SHIMLA, Himachal’s capital, is India’s largest and most famous hill station, where much of the action in Rudyard Kipling’s colonial classic Kim took place. While the city is a favourite spot for Indian families and honeymooners, its size does little to win it popularity among Western tourists. It is however, a perfect halfway house between the plains and the Kullu Valley. It’s also the starting post for forays into the remoter regions of Kinnaur and Spiti.
Whether you travel by road or rail from the south, the last stretch of the climb up to Shimla seems interminable. Deep in the foothills of the Himalayas, the hill station is approached via a sinuous route that winds from the plains at Kalka across nearly 100km of precipitous river valleys, pine forests, and mountainsides swathed in maize terraces and apple orchards. It’s not hard to see why the British chose this inaccessible site as their summer capital. At an altitude of 2159m, the crescent-shaped ridge over which it spills is blessed with perennially cool air and superb panoramas.
Southeast of Shimla, Kasauli is a peaceful place to break your journey from Chandigarh in Punjab, while nearby Nalagarh Fort has been converted into the finest hotel in the state. The southernmost area of the state, Sirmaur, is Himachal’s most fertile area, with the major Sikh shrine in Paonta Sahib as a noteworthy sight.
Northeast of Shimla, the apple-growing centre of Narkanda and Sarahan, site of the famous Bhimakali temple, set against a backdrop of the majestic Himalayas, can be visited in a two- or three-day roundtrip from Shimla, or en route to Kinnaur via the characterless transport hub of Rampur.
Named after its patron goddess, Shamla Devi (a manifestation of Kali), the tiny village that stood on this spot was “discovered” by a team of British surveyors in 1817. Glowing reports of its beauty and climate gradually filtered to the imperial capital, Calcutta, and within two decades the settlement had become the Subcontinent’s most fashionable summer resort. The annual migration was finally rubber-stamped in 1864, when Shimla – by now an elegant town of mansions, churches and cricket pitches – was declared the Government of India’s official hot-season HQ. With the completion of the Kalka–Shimla Railway in 1903, Shimla lay only two days by train from Delhi. Its growth continued after Independence, especially after becoming state capital in 1966.
Today, Shimla is still a major holiday resort, popular mainly with nouveau riche Punjabis and Delhi-ites who flock here in their thousands during the May–June run-up to the monsoons, and then again in October, when many Bengalis also visit. Its faded colonial charm also appeals to foreigners looking for a taste of the Raj. The burra- and memsahibs may have moved on, but Shimla retains a decidedly British feel: pukka Indian gentlemen in tweeds stroll along The Mall smoking pipes, while neatly turned-out schoolchildren scuttle past mock-Tudor shop-fronts and houses with names like Braeside. At the same time, the pesky monkey troupes and chaotic mass of corrugated iron rooftops that make up Shimla’s bazaar lend an unmistakeably Indian aspect to the town. The entire town was declared a no-smoking zone in October 2010.Read More
A three-hour bus ride northeast of Shimla, the scruffy hill town of NARKANDA makes a reasonable resting point on the bumpy, six-hour journey to Sarahan, and has a number of dhabas around the bazaar where you can grab a snack. This former staging post on the Hindustan–Tibet caravan route acts as the roadhead and main market town for the area’s widely dispersed apple-and potato-growers. There are some good rambles through the cedar forests that surround the town, and great views of the Himalayas. Hatu Peak (3143m), crowned by a lonely hilltop Durga temple, looks out over the River Sutlej winding far below, and a string of white-tipped mountains to the north and east.
Secluded SARAHAN, erstwhile summer capital of the Bhushar rajas, sits astride a 2000m ledge above the River Sutlej, near the Shimla–Kinnaur border. Set against a spectacular backdrop, the village harbours one of the northwestern Himalayas’ most exotic spectacles – the Bhimakali temple. With its two multitiered sanctuary towers, elegantly sloping slate-tiled roofs and gleaming golden spires, it is the most majestic early timber temple in the Sutlej Valley – an area renowned for housing holy shrines on raised wooden platforms. Although most of the structure dates from the early twentieth century, parts are thought to be more than eight hundred years old.
A pair of elaborately decorated metal doors lead into a large courtyard flanked by rest rooms and a small carved-stone Shiva shrine. After ascending to a second, smaller yard, you pass another golden door, also richly embossed with mythical scenes, beyond which the innermost enclosure holds the two sanctuary towers. The one on the right houses musical instruments, flags, paladins and ceremonial weapons, some of which are on show in the small “museum” in the corner of the courtyard. Non-Hindus who want to climb to the top of the other, more modern tower to view the highly polished gold-faced deity must don a saffron cap. Bhimakali herself is enshrined on the top floor, decked with garlands of flowers.
When to visit Shimla
When to visit Shimla
The best time to visit is during October and November, before the Himachali winter sets in, when the days are still warm and dry, and the morning skies are clear. From December to late February, heavy snow is common, and temperatures hover around, or below, zero. The spring brings with it unpredictability: warm blasts of air from the plains and flurries of freezing rain from the mountains. Accommodation can be scarce and expensive during the first high season (mid-April to the end of June), less so during the second high season of late September through early November. Expect larger crowds on weekends and holidays, notably Christmas and New Year. Whenever you come, bring warm clothes, as the nights can get surprisingly chilly.
The Viceroy’s toy train
The Viceroy’s toy train
Until the construction of the Kalka–Shimla Railway, the only way to get to the Shimla hill station was on the so-called Cart Road – a slow, winding trail trodden by lines of long-suffering porters and horse-drawn tongas. By the time the 96km narrow-gauge line was completed in 1903, 103 tunnels, 24 bridges and 18 stations had been built between Shimla and the railhead at Kalka, 26km northeast of Chandigarh. These days, buses may be quicker, but a ride on the “toy train” is far more memorable – especially if you travel first-class, in one of the glass-windowed rail cars. Hauled along by a tiny diesel locomotive, they rattle at a leisurely pace through stunning scenery, taking between five and a half and seven hours to reach Shimla.
Along the route, you’ll notice the guards exchanging little leather pouches with staff strategically positioned on the station platforms. The bags they receive in return contain small brass discs, which the drivers slot into special machines to alert the signals ahead of their approach. “Neal’s Token System”, in place since the line was first inaugurated, is a fail-safe means of ensuring that trains travelling in opposite directions never meet face to face on the single-track sections of the railway.