Hill stations — those summer retreats redolent of tea and biscuits, pink gins and the British empire — are in the news as this year’s monsoon sweeps across the Indian subcontinent.
First, there was Murree in Pakistan, which gave its name to the Murree Brewery in the 19th century and last month hosted peace talks between the Afghan government and its Islamist Taliban enemies. Presumably only the Chinese and US observers of the talks could enjoy a glass of Murree beer (still made in Rawalpindi) or the company’s fine malt whisky as they discussed the Afghan civil war.
Then it was the turn of Kodaikanal, a south Indian town that calls itself the Princess of Hill Stations and has become the subject of a popular online rap video — “Kodaikanal Won’t” — accusing Unilever of failing to clean up residual toxic mercury waste from an old thermometer factory.
Murree, developed in the 1850s as a sanatorium for British troops fighting even then on the Afghan frontier, and Kodaikanal, founded in 1845, were established in the hills to provide relief for colonialists from the summer heat and monsoonal fevers of the plains. There were many more such hill stations, many of them in the foothills of the Himalayas to the north, or in the western ghats to the south, and some of their names may be strangely familiar to elderly British ears: Ooty, Shillong (where people still wear tartan), Darjeeling, Dalhousie, Mussourie and of course Shimla, summer capital of the Raj. I recall in the 1990s being offered overcooked beef and Yorkshire pudding at the Candacraig Hotel in Maymyo in Burma, now Myanmar.
The recent return to the headlines of Murree and Kodaikanal raises the question of what happened to such stations after the British left in 1947. The short answer is that after a pause they thrived; indeed, some say they are now being ruined by overcrowding resulting from their success.
By the time of Indian independence, despite the efforts of the British to keep their resorts white, these summer outposts had attracted wealthy Indians keen to emulate the British ways of holidaying and educating their children at boarding schools. And, whereas the nostalgic, fever-stricken colonialists were in search of the comforts of home when they tried to recreate the houses and gardens of England, Wales and Scotland (and a bit of Switzerland), Indians delighted in the otherness of this Eurocentric world view.
“What is exotic for one is not exotic for the other,” concluded Isabelle Sacareau in a 2007 academic paper for the European Bulletin of Himalayan Research. “It exemplifies the amazing power of tourists to subvert places.”
Some hotels survive from that era, including the Windamere in Darjeeling, originally a boarding house for bachelor tea-planters, and the Rokeby Manor in Landour above Mussourie. Landour is named after a village in Wales and Rokeby after a castle that featured in a poem by Walter Scott; at one point the building came into the hands of Frederick “Pahari” Wilson, a deserter who became known as the Raja of Harsil after he established himself as a timber baron and de facto ruler at the headwaters of the Ganges.
Only a decade ago, prolific local author Ruskin Bond, who moved to the “rather raffish” Mussourie in the 1960s and lives in Landour, wrote: “Over the years, Mussourie has changed a little, but not too much.”
Today there is no denying that it has changed a lot. Mussourie has a Marriott hotel, has merged with Landour up the hill and is in danger of doing the same with the sprawling town of Dehradun below as multistorey blocks of holiday flats are constructed at ever higher altitudes.
Shyam Saran, better known as a former foreign secretary, is among Indians distressed at the despoliation of the Himalayas by tourists and pilgrims from the lowlands. He has called for restrictions on cars and new buildings, the banning of plastic bags that litter the streambeds and the promotion of “homestead tourism”, and environmental awareness. But he is fighting the unstoppable forces of demography. India’s population has increased fourfold since independence, and Pakistan’s more than fivefold. The surge of humanity is lapping at the foothills of the Himalayas, seeking not only a place to holiday but a place to live.