Saturday, May 26, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

SHIMLA: Another age, another time

An artist’s impressions of  Elysium Hill and Auckland House (1850) Combermere Bridge (1835) showing a jampan crossing it.
Shimla’s reputation as a place for pleasure-seekers took birth almost with the foundation of the town itself. "The presence of unattached ladies, bachelors, flirts, match-makers gave to Simla its early reputation.... Early evenings on the Mall, was the customary place for building acquaintances.... Eligibles... socially desirables... all were on the Mall." A nostalgic journey by Raghuvendra Tanwar

WHEN Charles Pratt Kennedy was deputed in 1822 as Superintendent of the Hill States, could he have imagined that he was destined to initiate the founding process not only of a new town in India but of a way of life that would remain the focus of socialite attention throughout the 19th century? The British in India had called Shimla by various names — Viceroy’s Shooting Box, Abode of the Little Tin Gods and even Mount Olympus.

Shimla was formally acquired by the British in the tenure of Lord William Bentick. But it was during Lord Aucklands’ time that Shimla began to come of age. A report of 1839 states that most European products, ranging from fine fabrics to French sauces, Scot sardines, English sweets and even fine horses were all available in Shimla. There being no roads worth the name, the only mode of travel was the jampans for ladies and horses for men. The jampan was a kind of chair, usually covered and attached to two or four small poles and lifted on the shoulders by two or four men. Wheeled carriages were not allowed or were not feasible in Shimla till as late as 1840s.

Yet Shimla’s reputation as a place for pleasure-seekers developed almost with its foundation. "The presence of unattached ladies, bachelors, flirts, match makers gave to Simla its early reputation.... Early evenings on the Mall, was the customary place for building acquaintances.... Eligibles... socially desirables... all were on the Mall."


Lord Dalhousie (1848-56) spent two seasons in Shimla but did not quite like it. In a letter he wrote: "This place has been greatly overrated in climate and everything else." After the Mutiny of 1857 had been settled, Shimla was home to a large number of injured and sick British troops. Like Dalhousie, even Lady (his successor’s wife) Canning found Shimla’s beauty "rather questionable... every road has a

Peterhoff (1880)Of Shimla’s social life in the middle of the 19th century, the famous Times (London) reporter Howard Russel wrote (June 14, 1858): "Social distinctions are rigid... each man’s status was entirely depended on his rank and office... women were totally dependent for their own position on their husbands and neither wealth, wit, nor desirable connections could break through the barrier." So ambition bitten were the bureaucracy that a common joke in the 1860s was: "You cannot sleep in the night in Simla because of the noise of the ‘grinding of axes’."

It was the foresightful Sir John Lawrence who recommended to his Home government the idea of making Shimla the summer capital of the Government of India. Surprisingly his relevant minutes make no mention of Shimla’s beauty: "Here you are with one foot in Punjab and another in the North West Frontier. Here you are among docile population and yet near enough to influence Oudh." Some years earlier, Dalhousie had already initiated a proposal to build a road to Simla. The concept of the Hindustan Tibet Road is in fact credited to Dalhousie. Of the proposed road, which became the Cart Road at Shimla, Dalhousie wrote: "It will not be surpassed by any mountain road in the world."

The tone of Shimla’s social life in the 19th century was normally set by the Viceroy and his lady. The early social circuits mainly included wives of officials who were posted in the field, officers from cantonments and, in due course, rich English businessman from Calcutta. A drama club came into being in 1840. Well before the end of the 19th century, Annandale had become famous across British India for its fetes and fairs and women’s archery competitions.

A grand railway bridge (1903)Peterhoff, the Government House, was occupied for the first time in 1876 by the fashionable Viceroy couple, the Lyttons. Peterhoff developed a reputation for hospitality, particularly for the quality and quantity of exotic drinks served there. Its lunch menus took much time of the society gossip. The Gaiety Theatre opened in 1838 but it was Lady Lytton who brought it of age almost 40 years later. In 1887, the new Gaiety Theatre opened in the Town Hall building.

The site for one of main landmarks of Shimla — the Viceregal Lodge — was chosen by Lord Lytton. There is a story of how Lady Lytton was so impressed by the beauty of the place and how she influenced Lord Lytton. The site had until then been known as the Observatory Hill (named after the observatory built by Col Bouileau in 1844). Records relating to the construction and other details of the building are mind-boggling.

Annandale (1895)Amazingly, just as today, extensive construction in Shimla had become a cause of worry as early as 1901. "The Public works and other buildings have made Simla monstrous", Curzon noted. "Too bustling... too public... pomp to irksome, it is like dining everyday in the house keepers room with the butler and the maid."

Curzon began escaping to the Retreat, and then to his new found love Naldehra. The other Viceroys treated Shimla as a holiday break, but Curzon, a workaholic to the core, did the opposite. He took along to Shimla his sensitive files. It was at Naldehra that Curzon penned some of his memorable minutes. Sitting and dining in the open. Walking the slopes, all the while thinking. All the time in touch. At Naldehra, he even installed a complex communication system of relaying messages to Shimla by heliograph during the day and flashing lamps at night. By the turn of the century, Shimla had lost most of its famed wildlife. The golden eagle was rarely sighted after 1900, and the leopard too had disappeared.

The Town Hall, Church and Jakhu Hill in the backdrop (1902/3)In November, 1903, Shimla was connected by the Railways. It was a monumental event that changed Shimla for ever. Within a year, Shimla added 1400 new cottages. Hotels like Cecil, Grand, Metropole followed in their modern form. Within five years of the coming of the Railways, the summer time population of Shimla had averaged to 38,000 — of whom 7000 were Europeans. Among the first non-official permanent residents were the members of the Dyer family who then owned the brewery at Solan.

The tradition that made Shimla stand apart as a town of clean orderliness, a tradition that continued up to the time of Dr Y.S. Parmar’s exit from power, was started by Curzon. The surest way to rouse Curzon’s temper it was said was to litter the road or the hill side. It was Curzon who initiated with rightful fanaticism the policy of upkeeping and special care of old buildings.

The Shimla railway line (1903)By the early years of the 20th century, Shimla had emerged as a ‘decent place’ to retire. Of how the retired spent their time, a letter reads:

"He rises early.... Six newspapers to read, forty Madras cheroots to smoke.... A kindly tiffin to linger.... A game of billiards... 12 pegs to drink... band on the Mall, dinner, chatter.... Scandals... jokes....."

Another reference states:

"No where possibly in the world are the passions of human nature laid so open for dissection as they are in this (Simla) remote hill station."

For those who have seen Shimla in its prime, say the sixties, its state today leaves one with a sad and hollow feeling. Shimla is a good example of what so-called development and progress can do to nature and its beauty.