Museums in India can be excellent or abysmal, but one thing few can manage is to be welcoming. The average Indian museum (and, I’ve seen my fair share of them) generally has a sleepy attendant-cum-security guard assigned to every couple of galleries: a person whose only duty seems to be to glower at visitors and tell them not to take photographs.
The Darwan Singh Museum in Lansdowne is refreshingly different. The security guard outside (and he’s really a guard, a sentry of the Garhwal Rifles on duty) is smart, brisk and unfailingly courteous.
“The museum will close in 20 minutes’ time, sir,” he tells my husband (the “sir” is pure politeness: We are, after all, mere civilians). “But you can go in if you like.”
A view from Tiffin Top, or Tip-in-Top (Photo by: Manoj Madhavan/Mint)
We do go in, and when a staff member arrives 20 minutes later to close the museum, he doesn’t start badgering us to get out. He stands by patiently while we quickly finish seeing one last gallery. He even smiles at us as we go out. And, when we ask where we could get some water to drink, he doesn’t send us off to a filthy little tap somewhere at the back of the building. Instead, a bhulla (which is what the Garhwal Rifles calls its jawans) is summoned, and he comes with a tray laden with spotless glass tumblers. We may not have been able to see all there is of the Darwan Singh Museum, but we’re definitely feeling pleasantly pampered at the end of it all.
In fact, we’re feeling pretty pampered at the end of our all-too-brief stay in Lansdowne (See: Location). It’s nice not to be jostled about by thousands of other camera-toting tourists. It’s oddly exhilarating to have a spectacular, 360-degree view of the snow-capped Garhwal Himalayas all to yourself. It’s wonderful to go on a long walk through pine woods to see a rock formation called Bhim Pakora—and to follow it up with masala chai and piping hot pakoras, of the veggie variety, in Gandhi Park market.
Lansdowne is perfect for a break. There’s a delightfully laid-back air about the place, despite the all-pervasive, regimented presence of the Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre (or GRRC, as it’s called). True, each tree across town—rhododendron, thuja, oak, pine, whatever—is meticulously labelled, its number and species neatly painted on a little metal plate screwed on to the tree trunk. True, the majority of the population wears olive green and sports a crew cut. True, too, that all the major historical attractions in Lansdowne—from the quaint grey stone church of St Mary’s, sitting pretty amid oak woods, to the nearby St John’s—were built under the aegis of the Garhwal Rifles back in the days of the British Raj. Even the more “natural” sights of Lansdowne, such as Mainwaring Gardens and the artificial lake (more a pond, really), known as Bhulla Tal, owe their existence to GRRC.
St Mary’s church (Photo by: Manoj Madhavan/Mint)
Lansdowne, after all, owes its status to the Garhwal Rifles.
Till almost the last decade of the 19th century, this sleepy little hill town in Pauri Garhwal, at a height of 1,700m, was known as Kallundanda. Then in Almora, on 5 May 1887, Edward Phillipson Mainwaring founded the 39th Regiment of the Bengal Infantry. In November the same year, the regiment shifted its base to Kallundanda—and later changed its name to Garhwal Rifles. Kallundanda, too, got a new name. It was rechristened Lansdowne, after Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, fifth Marquess of Lansdowne and viceroy of India between 1888 and 1894.
Lansdowne never actually made it to the same league as the bigger, brighter hill stations frequented by the British, such as Shimla or Mussoorie. Dominated by the resident regiment, this remained a quieter country cousin, lovely and, thankfully, unspoilt.
Even today, despite its obviously military air, Lansdowne manages to exude an old-world charm that’s utterly enchanting. For instance, though St Mary’s Church has been deconsecrated and taken over by GRRC, it still has a clean, well-ironed altar cloth, gleaming brass fittings and a vase of fresh flowers at the altar. Around the church, amid stories of battlefronts on which the Garhwal Rifles have distinguished themselves, are photos of a 1938 wedding. A demure, pretty bride walks down the path outside the church, her hand on the arm of her boyish groom (Captain Roger Malcolm Durant Willcocks, reads the caption). Around them stand smiling wedding guests, and tiny flower girls in huge white hats that look like cartwheels. It’s a happy little scene.
Seventy years later, we wander through the oak wood above St Mary’s, gathering acorns and flinging them off the cliff to see how far we can throw. We trudge on up to Tiffin Top (now universally corrupted to “Tip-in-Top”), Lansdowne’s main lookout point, sticking out like a finger over a hillside thick with stands of oak, rhododendron and pine. Far out over the valley below, Himalayan griffon vultures ride the thermals, gliding in vast circles against a backdrop of misty white peaks.
The quiet is broken suddenly by the jungle crows. Perched high on the branches of pine trees, they call raucously to each other, sounding like a weird cross between a hoarse frog and a pair of rolling dice. More flamboyant, and just slightly less noisy, are the yellow-billed blue magpies, all electric blue, white and grey, with their long tails trailing as they fly from tree to tree, their orange beaks gleaming bright. Glossy blue-black whistling thrushes hop about near a mountain stream whispering down a hill, while a pair of white-cheeked bulbuls squabbles noisily in a thicket of orange-flowered lantana. A scarlet minivet, blood red and jewel-bright, sits in a pine sapling, watching a herd of somnolent cows go past, the brass bells around their necks jingling. Somewhere above them, a young cowherd sings an old Hindi song, his voice blending perfectly with the rustle of the wind in the pines and the trill of an unseen songbird.
Life doesn’t get more soothing than in Lansdowne.
How to go:
Lansdowne is New Delhi’s nearest hill station, 233km away. Although you can get there by train (Kotdwar, 40km away, is the nearest railhead), going by road is the best option. Both state-run buses as well as the more comfortable taxis ply the distance between Kotdwar and Lansdowne. The drive from Delhi takes approximately 8 hours, through the sugar belt—Meerut, Bijnor, Najibabad—then along the forested fringes of the Corbett National Park, and finally, beyond Kotdwar, uphill past pine woods. The Garhwal Rifles cantonment area begins a few kilometres before the town itself; a nominal entry fee has to be paid at the toll booth off the road.
Where to stay:
Since Lansdowne is not particularly touristy, accommodation is limited, at least as far as variety is concerned. The Fairydale Resort (‘www.fairydalelansdowneindia.com’; Tel: 9412081837) is a somewhat eccentric, part-colonial, part-kitschy hotel on a hillside, offering a plethora of birdlife in the surrounding pines, breathtaking views and the opportunity to watch the waiters turn enthusiastic cricketers during lazy afternoons. Further downhill from Fairydale is the Retreat Anand—a jungle resort (‘www.dancewithshadows.com/lansdowne’; Tel: 01386-287886), deeper in the woods. Closer to town are the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Tourist Resthouse (‘www.gmvnl.com’; bookings can be made online) and Mayur Hotel (Tel: 01386-262311). The latter is in the heart of town, at Gandhi Park.
Where to eat:
There’s little in the way of fancy cuisine in Lansdowne. The usual north Indian-Punjabi-Mughlai fare is available at the GMVN Tourist Resthouse and Mayur Hotel. The latter is also known for its huge and delicious stuffed parathas. Mostly, you will be best off eating wherever you’re staying; Fairydale, for instance, serves pretty much the same sort of food that Mayur does. One local delicacy you must try is Garhwali chocolate: This looks like chocolate, but is actually sweetened milk cooked till it’s brown, chewy and solid.
What to do:
The Darwan Singh Museum is definitely the jewel in GRRC’s crown and merits a visit; the neighbouring War Memorial, however, is out of bounds for civilians. In spring and summer, roam through the nearby Mainwaring Gardens. On a clear day, walk uphill from Mainwaring Gardens to Snow View Point and Tiffin Top for a stunning view of the Garhwal Himalayas. Also check out the two colonial churches in town, St Mary’s and St John’s. Trek down to Bhim Pakora, go birdwatching, or take a boat ride on Bhulla Tal to get the kinks out of your system.