By Pradeep Singh
The laboured conquest of the subcontinent, albeit piecemeal, by the English East India Company did not sit comfortably with the motley crew of the company-walas comprising the Scotts, Irish, Welsh and, of course, the English. Nothing had prepared these seekers of fortunes for the backlash of Hindustan and the driving home of a hard lesson that conquest of climate did not come with conquest of the land. Besides consolidating their commercial interests, the other preoccupation for the British was the search for congenial stations for their families and also for their personal summer retreats. Thus Darjeeling, Shimla, Ooty, Mussoorie, Nainital and their like started dotting the lower Himalayas and the Nilgiris in the first half of the nineteenth century.
For the successful establishment and sustenance of these hill stations, a number of foothill towns were set up at Kalka, Haldwani, Mansingudi, and Rajpur in the Doon Valley. These foothill towns were literally and metaphorically the scaffolding that enabled the hill stations to be established. And, as with all scaffoldings, these foothill towns faced dismantling at some future date.
The hamlet of Rajpur lay at the southern most extension of the Himalayas at a distance of six miles from Doon and another seven miles to the north was the nascent hill town of Mussoorie. It was at an elevation of 3000 feet above sea level and there was a perceptible change in the flora and also in temperature from the Valley below. It had lain in relative isolation as one of the villages granted revenue-free to Guru Ram Rai in 1676 by the then Raja of Garhwal.
Lady luck had shown brightly on the nondescript Rajpur when it became the logistic point for those who sought the cooler environs of Mussoorie and Landour. Rajpur saw the setting up of transport agency offices which prospered in catering to the needs of Mussoorie-bound travellers, who deposited their luggage with the agencies that engaged a special class of coolies to carry the loads uphill. These hardy men of the mountains moved all manner of cargo on their backs. Despite their physical prowess, these coolies were called “Faltoos “! Besides the hotels, a police station and the post office, there was also a public dispensary which was a boon to the seasonal porters and other such manpower that was the mainstay of the cargo carriage trade that existed between Doon and Mussoorie.
Just as the transport agencies, hoteliers, too, seized the opportunities to prosper and three hotels sprung up at Rajpur – Prince of Wales’ Hotel, The Caledonia and one with less fancy a name, The Agency Hotel. Their main patronage was from people who had to perforce check in for the night before taking the bridle path next morning towards Mussoorie.
Rajpur in the old and pre-colonial days had been a hatnala, or a rudimentary trade mart, as one route to Tehri Garhwal lay through Rajpur heading east and over the hills of Saklana. But following the opening up of Mussoorie, Rajpur saw a boom in its prosperity and, for its size perhaps, eclipsed Doon of the first half of nineteenth century, its heyday being the period from 1860-1890, with a slight decline once the road to the east came up for cart traffic to Mussoorie. The cart road was a private enterprise of one Mr Mackinnon for use of the brewery that he had set up, thus becoming a harbinger of good times up and down the Valley.
Till the railways came to Doon in 1900, the nearest station was at Saharanpur from where the up-country travellers came up to Rajpur through the Mohand pass in the Siwaliks. Mackinnon’s cart road being twice as long as the bridle path from Rajpur through Jharipani, many chose to engage ponies while the ladies preferred the novelty of jampans (sedan chairs) carried by four sturdy hill-men. Many a dalliance did start on the road up from Rajpur to the Mall Road as the pony ride took almost two hours to reach Mussoorie and just one to come downhill.
But the death knell for the town was sounded in 1930 when a motorable road was opened to Mussoorie. The transport agencies and the hotels were wiped out, making Rajpur a deserted ghost town, the shadow of which still lingers to haunt the once merry road of memories to the hills. Some who set out from the hot and dusty plains of Hindustan, and many did come solely in the hope of restoring their impaired health in the salubrious clime of Mussoorie, were victims of their destiny. Halting perforce at Rajpur hostelries or the better hotels, in some cases they made their peace with the maker at Rajpur. The Caledonia Hotel was unique in its customer service. It had a private burial ground for those who breathed their last breaths of mountain air in their hotel. Not long ago, there were 28 marked graves in this private cemetery but, now, with the cemetery closed, the saga of these seekers of the mists of Mussoorie have blended with the elements at the foothill.
The decline in the fortunes of Rajpur, post 1930, was partly arrested when certain English and some Anglo-Indian families made Rajpur their homes after having served in the railways or civil services. Some names do remain in an otherwise fading memory like those of Percy Edward Paine, the Davis, and Harpers whose neat gardens, litchi and mango orchards flourished beyond the lifespan of those who tended them. Not all left for their home countries in the British Isles once India gained independence in 1947. The Powells, Mortimers, Miss Herdon, and the Henley Smiths stayed on. However, the town of Rajpur still remembers the 78 men who went to the First World War and never returned but lived on as martyrs, and to them is dedicated a modest memorial adjacent to the town’s post office, though no letters come for the departed.
[Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of The Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun (2011) and Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun (2017)]