01 January 1970

The Restored Bantony Castle Is Ready To Tell The Story Of Shimla

Weekend Reads

The Restored Bantony Castle Is Ready To Tell The Story Of Shimla

Bantony Castle, the 143-year-old British-era landmark in Shimla, has come alive after its Rs 29-crore restoration. The light and sound show is the major tourist attraction.

The Bantony Castle in Shimla, which has now been restored and is set to emerge as a culutral centre.
The Bantony Castle in Shimla, which has now been restored and is set to emerge as a culutral centre.

“Who am I? Many of you don’t know me, my glorious past. As I stand tall before you, raised from the rubble, today I will take you through my momentous journey. Hello, I am Bantony! Come, stay with me for the next few minutes as I take you through an eventful history of my past.” 

Actor Anupam Kher’s voice greets the audience who are gathered for the open-air light and sound show at the 143-year-old British-era landmark in Shimla—Bantony Castle. The once-crumbling monumental castle now sparkles in glittering lights. 

Kher, the Shimla-born actor, in his captivating voice, tells the story of the heritage building and also of the city which transformed from a non-descript village in 1830 to become the summer capital of the British. 

Located on the Kalibari road, barely a few metres away from Shimla’s iconic Scandal Point, Bantony Castle was the summer palace of the Maharaja of Sirmaur and was built in the 19th century. The iconic building, home to some of the finest architecture, started crumbling many years ago and could have fallen to Shimla’s winter fires.  

Several attempts made by the successive governments in the post-Independence era to restore the building failed. The first one was made in 1968, and the rest—in 1975, 1986, and 2004—were made after Himachal Pradesh came into being as a separate state in 1971. Finally, in 2016, six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, cleared its acquisition. The government paid Rs 27 crore to its private owners.

Located on Bantony Hill, named after Lord William Bentinck, the former Governor-General of India, the building is said to have been designed by TEG Cooper under the watchful eye of Raja Surender Bikram Prakash—the king of Sirmaur from 1898 until his death in 1911. The main building is a two-storey structure constructed in the mock Tudor Style, part chalet and crowned with a sloping roof with mini towers.

Before its construction began in 1880, the site had a cottage belonging to Captain A Gordon, which housed Army officers. During the two World Wars, the rulers of Sirmaur allowed the colonial government to use the premises for military purposes.

During World War II, here laid the Prisoner of War section attached to the All India Radio for handling messages of mostly Italian prisoners interred at Yol, near Dharamshala. Just after the Independence, the newspaper The Tribune, which had been based in Lahore, began functioning here till it shifted its base to Chandigarh. 

Just before the Independence of India, Bantony passed into the hands of the Maharaja of Darbhanga. In 1957-58, Maharaja Sir Kameshwar Singh of Darbhanga gave the property on rent to the Punjab government. Various wings the Punjab Police, and later the Himachal Police, made Bantony a home for several years. The Police Officers’ mess was also located on the premises.

While Bantony was hosting the Himachal Pradesh Police Headquarters, the estate was purchased by the prominent local business family of Ram Krishan & Sons. The police headquarters shifted to a government building in the town in 1999-2000, but the state government’s attempts to acquire the heritage building failed.

Later, Chief Minister Singh managed to convince the private owners to enable the government to transform the iconic building into a centre of art and culture. The Himachal government acquired this 19,000-square metre estate and the structures in 2016-2017 for creating the elaborate complex that Bantony will now house. 

The proposal is to create a heritage museum, a Gram Shilp centre to promote traditional handicrafts of the state, and also popularise local cuisines, all under one roof. The castle, restored at a cost of about Rs 29 crore, will also house a multipurpose hall, the art and craft centre and the light and sound show in an area of about 3,700 sq metre. 

The two separate versions of the 30-minute light and sound show in Hindi and English—a first for the hill town—shall serve as a major attraction for locals and tourists alike in days to come. Proposed on the lines of the one at Andaman’s cellular jail, this show will educate the audience about the events that the castle and Shimla have been witness to in the run-up to India’s Independence and also World War II. It also tells stories of how Shimla was chosen as the summer capital by the British. 

“In the main building of the castle, we are in the process of setting up a digital museum, which is expected to be innovative, people-oriented and immersive,” says Rakesh Kanwar, Secretary, Language Art and Culture—the new custodian of the upcoming Bantony Heritage Centre.  

Pankaj Lalit, Director, Language, Art and Culture, says, “Now when you walk into the Bantony Castle and take a journey into its past through the light and sound presentation, Shimla will re-live its glory. India’s great freedom struggle will come alive too as the show rolls on with its advanced digital features, narration and visual effects.” 

Bantony Castle is the third iconic building in Shimla that has undergone restoration. Earlier, the 144-year-old Gaiety Theatre, a heritage cultural centre, and Shimla Town Hall, a magnificent architectural piece reminding one about Shimla’s past as the erstwhile summer capital of India during the British period, underwent renovation. 

“Bantony Castle will be a new international attraction because of its history and the kind of facelift it has undergone during the past five-six years of its restoration, piece by piece. This is going to be our gift to the citizens—those living in the town or visiting their home town from outside, tourists, school children and travellers,” said the state Deputy Chief Minister Mukesh Agnihotri, who was the special invitee at an event hosted for a select group of citizens recently.

From this month onwards, the daily light and sound show at Bantony Castle will be part of tourists’ itinerary in Shimla hills.