Snow lends cachet to almost any destination. Shimla
which attracts droves of holiday-makers in the summer months, is the
place to be in winter. With enough colour and fable to keep you
enthused for as long as you plan to vacation.
When next you go to
Shimla, ask one of the old timers where the Combermere Post Office
is. To the right of the post office youll see a string of
spanking new buildings running up the face of the hill. These
buildings stand on what was once a deep and precipitous gorge, home
to a mountain torrent. Leopards and black bears came to drink at the
rock pools along the path of the torrent. But that was before Shimla
became a bustling British settlement. In more recent times the
sunless gorge had other claims to fame. On a hillside overlooking
the gorge there used to be a little spring that went drip-drop into a
pad of moss. Come December and the drops froze as they fell, forming
strings of glistening globules that we gathered up and sucked eagerly
on our way home from school. It was always the first ice of the
season in Shimla.
The weatherman will tell
you that the time for the big freeze in Shimla is the fag end of
December. But it could even be January and sometimes February has an
impressive stockpile of snow. Truth is, nobody can tell for sure
when its going to snow except a day or two in advance. A
snowfall is the grand finale of a gradual build up in the atmosphere.
The sky slowly comes down in a uniform, unrelieved tent of grey and
the underpinnings, the mighty deodars, stand perfectly motionless
because the wind has been banished from the scene. Birds, at least
those that havent already migrated, sit huddled in trees that
havent already shed their leaves. And beneath woolen wraps the
silence rings in your ears.
The first snowfall is
generally the heaviest and tends to be a night long affair. By
morning every house front is like a face peeping out of a white
furcap. Before a flurry of footsteps has time to mess up things,
snowballs are flying to land expertly on noses and cheeks pink with
the cold. On the ice skating pink near Rivoli Cinema, Shimla proper,
and down the skiing slopes of Kufri, 18 kilometers away, cheerful,
bubbling fun-loving people, not necessarily young, whiz away their
leisure hours. An ice skating Carnival is also held every winter.
Till a few years back,
the average snowball in Shimla measured about four feet. The freak
winter of 1944-45 saw as much as 12 feet of snow so the roof of the
railway station caved in. Directly after a snowfall, coolies used
to be put on the job clearing the roofs to prevent them from
collapsing under further snow. Trails were cut in the snow along
main roads. The Mall in particular was attended to by road clearing
squads. But in recent years there has rarely been a bumper snowfall.
We had better make the most of what we receive. Winter in Shimla is
a total experience, the cold lending zest of everything
exercise, appetite, gargantuan meals, a fire in the grate, good
company ad the hot water bottle against your toes at night.
The permanent population
of Shimla is enough to keep the town bustling right through winter.
Mid-winter tourists add the extra bit of excitement in terms of high
spirits and roaring business. But winter or summer, Shimla has
always been a fun place.
There is a quaint legend
associated with the birth of Shimla. Long before the British
appeared on the scene, the site of present day Shimla was one vast
forest tract, broken by a single small village called Shimla. In a
clearing near the village (approximately where the Chaura Maidan
stands today), lived an old fakir with an uncanny gift for making
prophecies. One winter evening the fakir sat before his hut, gazing
into a fire of pine logs, when suddenly he sprang up and ran to the
edge of a clearing. I can see it, he cried. I can
see it! There shall be much happiness here, much enjoyment and
laughter. He swept the entire landscape with one thin ill-clad
arm. Yes, this shall indeed be a fortunate palce! There
is no trace of the fakirs abode now. But his prophecy has
certainly come true. To those who know it well, Shimla has indeed
been the home of much enjoyment and laughter, with the spirit of an
eternal holiday in permanent residence.
Shimla began life as the
little heavily wooded mountain village called Shimla (The Dark
One), dedicated to the goddess of the same name, an aspect of Kali.
A wooden image of the goddess, enshrined in a small but ancient
temple, was duly worshipped by the local people . One wonders what
the fate of Shimla would have been had it not been discovered by the
Scottish brothers. Patrick and James Gerard of the Survey of India.
Attached to the British force deployed in the area to fight the
Gurkhas who held sway over it, the brothers passed through Shimla in
August 1817. The forest must have been at its glorious best,
rainwashed and wreathed in mist. The brothers fell for the majestic
deodars and oaks and for the balmy, bracing air. It reminded them
so much of home that no their return to the base, they
could talk of little else. Accordingly, in 1819, the British
returned to Shimla, setting up a village of tents where their civil
and military officers could rest and recoup after a stint at the
arduous task of empire building.
On this same stretch of
land, the first pucca house was raised in 1822. It was the
work of Lt. Kennedy, Political Agent of the Hill States. By and by a
number of British officers and merchants established themselves in
the locality. The name Shimla gave way to Shimla. In 1827, Lord
Amherst went to Shimla for the summer and set a trend for decades to
follow. The era of Shimlas greatness had begun.
There is no denying the
fact that Shimla of pre-partition days was almost entirely the
creation of the British. Having once identified it as a place of
choice, they went all out of make of it is picture book town. Every
Governor General and Viceroy left his stamp on Shimla. It was Lord
Bentinck who finally purchased from the rulers of Patiala and
Keonthal the land that Shimla now stands on. He also leveled out a
hilltop and built a residence for himself at the site now occupied by
the Grand Hotel. Lord Auckland built himself a villa on the
north-eastern spur of Shimla ridge, which came to be known as
Auckland House and the hill on which it stood as Elysium.
To Sir Lawrence goes the
credit for selecting Shimla as the permanent summer capital of the
Government of India. When Lord Dufferin came to India as Viceroy, he
occupied a mansion called Peterhoff (now Himachal Raj Bhawan). But
both he and lady Dufferin found Peterhoff very unfit for a
viceregal establishment. Accordingly they built themselves a
new house to quote Lady Dufferin. This new house was none
other than the Viceregal Lodge.
The glamour that was
Shimla really dates back to the days of Lord Curzon. Taking a cue
from his personal preferences, the Mall became a fashionable shopping
centre. Closed to all Indians save a handful from the upper crust,
notably princes and potentates, the Mall became the haunt of
pageantry. The wives of top ranking civil and military officials
spent long hours planning garden parties and devising crests and
impressive uniforms for their rickshaw pullers, for walking on foot
was infra dig.
It was Lord Curzon again
who built the narrow gauge Kalka-Shimla railway. Completed in 1903,
after years of strenuous effort, it is the longest mountain rail
track in India and by all accounts a remarkable feat of engineering.
The journey is a five and a half hour hamper of fun through 103
tunnels, toy stations and some breathtaking scenery.
Lord Kitchener is
remembered as the man who acquired and embellished Wildflower Hall,
some 15 kilometers from Shimla. A gardening enthusiast, Kitchener
worked wonders with the grounds. Rudyard Kipling was a regular
visitor at Wildflower Hall.
Shimla under the Raj was
chock full of aristocracy, near aristocracy and starched British
officialdom. It was also linked with the names of celebrities like
A.O.Hume, Annie Besant and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. At the time of the
Cabinet Mission it played host to a galaxy of leaders from both the
Congress and Muslim League. Later still Shimla was home to the
Mountbattens with their dazzling personal charm and royal
connections. When the British pledged to hand over power to India,
talks were held in Delhi and Shimla, mostly Shimla . At the time of
partition, Punjab was locked in a civil was but Shimla remained calm.
For Shimla however, the
partition had a fallout. Refugees began to pour in, putting the
limited space ad services under great pressure. The new-comers were
absorbed soon enough but in the process Shimla became crowded, losing
much of its legendary exclusiveness.
In recent years the same
story has been repeated. Again and again Shimla has stretched at the
seams to make room for people unrooted from hearth and home in
different parts of the country. It has likewise offered a holiday to
people when the doors have closed on other holiday resorts in India.
The situation reflects in the construction boom, the concentration of
hotels and eating places, the congestion and less than satisfactory
standards of cleanliness. But Shimla has survived every upheaval.
Even today it is the vitally active, critically important, much
sought after capital of the hill state of Himachal. And in many ways
it is still beautiful. Take a tip from one who has haunted the place
for years visit Shimla during the off-season, say April, July
or November. Invest in comfortable shoes. And dont stick to
In Shimla you walk miles
and miles, for sheer survival. To market, to your place of work, for
business and even for pleasure. And once youve swung into the
rhythm of it, long walks become a way of life, not to be missed. On
a clear day try the Jakhoo Round, starting from the church on the
Ridge and back, right round Jakhoo Hill. Youll walk past
mountain slopes, covered with strong, silent deodars. And if you
tarry awhile on the way, there are lots of birds and wild flowers of
see. You will naturally meet monkeys and langurs and with luck, an
occasional fox. But by and large, wildlife is now genuinely confined
to the wilds.
Another good walk start
from the Secretariat at Chhota Shimla and goes up the old Sanjauli
road to St. Bedes College. Another takes off from the Ridge,
through Lakkar Bazaar and the deep and dark oak forest beyond to as
far as your legs will take you. From the Ridge, past Grand Hotel,
down by the side of Kali Bari and Kennedy House, all the way to
Chaura Maidan is a good five kilometers and calculated to work up a
brisk appetite. Alternatively you could walk down to Annandale via
Kaithu. The road hugs the side of the deep bowl shaped valley where
rooks go winging across and clouds float from one blue hill to
But a charming, little
known walk takes off from just below the main gate of Viceregal Lodge
and skirts the north face of the hill to meet the main road going to
Annandale. It glides over Tunnel No. 103, dipping under clusters of
graceful, beautiful chestnut trees, tangles of wild raspberry, hock,
burberis and fern. It is partly cobbled but in most places so
overgrown that you can barely make out the contours. Which is why
people leave is alone. This little path has a historic connection.
It used to be the Viceroys private short cut to the race course
at Annandale. The race course has since been converted into a
As you wind your way up
the Kalka-Shimla road, the most familiar landmark to heave into view
is a medieval looking castle the Viceregal Lodge. You cant
miss it. Neither can you mistake it for any other, though Shimla has
many structures shaped like castles. Built under the close personal
supervision of Lord Dufferin and completed in 1888, it occupies a
commanding position, originally the site of an observatory. A small
tower surmounts the building. In the days of the Raj, a flag would
fly from this tower to denote the presence of the Viceroy at Shimla.
The Viceregal Lodge used to be famous for its woodwork in teak and
walnut, its oak paneling and the furnishings that came all the way
from England. So spacious were the rooms that over eight hundred
guests were invited to a single state ball. The Viceregal Lodge had
magnificent gardens, maintained as before even after independence
when the place was renamed Rashtrapati Niwas. However, the practice
of moving the government from Delhi to Shimla every summer was
dropped. Today the old Rashtrapati Niwas houses the institute of
Advanced Study. But the buildings and gardens, in fact the entire
estate, still remains a showpiece.
Easily the most
photographed landmark and one that is recognized even by people who
have never been to Shimla is the Christ Church on the Ridge.
Built in 1844, barely two decades after Lt. Kennedy raised the first
pucca house in Shimla, this church was designed to
accommodate the entire Christian population in town. The frescoes
surrounding the chancel window of Christ Church were designed by
Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard Kipling .
The Ridge is far
more than a flat piece of ground. Its the heart of Shimla,
where people walk or ride or sun themselves relaxing over ice cream
and snacks. Its the venue of summer festivals, boxing matches,
music concerts and political meetings. It also overlooks much of
Shimla and beyond.
Scandal Point, now
called Lala Lajpat Rai Chowk, is really the point where two roads
one from the Ridge and the other from Kali Bari meet the Mall.
And it has an irrefutable claim to the sobriquet by which it is
known. In the days gone by it was at this spot that the daughter of
a top ranking British Official had a rendezvous with a prince from an
Indian state and the two ran away together into the mist. They were
traced all right and the girl duly restored to her parents, but in a
small place like Shimla the dust raised by the incident took a long
time to settle.
Lakkar Bazaar as
the very name indicates, has to do with wood. Turning left at the
Ridge, you cant go far along the road without being greeted by
the fresh, clean smell of resin. In little shops by the roadside
wooden handicrafts have been on display for as long as one can
A landmark that has very
recently appeared on the Shimla scene is a two stage lift connecting
Cart Road with the Mall. A swift, easy, lazy means of going up and
down, it sure infuses courage into the faint-hearted tourist.
Cart Road sweeps past two
old schools of repute St. Edwards and Bishop Cotton. Tara
Hall for girls graces Kaithu. And St. Bedes College, also for
girls, imparts a broad based education in idyllic surroundings.
During British days there
was a lot of dramatic activity in Shimla, under the auspices of the
Amateur Dramatic Club. The Gaiety Theatre was opened on May 30,
1887. It is still going strong, being the venue of several dramatic
performances and musical gatherings every year. Bang on the Mall, it
is a convenient meeting point for a date.
Round the year conducted
tours are available to places of interest around Shimla. A short bus
ride will take you to any one of a whole array of excellent holiday
resorts nearby. Tourism in Shimla hills is well developed, and
bookings can be made at the office of the HPTDC at Scandal Point, in
But dont be just
bent on getting there. Dont bury yourself in a book, for the
bus will be plying though some of the most gorgeous scenery in the
country. Brown hill and blue hills, bare hills and wooded hills and
hills draped in snow. Streams that go thundering down ravines and
springs that flow gently so you can quench your thirst by the
wayside. There are evergreen trees pine, deodar, spruce and
fir and flowering trees like the wild cherry, horse chestnut and
rhododendron. In all seasons save the height of a dry summer, the
countryside around Shimla is beautiful. Wild flowers dot the
hillsides. Retaining walls are draped in pink begonias and violets
grow with abandon. There are birds too splashes of red and
yellow among the trees or a streak of dusky blue swooping from the
sky to pick up an errant grasshopper
All this despite the
mindless hunting and felling of trees in recent years. Earlier this
entire region was a virtual paradise.
A stones throw from
Shimla, the 5-star Wildflower Hall is for those who wish to indulge
themselves among lush gardens and an exquisite natural setting.
Mashobra goes for some fine estates, complete with elegant villas and
well tended, flower filled, fruit laden gardens, particularly suited
to growing strawberries. Little cottages sport window boxes bright
with red geraniums. Long forgotten but charming is an old, abandoned
church atop a hill, the track leading up to it all but choked with
bamboo, holly and dog rose.
At Craignano, a little
winding path leads to a forest of blue pines (they really do have
turquoise tinted needles). Up a daisy dappled slope and you reach a
beautiful rest house surrounded by gardens and yet more trees. A
place to remember.
Kufri is a holiday resort
famous for its skiing slopes and a very fancy hotel aptly named Kufri
Resorts. Some of the north facing rooms offer a grandstand view of
the Himalayas. Naldhera has a nine hole golf course, one of the
oldest in India. About one kilometer from the golf course stands
Naldhera Village with the famous Mahunag Temple.
The Palace hotel at a
Chail is very sutiatbly named because it was the home of the
erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, who developed Chail
as a rival to the summer capital of Shimla. The hotel still bears
the royal look, what with red carpeted floors and gleaming furniture
in teak and walnut. Two annexes and several log cabins make up the
tally of accommodation available and you can take your pick.
The hot springs at
Tattapani have been tamed to flow out of taps and a resthouse on the
spot makes it convenient to have a bath any time you feel like it.
When at Tattapani dont miss the Saraur Khud a cave full
of stalagmites that could easily pass for so many human figures. But
beware, both climb and descent are hazardous.
Youll find apple
orchards dotted all over the periphery of Shimla. But to see the
real thing you must board a bus to Thanedar. The route is one of the
most picturesque in Himachal, passing through Fagu, the tremendous
scenic vantage point and Narkanda where the spectacular snow-clad
Kinner Kailash range spans the entire horizon, from east to west.
Thanedar is a hamlet of runaway slopes studded with trees. It was
the home of Samuel Stokes who first put apple cultivation in Himachal
on a commercial basis. Stokes, an American missionary, came to India
in 1904. But he was so impressed by Indian culture and philosophy
that instead of converting Indians to Christianity, he turned a Hindu
himself, changing his name of Satyanand Stokes.
The rural scene that
greeted Stokes was dismal indeed. The lot of the average farmer in
Thanedar area stretch from one lean season to the next, for the thin
mountain soil and scrappy holdings never bore enough to meet their
needs. After months of deliberation, soil tests and analysis, Stokes
decided on apple cultivation as the answer to the problem. He
introduced the new improved Delicious varieties of apples into
Himachal, importing seedlings from the States and grafting them on
the existing inferior ones. The result is there for everyone to see.
Thanedar and Kotgarh between them form the richest apple belt in
India and the area is well known for its material prosperity via the
While at Thanedar, dont
forget to take a peek at the Stokes homestead, perched atop a hill,
at a height of roughly 8,000 feet. Stokes passed away in 1946 but
tow of his sons still live there with such members of the third
generation as prefer the quiet life. And quiet it certainly is, save
for the chirping of the birds and the clang of the cylindrical bells
that typically adorn the necks of hill cattle. But the beauty is out
of the world, the colours of sunshine and sky, flowers and foliage
heightened to a rare sharpness by the sparkling clean air. Through a
deep valley some 5,000 feet below, flows a silvery Sutlej.
Apple trees blossom in
March-April and the crop may reach maturity any time between July to
September-October. If you wish to see fruit glistening red and gold
upon the branches and, at the same time, with to escape a scene of
hectic activity, visit an orchard just before harvest time.
Shimla has several picnic
spots within city limits. One of these is Glen, a short distance off
the road that leads to Annandale. A narrow, deeply shaded valley
with a spring of ice cold water, the whole thing overshadowed by
trees festooned with moss. Thats Glen for you. A very quiet,
very restful place to spend the day if you discount the concert of
cicadas and the occasional bird call. Beyond Summer Hill are
the Chadwick Falls, impressive during the rains. From
prospect Hill, beyond Boileaugang, you can see the plains of Ambala,
some 150 kilometres from Shimla by road. But perhaps the most famous
spot of all is Jakhoo Top with its temple dedicated to the god
Hanuman. Reached after negotiating a stiff clim, the Jakhoo Temple
draws large reverent crowds. But I would hesitate to call it a
picnic spot because it is home of hordes of monkeys who claim a share
in whatever is going. These monkeys have always been there and are
believed to be an organized community, complete with king and queen,
the royal offspring and a vast multitude.
Shimla of old has its
ghosts. But they might well be dead by now or pushed out by the
population boom. One of the best known ghosts was said to be that of
an Englishman who had met his end under mysterious circumstances. He
was supposed to haunt a lonely stretch between Cart Road and the
Potato Research Institute. Appearing only at dusk, he rode a horse
and carried his head in one hand.Chureil Baoli is known
all over Shimla. A baoli, in local parlance, means a natural spring.
One such spring was tucked away in a cleft in the hillside just above
the old Glenarm (present Marina) Hotel. The water that gushed out
was plentiful but nobody had the nerve to drink it for the baoli was
believed to be the haunt of a chureil (witch). A case is on
record when an Englishman, stepping too close to the baoli one
evening felt giddy and dropped unconscious into the water. Since the
baoli lay on the way to Chhota Shimla, it was not possible to avoid
it altogether. People did the next best thing --- they tip-toed
past, shoes in hand. Or else they sang lustily, hoping thereby to
frighten the chureil. In recent times the
presence of a ghost has been reported from Jabli, on the Kalka-Shimla
road. On misty evenings, when the visibility is poor, he appears
from nowhere and stands in the middle of the road, flailing his arms.
There is an airstrip at
Jubbarhatti, 17 kilometers from Shimla, connected by Vayudoot
services to Delhi and Chandigarh. Alternately, one can take a flight
up to Chandigarh and thereafter a taxi or bus to Shimla.
Shimla is connected to Kalka by a
narrow gauge railway line. A broad gauge track connects Kalka to the
rest of the country.
Shimla is connected by road to Delhi,
Chandigarh, Kalka, Ambala and other towns of Punjab and Haryana, also
to other towns in Himachal Kullu, Manali, Kasauli, Dharamsala,
Chail, etc. Luxury coaches as well as ordinary buses are available.
Bookings for the Himachal Tourism coaches can be made from the
Himachal Tourism Development Corporation, Chandralok Building, 36,
Janpath, New Delhi. Tel: 3325320, 3324764.
On the way back, booking can be at the
H.P.Tourism office on the Mall, Shimla, as well as at the Himachal
Road Transport Corporation booking office at the bus stand at Shimla.
Local bus services operate between Cart
Road bus stand and Chhota Shimla, Sanjauli, Dhali, Mashobra and
Jutogh etc. Besides, mini buses and taxis can also be hired.