History of Nainital

See also this excellent historical and status summary

The region was not “discovered”[1] until 1841 by Mr Percy Barron who described it in his “Pilgrim’s Wandering in the Himalayas” with….

“……..the water is as clear as crystal, a beautiful little stream supplied from the springs of the overtopping mountains, is continually running into it, and a small one flowing out of it, a the opposite extremity.  An undulating lawn, with a great deal of level ground, interspersed with occasional clumps of oak, cypress and other beautiful trees, continues from the margin of the lake, for upwards of a mile up to the base of a magnificent mountain standing at the further extreme of this vast amphitheatre; and the sides of the lake are thickly wooded down to the water’s edge.”

Early 20th century rowers. Note the treed shoreline

Within two decades of settlement in 1862, Nainital became the summer seat of the North Western Provinces and today is the major legislative centre for the new state of Uttarakhand. With uprisings around that time, distant and cool Nainital became an education centre for the British colonials with the establishment of many schools including Sherwood College that is one of the premier institutions in India.

With the railhead completed to nearby Kathgodam in 1889, becoming the headquarters of the Eastern Command and by 1915 having a new motorway to Kathgodam, contributed to Nainital’s growth which included a gymkhana, sailing activities from 1880 leading to the creation of the Naini Tal Sailing Club in 1897 - the third oldest sailing club in India and a theatre with stage plays and musicals that contributed to draw tourists to the town.

Sailing around 1900, verdant and clean

Many old stately buildings were created during this era included the St. John-in-the-Wilderness church with its cornerstone laid in 1846 to becoming the first significant buildings constructed in Nainital.

The church today, closed with vegetation endangering the integrity of its masonry and its setting in 1860.

Four decades later in 1892, a hospital, the Ramsay Hospital (now the Pt. Govind Ballabh Pant hospital) was completed followed by the Crosthwaite hospital (now Pt B.D. Pande hospital). Soon a Government House (Raj Bhawan) in early domestic Gothic style was commenced in 1897 on the Sherwood estate south east of Ayarpata Hill.[2]

Raj Bhawan or Government House.

Population growth

The 1901 census indicated a population of just under 8 000 person which took five decades from 1951 to double at 13 000. However in the next twenty years from the 1950s the town’s population doubled to some 25 000 helped by tourism that continued to escalate with the number of hotels increasing ten-fold to 140 by 1990. Remarkably, unlike other tourist destinations around the world, tourism growth was accompanied by a dramatic decline of the town’s natural and cultural heritage and little evidence of growing prosperity that normally accompanies tourism drawn to culture and scenic beauty both of which have been in marked decline.


Nainital has endured many landslides during the first 50 years of its settlement with one of the first in 1867 when the hillside above west end of the bazaar gave way and roads were extensively provided with drains. This measure proved insufficient when on 18 September 1880, the hill near Alma Hill on the Sher-ka-Danda ridge collapsed killing 151 persons at a time when the population was just less than 5 thousand, one-tenth the current population (pointing to the risk today - just note the small area of land involved. How many potential landslides are there around Nainital today?).

The landslide before and after (photographs from British Library)

In a region which has some 2 000 mm of annual rain, the cause of this catastrophe was attributed to the “digging of fresh building sites on the ridge of the hill together with the cutting of the hill side for gardens, roads and tennis courts which permitted the crust to be overcharged with water”.[3] In response to this disaster and in just five years and with a tiny population, 79 kilometres of some 71 elaborate rock drains (nullahas) with 235 branches and stretching up steep hills were constructed complemented by the planting of trees on bare lands. It was a remarkable feat standing starkly against the visible dangerous neglect today when the workforce and the population at risk of landslides, is multiples of what it was then.

Click on map of nullahas (blue lines) to see full size.

Today, Naina or Cheena Peak is considered to present a serious threat to Nainital with a crack of about 65 metres, 1.5 metres in depth and 2.5 metres deep on the south west face. In 1987, about one hundred trees were uprooted by landslides and soon other slides damaged sixty buildings leaving thousands of cubic metres of rubble on the catch walls so that with its inherent instability within two years, shale and rubble damaged CRST Intermediate College. Despite signals of imminent slides nullahas have been ‘mined’ for rock, most of the drains are extensively filled with rubbish and some houses inappropriately located. This is occurring in a climate of government indifference inter alia signalled by the building of government offices on unstable parklands (Another example of indifference is the development by government that destroyed Hanuman Garhi public until stopped by local activists. So today it is said......

......"I have lived in Nainital most of my life. I have seen the town going from bad to worse and I would like to help the town grow better."  A resident of Nainital."

[1] To respect religious sanctity the British administration did not popularise the location though it was known about since at least 1817.

[2] It was preceded by another commenced in 1880 near the site of a previous residence damaged in the 1880 landslide near St Loo Gorge of Sher-ka-Danda but with subsidence a new location was selected.

[3] Ajay S. Rawat, Deepak Singhal, 1998. Corbett’s Nainital – Travail of a crumbling city.