Shimla conjures up many images- to many it’s the quintessential queen of hills, to others the colonial splendor of yore, to still others simply an overcrowded hill city. It’s all of it and more, each aspect spinning over the other in concentric circles.
We settled for Shimla for a 4-day long family holiday on account of its ease of accessibility and also because it had something for everyone- bustle for some, and quiet (if you look around) for those with such an inclination.
In overdrive were the minds setting the agenda. The desire to be outdoors was like a Normal curve- the youngest and the oldest didn’t want to have anything to do with words such as hiking, trekking, distance, hill top and the like. The ones in between didn’t want anything else. So a compromise agenda was set in ink, which allowed all their favourite activities from sleeping to hiking, with ample doses of family time (fun, food and frolic) thrown in.
Shimla, named after the local deity Shyamala Devi, was settled by the British around the 1820s as a pleasant getaway from the blistering heat of the plains. Such was the charm, that it was declared the summer capital of the Raj in 1864. Post independence, it served as the capital of the Indian side of the Punjab state till Chandigarh was completed in 1960. Since 1971 (when Himachal Pradesh graduated from being a Union Territory to a full state), Shimla serves as its capital.
Built on seven hills, Shimla is like a cobweb, peaceful in some alleys, and noisy in other corners. There’s a circular road going around which for most of the day is one way. There are multiple levels in which is the town is set, and the govt has setup a state of the art lift system right in the middle, which people can access to quickly reach mall road from Lower Bazaar many levels below it, without taking the trouble of walking up the hill. For those interested in walking, there’s an elaborate system of stairs too apart from winding and vertically imposing streets. Most of central Shimla is out of bounds for vehicles, and people have to park at designated parking lots, in case there’s no parking at the hotel/homestay. We had taken a villa on airbnb (Kalawati Bhawan) and luckily had parking. So reaching the place and going out of town were comfortable. However the city had to be traversed on foot, and this is how it was best experienced.
The Ridge is a wide open space at the top with pretty views of the hills. Flanked by the charming Christchurch at one end, and the buzzing mall road at the other, it’s a potpourri of everything Shimla- lively crowds milling about, laughter in the air, kids playing with numerous little knickknacks like shooting rockets, majestic horses luring young girls, couples holding hands and looking deep within each others’ eyes, and to top it all, the quintessential old Shimla man in the image of the days gone past- a hat on his balding but proud head, a stick in his trembling but resolute hands.
It gets a nice breeze in the evenings, sometimes pleasant, sometimes chilly. The sound of breeze is broken only by the clatter of feet and pearls of laughter.
A few steps down the ridge is the famous Mall Road, stretching itself on both sides of the Ridge downhill, like two outstretched limbs. Bustling with tourists and locals alike, it houses numerous restaurants, pubs, shops and more. One of the days we had dinner at the expansive Combermere hotel with terrace views and live music. It was the best meal we had in Shimla. Baljees Restaurant and Indian Coffee House on the mall road are local institutions, but overrated and dated in my opinion.
Away from the hustle and bustle, as you move outwards on Mall road, towards the Army Training Command, you come across some of the most beautiful scenery around. The Command itself is inspiring with the statue of soldiers hoisting the tri-colour outside. This is where the British Indian Military was headquartered. This was also where Indian army was headquartered till the 1970s. From this vantage point, green hills with dense forestation and clear skies present the most romantic setting.
In Shimla also stands the majestic erstwhile Viceregal Lodge, which now houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. We couldn’t manage to go there, but here’s a picture taken from the internet. I’ll go there next time surely.
Excursions from Shimla
We managed to keep half a day for an excursion out of Shimla. After much deliberation, and weighing of options, we drove to Tattapani by the banks of the Sutlej, about 55 km away. The imagined scent of the breeze by the Sutlej was so strong, it beat the tried and tested outings of Kufri (it’s best enjoyed during winter snow and I had already done it a couple of years ago. Have added a few pictures of Kufri here), and the greens of the Naldehra Golf course. It was the most beautiful drive through winding roads going downhill, and cheerful, welcoming green hills all around.
Hiking around Shimla
We also managed a couple of treks- one right in the middle of the city- to Jakhoo Hill temple,and the other longer one to Tara Devi temple on top of the the eponymous hill 16 km from Shimla.
Tara Devi is a 300 year old shrine on top of the hill (the temple structure is new) 16 km before Shimla on the Kalka-Shimla highway. We parked our car at a perceived safe spot on the road since there’s no designated parking. The way up is a beautiful natural trail aided with man-made stairs once in a while, and flanked by tall deodar and pine trees. The shade afforded by the flora makes the entire trek comfortable. Sun plays peekaboo and attains full glory only when you are nearing the peak. We also managed to spot a deer cub midway apart from numerous parakeets and other birds. There are some nice views on the way. The best one is when you can spot the famous toy train right beneath your feet with green carpet all around. The peak also offers superb views of sprawling habitation. Shimla airport in the distance looks enigmatic.
While hiking up, if there is even a slight doubt in case a fork or alternate route is encountered, the right path is easily found by way of mata ki chunni (red holy cloth) tied to the branches. And we kept moving ahead shouting ‘Jai Mata Di’ whenever we encountered such a sign. We were the only ones hiking up in the morning, however, on our way back, we saw a few other groups too- locals as well as touristy types. Locals seemed more pious and were there mostly to pay respects to Tara Devi. So had little kids along, others were walking barefeet. There’s a proper road too to the temple where vehicles come to, from the other side. However it simply can’t match the raw charm of our hike through the jungle.
Jakhoo hill on the other hand is right within the city. A steep road goes all the way up from right beside the ridge. It’s fun, and slightly challenging if you keep pace. It’s beautiful and totally rewarding up there. There’s a tall statue of Lord Hanuman (108 feet) in orange, overlooking Shimla from its vantage point, standing at an altitude of 2425 ft. It’s awe-inspiring to say the least. It’s the tallest statue on a hill top, surpassing Christ- the Redeemer at Rio De Jenerio, Brazil, which is 98 feet tall and stands at an altitude of 2298 ft. Numerous monkeys at Jakhoo hill are an added attraction, or nuisance as you may prefer. Looking at the monkey menace, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it’s them encroaching upon our space or vice versa. I was more inclined to form my opinion towards the latter. Having said that, us humans have never let another species reclaim anything- lives, livelihoods or dwellings. The best we can do now is co-exist.
Anyway, while on top of the Jakhoo hill, the prime attraction is the view of the entire city all around. You see rows of houses precariously placed like placards on slopes, gorges and peaks. You also see pristine mountains in the distance. At least something is left untouched, pure. Simple locals who love to chat you up while you are walking anywhere in the hills is a common occurrence. I had the chance to speak to a few, and the warmth and knowledge they display in all matters, worldly and spiritual, is affable and puts a smile across your face. Not only do they talk and talk well, they have an ant-like ability to carry weight many times their size. I saw many carrying large trunks up the hill and well did they have springs in their steps.
Back to Shimla, it was time for breakfast. And we enjoyed that to the ages at the little ‘Cafe Wake & Bake‘ on Mall road. It was an apt ending to a happy sojourn.
How to Reach Shimla– It’s a zippy 8 hours drive from Delhi on the excellent NH-1 followed by the well-built NH-5. Just make sure you have figured out parking. If your hotel doesn’t offer parking, reach well in time to be able to get space at one of the few parking lots. Parking is limited and expensive in Shimla. Buses are available too.
You can also take the toy train from Kalka if timings suit and you get a reserved seat. It should be an experience.
A new way to reach Shimla is via a short flight from Delhi. This has been started under the new regional connectivity scheme with fixed price tickets at Rs 2500 till half the seats are filled, before market prices kick in. So book well in advance.
Where to Stay– There is no dearth of hotels in Shimla, both budget and expensive. Stay near the mall road if possible, or near the Lift. We opted for a homestay (Kalawati Homestays) at the edge of the ridge and Lakkar bazaar. It was just apt for a relaxed family holiday.
Should you go to Shimla– Of course, if you have never been there. Just don’t expect the perfect Himalayan escapade. It’s more a city in the lower hills. So those who like their city life would enjoy the same in cooler climes. Those intending to lap up some tranquility are advised to go further.
Picture Credits (in no particular order): Mukesh C Kumar, Disha M Kumar, Upasana M Kumar, Shivi Arora, Akash Reddy and Raghav M Kumar. All the images have been clicked using various phone cameras and have not been enhanced.