High water mark

A colonial hill station cleans up its act, the same old joys of serene nature retained
Residents shooting the breeze
Residents shooting the breeze

Visiting Nainital is a curious mixture of celebrating both the present and the past. Maybe it was because I was staying at the heritage Palace Belvedere. Originally built in 1897 as the summer retreat of the Rajas of Awagarh, the owners have gone to great lengths to preserve the feel of the place, with its high ceilings, wooden architecture and hunting trophies. The slightly puzzled look on the face of the leopard whose skin was hanging opposite the door to my room only added to the feeling of stepping back into the past. Sipping some hot coffee, I took in the spectacular view of the lake from my room, looking out at a small town that has so much happening behind its sleepy fa&ccedilade.

More than two kilometres in diameter, Nainital glittered vast and green in the morning. No boats were out yet and the surface of the water was broken only at a dozen or so points where bubbles were rising from an underwater source. The lake is pear-shaped, or eye-shaped, if we are to trace the roots of its name. According to Hindu mythology, Sati threw herself into a sacrificial fire when her father, Daksha, insulted her consort, Shiva. In anger and grief, Shiva began to dance the Rudra Tandava, which would have led to the destruction of the universe, had not Vishnu cut Sati&rsquos corpse into 64 pieces with his disc. Every place where the pieces of the body landed is considered a shakti peetha, or place of cosmic power. Sati&rsquos eyes, her naina, landed at the lake giving it its name.

Despite the holiness of the place, Nainital was only developed after an Englishman, P. Barron, a sugar baron based in Shahjahanapur, discovered the place in 1839 and built a house there in 1841. The beautiful lake, located a little over 6,000ft above sea level, proved deeply attractive to other Europeans, especially since the temperature remains below 30oC even during the height of summer. Soon, a number of colonial officials were building their summer residences in the town, accompanied by the odd Indian prince. To cater to the needs of their children, schools like the Diocesan Boys&rsquo School (which was soon renamed Sherwood College), St Joseph&rsquos College, St Mary&rsquos Convent High School and the All Saints Diocesan High School for Girls sprang up.

By this time the town had acquired its elitist edge, becoming a playground for colonial officials, native rulers and their children. The landslide of 1880, the greatest tragedy to hit the town, killing 151 people, added one final touch. It destroyed the ancient Naina Devi temple, as well as a number of other buildings on the northern shore of the lake. The temple was soon rebuilt, and the soil from the landslip was used to extend the area on the edge of the lake into the Flats &mdash the sports field. Today, the temple is joined by a gurudwara on one side of the Flats, while a large mosque flanks them on the other side. In the middle, though, only the god of athleticism is honoured, cricket dominating the field from October to April, giving way to hockey until the rains in June, when football takes over.

From my hotel room I could see the first cricketers starting to limber up on the Flats, and although the days of the Raj are long gone, you can sense that the town retains a certain air. Not long ago it would have been an endangered air, as the ecology of the lake system slowly buckled under the strain of a huge inflow of tourists (the town has a population of 40,000 but receives up to seven lakh tourists a year), unregulated construction and a lack of infrastructure. The 79 kilometres of open drains built after the 1880 landslide were being used as an extended lavatory by labourers, when they weren&rsquot using the lakeside itself. Eateries surrounding the lake, and the dung from the horses of the tour operators, added more pollution to the delicate ecosystem. Two years ago, the situation was so bad that fish could survive only in the top five metres of the water in the lake. Since Nainital lies in the centre of the larger lake region encompassing 220 sq km and including Bhimtal, Sattal, Khurpatal and Naukuchiatal, the destruction of the lake would have had a huge impact on the larger region.

A mix of civic engagement, political decisions and judicial activism has helped turn the tide. The bubbles rising from the lake are part of an aeration programme put in place by an American company in September 2007, helping oxygenate the water. The administration has built 24 public latrines, with three more on the way, for the labourers, while Safai Samitis have sensitised the population, discouraging defecation in the drains. The horse stand has been moved to Kaludungi on the other side of the hill surrounding the lake, so that they remain in easy reach of tourists, but the dung is deposited out of the catchment area. Trashcans are strategically located across the town, and there are signs citing court orders, with the threat of fines.

In 2001, the Uttarakhand High Court was moved into the splendid building that once housed the Legislative Assembly of the Upper Province during the time of the Raj. Built in 1900, the structure sits high on the hill above the northern side of the lake. From their vantage point, the judges have sent out a slew of orders tightening environmental regulation, including making Thandi Sadak, a clay footpath winding down the western length of the lake, into a pedestrians-only area, with even cycles forbidden. Dr Ajay Rawat, who moved the Supreme Court in 1993 and then in 2005 to act on the environmental degradation of the region, told me that he identified 26 species of birds that live in the Thandi Sadak area, including the white-breasted kingfisher, magpie robin, pied bushchat and two species of cormorants. Taking a walk along the path is to be surrounded by the delightful sound of uninterrupted birdsong, even if you do hear an occasional car honking on the other side of the lake.

The eastern side of the lake is probably its least attractive, with hotel after cheap hotel, and traffic, but it does have one great saving grace, and that is the truly excellent Nainital Zoo. Spread over 4.7 hectares, it is excellently designed, making innovative use of the landscape. The leopards have a healthy glow to their coats and look well fed, although they do have a tendency to fight once in a while. A little higher up you will find a Siberian tiger, majestic and massive, while next door to him a Himalayan black bear sleeps during the day, resting his head on its paws in an uncannily human gesture. Other than these, the zoo also houses deer, antelope, other small mammals and a range of pheasants &mdash celebrating the biodiversity of the region.

Of course, the grandest ecological showpiece in town is Naini&rsquos eponymous lake. At some point in the course of the obligatory boatride, your boatman will complain that they are no longer allowed, again by order of the High Court, to take boats out after dusk, and swimming is banned. But he will be more than delighted to tell you how clean the lake has become in just over a year and a half.

Other than environmental decisions, there is one other decision of the High Court &mdash the fixing of the roads of the area &mdash that assures the visitor a lovely trip. The joy of any hill town is to walk along its mountain paths. You can do most of Nainital in a day, and it is the best way to appreciate the disparate architecture of the area. There is the impressive church of St John in the Wilderness, above the High Court building on the north side of the lake. It was one of the first buildings built in 1844, and remains one of the most impressive, with its tower looming more than 50ft in height. Although most of its stained-glass windows are damaged in some way or the other, the building itself is still beautiful and in use if you wish to attend a gathering on Sundays. Some small work in restoration has taken place but more effort has been taken to preserve Gurney House on the western side of the lake this small cottage is the former house of the hunter, writer and conservationist Jim Corbett and is well preserved.The older buildings that are still in use are the schools located towards the south side of the lake, such as St Joseph&rsquos and Sherwood. Most of the schools have visitors&rsquo timings, and you can see where Bollywood films such as Koi Mil Gaya were shot, or peek into the classrooms where Sam Manekshaw, Amitabh Bachchan and Naseeruddin Shah once studied. Near the schools is the Raj Bhavan. Constructed in 1899, it is a 113-room miniature fortress built in the Gothic style, with a strong resemblance to Windsor Castle. Sprawling over 220 acres, it hosts its own 18-hole golf course with minimal fees, a combination I found hard to resist. The course is spread over 45 acres in rather thick forest. More than once I managed to send the ball somewhere it was not supposed to go. The caddy was kind, though, and at least the exercise must have done me good.

Back at the hotel I made a call to my mother. &ldquoOh, I went there with my grandfather,&rdquo she said. &ldquoHe was the deputy speaker of the Legislative Assembly and he took us with him when the Assembly moved to Nainital for its summer session in the &rsquo40s.&rdquo She paused and said, &ldquoBut I imagine it has changed completely since then.&rdquo I thought about it but could not find an appropriate answer. Yes, Nainital has changed, more than once, and over the last few years it has changed for the better. But the joys it retains, of the cool morning breeze, the blue sky, the peace, and the song of songbirds that drew its first residents are still there to be found, and are being valiantly defended.

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