Musings by Shekhar Nambiar
Shimla, or Simla of the days of yore, is on my wish list of places to see. I have yet not been able to visit Shimla in Himachal Pradesh and British India’s summer capital!
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Strange as it may seem, Shimla is one place that has always been my dream destination. No other place or thing has featured more in dinner table conversations in our home than this hill town. Still, Shimla remains elusive, an unfulfilled desire, a pipe dream to this day for no apparent reason.
I have been to Mussourie, Ooty, Kodaikanal, Munnar and Wyanad among other hill destinations, but I feel that none would measure up to Shimla. Is it because I have never visited it? The place is witness to many a historic event. The sheer scenic splendour with the snow-clad Himalayas offering a spectacular backdrop make Shimla an awesome and lifting experience.
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Almost went to Shimla
You may find this interesting, even surprising! I have visited nearby places, including Kalka, which is as close as it can get to Shimla. The consolation is that I caught a glimpse of the heritage motor rail that snakes its way up the mountains. The nearly 100-km Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge line is stuff that legends are made of and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The motor rail is a unique single carriage pushed by a diesel locomotive these days, offering riders a beautiful unhindered panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and valleys as it winds its way up to Shimla and downhill to Kalka in the reverse direction, passing through 102 tunnels in the process. I can visualize the excitement of the whole journey. I have seen films and documentaries, and, of course, heard stories and anecdotes from my father who spent the summers in school at the top.
On one of my visits to Kalka I almost made it to Kasauli, a little town perched on the Shivalik. It’s much quieter although a poorer cousin of the main attraction further up the hills. Sadly, once again, luck did not favour me. Inclement weather and the prospect of landslides enroute discouraged me to venture up.
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Rail buffs tell me Shimla railway station itself is a place to see even if you haven’t taken the train ride and have travelled up by road. As for Kalka, the railway station, the rail head for the Delhi-Kalka broad gauge section, was well worth the walk through its empty platform where, much to my delight, I saw the empty rakes of the train and the motor rail waiting for their turn to take passengers uphill.
Gardens charmingly beautiful
Speaking of Kalka, Pinjore Gardens, just a few kilometres from the heart of Kalka town, is interesting and refreshingly beautiful. Tucked on to the side of the lower Shivalik ranges, it is distinctly Mughal in architecture and layout. The Patiala Dynasty Sikh rulers took it on themselves to renovate the 17th century garden, originally built by Fidai Khan, who served in some capacity to Mughal emperor Aurangazeb. The well laid fountains, canals and water systems are charmingly beautiful. Hotels serve tourists wishing to stay here for a couple of days away from Chandigarh, which is on the flat plains and built by the renowned Swiss-French architect and urban designer, Le Corbusier, as a planned, modern city.
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Kalka town in Haryana state itself is nothing great – just like any small and dusty town, but by all accounts, has become a quiet getaway destination. Kalka is not only the gateway to Shimla and other hill towns in Himachal but also provides access to Parwanoo valley, an industrial hub down below, in Haryana. Many years ago, I accompanied Lee Friedlander, the American photographer known for his landscape visuals of “everyday people, places, and things”, to Kalka. I remember a photograph he took of a street barber in action squatting by the roadside. I often wonder if the photographs from the visit ever became part of any of his exhibitions or books.
Let me now have the pleasure of taking you through some parts of Shimla that often come to me in dreams.
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Jakhu Hill is the highest point among the seven main hills that make the hill town. I have heard anecdotes of my father and his band of friends going up this steep hill, not to speak of my grandmother’s anxiety especially after my uncle had a fall on one of the attempts to the top and came home bleeding profusely. I do not recall ever my father recount anything about the Hanuman statue that I believe now stands tall atop the hill.
Famous for football matches
The town is historically connected to football. Matches of the famous Durand Cup were played at the lovely Annandale, a valley in the heart of Shimla. Matches during the Raj were spirited games with Indian teams pitted against British army regimental players. It is anybody’s guess on whose side the locals were during these games. Matches played by Gurkha troops were a must-see for my father. The match venue was nothing short of a carnival and football was popularized among young school children. The Shimla Trophy and Viceroy’s Cup along with the Durand Cup were displayed at Whiteways and Ridley at the famous Mall Road (‘The lost legacy of Indian football’, Rishabh Chauhan, Chase Your Sport). My father’s description of the beauty of the picturesque valley was so vivid that it has remained etched in my memory ever since. The closest I have got to – much later in life – is another Annandale, a suburb in Virginia near Washington DC. I am sure there will be several more places by this name around the world.
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Of all the spots, perhaps, I have reason to believe that the Mall is the most happening place with fashionable shops, cafes, and eating places.
‘Scandal Point’ comes to mind, again thanks to my father. What is the story behind the place? This is where an Indian Maharajah eloped with the daughter of a senior British functionary. Enraged with the act, the Maharajah is believed to have been banished from entering the town. The outlawed ruler then went about building a new hill station converting a village. Thus, was born Chail just outside Shimla.
What makes Shimla unique?
What makes Shimla uniquely different is its history. It is replete with stories and romance of the Raj. And it continued to make history right through till the mid-1970s. India chose Shimla to host the peace agreement with Pakistan- known famously as the Simla Agreement – with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and daughter Benazir in toe visiting the hill town.
As I near the end of writing this piece, something from the deep recesses of my mind keeps telling me about Nabha. Now, I know Nabha, was a former princely state in the Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU). What connection or link does it have to Simla? Then it came to me that friends have often referred to it also as a locality within the town.
A description of Shimla town would be incomplete without the mention of institutions such as the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) at the Viceregal Lodge, now Rashtrapati Niwas, the President’s residence during visits to Shimla, and the famous Oberoi Cecil.
Of all things silly and innocuous Simla of my dreams also brings me to a cigarette brand by the name. Now we have all heard or used such brands as Charminar and Berkeley, how many will have heard of ‘Simla’? Until I make it there, Simla will be in my dreams.
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