Have a pheasant Monday

Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos) spotted undisturbed in Jharipani near Mussoorie in Uttarakhand.

Some Mondays one doesn’t feel like talking. These pheasants are shy, and any talking is likely to disturb them.

Mossy Falls, Mussoorie

I was absolutely charmed by the name of this waterfall and marked it down on the map as a detour to take on our way from the airport to our hotel in Mussoorie. The route was not terribly well marked, and we could find our way only by following directions of a school’s coach who was leading a platoon of teenagers on a strenuous jog through mountain roads. He stopped his motorbike, let the sweaty youngsters pass, and then gave us detailed directions. The road was one which could only have been imagined by a gym instructor. At some turns the car was close to vertical, and I was held to the seat only by the seat belt.

The road abruptly ended at a point where a stream made a right turn, and there, just around the corner, was the waterfall. In better light the place must be gorgeous. Even in the flat light of a heavily overcast day, the greenery surrounding the place was stunning. I could almost forgive the large amount of raw concrete which was being poured into directing the stream around the bend. We walked down the concrete steps to the narrow steel bridge over the water. We’d had a long day’s travel, from the early morning flight, a change at Delhi, and the drive up from Dehra Dun. It was nice to stand in this utterly still place, where the only sound was of water and look down into the shallow but swiftly flowing stream.

On the far side of the construction was a grotto, where a Shivaling was placed strategically under a fall of water. One interesting thing about this place is that it isn’t a single waterfall. The main stream comes down the water fall which you can see in the featured photo, but there are smaller waterfalls around which all add to the stream flowing down from here.The Garhwal Shivaliks are full of these little streams which eventually wend their way into the main rivers which wash through the north of India. Of course, the place was mossy, but I’d just finished reading a story about the naming of this place by Ruskin Bond. That story is so funny that it definitely deserves to be true. So I leave you with it.

The naming of places is never as simple as it may seem. Mossy Falls is a small waterfall on the outskirts of the town. You might think it was named after the moss that is so plentiful around it, but you’d be wrong. It was really named after Mr. Moss, the owner of the Alliance Bank who was affectionately known as Mossy to his friends When, at the turn of the century, Alliance Bank collapses, Mr. Moss also fell from grace. ‘Poor old Mossy’, said his friends, and promptly named the falls after him.
Landour Days by Ruskin Bond

Landour Clock Tower

The area around the clock tower of Landour is a network of narrow roads which twist and turn on the steep hillside. On the side of the road leading to the clock tower was a little gazebo, one of the many we’d seen around Mussourie. We walked in to take a look at the breathtaking view of the hills. You could look out and forget the crowded road behind you. The ornate ironwork looks like it was installed about a hundred years ago, perhaps a little more. The British Empire would have been at its height then, unconscious of the fact that within a few short decades it would have vanished.

The clock tower, just outside, marked the century old separation between the civil area and the army cantonment. The tower had been built in the late 1930s by a local resident called Ugrasain Verma. Photos from that time show a white masonry tower with a square cross section and a flat roof. The clock stopped working before Mr. Verma’s death in 1992. Soon after that the tower was deemed to be a hazard and demolished. The tower that you see in the photo was constructed less than two years ago.
above

We walked past it to the bazaar. It looked very pleasant. Small kiosks on one side of the road had opened their doors for the day. Customers and shopkeepers knew each other well. The trio whom you see in this photo were chatting away as the shoemaker repaired one’s shoe. It was sunny but cold; there would be a hailstorm later in the day. We walked along the narrow road, taking care to stay out of the way of passing motorbikes and cars.

The traffic is fairly considerate here, but scrapes and bumps are almost inevitable. As you can see from the state of the parked car in this photo, most cars have a few dents. Public art is very common on the tall walls which are natural to these slopes. Was this picture of a harvest festival, or was it part of wedding? I should have asked, but other things occupied me, and now I have only my guesses.

On the other side of the road, just beyond the line of kiosks were carts of fresh vegetables. Everything looked fresh but there was nothing that I could not recognize. There were no local fruits or leaves which you could not find anywhere else. Garhwal is strongly plugged into the markets, unlike the easter Himalayas where you still find interestingly new local food. Nitin had found safe parking ahead, and we got into the car to go on to our next stop.

Hot Chocolate

When we started from home before sunrise it was not exactly cold in Mumbai. Now, at the end of the day, in the Library Bazaar of Mussoorie the little chill in the air felt nice. The Bazaar was named after the library which dominates one end of the square in which the Mall Road ends. We nursed our mugs of hot chocolate as we sat on some chairs in the arcade on the ground floor of the charming building whose upper floor is still the library. In the featured photo you can see the lovely iron pillars which hold up the second floor of this late 19th century structure.

The cafe had a large menu which we looked at with great interest before we disappointed the waiter with our order of two hot chocolate. He looked so disappointed that The Family qualified the order with “Special.” We were not up to burgers or Maggi, but the Family noticed that the Chemist’s shop next door also doubled as a bakery. So now, we sat with our drink and munched on the almond biscuits which The Family had found there. We had plans for the evening, a stroll up the storied Mall Road, and then perhaps a drink or two at the Writer’s Bar, of which we’d read so much, before heading back to our hotel for a quiet dinner. The day had been long, and the next day would not be any shorter.

But for now we were content to soak in the atmosphere of a little hill town, out of season, as the light slowly faded from the sky and the bazaar turned into a pool of light in the dark hills around it. The town of Mussoorie originates with a hunting lodge built in 1823 CE by Frederick Young, not too far from where we sat. My best guess is that this beautiful iron and wood structure where we sat was built in the middle of the second half of that century. The library was started in 1843, and it is not unreasonable to guess that it found a house here twenty to thirty years later. Soon it would be time to move on to the bar in the Savoy Hotel, where a sensational murder in 1911 became the seed from which Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, germinated. Mussoorie is so full of the ghosts of the past!

The Ghosts of Mussoorie

Whose ghost was it that Ram Singh (the Savoy bartender) saw last night? A figure in a long black cloak, who stood for a few moments in the hotel’s dimly lit vestibule, and then moved into the shadows of the old lounge.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Mussoorie is a haunted town, as you would know if you ever read books by its most famous living resident- Ruskin Bond. I’d decided to make his stories my guide during our brief stop over in his town. Accordingly, we walked down Mall Road in the evening, to stop and admire the view of Dehradun spread out below us. These towns are relics of the British Empire, whose administrators fled to the hills as soon as winter Marched out. The phrase “Hill Station” for these once-charming little towns dotted across the lower heights of India are clearly a colonial joke (“Which station are you at, old chap?”, “A hill station you know. Taking a bit of rest.”).

What did the English like about these places? Apart from the temperature, it must have been the upredictability of the weather. The day had been nice as we drove up from the valley, but now clouds were gathering. There was to be a brief hailstorm the next evening. But right now the weather was pleasant. We decided to walk on to the Savoy and its storied Writer’s Bar, where the ghosts of Mussoorie gather for their evening’s tipple.

A lot of people who enter the Writer’s Bar look pretty far gone, and sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing the living from the dead. But the real ghosts are those who manage to slip away without paying for their drinks.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Charles Dickens wrote an account of Mussoorie’s social whirl in a piece called The Himalaya Club which appeared in print in 1857. I counted that would have been three days short of 162 years ago when we walked into the bar. It was off season. A young couple sat in one corner gazing at each other, far away from a group of men talking on their phones more often than to each other. As a result, the bartender and a couple of other servers hovered around us and plied us with conversation and drinks. (Their special cocktails are a treat, and should not be missed if you are in town.) “Has anyone seen McClintock’s ghost recently?” I asked. I was told that the rooms we sat in once had a piano which was haunted by the said ghost. “But it has been sold off,” the Maitre told me. “But you can still hear the piano sometimes”, one of his platoon said in counterpoint.

After a perfect evening of interesting drinks and food, we were taken on a tour of the Savoy. One major stop was the grand ballroom where, in 1952, the film star Nutan was crowned Miss India. There was some pride in the Maitre’s voice as he said this was the first time a Miss India had been selected. This is almost true, says Wikipedia; you have to discount only the pageant in 1947 held in Calcutta, but that’s easy, because that was before independence. After a walk through the rambling old building, extensively added to in recent years, the Maitre got a hotel car to drop us off at the Library Bazaar.

By now the bazaar had shut down. It had got a little chilly, and it was dinner time. Reason enough for the few off-season tourists to have disappeared. The square was lit up by the headlights of passing cars. I liked that atmosphere; it looked like the ghosts of the past could stroll by us in that bad light. Mussoorie lives with the ghosts of better days, even as, like all the old hill stations, its once charming center slowly sinks into the swamp of cheap hotels.

The most haunted mine in India?

While trying to make a list of interesting places to see in Mussoorie I came across a story of the Lambi Dehar mines outside the town. According to various travel sites (who copy from each other) this is the most haunted place in India: everyone who goes there dies a horrible death, the mysterious screams of half a lakh dead miners ring through this valley, the blood-thirsty laughter of a witch can be heard at nights, there are no birds or beasts around the mines. “Exactly the kind of place I want to see,” I told The Family. It was marked on the map I usually use, so finding the way would not be a problem.

The day we set aside for this started nice, but there was a prediction of a thunderstorm with hail later in the day. By the time we passed Library Bazaar the sky was grey, and wan light was exactly the kind which is best for viewing ghosts. The road was very good, but completely deserted. Our first view of the remains of the mines was perfect (see the featured photo). The road passes a little above the buildings. We stopped the car there and walked down the slope to the buildings. Nitin was happy to remain with his car. The surrounding forest of Banj Oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora) was slowly changing colour, but there was a spectacular orange tree, which I didn’t recognize, in the little clearing we walked down to.

While I was channeling the Chipko movement, The Family had located the spirit which haunts the place. The soft-spoken young man was a fount of information. “Yes, people do say this is haunted,” he admitted. When The Family asked whether he didn’t feel afraid, he smiled bashfully. “Lots of people come here,” he said when we asked about tourists.

That’s why he was there, of course. He runs the little shop in an auto which you see above. I could see that it would be possible for the auto to drive up to the road where Nitin was parked. He smiled again when I asked him if this was the best place for customers. I thought that the side of the road above this place would be a better location, but apparently he preferred to be here in this quiet place. I could see why. I was beginning to relax into the slow rhythm of the place, the bad light, the little chirps of birds.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The abandoned offices of the mining company had become a canvas for artists, and, of course, lovers. I liked that drawing of a smoker. The idea of alienation seemed odd in these hills, but the exhortation not to become a robot meant that young people here do feel it. Perhaps it is intrinsic in the society we live in. Looking at the ruins, I realized that words and stories come much more easily to us than images. A few paintings, but so much scribbling!

Behind the buildings, in a secluded area these four young people had spread out a picnic. They did not mind me taking a photo. I asked, “You don’t happen to be ghosts, do you?” Laughter ensued, not at all blood-curdling. “No more than you are,” one of them said. I wondered about the internet-wide story of 50,000 miners dead in these mines. If that had ever happened it would have been an enormous disaster. No mining disaster in this area is recorded. Moreover a mining company which employed 50,000 miners in one site would have to leave a huge footprint in media. So what was the real story? The internet has replicated the false story so many times that reality cannot be found by searching for “Lambi Dehar”. A few drops of rain fell as we made our way back to the car.

I was pointed to the real story by this blog. As I’d suspected, the Lambidhar mines, to give it its earlier name, was one of the many limestone quarries in this area which was forced to close by a decision of the Indian Supreme Court in 1996. There is no record of a disaster. After that this site was taken up as a research station in the restoration of the normal ecology of this area. A seven year long project found that eco-restoration improves soil characteristics and allows the oak forest to get a foothold in the area (for example, see this paper). However, when we looked at the quarry site from the road (photo above), it was clear that more than twenty years after closure, the scars of quarrying are still clearly visible. Sadly, reforestation will not be easy. There may be no ghosts here, but Lambidhar tells us that the ghosts of our profligacy will haunt our children for long.

Chat on Mall Road

‘Stand still for ten minutes, and they’ll build a hotel on top of you,’ said one old-timer to me today, gesturing towards the concrete jungle that had sprung up along Mussoorie’s Mall, the traditional promenade’
– Ruskin Bond in Landour Days (2002)

The traditional promenade! How could we not walk it on our first evening in Mussoorie? The next day was full of a hundred things that we wanted to do. There was no rain predicted for the next three hours, so we started our late evening walk from Library Square. The steep drop on one side gave us a nice view of Dehradun at night: a twinkling galaxy below our feet.

The narrow Mall Road is crowded and full of cheap hotels, some truly awesome tourist junk, and lots of food carts. A lady sat waiting for customers at a cart with a poster which read “Mussoorie Chat Corner”. She was out of luck today. Her bun tikki, big drum of chutney, samosas, were not attracting many passersby. Her face in the photo tells of dashed hopes when The Family and I stopped only to take a photo. A neighbouring cart did much better business with roasted bhutta and fresh tikki chole.

Tibetan food spread right across the Himalayas years back, so it is impossible to walk along a place like this without encountering stalls full of steamers. This one promised veggie momos. The father and son manning the makeshift stall were dressed in dark blue, and would have made a lovely photo. As soon as I raised my phone, they skedaddled out of the frame. They didn’t want their photo taken. Superstition or legal issues? I apologized and the father accepted the apology with grace. The stall still looks good I think. I love how eclectic Indian street food is: potatoes, chili, and corn from the new world, samosas from Turkey, momos from Tibet, buns from Britain, all with local spices.

So bad it’s fun (XXXVII: Mussoorie Lake)

Our efforts to find the most artificial and unattractive, the most kitschy places, in India continues. I search high and low (mainly low) to bring you a list of places you might want to avoid. Unless, of course, you love tackiness and kitsch. Wouldn’t you love to spend Valentine’s Day taking a selfie with a ferocious dinosaur and your Valentine? If you do, then this series is for you.

Mussoorie Lake (number 33 out of 33 attractions on Tripadvisor) was on our must-miss list until we had an hour with nothing to do. Nitin stopped the car at the lake and said, in his garrulous way, “Lake.” The Family and I got out into a maze of little shops selling cheap things that nobody ever buys and found a ticket office with friendly signs saying things like “Entry 12 Rupees (including GST)” or “Persons found without ticket will be charged 10 times the entry price.” We bought a ticket and climbed down many stairs to find a glorified bathtub.

The periphery was full of exciting shops full of things nobody ever buys. There was a haunted house with a short loop of ghostly screams blaring from it. Next to it a food shop served “authentic South Indian dosa”. After that was a shop which rented out “traditional Garhwal wedding dresses” for you to take selfies in. Or you could go boating in the bathtub lake.

The Family and I walked around the shallow artificial pond slowly, taking notes. After three minutes we reached the high point: something under construction which said “Selfie Point”. Apart from the ferocious dinosaur in the featured photo it featured a tree full of multi-coloured flowers. “Plastic!”, The Family described in the tone of voice that Archimedes must have used when he jumped out of the lake bathtub shouting “Eureka.”

On the way back up the stairs, in one half-hidden corner I found a stand of Calla lilies. I don’t see them very often; Mumbai’s climate is not good for growing them. So every time I see these flowers I stop by and take photos. I like the delicate tones of the spathe, the modified leaf which surrounds the central yellow stem with the inflorescences. Twelve rupees is not much of a price to pay for such a wonderful discovery. Please remember Mussorie Lake the next time you feel you’ve been ripped off. It’s bound to make you feel better.