Mythology counts this hill station, named after the pear-shaped Naini Lake, among the 64 Shakti Peeths - religious sites where body parts of Hindu Goddess Parvati are believed to have fallen in her incarnation as Sati. It is said that Naini Lake was the spot where Sati's eyes ('Nain' in Sanskrit) fell as her husband Lord Shiva carried her dismembered corpse around the earth.
History attributes the discovery of Nainital to P. Barron, a British sugar trader from Shahjahananpur, in 1839. He was so taken with the lake and its lovely forested surroundings that he soon returned with a sailing boat and decided to build a house naming it 'Pilgrim's Cottage'. The cottage, which is almost 180 years old, is still in existence. The process of settlement begun by Barron led to the building of colonial villas, cottages being added to what was a secluded mountain resort.
Erected in 1844, the Church of 'St. John in the Wilderness' is one of Nainital's earliest buildings and is possibly the finest church in any Indian hill station. The church was named by the Bishop of Calcutta, who was visiting the town then. The town was very much a wilderness then.
As more and more buildings came up, it became a lively summer retreat for British soldiers and officials. It soon became an important administrative town and was declared the summer capital of what was then known as United Provinces. In the later years, Nainital became the summer residence of the Governor of the United Provinces. The older parts of Nainital continue to retain historical memories - colonial vestiges that include sprawling bungalows, public schools, churches and the Christian cemetery.
Disaster hit the town in 1880, when a landslide killed a large number of people and destroyed all the buildings including the temple of the town's patron deity, Nanda Devi. While the Church of 'St. John in the Wilderness' contains a brass memorial to the victims of these landslide, who were buried in its graveyard, on the area, where the Nanda Devi temple earlier stood, a large area known as 'The Flats' was created for a new temple. The new Nanda Devi Temple was built on the site as planned and continues to draw pilgrims on festivals. To prevent further disasters, storm water drains were constructed and strict building laws were ordered.
Located in the vicinity of several other lesser known hill stations, Nainital has the advantage of being connected with motorable roads all through the year. Surrounded with forests of oak, pine and deodar, it offers peaceful wooded lanes for those who prefer to walk as well as plenty of choices for trekking and serious mountaineering.
The latter half of the 19th century saw the founding of a number of European schools in Nainital. By 1906, there were over a dozen of these schools that were solely meant for British children. There were separate schools for boys and girls. The Diocesan Boys School and Girls School were under the guidance of the Church of England and was renamed as Sherwood College. Another school, Philander Smith's College (for boys) was governed by an American and is now Birla Vidya Mandir. St Joseph's College remains a Roman Catholic institution, while the Wellesley School is an American institution.
The first signs of change came early in the 20th century, when Indians also began arriving in Nainital, which had so far remained an exclusive English preserve. While Indian officers and professionals began arriving as part of the annual migration of the state government of United Provinces to Nainital every summer, the big change came when British civil servants started receiving subsidies for their annual holidays in England. This was when their summer visits to hill stations came to a halt, leaving the area to Indians.
(Shona Adhikari is a lifestyle and travel columnist.)