The Best Hill Stations in India | History of the Raj

Head above the clouds: India’s hill stations

Posted on February 10, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
View of Ganges river and Hindu temple

One of the many charms of Paul Scott’s novel “Staying On“, including its compelling dramatisation for television with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, was its backdrop of an Indian hill station as their choice of place to retire. Of course, the couple has lived through the last days of British India, but their refusal to leave sums up many people’s love affair with the country. Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things“, offers a more modern view of retirement in India, one based on the idea of ‘outsourcing retirement’; somewhat similar to outsourcing call centres.

Himilayan Landscape

Hill Station History

During the British Raj, the officers, officials and their families were desperate to escape the summer heat of the plains. So they looked to the Himalayas in the north and the Nilgiri Hills in the south, and created hill stations that were versions of England. These hill stations are usually at altitudes of 1,000 to 2,500 metres (3,500 to 7,500 feet) above sea level, and many of them also provided excellent sanatorium facilities because of their clean air. These hill stations remain popular holiday destinations, but some Westerners are looking at them as retirement resorts. There are plenty to choose from: you just need to decide whether you prefer the lush, tropical south, or the mountainous north where every view is of the majestic Himalayas.


The state of Uttarakhand has been compared to Switzerland; it is also called “The Land of the Gods” and is a centre of pilgrimage where there are numerous Hindu temples. Bordered by the snow-peaked Himalayas, you can see why it has an Alpine feel. This increasingly prosperous state is largely agricultural and towns are surrounded by basmati rice fields and orchards of apples, oranges, pears and peaches. With its mountain landscapes and green pastures, it’s no wonder that it is home to several of India’s most famously scenic hill stations.

The sacred river Ganges flows through Rishikesh, which is also known as “The World Capital of Yoga” and it was here that The Beatles met the Maharishi. The rather lovely, luxury Ananda-in-the-Himalayas spa and retreat is the perfect destination for a special treat holiday. The British thought of Mussoorie as a fairy tale town and it is considered one of the most beautiful hill stations. Nainital, which is built around a pear-shaped lake, was a popular health resort with British Raj soldiers and officials, and now it is popular with contemporary British visitors.

Young woman meditating by ganges river in rishikesh

Himachal Pradesh

Dalhousie, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh that is known for its beauty, is named after Lord Dalhousie, a one-time British Governor-General in India. The summer retreat is built on five hills and renowned for its healing waters. The town is noted for its Scottish and Victorian architecture, plus its mesmerising scenery. The city of Shimla is another famously British retreat, and in 1864 it was declared ‘the summer capital of British India’. You can ski on the slopes around Shimla, not an activity you normally associate with the colourful country!

Ooty - an indian city in south india high in the mountains

The Nilgiri Mountains

The Nilgiri Mountains, also called ‘The Blue Mountains’, cross the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala in southern India. They are part of the extensive Western Ghats range that forms the Deccan plateau. The area is famed for several hill stations, which are distinctly different to those in the north; you are unlikely to see much snow here.

Ootacamund, or Ooty, was a favourite with the British officials based in Madras. Its mountains, lakes, flower-filled fields and an almost constant, comfortable temperature all year round, make it an attractive resort to relax in. Thekkady in ‘God’s Own Country’ of Kerala, is India’s largest wildlife sanctuary. Hill station package holidays are one way to explore this beautiful area with its coastal and inland waters.

Maharashtra in the Middle

Mumbai is the capital of the state of Maharashtra, and although it is the most densely populated state in India, it has some stunning hill stations. The visitor driving from Mumbai to Pune, which is an experience worth the hire of an experienced local driver, will pass through Lonavla and Khandala. These two towns are only three kilometres apart in the Western Ghats, and there are times when visitors standing on the terrace of Dukes Retreat may find that they are standing above the clouds. Lonavla is conveniently located for transport and it is one of the prime locations for a luxury retirement resort.

Recent newspaper reports suggest that the notion of ‘outsourcing retirement’ is becoming an increasing reality and that exotic destinations such as Thailand and India are becoming more popular retirement destinations: a hill station might be just the thing for the post-colonial British retirees.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.