By PRADEEP SINGH
Between the apogee of being the residence cum office of Col Sir George Everest and its recent state of vandalised neglect, the Park House had phases in which people actually stayed in it. Today, it is referred to more casually as Everest House.
I had the privilege, realised much later though, of seeing Park House as a summer retreat for over two decades when this rambling estate was family property. Before my father acquired it in 1967-68, the Park Estate and Park House at Hathipaon (Mussoorie) had not a few owners which included Col Whish, Col Thatcher, Col Alexander Skinner, John MacKinnon and the Shah family before us.
Selected initially as a site for the mansion by Col William Sampson Whish in 1829, the Park Estate became well known for its connection with Col Sir George Everest once he acquired it in 1833.
George Everest was a larger than life figure whose untiring efforts completed the Great Trigonometric Survey started a couple of decades ago by William Lambton from the deep south of the country at Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) winding its way through every conceivable terrain and ending at Mussoorie. Everest did his seminal and concluding work at Park House between 1834 and 1843, before departing for his home in England, a period regarded as the Everest Decade.
Park House along with Park Estate, on which the mansion stood along with outhouses of all sorts and ancillary offices, fell off the high pedestal of iconic properties of the newly emerging hill station of Mussoorie. Changing hands at regular intervals, Park House and its surrounding open land came into our family’s possession sometime in 1967-68.
The property was then lying in an abandoned state and it took years to put it in some semblance of maintenance. Apple saplings from Kotgarh in Himachal were brought as were those of peaches, apricots and some pears for planting on the estate. Some walnut trees from Everest’s days had survived just adjacent to the round room facing the Hathipaon top.
The estate had a good many well terraced fields, large by hill standards. These were put under the plough once again to raise good potatoes and peas during summers. Thus these fields and intervening sloping and grassy khuds were very exciting places to ramble in during the summer vacations, discovering strange plants and wild flowers. Ringal bamboo grew over huge areas which were not easy to pass through. All these spots and fields were named individually, like the Gol Khet, Bada Khet, Khuddey-wala Khet and so on. The ridge on which Park House was situated was quite level like an elongated plateau from where, both, the Doon Valley to the south and Benog and Bhadraj to the north perpetually offered enchanting vistas.
While there was always good firewood available throughout the year, drinking water was not so abundant, it was mostly a scarce resource. During the holidays, water was brought to Park House on mules, each loaded with four World War II vintage jerrycans from the nearby Wishing Well or further from the Hathipaon Toll, where there was a municipal water spout. These issues hardly if ever bothered us, though my mother and visiting aunts fretted over these essentials. Tramping on the estate was a day long pastime but when darkness descended, one had to be indoors in the big round room which was larger than present day dormitories of boarding schools. And here the goodly fire was kept roaring for warmth and at times to cook as well. There being no electricity due to the remoteness, lamps were always trimmed and chimneys kept polished. Going out after dark was not generally encouraged as leopards (locally always called bagh) were very fond of prowling on the estate. Spotting leopard scat next day was always an adventure as the dropping always indicated what the big cat had dined on at night.
Once the apple trees had matured it was a task to ward off troupes of langurs, locals calling them “guni”. The huge primates had a liking for lunging from tree top to tree top and, in doing so, they tore and ripped apple branches rendering the tree pretty much useless.
Another elusive resident of the estate was the porcupine or the “sehi” as the farm hands called it. These sehi loved digging late at night for potatoes and were therefore not welcome. Of course, we loved their beautiful but infinitely sharp quills that the sehi sometimes left behind.
As there were a large number of very old Deodar trees and also a stretch of pine climbing towards Hathipaon top, wind often whistled at nights to add a dash of extra chill which only the night long fire kept at bay.
Mornings in summers started early and one usually had long hours to while away with teenage imagination to boot. Once I came upon a one-fourth anna coin of 1833 minted by the East India Company. It was lying exposed providentially but digging around the spot I only turned up dirt trod by the milkmen who took the short cut across the grounds on way to Mussoorie to sell the milk. These milkmen also often brought our petty needs like bread, buns and other such stuff on their return trips to their homes. Some cattle keeping families rented space on the estate during the summer months to feed their animals and earn good money by selling milk to tourists and restaurants at Mussoorie, a few kilometres away.
To keep this summer retreat in running order needed caring during other months as well. This was especially so in winters when snow often weighed heavily on the roof that was already weakened due to earlier neglect. One of my duties was to come to Park House whenever it was learned that heavy snowfall had occurred and arrange for the snow to be shoveled off the roofs while marveling at the snow covered landscape that stretched all the way to higher Himalayas to the north amidst which rose the mighty pillar of the earth to which it had been deemed fit to name after George Everest who indeed deserved the honour to reward his super human efforts.