Every pillar and arch, vault and buttress, down to the rosewood entrance at the Savoy hotel in Mussoorie relives the days of the Raj.
The visitor’s book at the hotel explains it all: His holiness the Dalai Lama, Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Prize-winning author and the Nehrus-Motilal, Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv.
They have all spent some cherished quiet moments as guests of the Savoy Hotel, nestled in the queen of hills, Mussoorie. Here history and romance blend seamlessly to give the visitor a glimpse into the halcyon days of the Raj. Built at a time when life offered a certain amount of leisure and contemplation. The Savoy’s well-appointed spacious rooms define ultimate relaxation in sylvan surroundings. English Gothic architecture merges well with the green, picture-perfect hillscape. It’s hallmarks: cool sobriety and strength of discipline among the staff.
To appreciate The Savoy, one has to go back in time, and understand the history of the hill station. Like they say in a fairy tale, once upon a time, Mussoorie was “the queen of resorts and the resort of kings”, a watering hole for the rich and the powerful. The names of the houses along with the hills: Glenbrook, Gorgehead, Scottsburn, Conniston and Redburn, bring alive old memories. However, despite the high-sounding names, there was nothing officious about the hill station. It was, and still is, a place where you can let your hair down.
In the earlier days, ladies whispered sweet nothings into the ears of grass widows under the eaves. If you think, the husbands were absconding, you’re wrong. Poor folks thought they had better things to do- like minding the affairs of the British Empire in the heat of the sultry plains!
Then followed the advent of the maharajahs, the landed gentry, the civil and military officers on furlough. With the passage of time, the need was felt to have a place of quiet luxury. C.D. Lincoln, a barrister from Lucknow, decided to bridge this gap. He took over the lands of the Mussoorie School, run by Reverend Maddock, who retired in 1865.
Lincoln pulled down the school building and built a hotel in its place, naming it after the Fayrest Manor in Europe. The hotel owes its English gothic architecture, its fine proportions, its lancet-shaped narrow windows in the corridors and the verandahs to Lincoln.
Two simple spires, without any parapet, surmount the corners of the main building- as if proud to be the highest towers in the area. And since the first motorcar came to the hill station 1920, you can take off your hat at the sheer ingenuity and dogged perseverance of the early settlers. Men and materials came up the bridle path from Rajpur at the base of the hill. In the early years, the Mussoorie Bus Company gave out a contract for cleaning up animals’ shoes and nails that seemed to sprout on the road with monotonous regularity. Everything came up this winding serpentine trail by bullock-cart. Massive Victorian and Edwardian furniture, billiard-tables, grand pianos, Burmese teak for the ballroom floors, rotund barrels of beer and cases of champagne and Cognac-all the accoutrements of a fine hotel trundled up on lumbering bullock-carts.
The hotel formally opened in 1902- like a phoenix rising from the ashes of a school. Spread over 21 acres, the hotel is the largest estate in the area. Four years later, Her Royal Highness, the Princes of Wales- later Queen Mary- attended a garden party in the Savoy grounds. Today, the same place is called the Beer Garden. Soon after the princess’ departure, a severe earthquake hit the town. Many buildings were flattened and the hotel had to be closed for a year. In 1907, it was ready again. Two years later, electricity came to town and the hotel got brightly lit.
Between the two Great Wars, in the “gay twenties”, Mussoorie entered its days of wine and roses. In those days, the Savoy orchestra played every night, and the ballroom was full of couples dancing the night away. You could do the fox trot or waltz to the happy numbers. In those days, wealthy Indian princes and their retinues occupied entire wings of the hotel and threw lavish parties and fancy-dress balls.
Visiting Mussoorie in 1926, the famous traveller, Lowell Thomas, wrote: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their own beds.”
Chather Singh Negi, an employee, who’s worked for over 60 years in the hotel, confirms the statement and says: “The hotel used to employ an old, short-sighted waiter to ring the separation bell… It guaranteed absolute privacy to the guests!” Of course, soon other boarding houses followed the example of The Savoy and introduced their own separation-bell, which was rung at four every morning.
During the Second World War, the British and the American military officers, on leave, came up for amusement to the hills and found it in ample measure at the Savoy. It is said that the sale of whisky used to be so high that Lincoln would have all the empty bottles from the previous day’s sale, collected and brought down to the cellar. Here he would coax every last drop of scotch from each bottle. Miraculously, he would have two full bottles ready the next day for house guests!
The size of the luxury suites staggers casual visitors to the place. I am told that one day, when the hotel was full, an elderly couple were shown the bridal suite. “What will we do with this?” the old man exclaimed. “Sir! If you’re shown the ballroom, you don’t have to dance!” the manager said.
Now the hotel is being run by Anand Jauhar, who says that his father bought the complex in 1946. “Since then, it’s been a family-run hotel. We try to keep it the way it was earlier. Often visitors request a more compact place, and then we send them to the new match-box-variety rooms!”
As I finish taking pictures of the charming old billiards room (in 1900, a leopard was found hiding under the ebony table in this room) trying to catch some of the spirit of the heyday of the Raj, Jauhar can’t resist dipping into what is obviously, a vast reservoir of hotel jokes. Savour some: “This hotel is so big that by the time you get from the reception to the room, we’ve already charged you for a day!” And, “If you want to call the front office desk from your room you’ve got to dial long distance.” Apparently, during a power cut, a guest complained of cold water in the bath. “Sir!” the manager told him, “We do advertise hot and cold running water, and it is, believe me, hot in the summer and cold in the winter!”
Be it summer or winter, the odl Writers’ bar is a great place to hang out. It celebrates the hotel’s association with a legion of writers. Wooden plaques commemorate the visits of famous writers, from Rudyard Kipling to Ruskin Road. But if you want your name on the wall, you must be a “professional writer making a living-exclusively from writing!”
Crossing the bar of memories, walking down the steps, I hear the gentle pitter-patter of feet coming in my direction. Students of architecture are going from door to door, from transept to transept, from corridor to lounge, from ballroom to balcony, tracing a century here and a generation there, in pillar and arch, vault and buttress. And they will probably end where they began: at the rosewood entrance which throws its massive arch into a work-a-day world, and inside, hoards a treasure trove of memories. Brimming over with the sheer loveliness that comes from wood and stone!
And for over a hundred years, both emperor and clown have walked through the arch into what is now a magnificent doorway to history!