On assignment for Wall Street Journal Magazine.
Shimla - Queen of the Hill Stations, India
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
When the heat, humidity and mosquitoes became too much for the British in India, they headed for cooler places and higher ground. Often building entire towns that mimicked those in the U.K., known as hill stations, the British also created them in other colonies like Malaya. Other colonial powers followed suit: the French in Indochina, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Americans in the Philippines. Today, some of these retreats have given way to urban sprawl. Others lie in ruins. While others cater to modern-day tourists.
In Shimla, situated 2,130 meters above sea level. One lazily strolls around the winding ridges of this Himalayan outpost, dazzling views, comfortingly European clubs and churches, lungs and minds made heavy by the thin air that for a century was British India’s summer capital. 60 years after the end of the Raj, as Britain’s rule of India was known, places like Shimla remain among the most vivid and visited remnants of colonialism in Asia.
There are dozens of hill stations on the Indian subcontinent alone. Before air-conditioning, modern medicine or super highways, the need to keep tropical diseases and cultural shocks in check, prompted the British to build summer homes. Today, while offering the same compelling needs of cool, clean air and an escape from the oppressive heat of the plains, these resting places in India, like elsewhere in Asia, are under threat from mass tourism, neglect, or loss of identity.
The centre piece of Shimla, is the High Street as one might find in any town of the English Midlands. From this perch, sloped streets wind in every direction. The Mall’s gabled shop-houses, the transplanted, Tudor-trimmed civic buildings, a dilapidated police station that could double as an Elizabethan stage set, even a little ice-skating rink. No matter that the evening promenades are now taken by New Delhi holidaymakers, Australian backpackers and an assortment of colorfully capped mountain peoples. At the Mall’s far end, the stolid Christ Church, with its stained-glass windows designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father, a beacon in yellow paint for tourists, both local and foreign. By daylight, however, Shimla itself fades before its hills. While the grandest buildings are hidden behind guards and gates, long requisitioned for Indian government use, nearly every downward turn in town leads to a forest trail. However eccentric the British were, they always did have an eye for nature and the best spots for carving out gardens and estates. A steep descent through 50-meter-high deodar pines leads down to Annan-dale, the closest the mountains would allow to a semblance of a village green. This former site of horse racing, cricket matches and dance socials is now claimed by an Indian military museum and a helipad for the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh state, his waiting chopper guarded by packs of kids who hack away at pitted putting greens below signs that read, Golf balls can be fatal.
Shimla’s main tourist stop, the Vice-regal Lodge. A former home to 13 of India’s non-Indian rulers, a Scottish castle presented by an immaculately manicured lawn. Much of the interior’s teak-lined splendor has been claimed by something called the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. The former ballroom and dining room are now a library. The highlight is the round parlor table upon which the partition of India was signed that created an independent state of Pakistan in 1947. Yet Shimla’s most vivid testament to empire may be the Mall’s Gaiety Theater, where officers were once entertained by amateur comedies and burlesques. Founded in 1837, its faux Venetian facade and Victorian proscenium are in the midst of perpetual restoration.
As a place that began as a sort of sanatorium, Shimla’s historic buildings could easily reopen their doors, repackaged as trendy spas stocked with herbal Himalayan products. For now, the town remains not so much ruined as real, a defiantly Indianized place. But that offers a third choice between nature and nostalgia. All one has to do is take any steep staircase down to bazaars where miniature temples and mosques vie for room beside bustling markets, Sino-Tibetan eateries and a seemingly never ending procession of shoe and hand bag merchants. For many visitors, Shimla’s high point is the hour-long trek upward that begins next to Christ Church and ends with a ritual viewing of a dawn or sunset at tiny Jaikoo Temple. Because of the ferocious monkeys on the mountain, visitors are urged to carry a walking stick (12 cents rental) and remove your eye-glasses as the monkeys are fond of pilfering them.