In the north-eastern part of Hazaribagh town rises a high mass of rocks, boulders, soil, bushes and trees. A pink laterite road circumambulates it and tall sal trees stand as guards on either side. This is not the Juljul, but a different hill.

As soon as I leave the town’s tarmac road and enter the woods, the temperature takes a dip. The noise of traffic quietens down, at first to a soft hum, then recedes completely from my mind. A new soundscape takes over, comprising bird calls, the crunch of gravel beneath my shoes, and the rustling of leaves when a breeze starts from one part of the forest and moves to the other.

This landmass, whose top is accessed by 570 or so steps and which leaves a blanket of forest trailing in the east, has been called by many names.

In 1813, when Captain Robert Smith, an engineer with the East India Company, came to Hazaribagh, he climbed up the hill, cleared a nice spot for himself, and drew a sketch of what he saw: a wide forest extending into the country which then disappeared into a cluster of hills near Silwar village. This was the time when tigers were alive in the forest of Hazaribagh.

When Smith finished the sketch, which wasn’t elaborate or detailed, he captioned it, “Part of Tiger Hill and Seilwar Hill dist. near Hazareebaugh”.

'Part of Tiger Hill and Seilwar Hill dist. near Hazareebaugh', by Robert Smith.

And so, Tiger Hill came into existence.

That the British were a homesick people in India is a fact well-known.

Annoyed by the climate of Calcutta, they looked for places that could give them some semblance of home. Where semblance was scarce, they looked for shadows.

Smith’s Tiger Hill, when viewed in profile, offered a resemblance to the Rock of Gibraltar.

Though there was no Mediterranean seafront to Tiger Hill in Hazaribagh, its altitude – 600 metres above sea level and 200 metres more than the Rock – seemed to have made up for the water’s absence. The British took to it readily, and it wasn’t long that Smith’s Tiger Hill acquired the nickname Gibraltar.

Detached from its colonial nomenclature, the natives who were mostly forest-dwelling Santhals, called the hill Kunhuri, meaning an arrowhead. By the time the British left, the hill already had its fourth name, which it still carries: Canary.

Thousands of miles away from the famous Canary Islands, and with no connection to the bird either, the name Canary is an anglicised version of – and yet separate from – the vernacular Kanhari.

So when I talk about the hill in Hindi, it is always Kanhari, and when I talk about the hill in English, it is always Canary. I cannot think of Kanhari Hill in English, and I cannot think of Canary Pahad in Hindi.

In Indian classrooms, we are programmed to view hills as physical geography, but if this brief history of Canary’s multiple names points to anything, it is to the fact that hills like this are also important cultural entities.

Canary Hill, Hazaribagh. | Image credit: Courtesy NIC

Canary, like Juljul, is also a trickster, a shape-shifter of a hill. When viewed from the west, it takes the form of a sharp triangle out of a high school student’s geometry notebook.

The fall from the top is sharp, if not sheer. When viewed from the east, the triangle dwarfs in altitude. It becomes stepped and broad at the base, looking like the rear end of a Maruti Swift.

From the south, it is a trapezium with four corners, two rooted in the land and the other two propped up against the sky.

From the north, it is the profile of a woman standing in a forest, her sari trailing behind in a green, gentle descent. Quite like the heroines we see in Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions movies.

Canary, like Juljul, is also a view in motion, and no two views are the same.

In the monsoon, a low mist collects at its base, lending the hill a spell of levitation. In winters, a high mist shrouds the summit, and Canary looks as if it rose so high up in the sky that it was simply swallowed by the space.

To us, who know some history of the hill, and to those who have spent time with it, the story of Canary is that of enduring fondness and perpetual degeneration.

Part of its pessimism is born out of an irrational but tender romance for the past, a past that must compulsively remain glorious. All generations of people maintain that Canary was the most beautiful in their time; all generations maintain that Canary was the most tragic in their time.

I spend my years, oblivious, and with time, remember the past as golden too.

Like many British administrators before him, Sir John Wardle Houlton was an admirer of Hazaribagh.

For this former Deputy Commissioner, Hazaribagh was “a quiet back-water” residing in its lovely solitude, located miles away from the nearest railway station. This detachment from modern civilization rendered a timeless quality to Hazaribagh.

Though sometimes I grudgingly feel that the higher escarpment of Ranchi Plateau and the scenery it offers is more impressive, Houlton felt the opposite. Not only did he consider Hazaribagh’s landscape more attractive than Ranchi’s, he envisioned a future for the town as a “health-resort for the people of the plains of Bengal and Bihar.”

When I google Hazaribagh, often out of curiosity to see how the town is being described for the outside world, the results declare the place a “health-resort”.

This is Houlton’s phrase, which he had used in his 1949 book, Bihar: The Heart of India. Houlton had used the phrase to articulate only a possibility for the town, but for better or worse, it is now etched permanently in the perception of the place.

In recent years, I have met many curious folks who have come to Hazaribagh looking for a lavish resort, located perhaps by the lake or in the foothills of Canary, and after not finding any, returning disappointed. They missed the whole point. The town is the resort.

The view from Canary Hill, Hazaribagh. | Image credit: Pixabay.

Houlton was drawn to the forest of Canary too. During his tenure as the DC, he saw in the jungle, besides leopards and jungle fowl, a city forest way before the concept gained its modern currency. He planned a park at the foot of the hill and he carved out a small pond on its southern face. When it brimmed with water, he put fish into it.

In the larger scheme of things, Houlton’s hope was to turn the forest into a “national park in miniature”.

There are many reasons for a forest to be conserved or protected.

Earlier, it was done for timber or hunting, later to preserve wildlife. Today, the principal utility of a forest, or anything green for that matter, gravitates towards ensuring that we inhale better air.

Houlton’s need for conserving his miniature national park stemmed from hunting, but he went a step further and linked it to knowledge. He had hoped that in the future, people would come not merely to enjoy the unspoilt views of his game reserve but also to learn a thing or two about “that great natural asset, the forests of India”.

Canary’s golden past also refers to the time of SP Shahi, a legendary forest officer of undivided Bihar. Both Houlton and Shahi deserve credit for making Canary accessible to the people.

If Houlton was focussed on the forest, roughly a decade later, Shahi looked straight up at the hill. In the 1950s, as Bihar’s Conservator of Forest, he commissioned a number of constructions on Canary. He built a forest rest house on the hill’s east face, and the iconic shelter on the west. However, to build a shelter at the top meant also constructing a stairway up the hill.

Huge boulders were removed and patches of vegetation cleared to make way for a bare, narrow strip to coil up the hill. Later, brickwork commenced along this strip to create stairs. For climbers to rest, concrete benches were placed along the route.

It must have been a grind for Shahi’s men, and to some people at the time, it must also have amounted to the destruction of a landmass that had, for so long, stayed untouched.

Houlton was enterprising, but even he had spared the hill.

In fact, there’s a chapter in writer Malay Kumar Roy’s Hazaribagh memoir, An Elsewhere Place, which tells us about a man who grew so disheartened at the human encroachment of Canary through roads and buildings, through dynamite explosions, that he vowed never to return. He was not seen again, ever.

On Canary Hill, Hazaribagh. | Image credit: Naman Anand / CC-BY-2.0

The white shelter at the top of Canary, accessed by 570 or so steps, commanded Hazaribagh’s sky.

It consolidated the shape of the hill into a more apparent pyramid. It turned what was initially a curved top into a neat peak.

Shahi did not stop at the shelter. A gentle shoulder on the east was levelled into an incline, and a forest rest house was raised overlooking Houlton’s game reserve. Lastly, the petite rest house was given its own observation tower, a remarkable yet simple structure which has stood on a titanic boulder ever since its construction.

When I go there to watch the sunrise, I observe Houlton’s forest. I also observe Captain Smith’s cluster of hills at Silwar. I observe the town half-asleep and half-awake. I see athletes on their morning run. I see middle-aged men and women doing Yoga or Pranayaam.

With the shelter on the west, a rest house on the east, and a road that circled Canary in the fashion of a holy parikrama, I cannot help but wonder if Shahi realised the weight of what he was doing.

Besides initiating a landscape development project, Shahi was turning Canary into a future pilgrimage.

However, his white shelter, which loomed over the town like an omnipresent temple, was meant not for divinity but people. Canary was made sacred, it was made democratic, and it was done for the service of the visitors.

By opening Canary up to Hazaribagh, Shahi had turned a landmass into a landmark, and how!

Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau

Excerpted with permission from Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Mihir Vatsa, Speaking Tiger.