I have often wondered about the presence of the odd colonial looking structures, random cottages, the presence of conifers at hill stations. Botanical gardens and lakes have always been a part of the tourist circuits of these hill stations. And I assumed it was always present, a part of their charm. Here and there I did hear about the forlorn structure that came up in 19th century and was the summer house of a colonel etc. But I didn’t give it much thought until one fine day I got my hands on a lovely Indian history book on the British India- ‘ The magic mountains: hill stations and the British raj‘.
All the lovely hill stations Shimla, Nainital,Mussorie, Ooty,Darjelling, Kodai,Ooty etc were inhabited by the British during the 19th century. So what was the need or role of these hill stations in the history of India? The author Dane Keith Kennedy quotes a couple of them.
Developing as sanitariums in British India:
The heat in the plains was not something easy on the British. They were used to the cold not this sweltry heat of the Indian subcontinent. Hill stations located at 6000-7000 feet height provided this respite. So these stations were touted as the perfect place for recuperation and relaxation. Thus locations across the three presidencies were scouted for – the Himalayas, Nilgiris were targeted. Some of the early hill stations that came in to existence were Simla, Mussorie, Ooty.. Darjeeling though came a bit later due to it being a sensitive location. Reports were published, committees were formed to proclaim that health improved for Europeans sent here, the death rate significantly decreased.Malaria, dysentery, typhoid -the hills offered greater immunity to these.
As a getaway in British India:
This euphoria soon died out. With population increasing on the hills, the diseases of the plains caught up on the hills too. So now the stress was more on invalids who suffered from pressures of the job and needed a getaway. These stations were a means of escape, a vacation that afforded time to play and rejuvenate the mind and body. More importantly, it created a distance between the British and Indian subjects.
Initial Development of these hill stations in British history of India:
Creating a home away from home:
The hills reminded the initial inhabitants, the English of their wooded valleys, streams,lakes and mountain peaks.
Thus the experiments that began in the hills were related to growing of fruits, flowers and vegetables similar to their landscape. Roses, buttercups, dahlias,lilies flourished in the cool climate and so did British vegetables like cabbages, cauliflower and fruits like apples, pears, strawberries. Thus Nurseries and Botanical gardens were the places for experimentation for these crops. It was also a means of providing residents with seeds. Cash crops such as Tea, Coffee, Cinchona- the bark of which was used against malaria were also grown.
So now you know. If you see a botanical garden in a hill station like in Ooty, Kodaikanal etc you know it was done to make the landscape more pleasing for its settlers.
Ahoy a lake too
Similarly lakes too were developed to mimic the English countryside. Some were natural while some were artificially built.
The central element of hilly landscapes was a church. Post office, banks,malls, bazaars, long winding lanes, developed alongside. Mall Road, Promenade Road and Cart lanes sound familiar?These were some of the lanes meant for pedestrians only, to window shop, to gossip, to saunter the hillside for its sheer pleasure. And if you observe, most of these hill stations today still have these features though some of the ones I visited like Darjeeling, were overcrowded and like any other location suffered traffic jams during the peak seasons.
Soon the cutting began
The coming up of railways, the need for timber, development of tea estates and the wide spread notion that ‘diseases lurked in bushes and trees’ and needed to be cleared hastened the process of deforestation. However better sense prevailed in the mid century.
Nature teaches its lessons harshly. Landslides and erosion increased. Thus regulations, forest protection acts started appearing on the scene. The focus in certain hill stations like Ooty were to plant trees that were quick growers. This was when introduction of Australian species Eucalyptus, Cedar, Fir, Chestnut etc came in to the scene. Even today you see most of these conifer varieties.
Thus the 200 pages book on ‘The magic mountains: hill stations and the British raj’ explains a great deal on these critical aspects. It talks about how women and children were the major occupants in stations, then highlights a bit on the hill people originally living there like the Todas, Lepchas etc. It talks about how the stations served as places of amusement,picnics and pleasure mimicking the rules and etiquette of social life followed by England. For instance if a newcomer checked in to a hill station he was supposed to drop his card in the ‘not-at-home’ boxes. He did not have the privilege of announcing himself. The residents reserved the right on whom to include in their next invitations etc.All in all, the book provides a good perspective and introduces a slice of history of British India. Do read the book for more insights or check out our British Trails in the city.