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Bygone Doon: The Saga of Chakrata

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By Pradeep Singh
There are times when Geography is subject to political compulsions and in some instances cultural implications are added to these developments. These rare but credible outcomes often metamorphose into creations of a unique landscape. Such monumental occurrences become even more spell-binding when you consider a region as extraordinary as the region of Jaunsar Bawar in present day Uttarakhand.

For untold centuries, the region lay in isolation and obscurity that was dictated by its geography. To its north lay the Uttarkashi district and to the east lay Tehri Garhwal and its western boundary abutted Himachal Pradesh. The region was further defined by rough mountain ranges of limestone cliffs with hardly any arable land, which had prompted Captain Frederick Young to observe that there was not one plot of level land of a hundred yards in the entire pargana of Jaunsar Bawar. Jaunsar was the lower portion, while the more rugged and mountainous part was called Bawar but, despite this difference, the culture of the two was uniform in terms of cultural practices and common traditions. The scarcity of cultivable land compelled a unique social custom of polyandry by which brothers lived jointly with a single common wife whereby family property did not get fragmented by divisions. Women too had relative freedom to choose a husband and divorce was equally easy among their society.

Politically, the pargana of Jaunsar Bawar was dominated by the royal house of Sirmour whose dominions bordered on those of the Raja of Garhwal. Thus the Himachali ethos was much prevalent in the region of Jaunsar Bawar.

The splendid isolation of this Shangri-La was rudely shaken up when the Gorkha expansionism of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century swept across much of Uttarakhand and Himachal as it also expanded eastward towards Sikkim and Bhutan. Unhindered for over two decades, the Gorkhali imperialism stirred the British East India Company administrators into a flurry of moves that finally led to the Anglo Gorkha War of 1814-15. The war on conclusion put the British in a position to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Sagauli, whereby they obtained vast swathes of land in Garhwal and Himachal vacated by the retreating Gorkhali forces which had acquitted themselves without loss of face while, on the contrary, the British had a pyrrhic victory at places and especially at Nalapani in the Doon Valley.

After years of experiencing the heat and dust of the plains of Hindustan, the British keenly felt the blessings of the cooler climes of the Siwaliks and more particularly the Himalayas that now seemed more accessible due to their late gains of new territory. The health of their regiments dictated the health of their political fortunes so the British sought congenial places across the lower Himalayas for the recuperation and restoration of the health of their fatigued, sick and wounded soldiers, away from the pestilent and unhealthy plains of the country. But it would still be a few decades before concrete results would come up.

Especially after the ravages of 1857, the British looked to the Himalayas for hill stations and that too of two kinds. One for the families of civil servants and other elites and another for the soldiers, sick or otherwise, called convalescent depots and cantonments.

Thereby hangs a tale of cantonments like Dalhousie, Bakloh, Ranikhet and more particularly Chakrata that was located in the heart of Jaunsar Bawar. It was by now British policy to locate a third of the entire army in hill cantonments.

Col Hume of the 55th Regiment pioneered in setting up the cantonment at Chakrata in 1869 at an elevation of 7000 feet, where the climate was bracing and the flora of the place was reminiscent of Scottish highlands that did much to cheer the army units that marched up from Meerut and Ambala through the Timlee Pass and reached Kalsi where camping grounds were created. Resting at Kalsi, the soldiers discovered “bat-like mosquitos” famous at Kalsi. A couple of days halt and then in the cool of the evenings a two day hike via Sahiya brought the men to Chakrata. The struggling sick ones were sent off to the nearby Kailana Hill which was joined with Chakrata by a causeway of about four kilometres called Kailana Neck, while around lay the quaint Jaunsari hamlets peopled with comely looking rustics who had a penchant for cultivating poppy for opium, it being more lucrative in view of less land for cultivation. The oak forests, conifer covered hillsides and parks of rhododendrons added to the charms for tired and tortured bodies and souls.

Regulations governing the Chakrata cantonment did not permit building of private cottages which made the station unattractive for the general public and even British civilians avoided Chakrata and preferred Mussoorie or Landour. This situation did augur badly for the otherwise beautiful location and Chakrata after several decades of hustle and bustle slipped back to its quieter days of yore. The Kailana cemetery, one of the prettiest, became neglected and after 1947 along with the Chakrata cemetery became closed officially so much so that a memorial to the soldiers who died away from their homes was built at Madras as it was more accessible and easy to maintain than the logistically challenged Chakrata.

[Pradeep Singh is an historian and author of the Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun (2011) and Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun (2017).]