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STAR-STRUCK BY DEHRADUN

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Star-shine at Park Estate. Pic courtesy: Agnom Teenup

By: Ganesh Saili

If you look up from your perch in Mussoorie or Landour, the night does have ‘a thousand eyes.’ But should you gaze at the valley below, a million stars lie scattered there, a veritable treasure trove. When I mentioned this to my old friend, Sudhakar Misra, he, with his matter-of-fact farm attitude, quipped: ‘Looks more like fields of electric bulbs ready to harvest!’

As usual, Misraji has it right!

My father fell in love with this vista in the 1920s as he made his way here, from our village in the hills of Chamoli-Garhwal, as a part of the male exodus from the hills, looking for a job. At the Rishikesh bus stand, he stood, a strapping sixteen-year-old, with little more than his dreams, undecided about where to head next. Reminiscing, he chuckled: ‘I had no money, so I looked for the cheapest ticket. Dehradun and Mussoorie won the prize!’ This marks the beginning of our family’s story in the hills. Years later, I too found myself at the same crossroads, but I hung on like a mollusk.

 

Hope dispels darkness. Pic courtesy: Manu Bahuguna

Why, you may wonder? I simply forgot to go away!

Living next to Dehra, one is a part of the only district in India whose boundaries are more famous than the district. Bounded to the north by the towering Himalayas, to the south lie the ancient Shivalik ranges, while to the east gently flows the Ganga, and to the west broods her dark sister, the Yamuna.

We are told that countless ages ago this forty-five miles long and fifteen miles wide valley was an immense freshwater lake. On its edges roamed pre-historic life forms: dinosaurs, including iguanodons; woolly mammoths that weighed over two thousand pounds and had ten feet long tusks; hippopotami; sabre-toothed tigers; and a three-toed ancestor of the horse. You will find their fossils in the Calcutta Museum. Excavated in the middle of the 19th century by Dr. Falconer, Sir Proby Cautley, and Lieutenants Baker and Durand, they were named The Siwalik Fossils. And that great lake, which the Babar Nama calls ‘A jalga (or dale) in Dun with the finest running water in Hindustan’? Go looking for it now and you shall find it, much reduced – to less than an acre, near the Gurdwara Sri Guru Ram Rai.

 

View from a hundred autumns ago. Author’s collection

Among my favourites is a legend where the sage Kasyapa is making a great feast for the gods. Lord Indra – the God of Rain – on his way there comes across a group of sixty thousand pygmies trying in vain to cross a cow’s hoof print filled with water – to them a vast lake. Indra found this funny and scoffed at them. Offended, the indignant pygmies sought revenge. They immersed themselves in austerities and penance. Sweat from their tiny bodies gave birth to a river – the Sobhan, whose ‘pleasant waters,’ are called the Suswa. Whatever happened to the Rain God, you may wonder?  Like many other gods in distress, he appealed to Brahma who helped appease the pygmies’ wrath!

Angry swashbuckler Hyder Jung Hearsey was no pygmy. His descendants believed they had been diddled by the East India Company of their rightful purchase of the Doon from Raja Sudarshan Shah. And then the Sikh Guru Ram Rai arrived in 1676 at the court of Raja Fateh Sah of Garhwal carrying an imperial farmaan from Emperor Aurangzeb, and settled in the village of Kharbara, building his Gurdwara in 1699 in the village of Dhamawala.

Over time, Dehradun picked up a reputation as a ‘city of grey hair and green hedges’, a place where each bungalow was fronted by a garden, with an orchard at the back and a hedge wrapped around them.  Believe it or not, today’s plush shopping arcade Astley Hall had once been home to the English freebooter, Pahari Wilson, or the Rajah of Hursil. In the late 1950s Phillip Ryper, (a nephew of A.R. Gill, author of Valley of the Doon,1952) single-handedly turned the Doon Cemetery into a beautiful garden.

Of course, many lament that the place has changed. That it has, but sometimes you will stumble onto little nooks and crannies giving off a whiff of its stellar past.

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.