From a former British hill station to a bustling tourist hub, the picture-perfect town of Nainital has come a long way; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trace the history of India’s beautiful lake town
As we drove 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 the Commissioner from 1815 to 1835 learnt of this enchanting lake ringed by mountains and meadows, from local people who celebrated their annual fair here.
Yet, his love for the natives and their simple pahadi ways made him keep its location a well-kept secret for years. Traill feared that such a beautiful spot would become a European escape from the hot summers of the North Indian lowlands and the influx of people would besmirch its pristine environment. Looking at hotels and tenements crowding the hills and hordes of holidayers around, proved how Traill’s worst fears had come true…
On the fateful day of 18 November 1841, Peter Barron, a wealthy sugar and wine merchant from Shahjahanpur, ‘discovered’ Nynee-thal. Writing under the pen name ‘Pilgrim’ in the Agra Gazeteer, he gave a vivid picture of the discovery of this lake-land in “Notes of Wanderings in the Himalaya.” Barron wrote: “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.”
He 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 summer capital of the United Provinces.
Over time, Indian royalty followed suit, setting up their own summer retreats. Ashdale, one of the earliest cottages in Nainital built in 1860 by Captain George Rowels was bought by the Raja Bahadur of Sahaspur Bilari Estate. WelcomHeritage recently renovated it into a heritage hotel.
The Palace Belvedere belongs to the erstwhile Rajas of Awagarh, Balrampur House was the summer palace of the Maharajas of Balrampur while Leisure Hotels’ swanky Naini Retreat was the summer residence of the Maharaja of Pilibhit. They also run Earl’s Court, established in 1890 as the summer home of Captain P. Richardson.
The town was perched in a hollow at 1938m and radiated around Naini Lake, which supposedly mirrors the emerald green eyes of goddess Sati. According to puranic folklore, after Sati’s death, Lord Shiva carried her body and walked with heavy sorrowful steps, which caused the earth to tremble.
To save the planet from destruction, Lord Vishnu unleashed his discus sudarshan chakra and dismembered Sati’s body. At each place a body part fell gave rise to a Shakti pitha. It is believed her left eye (nain in Hindi) fell at this spot and created a beautiful crater lake – Nainital. It’s believed to be shaped like an eye, though it appeared more like a kidney!
At the foot of the lake was Tallital while Mallital formed the head of the lake at the town’s north end, the older, colonial part of Nainital. Connecting these two ends was The Mall, a 1.5km promenade of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. The Nainital Boat House Club stood on the edge of a large plain called The Flats, result of a devastating landslide in 1880 that flattened the Victoria Hotel, and 150 people along with it.
In a great display of secularism, a gurdwara, the Jama Masjid and the Naina Devi Temple stood near each other. Not far was St Francis Catholic Church (or Lake Church), the first Methodist Church in India, established in 1858. An NCC troupe practiced their march-past while small bands of boys played cricket. At the Tibetan Market, stalls had colourful sweaters, gloves, momos, Free Tibet stickers and cheap souvenirs that were ironically Made-in-China.
Away from the touristy boat cruises and horse rides, we hoped to cover the less explored side of the largest town in Kumaon. Driving past the sprawling Manu Maharani hotel we reached our base Shervani Hilltop, tucked into the hillside. There was no ‘lake view’ but it was blissfully cut off from the town’s bustle. It was sweet to see a board crediting the two gardeners Mohan Singh Bhandari and Mohan Singh Jarhot for maintaining ‘Mohan Singh Garden’ for 40 years. After a leisurely breakfast we set off on our local explorations.
A short walk away was St John in the Wilderness, a Gothic stone church in a clearing. The strange name was given by Reverend Daniel Wilson, the fifth Bishop of Calcutta and the first Metropolitan of India and Ceylon, who visited Nainital one wintry February in 1844 to lay its foundation stone. The story goes that being early season, most English homes were closed and the Bishop had to sleep in an unfinished house on the edge of the forest and fell ill.
While recuperating in the wilderness of Nainital, Wilson was reminded of his time as assistant curator for St. John’s Chapel at Bedford Row, hence the name. Inside the church a brass memorial commemorated the victims of the 1880 landslip and few victims were buried in its graveyard. The attached cemetery was the oldest in town and we paid our respects at the tombstone of George Thomas Lushington. As Commissioner of Kumaon he developed the town, planned the layout of The Mall and also scouted the best vantages that were today’s viewpoints.
Tiffin Top (7,520 ft) was a 4km hike up a stone-paved trail lined with fir and deodar trees. It took us 45 minutes to get to the terraced hilltop on Ayarpatta hill, with a small Shiva shrine. But how could we leave without tiffin at Tiffin Top? At the lone chai stall we savoured a view of the Himalayas over tea and bowls of Maggi.
Dorothy’s Seat nearby, was a stone picnic perch built as a memorial to Dorothy Kellet by her husband Col JP Kellett of the City of London Regiment, and her admirers after her death in 1936. However, she was not buried here but at The Red Sea after she died of septicemia aboard a ship bound for England to be with her children.
On our return, at Lover’s Point (oddly Suicide Point was not too far away), tourists haggled at the horse stand for rides to viewpoints like Khurpa Tal, Himalaya Darshan, Tiger Top, Lands End and Naina Peak (2610 m), the highest point of Nainital. At Bara Patthar nearby, the Nainital Mountaineering Club had a rock climbing wall for adventure enthusiasts.
We descended the rugged and woody Anyarpatta hill. The forests were so dense than sunrays could not penetrate the vegetation; in Kumaoni anyar-patt means ‘the part of complete darkness’. The lakeside road at the base of the hill was called Thandi Sadak (Cold Road) for the same reason.
Little wonder, it was on the quiet western slopes of the lake that Sri Aurobindo Ashram ran a Van Niwas Himalayan Centre. Tiger conservationist and author Jim Corbett too stayed at Guerney House, his last dwelling in India before returning to England. Few know that Corbett was a Municipal Board member at Nainital and spent Rs.4000 of his personal funds to build the Band Stand. In the 70s’s every summer evening Mr. Ram Singh’s famous band played Kumaoni and popular Bollywood tunes.
Ambling down Thandi Sadak, we crossed a slew of temples – Shani Mandir, a sacred rock shrine of Nainital’s patron goddess Pashandevi and a temple of Kumaoni god Golu Devta. The Lake Bridge connecting the two banks had a post office, the only one in the world to be located on a bridge!
Walking south of the lake to Tallital, we took a steep 1.5km climb to Nainital High Altitude Zoo, named in memory of Bharat Ratna Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant. The enclosures occupy a steep slope with sharp gradients so it won’t be just the leopards, Tibetan wolves, Himalayan black bears and iridescent pheasants that make you gasp for breath.
Nainital has a vibrant candle making industry and we peeped into Mehrotras House of Wax, the oldest candle shop in Nainital. Also worth a look is The Pahari Store, factory showroom of Anil Candles who specialize in decorative, perfumed, floating and gel candles in every shape, size and colour. They also stock excellent jams, pickles, honey, Himalayan herbs, organic food and spices, handmade soaps and cosmetics, scarves and woolens. Black and white photos of founder RS Virmani gifting exclusive candles to Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman adorned the wall.
Sadly, the most magnificent building in Nainital was out of bounds. Raj Bhavan, formerly Government House, was built in 1899 by architect F.W. Stevens in the Victorian ‘domestic’ Gothic style. The erstwhile summer residence of colonial era governors, it has a lovely golf course attached to it. The Old Secretariat, built in 1900, currently houses the Uttarakhand High Court. We headed back to Shervani after a really long day. We were so tired, we skipped the evening entertainment and grabbed an early dinner.
Early morning, we were ready to visit Snow View (7,450 ft) at Sher-ka-Danda ridge northeast of town. There’s a cable car from the Mall but we preferred the 2km hike. Halfway up, Tibetan prayer flags announced the small Gadhan Kunkyopling Gompa of the Gelukpa order. It was a clear day and the snowy peaks of Nanda Devi, Trisul and Nanda Kot looked resplendent. The trail continued 4km to Naina Peak.
Nainital is a great base to explore nearby lakes like Sat Tal (23km), Bhimtal and Naukuchiyatal and century old forest rest houses at Kilbury, Vinayak and Kunjakharak. At Pangot spot 500 bird species. But for this, a 2-day jaunt seemed too little. Rudyard Kipling was right. In his 1889 ‘Story of the Gadsbys,’ he wrote on heartbreak, “Two months of Naini Tal works wonders…”
277km north of Delhi, Nainital is just over an hour’s drive from the nearest railway station Kathgodam (35km south).
Where to Stay
Shervani Hilltop Nainital
Ph 05942 233800
Ph 05942 237342
The Naini Retreat/The Earl’s Court
Ph 011-46520000, 9555088000
Ph 05942 236236, 231058
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 1 Sep 2018 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.