The last vestiges of spring hung in the air as the car sped down the road. We were leaving behind the cantonment area of Pathankot and heading towards the chakki—the point where the road diverted. Ignoring the sign pointing straight towards Dharamsala, my driver, Kishoriji, turned left and our journey continued. My eyes felt droopy; car journeys have never been a strong suit of mine, unless I’m the one behind the wheel.
I must have dozed off because the wild spring flowers had been replaced by rows of aam papad shops when my eyes reopened. “Himachal iske baad se (after this point),” informed Kishoriji. The rocking of the car again lulled me to sleep. The next time I awoke, he had already spent an hour navigating the hilly turns until we had finally pulled into Dalhousie.
We passed by the main bus stand where many state buses were patiently lined up, waiting for passengers on our way. We climbed higher and higher till, at one point, we took a sudden steep right turn in the Moti Tiba area. Driving in the hills take years to master and Kishoriji has been doing it for two decades. But when he went up the next slope in reverse, I began to panic on the inside. However, a typically Victorian-style wood and stone cottage came into view and the fear dissipated.
The warmth of the sun had been replaced by chilly-yet-soothing hill station wind, while deodar trees around the cottage made me feel like I had stepped into an old novel. The six-bedroom cottage was built in 1939 and the original wooden floor and winding staircase added to its quaintness. Black and white photographs adorned the walls, antique light switches and vintage furniture retained the essence of old-world charm, while modifications and modern amenities didn’t overwhelm.
Having changed hands over the years, the property was acquired by the 1589 Hotels group last year and renamed Hotel Brijvilla. It makes for a quiet weekend destination in the northern part of the country. With the historical Circuit House and old cottages as neighbours, the location offered magnificent views—white, snow-clad Dhauladhar mountain peaks and massive green trees everywhere the eyes turned.
I was tired, courtesy the train and road journeys. While my room—decorated in shades of white, with green pane windows, a fireplace and an extremely comfortable-looking bed—beckoned me to rest, I had other plans. Dalhousie had long been on my bucket list and it was time to go exploring the place.
The hill station is perhaps one of the oldest in the country. Established by the British in 1854 and named after the then governor-general (who is said to have never visited the place) Dalhousie is spread over five hilltops—Potreyn, Terah, Bakrota, Kathalagh and Bhangora—at above 2,000 metres above sea level. Historically, the region was under the Chamba dynasty but when it came to the attention of the British for its serenity and remoteness, they forced the local ruler, Raja Shri Singh, to retract and, by 1851, a settlement had been set up.
The raja, in exchange, ensured that the yearly tribute to the company was reduced to Rs 2,000 from Rs 12,000. A sanatorium was first set up here in 1853 for the convalescent British battalion. Slowly, thanks to the efforts of Lt Col Napier, the hill station came to be with the settlement of traders, missionaries and officers. It became a much-loved summer retreat of the British and, in the first half of the 20th century, Dalhousie was the preferred holiday destination for Lahore’s crème de la crème (not to mention names such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Debendranath Tagore and Rudyard Kipling). Today, 165 years later, the Lahore society is long gone and replaced by honeymooners and young families.
At first glance, Dalhousie is extremely idyllic. Unlike the over-commercialisation found in some of the other hill stations, the town still has a quaint aura. To the locals, however, things are rapidly changing. “Hotels aur boarding schools (there are four) hain yahan, lekin tourists kam hai,” said a roadside tea seller. And he was right. There’s new construction taking place everywhere and almost every hoarding has hotel signage. Glancing around as I sipped on milky tea, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s statue came into view, against the green of the valley below.
Dalhousie has two major chowks, Gandhi and Subhash, where their respective statues stand. I wasn’t aware of the Netaji connect earlier but learnt that the freedom fighter came to the hill station in 1937 to recover from illness and stayed at a house named Kynance. Kishoriji pointed it out as we headed to Panjpulla, but stated it was a private property today. Dalhousie’s answer to amusement lies in the aforementioned area. With adventure activities such as zip lining and rappelling, and a play area for children against a waterfall with cafés and huts selling everything from momos to hats, Panjpulla is crowded. Families, couples, friends—there’s something for everyone here. But because I prefer solitude, heading back to town was the only sensible thing to do.
We crossed a spring on the way back. It’s said that Netaji used to walk from Kynance to Panjpulla, a distance of two kilometres, daily, and stop by the waterbody to meditate. The water is said to have cured his illness.
The two chowks in the town are connected by Garam Sadak (Hot Road), a path for pedestrians. Then there’s a Thandi Sadak (Cold Road) on the other side, just meant for cars. I found the names particularly amusing. When I arrived at Gandhi Chowk, an extremely happening part of town, the St John Church—Dalhousie’s oldest—was right behind the entrance to the mall road. Churches were built because of the influx of missionaries in the 1800s and even though this one was in the heart of town, it promised peace and quiet inside. My favourite spot was actually next to the church—the Raizada Hans Raj Memorial Trust Library. Old hardbound classics jostled for space with physics books, and posters offered nuggets of information about Dalhousie—from its history to natural surroundings, the advent of the railways to films shot here, and inspiring quotes by the famous, including Nehru’s on reviving the popularity of the hill station post Independence. Sharp at 6pm, the lights and fans were switched off—“kal ajao aap,” said the librarian while locking things up.
The mall road itself was fascinating. Every hill station has one and this was no different—dainty cafés, Tibetan shops, snack sellers, woodwork stores, etc. It’s the place tourists and locals come together in the evenings for gossip and bites. No wonder there’s so much familiarity among people. Everyone seemed to know everyone—locals greeted each other like long lost friends despite having met just in the morning, the elderly asked schoolgoers about their exams, mothers asked their friends’ children about their well-being.
The mall road ultimately becomes Garam Sadak, located behind Moti Tiba. As I walked across the quiet path at dusk, happily swinging my woodwork purchases and humming an upbeat tune, the valley kept me company. Brightly coloured houses were visible, the red seasonal flowers bloomed, and beautiful Buddhist paintings on the rocks made for pretty photographs. I picked up a fallen flower, washed it and put it into my mouth. It wasn’t tourist season yet, but then, Dalhousie is never empty. At that moment when everything seemed so peaceful, I wished I knew how to whistle. The sweetness of the flower could only have been increased by a happy whistling tune to make a hill station visit perfect.
The most comfortable option is to take a train up to Pathankot Cantt (several trains ply daily from Delhi) and then drive up to Dalhousie that takes about 2.5hrs (call Kishoriji at +91-7018204456. I was extremely satisfied with his service). The nearest airport is in Amritsar and it takes about three hours by road from there. Overnight HRTC buses from ISBT Kashmere Gate ply daily.
WHERE TO STAY
- Brijvilla (1589hotels.com/brijvilla-dalhousie) is a six-room luxury cottage at Moti Tiba. There are four imperial rooms (`10,500 in the summer and `8,200 in the winter) and two classic rooms (`9,000 in the summer and `7,000 in the winter). Prices include breakfast and exclude taxes. They offer an extensive menu but put in a request for traditional Himachali meals. The amla-potato curry and chole were the standout dishes for me.
- A heritage cottage built in 1930, Sunny View (hotelsunnyview.com) is a comfortable stay option with gorgeous views near Gandhi Chowk (from `6,000 per night).
- Alps Resort (alpshoteldalhousie. com) near St John’s Church is a treat (from `2,350 per night).
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- Take a day trip to Khajjiar. It’s a nice picnic spot with a crescent-shaped lake in the centre.
- See the four churches in town— St John (built in 1863), St Francis (1894), St Andrew (1903) and St Patrick (1909).
- Walk down Garam Sadak
- Check out the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary at Khajjiar, which is known for its deodar and fir forest, home to animals including bears and leopards.
- Boating at Chamera Lake.
This article appeared in our May 2019 issue.