As elucidated in the first leaf of my Shimla diary…this mesmerizing place snugged in the Himalayas, endowed with serenity and austere splendor is embellished with picturesque heritage buildings. Britishers rapt by its mystic beauty and weather, started immigrating here between 1820-30, when it was a cluster of just 50 houses and hence it transmogrified into Britisher’s official summer capital by 1864. The retention of spectacular structures erected during the colonial era with their Anglo-Saxon names add to Shimla’s old world charm and sets it apart from any other place. To experience the grandeur of old buildings and the aura of this place best is to explore it on foot.
The quaint architecture of Shimla is typical British Colonial architecture i.e resembling with the architecture of their ‘mother country’. Renaissance Influenced styles and Neo Gothic architecture is seen in the heritage structures here with elements like steep-sloping roofs, pointed arches, front facing gables with decorative incised trim and fancy carvings, porches with posts or columns and huge fire places.
The Numero Uno walk of 3.5 km one way, starts from the Ridge, the hub of all cultural activities, to Viceregal lodge or the Indian Institute of Advanced Study located on the Observatory hill. Popular as the No.1 Heritage Zone, this walk is a veritable parade of various landmark historical buildings of the city.
Interestingly beneath the vast open space of the Ridge lies the city’s lifeline…large water reservoir of 1880’s vintage. It’s huge capacity of 1000000 gallons of water, makes it the main source of water supply to Shimla town. With Jakhoo hill on the east and Scandal point on the west, this place is a major crowd puller where you can sit for hours as it offers marvelous specter of sunset and sunrise and the panoramic scenic beauty of the mountains and the trees. The Shimla ridge marks the watershed of rivers Ganga and Indus. Rainwater and melted snow from the eastern side makes its way into the Bay of Bengal and from the western side ends up in the Arabian Sea…a fact that I came to know from a friend who’s been here for long.
Christ Church with its light yellow facade ideally situated on one end of the Ridge was built by British in 1857. Its neo-gothic style of architecture with stained glass windows represents hope,faith, patience, fortitude, humility and charity. It is the second oldest church in Northern India. With the church in the backdrop, makes for a perfect stage setting for honeymooners and pre-wedding shoots, at the most photographed spot in Shimla. As we walk down the ridge the famous Gaiety Theatre falls on the left which shares the wall with the ADC( amateur dramatics club). Together they formed the erstwhile Town Hall complex designed by the renowned English architect Henry Irwin. With the stunning architecture it is a visual treat, especially in the evening, when it is aesthetically illuminated. It opened doors to public in 1887 to accommodate more than 300 people. Originally built a five storied building, it had to be renovated and top portion of the building demolished due to some inherent defects of weak rocks used in construction. Various components of this complex are the art gallery, amphitheater, multipurpose hall and exhibition hall with the footprints of some famous luminaries like Rudyard Kipling, Baden Powell and who’s who of Hindi Cine world, who have performed here long ago.
Next on our walking route is the infamously famous Scandal Point where the Mall road joins the Ridge . With many tantalizing stories doing the round, one legend which is most popular is of the clandestine affair between the Viceroy’s daughter and the Maharaja of Patiala. Both eloped from this point way back in 1892. However the authenticity of this mystery could not be proved.
The confluence of the Mall road and Ridge has a number of buildings standing tall wrapped in their olden glory. The prominent red and white timber framed structure of the General Post Office of vintage 1882, is an eclectic mix of different styled British era buildings in Shimla. The red bricked telegraph office building, where a telephone exchange was first set to establish contact with England in 1930 is now occupied by BSNL. It is known for its Scottish architecture and earthquake proof structure built in 1992. It happens to be one of the oldest automated telephone exchanges in the world, with a capacity for handling 2000 lines.
Among the heritage buildings here, the glimpse of towering Grand hotel which was the first hotel to be built in Shimla in 1892 by the confectioner of the Viceroy , the magnificent Kalibari temple of Goddess kali or Shyamala which is dated back to 1845 and the SBI building of 1903 heritage, which originally housed imperial bank are not to be missed.
The red turreted Railway Board building with the fire resistant cast iron and steel structure of vintage 1896 is a predominant feature, which speaks volumes of Victorian’s pride.
The impressive Gorton castle( named after its first occupant) now HP’s Accountant General’s office with its red towers and lime set stone structure built between 1901-04 gives a fairyland castle look. The building was designed by one of the best British architects of that time, Sir Swinton Jacob who earned fame for his masterpieces like Albert Hall (Jaipur), Lalgarh Palace (Bikaner), St. Stephen’s College (Delhi) etc. From its vantage point it can be seen from various locations in Shimla.
The beautiful glance of the valley on the right with the tall cedar and oak trees abounding the slopes leading into a gorge with a circular lush green patch like an oasis of natural splendor looks enthralling from the height. It is popularly called as the Annandale golf course derived from Anna( young belle) and dale (valley) came into existence in 1830 for holding public events.
The Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly or Vidhan Sabha is housed in what’s known as The Council Chamber. One of the last important buildings constructed by the British in 1925 on this road. This building stands at the same spot where Major Kennedy, the discoverer and the founder of Shimla, built the first house.
The view of the charming mansion Knockdrin with lush green well manicured lawns leaves one spell bound. Erstwhile known as ‘Will Hall’ was constructed and occupied by General Buttler in 1862. However, it is now with the army and cannot be frequented by everyone.
The Tendril Cottage of the famed Rudyard Kipling which later on grew into the famous Cecil Oberoi hotel was established in 1884 by the British that was later purchased by one of its employees who came up through the ranks, Mohan Singh Oberoi transforming it into a five star hotel. One can definitely take a break here for a cup of coffee to experience its authentic charm which lies in its magnificent atrium, wooden floors , period furniture and crackling fire fireplaces adding grandeur to this place.
Walking on the winding roads with the overpowering structures on the sides reflecting elegance and grace of the colonial British architecture makes one lose track of time. The tall imposing TV tower becomes more pronounced as we approach the Chaura Maidan area, perched on a hill top as a distinctive marque.
Nestled on the Inveram hill, enjoying the quietness and stillness is the State Museum housed in a original Victorian mansion house, which has a collection of art works, sculptures,coins and handicrafts of the state. It was formerly the appointment house of Military Secretary to the Viceroy.
The architecturally impressive edifice Viceregal Lodge (pre independence) or the Rashtrapati Nivas (post independence) and now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study(IIAS) was originally built for the Viceroy of India Lord Dufferin between 1884-88. Many historic decisions have been taken in this Indo-Gothic style building during the Indian independence movement. The Shimla Conference and Shimla cabinet mission were held here in 1945. The decision to carve out Pakistan and East Pakistan from India was also taken here in 1947. Post independence it served as a summer retreat for the President of India. In 1965 it was handed over to education ministry, by Dr S.Radhakrishnan and thus started as IIAS. A perfect location for history lovers displays some of the most ancient articles and rare photographs of the British era. Surrounded by immaculately trimmed botanical garden with colorful roses and sweet smelling pines offers magnificent views of the mountains across.
The first walk ends here leaving us spellbound with the picture perfect memories for lifetime and a trail of emotions in the heart full of admiration for the ones who carried loads on their back, worked endless hours in the harsh weather, paved roads through the gigantic mountains, contoured stones, lime and mortar creating amaranthine marvels…I often wonder, how it was all accomplished with meagre resources, challenging terrain and lesser advanced engineering technology.
Still basking in the glory of its rich historical past…generations have lapsed but these structures facing the moods and colors of nature, have withstood the test of time.
Writing this piece has been really gripping and exciting…talking to old timers, reading various literatures on Shimla, observing the structures and then taking this tour innumerable times…all summed up into this revelation .