ANURAG MALLICK goes on a literary trail across Landour, an erstwhile British sanatorium in the Himalayan foothills and uncovers little known gems of its past
Isn’t it odd that the old British era cantonment of Landour, nearly a 1000 ft uphill of Mussoorie 6km away, is named after Llanddowror, a faraway village in southwest Wales? The story goes back to early 19th century when the Gurkha conquest of Kumaon-Garhwal led to the intervention of the British who moved from the plains of Dehradun to create a military sanatorium in the hills.
Today, with its crisp mountain air, charming walks and hillsides covered with gabled bungalows and churches, this quiet nook in the Himalayas is home to leading writers like Ruskin Bond, Bill Aitken, Allan Sealy, Hugh & Colleen Gantzer and film personalities Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj. If you turn back the pages of history, Landour’s literary affair is not new…
Of braes and burns
Many houses in Landour echo themes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with names like Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Waverly and Woodstock, now a famous school. The Scots identified the Himalayan hills and meadows with their glens (valleys), braes (slopes) and burns (streams) and named their houses Scottsburn, Wolfsburn and Redburn. Barring Kempty Falls 13 km away, there are no mountain streams here, so the nomenclature might have been purely sentimental. The Irish touch is also visible in homes called Shamrock Cottage, Tipperary and Killarney. Charleville Hotel however, was named after the owner’s sons Charley-Billy!
Mullingar, the oldest house
The first permanent home in Landour was built in 1825 by Captain Young, the ‘discoverer’ of Mussoorie and Commandant of the first Gurkha battalion raised by the British after the Gurkha War. His house, Mullingar, was named after his county town in Ireland. By early 20th century Mullingar became a hotel and during World War II, it was leased by the army to house the overflow of convalescing soldiers from the sanatorium.
In its early years, Mullingar received distinguished guests like author Emily Eden, sister of the Governor-General Lord George Eden. After spending considerable time in Landour, Shimla and Ooty in the late 1830s, Emily wrote incisively on the prevalent racism of Britons towards Indians.
Haunt of the Maharajas
While Landour remained an exclusively British preserve, Indians were kept off limits at Mussoorie. Indian maharajas were encouraged to build grand summer homes here, many of which have been converted into heritage hotels. From Katesar to Kuchesar and Rajpipla, Alwar, Jind and Baroda, several princely states made Mussoorie their retreat. Hotel Padmini Nivas, set up by a British colonel in the 1840s, became home to a queen from Gujarat. The Nabha Palace is run as a hotel by The Claridges.
The Maharaja of Kapurthala’s chateau occupies a lofty perch above The Savoy. However, one of the oldest buildings in Mussoorie is Kasmanda Palace. Built in 1836 by Captain Rennie Tailour, it was originally part of Christ Church and site of one of the first schools in Mussoorie. In 1915, it became the summer retreat of the royal family of Kasmanda (a taluq in Awadh) and the main building was converted into a boutique heritage hotel in 1992, currently run by WelcomHeritage.
Built in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy, Rokeby is one of Landour’s landmarks. Perched above St. Paul’s Church, its name is taken from the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose book-length poem describes heroic battles near Rokeby Castle in England. The house changed hands from a British soldier to controversial adventurer Pahari Wilson to Rev Woodside, one of the founders of Woodstock School to the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Rokeby was converted into a boarding house for missionary ladies studying Urdu and Hindi at the Landour Language School near Kellogg Memorial Church. With a restaurant named after Emily Eden, and lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls and wooden floors, it was in Rokeby’s DNA to be run as a hotel! Together with Rokeby Residences – a cluster of colonial cottages nearby, Bothwell Bank, Shamrock Cottage, Tabor Lodge and Pine Tree Lodge – it’s the most exclusive stay in Landour. http://www.rokebymanor.com
Pahari Wilson and the British Cemetery on Camel Back Road
The British cemetery on Camel Back Road, a loop trail off The Mall named after the camel shaped rocky outcrop, is the resting place of key figures. John Lang, dubbed as the ‘first Australian novelist’ made Landour his home in the 1850-60s and his 1864 grave was rediscovered by Ruskin Bond. Giving him company is British adventurer Frederick ‘Pahari’ Wilson.
Based in Harsil near Gangotri, Wilson married a local lady, illegally harvested timber by floating them down the Ganga, sold it to the East India Company to make railway sleepers, made a big fortune and even minted his own gold coins. He picked up properties like Rokeby and Ralston, introduced apples to the Himalayas and was the inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling’s tale, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’.
Sir George Everest’s House
Mussoorie was also home to Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India between 1830-43. He is largely responsible for the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India covering a 2400 km stretch from South India to the Himalayas, including the measurement of the world’s highest peaks.
Colonel Everest came to Mussoorie in 1832, bought an estate called The Park, making it his home and laboratory, where most of the mapping of the Garhwal mountains took place. Just 6 km west of town beyond Hathipaon (when seen from a vantage, its three ridges look like the foot of an elephant), his whitewashed home at the edge of a cliff is in ruins and barricaded but the view of the Doon Valley is stupendous.
Just 3km from Hathipaon towards Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, is one of the first four finest houses in Mussoorie. Story goes, one day when Major Swetenham came hunting from Landour, he heard Gulabo, a Pahari woman singing in the forest. The charmed officer fell in love instantly and followed her home. Her father happened to be the landlord of Kandi village and after a match was arranged, the present estate was given as dowry in 1838. The house was named after a peak opposite his home in Edmontia in Wales.
Four generations of the Swetenhams stayed here until 1965. The original homestead is run as a heritage hotel and the restaurant is named Rose (after Gulabo’s baptized name). Because of the surrounding forest, it is usually 10 degrees lower than Mussoorie. The northern portion, with cemented floors, was the summer retreat while the south face, with wooden floors, was where the family stayed in winter. http://www.cloudend.com
Entertainment at The Mall
The 1.5km stretch of The Mall, once out of bound for natives, is bookended by the beautiful Library (Gandhi Chowk) on the western end and Picture Palace on the eastern edge. Besides being the first cinema hall to open in town in 1912, Picture Palace was also the first cinema hall in north India to run on electricity. The Mall was once lined by seven cinema halls – Rialto, Capital, Jubilee, Majestic.
Today, one of the old projectors has been displayed by The Mall and the pedestrian-only avenue is lined with hotels, shops and iconic restaurants like Kelsang Friend’s Corner for momos and Chick Chocolate (named after an American musician friend of the owner). A ropeway takes tourists up to the second highest peak Gun Hill, where a gun used to be fired at noon to tell locals the time. After the gunshots triggered a string of accidents, the practice was abandoned in 1919, though the name stuck…
Seven years in Tibet, and a few in Uttarakhand
Austrian mountaineer, geographer and writer Heinrich Harrer was one of the four-member team which scaled the legendary ‘North Face’ of the Eiger peak in Switzerland. Best known for his 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (later made into a movie), he was on an expedition to Nanga Parbat when World War II broke out. Because of his German ancestry, Harrer was interned in Karachi, brought to Bombay and kept in captivity at Dehradun for a few years.
After several failed attempts, Harrer and his associates broke out of the internment camp in Dehradun impersonating British officers, and escaped to Tibet via Landour. At its closest point, Tibet is just 70 miles away. And the best place to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas is Lal Tibba or Depot Hill, once the convalescent depot that stretched around the highest point Childer’s Lodge. From here, one gets a striking 200km view of peaks like Swargarohini, Bandarpunch, Chaukhamba and Nanda Devi.
Happy Valley, the first Tibetan settlement in India
If Harrer crossed the high Himalayan passes from Landour to Lhasa, the 14th Dalai Lama did the same from the other side. In 1959, when the Chinese occupied Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his followers walked for 15 days to cross over to India. He reached Mussoorie on 20 April 1959 and Happy Valley, a scenic corner beyond the polo ground, became the first Tibetan settlement in India, before the seat was shifted to Dharamsala. A Tibetan school was set up here in 1960 and the serene Shedup Choephelling monastery was built on a quiet hillside where prayer flags flutter in the breeze.
Anil Prakash’s store at Sister’s Bazaar
The nurses working at the military sanatorium had their barracks near the market and frequented it quite often, hence its name Sister’s Bazaar. American missionaries came here in the 1830s and soon Landour became one of the first places in India where peanut butter, the American classic, was made commercially. Many settlers sold off their equipment and possessions and left Landour after India gained Independence. That’s how their peanut butter and food processing machines ended up in the hands of Anil Prakash’s family.
Catering to European tastes for decades, Prakash’s Store is famous for its peanut butter (chunky or smooth), home-made cheese, jams and preserves, though it stocks pretty much everything. There’s a local saying, “If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Anil runs the 12-room Dev Dar Woods with terrific Himalayan views and wood-fired pizzas. Ph 0135-2632544 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
During colonial times, Char Dukan was a cluster of four Indian-run shops on the parade ground. Contrary to its name, now there are six establishments but the first one is the standout joint. Locals and tourists flock to the 60-year-old Anil’s Café, legendary for its delicious Ginger Lemon Honey Tea, bun-omelette and Maggi. Sachin Tendulkar, who came on a holiday to Mussoorie, made a stopover here; his twitter endorsement hangs proudly on the wall.
Authors: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 29 December, 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/a-to-do-list-for-landour/