Straw wrapped statues protected from frost and snow.

By: Ganesh Saili

At Library Chowk, there is a bandstand that a hundred years ago was presented  to Mussoorie by H.H. Jagatjit Singh, the Maharaja of Kapurthala. Ever since it was set up, it has been pushed around, shifted southwards a few feet at a time, to make way for increasing traffic. Today you can find it hanging on the very lip of the Library. Should you push it any further, I’m afraid it will simply slide down the hill and come to rest in the valley of the Doon.

An old aquatint of tthe Chateau, Mussoorie’s finest buiiding.

Our affair with the royals or ex-rulers of princely states dates back to the early days of the nineteenth century when the British discouraged royalty from settling down in Shimla, then the summer capital of the Raj. You will discover that they flocked to Mussoorie as they found Shimla crammed with brass-hats, too officious and too stuffy. After all, this place was more ‘chilled out’ as everyone could ‘Tune in! Drop out! And paddle their own canoe’. Among those who settled down in this first foothill of the Himalaya were the rulers of Patiala, Rajpipala, Nabha, Panna, Baroda and Jind. They fell in love with the place and went on to build homes. After them came the ex-rulers of Tikari, Cooch Behar, Palanpur, Kasmanda, Kateswar, Rampur and Indore.

After a frenetic search, the Kapurthala’s royals honed in on St. Helen’s Estate, a 22-acre property. It was acquired in 1895 and work began with the levelling of a hillside. The French influence on the fairy-tale castle is evident in the entire structure with four turrets piercing the Himalayan air. ‘I am most comfortable,’ wrote Maharaja Jagajit Singh, ‘in my new Chateau, which looks magnificent.’ It is the only building with any pretensions to architectural beauty, the foundation stone for which was laid on 20th October 1896. It is solidly built in the French style and presents a pleasing contrast to the adjacent houses. Adorning it are a pair of stately winged lions; many fountains; statuary of classical goddesses; gargoyles and sprawling tennis courts. This is where the Maharaja played host to the hill station’s high society. It was where fancy dress balls, dinners and garden parties were thrown every week in the summer season to which flocked British officers, English ladies and other royals.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel ‘the Iron Man of India’ meets the
erstwhile PEPSU princes.

Who could have ever dreamed of matching the fun and frolic at the Chateau de Kapurthala? Opened in 1899, it had Fancy Dress balls that were soaked in alcohol and the tables literally creaked with copious amounts of food. Those were our days of wine and song, permissiveness wrapped these hills making it a place of gaiety and frivolity.  Guests abandoned their scruples and one disgruntled Peeping Tom (peering through a keyhole no doubt) complained: ‘Some bold women did not hesitate to take their lovers to their houses to share their bed.’

In 1941, the Maharaja described a typical week in Mussoorie: ‘Two or three times a week – good riding exercise… Once a week – luncheon party at the magnificent Chateau. Saturdays I dine at the Savoy. On Sundays I have lunch at Charleville. I have already given a big ‘At Home’ and a couple of small tea parties.’ Mussoorie was always a ‘retreat’ or an escape for the Maharaja but he did not forget his official duties or affairs of State. His discipline was legendary, excusing himself from his guests at 11 p.m. no matter what was happening.

Falling in love with Stella Mudge, the Maharaja took her as a wife and built her a love nest called Stella Cottage, which was fitted out in European style and it had a bevy of seventy-two gardeners to tend the garden and extensive lawns.

In May of 1949, he made his last visit to the Chateau. Once a person whose evenings were packed back to back with four or five engagements, he was now a lonely old man, who said to his grandson: ‘The whole world has dined at my table and here I am alone with my radio.’

Meanwhile, the world has turned a few pages and finally the sun has set on all those who had once ruled over their kingdoms.

       Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.