“The air is delicious, most healthy and bracing, but anything more funny than the appearance of the town you cannot imagine... If you look up from your garden seat, you see the gables of a cottage tumbling down on the top of you. If you lean over your terrace wall, you look down on your neighbour’s chimney pots. That the capital of the Indian empire should be thus hanging on by its eyelids to the side of a hill is too absurd.”
These lines form a part of a letter written by then Governor-General of India, Lord Dufferin, on 15th May 1885. He was describing Shimla, or Simla, as the British called it, a once inconspicuous village in the lap of the Himalayas which went on to become the summer capital of an empire that ruled one-fifth of the world’s population. Today, it is the capital city of Himachal Pradesh.
Every year, the British administration embarked on a strenuous 1,800-km journey that took five days by road. Transferring offices and men, they endured this onerous task for one sole reason – to get away from the scorching heat of the Indian summer. Shimla’s weather prompted bouts of nostalgia among the British and made them feel like they had a home away from home.
Although Shimla was officially declared the summer capital only in 1864, its relationship with the British began much earlier. In 1804, the Gorkhas from Nepal had laid siege to the hill-state of Kangra and defeated its ruler, Sansar Chand. He asked Maharaja Ranjit Singh for help, who in turn defeated the Gorkhas, who then moved further south and constructed forts in the region surrounding Shimla.
This expansionism alarmed the East Indian Company, which sent forces to restrain them. As a result, the Treaty of Sugauli was signed between both parties in 1816, which ceded the territories to the British. At this time, Shimla was no more than a forest with only a few huts and an age-old temple located on Jakhoo Hill, where locals believe Hanuman rested on his way to find the Sanjeevani Booti.
The British did not pay any immediate attention to this region and it was only three years later, in 1819, that the Assistant Political Agent in the hill-states, Lt Ross, set up a small cottage here made of wood and thatch. It took another three years for Shimla to see its first pucca or permanent house, erected by his successor, Lt Charles Pratt Kennedy. Interestingly, it was in this house, in 1827, that Governor-General Lord Amherst famously said, “The Emperor of China and I govern half of the human race and yet we find time for breakfast.” Thus was laid the beginning of a settlement, which has left a lasting mark on the history of India.
Next year, when Lord Combermere, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in India, visited Shimla, he undertook one of the first developmental activities in the area and built a 5-km-long road around Jakhoo Hill along with a bridge that connected the main part of Shimla to Chhota Shimla.
This was the beginning of Shimla’s century-long romance with the British, unbroken until they left India for good. Successive Governors-General and Viceroys made it their summer residence and in Rudyard Kipling’s words, it became a “centre of power as well as pleasure” and had a reputation for “frivolty, gossip and intrigue”.
These British Lords attracted young officers who sought to build contacts and improve their career prospects, which further attracted families to bring their young ‘marriageable’ ladies here. Soon, Shimla was a scene of social drama with regular picnics, balls, fairs and sports.
The roads filled with markets where all the action happened were Ridge Road and Mall Road. The landmark monuments are Christ Church, built in 1844 with its tall, cream-coloured tower and the gothic Gaiety Theatre for amateur plays.
Another remarkable building was that of the Railway Board ‘assembled with nuts and bolts’ in the 1890s. That is because the building’s entire skeleton, originally made of cast iron and steel, was built in England and then shipped to Bombay.
But all this came at a cost. The mass migration, as Ian Stephens, editor of The Statesman, puts it, “was romantic but rather horrifying”. He further writes “the memory that sticks in my mind is of those coolies pulling and humping terribly heavy loads on their backs, up hill slopes.” The load also included people in sedan chairs being carried via a gruelling trek. Also, the lack of local manpower led to the British forcibly bringing in porters from distant places, weaning them away from their original occupations, including farming. The mode of transportation was mules and horses until the Cart Road from Kalka to Shimla was completed in 1856, and then the railway line in 1903.
With the growing number of people came an inevitable increase in the number of houses. Many of these played hosts to some big decisions taken in the empire. For example, the Secretary’s Lodge, the residence of the aide-de-camp of Governor General Lord Auckland, was the venue where the ‘Simla Manifesto’ declaring war with Afghanistan was signed on 1st October 1838.
Then there is the Rotheny Castle, which housed A O Hume, who while living here conceived the idea of an organisation that later came to be known as the ‘Indian National Congress’.
In 1914, Shimla hosted a tripartite convention in which the British invited the Chinese government for a joint conference, which would include a representative from the Tibetan government, to address border issues. The chief negotiator was Sir Henry McMahon, Foreign Secretary of British India, and the demarcation line between the Tibetan region of China and India was named after him.
What is arguably the most historic structure in Shimla is Viceroy Lodge located on Observatory Hill. It was here that the final draft of Indian independence and Partition was discussed between Lord Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In 1945, the lodge was the venue of the Shimla Conference, which proposed the Wavell Plan for Indian self-government. The plans were rejected by the Muslim representatives and this meeting, as viewed by historians, was the last opportunity for a united India. This rejection of a united India lead to the next historically significant meeting held in Viceroy Lodge – the 1947 Partition discussions, which led to the creation of India and Pakistan.
Even after Independence, Shimla remained an important political centre, hosting the Simla Agreement of 1972, signed by Pakistani President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Treaty, which sought to reverse the consequences of the 1971 war, ensured that Pakistan recognised the independence of Bangladesh in exchange for the return of Pakistani prisoners of war.
Shimla is a tourist hotspot today, offering picture-postcard views that include some charming remnants of colonial architecture. While most visitors come for the picturesque scenery and cool climes, there is a smattering of people who also appreciate Shimla’s role in how India evolved.