While modern-day Nainital is very different from the quaint hill station it was in British times, its aesthetics and culture have broadly endured.
This photo essay explores the developmental changes that Nainital, a hill station in the Kumaon Himalaya, has undergone over the decades. Old photographs have been juxtaposed with present-day images to highlight the changes. I started this project in collaboration with Abhay Kapkoti during the COVID-induced lockdown of 2020, when we both explored the town where we had grown up. With a borrowed DSLR, Abhay and I photographed Nainital extensively for two days, researching its past.
The most common before-after images of the town are perhaps the ones from 1875 and 1882 showing the after-effects of a disastrous landslide that happened in 1880, destroying Victoria Hotel, located near present-day Mallital rickshaw stand. Sanwal Public School, where I spent my formative years over a century later, now stands here. It is quite impossible to imagine a hotel filled with partying sahibs and memsahibs in the very place where we led a life of strict discipline.
Nainital was the summer seat of the North-Western Provinces of British India, summer headquarters of the Eastern Command, a place of residential missionary schools, and a holiday retreat for British administrators during the colonial period.
How similar or different is Nainital present from Nainital past? While much has changed, much has remained the same. The aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of present-day Nainital can be traced to its colonial roots. Trawling the Net for archival images of the town, I soon realised that the key search word should be “Nynee Tal”, which is how the British spelt the name. After making this discovery, finding photographs from websites, e-papers, journals, and individual sources became easy.
The sepia-coloured images take us back to the old buildings with their Gothic-style architecture, schools, churches, and paved pathways, all of which have been transformed by the needs of modern-day civic planning. However, Nainital has retained its cosmopolitan nature, with a diverse population of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and others. The concentration of administrative-military power here, as well as trade opportunities with the Indian plains and the Tibetan highlands meant that Nainital attracted migrant populations from the surrounding areas, including Nepal. Peasants from the erstwhile Doti kingdom, which roughly coincides with present-day Sudurpaschim Province of Nepal, migrated to Nainital in the days of the Raj, to be recruited to the Gurkha regiment and for employment in the public works being undertaken then. Their descendants still live in Nainital.
Shekhar Pathak, retired professor of History, Kumaon University, Nainital, and founder of the People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research (PAHAR), said: “The Gurkha regiment was stationed at Sipahi Dhara, with its barracks in the area where the Government Inter College at Tallital is now situated.” A famous song by the band of The Brigade of the Gurkhas (raised in 1859 as part of the Indian Army Gurkha regiment and based in Sir John Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe, UK, since 2001) is titled “Naini Tal”, which has different versions sung by Nepali singers.
In Tallital bazaar, we reprised more recent memories. Abhay had his early education at Bishop Shaw School, a British-era Gothic structure located where the bazaar begins. The smaller settlements around the bazaar once hosted migrants from across the hills and the Terai region, who found jobs here as masons, carpenters, and domestic help in British households. I lived in this area for most of my time in Nainital before migrating to Delhi for higher education.
Perhaps the Naina peak, which overlooks the town, and the irregular patches of evergreen trees on its slopes have seen much more than what images can collectively capture. Roaming around town, we get glimpses: the word “Nynee Tal” written on the walls of Sakley’s, a pastry shop in Mallital, with visuals and text recreating the old hill station of colonial times. Like all residents of Nainital, Abhay and I are both spectators and participants in the process of living, creating, and forgetting. The images serve as the keeper of our collective memories and historical realities.
Chinmaya Shah is a Kumaon-based independent researcher and development professional. Abhay Kapkoti, an MBA, currently works with a legal tech company as an account manager. Both are from Nainital and derive great joy in long walks and hot tea at all times.