Shimla

After Mussoorie, I stopped over for a night in Chandigarh, the state capital of both Haryana and Punjab. My couchsurfing contact, Goldie, was a great host, but I was only using Chandigarh as a staging post, and didn’t really see any of the city. I intend to go back there and stay with Goldie again, on my way back to Delhi in a week or two. However, this time I was quickly on my way again to Shimla, the old summer capital of the British Raj.

The first part of the journey was great – a good quality road, winding up into the hills, with fantastic views. But halfway up, the rain started. Soon, I was soaked to the skin and freezing cold. The last half an hour’s ride to Shimla was horrible, with rivers of rain water running across the road, just a few metres’ visibility into the cloud, and trucks and buses roaring past. I’ve discovered what you do in India if you’re rejected from the bus company for driving too aggressively: you get a job with a tour company as a jeep driver instead. They’re the worst, those and the little light trucks.

Anyway, I arrived in Shimla utterly exhausted and just wanting a shower, change and a rest. I rode down the Cart Road, the main vehicle thoroughfare just below the pedestrian-only Mall Road, and spotted the two hotels I’d had in mind from the guidebook, but both looked fairly grotty, and there was busy traffic and nowhere to park outside them. I carried on, heading for a couple of larger hotels I could see further around the ridge, and ended up at the rather overpriced (¬£15/night and it’s nothing special)¬†Holiday Home Hotel.

On Wed, 2 Oct, I set off into Shimla with high hopes of exploring this fascinating relic of British India. However, it turned out that since it was Gandhi’s birthday, everything was closed. So I tried to catch up on some blogging – at an internet shop in town because my overpriced hotel’s internet suite was inexplicably not working – and had all my photos from Nainital, Haridwar and Mussoorie deleted by a virus. Another violent rain storm started, and I got completely soaked returning to the hotel. That was a low point – realising that the day hadn’t just been wasted, but had actually set me back, what with the lost photos and the fact that now even more of my clothes were wet.

I arranged to stay an extra night at the hotel, and the following day set out to do exactly the same things I’d intended to do on the previous one.

First, I walked up to Jakhoo, the peak which looks over Shimla and contains a Hanuman temple and a giant statue of the monkey god. I wasn’t particularly interested in the temple, but I was hoping for a good view of the town. I’d skipped the cable cars in Nainital and Mussoorie due to mist, so I was determined not to miss the equivalent opportunity in Shimla. Unfortunately Shimla doesn’t have a cable car, so it’s a short but steep hike up to Jakhoo. I’m atrociously unfit, and the altitude doesn’t help, so it was a bit cheekier than I’d expected. And there wasn’t even a very good view from the top, as it’s obscured by trees. This is the best I could get, from a point half-way back down.

View of Shimla

On the walk back, I noticed a sign for the Shimla Heritage Museum, “5 minutes walk” away. It hadn’t been on my itinerary, but I had time, so I followed it. 10 minutes’ walk later, I came to a second identical sign, promising the Heritage Museum was just “5 minutes walk”. I wondered how many more of these signs there would be, but another 5-10 minutes’ walk did actually get me to the museum itself. The most interesting thing about it was the building, which was the old United Services Club of Shimla, a big mock Tudor thing with a bit of an Alpine feel to it. The museum consisted of one room of the building, containing a few blown-up photos. At least it was free. In fact it was completely unmanned. Otherwise I’d have felt a bit cheated.

Formerly the United Services Club of Shimla, now the underwhelming Shimla Heritage Museum

Next stop was the Himachal State Museum at the other end of town. After the Heritage Museum, I wasn’t expecting much. The guidebook promised some decent stone and wood carvings. After several rooms of those, I thought that was probably it. But the labyrinthine galleries just kept going, and going. There were dozens of Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari miniature paintings, photos and documents from the Raj, contemporary art, antique embroideries… and just when I was reaching exhibit-viewing saturation point, I came across several galleries full of antique brass objects. And then musical instruments. And then the weapon gallery. I’m still not convinced I saw every room, and I certainly didn’t take in a lot of the later stuff. Also, I’m not really sure what this person is supposed to be doing:

A cheeky wood carving in the Himachal State Museum, Shimla

By the time I’d finished in the State Museum, more rain had arrived, so I dashed over to the Viceregal Lodge, since renamed the Rastrapati Niwas and now home to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. This sort of huge stone mansion house, with its ornate wooden furnishings inside, is exactly the sort of thing you can see at 90% of National Trust sites in the UK. But to find it on the top of a hill in the Indian Himalayas is quite extraordinary. Most of the building isn’t accessible, as it’s in use by the IIAS, but you can go on a guided tour through the hall and a couple of the rooms, where you can see the ostentatious Viceroy’s Chair, used in meetings, and the table on which the line dividing India and Pakistan was drawn.

Visiting the Viceregal Lodge

Other interesting bits of colonial history in Shimla are the GPO, Town Hall, Gaiety Theatre, and various crumbling old colonial houses. There’s also Christ Church, which is still in use as a Christian place of worship under the Diocese of Amritsar, and is exactly like any C of E church at home. There was even organ practice going on when I visited. The only strange aspect to it is that, like any other Indian religious site, you have to take your shoes off when you enter. The walls are covered in brass plaques, commemorating various servants and officials of the Raj. I managed to get a photo of one of them, before I was told off because photography isn’t allowed. That photo is one of the ones I lost in the internet cafe.

So, that’s Shimla done. Various people here told me not to bother visiting it, because there’s nothing of interest here. I suppose to most Indians there isn’t: it’s just a resort town for rich Delhiites and Punjabis with a few embarrassingly incongruous buildings. But I’m fascinated by the history of British India, and it was high on my priority list. I’m glad I’ve seen it, despite the constant downpours. I’m not sure where I’ll go next: I was thinking the Kullu valley, to Manali and Manokaran, but the forecast says there’ll be more rain there for the next couple of days. Or I could go to Dharamsala, which would be on the way to Amritsar, but the forecast there isn’t great either. Alternatively, I could abandon the hills and go back down to Chandigarh. It would be a bit disappointing to miss out on seeing anything else in Himachal Pradesh, but on the other hand, travelling in the wet really isn’t fun at all.

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