Review article on Dale Kennedy, The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 8, no. 3 (September 1997):123-132.

by Vinay Lal

The Loop, “Agony Point”, on the Darjeeling Hill Railways. Photograph taken in the 1890s.

The British conquest of India, as recent studies of colonialism have established, entailed a great deal more than the mere acquisition of territory, the plunder of an ancient country, and the expansion of British trade. It was in every respect a conquest of knowledge, as the land was charted, grammars and dictionaries of Indian languages commissioned, bodies counted, plants and animals (not to mention people) enumerated, and laws codified. The tropes of surveillance, surveying, and statistics appear to encapsulate the chief organizational principles of the modern British state in India, the activities of which were carried out not only by the police, jurists, census commissioners, ethnographers, anthropometrists, and administrators, but by the officials serving under such organizations as the Botanical Survey, the Trigonometrical Survey, and the Geological Survey.

Surprisingly little work, however, has been done on the social life of the British in India, and it is quite clear that if the recent scholarship has mercifully taken us taken away from the conventional studies of nationalism and colonialism, which focused without much imagination on the activities of elites and their organizations and official functionaries of the state, or on such questions as the nature and extent of the economic exploitation of India, and moved us to more complex considerations of state formation, popular resistance, the creation of modern identities, and the anxieties generated by colonialism within the colonizer as much as the colonized, that we will now have to move into yet another phase of research and scholarship. Though the general parameters of British social life in India are adumbrated in Francis Hutchins’ The Illusion of Permanence, Kenneth Ballhatchet’s Race, Sex, and Class under the Raj, Lewis Wurgaft’s The Imperial Imagination, Charles Allen’s Plain Tales from the Raj, and a handful of other works, no comprehensive works have ever been written on such British institutions as clubs, gymkhanas, boarding and public schools, sanitoria, homes for the aged, the district collector’s office, and the field hospital. There is even scarcely an adequate, much less analytically illuminating, history of the English-language press in the colonial period, and the relationship of British-owned newspapers to the colonial government has never been explored. What, if anything, has post-colonial theory done in bringing us to an understanding of these forms of social life in colonial India? How did the British in India commemorate their war dead, and how did they grieve for the young ones whose lives were decimated by disease? What did they think of Indian fruits, how did they eat mangoes and custard apples, and what (if any) plants did they bring with them to India? Will our ecological histories remain confined to the work of the forest department, the continued denuding of Indian forests, the resistance by forest dwellers and hill people to colonial and indigenous elites, and the sagas of Chipko and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or will it also encompass the British encounter with Indian landscapes, their cultivation of Indian fruits and vegetables, and their understanding of the idea of ‘Mother India’?

It is within this framework that we might want to place Dale Kennedy’s almost novel study of Indian hill stations in the colonial period. As he says, “hill stations remain among the most curious monuments to the British colonial presence in India” (p. 1), and since the nineteenth century they have exercised a powerful hold on the imagination of Indians and Britishers alike. Of all of the Indian hill stations, Simla is the most well-known and the most-frequented, and it has previously been the subject of a few studies. It is from Simla that the British government of India partly conducted its affairs, and it is to Simla that, long after independence, the Indian middle classes continue to flock in the summers in record numbers every year. But on the whole the literature on hill stations is scanty, and though Ooty, Kodaikanal, and Darjeeling are wrapped up in lore, and the environmental degradation of Dehra Dun, Mussoorie, and Nainital is inescapably evident to visitors, the nexus of associations and meanings that hill stations evoke remains elusive. Kennedy is, accordingly, interested not so much in a particular hill station as he is in how the idea of the hill station came to fruition, the development of hill stations as nodes of British power and as nurseries of the ruling race, and their place in the emergence of a social life for Britishers settled in India.

The Lower Bazaar, Shimla. Photograph by Bourne and Shepherd, Calcutta.

The origins of hill stations lay in the British desire “to establish sanitoria within the subcontinent where European invalids could recover from the heat and disease of the tropics” (p. 1). This in turn could only transpire once the British had, howsoever minimally, consolidated their rule and acquired new territory, and it is no accident that the establishment of hill stations such as Mahabaleshwar and Cherrapunji was consequent to military conquest (p. 12). Though Kennedy does not mention so, by the late seventeenth century a number of prominent European thinkers, most notably Montesquieu, had already formulated a climatological theory, which stipulated that the development of a country had a close bearing to the climate: stated less innocuously, it meant little more than that the natives of Oriental nations, debilitated by the heat of the tropics, were prone to laziness and licentiousness, and needed the firm hand of men from colder climates to govern and discipline them. Heat was also deemed, in the words of one English physician writing on the Influence of Tropical Climes in Producing the Acute Endemic Diseases of Europeans, to be “the great moving power of all other subordinate sources of disease” (p. 20); and when the fearful cholera epidemic of 1817-21 struck, it appeared that refuge would have to be sought in places more congenial to the constitution of Europeans. By the late 1830s, the reputation of a number of places for ‘curing’ disease was purported to be beyond dispute, as the climate there was thought to be salubrious. So came into being the special enclaves for Europeans that were to be known as hill stations, and the contrast with the dreaded plains — repositories of filth and dirt, inhabited by the teeming millions, cesspools of disease — could not have been plainer.

The curative effect of hill stations, however, was soon brought into question. They were not beyond the range of malarial mosquitoes; victims of cholera, which struck with ferocious and fatal rapidity, found no relief in the hill stations. The Nilgiris were described by the Medical Board of Madras as “not well adapted for the cure of those chronic diseases attributable to a tropical climate”, and a parliamentary commission reporting in 1861 on the sanitary state of the Indian army boldly declared that “hill stations are not curative” (pp. 28-29). But if long stays at hill stations might not have a curative effect, surely they had restorative benefits? At Ooty, the senior medical officer opined that “the invalids who derive most benefit from a change to the hills are those who labour under no organic disease, but suffer from general debility, the result of a residence in the low country; these cases rally wonderfully and rapidly”, and likewise the author of The Book of Climates (2nd ed., 1891), one Dr. D. H. Cullimore, agreed that as a “restorative to those suffering from overwork, or exhausted by the heat of the plains,” “tropical hill-stations are the most advantageous” (p. 29). This view was quickly enshrined as conventional wisdom, and it came to be widely believed that everything in the hill stations happily conspired to make the Britisher a more joyous being, or at least as happy as any one from that depressed race could be.

As Kennedy argues, while this “medicalization of leisure” had various precedents in Britain itself (p. 31), one must understand that the British flight to the hills represented more than the desire to flee ‘disease’ and embrace ‘health’. A number of other considerations weighed heavily with those eager to propound the virtues of hill stations. In the plains, the Englishman was thought to face virtual extinction over a period of three generations, and the permanent colonization of India was seen to be inconceivable unless some mode of arresting “degeneration” could be found. Here was cause enough to abandon the plains; further, travel was thought to enrich the mind as much as the body, enlargening the range of ‘experience’, and giving a new meaning to the idea of ‘home’. If the Alps had seemed imposing to the British traveler, how was he to apprehend the majesty of the Himalayas? Those wondrous peaks evoked the idea of the ‘sublime’, and here even the conqueror found himself in the position of the humble petitioner, begging for more (though not in the manner of Oliver Twist) displays of God’s splendor. Yet the ‘sublime’, magnificent and wild, and just as likely to evoke feelings of fear, was evidently not suitable for residence, and it was too far removed from the more comfortable trope of the ‘pastoral’. The unfamilial could perhaps be rendered familial, and in these remote parts the English garden, homely and inviting, could be imagined and even willed for. Horticultural activities, such as the planting of English apple trees, and experimentation with produce familiar from home — strawberries, lettuce, parsley, pears, and much else — were critical in bringing back memories of England; and it was contrived to make the Himalayas more amenable to the ‘human’ and picturesque’ proportions of the English landscape by scaling the mountains down to hills (pp. 46-47). Kennedy argues that the adoption “of the term hill station for highland sanitaria”, some located at heights of nearly 10,000 feet, “also suggests an etymological effort to minimize the disturbing implications of the sublime”: what were ‘mountains’ became, upon residence, ‘hills’. Moreover, England had ‘hills’, but scarcely mountains, and there was something pleasing in that ‘coincidence’.

But why ‘stations’, rather than hill places, or hill resorts, or hill destinations? Though Kennedy does not ask this question, we are not prevented from speculating. It is after the advent of the railways in Britain that the usage ‘hill station’ came to predominate, and it is possible that it was inspired by the then-frequent reference to the ‘railway station’. As a place to which the English repaired, and which was to become largely their exclusive haunt until the declining years of the Raj, the ‘hill station’ was evidently only for those who had achieved a certain ‘station’ in life. Residence in the ‘hill station’ conferred prestige upon the vacationer, and the Englishman whose wife and children could stay at the hill station for longer periods was unquestionably of a superior ‘station’ in life than his compatriots. Finally, we must consider that, keeping in mind the contrast so insistently present between the tortuous plains and the ‘hill station’, and the suffering allegedly undergone by the English in the plains as they labored to bring law and order into the lives of their ‘heathen subjects’, the whole enterprise of retreating to the hills took on the appearance of being a pilgrimage as much as an extraordinary travail. The hill station was, then, the last station the Englishman arrived at as he bore the cross of the white man’s burden, and at long last he could count upon rest and freedom from the burdens of work.

Though ‘hill stations’ originated as one of the principal nodal points for the production — and hence consumption — of leisure, they soon came to acquire other characteristics. Conceived as little homes away from ‘home’, they were to be made in the physical and moral image of England: the landscape was dotted with English architectural monuments, a Mall — or central avenue — was built for strollers (an anomalous breed in the late-twentieth century West), and devotion to God rendered more pleasing by the construction of the Anglican church (pp. 100-6). Hunting had been an integral part of the life of the English country gentleman, and in hill stations the unfettered indulgence in this passion became a way of life for the English (pp. 58-60). The ‘leisure principle’ defined one end of the spectrum, the other being filled by the ‘productivity principle’. Land that was not being tilled or farmed was mere ‘waste’ land, and the forest had to be rendered ‘productive’. Thus numerous ‘hill stations’ were to be associated with the introduction of cash crops, such as tea in Darjeeling (p. 53, 189).

Most significantly, though, hill stations were to serve as “nurseries of the ruling race”, as spaces for the colonial structuring of a segregational and ontological divide between Indians and Europeans, and as institutional sites of imperial power. Whereas in the plains British men outnumbered women, at the hill stations British women had a more formidable presence than men, and their numbers always saw a dramatic increase at moments of crises, such as during the Rebellion of 1857 or the Punjab Disturbances of 1919. The hill stations were seen as furnishing security from the uncouth and occasionally dangerous hordes of an oriental country — here younger British women could safely indulge in the mating game, lure men into domesticity, and raise a family. “Nowhere else in India”, writes Kennedy, “did the sense of family become so pervasive and the choice of schools so extensive as in the hill station” (p. 118). It was in the hill stations that the British constructed their most elite boarding schools, and here parents unable to nurse their ambition to send their sons to Eton and Harrow deposited their wards. That was at least a few notches better than sending them to the best schools in the plains.

Throughout their presence in India, as Kennedy stresses, the British were animated by the desire to maintain an unbridgeable distance from Indians. It has even been argued that, in a manner of speaking, the British adhered to their own version of a caste system, and they would not deign to have any social intercourse with Indians, barring those whose acquaintance had to be cultivated as a matter of political expediency. Contact with servants and menials was unavoidable, but they existed only to be commanded. A very elaborate anthropology of distinctions was put into place, and from the broad type-casting into ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ races the British proceeded to other classifications. Besides the ‘wily Brahmin’, the ‘fanatic Mohammedan’, and the ‘thieving bania’, there were those tribals and aboriginals who lived on the fringes of Indian society. Though paradise might well have been a place altogether devoid of Indians, the indigenous hill people could be tolerated as “nature’s children” (pp. 63-87). The British found the hill people — Lepchas, Todas, and Nepalese among others — prone to ‘savagery’ but less prone to falsehood, mendacity, the observance of caste distinctions, and servility, and more inclined to a rough and ready kind of frontier egalitarianism. A number of British commentators were even convinced that the Todas were one of the lost seven tribes of Israel, while others found male Todas to bear a striking resemblance to Jesus Christ (pp. 72-74).

Sadly for the British, the ‘curious’ hill people, who would satisfy the appetite of many an ethnologist and anthropometrist, were not the only Indians they had to encounter. Though it was desired to banish the Indian to some other horizon, the very enterprise of establishing hill stations demanded the labor and services of many Indians, and in time the Indians, though initially outnumbered by the British, would come to have an ineradicable presence at these stations. Kennedy weaves, though not always adequately, a number of threads into this story. The movement of Indians to the hill stations constitutes a part of the labor history of India, which has been overwhelmingly under the shadow of peasant history. As Kennedy notes, “at least ten Indians were necessary to support each European” (p. 175), and one author estimated in 1869 that thirty-five Indians were required to service one “small family” in Simla (p. 178). Forcible labor was extracted from many. Little attention was paid to the housing needs of such a large labor force, it no doubt being assumed that they would fend for themselves, and no sanitary facilities were provided either. The over-crowding at hill stations was noted as early as the late 1880s, and a 1905 study found that the bazaar area of Simla had a higher population density than any other area of the Punjab (p. 192). The native bazaar always seemed poised to consume the hill station.

But this was only one manner in which the presence of the Indian was obtrusive. As the hill stations grew, there was an expansion in trade, and it was often the much-detested banias from the plains who rushed in to avail themselves of new opportunities. The emergence of a class of Indian professionals, who were inclined to take their holidays with their families in the hill stations, posed yet another problem. These were what the British called the ‘seditious’ types, not manly, honest, or loyal like the yeoman farmer, and to thwart them was to invite allegations of racism. The ‘lower’ class of Indians had been kept at bay by simpler subterfuges, such as the argument that their presence posed acute problems of sanitation and hygiene, thereby paving the way for disease, but could recourse be had to other exclusionary strategies for keeping out the wealthier class of Indians? In many cases, Indians were prevented, often on the orders of the Viceroy himself, from purchasing property in hill stations. Adverting to an attempt made by the Nizam of Hyderabad to purchase property in Simla, the Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, made it known that “the presence of these Chiefs at hill stations is distinctly undesirable, and that we ought to discourage it in every way” (p. 199). On another occasion, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab took the view that “there is a wide distinction between the European and the native. A Hill Station is a necessary health resort for the former or for his family. It is not so for the latter” (p. 200). Indian visitors to Simla were stopped enroute and subjected to a humiliating physical examination on the grounds that the plague of 1899 necessitated such measures, but the ‘inspection post’ remained open until 1926, then closed as a consequence of vigorous protests, only to be reopened in 1930 at the height of the nationalist movement (p. 195).

The hill station, then, was seen as an exclusive British preserve: here it was possible to render the Indian into an outsider, and here the Indian was to live in something like exile, without family or friends, and so taste something of the experience of the Britisher. Admission to this sacred enclave was possible, but only in accordance with a hierarchy of spatial differentiations. There was nothing extraordinarily subtle in how the British understood the symbolic significance of altitude: they were to be placed above, and the Indians below them. “Nothing is more likely to maintain British prestige”, noted one military officer, “than the occupation of commanding ground by the British race”, while a sanitary engineer came to the conclusion that “the natural separateness of the European from the Native part of the town . . . is of supreme importance from a sanitary point of view. Above, the air is fresh and pure, and cannot be contaminated by that below. . . . So distinct are the two localities, that they bear but slight relationship [to one another]” (pp. 196-97). In Simla, accordingly, senior British officials were given fine houses on the ridge, English and Anglo-Indian clerks found themselves housed on the slopes, and Indian clerks received dormitory housing further below (p. 197). The presence of Indians (except as coolies) on the Mall in Simla was not tolerated for a very long time, and when Gandhi was ferried on the Mall in an automobile to enable him to meet with the Viceroy, this action became the subject of an indignant inquiry in the House of Commons. This incident, curiously, receives no mention in Kennedy’s book.

The representation of ‘difference’ in topographical strata suggests just how far hill stations were nodes of imperial power. As Simla was the seat of the imperial government, so various other hill stations became capitals of provincial governments. At one time the Government of India was housed for nearly eight months a year in Simla, and the Secretary of State’s orders of 1877 that the government’s length of stay in Simla be confined to the period between November 1 and April 15 were simply ignored. John Lawrence, the hero of the Punjab, “refused to accept the viceroyship unless he could conduct the affairs of state from Simla” (p. 161), but it was not only the cool weather of the hill stations that beckoned officials to the hills. One member of Canning’s Council laid bare the rationale for the seasonal migration of the government: “Every great oriental ruler, with any pretensions to civilization has his summer and winter residence” (p. 160). The British could be construed as only emulating the oriental despots they had succeeded, but they no doubt saw themselves as fulfilling the expectations their subjects had of them. However, protests by ordinary citizens, and later the nationalist agitation against a government run from Simla, belied that benign claim. Thus a memorial from the people of Madras to the Secretary of State in 1881 pointed to the unnecessary expense entailed by the seasonal migration to Ootacamund and the lavish construction of official residences and buildings, much as it bemoaned the tendency “to retire to places at great distances therefrom whence they cannot exercise the control and do the duty required of them” (p. 168). These migrations removed officials from public scrutiny, a point reinforced by Gandhi in his short piece on Simla, “Five Hundrendth Storey”: “To win swaraj means to oblige the Government . . . to descend from the five hundredth floor to the ground floor and introduce naturalness in its relations with us” (p. 172).

For a variety of reasons, the popularity of hill stations among the British began to decline in the ten to fifteen years preceding the end of the Raj, but that by no means heralded their end. Had Kennedy carried his story beyond the termination of British rule, he would have found that hill stations are not only thriving, but have generated their own political economy, besides giving place to new sets of cultural meanings. Though hill stations are perhaps most widely renowned as destinations for honeymooners, and as romantic spots for married couples and lovers, their relationship to the Hindi film industry must needs be explored. Innumerable Hindi films have been shot at hill stations, and complex tourist industries have grown around hill stations. The phenomenon of Srinagar, which developed as the premier destination for middle-class Indians pursuant to independence, and which has now been ravaged by terrorism, suggests the complex relationship between hill stations, local and global economies, tourism, the patterns of labor migration, ‘development’, and geopolitics. Many hill stations have been underdeveloped, rendered parasitic on tourism, and the price extracted may well be very high as the unfortunate degeneration of Srinagar suggests. Unlike the British, most Indians typically go to hill stations for a week or so, and their experience is almost prosaic. Middle-class housewives, for example, are seldom relieved of the tedium of cooking by these ‘vacations’, and many a family is known to take its pots and condiments along on the trip. So what then is the “magic”, to evoke Kennedy’s title, in the hill stations? Why is it that landscapes so sublime generated no great works of art or painting among the British? Might there be something in the British experience of India that rendered everything magical into the prosaic, and is it not that legacy that has carried over into the Indian experience of hill stations? Though Kennedy provides a very fine sociological and political study of hill stations in British India, there is room still for a cultural poetics of hill stations.

[First published in The Book Review (Delhi) 17, no. 9 (Sept. 1993):8-9.]