Repository of history

Repository of history

The recent trend in writing about cityscapes has resulted in some special books on smaller towns which are sometimes subject to more transformation, sometimes drastic (like Ootacamund), over the years. However, in smaller locales such as Mussoorie and Landour, the change, although sufficient to document and analyse, is gentler and more gradual.

I have always wanted to visit these two places, one called the Station and the other, the Cantonment, for two reasons, the first being the descriptions given by its famous resident author-celebrity, Ruskin Bond, who extols in his writings the gentle landscape of his childhood, and the second because of its connections with Skinner’s Horse, whose founder, in my mind, is a quintessential hero.

This quite fits in with the name his adoring fans gave him — Hercules, which I believe is one of his given names. It is amusing to note that the man himself never lived here but the house his descendant built for him is called Sikandar Hall — from another hero Alexander. One Skinner, his great great granddaughter, Lillian Skinner, the “grande dame of the station” still lives here. After I read this book, I feel visiting it is imperative.

As in several of the hill stations the British established in India, there is a ‘thoroughly tweedy’ British atmosphere about both Mussoorie and Landour. The book has a plethora of information about the origin of the places, their Victorian churches, haunted hotels and houses, and crumbling cemeteries, which are the repository of so much history.

One interesting bit of trivia about cemeteries is about the difficulty of digging graves in the rocky soil. It was solved in a somewhat military and practical fashion. “At hill stations such as Mussoorie, where the ground was so rocky that it took two days to prepare a grave, there were always two spare graves dug ready for the next burial, and the practice has continued to this day.” Theon Wilkinson, in Two Monsoons (p152).

In the Camel’s Back cemetery is also the grave of one of the few survivors of the Crimean war of Balaclava, which was immortalised by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. It would have been good to know how (Alfred) Hindmarsh ended up here, so far away from the raging battlefield in Europe.

Few people know that apart from being a bolt-hole for the British to escape the sweltering summer months in the plains, it was also a “sanatorium for invalided British soldiers”. Apart from this, it provided schooling for the sons and daughters of the Empire. As befits a site for convalescence, it had barracks for recovering European soldiers, and bungalows for officers in the same state. Much cheaper than sending invalids to Cape of Good Hope.

And like almost all hill stations established in India, Mussoorie’s contribution to the educational field was prolific. Many institutions are world famous, such as Woodstock, which had strong ties with Mount Holyoake in the US. Besides Woodstock there was Waverley, St George’s, Wynberg Allen etc, which have turned out distinguished alumni.

Mussoorie was even in the running as the summer capital for the British government. Its not being chosen for this purpose is probably why Mussoorie has retained some of its original freshness and not gone the way overcrowded and polluted Simla has. As far as Landour is concerned, the restrictive Indian military rules about building on protected forested land have helped to limit congestion. According to the authors, were the  19th century residents to return, they would be able to still find many familiar sights.

Mussoorie has connections with many royalties, the most interesting being Afghan Royalty. The British had three occasions to bring the Afghan Emirs to the Station as prisoners in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Another royal, Duleep Singh, was the deposed Sikh child-king who lived in Landour before he went off to England to become a favourite courtier of the Empress Victoria.

Many others march across the pages, both long gone and present. The well-known present legends seem to be mostly from the literary arts: Ruskin Bond, Victor Banerjee, Bill Aitken, Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, Tom Alter, Stephen Alter, Anita Desai, to name but a few.

One of the most famous men to have graced Mussoorie is Welsh surveyor and geographer Sir George Everest, who lived here from 1832 to1843 while in charge of the Great Trigonometrical Survey.

The authors, a father and daughter team, who lived in New Delhi in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have written a very well researched book, walking the reader through from the time of its founding by Fredrick Young right up until Independence, combining it with evocative images, old postcards and historical maps, making it a collector’s item.