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Mussoorie’s Western Edge



Sometimes I wonder whether my living in Landour makes me partial to the place. After all, our two symbiotic twins, Landour-Mussoorie, were joined by the umbilical cord of the Mall Road before they merged and became one. Did Mussoorie come too close to the siren songs of the Money God, while Landour managed to cling on to bits and pieces of the past?

Glance at the rear view mirror and you see two unlikely neighbours, living in the western edge of Mussoorie come together in a time when the place was just five-years old and had only thirtyeight houses. One was a geologist and the other an engineer and they were to blaze a trail of innovation and discovery.

Twenty-nine year old Dr. Hugh Falconer had been appointed the first superintendent of Saharanpur’s Botanical Gardens and had built a house, calling it Logie, next to Vermont, now a boutique hotel. As chance would have it, in nearby Dumbarnie, today’s Manav Bharati School, lived Proby Cautley, who was six years his junior. But given their diverse backgrounds, I cannot for the life of me put a bead on what exactly brought them together.

Awaiting approval for his Ganga Canal project, a restless Cautley soldiered on by designing two smaller canals, barely five feet wide, in the Doon valley. One was the eleven mile long Bijapur Canal that irrigates 7,500 acres west of Dehradun. To break the severe slope, he incorporated 96 artificial falls. The other was the twelve mile long Rajpur Canal, to bring drinking water to the Doon which had 10 watermills along its length. They were forerunners for the singular obsession of his life the Ganga Canal.

For those who came in late, here’s a quick recap: the Doab refers to the land between the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. But the terrain was tough, seasonal rivers played havoc and to build a canal in an uneven country was, at best, a mad man’s dream. Imagine a steep gradient where the rush of water rises up to a hundred times in the monsoon and where raos or monsoon torrents sweep away everything in their path.

‘Canal leakages will breed mosquitoes!’ felt some. But there were none. A unique mortar guaranteed that there was no seepage.

A famine that followed drought in 1837 forced a reluctant East India Company to sanction the Captain but only a pittance. With these meagre funds he set out to survey his canal and for six months, scoured the jungles, walked the swamps, measured levels and distances before transferring the collected data on to maps.

The challenge he faced was gigantic. 300,000,000 bricks were baked; millions of burnt bricks were crushed to be used as mortar. To bake bricks 250 square kilometres of forests were cut down and a hundred thousand tonnes of lime went into the mortar. So did jute, ground lentils, wild fruit, gur and finely ground surkhi.

To speed up the project, he brought out India’s first steam engine; laid the first railway line and set up the Thomson College of Engineering, Roorkee. Men like Proby Cautley need no statues because he has a 570 kilometre long memorial called the Ganga Canal.

Meanwhile, Hugh Falconer shared a common interest in palaeontology with Proby Cautley. They discovered that long ages ago, this forty-five miles long and fifteen miles wide valley was an immense fresh-water lake; along it’s sedge roamed prehistoric dinosaurs: woolly mammoths weighing over two thousand pounds, with ten feet tusks; hippopotami; dinosaur gobbling crocodiles; a sabretoothed tiger and a three-toed ancestor of the horse. They discovered a prehistoric giraffe and named it Sivatherium Giganteum: ‘It was one of the most remarkable past tenants of the globe’. Further excavations revealed the fossilised remains of giant ostriches and cranes; and the skulls of primitive camels and the skeletal remains of rhinos, and crocodiles. Falconer announced these finds from the Lower Pliocene period in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

One thing is for certain: this area had once been underwater and the Doon valley, an inland sea. It drained when the Earth’s plates shifted leaving behind these bones to pick.

(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.)