole Kumaon would congregate at Nainital I took it lightly and ventured ahead only to get jammed thoroughly at the Main Masjid of Naintial. Roaming around the town we had glimpses of the word ‘Nynee-Tal’ written on the walls of a pastry shop in Mallital with visuals and text recreating the old hill station of colonial times. I took a stroll with family amongst this hula- bulla right till the ‘Army rest and recoup center’ that is located bang on the mall road. Way back in the 1980s it was known as the famous ‘MOUNTAIN WING ASC MESS’ since it primarily catered to the senior lot of service officers and their families plus the visiting summer and winter guests from the services fraternity  to the famous hill station and was looked after the ASC( Army service corps) element of the Indian army. With great caution and dexterity we extricated from the Kumaoni crowd celebrating the famous ‘Nanda –Devi ‘festival and headed towards the Kathgodam road finally to hit Bazpur before nightfall in the terai region.

The colonial masters of yore had taken great pains to develop our frontier areas and its attendant locations which served as a getaway for them from the sweltering heat of the plains of India. But witnessing a sea of humanity on the day of our visit to Nainital it set me thinking aren’t we undoing all that the British stood for holding  pristine quality of Nainital?  Time we reset our priorities to go back to the British ways of maintaining our colonial past .To recount the words of famous ‘Percy Byshee shelly— This lake exceeds anything that I ever beheld in  beauty.’Let her words ring true for Nainital too.