"SIMLA" THEN AND "SHIMLA" NOW:
The driver of our car swings around a series of dizzying hairpin bends. Off the edge of the road are valleys that lie hundreds of feet below us, their toy-sized village houses clinging to the slopes, their pathways threading along the folds of the hills. And rearing against the horizon are the mighty Himalayas-range upon range of gigantic snow covered peaks-one of the most magnificent panoramas in the world.
My cousins and I are in India, traveling to Shimla at an altitude of 7,500+ feet in the Himalayan foothills. Once the summer capital of the Raj this is where the elite of the British civil service and military brass exchanged the searing summer heat and dust of the plains for the cool deodar and pine forested slopes of the hills. Today it is a popular holiday resort for Indian families who hike the mountain trails in summer, and toboggan down the snowy slopes in winter.
My cousin, who now lives in Australia, has nostalgic memories of growing up in Simla (as it was known then) and I, too, recall with fondness my last visit to the town, back in the 1960s. But, as we round the last corkscrew bend, Shimla comes into view and we exchange rueful glances. What was once a settlement of Tudor-style government buildings and English country cottages dotted between the forest glades has burgeoned into an immense swath of ugly concrete multi-rise commercial buildings all tightly packed in Lego-like tiers up and down the hillsides.
Having checked into our hotel, the romantically named Honeymoon Inn, we set out on a walk along the Mall-the main street which straddles the town. Our initial dismay begins to dissolve as we discover that beneath "Shimla's" untidy façade, "Simla's" old world charm and reminders of a less hurried world still lingers.
We recognize landmarks that evoke a different era-the stately turrets of Viceregal Lodge, once the residence of British Viceroys rear against the sky. It was the scene of feverish negotiations that ultimately closed a chapter of Indian history in 1947 i.e. the end of the British Raj and the birth of two independent nations-India and Pakistan. Today the building serves the country's intelligentsia at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Gorton Castle, a baronial edifice reminiscent of an English country estate used to be the Secretariat offices from where one fifth of the world's population was once administered; today it is the Office of the Accountant General of Himachal Pradesh.
Strolling along the Mall, my cousin is thrilled to find that the old Gaiety Theatre-a dignified grey stone building-still offers live theatre during the summer season. "I remember seeing The Mikado here," she says, "they did quite a bit of G & S back then. And at Christmas they'd put on a variety show-always packed to the rafters!"
Rising off the Mall at Scandal Point (and thereon hangs a tale!) is the Ridge with views of Himalayan ranges on the horizon. Today, however, a chiffon scarf of mist obscures the peaks, so we turn away and stroll towards Christchurch, pausing en route to click a photograph or two of the half-timbered Tudor-style Town Hall and Library. Inside the Church a few people kneel in prayer. Sunlight streams through the stained glass windows and alights on memorial plaques to long dead British military officers-mute testaments to a vanished era.
It is easy to imagine 'Simla' of yore in these surroundings. On the Ridge a military band would perform rousing marches or sentimental Edwardian ballads while corseted society ladies in muslin gowns strolled the promenade accompanied by their husbands in waistcoats and top hats. I can "hear" the rustle of anticipation as the Viceroy and Vicerene arrive in their ceremonial carriage - the only wheeled conveyance allowed along the Mall and Ridge. The band would strike up God Save the King and everyone would then freeze to attention. No wonder Simla was the closest thing to "Home" for many a homesick Briton.
Yet below the surface there seethed a Simla which Rudyard Kipling labelled as being a hotbed of "frivolity, gossip and intrigue". Clandestine affairs burgeoned between young bachelors and wives whose husbands were absent on duty tours. Scandal Point earned its nickname after an amorous Maharaja of Patiala was said to have eloped with a Viceroy's daughter, whereupon he was banished from the town for life!
Today, however, Shimla has a decidedly post-Raj ambience. Indian families stroll along the Ridge-wives wearing trendy Delhi style shalwar kameez outfits, their husbands in casual jeans sweaters. Groups of giggling teenagers pose for photographs, and old men, retired Indian Army officers perhaps, wearing scarves and burglar caps and sit on wooden benches, their eyes distant with memories.
In the Lower Bazaar terraces below the Mall, the alleyways are crowded. We rub shoulders with tourists bargaining for Tibetan jewellery, embroidered garments, wooden ornaments, leather goods, souvenirs and trinkets. Pahari men (of Nepali or Tibetan stock) with leathery weather-beaten faces carry loads of wood or gunny sacks on their backs; their women wearing pantaloons and headscarves, carry rosy cheeked babies slung in hammocks on their backs as they shop for vegetables and fruit. Roadside stalls sell snacks and the smell of spices, fried puris (flatbread), chickpea curries and syrupy jalebis hangs over everything.
Historical "Simla" still exists beside contemporary "Shimla". Both are worth visiting.
IF YOU GO:
By road: A well maintained highway runs from Kalka (the railhead) to Shimla and the journey averages about three hours, depending on traffic which can, at times, be heavy. Taxi drivers insist on charging return fares, even if it's only a one way trip. Be prepared to bargain.
Several "toy" trains which run on a narrow gauge line offer an alternative means of getting up to Shimla from Kalka (and vice versa) and although the journey is longer (about 5 to 6 hours) it's a delightful trip. It is also less expensive than using a taxi. See www.holidayiq.com/railways/kalka-simla-express-251-train.html
Where to Stay:
Hotels in Shimla have mushroomed. Heritage luxury hotels like Clarke's and the Cecil Hotel (both owned by the Oberoi chain) are pricey but worth it if you like being pampered like royalty. A mid- range alternative is Honeymoon Inn at the west end of the Mall firstname.lastname@example.org but like many hotels in Shimla, the non-motorable access road is steep climb. Porters from the hotel are available to carry luggage up to the rooms. Other than this, it is an excellent hotel with good food, clean and comfortable rooms (some with views across Shimla) and attentive service. Good value at a very reasonable price.
For more hotels go to Tripadvisor: www.tripadvisor.ca/Hotels-g304552-Shimla_Himachal_Pradesh-Hotels.html
Best time to visit:
Spring-Summer season: March to September
Winter season: October to February - temperatures fall below freezing and road closures due to heavy snowfalls are sometimes a problem. Hotels aren't equipped with central heating but offer portable heaters for a nominal fee.
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts and, where noted, sourced through Wikipedia's Creative Commons.
1. A view of Shimla today - Margaret Deefholts
The following images are from Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
8. Another view of Shimla today - Ashok Singh dss via Wikipedia
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