Wednesday, Jun 29, 2022
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Nainital's Old World Charm

A writer finds peace in the bylanes of Nainital, as she heads out to explore the city beyond the lakes

Nainital's Old World Charm
The towering Raj Bhavan looks splendid on a winter morning

I woke up to the slow chugs of the train as it entered, almost reluctantly, into Haldwani. I had slept for a couple of hours, a fete that sounded impossible to my pre-pandemic self. With the sharp sunlight falling on my face, I sit upright, waiting for Kathgodam, so I could make my way to Nainital and dust the 10 hours of travel off of me. 

Nainital is remarkably famous for its lakes and like a diligent traveller, I should have set out to explore them the next day. But in my head (which is far too complicated for my own good), I know that I want to see the parts that lie beyond Nainital’s glassy waters. Shashank, the activities manager at the hotel, volunteers to be my companion on this journey. At the crack of dawn, we push off from the hotel on foot, to walk the cobbled trails that abound in plenty around the verdure.

Our view on a morning trek in the city
Our view on a morning trek in the city

On route, Shashank, whose face belies his real age, for he is far younger in years than the expanse of his knowledge can expect me to guess, tells me a little about the city and himself. He is an experienced mountaineer and did a two-year training in search and rescue operations in Uttarkashi. As we trot along the path that leads to the Governor’s house, (I’m struggling to keep pace), he reminisces about the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, where he volunteered in the rescue mission. “I helped retrieve thousands of bodies and stayed there for over two months. For the longest time, my dreams were blank. It took me over six months to get the smell of that place out of my memory. When I first jumped from the plane in Kedarnath and landed at the site, my leg was knee deep in someone’s stomach. The image is hard to forget,” he says as a shiver runs down my spine. Life on hills is hard, support is hard to come by. This is probably why the most banal houses perched precariously on the edge of a cliff make me sweat buckets, even as I marvel at the architecture that is the fame of the city.

Nainital's Raj Bhavan
Nainital's Raj Bhavan Rohan Bhatt / Shutterstock.com

 Past the road that leads to the famed All Saints’ and Sherwood convent schools, the Governor’s house is an imposing British-era structure and is set across 200 acres of lush green deodar and oak trees, with a mini golf course dotting the land. The Raj Bhavan, modelled on Buckingham Palace in England, was built in 1897-99, to serve as the summer residence of the governor of the North West Province of the British Raj. Manoj Pandey, our affable guide, points at the structure at the entry point and quips, “This is where Koi Mil Gaya was shot,” much to the delight of the kids in our motley group. 

The entry to the Raj Bhavan is restricted to a few areas, where one can view the structure preserved in all its glory - wooden staircase decked up with richly upholstered furniture, chandeliers and old artillery hang on walls, telling a tale of time. As I peer from the side into what looks like a dancing room, and a vision from Bridgerton plays in my head. A lone traveller amidst a sea of visitors, I step out of the hall to find my quiet only to find myself in the midst of clouds as they descend on the ground, with a solitary chinar tree swaying softly behind a guard. The building catches the sun at the perfect angle, and I am transported, if only for a brief moment, to a bygone era of royalty.   

*
When you think of Nainital, images of the people paddling their lazy evenings away, typically spring to mind. A circuitous route on the Nainital-Mukteshwar road, however, led me farther from the lakes and closer to the sky, straight to the temple of Golu, the presiding deity of the area who is said to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva. 

A short drive from the main city is the Golu Devta Temple
A short drive from the main city is the Golu Devta Temple

Situated in Bhowali’s Ghorakhal, about 30 minutes drive from Nainital, the Ghanti wala mandir sits atop a hill, with large stairs that take you straight to the main sanctorium. The small shops outside sell bells of all sizes - from the ones that’ll fit your palms to some that were almost half my height! I walk inside, with two bells in my hand, for I was told Golu devta grants all wishes (and I had a whole list, mind you). 

Everything evaporates from my head the minute I lay my eyes on the millions of bells, both large and small, that fluttered in the wind, hanging from every vermillion-stained tree and pillar in sight. It is the same belief that brings people here, pen and paper in hand, writing letters enumerating their sorrows, many a times even their court documents, hoping the God of Justice would grant them this favour. Many whose wishes have been granted often come back, bringing more bells as offerings. Amid the serenity and the quiet, I tie my bells, and sit on the edge of the stairs, with two dogs who, the priest tells me, guard the deities hard at work. 

The deity's guard at rest after a long day at work
The deity's guard at rest after a long day at work

*
As a child, I had travelled to Corbett National Park, and found my second love in the thick trees and elusive tigers of the forest. A 10-minute walk from my resort, down the same memory lane, takes me to Gurney House, the summer abode to famous British hunter, tracker and naturalist, Jim Corbett. People in Kumaon speak of him with a reverence I’ve come to adore, and his former residence is one of the few buildings in the city that remains largely unchanged. I quietly enter the property, half-expecting a dog to come pouncing at the uninvited guest. All I find is Ganesh, the caretaker of the property that is currently closed to visitors. “Abhi band hai guests ke liye, par aap dekh lo thoda sa,” he smiles and gestures to me to follow him. 

It is musty and woody inside the hall - the same nostalgia that old books have permeates the room. I glance at the books; the interiors are stacked with Corbett’s personal effects and the many, many horns that hang as trophies on the almost-dilapidated walls. I roam around for a few minutes, engaged in a spirited conversation with Ganesh, who is the second generation caretaker of the cottage that now belongs to the Dalmia family. I walk out, entrenched deeper in history, with a feeling that I have come closer to the man whose books I’ve read and admired all my life. 

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