Peak of paradise found in Uttarakhand's Jilling, a nondescript hill station
A quaint hill station with an intriguing history, Jilling—a two-hour drive from Nainital, Uttarakhand—makes for a riveting exploration
Published: 15th January 2023 05:00 AM | Last Updated: 15th January 2023 11:36 AM | A+A A-
A round, spiky, neon green fruit that resembles the succulent Southeast Asian Rambutan litters the contours of the narrow trails of Jilling, a nondescript hill station in Uttarakhand. Carefully, Daya Dani, the caretaker of the Nanda Stone cottage, a private retreat for tourists, scoops it up, places it on the ground and crushes it under his boots, strong enough to crack open the bristly exterior and gentle enough to preserve the seed inside.
The action simultaneously releases the subtle fragrance of the sweet chestnut and mountain nostalgia of cosy conversations around the angeethi through long winters, stoking the fire, while gorging on the pahadi delicacy of salted, boiled chestnuts. Dani then gathers enough to carry them back for his guests at the property that offers visitors sustainable lodging, including organic food in the welcoming fold of the forest.
Jilling shot to fame with the iconic Jilling Estate, a 120-acre piece of land that former pilot Steve Lall made his home, along with his wife Parvati, who grew up there. Together, they conserved the forest, while raising a family and running their rustic homestay for people who enjoyed nature. A mini forest in itself with an intriguing history, the Jilling Estate makes for fantastic exploration marked with trails
that are easy to follow.
An easy two-hour drive, east of the popular hill station, Nainital, Jilling is believed to get its name
from the homophone silling, a tree native to the region that once grew in plenty. A local variety of sweet olive or tea olive, silling grows between altitudes of 1,200 and 1,300 m in the temperate Himalayas of Uttarakhand and Sikkim. Known in traditional Chinese medicine for its healing properties and its fragrant extracts in the cosmetic industry, the silling tree in the mountains was once considered as holy as the banyan and peepal trees.
“The word silling was later anglicised to Jilling by the many Britishers who built their home here,” says Ashish Verma, mountain lover and art connoisseur, who calls Jilling his home. “And the beauty is that the place never quite expanded beyond being a forest marked with a handful of old colonial estates and a few new homes that have mushroomed of late in some patches. Overall, it retains much of its original essence of wilderness,” says the resident, who in his decade-long stay here, has only grown to love the place more and continues to discover other facets.
One of the most intriguing moments was when Verma caught the first glimpse of the enigmatic Nanda Devi from Jilling, turning Uttarakhand’s sacrosanct mountain into a life-long muse. It was in that moment that he decided to build her an ode in 2022. It was called Nanda Stone cottage, perched on the southeastern edge of Jilling. It’s a place from where one can view the Goddess of Bliss, Nanda Devi, from nearly every corner of the property.
Verma embarked on an arduous journey to Garhwal to bring a stone from near the base of the mountain to add to the foundation of the house. Another such stone from the site has been placed in a glass box on display over a ledge in the lounge. Split across two levels, Nanda Stone is largely built using stone and wood. The kitchen and dining space are kept warm with the unique ‘rocket stove’, a global technology now incorporated by kitchens in the Himalayas, which allows efficient, clean burning, sealed by clever design. Plastered with mud, the otherwise modern Nanda Stone tips its hat to local architecture by giving the rare art of lipai a new lease of life.
Many of the older families of the region still grow everything from scratch, best explored on a walk
to the adjoining village of Kanarkha. To get a taste of this, a visit to Dani’s home is a must. The Kumaoni meal that is served there is homegrown and delicious. And keeping you company is the sunset awashed in the colours of Nanda Devi.
SET IN STONE
Nanda Stone cottage uses chiselled stones for its roof, an age-old craft from the 16th-century artwork of the Katyuri and Chand dynasties, examples of which can still be seen in the ancient temples of
Uttarakhand from Jageshwar to Kedarnath. Other than the architecture, what leaves a lasting impression is chef Hem’s farm-to-table food, a revival of the agricultural practices of Jilling that slowly disappeared with the villagers who have now migrated.