In the pre-dawn glimmer, Platform 7 of New Delhi Railway Station buzzed like a kicked beehive. Staggering, red-jacketed coolies; grumbling passengers stranded amidst seas of luggage, fleets of vendors and in the middle of it all stood the venerable Himalayan Queen. I took my seat and waited for the train to leave. This hustle and bustle is part of a great annual tradition – the flight to the hills. Those who can afford to do so flee to London and New York. But with the Himalayas so near, there has always been a more traditional and less costly alternative.
In the 18th century, as few as one in three East India Company officials made it back to England alive, so devastating was the climate of Bengal; but in the hills there was no malaria, no cholera and no typhoid. By 1822, Capt Charles Kennedy had built the first house on the Shimla ridge. Soon, many followed and by 1864, Shimla had become the summer capital of the British Indian Empire.
Every April, when the heat of Kolkata became unbearable, the entire bureaucracy and the top brass of the Raj military used to trek over a thousand miles to the cool climes of Shimla. Despite its extreme remoteness and inaccessibility, Shimla was, and remains, the ultimate symbol of the enviable – if often criminally careless – self-confidence of the Raj: only an empire ridiculously certain of itself could have contemplated ruling one-fifth of mankind, for seven months of the year, from a remote Himalayan village connected to the outside world by a goat path.
In the wake of the viceroy followed the cream of Raj society, including the greater part of British India’s womenfolk. While the administrators got on with the running of the empire, the women set about organising races and dances, picnics and flirtations. As most husbands had to stay behind in their stations, women outnumbered men, and romance was inevitable. As Kipling put it:
“Jack’s own Jill goes up the hill, to Murree or Chakrata;
Jack remains and dies in the plains, and Jill remarries soon after.”
All this ended more than 60 years ago, yet it is a world as distant as that of the ancient Romans. What, I wondered, was it like today? To find out, I packed a stack of Kipling books in a bag and booked a berth on the Himalayan Queen.
Just walking up the Mall, Shimla’s main street, you come across Shimla’s most iconic structure – the Anglican Christ Church. The church has been in operation since 1857. The Sunday morning service here is an absolute musical pleasure.
Timings Summer 11.00am–1.00pm & 2.00–6.30pm; Winter 10.30am–5.30pm; Sunday service 9.00– 11.00am Tel 0177-2652953
A little way down the Mall is the Gaiety Theatre, the place for amateur theatricals during the Raj. After a five-year restoration project, it was opened to the public in 2009. The players on Gaiety’s stage have included Rudyard Kipling – while the viceroy, Lord Lytton, wrote and staged the play Walpole.
At the end of the Mall promenade lies Scandal Point, a memory of Shimla’s once libertine lifestyle. For tame as it may appear today, Shimla was in some ways a sort of red light district for the Raj. In Kipling’s Plain Tales From the Hills, the same plot repeats itself over and over again: after the boredom of a remote posting, the young Englishman goes up to Shimla where, bowled over by the sudden glut of fair young English women, he falls in love with a Mrs Hauksbee or a Mrs Reiver – one of the town’s carnivorous memsahibs.
The Mall is one the longest stretches of open-air, purely pedestrian shopping in the world and forms the core of the notified ‘Heritage Zone’ of Shimla. The horse rides and ice-cream vendors draw children. Close by is Lakkar Bazaar, famous for woodwork, with several souvenir shops. There’s an ice-skating rink on the slope below Scandal Point.
Jakhoo Hill (7,500ft), towering over the ridge, is Shimla’s highest point. It is crowned by the famous Jakhoo Hanuman temple, with an extravagantly gigantic statue of the monkey god. Sunset views here are especially magnificent during the monsoons. En route to the temple is Rothney Castle, residence of AO Hume, believed to be the founder of the Indian National Congress. While the route from the ridge is the standard one, a track variation may be made from Sanjauli to pass through a thick wood of oak, rhododendron and cedar.
The old Viceregal Lodge is perhaps the most resonant of old structures in Shimla. It’s a grim Scotch baronial confection variously compared to a lunatic asylum and London’s Gothic St Pancras Station. For despite appearances, there was always a deadly serious side to Shimla. The viceroy was the spider at the heart of Shimla’s web. From his chambers in the Viceregal Lodge, he pulled the strings of an empire that stretched from Rangoon in the east to Aden in the west. Shimla may have looked like some English seaside resort, but the town was in fact one of the great political capitals of the world: at its height, it was nearly as powerful as Paris and Berlin. Amongst the events that played out here was the momentous decision taken to partition India.
In the evenings, the viceroy would hold balls as grand as anything thrown by the Russian Tsar, his only rival in Asia: “At the viceroy’s evening parties,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “the diamonds were so large they looked like stage gems. It was impossible to believe that the pearls in the million-pound necklaces were the genuine excrement of oysters.”
Today the Viceregal Lodge houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. When the lodge was first built, London’s smartest outfitters, Maples of London, supplied the furnishings, and it was said that the Indian income tax was introduced to pay for it all. Though little of that old glory remains, one can still walk around in some portions of the first floor, including the main hall and a small museum, which are accessible on a nominal ticket. The institute is surrounded by attractive grounds while the hill has some good short walks.
Entry Indians ₹40; Foreigners ₹65 Timings 9.00am–4.00pm
If you go there by foot, there are interesting stops on this 2-hour walk from the Mall.
St Michael’s Cathedral was built for the town’s Catholic community by Lord Ripon, who’d turned Catholic at 46. A little ahead is Gorton Castle, secretariat of the Imperial government of India. It is now the HP Accountant General’s office. Further on, Himachal State Museum has a display of the state’s cultural and archaeological heritage. The gallery on miniature paintings is especially noteworthy. Inverarm, the building that holds the museum, once housed a member of the viceroy’s Council.
Shimla’s legendary walks
Within 2 km of the Viceregal Lodge is the Kamna Devi Temple, just above Boileauganj. It has good views of the town, airfield and the ranges. You can also walk to Potter’s Hill, which lies past the university campus at Summer Hill. This is where Shimla once got its clay pots and pitchers. Past this lie the Chadwick Falls.
Amongst the most popular walks is The Glen. It is a thickly wooded ravine with a stream flowing through it and quite attractive once you cross the initial 656ft or so. Annan-dale is best known as a helipad. This large glade has a golf course and is surrounded by thick deodar woods with a charming temple by the edge. It was once the place for fancy fairs and polo.
A walk towards Chhota Shimla could include a look at the exterior of the Tudor-framed Raj Bhavan – once Barnes Court – the state governor’s residence.
Other excursions include the Tara Devi Temple. The views are spectacular! One of Shimla’s best-kept secrets is the village of Bihargaon, approached from the cemetery below St Edward’s School. Thick woods, an open glade and the Dhanu Devta Temple, a splendid example of local architecture, make this an unusual excursion. Amongst the Buddhist monasteries is Kasumpti, 7km from Scandal Point and accessible by car.
WHERE TO STAY
Shimla offers plenty of hotels across all budgets, including some that are housed in heritage buildings. Woodville Palace (Tel: 0177-2623 919, 2624038, Cell: 09218552832; Tariff: ₹5,000–12,000) was the home of the Maharaja of Jubbal. The green-and-white building and towers of The Oberoi Cecil (Tel: 2804848; Tariff: ₹21,000–1,00,000) are a landmark in Shimla. The luxury hotel boasts a tea lounge, an indoor pool, a spa and rooms with views of the mountains.
The Oberoi Group also runs the Clarkes Hotel (Tel: 2651010/ 15; Tariff: ₹9,000–13,000) on the lower Mall. Originally built in 1835, the Chapslee (Tel: 2802542; Tariff: ₹22,500–30,000) housed Lord Auckland before it was bought by the Maharaja of Kapurthala.
Hotel Springfields (Tel: 2621297-98, Cell: 09817022244; Tariff: ₹4,800–11,500) is another lovely option in Chhota Shimla. The luxurious Hotel Combermere (Tel: 2651246-48, Cell: 09816077907; Tariff: ₹5,600–15,500) is conveniently located next to the passenger lifts going up to the Ridge. Hotel White (Tel: 2656136, Cell: 09816076422; Tariff: ₹1,800–4,500) is a decent option with lovely views.
WHERE TO EAT
Himachal Tourism’s Ashiana Restaurant, right on the Ridge, is very popular. Devicos has a bar and offers Indian, Continental and Chinese food. Baljees is hugely popular, with a choice of Indian, Chinese, Continental and Thai cuisines. Wake and Bake Café is another frequented eating joint. Indian Coffee House, Domino’s and Sagar Ratna (south Indian) have outlets on the Mall Road. Trishool Bakers, next to Gaiety Theatre, has good confectionery. Embassy, near the Lifts, offers good food and nice seats by the window.
Café Sol at Hotel Combermere offers tasty European-style food. For the ultimate dining experience, there’s always The Oberoi Cecil. Try the chhole bhature at Sita Ram’s in Lakkar Bazaar.
When to go Summer is the best time to visit Shimla. Spring and autumn are lovely too. Shimla is bone chilling in winter
The Mall, Shimla
Tel: 0177-2652561, 2658302
36, Chandralok Building
Janpath, New Delhi
Tel: 011-23325320/ 233
STD code 0177
Air Flights to Shimla’s Jubbarhati Airport have been discontinued for now. Chan-digarh Airport (115km/ 4.5hrs) is connected to Delhi. Taxi costs ₹3,000–3,500
Rail Nearest railhead: Kalka Railway Station (80km/ 3hrs), connected to Delhi by the Kalka Shatabdi and Himalayan Queen, to Kolkata by the Howrah-Delhi-Kalka Mail and to Mumbai by the Paschim Express. Taxi costs ₹1,650–2,500
Road NH5 connects Shimla to Panchkula, and NH152 to Ambala on NH44 Bus HRTC has bus services from ISBT Kashmere Gate, Delhi
Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Heritage Holidays in India