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 round trip from Shimla, or en route to Kinnaur via the characterless transport hub of Rampur.
The best time to visit Shimla 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.
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. It is said all water that drains off the north side of The Ridge ends up in the Arabian Sea, while from the south side it ends up in the Bay of Bengal. During high season it 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. There is still a service in English at 9am every Sunday. 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 unmistakeably 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 and exhibitions, now billing itself as a Heritage Cultural Complex.
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 HP state museum is well worth the effort to get to. The ground floor of the elegant colonial mansion is given over largely to temple sculpture, and a gallery of magnificent Pahari miniatures – examples of the last great Hindu art form to flourish in northern India before the deadening impact of Western culture in the early nineteenth century. The Mughal-influenced Pahari or “Hill” school is renowned for subtle depictions of romantic love, inspired by scenes from Hindu epics. Among the museum’s paintings are dozens of Mughal and Rajasthani miniatures and a couple of fine “Company” watercolours, produced for souvenir-hunting colonials by the descendants of the Mughal and Pahari masters. The fakirs, itinerant sadhus and mendicants they depict could have leapt straight from the pages of Kipling. One room is devoted to Mahatma Gandhi, packed with photos of his time in Shimla and amusing cartoons of his political relationship with the British.
The early-morning hike up to Jakhu, or “Monkey”, Temple is something of a tradition in Shimla. The top of the hill (2455m) on which it stands offers a superb panorama of the Himalayas – particularly breathtaking before the cloud gathers later in the day. The relentlessly steep climb takes thirty to 45 minutes. The path starts just left of Christ Church; during the season, all you need do is follow the crowds.
After the hard walk up, the temple itself, a red-and-yellow-brick affair crammed with fairy lights and tinsel, comes as something of an anticlimax, although the new 30m-tall orange concrete statue of Hanuman is an impressive sight. The shrine inside houses what are believed to be the footprints of Hanuman himself. Legend has it that the monkey god, adored by Hindus for his strength and fidelity, rested on Jakhu after collecting healing Himalayan herbs for Rama’s injured brother, Lakshmana. Watch out for the troupes of mangy monkeys around the temple. Pampered by generations of pilgrims and tourists, they have become real pests; hang on to your bag and don’t flash food. Hold onto your specs too – one or two monkeys have even been trained to swipe them from unsuspecting victims’ faces and turn them over to a local, who will hand them back … for a small fee, of course.
Shimla’s single most impressive colonial monument is the old Viceregal Lodge, summer seat of British government until the 1940s and today home to the Institute of Advanced Studies. The solid grey mansion, built in Elizabethan style with a lion and unicorn set above the entrance porch, surveys trimmed lawns fringed by pines and flowerbeds – the grounds and the exterior of the lodge are most impressive. Inside is looking a little tired, with only a few rooms on the ground floor open to the public: a vast teak-panelled entrance hall, an impressive library (formerly the ballroom) and the guest room. The conference room, hung with photos of Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, was the scene of crucial talks in the run-up to Independence. On the stone terrace to the rear of the building, a plaque profiles and names the peaks visible in the distance.
The short hike up to Prospect Hill (2176m), a popular picnic spot, ties in nicely with a visit to the Viceregal Lodge. By cutting through the woods to the west of the mansion, you can drop down to a busy intersection known as Boileauganj, from where a tarmac path climbs steeply up to the small shrine of Kamana Devi, which affords fine views.
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.
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.
The Bhimakali deity, a local manifestation of the Hindu goddess Kali/Durga, has for centuries been associated with human sacrifice. Once every decade, until the disapproving British intervened in the 1800s, a man was killed here as an offering to the devi. Following a complex ceremony, his newly spilled blood was poured over the goddess’s tongue for her to drink, after which his body was dumped in a deep well inside the temple compound. If no victim could be found, it is said that a voice would bellow from the depths of the pit, which is now sealed up.
The tradition of blood sacrifice continues in Sarahan to this day, albeit in less extreme form. During the annual Astami festival, two days before the culmination of Dussehra, a veritable menagerie of birds and beasts are put to the knife, including a water-buffalo calf, sheep, goat, fish, chicken, crab, and even a spider. The gory spectacle draws large crowds, and is a memorable alternative to the Dussehra procession in Kullu, which takes place at around the same time in mid-October.
Top image: Shimla, the capital city of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, northern India © saiko3p/Shutterstock