The drastic diminishing of Nainital’s Naini lake is a story of greed. Of the colonisation of a fragile ecosystem by the rich and powerful determined to cleanse out the humble natives and “tame” nature. Of a culture whose only real faith is money.

Time was when people in Kumaon, the Uttarakhand region in which Nainital falls, worshipped their lakes, waterfalls, springs. They weaved stories of the divine around them: this lake was the abode of a goddess, that one of a godly serpent or monster. The springs were controlled by the fairies Aanchhari Maanchhari.

Because the natural resources were held as sacred, they were gently used. Defecating around them, fishing or washing dirty linen was forbidden. The divine dwelling in the lakes and springs, it was believed, would make them last for eternity.

In the Pahadi folklore, the Naini lake was created by the god Shiva for his three thirsty devotees – Atri, Pulatsya and Ulaha – and is the abode of the goddess Narayani Devi. The lake’s agony began in March 1839, when its divinity was sought to be swept out.

Lost to the world

One Batten, his brother-in-law P Barron, owner of the famous Rosa brewery of Shahjehanpur, and Captain Weller, the head of public works in Kumaon, were game hunting in the forests of Haldwani when they heard about a sacred lake up in the hills that only one white man, Commissioner Traille, had seen. The lake was forbidden to all, except pilgrims. No activities were allowed other than those strictly associated with a holy pilgrimage. The lake belonged to the goddess and none dared fish or swim, or put a boat on it.

Curious, the Englishmen climbed up to Bhimtal – home to another less mysterious lake – and asked for the way to the Naini lake. The villagers reckoned these white men did not respect local lore as Traille did and refused to guide them lest they desecrate the goddess’s abode. But the British officers persisted. They carried a 20-foot-long boat from Bhimtal and put it on the Naini lake. They took the local headman Nar Singh along for the ride and mid-lake forced him to sign away the area to the British for a measly sum. Singh was later employed at an annual salary of 15 rupees.

Thus did the British lay claim to the goddess’s abode.

In 1841, the Calcutta paper Englishman announced the discovery of a pristine lake near the town of Almora by two Englishmen. The Agra Akhbar published a letter from Barron himself – under his pen name ‘Pilgrim’ – describing in detail the place and the possibilities it held for boating, fishing, shooting and playing golf if it was developed as a summer resort for officials of the East India Company.

In 1842, the area was surveyed by British officials and a local contractor named Lala Moti Ram Sah was found to undertake the project. The next year, Barron partied with friends on Christmas Eve in his new house called The Pilgrim Lodge. The builder, in the manner of all superstitious builders, erected a temple to propitiate Narayani Devi.

Three decades later, in 1871, an earthquake struck the area. A fiercer one followed in 1880, which, combined with heavy rain, caused landslides that destroyed almost the entire upper part of the town, including the builder’s temple, leaving 151 dead. The local people understood it as divine wrath.

Having thus punished the desecrators of her abode, the legend goes, the goddess went inside a cave within the lake, never to reemerge. The Naina Devi temple to her that stands today was built later on the spot where the bell of the ruined temple had been found.


Steady decline

The Naini lake was scientifically measured for the first time in 1871 by one Dr Amesbury, who reported it be about two miles in circumference and 93 feet deep near what was called the Smugglers’ Rock. The bluish green water, he reported, had turned opaque and reddish brown due to the “agitation of the bed of the lake” by the earthquake that year.

It was believed that given the plentiful rainfall in Nainital, water shortage would never be a problem but water accumulation could pose a threat. So, an elaborate drainage system was designed with sluice gates opening downward at Tallital. The system is still functional. Until the 1960s, the flood markers the British had put up around the lake were a common sight. Perhaps none of them survive now.

Indiscriminate felling of trees, construction of precariously placed hotels and other buildings, concretisation of the catchment area and destruction of natural springs – only half of the 60 springs remain, according to local environmentalists – over the past decade have caused the water level in the Naini lake to recede drastically.

Generally, the water level receded by 3-4 feet each summer. But alarm bells rang this year when the level fell nearly 18 feet below normal. The lake gets water from several sources but, according to a survey done by the National Institute of Hydrology about two decades ago, half of it is contributed by a nearby natural reservoir called Sookha Tal. A more recent study, conducted by a local NGO in collaboration with the University of Cambridge in 2015, found that 40% of the subsurface water flow into the lake came from Sookha Tal, whose dolomite and lime stone makes it an ideal catchment area for rainwater.

In recent years, as the town’s population grew and tourist footfall rose manifold, Sookha Tal was encroached upon by developers, choking its natural subsurface water channels. “No one now looks at water anymore, everyone looks at the land,” an agitated relative told me, explaining how the “developer mafia” works. “Rich folks from outside grease the palms of corrupt officials to get domicile certificates, and then buy hillsides from cunning touts in areas which have no water. Then they want tankers to supply them water. The touts say if we can sell barren land to these aankh ke andhey, gaanth ke poorey [the sightless ones with deep pockets] corrupt desi rich, why not? So big homes come up and guzzle water. And finally who lives there? Mostly the caretakers and their families. Only we who have little money stay here the whole year round.”

The consequence is all too apparent. “The town stinks of sewage and dead fish through the summer,” the relative said.

How long can this oasis of a town in a fast drying land absorb new people? It can take guests for short stays, it can bear with visiting merchants, but it cannot absorb whole tribes of new colonisers.

For now, everything in the little hill state of Uttarakhand depends on a fragile equilibrium that still exists between man and nature. Upsetting it further would mean death as we saw in the unraveling of the Kedar valley in 2013.

Yet, to attend a meeting, conference or symposium of environmental activists, scientists and politicians, accompanied by their loyal phalanx of bureaucrats, is to get sucked into a whirl of discussions, gossip and departmental quarrels. They break for tea and lunch and continue to shout about the degradation of the environment, waving leaflets and pamphlets.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?