memories of family outings.....


A mountain and a Woman of Steel

I am not sure at what height a hill graduates to be called a "mountain".
The bump in the topography of the Ferrarganj tehsil does not look very august, but at 365mts. above sea level, its summit is the highest point in South Andamans. Perhaps that justifies the honorific "Mt." before its name, Harriet.
But i should not quarrel with the label. Because, if it is a Mountain, then i can claim to be a mountaineer ! A-ha !

We ( two kids, a young niece and i) started out very early, carrying with us a tiffin box of Idlis, potato gravy from Annapurna Cafe. Potato gravy and idlis make strange bedfellows. But at that early hour, only 3 items were ready and the cheerful server boy, whom we had befriended , was kind enough to pack the meal for us in a jiffy, with some cola cans , as thoughtful additions.

An hour long journey brought us to the sylvan highrise, green, cool and quiet.
Just the previous day, we had visited another green,cool and quiet hill in the small,lonely Viper Island. But it had been an eerie place, with its abandoned ,gallows-fitted jailhouse at the top. Mt.Harriet was the exact opposite. It felt like a piece of Eden.
The vegetation was lush and the trail was cross country. Just a handful of trekkers were seen about. We took our time going up, for every now and then, something or the other arrested our attention and we degressed ,pausing to admire : a strange berry, huge colourful moths, a shrubful of lilac bloom, a view of the beach , a bird atop the tree, a suspected reptile or wildpig rustling within the grass, a squirrel chomping on a nut. Sightseeing at every step.

Midway, when we settled on an outcrop of black boulders to have our packed breakfast, four people pulled up to rest too. Unlike us,they were all correctly fitted out for a mountain trek, in sunshades, hats, binoculars,boots, torch, swiss knife etc. And one big watermelon. And they looked famished. They had started out too early to buy any food.
Sharing our food and drinks was in order, so we did. Chatting had to follow and we did. Only to find that one of the men had gone to the same primary school as i and the women and my niece had at least 4 common friends. Small world !

Breakfast done, we made dessert of the melon and off we went to the summit. A small park and a gazebo of the colonial kind. And yonder, a small cottage. Mt.Harriet had once been the summer HQ of the Chief Commissioner during British Raj. We gathered that the white folks who lorded over the penal colony ( and perhaps, the aborigines too) lived in Ross Island and took to the hill when things hotted up. Ross Island still stands, clutched by the protective trees, as though waiting for the residents to return. A great place for photography and we had spent almost half a day there right upon arrival at Andamans. ( The Kulfis, from cloth covered mudpots, sold in the ferry that took us to Ross, have stuck to memory.)
The trek through Mt. Harriet was very enjoyable. We followed it up with a visit to the very scenic Chidiya Thapu Beach. The huge hulks of sun bleached drift wood that dot the white sandy beach here give the place a "prehistoric" look.

"Is Harriet a bird ?" the younger kid had wondered that night. Doubt justified. Ever since arriving in Port Blair, we had been seeing and hearing of only birdnames. HornBill Nest, Teal House, Woodpecker Lodge, Megapode Nest, Phoenix Bay, Chidiya Thapu etc. ( The Wood Pigeon is the State Bird).

But Harriet is not a bird of course. Info. from the Tourist Home docufilm said that the mount is named for a memsahib, the wife of a 19th century Lt.General who served in Andamans. Some people have such luck , we told ourselves. Some mousey englishwoman follows her husband and sets up house in Ross Island for just 2 years and gets a mountain named after her, for eternity ! Unfair !

I forgot all about Madam Harriet for the rest of our holiday in Andamans. Lovely lagoons, beautiful beaches , cosy coves.
Snorkelled at Jollyboy. What a wonderland amidst the corals !
Sound&Light show at the Cellular Jail. Shuddered .
Splurged in the local market on shells,shells and more shells.
Had some tense time with cancelled flights and alternative ticketing, in the fish -market- like melee of the airport. Only to learn it was all very usual !
Better to take the ship anyday i guess.

Much later, after the sunburn on the kids' noses had been lightened to normal tint and the holiday photographs had been tossed into the attic, i came across an article about a Pioneer Woman Photographer from the era when photography was an art still in infancy.
She was Harriet Tytler.( 1828 -1907 ). The Harriet of Mt.Harriet. She and her husband Robert Tytler (Armyman ,Naturalist and Photographer)produced nearly 300 panoramic plates of Indian scenes in mid 19th century, which are now considered treasures in the history of photography.The only photograph of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar II,( that poignant,heart rending portrait of the dying emperor) was clicked by Robert, her husband and her photography guru.
( <- The portrait of the last moghul )

Its a curious thing, but once you stumble upon something by chance, you keep bumping into it again and again. Be it a name, a song or a word. I suddenly started discovering Harriet here and there. She popped up in Dalrymple's books of the Raj. She figured in a BBC report, when her memoirs were relaunched in late 90s. And again, i saw her in press releases when her works were briefly exhibited in Calcutta. Each time, i learnt a little more, a little more about Harriet. And now i think of her as a Steel Magnolia.

Harriet was one of the very few English women to have survived the siege of Delhi during the Sepoy Mutiny. Not only did she go through the most horrendous experiences, she also gave birth to a boy right in the middle of the crisis ( she named him Delhiforce !), and lived to write her memoirs in her 77th year. The book is rich in details about life in India and of the mutiny itself.
Harriet's life is a remarkable saga of grit and moral strength, right from her childhood in England. This mother of 10 was also a talented painter and ran an Orphanage in Simla,in later years. She comes through as a true woman of substance , the substance being Steel.

Part of her story can be found in an article in the UK Times :

She richly deserves to have a beautiful mountain named for her. I am glad i discovered both that mountain and this woman.
A photo plate by Harriet and Robert.


LG said...

I had never heard about the mountain or Harriet. It was a good knowledge update to myself.

Satya said...

I have decided to be officially jealous of you.

BTW a South Asian Archeologist liked my Brahmagiri write-up!!!!!!

Chitra said...

Awesome - the mountain, the lady and your findings!

Janaki Gopikrishna said...

woow well documented. the slide show on top simply superb

Janaki Gopikrishna said...

woow well documented. the slide show on top simply superb

Rwitoja said...

It was wonderful to read about both the Andamans and Harriet.In spite of having ten kids she still managed to do so much! It makes me feel my life is really wasted.

Guhan said...

Very nice amma, i still remember the Idlee and Potato curry combination.
If i remember correctly, there was this Malaysian group who had brought hard boiled eggs as well, and bread
Some trip that was

Nice read, good to get back memories