We went for one night and spent a wonderful 4 days in Shimla exploring the history, great food and culture of the Queen of the Hills.
At over 2200m, Shimla is a precariously positioned city, situated along a steep ridge of the Himalayan foothills. To the south the hills lessen to the plains of Delhi while to the north the peaks rise up to merge with the cloud line. The main street of Shimla, which runs the length of the ridge, is the only flat surface of the capital while all other roads fall away to the valley floor on either side of the ridge.
Shimla for over 100 years was the imperial summer capital of India, from where one-fifth of humanity was once ruled.
It was discovered by the British at the turn of the 19th century, when it was a sleepy village with just 30 houses. The exploring British offices loved the climate and scenery, and bit by bit more of their colleagues joined them to escape the heat from the plains and cities of Calcutta and Delhi. In 1930 the British bought a big chunk of land, and started the development of the town which by 1881 had reached to over 1141 houses.
By 1864, when Shimla was officially confirmed as summer capital, the mass migration of viceroys, military attachés and nearly 5,000 imperial clerks and staff, not to mention wives, children and servants, had already been taking place for decades. And it was no holiday jaunt. The bone-rattling journey of 1,200 miles by horse, elephant, bullock cart and sedan chair from Calcutta took five arduous days.
A glorious steam railway – was constructed in 1903 and made the journey much easier. The “toy train” is still in operation today.
For a century, the viceroy of India from Shimla directly ruled a fifth of the world including Modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka. (Photo is of Viceroy Lord Mountbatten. )
This was all managed amid a whirl of colonial picnics, garden fetes, balls, plays, hunts, cocktail parties, races, croquet, polo games and cricket tournaments. Shimla combined the idyll of England with the entire resources of the Indian subcontinent. This tiny little village was solely for the elite and their servants, and it had a steamy social life.
The Viceregal Lodge is an elaborate Mock-Tudor stately home that is surrounded by immaculately maintained gardens.
Kipling, who visited Shimla frequently in the 1880s, wrote of the intense flirtation, trysts and debauchery for which it was infamous. Scores of young British girls, in search of husbands, turned up in Shimla ready to impress, only to find they had stiff competition from the “grass widows”, more experienced ladies in their 40s visiting without spouses, and often more popular with the bachelors. There is a fun Channel 4 series called Indian Summer that portrays the “Shimla scene”.
Shimla was the setting for some of the most important – sometimes disastrous – decisions taken by the colonial super-power, including planning for the Anglo-Afghan wars, the drawing of the Durand Line demarcating Afghanistan’s border. It also played host to many of the most important meetings that charted the course for the independence of India. Sadly and to Gadhi’s frustration, it was here that the dreams of a united India were burst.
Shimla is a busy city but its also very easy to escape the crowds. Many streets are pedestrianised and forest walks surround the city. Visiting the British built palaces and lodges with their lovely gardens, at times you feel like you are in Scotland or Kent rather than the Himalayas. But then you look up and see the mighty mountains and magnificent forests and valleys surrounding the glorious Queen of the Hills.
Today Shimla is a booming and rich city. Being the capital of Himalchal Pradesh, a thriving tourist and educational centre has brought considerable wealth to the city. This we experienced and enjoyed via its excellent bazaars, restaurants and hotels nestled on the pedestrian Mall and on the steep sides of the hill.
Shimla also is a monkey city. As well as a population of over 3000 monkeys, there is a giant Lord Hanuman – half man/half monkey towering over the city from Jakhu hill at 2455m. At 33metres, this is the tallest Hanuman statue in the world.
The marauding fury creatures congregate in packs and are everywhere, climbing up the buildings, through open windows and praying on unsuspecting tourists. At Jakhu Temple, they steal your shoes, clothes or sunglasses and dont give them back until you trade it for some food.
One last but important thing. Shimla hosts the mountain biking race MTB Himalaya, which started in 2005 and is regarded as the biggest event of its kind in South Asia, and one of the top ten toughest bike races in the world. I managed to track down Mohit and Ashish, the organisers and called them up. They kindly offered to take me out for the day. We were also accompanied by super fit Akash, a young lad 32 years younger than me, and the winner of the race. The boys showed me many of the tracks from the Mtb Shimla race and we had a great days riding the amazing singletracks around Shimla.
However it came to a messy end when Ashish had a nasty fall, and gouged open his arm on a tree and some barbed wire. He needed 8 stitches! Once again the Bigwood mountain bike curse strikes!