Unlike in the mountains, nothing can be more counterproductive than ascending up the plateau in search of a scenery. On its highest point, which, instead of a point, is really an expansive table-top, there is hardly anything, except for minor undulations, that rescues the surface from the flatness of its terrain. It is on top of such flatland that our plateau towns grew. Hazaribagh, in the North Chhotanagpur Plateau, and Ranchi, a bit higher up in the South.
These towns grew because due to their higher altitudes, they enjoyed temperatures lower than their otherwise picturesque neighbours existing at the escarpment. So, while Hazaribagh was a hill station for the British at a humble 2019 ft/615 m above sea level, the town has only four hills - none towering exceptionally over the town; all visible from the footover bridge at the new railway station - and while the low-lying Katkamsandi was never a hill station for the British, it is nonetheless surrounded generously by hill ranges.
A postcolonial reading of Hazaribagh’s terrain may simply imply that this hill station of a town had less to do with hills and more to do with its “pleasant climate” and nights that are “rarely oppressive”, which surely suited the early colonisers living just 500 km away in Calcutta.
Because the town of Hazaribagh was established for its altitude, it shows just how the very geography of a place goes on to shape it into the present. For example, the “man-made” Hazaribagh Central Jail, from where Jayprakash Narayan had escaped in 1942, was built by digging out the same earth which has, in its absence, given the otherwise “natural” Hazaribagh Lake its current shape. Throughout history, humans have personalised terrains, and this synergy has reduced the much preserved binary between the natural and the man-made to nothing more than irrelevance. But I digress.
The way we understand what is scenic was first taught to us in the drawing classes. Indian stand-up comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath articulates it precisely and with excellent humour in this video
. A scenery, we are conditioned to believe, is incomplete without hills forming distinct V shapes in the horizon. A river must originate from one of these Vs, and there has to be a solitary hut in the foreground. Judging by these features, the town of Hazaribagh, with its four hills is just not scenic. No river flows from the V of the two hills, and in the place of a lonely hut, the town has apartment buildings.
If the word higher
has come to be used in India as a signifier for accentuated merit, then, in the context of the scenic, a plateau is a subversion. For instead of higher, it is in the lower reaches that a plateau turns into hills. The plateau is
hills. It is the escarpment which screens a continuous stream to make it appear as if it were a new river emerging from the ranges. It is also the escarpment which shows, instead of apartments, the hut beside the flow.
In a plateau, validation for the Indian scenery comes not from climbing up the ascent, but descending from it. The lower you descend, the more scenic is the landscape. The higher you ascend, the more you unlearn the scenery.