Shimla: Queen of The Hills
The cool breeze of the Himalayan foothills has long attracted people escaping the heat of the Indian high summer casting its fiery spell over the cities and plains of the subcontinent. Beginning in the early 19th century, for several months of the year, the British Raj was governed from a quaint town called Shimla, known as 'the workshop of the British Empire', and built over seven hills.
Still a popular and charming destination today, Shimla is the capital of of the state of Himachel Pradesh. The breathtaking views of the valleys and forests below are unchanged from the days of memsahibs and viceroys taking tea at the 'Amateur Dramatics Club' on The Mall. The atmosphere is festive all year round and walking trails are in abundance. The best times to visit are February to June with the evening nip a refreshing change from other parts of the country. Sunset here over the pine-frosted gorges is a splendid sight. Reach Shimla by car from Chandigarh or, more thrillingly, by UNESCO heritage toy train, The Himalayan Queen, from Kalka, a scenic six-hour journey.
The hill station's history is a colourful one. A set of hamlets in the 18th century, 'Simla' was named after a Hindu goddess, Shyamala Devi. Invaded by the Nepalese in 1806, the town was treated rather like a desirable courtesan and seized by the East India Company in 1815. Presented to the Patiala Raja for services rendered to the British , Simla, also known as Shimla, quickly caught the attention of the ruling powers. Governor General Lord Bentinck wrote of it being 'an agreeable refuge from the burning plains of Hindoostan' and a European population of army officers, tavern keepers and husband hunters made their way up the hills.
Bungalows and bazaars were built, church bells rang out from the newly-constructed Christ Church and lavish balls and parties became all the rage. By 1863, this former backwater was declared the summer capital of the Raj by viceroy John Lawrence. His successor Lord Lytton built the imposing baronial Viceregal Lodge, very much worth visiting today. Completed in neo-Elizabethan granite by glamorous Irishman Lord Dufferin, the lodge was filled with teak galleries, electricity and an indoor tennis court. Dances were held for 800 and a dazzling assortment of visitors were entertained. One viceroy's wife introduced purdah parties for royal Indian ladies and invited actress Dame Nellie Melba along with the King and Queen of Belgium.
It was into this royal court-like atmosphere that Mahatma Gandhi appeared 'a slim, spare figure in the coarse white wrappings of the Hindu holy man'. Jinnah, the future leader of Pakistan, sat and smoked in a Savile Row suit in the library with his bewitching wife, setting the stage for the demise of the Empire. Here in 1947, Mountbatten first showed Nehru the ill-fated plan for partition. As the long shadows move over the lawns of the lodge, it is easy to feel the ghosts of the past and marvel at all that this handsome building has witnessed.
The winding roads of Shimla contain several memorable places to stay including the Oberoi Cecil, once the home of an eccentric General and the fascinating Chapslee, the ivy-clad bungalow of royal Raja Reggie Singh and his collection of princely memorabilia and portraits. Resident author and historian, Raaja Bhasin has a deep love for Shimla, regularly lecturing and leading tours while sharing the anecdotes of this intriguing town. Heading up the local chapter of INTACH, the Indian equivalent of English Heritage, Bhasin has quietly campaigned to preserve so much of Shimla's unique legacy, publishing several bestselling books about its history. Here he shares with Ampersand Travel his view of 'the Queen of the Hills'.
1). As a noted specialist, historian and long time resident you must have seen many changes in the town. Where can a visitor go to experience the old world of summer capital 'Simla'?
The town has changed immensely, and at times, it seems that two different places inhabit the same geographical space. For all that, there are numerous pockets in town where 'old Simla' can still be seen and experienced - several homes, a few atmospheric hotels, some stretches of The Mall and numerous side paths and patches of woodland. I very much enjoy showing visitors the most evocative and lesser-known sights and buildings tucked away and full of history and stories.
2). Do you have a particular hotel in Shimla that conjures up the character of the hill station?
Some of the homestay places like Sunnymead and Sanjiv's Aira Holme are very evocative of everyday life in Simla. On a grander scale are Chapslee and Woodville Palace. All equally wonderful and again evocative of a vanished age.
3). What is your favourite anecdote about Raj-era life in Shimla?
In the middle of organising the Simla Conference in 1945, the-then Viceroy Lord Wavell received a letter asking him to recommend the sender, a gentleman from Karachi, for the Nobel Prize for his book titled, Can a Prostitute go to Heaven?
4). Do you ever help visitors connect with their British India ancestry? If so are there any examples that were memorable?
While there are many who come, either looking for a house, school or grave, the one incident I will never forget is of the English lady who came trying to trace her father. During the Second World War, her father was posted in Shimla at the Army Headquarters. As usual, he left one morning for office and was never heard of again. She was just a few weeks old at the time.