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 across verdant country to the snowy peaks of the Great Himalayan range.
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 of Himachal Pradesh 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 September and October. Its jaded 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 unmistakably Indian aspect to the town.
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 mid-September through mid-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.
Although Shimla and its satellite districts sprawl over the flanks of five or more hills, the centre is fairly compact, on and immediately beneath a shoulder of high ground known as “the Ridge”. Shimla’s busy social scene revolves around the broad and breezy piazza that straddles the Ridge, overlooking rippling foothills with the jagged white peaks of the Pir Panjal and Great Himalayan ranges on the horizon. A true geographic divider, it is said all water that drains off the north side ends up in the Arabian Sea, while from the south side it ends up in the Bay of Bengal. During high season the Ridge is a hive of activity, with entertainment provided by brass bands, pony rides and a giant screen showing sporting events. The Victorian Gothic spire of Christ Church is Shimla’s most prominent landmark. The stained-glass windows, the finest in British India, depict (from left to right) Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Patience and Humility. At the other end of the Ridge, Scandal Point is the focus of Shimla’s famous mid-afternoon meet when crowds gather here to gossip.
From the Ridge, a tangle of roads and lanes tumbles down in stages, each layer connected to the next by stone steps. The Mall, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, curves around the south slope of the hill. Flanked by a long row of unmistakably British half-timbered buildings, Shimla’s main shopping street was, until World War I, strictly out-of-bounds to all “natives” except royalty and rickshaw-pullers. These days, rickshaws, man-powered or otherwise, are banned and non-Indian faces are in the minority. The quintessentially colonial Gaiety Theatre was renovated in 2008 and puts on regular performances.
Walk down any of the narrow lanes leading off the Mall, and you’re plunged into a warren of twisting backstreets. Shimla’s bazaar is the hill station at its most vibrant – a maze of dishevelled shacks, brightly lit stalls and minarets, cascading in a clutter of corrugated iron to the edge of Cart Road. Apart from being a good place to shop for authentic souvenirs, this is also one of the few areas of town that feels Himalayan: multicoloured Kullu caps (topis) bob about in the crowd, alongside the odd Lahauli, Kinnauri or Tibetan face.
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 96-km 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