India's lake district

On a recent visit to Nainital, Sanjay Austa finds the hill station to be the most beautiful in India, mostly due to the shapely Naini Lake that doesn’t fail to elicit a gasp of wonder.

Picture perfect: Naini Lake in Nainital. photo by author

Many years ago, when I visited Nainital for the first time, it was a relief to see the lake so polluted.

If you belong to a hill station like me, you tend to look at another hill station with a sense of competition. My hometown, Shimla, I happily concluded, is after all the best hill station in India.

But on a recent visit to Nainital, I was astonished to see the Naini Lake far from the dump it was many years ago. It was all spruced up and crystal clean.

There was no longer any debris floating on its surface and the horrid smell had gone. I had to reluctantly admit that Nainital is possibly India’s most beautiful hill station.

The presence of the water body tilts the balance significantly in favour of Nainital. A water body — a clean one at that — adds enormously to the overall beauty of any hill topography. Most Indian hill stations have chronic water shortage. The largest water body we ever saw in Shimla was our school swimming pool (which periodically remained dry).

Nainital, on the other hand, is called the Lake District of India with four major lakes in its fold. The Bhimtal Lake, the Naukuchiyatal Lake and the Sattal Lakes are all in the Kumaon Hills, of which Nainital is a part.

To see such a large, fresh and clean water body — and if I may add shapely, as Naini Lake is described as being doe-eyed, pear shaped, etc — in a mountain valley elicits a gasp wonder not only from the city dwellers, but also from regular hill residents such as myself.

It must have been with this gasp of exhilaration that the English businessman P Barron chanced upon the lake on a hunting expedition in 1839. He was so fascinated by the beauty of the lake that within a few years he built a colony along its shores.

You have to give it to the British to ‘discover’ — serendipitously in the case of Nainital — some of the most beautiful real estates in the country, and then start a settlement around them. Nainital, like Shimla, became the Britisher’s home away from home. A cool hideout to retreat to, when the Indian summer bore heavily down on them in the plains.

It became the summer capital of the Northwest Provinces and the governor spent much of the summer months administering the province from the cooler climes here. Boarding schools were established so the children of the British could study in the salubrious climate here. The legacy of the British lives on in Nainital, in these schools and old buildings.

How the lake came to be has a mundane geological explanation, but it’s the mythological stories around it that lend it all the charm. According to one legend, Lord Shiva, on a grief-stricken journey around the cosmos with the corpse of his wife Sati, dropped Sati’s left eye at Nainital, lending not only the name to this hill station, but also making it one of the 64 Shakti Peeths in India. The Naina Devi Temple, built on the north shore of the lake, is dedicated to Goddess Shakti.

According to another legend, the lake was known as Tri-Rishi-Sarovar — the lake of three rishis. The three rishis were Atri, Pulastya and Pulaha. They came upon Nainital on their ascetic wanderings. They were very thirsty, and not finding any water, they dug up a lake and filled it with the waters of the Mansarovar Lake. For this reason, the lake is also known as the ‘Lesser Mansarovar’, and it’s considered auspicious to take a dip in the cold waters here.

However, the tourists are only interested in the boat ride. The lake, with a circumference of around three kilometres, is ideal for boating and many locals make a living rowing tourists around the perimeter of the lake. My boatman is an old local resident who takes me around the lake on a 160-rupee ticket. While I sit snug with the life-jacket, he climbs on without one.

“I can swim,” he said, adding, “The jackets are only for the tourists.” The lake is almost 28 m deep at the deepest end but the water, as in any lake, is placid. My boatman has to row hard to get any momentum. He gets only 60 rupees for his efforts. The rest goes to the boat owner, he tells me.

Places to see

Every hill station has a vantage point from where one can trek to get grand vistas of the town and the hills beyond. In Nainital, the best views can be had from Naini Peak or the China Peak. At 2,615 m, this is the highest peak in town.

Other popular treks from Nainital are to Tiffin Top, also known as Dorothy’s Seat, at 2,292 m. Snow View at 2,270 m is a vantage point connected via a cable car.

If you are a history buff, you can visit the Governor’s House or the Raj Bhavan, as it is known today. Built in 1899 by the architect F W Stevens, it’s a perfect example of Victorian Gothic architecture.

For the devout Hindu, the Naini Devi Temple is a popular site. The old temple was destroyed in the landslide of 1880, but a new one was made on the same site and it remains a draw in Nainital.

The oldest church in Nainital is the St John in the Wilderness Church, established here in 1844.

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