The British rulers of colonial India loved to ‘summer’ in Mussoorie. Evidence of their occupation is still visible in the architecture they left behind, and in the names of the streets, buildings and even mountains. Subsequent generations of middle-class Indians have continued the tradition of escaping to Mussoorie. Given its proximity to Delhi, the town has always been well connected, making it a convenient long-weekend break, in sunshine and in snow.
Any garden-variety guidebook or website will list the touristy sights of Mussoorie and its surroundings, but there’s a lot you don’t see until you scratch the surface. I needed no guides to decide my itinerary for that weekend. In fact, I wasn’t going to have one. I would let Mussoorie wrap me in its folds and take me where it pleased.
Day 1: Monkeying around in Char Dukaan
You can’t wander in Mussoorie without crossing paths with the monkeys. The secret to dealing with them, numerous locals told us, is to not engage with them: don’t make eye contact, don’t make sudden movements or loud noises, and you’d better not carry any food in your hands! Sounds horribly like arbitrary school rules—which is funny because including one of India’s most famous schools, Woodstock, is a stone’s throw from where we stayed.
We had washed up at Doma’s Inn the previous night. Named after a 94-year-old woman who arrived in India from Tibet as a teenage refugee in 1938, Doma’s is now run by her grandson, Tashi. The inn is as much a beacon—thanks to its eye-watering facade made to resemble a Bhotia monastery—as a symbol of the various histories that intersect in Mussoorie, including the Tibetan connection.
Doma’s is located in Landour, which forms one edge of Mussoorie. It’s named after a Welsh town called Llanddowror. Once a convalescent station for British soldiers, Landour today houses a military cantonment. Among its most prominent landmarks is Char Dukaan (literally Four Shops, because there are four shops here, five if you count the post office above one of them), where you can still order the same bun-omelette that you could in 1910. One of the shops, Anil’s Cafe, claims to be the oldest, but Vipin Prakash at Tip Top Tea Shop scoffs at that claim: “It might have been the oldest by a week or two,” he says. More than a century later, ‘old’ doesn’t really mean much.
Day 2: Savour the Sindh connection in the Mall
The Sindhis of India are a people without a land. When the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, the region called Sindh fell on the Pakistan side of the border. Anticipating trouble, J.D. Vachani decided to leave his homeland, ending up in Mussoorie, and setting up Chick Chocolates in 1940. Had he ever dreamt, I wondered, that the shop would one day be a sought-after destination? He was my partner’s grandfather, but he died long before we met and I was never destined to ask him.
Chick Chocolate, named after the musician Chic Chocolate, is a bustling cafe, a third generation now managing its daily running. They are famous for their chocolates, of course, and their fruit cream (a dish now appropriated by the rest of Mussoorie). I advise to forget the fruit cream and go straight for the baked cheesecake if you stop by. Speaking of dessert innovations, the chocolate momos at Doma’s (‘Tibetan cuisine hardly has any sweets,’ said Tsering Choden, one of the owners, ‘so we had to make some up’), and the cheeni (sugar) paratha at My Shop on the Mall have stood the test of time.
Day 3: Antique hunting in Landour Bazaar
I can’t quite say what made me stop outside Sabri Bought & Sold on our way down to the Mall, the main street of Mussoorie. Perhaps it was the eclectic collection of modern thrillers lying on what was clearly an antique table, right opposite a wooden cabinet filled with vintage Matchbox miniature diecast cars. Or maybe it was the tall showcase with a collection of rusty compasses and distinctive blue-and-white Wedgewood china.
Ayub Sabri, whose father migrated to Mussoorie to set up this antique buying-and-selling business in the 1960s, told us that the compass we were interested in, cleverly camouflaged as a tin of boot polish, was a replica. As was the brass hourglass that we eyed later at Faiz Tailors (he supplies uniforms to local schools and has a side business in antiques). Replica antiques are a thriving business in these parts, we were told by both Nadim at Faiz’s and Ayub at Sabri’s. Once, the many colonial bungalows had plenty of treasures to part with; today, the real antiques are drying up, but there are some lovely replicas to be had.
How the thrillers fit into Ayub Sabri’s vision for his antique business, though, remains a mystery.
A happy camper
I can’t recall the first time I saw the Himalaya, but it was probably as a child in the late 1980s, en route to Mussoorie during long summer weekend. One memorable winter, I saw my first and only snowfall. In adulthood, with the freedom to choose my own vacation spots, Mussoorie never quite figured in the bucket list. But when I finally returned to this popular hill station during the Easter weekend this year, in search of memories, I found connections instead.
Article and photos by Payal Dhar.