Palaces were converted into summer retreats during the British Raj. For tourists, these heritage homes recreate the aura of an age gone by.
Springfield, Chapslee and Woodville are names redolent of India’s colonial past. These royal homes, once used as summer retreats, have been converted into heritage homes in Shimla. Springfield was our first port of call. This cozy outpost, built as a summer home, belongs to the scion of the royal family of Shikhupura. We woke up to sunlight streaming through the windows and a view of the imposing Churchandani mountain range. After a busy day of golfing at the Naldehra Golf Course designed and constructed by Lord Curzon, we drove back at dusk. The glittering lights and kaleidoscopic sunset skies of Shimla greeted us in the distance. After a scrumptious dinner, everyone gathered around the bonfire glowing near the magnolia tree
Lakkar bazaar with its myriads of small shops selling walking sticks of all shapes and sizes was our first destination the next morning. A boastful shopkeeper showed us walking sticks of oak, rose, padam, sheshum and rosewood. After admiring them, we walked down the road to Chapslee. Formerly the summer residence of the late Raja Charanjit Singh of Kapurthala-and now converted into heritage property-Chapslee is resplendent with original antique four-poster beds and Belgian mirrors reflecting elegant chandeliers. The hotel is decorated with blue pottery jardinieres from Multan, Peshwa vases, Gobelin tapestries and a grand piano on which we played sonatas right into the night.
Situated at Chota Shimla near Raj Bhawan and enriched by deodar trees is Woodville. This beautiful manor surpasses all others in grandeur and magnificence. We walked into the ancient porch which is flanked by two splendid canons. The present summer house was constructed in 1938, burying the old Victorian building, originally home to the commanders in chief of the Imperial British Indian Army.
The grand wooden staircase is flanked by paintings of the ancestors of the Jubbal family. We were hosted by the royal family in the Golden Tiger lounge. Billiards, table tennis, badminton and lawn tennis were on the agenda but we chose instead to walk in the forest, lured by the shrill cry of the birds.
We set off early next morning, driving through the picturesque regions of Bilaspur and Mandi. Going past apple and apricot plantations, we arrived at the tea gardens of Palampur. The Badrinath Temples, against the backdrop of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains, are in a dilapidated condition.
Only a few kilometres away is the Taragarh Palace, situated on a small plateau with the dramatic chasm of the Bundla stream cutting across one edge. It is surrounded by green tea estates with forests of pine and deodar on the higher slopes. There are walking trails seeming to leading nowhere. We drove into an estate owned by the erstwhile royal family of Jammu and Kashmir.
Taragarh Palace is set amidst over 15 acres of lush gardens. We are greeted by Vikramaditya Singh. “I spend a lot of time here away from the asphyxiating atmosphere of Delhi,” he says. Portraits of gallant men and their elegant consorts decorate the hallway.
We dined in the company of stuffed deer heads and mounted tigers in the oak- panelled dining hall. On the way to Palampur we visited Andretta, well-known for the gallery known as Sir Sobha Singh Art Studio.
The Kangra valley is famous for its temples and the most sacred of them all is Jwalamukhi. Thousands visit this shrine where a flame burns eternally. We joined groups of enthusiastic devotees who were beating cymbals and drums. Some of them were chanting devotional ballads. Fully sanctified, we proceeded to the only proclaimed heritage village of India-Pragpur.
At elevation of 1,800 feet the small village of Pragpur has retained its old-world charm through the centuries. Cobbled streets, slate-roofed houses, water tanks, everything is preserved like it was nearly a hundred years ago. In this village, old havelis don’t just exist, they are maintained. As a result, Pragpur was declared a heritage village in 1998.
We arrived at Judges Court, the heritage resort in Pragpur. The manor was built by Justice Sir Jai Lal in 1918. A fragrant breeze filled the evening air as we entered the driveway lined with trees of camphor, kali elaichi, laung, chiku, mango and keenu. This 300-year-old manor has been restored and converted into a resort by Sir Jai Lal’s grandson, Vijay Lal.
As the Beas river was just a few kilometres away, we decided to fish for the mahseer, but instead, returned laden with multicoloured stones found on the riverbed. At night the fluorescent lights added to the charm of this country manor. We feasted on continental cuisine served under the umbrella of spice trees. Admiring the vermilion facade and the intricate relief work of the manor, we sipped our coffee.
The four-hour drive from Pragpur to Chandigarh is picturesque. We stopped at the shrine of the tenth Guru of the Sikhs at Anandpur Sahib.
Walking on the cool marble floor with our head covered in reverence, we entered the enormous doorway leading to the holy shrine. Dark clouds heralded rain and created a sharp contrast with the white- washed facade of the gurudwara. The first voluminous drops of rain greeted our return to the plains.