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Hill Stations & Mall Roads, Once Upon A Time!



Hill stations have always fascinated me. It certainly fascinated my father for him to have bought a property in Dehradun – a town in the foothills of the Himalayas and a stone’s throw away from Mussoorie, which till date boasts of being the ‘Queen Of Hill Stations’!

I was in Mussoorie lately, and found it teeming with people. I had deliberately chosen the middle of the week because, during the weekends, only the brave and the fittest can survive the crowds! But to no avail. It was packed with people. I accepted it –after all, we are on the verge of becoming the world’s number on populationwise. However, what I find unacceptable was the fact that while walking I was negotiating scooters, cars, and heavier vehicles. I don’t know why they are allowed. My guess is that allowing vehicles to ply on Mall Road brings in the revenue.

Hill stations in India were never created to generate revenue. Their origins can be traced to establish sanitaria where British invalids could recover from the heat and diseases of the subcontinent. With the passage of time, these sanctuaries became important centres from where they also sought to supervise their subjects. Here they established political headquarters and military cantonments, from whence they issued and executed orders with an air of arrogance.

Hill stations thus served, both, as sites of refuge and entertainment, and for governing and supervision. This paradox gave the hill stations significance, mystique, and at times scandal. At one level, hill stations during the British times were seen where rakish officers, vampish ladies, ambitious bureaucrats, and bored housewives engaged in endless parties and gossip. Rudyard Kipling did a great deal to engrave this image in the popular book, “Plain Tales from the Hills”.

In their physical set ups, hill stations had far more affinity with the quaint villages of a romanticised England than with the stark cantonments of a regimented India. They hedged the stations’ meandering avenues and footpaths with trees and flowers indigenous to their homeland and cultivated English fruit orchards and vegetable gardens in the backyards of their Tudor cottages.

Being deeply religious, at the heart of the stations stood that essential symbol of traditional English values, the Anglican Church.

A seemingly endless series of social calls, teas, strolls, picnics, dinners, balls, fetes, races, amateur theatricals, and other festivities dominated the daily routine of residents. While much the same array of social activities occurred wherever the British congregated in India, nowhere else was the pursuit of relaxation and recreation as stark as in the hill stations. They unpacked and donned their woollens, made their social calls and hosted their “at-homes”, exchanged their pleasantries on their promenades along the Mall.

And yet the fact remains that hill stations were a part of the imperial apparatus that allowed the British to rule India. They served as vital centres of political and military power, especially after the 1857 revolt. Shimla demonstrates quite clearly that the history of this quintessential hill station was profoundly shaped by its political role as the so-called summer capital of India. Viceroys and their councils spent at least twice as many months each year in Shimla as they did in Calcutta, the historic capital of the Raj.

At the regional level as well, the governments of Bengal, Bombay, Madras, Assam, United Provinces and Central Provinces built the hill stations of Darjeeling, Mahabaleshwar, Ootacamund, Shillong, Naini Tal, and Pachmarhi as their summer headquarters. However, many of them did not possess any official purpose – like Kodaikanal, Matheran, Mussoorie and many others. Some were satellites built around bigger hill stations – for example Dagshai, Jatog, Kasauli, Solan, Sabathu (military cantonments around Shimla).

Most of the hill stations were meant exclusively for the “whites”. The Mall Roads that ran through them were meant to be walked only by the British. This led to a significant change in demographic patterns. While the British population of India as a whole consisted overwhelmingly of men, this was not the case in the hill stations (with the exception of the military cantonments). Here the number of women usually equaled and sometimes exceeded the number of men, and children constituted a substantial presence as well. Thus, hillstation communities came closer to the gender and age distributions found in society in Britain, than almost any other clusters of Britons in India. It is no coincidence, therefore, that hill stations became the preferred places within the subcontinent for women to bear their children, for children to be educated (leading to setting up of many famous schools), for young adults to meet and marry, for ambitious officials to make the contacts that furthered their careers, for pensioners to enjoy their retirement, and for invalids to seek their health or meet their death.

Back to the Mall Roads. My son asked me why the roads were called so. I did not know. I know that ‘Mall Road’ in a hill station is a place where all major shops and restaurants are located. But why is it called a Mall Road? I asked friends, googled, talked to historians.

One interesting (though by no means convincing ) answer I got was that a lot of transportation of heavy and light goods was done on the mall road which included goods of daily use for Britishers,and since we call goods maal/mall in Hindi, Indians started calling it the mall road.!!!

Whatever the reasons the British had for these roads to be called “Mall Road”, or for building the hill stations – there is hardly any trace of originality left in them now!

That’s the reason why old timers start their narration of them by saying “Once upon a time…”!

Just the way fairy tales start!

(Kulbhushan Kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain @gmail.com)