As one drives 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 have come true…
Nainital is the administrative centre of Kumaon Division. The region of Nainital was once called the ‘City of Lakes’ or ‘Chakta’ as there were 60 lakes in the area. As mentioned above, the British discovered Nainital in 1841 and subsequently used it as the capital of the United Provinces. The inability of the British to cope with the heat of the plains, necessitated the need for an alternate administrative capital during the extended periods of particularly hot summers. As a matter of historical fact, the British considered shifting India’s summer capital to Nainital but a geophysical survey ruled out the construction of a railway line due to fragile nature of the hills. Thus, Shimla, another beautiful hill station, affectionately called Chhota Vilayat or Little England because of its likeness to the weather ‘back home’ finally received that honour.
Coming back to Nainital and it’s colonial legacy, connecting Tallital, the foot of the lake, to its head, Mallital, the older colonial part of town is 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. In a great secular display, a gurudwara, the Jama Masjid and the Naina Devi Temple stood near each other. Not far is St Francis Catholic Church, the first Methodist church in India, established in 1858. The Tibetan Market stalls hawks colourful sweaters, gloves, momos, ‘Free Tibet stickers’ and cheap souvenirs, ironically ‘made in China’.
Continuing the journey of Britishers Nainital, you could visit the St John in the Wilderness, a Gothic stone church. Inside the church is a brass memorial commemorating the victims of the 1880 landslip; and pay 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.
On the way to Tiffin Top (7,520 ft) which is a four-km-hike up the Ayarpatta Hill (Anyar-patt – in Kumaoni means – complete blackout because there were minimal sun rays due to its location and dense forests), a stone-paved trail lined with fir, oak and deodar trees on, one comes across Dorothy’s Seat, a memorial to Dorothy Kellet who loved this spot, that her husband Col JP Kellett of the City of London Regiment built a stone picnic perch in her loving memory. 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 the quieter western slopes of the lake are situated Gurney House, the last dwelling of . Tiger conservationist and author Jim Corbett in India before returning to England. Clifton, another home built by Corbett’s family was later acquired as the summer residence of Sahanpur riyasat, is now a heritage homestay. Ornithologist Salim Ali had stayed here in 1983. Fyi few know that Corbett, a member of Nainital Municipal Board, spent Rs 4,000 of his personal funds to build the bandstand.
Time permitting, you could visit the old ‘European’ schools of Nainital founded in the latter half of the 19th century. During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, students in these schools consisted largely of children of British colonial officials or soldiers. In 1906, for example, there were over half a dozen such schools, including the Diocesan Boys’ School (later renamed Sherwood College). Another famous school formed in 1888 was the St. Joseph’s College, Nainital which is still a famous day-boarding and residential school built by Irish brothers. Not to mention St.Joseph’s College which will be celebrating its 125th anniversary in the year of 2013.
You could catch a bite at Sakley’s, going since 1944, this spotless cafe/bakery near the cable car serves up a range of unusual global items such as spicy Sriracha wings, Thai curries, roast lamb and steaks. The house-made cakes and pastries are great; even if you don’t dine here, grab some takeaway dessert (go the banoffee pie) to enjoy later!
After an exciting day of exploring the legacy that the British left behind, still alive and kicking in Nainital you will yearn for a bit of quiet. And alternately, it will also help appreciate Soulitude more!