Amidst the oaks: A World Heritage Site

A couple of miles down from Mussoorie, the now rather fraying “queen of the hills” in the Garhwal region of the Himalayas, is the tiny hamlet of Jharipani. It’s a quaint name, possibly after some of the streams and waterfalls that come trickling down pleasantly from the higher reaches. This is also a rather salubrious area that is greener and more picturesque than what touristy Mussoorie has now become. The area that you may have driven past countless times on your way up and down to and from northern India’s most popular hill station, has recently acquired a rare distinction. Oak Grove school—obviously called that because of the thick, timeless oaks that still surround Jharipani and the school—set up by the British in the early 19th century as a school for the children of their railway employees has just been declared a World Heritage Site, the first for any school in India (though old loyalties would no doubt prompt me to campaign for La Martiniere next!).

I remember visiting the school one winter afternoon many years ago. My grandfather—a railway employee, though very much of the free Indian Republic–  had been posted at the school as its principal in the early 1970s (or was it late 1960s?). And two of my uncles and an aunt had studied there in what was—by their accounts—an anglicized “public school”, part of India’s colonial legacy. As such, throughout my childhood, I would hear Oak Grove tales — some enchanting (Grandfather being the chief guest at a parade hosted in a ground between two mountains), some regular hosteller-types (one uncle being on the verge of suspension, another flicking comics from a store at the Mussoorie mall that the hostellers would frequent on their off-days), and some frankly inexplicable to someone growing up in the Mandal years (a “butler” being around in Grandfather’s official bungalow, necessitating the fact that the entire family gather for meals at the dining table of their own home in strict formals and then eat off a Western service! C’mmon, who were they kidding? The butler?). In Lucknow, used to a much more informal home—where no one frowned if you ate your dal-chawal by hand, the way most Indians not obsessed with being a white sahib would, I would secretly wonder at that life.

Oak Grove brought all those memories to life. Frankly, what I saw of the cottage where my grandparents stayed wasn’t all that officious. Instead, it looked like a picture-perfect house with outer walls made of stone and some lovely vines covering these. It could have been anyone’s ideal summer home, never mind the butler!

I know that there are a couple of other, equally charming if newer schools around in Jharipani—even though fewer of us in the metros now think of sending off our wards to the hills to acquire an “Etonesque” education. Pause here, the next time you are tempted to play the tourist at the mall—or at the yuppie hotel nearby — and breathe in some real smells of the valley.

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