"It's only four days march from Ludhiana, is easy of access, and provides an agreeable refuge from the burning plains of Hindoostan," wrote Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General of Bengal, about Shimla in a letter to Colonel Churchill in 1832.
His successor, Sir John Lawrence, Viceroy of India, from 1863-69, and the first to staunchly recommend it as a summer getaway, went on to add: "Of all the hill stations, Shimla seems to be the best for the government. Here you are among a docile population and yet near enough to influence Oudh. Around you in a world, are all the war-like races of India, all those on whose character and power our hold in India, exclusive of our own countrymen depends."
Such was his fascination for the region that Lawrence chose to take the trouble of moving the administration twice a year between Calcutta and the then-inhospitable terrain, difficult to reach and over 1,000 miles away.
As my car made its way up the winding roads, it was hard not to notice why. Dotted with high hills covered with unending acres of Himalayan cedars and rhododendrons, Shimla is spellbinding in its beauty. Its splendour only enhanced by the old-style houses and neo Gothic buildings so painstakingly built by the British.
The Gurkha Wars of 1815 were the first to bring them to this region of the Shimla hills. A small British detachment under Major General David Ochterlony was dispatched to liberate this village of 10 houses, then called Shayamala (named after the goddess Kali) from the Gurkhas. Ochterlony set up army posts here and after annexing it in 1819, returned to strongly recommend Shayamala to his officers. Scottish civil servant Charles Pratt Kennedy built the first summer home in 1822, and over the rest of the century were built the many mansions, churches and hotels that one sees today.
Among them was a single-storied house called the Tendril Cottage, famous for having Rudyard Kipling in 1885, and a structure that has now metamorphosed into The Oberoi Cecil- a grand heritage hotel of 75 rooms and my base for discovering the city.
Half-a-kilometre from downtown Shimla, at the quieter end of the city's famous Mall Road, the Cecil, done up in shades of white and green, is befitting of its rich, colonial history. There are no lofty gates and gardens announcing your arrival here. Just an understated aura emanating from the plush Burma teak décor, the old-world lamp posts, and miniature Colonial-era sketches. Their luxury suites offer some of the most stunning views of the sweeping, all-encompassing valley.
Like the city, the hotel, too, is steeped in its own history, for it was here that the Oberoi chain's owner, M.S. Oberoi, started his career as a clerk. The hotel closed down in 1984, and underwent extensive renovation, finally opening its doors to guests in 1997. It now boasts a heated indoor swimming spool, a spa, sauna and steam rooms and two conference halls, aptly titled Kipling and Curzon.
There's plenty to do and see in the hotel's vicinity. First up on the list was the famous Mall Road. With its array of shops, restaurants, and quaint buildings, the bustling Mall Road is without doubt the nerve centre. Here's what you should do. Ignore the scores of eager-to-please salesmen and the swelling crowds and check out the imposing Christ Church, the second-oldest church of North India.
Situated on the ridge, on the upper edge of the Mall, its fine stained glass windows are said to have been designed by John Lockwood Kipling, teacher, illustrator, museum curator and father of the author. Check out the State Library next to the Church and go further up, to the two-storied Gaiety Theatre, which has a rich history of amateur theatre since it opened in 1887. Ignore the ubiquitous Café Coffee Day and instead, step inside the India Coffee House right next to it. Like the rest of Shimla, this, too, has seen a lot of history. It was once patronised by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, among others.
The Coffee House is famous for its consistency of flavour and do try their hot cream and special coffee. The road has plenty of shops selling pashmina shawls and memorabilia, including a store called Honey Hut, that stocks all kinds of things made from honey-from facial scrubs to desserts.
Shopping and memorabilia taken care of, next up on my list was the Jhakhoo Hills. Situated at a height of around 2,455 metres, a narrow, uphill road leads up to this point, the town's highest peak and a great vantage point for taking in Shimla's spectacular views. The hill is also famous for the Jhakhoo temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The temple finds little mention in history, but the locals believe that Lord Hanuman stopped here while on his way to get the sanjeevani booti. The vaanar sena, apparently, followed him, but fell asleep here while he went ahead. The monkeys that I see all around are the descendants.
I walked to the Viceregal Lodge, former summer residence of the erstwhile Viceroys. A 15-minute walk from the Cecil, the Lodge is a splendid example of Scottish Baronial architecture. Its grey stone masonry, tilted pitch roof, an English garden, and exquisite Burma teak interiors bear witness to a bygone era as well as numerous other historical developments, including the partition of India and the momentous Simla Agreement. Designed and completed under Lord Dufferin in 1888, it was the first government building in India to have electricity and an automatic fire fighting system. At present, it houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies and a visit to the museum here is recommended.
Walking around the city, it seems as if every building is out to overshadow the other. Situated about 2 km from the hotel and best-known for its helipad and golf course is Annadale, which also houses a picture postcard pretty Army Heritage Museum, almost dwarfed by the sky-high cedar and oak trees. This museum houses vignettes, paintings, and photographs of Shimla, collected over a period of 100 years. Further up from Annadale, is the Glen, a thickly-wooded ravine through which a stream gurgles past moss-covered boulders. An ideal spot for picnics.
Taking in all that I could in a matter of two days, I make my way back, promising to return someday. The drive back from Shimla to Chandigarh only hastens my resolve. Towering peaks, draped in acres and acres of greens; the numerous temples offering their own take on history; the neo-Gothic, Tudor wonders, still imposing despite the ravages of the time; Honey Hut and its chocolate chip cookie shake that won my heart despite the chill; and the mesmerising Cecil, befitting of its rich history. What's not to love about Shimla?
Where to Stay
The Oberoi Cecil, Chaura Maidan, Shimla, 91-177-2804848
What to See
Mall Road, Jakhoo Hills, The Vice Regal Lodge, Annadale and its Army Museum