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Shimla, Queen of the Hill Stations

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Look at a map of India and you will find Shimla, tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas just north east of Chandigarh, which itself is a few hours drive from Delhi. Stretched along a high ridge with seven hill spurs, Shimla sits at 2200 metres above sea level, its highest point being Jakhu Hill at 2450 metres.

For Indians, Shimla is a magical weekend getaway or short holiday break, a drive, ride and flight away to an Alpine resort, cool in summer, a snowy delight in winter.

For the British, those who have read or heard stories of the hill stations so popular with the British soldiers and administrators stationed in India, Simla (as it was then) is the queen of them all, the summer capital of the British Raj in India, where many a legend and scandal of the time was born and gossiped over.

Simla started off, just 200 years ago, as an Alpine retreat for some officers of the British East India Company stationed in Delhi. There had been a small settlement here before, of course, named after a nearby temple to Shyamala, an incarnation of the fearless Kali (and also why Shimla is the correct spelling). When the Brits took over in 1817, the hamlet was best known for a sadhu who provided water to passersby and another nearby temple, this dedicated to Hanuman. The temples to both Shyamala/Kali and to Hanuman are still there.

In 1819 a certain Lieutenant Ross, Assistant Political Agent for the region, had a cabin built, to enjoy as his ‘getaway’. Three years later his successor built a more solid house, Kennedy Cottage (unimaginatively named, as he was a Kennedy). In time this building became, for the British, the foundation of Simla. Word of the fresh, cool alpine climate got around, specially to the East India Company men living in Delhi and the northern plains.

Things really got going in 1830, when the Brits started buying up land in the area, building an access road and bridge over a steeply banked gully. During the next two decades Simla quickly became the place where politics was done, as senior officers and administrators spent more and more time in the cool, tolerable climate. Where bosses go, ambitious young men are sure to follow, and following them many a mother seeking good matches for their eligible daughters. This was the Simla Society, as close as British India came to having a colonial ‘jet set’. The legends and scandals began; ending only a hundred years later when the British Raj in India came to an end.

The famous revolt against the British that engulfed most of India in the late 1850s barely touched Simla, by now a burgeoning town with church, theatre, hotels, schools, bazaar and a multitude of merchants pitching their wares. The famous access tunnel still in use today had also been cut through. Simla was truly the queen of hill stations.

The corrupt and incompetent British East India Company swept away in disgrace, Britain took direct control of India. Within a few years Simla was officially declared British India’s Summer Capital – where in fact its government resided for upwards of eight months in the year. The Viceregal Lodge was built, as well as many and elegant hotel and villa. Along with the views, this English ‘home counties’ style of colonial building is a tourist draw for Indians today. A fortuitous fire burnt down the upper bazaar so the top of the main ridge could be cleared and planned out more conveniently in an English manner, the people who had lived and traded there being obliged to find new dwellings further down the steep hillside, of course.

This was the time of Rudyard Kipling, of Victoria’s son Edward, and of the Lords Litton, Curzon and Kitchener.  It took a while to get the railway to Simla, but by 1903 people could enjoy the many bridged and tunnelled “British Jewel of the Orient”, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The train still works, and you can still take it.

Come the end of British India, independence and the partition into India proper and Pakistan (East and West), the new Shimla was for a time the capital of East Punjab, then the capital of Himachal Pradesh, a new state created from the many small principalities scattered along the rugged foothills of the Himalayas. Simla’s colonial buildings have been converted into Shimla’s government offices and nationally prized institutes.

Today tourism drives the local economy; Shimla boasts more luxury hotels than any other city in India. Artisan work is prized: jewelry, shawls, leatherware, woodwork, carpets, blankets, rugs, embroidered articles and sculptures are all snapped up by visitors. Just as in many European cities, Shimla has an ice rink, which runs from December to February as it has for over 120 years; it is the largest natural ice rink in all of South Asia!  Shimla is also famous for its apples, its roses, its many spices and botanicals.

I plan to visit Shimla in 2023. It will be an adventure and I will keep you all posted!

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