Heritage · India · Photography

Remains of the Raj – part 1

Solo Himachal Bus Travel (post 2) – Shimla

On this crisp, late April day, I came out to face the centerpiece of the mall – the Town hall building. Now used by the municipal corporation and hence called the Nagar Nigam. This Tudor style building was designed by the noted Indo-Sarcenic architect Henry Irwin for the usage of the Viceroy to hold meetings. The current structure dates back to 1908 and though most of the wooden frames are clearly showing their age, the façade doesn’t fail to impress.

I started to walk down in the general direction of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), which was recommended to me by the tourism guys as the most impressive Raj era building in Simla. The map indicated that somewhere on the side of the mall, after a turn should be St Michael’s church. The map of course makes no mention of whether it was worth seeing or otherwise. The church is reached after a dual flight of stairs shortly after the road broadens near the Indian coffee house on the mall road.

St Michael’s church is a complete contrast from the Christ Church. For example, it is hidden from plain view unlike the latter that can be seen from a very long way off due to its imposing position on the ridge. It has a dull grey exterior made of dressed stone as opposed to the welcoming yellow paint on the other. The interior is dissimilar as well – it is lined with columns that are topped by arches and the walls are pale, cream in color.

There are two beautiful stained glass windows though – I think they far surpasses anything the Christ Church has – it shows St Michael in the centre with St Edward on the right but I can’t identify the one on the left.

This other stained glass panel shows the crucifixion of Christ flanked by St Francis of Assisi and St Josephus.

This church was built in 1885 under the auspices of the then viceroy, Lord Ripon, who was a catholic. The grounds provide a good view of the hills below and the church itself was devoid of many visitors that day save a few college students who were flirting with each other under the pretext of discussing their academics. This dried tree provided a scenic foreground element for the shot.

Looking back, I noticed I had had quite a walk, the yellow crown of the bell tower of Christ church could scarcely be noticed amidst the urban sprawl around it. The hill top statue of Hanuman of the Jakhoo temple rose above the trees.

It was quarter past three in the afternoon when I reached a fork in the road where Mall road and Cart road merged (or diverged – depending on where you were coming from) and gazed at a board that read ‘Gorton Castle’. An imposing structure, the building was designed in the neo gothic style by the renowned architect Sir Swinton Jacob – who I remember best for designing the Albert Hall Museum at Jaipur.

Today, however, it is under a terrible state of disrepair though the board out front states that the building was completely repaired in 2003. The wood of most of the Rajasthani lattice windows has decayed and the roof of the second floor has fallen off completely. The ground floor houses the AG’s office and hence is out of bounds for tourists. The board out front marks it as a spot for the Shimla heritage trail, but the board itself requires repainting. Quite a sordid state for a building that cost over a million rupees back in 1904!

Continuing from there on the Chaura Maidan road, I walked past the Governor’s house on the left and the Cecil oberoi (again on my left) to come to a crossroads and then continued forth another kilometre to reach the wide wooden gate of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. I had (I reckoned) walked over two kilometres non-stop and given how little sleep I had had the previous night, was happy to have reached.

‘Sahab, aaj band hai’ (Sahib, it is closed today) – the watchman said sweetly, smiling. ‘It is a Monday, so…’

I wanted to run to suicide point to bring the trip to a swift conclusion.
Better sense prevailed and after waiving futilely at some of the passing taxis, I ambled back. The walk to the Railway board building was two and a half kilometres, it seemed like twenty. I momentarily considered stopping at the Peterhof for tea but then just went forward anyways.
I stopped briefly to read the details of the railway board building and photographing the curious structure. The history and survivability of the building is impressive as seen in the photo below.

The painted cast iron pipes that envelope the strawberry red façade resembled an exoskeleton of some sort. They reminded me faintly of photographs I had seen of the Pompidou centre in Paris but of little else in India. We like to conceal our plumbing (perhaps because so little of it works).

Nourishment was provided in the form of tea and baked samosas by a bihari vendor who mans the tea stall at the state bank of india building at the edge of the busy part of mall road. It looked nothing like a samosa, more like a baked phyllo pastry, but was very good. It also helped me sustain my aimless meandering for quite a while longer.

As I walked back towards the mall, I noticed that the sunlight had become much gentler and shadows were longer. Back onto the ridge, dozens upon dozens of people were walking from hither to thither. The temperatures were lower and there was a certain poetic beauty to the whole scene despite the crowds that milled around.

At Gandhi square, the Christ church bathed in the light of the setting sun and further above, the hanuman statue looked so tiny.

I was back at YMCA where a Canadian girl of Indian descent who had checked in the same day was complaining loudly about the city and asking Anil, the man Friday whether she should go to Manali. He asked her to stay and started strumming on his guitar. That was a nice touch and I could sense that he was being nice to me as well.

I had walked about seven kilometers already that day, but I didn’t feel like eating near the YMCA. So, camera in hand, I walked out again past the Town hall that was lit like it was Diwali night.

Young fashionable crowds thronged the eateries at the mall.

I made my way to the Indian Coffee house. The waiter outside looked at my camera and posed (!). The ICH is an old favourite but the one in Simla dishes out very sorry stuff.

After dinner, I walked back to YMCA, to my cold silent room and curled under two layers of quilts, thought about whether I wanted to stay another day. Maybe this was the queen of the hills, after all, after the caked layers of decades of rampant urbanization and neglect were peeled away. I didn’t have an answer as I slept.


2 thoughts on “Remains of the Raj – part 1

  1. Reblogged this on Hi India and commented:

    Dear reader, in the ongoing spiti backpacking travel saga, this was an early post that has possibly been overlooked due to a mess up on my part understanding how WordPress works 😊.


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