The Queen of the Hill Stations has plenty to offer
by koshkha on December 30, 2012
The Mall is Shimla's car-free, pedestrian-only road which stretches from Scandal Point near the Ridge down a gentle slope towards Chhota Shimla. Whilst many great European cities – especially in the south – have a strong heritage of the evening ‘promenade’, it’s not something you often see in India. Mind you, it’s not something you see in England too much either so the origins of the desire to walk up and down, to see and be seen, are not clear to me. The Mall is not a place to ‘do’ things – it’s much more a place to wander, to promenade, too look in shop windows and look up at the architecture imported straight from the Home Counties of England and to soak up the atmosphere of the city. Shimla has long ceased to be a little town in the hills and now has a population of approximately 180,000 people, plus of course the throngs of tourists and temporary visitors. However, despite the high population and the sprawling expansion of the city that clings to the mountainside, the Mall feels like the High Street of a small town.Traditionally Indians go to the mountains to play. For many people it's the place to show off their woolly hats and thick coats as they enjoy the novelty of what most of us Northern Europeans are far too used to - being cold. Many reviewers rhapsodise about the shopping but I’m unclear why as there seems to be very little unusual or to get excited about on that front. There are handicrafts aplenty on offer but which Indian city can’t offer that? The best approach when strolling up the Mall is to split your attention between watching the people, many of them trussed up like Eskimos, and looking up at the architecture. On the street side you’ll find people roasting corn on the cob or selling paper twists of nuts or sweets.It’s not just the grand civic architecture of the Town Hall and Gaiety Theatre Complex that catches the eye or the functional architecture of not one but two post offices (the little sub-post office being barely bigger than a caravan) and an adorable fire station. What I enjoy is looking up at the rather shaky, slightly decaying shop buildings with their colourfully painted ‘mock Tudor’ designs and old advertising signs left from many decades before. Sadly there are some rather ugly modern buildings tucked in between the old rickety remnants of the British Empire but the overall effect is predominantly one of a time gone by preserved more by accident than design. The main post office is particularly worthy of a view with its red and white paint job that tends to take on a slightly rosy hue when the sun is in the right position. I particularly like the way that a couple of postal vans are usually parked outside on this otherwise vehicle free road and they attract local dogs, looking to sunbathe on the tarmac in the shadow of the vans. Many of the buildings have corrugated tin roofs, which are the most difficult roofing materials for the local monkeys to attack but they do make the buildings look like little cricket pavilions from an English village green. If you're expecting something really special, or very grand, you might be disappointed. This isn't about swanky shops and classy dining - it's just a place to plod slowly up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and getting used to the altitude. None of that detracts from the fact that this is a wonderful street that’s soaked in the atmosphere of past and present. Please note that the photos I've added to this trip are from two different visits - this explains why the post office buildings have changed colour
Shimla has two very famous roads. The most famous is the Mall and the second is arguably the Ridge. The two roads meet at Scandal Point where a uniformed police officer or soldier (I’m not well up on identifying the uniforms) keeps watch over the proceedings from what looks like a miniature bandstand. The Ridge has the distinction of being one of the few places in Shimla that’s almost flat. Walking to it from Scandal Point, passing the Town Hall and the Theatre Complex, you will go up a slight slope but once you’re on the large open space it’s as flat as you can get in this mountain town. This flatness makes it a magnet for many of the activities that just don’t work so well on a slope, most notably ice skating in the winter, pony rides for children and adults and political meetings all year round. The Ridge is also the location of a giant water tank or cistern which you’re unlikely to be able to see but it’s there and it holds most of the city’s water, gathering it in the season of snow and rain and hanging on to it for use in the summer.I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the next piece of information although it’s been repeated to us a couple of times by local people and I have no reason not to believe them, unlikely as the story may sound. The Ridge is what’s known as a ‘watershed’ – a line that divides two drainage basins. Water that falls on the Ridge can drain off in one of two directions – westward towards the River Indus which drains into the Arabian Sea and eastward towards the Ganges and eventually the Bay of Bengal . When you hear things like that you almost want it to rain just so you can experience the wonder of the watershed. Almost but not quite, of course.The Ridge is home to statues of the great and the good or perhaps not, depending on your attitude to the people concerned. Indira Gandhi stands with her back to the mountains she claims to have loved, looking over the gathering space below. She’s been painted in a particularly ugly glossy grey paint that might look more at home on a retired battle ship. At the head of the Ridge stands the instantly recognisable figure of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, still popular many decades after his death. And on the third side of the ridge is the first Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. You can’t help but wonder how the three would have got on if they could share their stories of what they’ve seen on the Ridge.Just beyond the open space of the ridge is one of the city’s most recognisable buildings, Christ Church. It’s a buttery yellow building which is floodlit after dark and can be seen from many points across the city. It stands next to the Library which could have been imported directly from any Miss Marple village in old England. On the route between Scandal Point and the main Ridge, you can pass the Town Hall and the Gaiety Theatre complex, the latter now open again after a long and expensive restoration project that has left its neighbouring buildings looking decidedly shabby.From either side of the ridge you can see half way to tomorrow when the sky is clear and the sun is bright. The views are spectacular and the air is fresh and clean. It is however almost impossible to get a photograph without electrical cables cutting into your pictures.
If you have seen Michael Palin's excellent series about his journeys through the Himalaya, you'll maybe have an idea why we keep going back again and again to experience the mountains. One of my favourite episodes is the one where Palin goes to Shimla to soak up the atmosphere of old English gentility and performs in the Gaiety Theatre. On our first trip to Shimla about six years ago, we saw most of the attractions in the city centre but I was left with a niggling sense that I'd missed something important. Despite wandering up and down the Mall and all around the centre, I hadn't seen the Gaiety Theatre and being a typical Brit abroad, I didn't ask anyone. This time I was delighted when we were walking up the Mall and we saw the signs offering tours of the theatre. We realised that we HAD seen the theatre on our previous visit but just hadn't realised that the large, grey building with all the renovation work going on was it. After several years of meticulous work, the Gaiety is now open again and it must surely be one of the best attractions in town.Way back in the early 19th century, British people living and working in India discovered that one of the few ways to survive the heat of the summer was to head for the hills and Shimla became a firm favourite, later getting the name of the 'Queen of the Hill Stations'. Wherever the Brits went in the days of the Empire, they took favourite aspects of their home culture, like dressing for dinner, taking afternoon tea, gossip and snobbery and most relevant to the Gaiety, they imported amateur dramatics. There was nothing your posh Brit missing his or her home enjoyed more than dressing up in silly costumes and prancing about on a stage. The first ‘am dram’ performers used the Assembly Rooms which were probably quite a lot like an English village hall but over time, as Shimla became more important and more British ex-pats made it their home, it was decided to build a proper theatre as part of the Town Hall complex. In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's jubilee, the Town Hall and the Gaiety Theatre opened in the city. It occupies a city centre plot sandwiched between the Mall and the Ridge. The theatre became a key gathering point for the community especially in the summer months when the government and all their hangers-on decamped from Calcutta and later Delhi to the hills, making Shimla the official summer capital of the Raj. In those days anyone who was anyone was hanging out at the Gaiety.The building is a fabulous grey stone construction in Victorian Gothic style. I'm pretty good at spotting Victorian Gothic and its indigenised version which is known as Indo-Saracenic architecture. It's a style that's very common in India's cities, especially ones where the British held sway. When a local guide asks you "Do you know what this sort of architecture is called?" stick your chin in the air and say confidently "Indo Saracenic" and nine times out of ten you'll probably be right (especially if it's got lots of arches or looks a bit like Manchester Town Hall). This however is not so at the Gaiety which is pure Victorian Gothic.The building as it is today is not as it was originally built. It had five stories but was found to be structurally unsafe and the top two floors were lopped off and the building strengthened. The architect was Henry Irwin, a man also responsible for the Shimla’s massive great eyesore which was the Viceregal Lodge (now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study) as well as many other significant Indian civic buildings such as Mysore Palace, several railway termini and head quarters, the government museum in Chennai and the High Court in Chennai. Tours of the renovated building are available for a very cheap price, even cheaper if you are Indian. The price for locals is 10 rupees each or 25 rupees if they have a camera. For foreign tourists, the fee is 25 rupees each and we paid and additional 25 rupees for my camera permit. The total of 75 rupees is less than £1. The guy who took our money asked us to go and sit in the theatre and make ourselves at home and said the guide would be along in a few minutes. We expected to have to wait for a few more people to join us but it soon became apparent that we were going to get our own private tour. Tours run every 45 minutes through the day starting at 11.00 with the last at 18.15. We must have just got very lucky with our timing although since our tour was significantly longer than 45 minutes, I suspect we might have got a 'special'. Our guide was a very smartly dressed chap in a blazer and crisply pressed slacks who was clearly a big fan of all things British and delighted to discover that we were from the UK and really pleased that we'd seen the Palin programme that featured the theatre. "It has changed greatly" he told us and went on to describe the dreadful state that the place had been in until the money was raised to renovate it. The work started in 2003 and everything has been restored to as close as possible to the original conditions. Paint was peeled off layer by layer to identify the original colours, traditional materials were used to match those of the original builders and it took 6 years and 11.5 crore rupees (approximately one and a half million pounds). I felt a little uncomfortable that he and the restoration team had gone to such extremes and such expense to preserve a little bit of old England so far from home but it was clear that they were deeply attached to the place and very serious about preserving a building that was so important to Shimla's past.
We started the tour in the theatre where we learned about the restoration work, about the famous people who'd acted there (including Baden-Powell and Rudyard Kipling) and about how important the place had been to the local community. Our guide was one of the most interesting and understandable we've ever had in India and we really enjoyed the stories he told us. He explained about how the building was heated during the freezing winter conditions, how the stage sets were worked, about why the trap door no longer works (someone fell through it and it had to be blocked up) and about who sat where within the building. There were three large 'boxes' with the best views of the stage. The central one was for the Viceroy and the two either side were for the Governor General of the Punjab and for the Commander in Chief of the army. These three were the only people allowed to ride a horse down the Mall, Shimla's otherwise pedestrian only street. He also explained that the local Indian princes sat in the seats at the side whilst the British had the better seats in the middle. In total the theatre holds 320 customers.We heard that during the days of the Empire, there were hundreds of small theatres like the Gaiety all over the world and only the one in Shimla remains. The main colour inside the theatre is an unusual shade of Wedgewood green. The plaster work is picked out in gold and the ceiling is a deep midnight blue. The seating has been completely replaced and the seats are unusually large and comfortable, especially when I compare them to a lot of old UK theatre seats that seem to have been built for tiny Victorian backsides. The stage is not very wide but is very deep.After hearing about the restoration project we were taken to sit in the Viceregal Box which was quite fun and showed that even though lots have work has gone into the theatre restoration, they're not being to precious about the place. Before heading upstairs to see the theatre from the circle, we visited some of the other areas of the ground floor, seeing the impressive hot air system that heated the theatre and the old Tavern Hall which is rented out for art exhibitions.Heading upstairs we looked at the theatre again and were taken to see the backstage system for controlling the sets and the curtains. Our guide left us for a while- I think to tell his colleagues that he was going to be late because we were asking him so many questions – and he left us in the first floor area in front of the theatre where there was a fabulous exhibition of old photographs of the theatre and her performers as well as plans of the original building before the top two floors were removed. When he returned we were taken to see the Art Gallery, a beautiful bright, domed room which used to be the Viceroy's drawing room and the place where he 'held court' in the city. At one time there was apparently a ramp running from Scandal Point to this room so that the Viceroy could ride directly to the door on his horse. The top floor of the building contains the 'Multipurpose' Hall which, as the name suggests, gets used for many different things from business presentations to fashion shows and probably wedding parties as well. It's an enormous, impressive, modern space that's makes up for what it lacks in atmosphere by being very functional – a bit like the opposite of the old theatre downstairs. In addition to these two indoor theatres, there's also and small outdoor 'amphitheatre' that can be used for concerts and small performances. All of the theatres and gallery spaces can be rented out in order to ensure a good continuing income to secure the financial security of the theatre. Apparently Michael Palin is going back in 2013 to perform on the new stage and make a TV show to further publicise the theatre. In total our tour took more than an hour and if we hadn't needed to move on as we were running short of time, I think we could have happily stayed even longer. Our guide was absolutely outstanding and incredibly knowledgeable. We were planning to give him a substantial tip but he shook our hands and left us so quickly that we didn't get a chance to.The dedication and hard work of the people who have restored the Gaiety to its current glory and who offer tours to publicise their work and share the building they love is impressive. I strongly recommend a visit to what's now called the Gaiety Heritage Cultural Complex for anyone visiting Shimla and I'm sure it will soon become one of the city's top attractions. I would only recommend skipping it if you are the kind of person who hates to be 'shown' things and likes to wander around on their own. If that's you, then you'll also need to skip Henry Irwin's other Shimla building, the Viceregal Lodge. For everyone else, this is one of the most interesting and atmospheric tours I've taken in India and an opportunity to learn about the life of the British who chose to make Shimla their home.
by koshkha on December 31, 2012
The Embassy in Shimla is something very special. It’s one of those places that sticks in the memory, that lingers as a uniquely ‘different’ place and which you will inevitably try to find again when you go back to the city. I can’t claim to understand it, but I love it none the less. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it and if someone attempted to reproduce it elsewhere, it probably wouldn’t work. I asked if it was a philosophy but the owner insisted it wasn’t. "We are not about philosophy", he said, "we are just trying to educate". More of that later.The first challenge is to find it. On our first visit a few years back we stumbled in off the street without any particular idea of what we were looking for. We wanted hot drinks on a cold day and it was the first place we came to as we walked into Shimla from Chhota Shimla in the east of the city. We were with two friends who were craving cake and what started as ‘popping in for a drink’ turned into ‘sitting around for hours reading the signs on the wall and eating cake after cake’. This time I struggled to find it, not noticing the small doorway tucked beside the Embassy Bakery and Embassy Ice-Cream outlets on the street front. You could grab a take away and eat your ice-cream or cake whilst strolling up the road. But you shouldn’t. What’s the hurry? You’ve got time to stop and sit a while surely.We were walking up and down the end of the Mall, sure that it must be there somewhere but blind to what was in front of my eyes. Eventually my husband said "Come on, this one will do" and we stepped in and found exactly what we were seeking. That’s sort of how the Embassy works.The Embassy has several things going for it. Firstly it has fabulous views, especially if you can get the table in the sticky-outy-window bit. I can’t help thinking it’s probably structurally a bit shaky but the view is fabulous. You may well be able to watch monkeys playing on the roof tops. Secondly it has fabulous food and an imaginative menu that you won’t need because the owners seem to be able to just look at you and prescribe exactly what you need. And thirdly there are the words of wisdom, hand written notices pinned to every vertical surface. Some are from famous people, others from people you’ve never heard off, some are surprising (yep, you’ll find Adolf Hitler in there along with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, the Pope and of course the Dalai Lama), all are there to provoke thought and sometimes reaction. The restaurant is a wood lined pod clinging to the mountain side with a variety of mish-mash furniture stuffed into every corner. As we stepped in and realised we’d found what we were looking for, the owner greeted us with a bit smile. We asked for two cold coffees and he nodded and said "And can I interest you in brownies with hot sauce and ice-cream?" I said no but my husband looked keen despite it not being long since we’d had lunch. "I suppose we could share a portion" I suggested and was met with a horrified look. "I’m not sharing", he said "get your own". So we ordered two portions. See what I mean about them prescribing what you need?We took a seat at a table near but not in the window as the only other person in the room had grabbed the best table but she was almost finished and soon cleared her plate and headed back to the kitchen showing that even the people who work there love that special table. We shuffled over to the window with our cold coffees and the brownies soon arrived. In a previous job I used to visit India frequently when working for a bakery company. I was involved in eating lots of local brownies and in concluding that the brownie mix we were about to launch was much too rich for the local expectations. Indians seemed to think that brownies were just flat chocolate cakes. Because these so-called brownies weren’t very good, they had to be served with chocolate sauce and ice-cream to make them edible. It’s not like that at the Embassy – they make a proper moist, intensely chocolately brownie. The company I now work for bought a brownie factory this year which makes what I thought were the world’s best brownies but now I’ve eaten at the Embassy, I’m no longer quite so sure.There’s a sign on the wall that asks customers not to waste food. It tells them that it takes a lot of time and effort to make the food so please don’t waste it. With an instruction like that I kind of HAD to polish off all my brownies although I did pass the ice-cream over to my husband to finish it off.Two delicious creamy iced coffees plus two plates of brownies with sauce and ice-cream came to 550 rupees – less than £7. That’s not cheap by local standards but it’s still half the price of Starbucks and a thousand times better.
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