DESTINATION
HISTORY OF SHIMLA

Way back in 1817, a small village tucked away in the Himalayas was discovered by British surveyors and pronounced an ideal retreat for the homesick colonizers. Named after Shyamla Devi, an incarnation of the fierce goddess Kali, stories of Shimla’s salubrious climate and invigorating surroundings made it grow in popularity.

 

In 1830, the land around was bought from the local ruler and Shimla turned into a resort for British army officers. Soldiers recuperating from the Gurkha war came up to the hill resort to heal their wounds, while the memsahib’s favored its cooler climate to the hot, humid and mosquito-infested plains.

 

Soon it began to look like an English village as cottages with gardens, tree-lined walks, churches and cricket pitches came up around town. Finally, in 1864, the town was formally declared the summer capital of the Imperial Government. Every summer, tons of files and baggage were transported all the way from Calcutta and later Delhi, to this hill town.

 

Shimla came alive with gentlemen and ladies spending their days at garden parties, games of bridge, grand dinners and balls. The main pedestrian walkway, known as the Mall, was popular for evening promenades. Several British landmarks, including the Christ Church, the Cecil Hotel and the Gaiety Theatre came up along the Ridge.

 

In 1903, the Kalka-Shimla railway link was begun making the hitherto arduous journey up much simpler. Even today, the quaint toy train connecting Kalka to Shimla chugs up steep hill slopes carrying hordes of eager tourists.

 

Due to its secluded location and relaxed surroundings, Shimla was useful as a meeting point for national leaders. In the days just before India’s independence in 1947, the architects of modern India and the leaders of the Muslim League met here to discuss the modalities of the transfer of power.

 

Later, in 1972 the landmark Shimla Accord was signed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the premiers of India and Pakistan. The Shimla Accord was an effort at diffusing tension between the two nations that had remained hostile after independence and partition.

Sightseeing in Shimla
The focal point of Shimla is the Ridge and the Mall running around its south slope. From this central area, the town spills downwards, with winding roads linking up settlements and stone steps connecting each layer. The Cart Road encircles the base of the main settlement, and is the highest motorable road of Shimla.

The Mall is open only to pedestrians. There is a lift run by the Himachal Tourist Department that connects the railway stations and Cart Road to the Mall. The Mall is the main shopping area of Shimla, lined with shops selling woollen garments and shawls, handicrafts, departmental stores, eateries and old colonial timber houses.

 

There is a palpable change of character from the times when the Mall was strictly out of bounds for all natives except royalty, to the noisy and very Indian crowds that walk down it today.

Dominating the eastern end of the Ridge is the Christ Church, which was consecrated in 1857. It is a prominent yellow painted building with a Victorian-Gothic spire. Inside, some of the finest stained glass windows in India depict faith, hope, charity, fortitude, patience and humility.

 

Next to the church is the mock-Tudor Library, built in 1910. It has a collection of historical books and subscribes to most English language dailies.

On the other extreme of the central square is the Scandal Corner. The place got its curious name after the daughter of a high-ranking British officer eloped with a Patiala prince from here.

 

The place is now dominated by a statue of the Punjabi freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai and groups of local people gather here in the afternoon for some casual chit-a-chat. The Kali Bari close to Scandal Point enshrines the idol of Shyamla Devi, the presiding deity of Shimla.

Other reminders of Shimla’s colonial past include the Town Hall, the timber lined General Post Office and the old Gaiety Theatre. This popular hall was home to the Shimla Amateur Dramatic Society, complete with a gentlemen’s club where the discussion veered around the noble pursuit of cricket and horse racing.

 

Down from the Mall stands the gracious Cecil Hotel, originally built in 1877 and now rebuilt to its original grandeur. Leading away from the Mall are the narrow alleys and busy side streets of the market.

This part of town, with its rickety shacks, corrugated iron sheet roofs and colorful stalls, has a distinctive local flavour. The Lakkar Bazaar is famed for its wood crafts and souvenir shops, while the Subzi Mandi or lower Bazaar has stalls stocked with fruits, vegetables and dry fruits.

 

A cluster of Tibetan shops sell imported goods, though some could be fakes. The other important church, St. Michael’s Cathedral, which is built like a cruciform, is just off the Mall.

The State Museum, housed in a colonial mansion, is half an hour’s hike from the centre on the western edge of town. The museum has a good collection of traditional as well as contemporary art. The ground floor has a gallery with fine Pahari miniatures, a style developed under the auspices of the Kangra rulers. These traditional paintings follow the Mughal miniature style, with themes from the life of Krishna, the Hindu god of love.

 

Other parts of the museum display a collection of traditional costumes and jewellery, stone sculptures, temple bronzes and deity masks from the Kullu valley. One room in the museum is devoted to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, who spent some time in Shimla. The display includes caricatures of Gandhi and his encounters with the British rulers.


The most impressive colonial edifice of Shimla is the Viceregal Lodge, now known as the Rashtrapati Niwas (President’s House). Sitting on the flat top of Observatory Hill, this Elizabethan mansion was built in 1888 for Lord Dufferin. It now houses the Institute of Advanced Studies, and is open only in some parts to the public.

 

The grey building still retains its grandeur, with a lion and unicorn guarding the entrance, immaculate lawns and original brass fire hydrants from Manchester.

The lodge has a chapel and an indoor swimming pool. Inside, the rooms have rich woodcarvings and wooden paneling. The ballroom has now been turned into a library, while the conference room has photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi in consultation during the run-up to independence.

 

The lodge also has a botanical garden and a café. Towards the rear is a stone terrace with a view of some major Himalayan peaks. There are streams running down from top of the hill, flowing into the Sutlej, Yamuna and Ganga.

The Prospect Hill, which can be reached by a short-cut through the forests west of the Viceregal Lodge, is a popular picnic spot. A tarmac path leads up to the top at 2,176 metres, crowned by the Kamana Devi temple.

 

Here you get a grand view of the southern side of Shimla, the undulating hills and valleys of southern Himachal and beyond to the plains of Punjab in the distance.

The Jakhu Temple, sitting on top of Jakhu hill at 2,455 metres is the highest point on the ridge. This temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, is quite appropriately beset with hordes of very aggressive monkeys. It is best to steer clear of them and keep all eatables well out of reach. Shimla has some other interesting spots that warrant a quick tour.

 

Some are the Glen, a thickly wooded area 4 kms to the northwest past the Cecil Hotel, Chadwick Falls at 1,586 metres where the river drops 67 meters and is best visited during the monsoons, the temple of Tara Devi, the Sankat Mochan Temple about 7 kms on the Shimla-Kalka road and the Himalayan Aviary close to the Viceregal Lodge, with a selection of birds like the monal, pheasant, pea fowls and peacocks.


The suburb of Summer Hill, about 5 kms away from town and a stop on the Kalka-Shimla rail line, has quiet walks through wooded surroundings. The University is also located here.

COMMON WEALTH GAMES