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Mussoorie Past Lives

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It has all the ingredients of a pot boiler - unrequited love, cuckolded husbands, cheating wives, clandestine love trysts and even murder. And the backdrop of the blockbuster is Mussoorie, set in the lavender tumble of the Shivaliks.

Today the sylvan Himalayan hill resort gives little hint of its purple past when, in the days of the Raj, it was a place for rest and recreation, for dalliance and illicit love. Colonialists, their wives and girlfriends thronged here, drawn by the place’s permissive romantic air and licentious reputation that sparked affairs of the heart. One hotel even employed a half blind waiter who would ring a bell at 3 am to break up furtive romps (it was appropriately enough called the Separation Bell) so that guests would be primly sleeping in their own rooms at sunrise! During the day young bucks of the empire would hang around the Mall to gape at peaches and cream complexioned English lasses and some furious flirting would follow.

And it wasn’t just the Brits but the brown sahibs and Indian princes too who liked to frolic in leafy glades and inadvertently enhanced its aura of being a wild free-spirited sort of place. Since Mussoorie was not a capital, Indian princes did not have to indulge in “poodle faking” behaviour. There were no governors or burra sahibs to curry favour with and fawn over. So Mussoorie became the ultimate vacation hangout for the royals where they let down their hair, built splendid palaces and indulged their extravagant whims.

The Maharajah of Kapurtala, for instance, built an extravaganza in the French chateau style with pointed turrets and sweeping balconies. To upstage him, the Maharaja of Rampur built his palace at a higher elevation! Both are still around – lonely and abandoned but watch over the town as if nothing had transpired in the interim!

There were sinister happenings too. A doctor administered slow poison to a rich patient who also happened to be his lover. The patient succumbed when the doctor was conveniently away and the murder was never conclusively solved. The British press carried the scoop and noted author Rudyard Kipling wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle to write a story centred around this mysterious death. Conan Doyle mentioned it to Agatha Christie and the thriller The Mysterious Affair at Styles was the result.

Today Mussoorie is a lively colonial cameo, largely a honeymoon destination and there are no tell-tale whiffs of scandal. Bejewelled brides in rustling silks and suited grooms strut up and down the mall, gaze at the muscled Shivaliks and the snow kissed Himalayas beyond. Some bounce on horses on Camel’s Back Road or in cycle rickshaws; cavort at once beautiful Kempty Falls (now ringed by dhabas) or peddle around Lake Mist, a picnic spot. Come evening and tourist ride up a ropeway to Gun Hill where a gun used to be fired at noon. After the departure of the British, the gun was silenced and melted to make taps.

And beautiful Christ Church is riveting, with its restored stained glass windows, its polished wooden pews, marble pulpit and sad memorial plaques such as “God’s finger touched him and he departed.”

There’s lots to do in Mussoorie for it’s a walker’s place where one can stumble on urbanized areas and even the untrammelled. One can trek to the various water falls like Mossey Fall, Bhatta Fall and Jharipani Fall; or head for the Sir George Everest House where the first surveyor general of India after whom the highest peak in the world has been named lived; or check out Clouds End, now a hotel, which was built in 1838, and was one of the first four bungalows in Mussoorie. And before departure, pay homage at Jwalaji Temple on Benog Hill which commands a panoramic view of the Himalayas.

Or sit in a terrace bar in the evening, and watch the play of light on the mountains, inhaling the crisp Himalayan air and absorbing the meditative calm of Mussoorie nights.

Fact File
The closest airport is at Delhi and the nearest railhead at Dehradun, 35 km away. For transport to Mussoorie, buses and taxies are available outside the railway station.

There are a number of hotels in this hilltop haven from stylish ones to the downright garish.

Mussoorie is an important stop on the way Yamnuroti, one of the important pilgrim stops on the holy Char Dham circuit.