Himachal Pradesh Stories and Tips

Day 4: Shimla: Everybody’s a Visitor

Viceregal Lodge Coat of Arms Photo,

The guru heading the convention yesterday has still not taken himself off, and dozens of devotees eager to get a private audience are milling about the hotel. They entertain themselves by singing songs and clapping loudly, so we decide that the sooner we get out of the Peterhoff, the better. After breakfast (a very strenuous affair at the restaurant: the waiter is exceptionally clueless, and just ordering breakfast takes five minutes), we walk down to the Cecil, and from there on to the Mall.

We follow the same route as yesterday, up to Gorton Castle Square, and past the Railway Board Building. Further up is the BSNL Building, and then, beyond a row of shops—mainly cafés and souvenir shops—a wide promenade. There’s a rain shelter on the left, alongside a wide terrace that offers what would have been a spectacular view of the mountains and valleys around, if only it wasn’t so misty. On the right are a series of interesting old heritage buildings: the Municipal Corporation (built in 1908), and beyond that the Gaiety Theatre, with a lovely sloping roof laid over with slate tiles. The Gaiety’s being renovated right now, so any hopes of getting to see a good play fall flat on their faces.

Beyond the Gaiety is what used to be the Band Stand—a conical roofed building with slate tiles similar to that of the Gaiety Theatre. The Band Stand has now been taken over by Himachal Tourism, who’ve opened two restaurants here, the Ashiana (which means `Nest’) and Goofa.

This entire area forms a ridge running along the top of a hill, so there’s also actually a view on the right side, beyond Goofa. There’s a narrow strip of garden here for which they charge Rs 2 as an entry fee. It’s already pretty full of mooning honeymooners, many of them dressed in gaudy Himachali costumes and posing for wandering photographers who supply the clothing and the photos. We’re approached by one photographer too, who flourishes photos of cheesy-looking former patrons. "Photo in local dress?" he asks us, but we politely decline.

At the far right corner of the Ridge is the tall, cream-painted square tower of the Christ Church. Next to it is the quaint building of the State Library, but it’s the church we’re really interested in. We wander in, and spend a long while admiring the lovely stained glass panels in this amazing old building.

Once out, we take a peek at the library next door, when skirt a small patch of garden with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in it. Beyond this, a road snakes up towards Lakkar Bazaar (the Wood Market), whose shops do seem to specialise in woodwork: lovely hand carved walking sticks, keychains, bangles and bracelets, spatulas, figurines: just about anything small and decorative that’s made of wood. There are lots of shops selling other souvenirs too, including shawls, Himachali caps and jackets, and similar stuff. On one side, a row of fruit sellers offers local produce for sale: apricots, peaches, and raw almonds.

We wander through Lakkar Bazaar, avoiding the many pony-wallahs who go past with tourists’ children happily giggling on the back of the pony. The ponies are uniformly smelly and leave steaming piles of dung all along the road. Tarun and I, as soon as we realise Lakkar Bazaar doesn’t have very much more to offer, elect to turn back and return to the Band Stand. We go downhill, past the Indoor Roller Skating Rink (a Shimla attraction, along with the Outdoor Ice Skating Rink. Old Hindi movies of the 1960’s, before Shimla became passé, often had a scene set on one of the rinks). Back at the Band Stand, we toy with having lunch at the Goofa, but the name sounds utterly goofy and we decide to go on a bit more.

We end up having sandwiches and smoothies at the local Barista, an India-wide chain of cafés. Through the glass front of the café, we can see the awesome stone façade of the Municipal Corporation building and the District Police Assistance Room next door. There are tourists everywhere, toting cameras, posing against heritage buildings, buying souvenirs. I’m reminded suddenly, inexorably, of Rome in the summer. Everybody’s a visitor.

Lunch over, the next sight on our itinerary is the stone church (a Catholic one) of St Michael’s. This stands below the District Courts, and though it looks imposing on the outside—and offers tantalizing glimpses of what is probably some fine stained glass—the church itself is locked and there’s nobody around to open it. "It’ll open after 5," says a man cleaning a car in the parking lot outside.

It’s not even 2.30 yet, and parading uphill and down all these hours since breakfast has taken its toll on our none-too-fit selves. We’ll call it quits for the time being. It’s back to the Peterhoff, where the guruji’s still around, his devotees a little more zealous. We give them some black looks, then take ourselves off to our room, me to make some notes on today’s wanderings, Tarun to watch some TV.

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