Adventure · India · Photography · Travel Writing

Queen of the Hills

Shimla is ugly, shockingly so. This is my first memory of the summer capital of the British Raj – a city that many have described in glowing terms. After I got off the bus at the new bus stand (near the railway station) it was several minutes before I reconciled with the fact that I had reached the town I had read so much about over the years. The urban sprawl spread beyond what my gaze could capture. Decaying façades of old buildings lined paths that rose steeply to the ridge above – paths made narrower by open drains full of dirty water and stray garbage. It was still early and the dogs that bark all night hadn’t gone to rest. The city looked so enervated to me that there were not even enough touts approaching me for a hotel room.

A single coolie asked me politely if I wanted a hotel and after I declined, there were no more. It was all so uniformly disappointing.

After I asked a young boy where the YMCA was and was pointed to that direction, I dragged my bag on the path that curved steeply ahead and after twenty feet or so, dropped it to the ground, gasping for breath. I turned around and looked if the coolie was around. He wasn’t, but another one was coming down the same path. He was a Kashmiri, a migrant labourer and carried a piece of bicycle tube around his waist with which to strap the load on his back. He asked for one hundred and fifty rupees and I agreed without bargain.

A good twenty minutes of hard walking brought us to the YMCA premises. It is well hidden behind the Christ church on the ridge, several steep stairs on a dark alley need be climbed to reach its gate. Had it not been the lonely planet’s top recommendation for stay in Simla, I doubt anyone would have found the place at all. The place was dead quiet when I reached at a half past six in the morning and the heavy channel gates though not locked were shut.

To top that, the caretaker cum receptionist, Anil, was sound asleep. Several loud knocks on the glass pane made him wake up but he asked that I come back after nine in the morning when the person in-charge will be available. This is your vacation (I said to myself) and stayed as calm as I could.

After several minutes of explaining the situation to him, he gave me a key to a room. It was the family room priced at rupees 1500 and had an ensuite bathroom. I liked it at first glance – it had a frayed Kashmiri carpet, a fireplace for display purposes but it was very quiet. I clambered onto the old wooden bed and fell asleep betwixt the linen jacketed quilts.

Around 11 am, a hot shower followed – I had to use the common bath room for that – which turned out to be much better maintained. With no agenda still, I walked out of the YMCA to grab something to eat and do a bit of sightseeing.

My first stop was the Christ church. The church sits at one end of the ridge -the place is now called Gandhi chowk – and is painted pale yellow. It is an inviting building and I entered from the small doorway on its right side. The inside, though not very large, is imposing due to the double-height vaulted ceiling that is supported by wooden beams.

What adds to the serenity of the space is the light that forms beautiful beams thanks to the stained glass windows. The windows themselves are works of art – depicting scenes from the nativity and other events in the life of Christ. Left of the altar is dominated a very large organ – said to be the largest in India when it was dedicated.

I don’t know enough about the life of Jesus to make out exactly which event was depicted and there was no one at hand to explain either. I think the one below shows ‘Christ the king’ but any help is appreciated regards the explanation.

This one apparently represents the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Patience and Humility – all of which I had either lost or would lose at some point of time during the course of this trip.

After a few customary photos, I walked out into the strong sunlight of the mountains that by then flooded the ridge. Under that light, the ridge appeared wider than it actually is and I thought one could drive perhaps four cars abreast on that tarmac (six if you learnt driving in Delhi). It was still delightfully free of the throngs that I had heard invade Shimla once school vacations begin in the plains.

On the right side of the church as I exited, stood a fine example of neo-tudor architecture of the Raj. This is the municipal library building – a small squat two storied building that one sees on picture postcards from europe. The inside proved to be a bit disappointing as they allow members only and the staff was not particularly welcoming (I suppose they see too many camera toting tourists).

A short walk along, and down a flight of stairs that connect the ridge with the mall road, stood the Gaiety theater on my left. Disappointed that it was closed for renovations and that the tours that show off this 1880s building were temporarily suspended, I continued to waltz along the mall road – savoring in the mish-mash of nineteenth century European architecture that the homesick British recreated here, two thousand meters above sea level, in this country far away from their home. Some of these buildings are important and marked in most maps that one can obtain in Shimla. I had obtained one such map book from the HPTDC office at the mall road. The map doesn’t talk about the architecture of individual buildings but at-least it tells you where what is. I looked up towards the GPO building (seen at the far end in this frame) – turned out later that it is fashioned after a Swiss chalet.

At that moment, of far greater importance was the building to my left – it housed the restaurant where I’d have my lunch. Baljees is an old Shimla establishment frequented by locals – and it was packed to the gills at one in the afternoon on this sunny day. Back in Delhi, a friend and I, both outsiders living in the city, often joked that the second favourite sport of delhiites is shopping – the top spot taken by eating. Here at lunch, I could see the residents of Shimla did not lack the spirit of competition.

The shady environs were a welcome respite from the direct sun. I ordered a pizza and a fresh lime soda. Sadly, the pizza turned out to be made of thick papier-mache and flour-glue.

[Note: I imported this post from an earlier blog that I no longer update. That one had no readers, hence re-publishing here]


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