Chiselled into a slate on Bhadraj hill are the names of our early botanists from 1813. JSB or John Stuart Boldero, Joint Magistrate of Saharanpur; WLG William Linnaeus Gardner and John Anthony Hodgson and Lady Hood, wife of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, a British Naval Officer commanding the 1st British East Indies Naval Fleet. They were not the founders of this hill station. Nor were the labourers who went up and down these hills carrying planks for building shooting lodges at Zephyr Hall and Mullingar.
Where else but in Mussoorie would you have a birthday party just because someone ordered a cake? For whether it be a funeral or a celebration – there’s always money to be made and with the bravado of the truly ignorant, we witnessed an apology of a celebration for completing two hundred years of our existence.
Sidling inconspicuously past the bandwagon, I had simply tried to ignore it, for that is the handiest way to deal with cupidity. But knowing that data is king, I now turn to the pages of history.
John Northam in his guide to the hills (pub:1884) wrote: ‘A place like Masuri has no separate history in the strict sense of the term,’ adding: ‘If it has a history at all, it consists in the rise and progress of stone and mortar.’
While it’s true that in 1823 Captain Frederick Young (1786-1874) did build a shooting-box near Mullingar, it was just personal accommodation for his infrequent hunting trips to these hills. A few years later he built himself a cottage on the same site.
Young’s biography, written by his daughter L. Hadow Jenkins (pub:1923), reveals a one-man show: he was a self-styled judge, magistrate, collector, dacoit hunter, land surveyor, and above all a very generous host, who lobbied with Sir Charles Metcalf, newly appointed to Calcutta’s supreme council and also the commander-in-chief of the army Viscount Combermere. Young believed that Landour was perfect for the great experiment: the first high-altitude medical cantonment.
Meerut’s barrack master, Captain R. McMullin, was charged with constructing the first set of buildings along the crest of Landour’s ridge line. Over the next four months, he rode on horseback between Meerut and Landour through winter in freezing conditions, while skilled craftsmen from Meerut, accomplished their task. Kachcha-pakka barracks (kachcha for the native troops and pakka for the officers) were ready by March 1828. Then the sanatorium opened its doors to receive the first batch of a hundred patients.
Another spot that clamours for attention is what remains of an early settlement on Pari Tibba, beyond Woodstock School. Old Colonel Herbert Powell living in Seven Oaks – whom we unkindly called Langra Powell – used to tell us of twinkling lights atop the hill at night. Of course, as children we thought he was trying to frighten us. But the charred look and tales of twinkling lights gives the place its twin names: Burnt Hill or the Hill of Fairies.
Almost like fairies, we gather under the twinkling lights to celebrate, oblivious to the facts that stare us in the face. Even to an amateur historian like me, it seems obvious that Mussoorie began when the Landour Sanitorium came into being. A hundred patients, plus doctors, nurses, support staff, horses and stables, soldiers for protection, supply chains… everything evolved from it. Had that not happened, Captain Young’s hunting box might well have remained the only building in the area built by a British soldier for decades to come, eventually falling into ruin.
No matter which way you look at it, we are five years away from being able to wish Mussoorie a Happy 200th Birthday.
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.