Once upon a time, our Cantonment spread over a thousand acres had just seventy-eight bungalows, a quaint bazaar with a few shops. Today you’ll find anything you’d ever need: dealers of all shapes and sizes trade in fruit and vegetables, grain and victuals, flats and properties.
At the end of Landour bazaar, beyond the steep Mullingar switchback, the ascent begins — shops to the right and houses (Annandale, Willow Lodge, and Green Lodge) to the left. From here the different roads branch off; if you continue up the one going to the left past the old rickshaws stand, it leads on to the Flat. Just past the Little Stars School in Claremont, stop a moment at the Lookout near the Big Bend. In 1885, this was the spot where people collected to see ‘The Rope Trick’ as an old copy of the Himalaya Chronicle reports:
A Rassi-ka-Mela took place at Landour, a little above Claremont, a house half-way up the hill, and where some rocks stand at the turning of the road. One end of the rope was fixed in there, and then stretched across the Butcher khana-khud to the hill opposite, several hundred yards. Away went the rider, obtaining a frightful impetus; with great force horse and rider were pitched against the hill-side. As they reached terra firma, the rider had his thigh and arm broken, in fact barely escaped being killed.
Apparently, a rope was prepared several inches in circumference, and several hundred yards long in length, made of Babur grass, which grew in abundance in these hills. When finished, it was tested. A few days before the fair took place, and a locality had been fixed upon, this rope was stretched from the hill-top, or hill-side, to another, across some frightful yawning khud, some hundred yards wide; one end of the rope being fixed much higher than the other. Like a wounded snake, the rope dragged its slow length along across the defile. On it was placed a large wooden horse, or imitation of one, generally painted red or blue, under which or through the horse’s legs, it was tied as to keep it in an upright horizontal position, so that it could slide from higher to the lower end of the rope. The rider’s legs being weighed down with sand filled bags to keep him from toppling over.
On the day of the fair, thousands of hill folks collected together to witness the tamasha, music, and dancing, not to forget hill hooch. At the appointed hour, the horseman got astride of his Trojan charger, and at a given signal, away went the horse and rider, down the rope, acquiring increased speed as they proceeded; the crash at the last was fearful, horse and rider being pitched with great violence to the ground. Predictably, the gathering could not have been very human in their outlook.
Records tell us that in former years, the rajahs, their ranis and retinue, used to be present. It was customary then to have a body of matchlock men in attendance, and as the bold rider and horse slipped down the rope, a volley was fired at them, but seldom hit, but had a casualty occurred, the venturesome rider would have been handsomely paid, and the family pensioned. After the ride was over, all present contributed according to their means, so that a goodly sum was collected.
In his novel, Wild Sweet Witch Phillip Mason, an old civil servant (under the pseudonym Phillip Woodruff) brings to life the abject horror of those fated to be hurled down the rope in what was probably an old fertility rite.
An indignant Surgeon General Edward Balfour wrote: ‘It’s an affair which since some years has been put a stop to through the Commissioner of Kumaon, who represented to the Rajah of Garhwal about the loss of life which frequently took place during the spectacle.’