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The Magic Of Airfield

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By: Ganesh Saili

Off the beaten track, tucked above the old bridle path to Rajpur, in Barlowganj lies Airfield, one of the hill station’s most densely forested estates. A certain Ciaran O’Hara,  a compatriot of Captain Young, the Irishman who founded Mussoorie, acquired it, and named it after a place in Dublin. That original Irish estate dates back to 1830 when a wealthy barrister Thomas Mackey Scully sold the place to Trevor Overend and his wife Lily. The couple had two  daughters: Letitia and Naomi – a third, Constance, having passed away in infancy. The mother and her daughters were known for their philanthropic work, their travelling, and their fondness for classic cars. On Trevor’s passing away, the property was inherited by the two girls and their mother.

This trailblazing trio zipped around the Irish countryside in their pre-war cars: Letitia preferred a 1927 Rolls-Royce Twenty Tourer; Naomi, a 1936 Austin and their mother Lily liked a 1923 Peugeot. The Irish have preserved these for posterity.

Despite land being at a premium, they refused to sell, and ran a Victorian-era farm in the middle of an urban wave. When the sisters passed away in their nineties, the estate was placed in trust for the people of Ireland.

Returning to the margins of Barlowganj, you find that after passing through many hands, in 1903, Lieutenant Stanley Skinner of Hansi purchased Mussoorie’s Airfield. But just a year later it was acquired by W.A. Gordon, who, before he passed on, left the estate to his wife Alice Gordon. Four years later she mortgaged it to the Bank of Upper India Limited and later in 1914, the Gordons sold Airfield to H.H. Nawab Mohamad Hamid Ullah Khan of Bhopal, who in turn sold the place to Her Highness Urmilla Devi, Maharani Sahiba of Nabha, wife of His Highness Maharaja Pratap Singh of Nabha on 20th of August, 1949. Since then, this magnificent property has been home to the Nabha Family.

‘Where does the name Barlowganj come from?’ one has often been asked.

Barlowganj is named after Colonel Charles Grant Barlow, the owner of Barlow Castle which dominated a spur above the bazaar. Further afield is Whymper’s Pool of the abandoned Crown Brewery. Not too far away is the turreted Sikander Hall that was bought by Alice Skinner in 1916. It has been home to the descendants of Colonel James Skinner, the grand patriarch of the family, who was blessed with a double inheritance, son of a Rajput mother and a Scotsman.

Founding Skinner’s Horse in 1803, he chose the yellow tunics or ‘the Clothes of the Dead’ for warriors who had sworn that if they couldn’t win; they’d rather do battle and die. In their scarlet turbans, silver-edged girdles, black shields, and bright yellow tunics, his gallant Risalas rode from one victory to the next with the blood curdling battle cry of Himmat-i-Mardan, Madad-i-Khuda. (God helps those who have courage!)

Another question that often vexes historians is: ‘Where did Maharaja Daleep Singh stay in Mussoorie? Landour’s Castle Hill or Barlowganj’s Whybank Castle?’

First a quick recap: When the Lion of the Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away in 1849, his son – a five-year old child – ascended the throne. Thereafter, the Hon’ble John Company annexed the Punjab and exiled the teenager to Futtehgurh.

‘What does Mussoorie have to do with this?’ You may well ask.

In 1852-53 the Maharaja lived in Whytbank Castle along with John Spenser Logan as his tutor. Thus began the insidious plot of creating a wog. This planted the seeds of a tragedy – cutting him off from his roots and teaching him the ways of the White Man. Logan levelled a space for a playground at Manor House estate, so that he could play cricket with the boys of the Mussoorie Seminary.

In 1853, the Prince was bundled off to England, never to return. By the time he could see through the plot, it was too late. The British had pillaged his kingdom; diddled him out of the Kohinoor diamond; plundered his wealth and cheated him every step of the way.

What recompense can there ever be for a life lost?

(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.)