Sunday, August 16, 2009
SHIMLA – THE SUMMER CAPITAL OF BRITISH INDIA
I had been to Shimla a few times earlier, however, when I went to Shimla (spelt ‘Simla’ then) with Chitra, Ishu and Vasu way back in 1987, I almost vowed to myself never to return to Shimla again as a tourist. Though I have been to Shimla many times since then, but always for work, and have stayed there just for a day overnight. At that time, we had stayed in the AIIMS guest house at Summer Hill. India’s first Health Minister, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur had a soft corner for the AIIMS, and had gifted her property at Summer Hill to AIIMS. Gandhi Ji is said to have enjoyed the hospitality of Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur at this house. It is beautifully located surrounded by tall pine and deodar trees, and is very close to the University.
What put me off in 1987? Climate wise, Shimla was not much different from Delhi in the month of June. The Mall Road was as crowded with tourists as Chandni Chowk or Karol Bagh. We ran into some of Delhi wallahs there whom we saw only infrequently back in Delhi. One could only have chhole-bhature at the Baljee’s; there was nothing like local food. But children had, perhaps, enjoyed their stay there, especially, the ride on Kalka-Shimla train, walks, pony-rides, and a reward of softy ice-cream after a long walk from Summer Hill to Mall Road. So, last month when I got a call to visit Shimla once again for a brief meeting, I was quite pleased. I would again be away from the oppressive heat of Delhi. I did not mind when I was advised to come a day earlier since the meeting would start early in the morning, and traveling by night train was not a feasible option. I would travel by Shatabdi Express till Kalka, and then take a taxi to reach Shimla. Travel time to Kalka from Delhi is 4.30 hours, and the track runs parallel to G.T. Road. Last time I traveled on this route was more than a year ago. May be, since I was traveling alone this time, I looked outside more often even when I had the company of an engrossing book. Very soon it dawned on me that all along there were houses on either side of the track and road. Big and small constructions had sprung all the way. There were no uninterrupted stretches of land or green fields. Previously during this time, one could see men and women busy working in the field, but now if you saw them, they were either traveling on tractor-trolley or working at construction site. The train reached Kalka on time. Kalka was hot, but I did not bother much since I was to travel uphill all the way to cold climes of Shimla. Since the tourist season was practically over, the taxi stand was deserted and I had no problem in hiring a taxi. The hills start even before you cross the town of Kalka. However, the drive which used to be so pleasurable and refreshing earlier was not the same anymore. The greenery on both sides of the road had thinned away. It had given way to mushrooming construction all along. There was not a single kilometer of stretch which did not have a house, office, dhaba, restaurant, hotel or a shop selling all kinds of goods. It was quite a sad picture.
At Shimla, my staying arrangement was made at Peterhof hotel. I was quite intrigued by this name having read, heard, and seen so much of Peterhof during our Russia visit. A quick search on the net brought out the following information, ‘Peterhof Hotel is located in the heart of Shimla city at Chaura Maidan offering panoramic view of Choorchandani on the front side, Dhauladhar ranges on western side and Kinner Kailash on the eastern side. It is also strategically situated with the State Museum on one side and famous Viceroy Legal Lodge on the other side, now housing the Institute of Advance Studies. The Peterhof, originally built in early 19th century, housed at least seven Viceroys and Governor Generals during the Raj. The first Viceroy to move into Peterhoff was the Earl of Elgin who arrived in Shimla on 4th April 1863. After independence the building served as Punjab High Court and it was here that the trial of Nathu Ram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, took place in 1948-49. When Himachal became full fledged state the building became the Raj Bhawan, Unfortunately it burnt down in 1981 but it was restructured in 1991 and designed to match the hill architecture palatial pattern and now is a heritage luxury hotel’. However, the net could not give me any information as to why it was named after Peterhof. I thought of finding more about it there itself. The hotel is situated at a quite strategic place, offering a very panoramic view of hills in front. Though it is supposed to be a heritage hotel, it could do well by paying more attention to its maintenance. I made enquiries from the staff there about the origin of this property’s name, but no body had a clue. There was not a single photograph of its original structure, or its earlier occupants from Raj era. Nor was there any photograph of the historic Nathuram Godse trial. May be, the State Museum next door has some of those historic photographs.
Since I had reached much earlier than the sun-set, I went for a walk towards Mall Road. It was terribly hot and humid in Shimla too, and did not look much different from Delhi’s weather. Locals told me that there was not much snow during the winter, and now the rains have also eluded Shimla, with the result the weather had turned too warm. The apple crop has been severely affected, as much as by half. It was evident in the market when I saw the size of apples; they were not bigger than an ordinary lemon.
At Mall Road, I found good old Indian Coffee House. I have so many good memories of Indian Coffee House which were many in Delhi previously, but now have disappeared. I went in to feel the aroma of filter coffee and taste its dosa dipped in sambhar. Being evening time, the coffee house was almost full to capacity, and did not mind sharing my table with an elderly couple. We immediately struck good rapport and talked politics, region, spirituality, and Shimla life. I will remember meeting them as one of the high points of my Shimla visit. I seemed to have brought some good cheers to Shimla; it started raining when I headed back to the hotel. I did not mind, only lucky ones get drenched in the rains.