85 years ago, Maharaja Hari Singh stopped construction of an annexe at Gulmarg to stop the place from becoming congested. Decades later, the Meadow of Flowers has been ruined by the ugly human intervention, threatening its frail ecology. Khalid Bashir Ahmad writes.
Chief Justice of High Court of Judicature Punjab, Rai Bahadur Sir Shadi Lal, wanted to construct an annexe at Gulmarg in the corner of the hut number 225-C under his occupation since 1920. On August 22, 1928, he wrote to the Foreign and Political Minister seeking permission. The file, after going through different administrative channels, reached the Maharaja.
Hari Singh declined permission and, in his own handwriting, recorded on the file: “Construction of further buildings at Gulmarg should not be allowed as the place is already too congested.” Justice Lal had pleaded that several individuals occupying C-type huts had been allowed to build annexes but Hari Singh passed a firm order: No more constructions at Gulmarg.
That was 85 years ago when Gulmarg had only one hotel, the Nedous, and a hundred or so huts for the European tourists – all on the periphery of the bowl.
Today, there are 55 hotels and commercial structures, 109 other buildings including offices and assets of Gulmarg Development Authority and various government departments. Add to this alarming scenario a township in concrete including multi-storied buildings erected by the Defence forces within the bowl itself.
Imagine the Maharaja revisiting Gulmarg. He would be horrified at what the Meadow of Flowers has been reduced to, or would he simply turn insane at the sight? Gulmarg is literally gasping for breath. Each time one visits the hill station one is saddened to see some more structures added up. One wonders if tourism promotion is rested alone on more structures, no matter whether the place can take it. Indiscriminate constructions, vehicular movement deep into the bowl and unregulated rush of people badly tell upon the health of the Queen of Hills. On a given day during peak season, four to five thousand people descend on the bowl to have the Gandola ride.
Going back into the past, there were at Gulmarg “the Maharaj’s Palace, a Residency, a hotel, with a theatre and ball room, post office, telegraph office, club, and more than a hundred huts built and owned by Europeans”. The huts were outside the bowl in forest area and scattered even to higher reaches like the Khilan Marg. Some of the huts appear to have been very large like hut No. 88½ -B taken in season 1927 by one Mrs. Baines which had 13 bed rooms, 2 of which were double bedrooms.
Gulmarg had many charms. Vigne saw the place as “green, open, and perfumed with wild flowers.” For Younghusband, “The walks and scenery and the fresh bracing air were delightful… All was then Arcadian simplicity. Nothing more thrilling than a walk in the wood, or at most a luncheon party, was ever heard of”. Even then he quotes people who had seen Gulmarg for many years as saying that the place was now ‘spoilt’.
There was no road connectivity, only an uphill pony trek from Tangmarg which ran through the woods. In summers, European visitors, bitten by scorching heat of the plains, would flock to Gulmarg. After the middle of June, the place would turn into “a gay Anglo-Indian hill station” for the next three months when the outflow started and the Resident too would retreat to Srinagar.
The Europeans were granted lease to construct huts at Gulmarg and many of them would sublet the accommodation and take fellow visitors as paying guests. The subletting of huts was approved by the Maharaja himself after a Memorandum was submitted to him. As per the Rule 35 of the Visitors’ Rules, the Residency would forward to the Maharaja the requests of hut owners to take in paying guests. Most of such requests came from English ladies who routinely took paying guests as a commercial activity. In 1927, for instance, the Resident forwarded such requests of Miss B Chesney, Mrs. EJ Cole, Mrs E Davis and Mrs K Meares.
At one point, the Darbar did not like the indulgence of the Residency in the matter. Accordingly, on August 23 1923, the State Council, through a resolution, directed “that persons desiring to take in paying guests should in future apply direct to the Home Minister of Council who should consult the Superintending Surgeon and accord sanction if there is no objection under Rule 5 Section VII of Gulmarg Building Site Rules”. The Council further directed that the Foreign Minister be requested to communicate this resolution to the Residency Office and that the Home Minister should have it printed and sent to all owners of huts.
The Resident could not easily digest the dilution of his authority and tried to have the decision reversed. He referred to “many complaints” received by his office regarding bad management of some boarding establishments and argued that only those establishments which were well conducted would be recommended by the Resident. He also invoked the 7th of July 1923 conversation with the Foreign Member regarding the Darbar agreeing “not to modify any of Visitors’ Rules without the Residence Concurrence” and requested for reconsideration of the order. However, his plea was not accepted. On December 23 1923, the State Council ordered alteration in the Rule 35 by omitting the words “Such sanction being applied for through the Resident in Kashmir” asserting that “according of permission for the maintenance of Boarding Houses was a matter which concerned the State alone.”
However, during the reign of Pratap Singh, the Visitors’ Rules remained unaltered. Two years after his death when Hari Singh was in the saddle, a note was submitted on May 27 1927 to the new Maharaja by his Foreign Minister who wrote that “the Rules need revision and applications should be received by the Government direct; but as this year, the procedure hitherto followed has been adopted and the season is advancing, I suggest that the applications may be disposed of according to the recommendations of our local officers.”
On June 5 1927, the Minister in Waiting informed the Foreign Minister that his suggestion was accepted by the Maharaja for the season 1927 only and conveyed the latter’s directions that “a complete report in the matter may be submitted for his commands in consultation with the Public Works Minister who has already been asked to submit proposals regarding delegation of powers in this behalf.”
The issue of delegation of power to grant permission to take in paying guests in huts in Gulmarg was finally approved by Hari Singh in 1929. The Maharaja’s command was issued by his Minister in Waiting on 2nd February 1929.
The Boarding establishments at Gulmarg virtually developed into actual hotels as each boarding house took some 6 to 8 huts and accommodated as many as 40 to 70 paying guests. This was objected to by Messrs M Nedous & Sons who ran a hotel there as loss to their business. Their objection was that conversion of boarding establishments into veritable hotels was infringement of their agreement with the Government which gave monopoly of hotel business in Gulmarg to Messrs Nedous & Sons to ensure that a good hotel is run for the convenience of the visitors. The Nedous’ complaint said that in the past, these Boarding Houses kept to reasonable numbers, but now they are going beyond limits and each year finds them increasing their numbers of Boarders by taking more huts.
The Nedous said that as they pay big rent for their Gulmarg hotel, the Boarding Houses now existing and those that appear annually should be restricted to the numbers that they take in. The letter of Nedous gave the names running these Boarding Houses as Mrs Baines, Miss O’Connor, Mrs Gatmell, Miss Christie, Mrs K Byrne and Mrs Amesbury.
On December 15 1933, Home Minister Wajahat Hussain wrote to the Chief Engineer that the six ladies “should be informed that they will not be permitted to take more than four or five guests each. They should be told that the State has given total monopoly to Messrs Nedous and Sons, and it will be an infringement of one of the conditions of agreement with them, if Boarding Houses are permitted to take paying guests in unrestricted numbers.”