Every colonial Indian town or city worth its salt has a Mall, and Shimla’s is perhaps the most famous. This long, interesting stretch of road snakes its way up past deodar and horse chestnut trees, with some fascinating buildings all along the way up to Observatory Hill. Many of these buildings, like the Legislative Assembly Building, the Railway Board Building and the Office of the Accountant General (better known as Gorton Castle) are owned by the government. Others, like the elegant Oberoi Cecil Hotel, are private. But they all have interesting histories and striking facades—and make for a great heritage walk.
Begin at the Oberoi Cecil at Chaura Maidan, then walk on up to the intersection of the Mall and the road to Annadale; from there, take the left fork, which leads upward beside the Vidhan Sabha (the Legislative Assembly) to the Mall. Walk up the Mall, right till the end for a glimpse of some of Shimla’s loveliest old buildings. The main buildings you’ll see along this route, in chronological order, are:
The Oberoi Cecil: The Oberoi Cecil Hotel began life as a colonial bungalow called Tendrils, where Rudyard Kipling stayed on his first visit to Shimla in 1883. Tendrils was subsequently (in 1902) taken over by a hotelier, added to and renovated. It is today part of the Oberoi Group of Hotels, and was renovated in the last decade. The main building has lovely turret-like `towers’ with sloping green roofs and white walls with green painted wrought iron grilles. The annex next door is a green-roofed red brick building picked out in wooden beams, with picturesque chimneys along the top.
Gorton Castle: One of the loveliest buildings on the Mall, Gorton Castle stands tall at the end of a short but steep lane flanked by deodars. Gorton Castle was built mainly during the 1800’s, and was named in 1840 for its owner Gorton, an officer of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). A subsequent owner, James Walker, toyed with the idea of converting Gorton Castle into a hospital, but wasn’t permitted to do so across the entire building. The Indian government eventually acquired the building in 1900 for the sum of Rs 1,20,000. Over the next four years, at a cost of Rs 11,00,000 (a huge sum in those days), Gorton Castle was converted into the Imperial Civil Secretariat. Today, it houses the office of the Accountant General and (post restoration in 2001-3) is a stunning building, in grey-brown stone, with a red roof. Closer up, you can see gables, carved stone screens, floral medallions and arches: a pleasing combination of Gothic and Rajasthani-Mughal architecture.
The Railway Board Building: Although the Railway Board does occupy part of this huge building, there are plenty of other important government offices and departments here, including the Income Tax office, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and the Passport Office. With red `towers’ at each corner, the Railway Board Building was built in 1896-7 by a Bombay firm called Richardson and Cruddas. The government bought over the building and having demolished it, constructed the present structure in the early 1900’s. The most unusual feature of the building is that its façade has a lot of decorative and structural elements in cast iron and steel.
The BSNL Building: Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) in Shimla is appropriately housed in a building that was once a telegraph office and later the home of one of the world’s first automatic telephone exchanges. The BSNL building is a striking red one, the windows picked out in deep green and the lower half of the façade covered in grey stone. Walking up the Mall from the Railway Board Building, you’ll see the road slope up to the BSNL building on the left and a curious domed structure, the beginning of a series of shops, on the right.
The site where the BSNL building stands was originally occupied by a house called Conny Cot; by 1886, Conny Cot had made way for the telegraph office, which was demolished in 1922 to make the present building. Incidentally, the construction of this building drew plenty of flak; people felt its expenses were unwarranted given the post-war poverty in India. The building, however, is an interesting one, with foundations specially wired to help protect against seismic shocks. The corner stone on the west of the building has a Latin inscription that reads: Molem aedificii multi construxerunt : rationem exegit I. Begg. ("Many men created the work of this stone building: the work was directed by J. Begg.)". Do note the excellent ashlar stone work along the lower half of the building; it’s a fine example of a building style in which each stone is specially cut and shaped to occupy a particular position in the design.
The Municipal Corporation Building, Gaiety Theatre and the Band Stand: I’m discussing these three buildings all in one go, because they stand cheek by jowl, and are almost contiguous. Coming from the BSNL building, the first of these three buildings you’ll see is the Municipal Corporation Building. In dark grey stone, this was built exactly a century ago, in 1908. It’s a fine building, in very good condition, but the side you’ll see here is actually the back of the building. To see the front, descend the flight of steps between the Municipal Corporation Building and the next.
The Gaiety Theatre used to be the heart of Shimla’s night life in the good old days, with patrons including stalwarts like Rudyard Kipling, Robert Baden-Powell (of boy scouts fame) and the stormy Indian artist Amrita Shergil. The theatre still hosts plays, but is right now being renovated and is off limits for visitors. The sloping slate-tiled roof is worth looking up at, though—it’s a typical feature of Himachal architecture.
Next to the Gaiety Theatre, and with a similar slate-tiled roof (this one’s conical) is what used to be called the Band Stand. The Band Stand was gifted to the people of Shimla by a Kanwar Jivan Das of Jabalpur in 1907. Since the promenade in front was a popular venue for parades and other celebrations—especially for occasions like the King’s birthday—the Band Stand was very appropriately situated. It’s today divided into two restaurants, Ashiana and Goofa, both run by Himachal Tourism.
The State Library Building: Although it tends to get a bit overshadowed by the dazzling creamy magnificence of its neighbour, the Christ Church, this is a delightful little building too. The State Library stands on the left of the church, a red-roofed stone building, its upper storey in white with dark wooden beams. According to the plaque outside, this is a neo-Tudor style, "with sections of the structural woodwork left decoratively exposed." Reminds me of all the pictures I’ve seen of Swiss chalets. The State Library building dates back to 1860 and has been, along the years, home to the Simla Volunteer Corps, the Health Department, the station and the Municipal Library.
The Christ Church: Next to the State Library is the Christ Church, consecrated in 1857 and the first proper church in Shimla. The church is best known for its exquisite stained glass windows, both above the high altar and all along the right of the church. Do also walk up to the chapel on the right, to see the lovely old floor tiles here. The first two pews still have polished brass plates designating these as the family pews of the Viceroy and the Commander in Chief respectively.