Nainital - Quite an Eyeful; Published in the Deccan Herald on 17th September 2017

It hit me as we drove to the hill station, and even harder when we saw the lake, that we should have set aside two more days for Nainital. Tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas at a height of 6,358 feet, Nainital is defined by the Naini Lake (tal). Eons back, it was called Tririshi Sarovar, the lake of three sages.

Legend has it that three sages, Athri, Pulastya and Pulaha, who were meditating in these forests, could not find water to quench their thirst. So they dug a hole and diverted the holy waters of Lake Manasarovar into it, and thus the lake came into being. Legend also has it that the eyes of Sati fell into the lake as Shiva was roaming the universe with her corpse, thus giving it the name Naini (eye) Lake, also making it a shakti peetha.

In 1817, General Traill, commissioner of Kumaon and Garhwal, stumbled upon Naini Lake and the Naina Devi Temple. The villagers, who revered the two, requested him to keep this holy region a secret so that its sanctity is not sullied by an influx of visitors. The good General agreed and Nainital lay hidden till 1839, when P Barron, a sugar trader from Shahjahanpur, decided to look for it. The locals stoutly denied any knowledge of any such place, but Barron was determined and unscrupulous. He kept a huge stone on the head of one of the servants and asked him to walk till they found the lake.

Naturally, the servant broke down and revealed the location. Barron was stunned at the beauty of the lake and its environs. He gave up his sugar farming, relocated to Nainital, built himself a beautiful bungalow, which stands even today. How he acquired the land is an important part of local lore.

Territorial dispute

It is believed that the village headman, Nar Singh, refused to sell the land to Barron. Barron invited him for a boat ride, took him to the middle of the lake and threatened to capsize the boat and swim back if Nar Singh did not agree to sell the land. Nar Singh, who did not know swimming, had to agree to this deal. In a very short span of time, Nainital became the favourite destination of the Britishers, and even the summer residence of the Governor of the United Province.

Despite tourists descending on Nainital en masse, the 90-feet-deep Naini Lake is beautiful and emanates tranquillity. Motor boats are not allowed on the lake, so the water is not defiled with fuel. The boatmen are, generally, quiet, and do not compel you to a chit-chat. There is also a certain timeless peace from the deodar-filled, sky-hugging mountains that rise off the lake. Encircling the lake is Thandi Sadak (cold path), named so because the canopy of trees is so thick that sunrays barely penetrate, thus leaving it cool. Walking around Thandi Sadak is an idyllic experience, with the sunlight shimmering on the lake, a light breeze whipping up just that hint of a wave, and birds and butterflies flying around.

Another pleasant surprise is the GB Pant High Altitude Zoo, spread over 11 ascending acres, between 6,900 and 7,030 feet. Established in 1984 but opened to the public only in 1995, it’s clean, well planned and uncluttered. Ergonomically sound, steep gradients inside the zoo serve as an effective deterrent to those who are not interested in animals. Of course, there is some climbing and walking. It houses white peacocks, birds that inhabit high altitudes, the majestic Bengal tiger, red panda, leopards, cheetahs and the Himalayan bear. With awesome vistas of Nainital Lake and the township below, visiting GB Pant Zoo is an hour or two well spent.

Other attractions

Among the attractions close to Nainital, Mukteshwar, Sattal, Bhimtal, Naukuchiatal and Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Sanctuary near Kilbury (Pangot) rank high. In fact, Saatal or Seven Lakes is considered more beautiful than Nainital. The Naina Devi Bird Sanctuary, at 6,837 feet, offers stunning views of the snow- capped Himalayas, and is home to almost 200 species of rare and endangered birds. Due to paucity of time, we chose to visit Mukteshwar, both for the Shiva temple at its peak, which gave the area its name, and for the drive that is most representative of the entire Naini Garhwal region.

The drive to Mukhteshwar was simply beautiful, cutting through rows of endless mountains, flush with the first showers of baby apricots and apples, and culminating at the peak, where the temple enveloped us once again in a timeless peace. Our driver, Gopal, the quintessential pahadi, embellished the journey with unusual insights on how pine and deodar trees stored water in their roots and functioned as irrigation systems in hilly terrains; the health benefits of rhododendron flowers; and why we should run upwards if we see a snake and downwards if we see a bear.

There was so much more that we wanted to see — Aryabhatta observatory, Gurney House, where Jim Corbett lived­ — and gorge on bal mithai, the flag ship sweet of Kumaon.

That is why we should have spared a few more days for Nainital.

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