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Shimla - In its True Colours

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 you’ll 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 it’s 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 haven’t already migrated, sit huddled in trees that haven’t 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 fakir’s 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 Shimla’s 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 don’t stick to the Mall.


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 you’ve 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. You’ll 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. Bede’s 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 another.

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 Viceroy’s private short cut to the race course at Annandale. The race course has since been converted into a heliped.


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 can’t 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. It’s the heart of Shimla, where people walk or ride or sun themselves relaxing over ice cream and snacks. It’s 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 can’t 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 remember.

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. Bede’s 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 Shimla.

But don’t be just bent on getting there. Don’t 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 stone’s 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 don’t 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.


You’ll 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 apple.

While at Thanedar, don’t 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. That’s 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.



By Air

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.

By Rail

Shimla is connected to Kalka by a narrow gauge railway line. A broad gauge track connects Kalka to the rest of the country.

By Road

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.