For several years, I have been walking the lanes and hill slopes of Dehradun. The valley has given so much, without asking for anything in return. Today, many of us prefer to drive around and wonder about the fast pace of existence in a space once known for its stodginess. Every time I look at the weather forecast on my phone; it reports to me that the weather quality in the valley is unhealthy. What have we done to this verdant vale of ours?
It is said that in order to inculcate a sense of ownership, it is important to appreciate ones' history. Today, let us take a historic walk through the valley's history to understand how it evolved into its present avatar.
The Skanda Purana describes the Doon valley as part of the Kedar Khand, the abode of Shiva. In ancient India, during the era of the 1.8 million word epic- Mahabharata, Dronacharya, the great archery guru who trained young boys, including those from the Kaurava and Pandava clans, established his Gurukul, or school here, firmly establishing the valley’s credentials as a centre for learning, paving the ground for the setting up of numerous institutions and schools. The rock edict of Ashoka, legendary Mauryan King who ruled over large parts of India from 273 BCE to 232 BCE, stands at Kalsi close to the confluence of the rivers Tons and Yamuna, close to Dehradun. The edict carries an inscription in Prakrit, in the Brahmi script and is about ten feet high. It codifies the leading principles of Buddhism, stressing generosity and kindness, though there is no specific mention of the Buddha or his teachings. On the right is inscribed the word Gajottam, with the figure of an elephant, meaning “the best among elephants” in Brahmi script (by inference, Buddha who descended from the Tushita heaven, in this form). Surprisingly, the rock bears the names of five Greek Kings—Antiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magus and Alexander, that help date the edict to the 3rd century BCE or more specifically, around 253 BCE. Some texts also contain references to the Chinese traveller Hiuen-Tsang visiting the region.
On the other side of the river from Kalsi, just a little further down, is a very different kind of ancient site. This is Jagatgram, in the middle of a mango orchard, overlooking the river and the hills beyond. Inscriptions here reveal that a king named Shilavarman performed several Ashwamedha sacrifices at this site. The Ashwamedha, or the horse sacrifice, was a ceremony performed by ancient kings as a blatant display of military strength. The inscriptions belong to the 3rd century CE, providing a vivid and thought provoking contrast to the Buddha’s message of non-violence, inscribed across the river.
The elder son of Guru Har Rai, the seventh Sikh Guru, established what we see as the present town of Dehradun in the early eighteenth century. A part of the Udasin stream of Sikh asceticism, Ram Rai arrived here in 1675, and first settled in village Dhamawala, now a bustling jewellery market. The Guru’s cenotaph still stands here around which the annual Jhanda Fair is held every fifth day after Holi.
For long, Dehradun remained a small principality of the Garhwal Kingdom, perhaps just a stopover on the route from Tehri to the Delhi Durbar. The route passed through Raipur and the Maldevta Temple and the haveli with a profusion of wall paintings appear to have been significant halts.
Mahmud of Ghazni invaded Dehradun during his campaigns into India, followed by Taimur Lang in 1368. Najib-ul-Daula, the governor of Saharanpur, who later founded the city of Najibabad, invaded the valley with his Rohilla soldiers in 1757, and ruled here. After his death in 1770, the Doon valley was successively annexed by tribes of Rajputs, Gujjars and Sikhs.
In 1803, the valley was annexed by the Gurkhas, who forced the king of Garhwal, Pradyuman Shah, to flee to Saharanpur. The region was ruled by the Gurkha warrior Balbhadra Thapa. Later, king Pradyuman Shah, his sons Kunwar Parakram Shah and Kunwar Pritam Shah, and a 12,000 strong army fought with the Gurkhas on the fields of Khurbura. The Garhwal king did not survive the battle. In the same year, the British had already taken over Saharanpur, which led to constant skirmishing between them and the Gurkhas. The Gurkha War (1814–1816), also known as the Anglo-Nepalese War, was fought around the fortress in Nalapani and even though the Gurkhas were ousted after a long siege, the battle bolstered the reputation of the Gurkhas as fierce fighters. Memories of the horrific battle still linger on in Raipur.
The Sagauli treaty, signed on December 2, 1815 and ratified by March 4, 1816, between the British East India Company and the kingdom of Nepal, ended the British invasion of the kingdom during the Anglo-Nepalese War. The treaty led to the annexation of Dehradun and the East Garhwal Kingdom into the British Empire, and they became part of the Garhwal District, in the Kumaon Division of the United Provinces.
Dehradun municipality was established in 1867, and in 1900 railways made their way to Dehradun via Haridwar, which had already been connected in 1886. During the Second World War, the Dehradun Central Internment Camp was a major prison for detained German, Austrian and Italian enemy soldiers. Its most famous inmate was Heinrich Harrer, who, after several failed attempts, in 1944, with Peter Aufschnaiter, escaped and slipped over the mountains into Tibet. Here he became tutor to the fourteenth Dalai Lama. He recounted his time at the camp, mainly located in Clement Town, in Seven Years in Tibet and Beyond Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During and After.
During the years of the World Wars, Dehra became a lively little town. It emerged as a recreational centre for war-weary Allied troops and large contingents of British and American troops who lived on the outskirts. As a result, cafes, dance halls, bars and night clubs sprang up with the emergence of a distinctive night-life.
Few would know that Dehradun almost became the capital of India and competed with Delhi for the title in the 1920s. Sir Edwin S Montagu, the secretary of state for India was so impressed with its environs and proximity to the hills that he actively considered shifting the capital to the valley.
Dehra may not have been named as the capital of India then, but the British years firmly established Dehradun as an institutional town. While the German botanist, Dietrich Brandis established Asia's first forestry school at the Ranger’s College, his wife busied herself drawing evocative sketches of the hills and the Parade Ground. Sir George Everest, who lends his name to the tallest peak on earth, came here in 1800 to set up the Survey of India.
Dehradun has had a long association with Afghan royalty too. Several chapters of the history of this country have been written here over two centuries of association. The famous Dehradun Basmati, or long grain rice was brought here by the Afghan King Emir Dost Muhammad Khan who abdicated his kingdom in 1839. The later Afghan kings, Nadir Shah and Zahir Shah have also been associated with the valley.
Like the Afghan kings, the valley has always been a magnet for royalty. Several regal summer or winter homes can still be seen. For instance, the palatial art-déco masterpiece that the Maharaja of Patiala used as one of his homes now houses the Oil Museum set up by the ONGC.
Presently, the interim capital of the state of Uttarakhand, Dehradun was once the favourite haunt of leaders seeking respite from the rough and tumble of politics during the freedom struggle. Besides Mahatma Gandhi, who planted a Peepal sapling at the Christian Retreat Centre (then, Shakti Ashram) at Shahenshahi, Nehru was a regular visitor to what is now the Raj Bhawan (then, Doon Court). Sardar Patel stayed in this unique building and so did several others.
Today, Dehradun is a bustling city. The city bristles with hectic political activity and business. But amidst all this hullabaloo, we must not lose sight of our history. Let us preserve our sites where the history of this town unfolded. From here will emerge love and care for our city.
Doon beckons as the words of Rudyard Kipling, the immortal author who once walked the bridle path from Rajpur to Mussoorie, ring in our ears,
The last puff of the day-wind brought from the unseen villages, the scent of damp wood-smoke, hot cakes, dripping undergrowth, and rotting pine cones. That is the true smell of the Himalayas, and if once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at last, forgetting all else, return to the hills to die.
(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called ‘Been There, Doon That’)