Nainital: A story about boats on a lake

"Located in the cool foothills of the Himalayas, is one of North India’s most idyllic Summer tourist destinations."

I am sitting at the edge of a lake under a big shady tree.

The lake has formed in the base of a deep valley. It is very beautiful, to say the least. People walk along its edge – past me – on their way from one place to another. Some walk for exercise, others are on their way to the market and some to work. A group of children are on their way to school. There is a lady wearing high heels and a bright pink sari. Quite a few young men walk past carrying coils of rope and there are boats on the lake, small rowing boats floating around with visitors – these are tourists who are enjoying the pleasant scenery, in a similar way that I am.

But there was a time, in the not too distant past, when this lake had never seen a single boat. No person had ever floated on its surface, or dared to swim into its depths. This was a sacred place. People would come here in homage of a Goddess, and they would circumnavigate its edges, in a not too dissimilar to what people continue to do today – though then it was a pilgrimage, now a daily routine or even a tour. Recently, a friend from this place told me a story….

A long time back, the British came. A British man who called himself Pilgrim was among the first. And he was the first person to bring a boat to these parts also. Seeing the beauty of this valley and its lake, the forests and the climate he decided he wanted to live here. No one had properly settled this area before – it did not have good agricultural land. This was a place people would come to on pilgrimage and then they would return home. But there was another man named Narsingh Thokdar, who seemed to be the owner, or custodian, of these parts.

When Pilgrim brought the first boat to this lake he invited Thokdar to join him. Lord Vishnu had once walked on water and as the two men floated out into the middle of the lake, people watched on in awe. When they reached its centre Pilgrim turned to Thokdar and told him to sign a piece of paper agreeing to hand over this place – the land and the lake – to Pilgrim. If he refused, Pilgrim said to Thokdar, the man who owned this place, the man who had lived with this lake his whole life yet had never ventured into its centre, Pilgrim said to this man named Thokdar, while floating on a boat in the middle of the lake for the first time ever, that if he did not agree to his demands he would be thrown overboard to drown in the very lake that had once been his.

In the following years this place was settled by the British.

We know about this event because Pilgrim had written about it in his diary. My friend, who told me this story after reading Pilgrim’s diary in an archive, said what had made the deepest impression was the way in which Pilgrim described so honestly and without hesitation what he had done; all in violent jest. There had been no doubt in his words, no hesitation. There had been surety embedded in his light-heartedness – a surety made all the more secure due to the real prospect of frank unobstructed violence.

And since my friend told me this story, as I sit here under this big shady tree, the boats that cruise past, bubbling with tourists from the plains, have a different flavour altogether.

This place is called Nainital. Sixty-five years after South Asia’s independence from British rule Nainital, located in the cool foothills of the Himalayas, is one of North India’s most idyllic Summer tourist destinations. Only a day trip by train from Delhi, with an array of hotels to choose from, mountain treks at your doorstep, romantic lakeside walks at night, and a quaint yet thriving bazaar Nainital is no doubt beautiful. Most places in this world have similar uneasy histories embedded in the ground or in the water’s currents; Nainital is no different. Stories like this should not be a deterrent – but rather an entry point into a journey that becomes a little more interesting, sensitive and a little more relevant than your common tourist guide





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Nainital, Uttarakhand, India