As we drove into bustling Nainital, it seemed hard to imagine that few outsiders knew of its existence till early 19th century. George William Traill, the first British deputy commissioner of Kumaon and commissioner from 1815 to 1835, learnt of this enchanting lake ringed by mountains and meadows from locals who celebrated an annual fair here. Yet, his love for the natives and their simple pahadi ways made him keep its location a well-guarded secret for years. Traill feared that such a beautiful spot would become an escape from the hot North Indian summer, and the influx of people would besmirch its pristine environment.
On November 18, 1841, Peter Barron, a wealthy sugar and wine merchant from Shahjahanpur, ‘discovered’ Nynee-thal. Under the pen name ‘Pilgrim’, he wrote about his discovery in ‘Notes of Wanderings in the Himalaya’ in the Agra Gazetteer. “It is, by far, the best site I have witnessed in the course of a 1,500 miles (2,400 km) trek in the Himalayas.” Barron constructed Pilgrim Lodge, the first European house, and before long, the township became a health resort for British soldiers, officials, and their families. Churches were built, a hill station began to flourish, and Nainital became the summer residence of the governor and the summer capital of the United Provinces. Looking at the hordes of holidayers and tenements crowding the hills proved Traill’s worst fears had come true…
Over time, Indian royalty followed suit, setting up their own summer retreats. The Palace Belvedere belonged to the erstwhile Rajas of Awagarh, Balrampur House to the Maharajas of Balrampur, while Leisure Hotels’ Naini Retreat was the summer residence of the Maharaja of Pilibhit. They also run Earl’s Court, established in 1890 by Captain P Richardson. Ashdale, one of the earliest cottages in Nainital built by Captain George Rowels in 1860, was bought by Raja Bahadur of Sahaspur Bilari Estate. WelcomHeritage recently renovated it into a heritage hotel.
The town was perched in a hollow at 1938 metres and radiated around Naini Lake, which supposedly mirrors the emerald green eyes of Goddess Sati. According to puranic folklore, after Sati’s death, Lord Shiva carried her body and walked with heavy sorrowful steps, causing the earth to tremble. To save the planet from destruction, Lord Vishnu unleashed his sudarshan chakra and dismembered Sati’s body. Wherever her body part fell, a shakti pitha was born. It is believed her left eye (nain in Hindi) fell at this spot and created a beautiful crater lake — Nainital. They say it’s shaped like an eye, though it appeared more like a kidney to us!
We drove from Tallital, the foot of the lake, to its head, Mallital, the older colonial part of town. Connecting these two ends was The Mall, a 1.5-km-promenade of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. Squatting at the northern edge was Nainital Boat House Club on a large plain called The Flats, which resulted from a devastating landslide in 1880 that flattened the Victoria Hotel, killing 150 people. In a great secular display, a gurudwara, the Jama Masjid and the Naina Devi Temple stood near each other. Not far was St Francis Catholic Church, the first Methodist church in India, established in 1858. An NCC troupe practised their march-past while lads played cricket. The Tibetan Market stalls hawked colourful sweaters, gloves, momos, ‘Free Tibet stickers’ and cheap souvenirs, ironically ‘made in China’.
Avoiding touristy boat cruises and horse rides, we hoped to cover the less explored side of the largest town in Kumaon. Driving past the sprawling Manu Maharani Hotel, we reached Shervani Hilltop, tucked into the hillside. There was no ‘lake view’ but it was blissfully cut off from the town’s bustle. A board credited the two gardeners (both named Mohan Singh) for maintaining ‘Mohan Singh Garden’ for 40 years. After a leisurely breakfast, we set off on our local explorations.
Down the road was St John in the Wilderness, a Gothic stone church in a clearing. The name was given by Rev Daniel Wilson, the fifth bishop of Calcutta and the first Metropolitan of India and Ceylon. He visited Nainital one wintry February in 1844 to lay its foundation stone. Being early season, most English homes were closed and the bishop had to sleep in an unfinished house on the edge of the forest, where he fell sick. While recuperating in Nainital’s wilderness, Wilson was reminded of his time as assistant curator for St. John’s Chapel at Bedford Row, hence the name. Inside the church, a brass memorial commemorated the victims of the 1880 landslip; some were buried in its cemetery, the oldest in town. We paid tribute at the tombstone of George Thomas Lushington, the commissioner of Kumaon, who developed the town, planned the layout of The Mall, and also scouted the best vantages that were today’s viewpoints.
For the view
Tiffin Top (7,520 ft) was a four-km-hike up a stone-paved trail lined with fir, oak and deodar trees. It took us 45 minutes to reach the terraced hilltop on Ayarpatta Hill. But how could we leave without tiffin at Tiffin Top? At the lone chai stall, we savoured the Himalayan panorama over tea and Maggi. Dorothy’s Seat, a memorial to Dorothy Kellet who loved this spot, was a stone picnic perch built by her husband Col JP Kellett of the City of London Regiment. Sadly, she died of septicemia in 1936 aboard a ship bound for England before she could meet her children, and was buried at the Red Sea.
On our return, at Lover’s Point (oddly Suicide Point was adjacent to it), tourists haggled at the horse stand for rides to viewpoints like Khurpa Tal, Himalaya Darshan, Tiger Top, Lands End and Naina Peak (2610 metres), the highest point of Nainital. At Bara Patthar nearby, the Nainital Mountaineering Club had a rock-climbing wall for adventure enthusiasts. We descended Ayarpatta Hill, whose forest cover was so dense, even sunrays could not penetrate through.
The quiet western slopes of the lake were perfect for Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s Van Niwas Himalayan Centre for yoga and meditation. Tiger conservationist and author Jim Corbett stayed at Gurney House, his last dwelling in India before returning to England. Clifton, another home built by Corbett’s family and later acquired as the summer residence of Sahanpur riyasat, was now a heritage homestay. Ornithologist Salim Ali had stayed here in 1983. Few know that Corbett, a member of Nainital Municipal Board, spent Rs 4,000 of his personal funds to build the bandstand.
We crossed a slew of temples — Shani Mandir, the sacred rock shrine of Nainital’s patron Goddess Pashandevi, and a temple of Kumaoni god Golu Devta. The oddest sight was a post office on Lake Bridge which connected the two banks! Walking south of the lake to Tallital, we negotiated a 1.5-km-climb to Nainital High Altitude Zoo. The enclosures occupied a steep slope and it wasn’t just the leopards, Tibetan wolves, Himalayan black bears and iridescent pheasants that made us gasp for breath.
Nainital has a vibrant candle making industry. We peeped into Mehrotras House of Wax, the oldest candle shop in town. The Pahari Store, the factory showroom of Anil Candles, had decorative, perfumed, floating and gel candles in every shape, size and colour. They also stocked excellent jams, pickles, honey, Himalayan herbs, organic food, handmade soaps and cosmetics, scarves and woolens.
Sadly, the most magnificent building in Nainital was out of bounds. Raj Bhavan, formerly Government House, was built in 1899 by architect F W Stevens in Victorian ‘domestic’ Gothic style. The erstwhile summer residence of colonial-era governors, it has a lovely golf course attached to it. The Old Secretariat, built in 1900, currently houses the Uttarakhand High Court. Dog-tired after a really long day, we headed back to Shervani, skipping the evening entertainment to grab an early dinner.
Before dawn, we were ready to visit Snow View (7,450 ft) at Sher-ka-Danda ridge northeast of town. There’s a cable car from The Mall, but we preferred the two-km-hike. Halfway up, Tibetan prayer flags announced the small Gadhan Kunkyopling Gompa of the Gelugpa order. The snowy peaks of Nanda Devi, Trisul and Nanda Kot looked resplendent and the trail continued 4 km to Naina Peak. Nainital is a great base to explore nearby lakes like Sat Tal, Bhimtal and Naukuchiyatal, and century-old forest rest houses at Kilbury, Vinayak and Kunjakharak. At Pangot, one can spot up to 500 bird species. But for this, a two-day jaunt seemed too little.
Rudyard Kipling was right. In his 1889 The Story of the Gadsbys, he wrote, “Two months of Nainital works wonders…”