Mussoorie: Camel’s Back, Kempty and a little secret
In a region where you wouldn’t find even a stray camel, naming a road after the ungulated dromedary should have been the work of some intrepid imagination. Or a distinct lack of it. During the British Raj both were in abundance. But whatever the Camel’s Back road lacks in nomenclature aptness, it makes up with sheer panorama. The four kilometres of clean air, good health or introspection winds serenely from Library Chowk to Kulri Bazaar in Mussoorie, the popular hill destination in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
As I step out of my hotel an early June morning, a soft cool breeze meanders from across the snow-capped Himalayas in the north-east through the underlying verdurous Doon Valley. A reluctant sun opens over the bluish-green range, changing it to a rustling grey-green and then to a rufous green. And the Camel’s Back is already bustling – with morning walkers including Mr Puri, a sprightly septuagenarian.
“I have been walking this stretch for over 20 years,” says the ex contractor. Understandably all the walkers I come across know Mr Puri. Respectful greetings are exchanged without missing a step. One good thing the authorities did was ban motor vehicles from plying the road during the day which, Mr Puri says, “makes me do the walk morning and evening.” It was a heartening piece of ruling; knowing that someone cared even if it was more about the people than the environment. On one side of the road hotels rise like an ungainly casbah with multi-hued louvered windows and unconvincing buttresses with aspirational friezes. On the other side a slow conquest of the plush valley was on with houses restively wedged on raking ridges. Though of a much more tasteful design with protruding pergolas and perfunctory chimneys, they all seemed to be wary of the place’s newfound status as a tourist destination, tucking themselves far away in their own make-believe world. En route I came across a cemetery outside which was plaqued a bizarre warning against removing flowers or bringing dogs. I could not help but wonder if there was any connection – anyway it didn’t matter as I never removed flowers nor travelled with dogs. Also the place was locked, stock and barrel – denying a chance to walk on a delightful walkway paved with quaint, damp stones under the umbrageous cover slowly filtering in the early morning light. There was an ashram where devotees gathered around basketball in the mornings and chanted prayers in the evenings. Body and soul perfect.
The Hawa Mahal is mostly a halting point where the morning walkers catch up over yoga and stretching exercises. If you can strain your ear over the talks of how ‘so-and-so’s son in the States bought a new limo’ or a debate on whether a better faith could have sorted out Osama, you will find tranquillity in Nature at her lolling best. The Himalayas play hide-and-seek with you through the mist. On a clear day, the majestic snow peaks glimmer gold like hope. The mountain sides are scoured by the warmly glowing sunlight rendering it every nuance of colour until the whole landscape reflects a smouldering coal as the day progresses. As the saying goes, ‘nothing is more permanent than the temporary’ and I decide to come back the next day again for the free magic.
After engrossed in this world of me and myself, if you are missing the crowd and the squeals, head out to the Kempty Falls. That is where I headed out to, not because I was missing anybody. Kempty Falls can be a bummer if you are travelling with old people as vehicles, unless passing traffic to Gangotri and Yamunotri, are not allowed within a kilometre of the drop off point to the Falls. A half hour drive from Mussoorie, Kempty Falls is by far the most visited attraction here. It is also quite controversial the way it has been developed. To get there, you walk down an ‘entire walkway-mall’ (as one ‘Save Kempty’ site called it) to the first tourist rip off – a cable ride that lasts seven minutes – for eighty rupees.
The only booming business here seems to be lockers for the clothes you are wearing and hiring out cheap, oversized track shorts – for those yearning to get into the water with a three hundred others. Oblivious to all these, the Kempty cascades from an impressive height of 4,500 feet before the rocks ease it into five smaller falls for the umpteen heads below. A few years ago Coke and Pepsi had come under Supreme Court ire for defiling rocks in the country with their bright coloured ads. This has taught them a lesson – to cover these beautiful boulders under ungainly asbestos awnings joined from nearby shops and paint their ads on them. De taali! As if all these weren’t enough, further down the Falls comes rip off # 2: the flowing water from the Kempty have been collected in a swimming pool (brazenly advertised as ‘the biggest lake in Kempty’) and bubble rides are given at the fleece-fare of one hundred rupees per head. No sooner did my nephew begin to get the feel of things – after all he was walking on water – he was pulled back for the next Christ-wannabe. What a far cry from the days when British officer John Mekinan popularised the place among his friends as the best site for ‘camp teas’!
For a respite from all these unscrupulous commerce, I decided not to take the cable car back, but chart my own trek through the hills that beckoned me that morning. Right next door to these scenes of roaring activities were swathes of bundu on one side and hanging escarpments on the other. I was lost in my own world when suddenly I was at the backyard of a mud rondavel where a woman was drawing water for the kitchen. Filling up my water bottle from the well, I sat on a bosky patch nearby where I talked to her and her husband, a farmer. Right above the hut were agricultural terraces and I climbed upwards through ravines and fractured rock, following the path of a long-dried stream. Here and there a few sheep grazed but generally it was inhospitable terrain; the terrace holding back whatever remained of the soil.
True to any destination favoured by the Raj, Mussoorie too has its promenade; here too it is called the Mall Road. An assorted array of vendors crowds the road. There is the immigrant youth selling roasted corns and the convivial old man whose robot tells you the future – through wires coming out of his pelvis! I ask him whether the foretold future pertained to a certain area. As with any other mountain station, the city authorities seem to be grappling with a losing battle of the Sisyphean task of keeping town clean.
Impervious folks flutter away empty covers of baked potato chips and youngsters have an impromptu football with emptied cola bottles. Curiously the stifling quiet is lifted only a little as dusk falls and the ornate iron lamps – remnants of the Raj – come to light. Thankfully there was more cheer and brightness to be found as I neared the Library Chowk. Like a proud patriarch totally displeased at the grandson’s grunge attire, stands the Mussoorie Library with the legend ‘Established in 1843’ on it. Expectedly, not one shop owner in the area knew when it opened. Even whether it did open at all.
What really brightened my trip to Mussoorie was an accidental discovery. The Kapurthala Estate, a little climb from the Library to the cantonment area through a mucky road, is, in one word, ethereal. It takes you back to a time where gleaming black mares with flying manes drew chariots with silver spokes, of lavish garden parties on ivory cutlery with gold embossing, of elegant flirting and charming chivalry. History of this magnificent building was found on a lustreless marble square. The foundation stone was laid by H.H. Tika Paramjit Singh of Kapurthala in 1896 and designed and constructed by two Englishmen, Elmore and Chisholm. Formally opened by H.H. Jagjit Singh of Kapurthala in 1899, this building is not inhabited. And not open to the public as I discovered soon enough.
As I was being chased out by a visibly miffed caretaker, still holding the sweater she was knitting and the needle on the other hand, in case, I saw a pretty Victorian statue with a broken hand surveying the goings on with unconcealed disdain. Trying to lighten up things a bit, I asked,
“Is this the statue of Venus de Milo?”
“This belongs to the Maharaja of Kapurthala. Get out!”
Wanderink recommends: The Kempty Falls is in urgent need of a masterplan – where environment, sustainability and aesthetics are all accorded due importance for any further development. As with every tourist spot, the biggest trash producers here too are the cola companies with their myriad offerings. They should be mandatorily made to recycle this waste as well as chip with the local authorities in keeping the areas clean. The Library is a landmark where history sleeps, it needs to be restored. Mussoorie also has many period buildings which are out of bounds for the public – these should be renovated and opened. Yes, I understand the Kapurthala Estate may not be one of them.