Heritage · Himalaya · India · Photography · Travel Writing

A walking tour of Shimla

Remains of the Raj- Part 2

The overnight bus journey the night before and the traipsing around town all through Monday resulted in a very sound sleep. I slept nearly eleven hours and was at Cakes and Bakes, a bakery cum café at the Town hall square only at ten AM. Well, clearly I wasn’t leaving town that day. The weather in Simla on the morning of the 29th of April can be best described as crisp and thankfully the boys at C&B know how to make a good cappuccino. They’d compete with a Costa any day.

I used the time over coffee to pore over the map book and make some rough calculations as to how far places such as Narkanda were and the time I need to distribute to Kinnaur and possibly Spiti. The previous day I had enquired about buses leaving for Recong Peo and that it would be an eight to ten hour ride subject to road closures. That seemed long and I contemplated breaking the journey in Sarahan.

After the croissant and coffee, I got onto a shared taxi (where were they yesterday??) for ten rupees all the way to the Ambedakar statue (near the Cecil Oberoi) – a cool two kilometre ride. My first stop was the Archaeological museum. Photography is not permitted unless one buys a ticket and as it turned out, my fifty rupees were well saved as I didn’t plumb for a ticket up front. I was out the door in less than twenty minutes and on my way to the IIAS (Indian Institute of Advanced Studies).

The IIAS has to be, hands down, the single most impressive Raj era building in Simla and appears to be something air lifted from the UK and dropped here.

I was so impressed by the building that I pranced around the garden taking shot after shot – from the front and the corners such as the one below.

Above the entrance is the Royal British seal carved in grey stone – I recognized it immediately as English cricket team players wear it on their uniform (and I’ve always wondered why the lion didn’t eat the horse already). (Because it’s a unicorn, silly, it’s not real!)

Built by Lord Duffrein (with later additions by Lord Irwin) as the Viceregal lodge in the 1880s, it was used as the residence when the heat of the plains got too much for the British to bear. The second president of India, Dr Radhakrishnan thought the building would be used better as an institution for higher learning and in the 1960s established the IIAS here.

Today, most of the building is out of bounds as the government runs residential scholar programs for the chosen few in areas as diverse as religion and science and technology. Entry to the building is by way a tour where groups are escorted inside along with a guide leading the front and a guard at the rear bringing back the wayward to the path of the righteous (and also from indulging in photography as it is not permitted).

Our tour began a bit past noon and lasted a short half hour. Our guide was very well informed and did a good job keeping the group interested and answered almost all questions. The first stop was the impressive hall. It is three storeys high from the inside and wood panelled from ground to ceiling and then the ceiling itself is panelled with genuine teak. The library has small chandeliers as it was formerly used as the ballroom. The bulbs here were lit with electricity back in the 1880s. The most memorable room was where a round table is housed upon which the decision to partition India was taken in 1947. We were left towards the end of the half hour tour to view some photographs of the British residents of this building and of notable conferences held here.

At quarter to one, I was wandering around in the expansive and immaculately maintained gardens of the Viceregal lodge / IIAS. I walked around the gardens for another half hour, admiring the pebble strewn pathways lined with tall trees on either side.

The flower beds were in full bloom with antirrhinums, zinnias, calendulas, anthuriums, poppies, asters and gerberas.

The gardens provided a soothing ambience and I just sat down on a bench for a while and did absolutely nothing. It felt very good and I was beginning to feel better about the visit to Simla. As I walked back towards the wing that now houses the cafeteria and bookshop (formerly the fire station), the same chowkidaar from yesterday pointed me to an annexe building behind the wing. It housed old photographs – Wah!

The sun can be quite harsh in the hills and I relaxed a while longer than I should have inside the cafeteria. This building was formerly where they housed the fire engines and it still contains some firefighting equipment. The place was chock a block with visitors, children running all over and a couple arguing over something inconsequential the way only a couple can do.

On the way back, I could not find a ride and had to walk the two and a half kilometres back to the strawberry red façade of railway board building. I was surprised to find gorgeous red strawberries being sold close to the building and bought a box. They were delicious!

Back at the YMCA I slept another couple of hours, waking up at six and went out for a completely forgettable dinner. I have almost no memory of where I ate that night. I must have photographed Simla from the ridge though, as I have that photo with me. It looked sublime under the cover of a blue-black sky with only little lights spread all over the hills. I slept again early, a little past nine after making the payment to Anil for the two nights as I would not see him the next morning.


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