An erstwhile summer retreat of the British, Nainital is a lovely little hill station popular with nature lovers and honeymooners for its tranquil environs. Ensconced amid the Kumaon hills, the eye-shaped Naini Lake is the lifeline of Nainital. All activity in Nainital is centered around this lake – almost always can you spot tourists and locals sailing on boats and enjoying the breeze. Just across the emerald Naini Lake runs the Mall Road lined with shops bursting with colorful woolens and candles, on either side. Some popular attractions in Nainital are the Naina Devi Temple, Hanuman Garhi and other points of dramatic scenery such as Snow View, China Peak, Lands End and Tiffin Top.
A bustling hill station now, Nainital was for a long time not much more than a secluded temple. The earliest mention of Nainital is found in ancient Indian mythology. It is mentioned as the Tririshi Sarovar - the lake of three sages Atri, Pulastya and Pulaha in ancient Hindu scriptures. Not much bigger than a hamlet settled on the lakeside, Nainital had sacred significance for the locals who believed the lake formed when an eye of goddess Sati fell in the region.
Its mythological significance aside, Nainital remained a largely unexplored region of the Kumaon hills till the early 18th century. While the British presence in Kumaon and Garhwal began in 1815, it was only after the Gurkha War of 1819 that the British gained full control over the region. However, as early as 1817, Mr GW Traill the commissioner of Kumaon had visited the spot but kept the visit a secret, as he did not want to disturb the religious sanctity of the place!
The growth of Nainital Town did not begin till 1841. P Barron, a sugar trader from Shahjahanpur was hunting in Kumaon when he stumbled upon the scenic Naini Lake. He fell in love with it at first sight and built the first lakeside British mansion, Pilgrim Lodge. Soon an influx of Europeans transformed the town into a summer retreat and health resort for British soldiers, officers, officials, and their families. The majestic church, St John in the Wilderness was also built around then. The British also established the summer capital of the United Provinces in Nainital.
Unplanned activity and sudden increase in population led to some tragic consequences. In 1880, after two days of torrential rain, a massive landslide occurred at the northern end of the lake. The original Naina Devi temple and several other buildings were destroyed, along with over 151 lives. A recreation area, The Flats was later built at the site. During the Victorian Era, the officers of the Raj patronized Nainital as a ‘school town’. The efforts of the church and several leading English and American educational establishments led to the founding of prestigious schools, such as the Diocesan Boys' School (later renamed Sherwood College) under the guidance of the Church of England; Philander Smith's College, maintained by an American; St. Joseph's College, a Roman Catholic institution, Wellesley School an American institution; St. Mary's Convent High School, a Roman Catholic institution; All Saints Diocesan High School for Girls, under the Church of England, and Petersfield College for Girls. British officers, administrative officials, traders, and a few rich Indians sent their wards to these schools. Post independence, India’s elite continued the tradition.The change in the schools’ composition reflected a change in much of Nainital. While during the Raj years the town was the playground of the British with the indigenous population confined to labor-related roles. After 1947, the locals admirably filled in the absence of the British.