Mussoorie's Himalaya Club


AS A POSSIBLE contender to solve the mystery of an earlier club larned after the Himalaya, as revealed in the nineteenth century (postal) stationery shown in the 1998 Himalayan Journal,1 there is in my home town of Mussoorie an old building (now used by the Survey of India) which has a cast-iron plaque outside a distinguished but blocked-up doorway at the veiy top of 'Palpitation Hill'. It reads The Himalaya Club. Adjacent on slightly lower ground a later building boasts the name Himalaya Club and signifies a popular motel that stands right opposite Mussoorie's town hall (now an inconspicuous and tatty building occupying what was once a prime site on a commanding ridge.

Mussoorie like other Himalayan colonial resorts was sought out in the 1820's for its shikar potential. Then the hunters turned pastoralist anddike all tribal societies required a hut to house their mysteries. The bus stand at Mussoorie is still known as 'Masonic Lodge' but above this stands the Himalaya Club that catered to social instincts. The club reveals the difference between British and Indian perceptions. India instinctively crowns its high places with the mark of devotion and accords Lord Shiv pride of place. The British prefer the insignia of government and establish trig points, clubs or dak bungalows from which to enjoy the view. Mussoorie at 2100 m rears up some 1000 m above the Doon. and having toiled up the watershed ridge of the Ganga and Yamuna divide the view from the Himalaya Club proved perfect. It looked out on to the snows of Garhwal and back over the Doon to the plains beyond the Shivaliks. An old milestone stands in Barlowganj on the original bridle path that gives the distance to Meerut as less than a hundred miles.

Before the motor road reached Mussoorie in the 1930's most travellers came to Saharanpur by train. Prior to that they used local conveyances according to their circumstances, by horse or bullock cart to Rajpur at the foothills. The steep ascent to Mussoorie went unbroken for eight miles and passed the original Company Bagh which once boasted 'Tivoli Gardens' with a bandstand. (Today another Company Bagh at the other end of town is marked by a PWD artificial lake luridly painted in pink and blue stripes.) The bridle path wound rouind to Landaur (overlooking the well-preserved jungle of Woodstock) while a branch turned sharply west to ascend above Wynberg School via 'Palpitation Hill'. At the top was sited the Himalaya Club with a boisterous history of card-sharping, poodle-faking and deadly duels. For the details we are indebted to three literary figures. The first is John Lang whose grave lies in Musssoorie. He was an Australian lawyer who defended the Rani of Jhansi after the 'Mutiny' and is recognised as Australia's first novelist. Lang wrote about the life and times of the Himalaya Club in an article of the same name (dated March 21st 1857) for Household Words a weekly journal from London edited by no less than Charles Dickens, the second author. We have to thank Ruskin Bond, the third author, for reprinting this fascinating account of the Club in his book Mussoorie and Landaur : Days of Wine and Roses, (Lustre Press, Delhi 1992) Ruskin is one of town's oldest and most popular residents.


  1. See H.J. Vol. 54, p. 18. - Ed.


Lang tells us the Himalaya Club was eighteen years old when he resided there (presumably in 1856). That takes us back to the late 1830's when Colonel George Everest of the Survey of India was in residence at Park Estate. Posterity has recognised his monumental measuring of the subcontinent as one of science's most remarkable achievements. To his contemporaries he was merely 6Compasswala'. Mount Everest had not yet been detected and anyway Everest was opposed to the use of any but local names for the labelling of landmarks. On his estate were rooms for the housing of bibis (concubines) after the fashion of early British administrators. Next door along the ridge was Clouds End built by Fanny Parkes one of the earliest memsahib travel writers. In those days Mussoorie and Landaur must have seemed much wider apart. From St. Paul's church in Landaur to Christchurch at Kitabghar (the Library) is a good five kilometre walk. Landaur started as a convalescent depot and has always been the poor and 'official' end of town. Mussoorie's well-to-do spread their estates west of the Library and the East India Company notables were replaced by maharajas and latterly by 'consultants' who do very well saving maharajas from paying heavy taxes to the government by diverting them to consultancy fees.

The Himalaya Club followed the traditional colonial 'season' that lasted from the end of April to the beginning of October. Till quite recently our City Board bills for Mussoorie could be trimmed back by application for 'winter residency'. The club membership was open to private gentlemen 'in society' and consisted of officers on leave from the heat of the plains A few energetic types would ride round Camel's Back to work up an appetite for the prodigious breakfasts that young Victorians could shift but most would appear only after two for tiffin. They were convalescing from hangovers !

Lang gives us precise measurements in the layout of the club buildings so it would be easy to check out his claims. He rates the view both back and front as 'one of the grandest scenes in the known world! Today it is so boxed in by buildings and polluting dust that you can only spot the beauty after a heavy downpour. (A few years ago this windy perch would cost the club dear. A tornado from the Doon not only blew off all the corrugated tin sheets from the roof but sent the rafters soaring over the hilltop to impale the roofs of unsuspecting cottages. A child was killed and several injured from the deadly flight of sheets torn out of their bolts.

Immediately after breakfast Lang introduces us to the shadow side of hill station life, the flirting with grass widows in their rented bungalows and the chronic debt (and litigation) that such romantic liaisons were liable to give rise to. It is interesting to note that the modern State Bank of India in the heart of Kulri bazaar (distinguished by the imperial logo of Empress Victoria done in wrought-iron balustrades) was known as the Himalaya Bank. Like so many others in the town it went bust!

Rents for six months cost 500 rupees for a furnished bungalow. (Today you pay 2000 rupees for an unfurnished flat per month, with uncertain supply of electricity and a trickle of water.) Lang mentions a house near where I live - Belvedere - where a modern lady travel writer Zoe Yalland was brought up as a child - one of the last of the memsahibs. Zoe invited me to have tea with her in Delhi's Imperial Hotel and was dismayed when I pointed out that her bill bore yesterday's date and had probably been paid by some other equally beneficient memsahib!

Lang accompanies a lady bound in a jampan for shopping. In the old days jampanis - the four bearers of the litter wore the livery of their master and required a fifth in attendance as standby in case of fatigue. The same held good for the municipality's licensed hand-pulled rickshaws which till only a couple of years back plied the Mall. However, lax supervision after. 1947 meant you were sometimes faced by a wavering rickshaw on a steep hill manned by three teetering attendants, a suicidal proposition if one of them slipped. Now the cycle rickshaw has come into vogue though it cannot reach the parts the old dandis and rickshaws could.

The theme of living beyond one's means is again suggested when at one of the town's general merchant's the writer is offered a raffle ticket costing a whooping gold coin.

But the prize is a Purdy rifle auctioned by a distressed gentleperson. Returning to the Club for tiffin Lang finds it difficult to get a place at the long table where an offer to buy a drink for a friend is acknowledged with 'immense alacrity'. After tiffin a ball of charcoal is passed round to light up the cigars, then drawing a deep breath the company breaks up for its several gambling devices with serious stakes at risk. What Lang calls 'clever villains' stalk the card and billiard rooms making a living off young ensigns eager to be accepted by the old bloods.

At five the horses are saddled and a gallop round Camels Back is followed by more leisurely exposure on the Mall. Both customs continue in modern Mussoorie except that the hired horses (like the rest of the town) look rather the worse for wear. Now-a-days the crowd of well- dressed promenaders has thickened to become a scrum. Lang's evening had been made by the inauguration of the bandstand but judging by its acoustics (piously and patriotically inaccurate) this must refer to the structure still standing on Camel's Back rather than the bandstand outside the Library. Lang remarks how music has only now been heard in the Himalaya, overlooking the song and dance of the interior villages. Worse he lapses into th'at familiar colonial concern of first-footing. He imagines the music losing itself in the higher ranges 'which the foot of man has never yet trodden and probably will never tread.' None of the dozen high points viewable from Mussoorie has remained immune to climbers boots.

Dinner is served for seventy-five and the champagne, iced with recent hailstones, flows abundantly. After the repast the cloth is removed and the founder-president of the Club, a little man of 75, addresses the members. Is this, I wonder, Mr. Mackinnon who was responsible for much of Mussoorie's civilised growth, from his breweries to Mackinnon's cart road, from the Library which he helped found to the building of Christ church which he contributed to. Mackinnon also opened a school and ran a newspaper.

From 9 to midnight the gambling continues and the casualty rate among ensigns goes up. Their monthly pay packets will be docked at source by the bank that considers their regiment a safe creditor. Now an earthquake common in the lower Himalaya sets the card tables aquiver but Lang prefers to watch the lightning illuminate the Doon. The new day is worn away to the discordant refrains of Rule Britannia as stupefied members stumble away to beat the dawn. This custom of drinking away the hour of Brahma would be copied by the princely residents who came later to Mussoorie. At least they had international cabaret artists to turn their maudlin choruses into meaningful matins.

Next morning (or noon) the head count of gambling victims would be discussed. Lang predicts that an edict will be sent from Simla curtailing the amount a man can bet but this order will then be rendered into doggerel and ultimately be used to light the cigars. He takes the day off to go down to Dehra Dun and drops quite casually the reason. Debts are due to be settled and this can lead amongst the more desperate to settling by duel. To avoid being roped in as a second Lang makes himself scarce He returns to the club on the 2nd of June to take part in a fancy dress ball A duel has been fought in his absence but no blood was shed. The Simla C-in-C, however cancels the leave of certain officers. At the ball an inebriated ensign who accuses a civilian of cutting in on one of his dances isrebuked by a topped-up general who -intones "Consider self unarrest" he longer the night the more unruly the behaviour and the incoherence oi members.

Intriguingly the Catholic church that came up on the hilltop alongside the club is referred to as 'St. Emilleians' and when I ask the locals the provenance of this saint I am told he had been the town's most famous baker. (Incidentally the road near the Club was named Bakeiy Hill but since independence it has been vernacularised into 'bekhari' - signifying that for which no use can be found!'

The modern motel does good business in the season but the glory and rowdmess of the Club's long table has long since flown to the abode of snow where no foot was expected to tread. Lang is aware of the beauties of the- Alps (1856 was the start of the golden age of intrepid summiters) and finds the view from the Simplon nothing 'in extent and beauty' to the pageant of what he terms 'the Dewalgiri' the name by which some sahibs identified the Himalaya. As the season winds down plans are mooted for a picnic but the final arbiter will be the opinion of club members 'Without the countenance of the club - which is veiy jealous of its prerogative - no amusement can possibly successful'.

Finally the club’s activities are summed up. Four innocents were victimised'at billiards and cards. Two duels were fought in which one officer fell dead and another was grievously wounded resulting in four commissions being terminated. Two elopements led to actions in the Supreme Court at one of which Lang was called to give witness. The rakish life of the club ends with details of two officers court-marshalled tor conspiring to entice ensigns to games of chance. They end their careers (like Graham the first Himalayan climber) in jobs far below their status.

The illustration of the letterhead shown in the Himalayan Journal of a cherubic angel (despatched in the 1880's) might well have originated in Mussoone though quite what a babe trailing clouds of gloiy signified to toe roistering members must remain the subject of speculation. After the Fall of Man cherubim guarded the gates of Eden, symbols of guidelessness Was the club logo symbolic of the gamblers urge to take the pants off innocents abroad ? The hidden threat instinct might be detected in the procedure adopted by club members to express their views through the polite art of concealment. Whenever a proposal was sent around for adoption the custom was to write 'seen' on it but the motion would only be carried if the 'endorsement and approved' followed. Much of what was seen at the club met with little approval - but then Mussoorie has always catered to the pleasure - loving. Unlike Simla and Nainital it was not a summer seat of government and those who repaired to it knew they could get away with minor misdemeanours. In a town that canonises its confectioner surely we can afford to let our hair down.


About the 'Himalaya Club', Mussoorie.


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