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Visiting Mussoorie’s Quiet Cousin

Photos by Nandini Gaur

When you’re up in the hilltown that has been hailed by Ruskin Bond and Agatha Christie, Mussoorie and Landour: Footprints of the Past is a worthy companion.

Landour, Mussoorie’s quiet cousin in the introductory range of the Himalayas in India, has intrigued me. Ever since the first winter evening in Dehradun thousands of years ago when I first read a Ruskin Bond book that described the beauty, the calm, and the stillness of Landour, I felt a raging desire to not just visit, but stay. As I read in the lonely dormitory of my unexceptional boarding school, I would look through the tiny window up to the lights in the hills, which I presumed to be lit in Landour, and imagine the tall deodar trees, the lonely hill-tops, and the narrow winding alleys that Bond brought to life in those dusty pages.

So, after several years, this January, I finally convinced my partner, who prefers her winters mild, into spending some time in Landour, where the weatherperson was expecting some snowfall. She warmed to the idea as it involved a stop-over in nearby Dehradun — where she too went to boarding school —to reminisce a little. The reminiscing proved far too emotional for me, as it turned out, but that’s another story for another time.

After visiting our respective schools and digging into a hearty dose of Dehradun’s famous stick-jaw toffees — just to counter the emotional edge that the moment had gained — we left for Landour in our battered, bruised, and much maligned Fiat. By the time our ascent began, she, who has been short-changed by her maker with a rather weak gastrointestinal constitution, developed another bout of discomfort. As this is a frequent occurrence, our plans, by-and-large, do not change. She dozed off. I drove and was immediately surprised by the quality of this mountainous road. It was a luxurious — by hill road standards — two lane road with reassuring safety barriers.

Several honk-happy specimens concealed in muscular SUVs expressed an urgent need to overtake our car. I obliged each of them focusing instead — through peripheral vision only —on the beauty of the surrounding Himalayas, the deodars, the pines, the little chai stalls, the red tin-huts, and the mystical Doon valley below.

We crossed the hustle and the bustle of Mussoorie, without stopping, and moved on to a much quieter, narrower, and steeper road to Landour. We soon encountered a road-block and were informed by a public-spirited individual at the spot that the regular road up to Landour had been blocked due to construction work and prescribed a longer route via the Woodstock school if we still wanted to proceed. The if was added, the gentleman explained, because many tourists turn back as there is nothing to ‘do’ in Landour. But, ‘nothing’ is exactly what we wanted to do, and now, given her indisposition, we didn’t have much of a choice.

With much effort, I turned the wheels of our ‘tractor’ — as the car has been eloquently described by a friend —to take the route that had been suggested. The lonely mountain road with mossy hill-sides and tall deodars became — in my head — the setting for Bond’s stories with enterprising kids running around and playing in the corners where streams would flow when it would rain. As we drove past the Woodstock school, I thought what a pleasure it must be to be a school student here amidst the beauty of the Himalayas, the purity of the air, and the patronage of the climate. Then, I recalled what being a school kid feels like, and switched, immediately, to more pleasant thoughts.

She, if you are wondering, was asleep all this while and woke up as we reached chaar-dukaan — Landour’s iconic Cantonment area market which has a little over four shops now. The hotel that we were booked in, Rokeby Manor, was just around the corner. It is easily the most charming hotel I have ever set foot in with the most gentle and caring staff. But, and here is the down side, it does burn a significant hole in one’s pocket. We are still recovering.

The sun was about to set, the weather was chilly, and I was excited to step out for a walk as soon as we checked in. But, her discomfort had aggravated, and her plan was to pop a few pills and sleep. The walk had to be put off until the next day.

I found myself an exceptionally comfortable and cosily fireplaced lounge in the hotel lobby, where I decided to plant myself for the rest of the evening. But before I slumped, an inviting book-shelf in the corner of the lounge got my attention and I picked up a book, Mussoorie and Landour: Footprints of the Past by Virgil Miedema and Stephanie Spaid Miedema, to learn more about the history of the place.

Soon, the book had me hooked. I found out that Frederick Young — referred to as ‘overseer’, ‘promoter’ and even ‘king’ of Dehradun, who reigned over the serene valley between 1814 and 1842’ — discovered Mussoorie in 1814 when he was looking for an ideal location in the hills north of Dehradun to build a hunting lodge. At the time, there was no Mussoorie hill-station,

…The area we know today as Mussoorie was all forested, hillsides and ridges, beautiful, cool and excellent for shikar (hunting).

Young, an Irishman enlisted in the British army, arrived in India as a sixteen-year-old in 1802 and quickly earned a reputation for his ‘pluck’ and ‘courage’. After the Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814-15, he was put in charge of the Nepalese prisoners of war in Saharanpur and is thus credited with having formed the first Gurkha regiment — a regiment well-known till the present day for its extraordinary gallantry – Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, once said, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.”

Young, built the first house in 1823— a ‘shooting box’ — in what was to become Mussoorie on the slope that is in the present day known as ‘Camel’s back’. By 1831, he would add two more houses. While, the ‘shooting box’ has not survived, the other two can still be found in Landour.

With time, Young’s reputation for bravery and leadership grew to a point where he felt he could ask the East India company for anything. He used his influence for the establishment of Landour cantonment as a convalescent depot for injured and ailing British soldiers.

As I read this, my eyes went to the door that our own ‘ailing’ traveller was behind, and I thought to myself, “How apt!”

But, at least her journey up the hill had been comfortable. The book told me that travelers in the early days did not have it this easy, “even though Mussoorie has always been the most accessible of the major hill stations in India, being on an outside spur of the lesser Himalayas.”

The book gave an account of the travels of W. Wilson in the early 1860s, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Mountaineer’, and who, like us, started his journey from Meerut — the famous Western Uttar Pradesh town which, for a variety of reasons, attracts strong emotions from most people, and also happens to be our hometown.

At the beginning of his journey, the ‘Mountaineer’ estimated that his 177-kilometre journey (it was 240 kilometres for us) from Meerut to Mussoorie would take him thirty-six hours, “including stoppages for refreshment at the different dak bungalows.”

The Mountaineer’s journey through the plains was comfortable travelling “in the primitive fashion of palanquin and bearers”. His 11-kilometre journey (it is 25 kilometres now) up the hill starting in ‘Rajpore’ (Rajpur, on the outskirts of Dehradun) on a pony was more of an adventure,

…the first half a steady pull in zigzags along the hill side, in some places far too steep for comfortable riding; the other half a little diversified, with here and there a few score yards of level ground, a great relief to both man and beast.

The pristine beauty, though, more than made up for the difficulty of the trek up,

The lateral valley on the left, with its villages and green fields cut in terraces along the hillsides, the varied hue of the forest patches, the ridge above dotted with white mansions, the park-like Dhoon valley below, its encircling range of low wooded hills, and the shadowy plains beyond, gave at each fresh turn a succession of views so novel, and so widely different from the flat plains of India, that the journey seemed too soon over.

I was also informed by the book that I had missed a potential point-of-interest on the way up. In the early days, there was a ‘famous halfway house’ at Jharipani where a tired and thirsty traveller could recharge her batteries with a quick slug of brandy, whisky or wine, or even settle down for a good long session. On our way back, I did inquire, rather optimistically, about the present-day existence of this watering hole, but, was met only with confused gazes.

Keeping the book aside with much effort, I decided to turn-in with the aim of getting up early for that overdue walk around Landour. She was feeling slightly better in the morning, and we did indeed step out. It was cold — bitterly for her, refreshingly for me — as we walked around the Landour chakkar,  a path around the mountain ridge, where Vishal Bhardwaj apparently comes up with most of his creative brilliance.

As Landour doesn’t feature on the to-do list of most travellers to Mussoorie, we encountered more dogs — pahari dogs; large and furry— than tourists. The resulting calm was peaceful and the quiet was meditative, almost. I tried to come up with some creative brilliance of my own, à la Vishal Bhardwaj. But, alas, it’s a function of talent too.

On the less sunny northern-side of the ridge in Landour, was a Christian cemetery with a ramshackle gate locked with chains. The cold weather, the damp earth, and the dewy air, made for the setting of one of Agatha Christie’s murder mysterious — and she did write a few set here.

From Christie, my thoughts immediately went to the book I was reading the previous night — Mussoorie and Landour: Footprints of the Past. It mentioned the cemetery. But, they were two separate cemeteries — one Protestant and the other Catholic — with the distinction having blurred over the years due to “overcrowding in the upper Protestant section!”

The walk around the Landour chakkar was thrilling. Please, bear with my over-exuberant choice of adjective. But, having spent most of my life in the savage heat of the plains, which is a misfortune of tragic proportions, each moment spent in the hills is a treasure.

Photos by Nandini Gaur

After completing a round of the Landour chakkar, we took a by lane which led to what is called the ‘Sister’s bazaar’ — so named as a nurses’ dormitory was formerly located in this area. Only three shops exist in the bazaar, one of which is the Landour bakehouse, also owned by Rokeby Manor. It is a cosy café with some excellent looking breads and desserts. Our resident food expert (she) was, by dreadful misfortune, indisposed, so, we won’t be able to comment on the quality of the food. But, going by the standards of the coffee — for which, I can vouch — the food ought to be excellent.

We went back to the hotel and I went back to the book. The British felt at home in Mussoorie and Landour,

It was cool, it was green, it was quiet, it was comfortable, it was chock-a-block with fellow countrymen and it was relaxing.

The book quotes a W. Williams who, writing in the 1860s, described the typical routine of a Mussoorie/Landour visitors and residents,

Those determined to make the most of the invigorating climate rise with the sun, and take a walk or ride on some of the good roads. On their return the rest are up, and then comes breakfast. Each spends the day as fancy directs, just as idle people do everywhere else, and very few at Mussoorie have anything to do but to kill time the best way they can. In the evening comes the walk or ride on the Mall, which lasts till dark….

Williams, or I, for that matter, could go on endlessly about the ‘invigorating climate’ or spending ‘the day as fancy directs’ characteristics of Landour. But, you would have other things to do.

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About the author

Kabir Agarwal

Kabir Agarwal is a Correspondent at The Wire where he writes about the rural economy and politics. In the distant past, he had an undistinguished career in academics.