Landour: Writer’s Bloc

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Expansive view of the Himalayas, shaded wooded glens and quaint colonial bungalows have made Landour a writers’ getaway for ages, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Landour-Rokeby Manor Log Cabin

As I set off from Rokeby Manor along the old bridle trail called the ‘Chukkar’ encircling the three summits of Landour ridge, the pre-dawn mountain air was crisp and invigorating. The pretty forested hillside was dotted with gabled bungalows with names like Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Waverly and Woodstock, echoing themes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

Some of the colonial era cottages mirrored their Scottish and Irish heritage – Scottsburn, Wolfsburn, Redburn, Shamrock Cottage, Tipperary, Killarney. It was hard to understand why the British-era cantonment of Landour, 6km uphill from Mussoorie, was named after Llanddowror, a village thousands of miles away in southwest Wales!

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The story goes back to early 19th century, when the British halted the Gurkha conquest of Kumaon–Garhwal and moved from the plains of Dehradun to create a military sanatorium in the hills. In 1825, Captain Young, the ‘discoverer’ of Mussoorie and commandant of the first Gurkha battalion raised after the Gurkha War, built the first permanent home in Landour. His house, Mullingar, was named after his county town in Ireland. By early 20th century, Mullingar became a hotel, and during World War II, was leased to the army to accommodate the spillover of wounded soldiers from the sanatorium.

I followed the path to Lal Tibba or Depot Hill, referring to the convalescent ‘depot’ that stretched around Landour’s highest point Childer’s Lodge. It was the best spot in town to catch a glimpse of a 200km long stretch of the Himalayas. And I was just in time for the spectacle. As dawn broke, the first rays of the sun fell on Himalayan peaks like Swargarohini, Bandarpunch, Chaukhamba and Nanda Devi, turning them pink, red and then a dazzling golden yellow. The telescope on top of the double-storey viewing platform offered a closer look at the ranges.

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Though the Chukkar became motorable in the late 1950s, a leisurely stroll is the best way of enjoying Landour’s few sights strewn along the  circular route – Landour cemetery, Kellogg’s Memorial Church and St. Paul’s Church. I reached Char Dukan, a cluster of Indian-run establishments since colonial times at the site of the old parade ground. Being a Convalescent Depot, correspondence was critical for those recuperating here so Capt Young started the Landour Cantonment Post Office in 1827, which still stood at the chowk.

Locals and tourists flock to Anil’s Café for his chai, parathas, bun-omelette and Maggi. Sachin Tendulkar, who came on a holiday to Mussoorie, made a stopover here and his Twitter endorsement graces the wall. After a large glass of the famous Ginger Lemon Honey Tea, I walked back to Rokeby in time for a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and delicious Mustard Chicken.

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Rokeby Manor, a colonial bungalow painstakingly revamped into a boutique hotel, was built in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy. Like many of the bungalows, it took its name from the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose epic poem describes battles fought near Rokeby Castle in England. “I saw his melancholy smile, Where full opposed in front he knew, Where Rokeby’s kindred banner flew…” Rokeby’s restaurant Emily’s was named after British author Emily Eden who stayed in Landour and chronicled the highs and lows of colonial life. Literature runs deep in Landour…

If you turn back the pages of history, Landour’s literary affair is not new. The British cemetery on Camel Back Road is the resting place of John Lang, dubbed as the ‘first Australian novelist’, who lived in Landour between 1850–60s. His grave dating back to 1864 was rediscovered by Ruskin Bond. This quiet nook in the Himalayas is home to leading writers such as Ruskin Bond, Bill Aitken, Allan Sealy, travel writers Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, and film personalities Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj.

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Rokeby Manor changed hands from a British soldier to adventurer Pahari Wilson to Reverend Woodside, one of the founders of Woodstock School, set up in 1854 for American children. After it was acquired by the Methodist Episcopal Church, Rokeby was converted into a boarding house for missionary ladies studying Urdu and Hindi at the Landour Language School nearby. And that’s how its brush with hospitality began…

Away from the clamour of Mussoorie, Rokeby is a welcome patch of serenity. The lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls, quaint arches and parquet floors open out to a Tea Garden overlooking the Doon valley. After soaking in the scenery over a steaming cuppa, it was time to set out again.

Rokeby manor

Strewn across the hillside are a cluster of 19th century colonial cottages called Rokeby Residences, each offering stand-alone experiences. Staying at Rokeby gave me a chance to pop by for a look. The three-bedroom Bothwell Bank was a stone-clad log cabin with pine wood décor, fireplaces, a well-stocked kitchen, barbecue area and an outdoor jacuzzi! Shamrock Cottage, built in the 1800’s, came with a spacious garden.

The two-storied Tabor Lodge had a private deck with a tree house sit out lined with herbs in outsized cups. Pine Tree Lodge was inspired by Scandinavian architecture, with colourful patchwork stools, vintage lamps and traditional Finnish artwork. Each residence was unique! The Stubli Café serves Swiss and European cuisine while Ale House was styled like an ‘Olde English Pub’. After a nice relaxing massage at Rokeby’s Little Salon & Spa Shed, I was ready to take on Landour again!

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It is a great base for nature walks to Jabarkhet nature reserve, Kulti village or a more rigorous trek to the nearby hills of Nag Tibba. I was happy to restrict myself to less strenuous perambulations like Sisters Bazaar. Nursing sisters had their barracks near the market and visited it often, hence the name. Since Landour became home to American missionaries as early as the 1830s, it was the first place in India where the peanut butter was made commercially!

When India gained freedom in 1946, most European settlers disposed their properties and left Landour. And that’s how the peanut butter and food-processing machines ended up in the hands of Anil Prakash’s family. Prakash’s Store is famous for its chunky or smooth peanut butter, 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.”

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Emily’s sister establishment Clocktower Café in Landour Bazaar, stands at the exact spot of an old clock tower. With funky decor and music posters, it is a great place for pizzas, pastas, burgers and Chinese fare. Back in the day, while Landour largely remained a British preserve, Indians were restricted to Mussoorie. From the Nawabs of Oudh to the princely states of Katesar, Kuchesar, Rajpipla, Alwar, Jind and Baroda, the who’s who of Indian royalty built opulent summer homes and 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 above The Mall in 1836, now a WelcomHeritage hotel.

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Since colonial times, the main hub of activity has been the 1.5km long pedestrian avenue The Mall. Once out of bound for natives, ironically, the same stretch is now overrun by Indian tourists who throng its cafes and shops. A ropeway from the Mall 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 a series of accidents, the practice was abandoned in 1919, but the name stuck… Camel Back Road, named after a distinctive camel-shaped rocky outcrop, is a loop trail leading off The Mall with an old British cemetery, where several local luminaries have been laid to rest.

Mussoorie was home to Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India between 1830–43 and the man behind the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Tasked with measuring the world’s highest peaks, it was in his memory that Mount Everest was named. The ruins of Sir Everest’s whitewashed home stands at the edge of a cliff west of town beyond Hathipaon, whose three ridges resemble the foot of an elephant when seen from a vantage.

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Just 3km from Hathipaon overlooking Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, Cloud End is one of the four original houses in Mussoorie. As per legend, when Major Swetenham came hunting from Landour, he heard a Pahari woman singing in the forest. The officer fell in love with Gulabo and followed her home. Her father, a local landlord, presented the estate as dowry in 1838. The house was named Clouds End after a peak opposite Major Swetenham’s home in Edmontia in Wales. Home to four generations till 1965, it is now run as a heritage hotel and the restaurant is named Rose after Gulabo’s baptised name.

I slowly trudged back to the Mall, bowled over by Landour’s wealth of stories. When famous American writer and traveler Lowell Thomas visited Mussoorie in 1926, he wrote about The Savoy: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their beds.” Today, Landour depends on more conventional ways of telling the time, though the pace is still languorous and time does stop once in a while to pause and enjoy the view.

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Discover This: Seven Years in Tibet, via Landour
Famous Austrian mountaineer, geographer and writer Heinrich Harrer, part of the four-member team that scaled the Swiss peak Eiger’s legendary ‘North Face’, is best known for his 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (made into a movie). He was on an expedition to Nanga Parbat when World War II broke out and he was taken prisoner. Harrer was moved to the internment camp in Dehradun, where several failed attempts later, he and his associates finally broke out and escaped to Tibet via Landour.

At its closest point, Tibet is just 70 miles away. In 1959, when the Chinese forcibly occupied Tibet, the Dalai Lama made the epic crossing from Lhasa to Landour. He and his band of followers walked for 15 days and reached Mussoorie on 20 April 1959. Happy Valley, a scenic corner beyond the polo ground, became the first Tibetan settlement in India, before the seat was shifted to Dharamsala.

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there
Landour is 37.5 km from Dehradun by road (1 hr 30 min) and 7km from Mussoorie. The nearest airport is Jolly Grant, Dehradun. Jet Airways, Indigo, Spice Jet & Air India fly from Delhi to Dehradun.

Where to Stay

Rokeby Manor
Rajamandi, Landour Cantonment
Ph 0135 2631093
www.rokebymanor.com
Tariff ₹7000-12000

Cloud End
Near Hathipaon
Ph 9634096861
www.cloudend.com
Tariff ₹5700-7500

Kasmanda Palace
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2632424
www.kasmandapalace.com
Tariff ₹7000

Padmini Nivas
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2631093
www.hotel-padmininivas.com
Tariff ₹3500-7000

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Where to Eat 

Anil’s Café
Pancakes, waffles, sandwiches, parathas, Maggi & ginger honey lemon tea
Ph 0135-2633783, 9259572558

Dev Dar Woods
12 rooms with terrific Himalayan views and wood-fired pizzas
Ph 0135-2632544
Email anilprakash56@yahoo.com

Doma’s Inn
Ivy Cottage, Landour
Tibetan run inn with rooms and a lovely restaurant serving great thukpa and momos
Ph 0135-2634873/4, 9259740461
www.domasinn.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June-July 2017 issue of Discover India magazine. 

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