Sylverton's old bungalow has gone. In its stead are five hotels now.

By: Ganesh Saili

Come to think of it, the northern hill stations of Almora, Nainital, and Shimla came into being in the 1820s whilst Mussoorie had a distinct advantage. It was on an outside spur of the lesser Himalaya and not like the others that were buried behind folds of mountains. From our ridge, you can look down upon the plains as if upon a large map spread eagled upon a table. You never feel cut off from the world or trapped in the mountains. It gives you a sense of freedom where you can get away from it all by mere choice.

How we rue paying for this easy accessibility! The place continues to attract millions of holiday makers, who cram this place to turn it into a rabbit-warren.

Hunting among the early maps I find our first map, an early stone-cut Tassin, printed in Calcutta dating to 1831. It lists the various house-owners, among whom the only Indian was Hakeem Mundy, who was a minister in the Avadh Court in Lucknow. If you were to superimpose the cadastral of one map against the other you would get a glimpse of our history. Col. Stuart owned a place called Glenlyon House (1831); by  1946 it’s called  the Royal Oak, and turns into the Sindh Punjab Hotel by 1946 which by became Brentwood in 1968 and is now a fine hostelry called Fern Brentwood.

A water-colour of Lyndale’s Mussoorie Seminary.

Opposite our home stands the well-wooded estate originally named Woodcraft and Green Mount, which in 1831 was owned by Captain Sperling in 1831. Around a hundred years later, it turned into the Castle Hill Estate that housed the summer offices of the Survey of India. Move further  afield to find in the Library area, Falcon’s Perch which turned into Groomsbridge by 1922 and as I write is a part of the electricity department as Kunj Bhawan.

If you look at it, while other hill stations like Darjeeling, Nainital, Shimla, and Ooty became seats of government; Mussoorie, Kodaicanal, and Matheran were built purely for fun and pleasure. This old tale begins after the defeat of the Nepalese kingdom in 1815 at Nalapani. It opened access to places over 6000 to 7500 feet. We turned into an ‘Eton of the East’ after the setting up of the first English-medium school in the Himalaya when the Mussoorie Seminary began in 1834; the Waverly Convent (1845) and Oak Grove, the Railway School struck roots in Jharipani in 1887.

Walking the talk on the Mall.

These colonial bungalows were transplants from the plains with open verandahs wrapped around them, which were ill suited for the hills as they let in the freeze. Their old thatch roofs were no match for our monsoon and leaked. With the advent of the new galvanized iron sheets the roofs were changed. But without paint they do look as if they had been hammered out of rusty old biscuit tins.

Walking home the other day, a signboard jumped at me. It read ‘I-Van-Hoe’ and took me a while to figure out that Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel had once lent the place its name.

Others like Seaforth Lodge got their names from the Scottish Loch Seaforth or Seaforth Island. Obviously the early Scottish settlers had had a field day in naming house after house ending with a  burn – a stream as in Wolfsburn, Scotsburn, or Redburn. And don’t you go around looking for flowing water in a place where there are few springs or streams.

I cannot go past this listing of names without repeating a well-worn Zen fable. Arrived at a King’s palace, the old monk asks for a room.

“‘Shoo! Get away!’ the outraged minders remind him that this was a palace not a hotel.

‘Last when I came here, another person was King. Now the place belongs to  someone else. Only in a hotel do guests keep changing.’

I believe that in this game of ‘let-us-pretend’, we end up believing that we are going to be living here forever.   Forgetting that for starters, we are all – the big, the short, and the tall – only temporary guests. We are no more than a blip in the darkness of time, just passing by.

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