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Shimla: Naturally Business

Anindita Chattopadhyay finds out why the capital of Himachal Pradesh is a unique blend of nature and economics

Allendale near Glen

We first met at night. Shimla and me. Around 11 o'clock, when I checked in at the hotel, not only was I tired after a hard day’s work, but the churning sensation in the bowel as a result of quick manoeuvers round numerous bends and u-turns on the serpentine hill road had left me zapped. My head was reeling. I threw myself on the bed, pulled the curtain aside and suddenly everything changed. There stood the hill clad in a star-studded robe. The full moon shone like a bindi on its forehead. Pop-eyed, I walked to the window. The soft, silvery light bathed the sky. All was quiet except the city lights flashing from the hill opposite as if the stars have been spread on the ground. I sat down on the sofa drinking in the beauty. I do not remember when I went back to the bed and slept.

Winter in Shimla

The Chalets, Naldehra

Church on a ridge

Pine forest
Viceregal Lodge

Scandal Point

Mall Road

View from Tara Devi

Rooftop barbecue, Hotel Combermere

When I woke up next morning, the sun was shining bright. After breakfast (all hotels serve the usual stuffed parantha, chole bhature, veg and chicken sandwiches et al), I went to meet Mohendra Seth, president Hotel Association of Shimla and requested him to be my guide. “If you want to enjoy the beauty of Shimla, stroll down the walks through the thick pine and oak forests. Walk down the Mall and you will come across heritage buildings that are steeped in history and unique in architecture. Shimla is a walkers' paradise.” Next I know, I was out with him walking down the Circular Road towards the lift.

Yes, the town has a lift connecting the Cart Road to the Mall, which is open from morning 8 am to 10 pm in the night. Pay five bucks and you’re saved from the trouble of panting and puffing while trudging all the way uphill because cars are not allowed in the Mall. In fact, parking is only allowed in some restricted areas.

Situated in the north-west Himalayas at an altitude of 2130 metres, Shimla is the capital of Himachal Pradesh. Its salubrious climate, easy accessibility and numerous attractions have made it one of the most popular hill stations in northern India. Barely two centuries ago, the area occupied by modern day Shimla was a dense forest. The Jakhoo temple along with a few scattered houses were the only signs of civilisation. The town came into being in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. It was in 1819 that the assistant political agent of the hill states Lt Ross set up the first British residence in Shimla. Soon other officers followed suit and some four decades later it became the summer capital of the British. The decision was taken by Sir John Lawrence who was appointed the Viceroy in 1863. His most convincing argument was more work could be done in Shimla in one day than the government could do in five days in Calcutta. And the building of the road and the railway line all added up to the growth of the population. Always a honeymooner's paradise, today Shimla is fast becoming a preferred destination for corporates to hold conferences and meetings. Said NC Somaiah, general manager, Oberoi Cecil, "Multinationals are sending their executives here for a few days of training and outdoor activities. We have hosted conferences for GE, Ogilvy & Mather, BPCL and Eicher to name a few. They come here to mix business with leisure." Concedes Sanjay Thakur, owner of Combermere, another fine address in Shimla. "With Chandigarh fast becoming an industrial hub of north India, more and more businessmen and executives are travelling to Shimla either for leisure or for meetings. With the Nathpa Jhakri power project coming up, we see a lot of people connected with the project halting here in transit. Ericsson is setting up the exchange for Airtel and executives of these companies often come here." When I alighted from the lift at the Mall, the town was just waking up, yawning. No, people here are not racing against time. Their laid-back attitude with a smile hanging loose on the lips made me wonder what are rigmaroles of the city for.

Gone are the days of Raj, but its architectural splendour exists as part of Shimla's rich legacy. Walk down the Mall, either taking the western arm or the eastern arm and an assortment of architecture in Norman Baronial style, Neo-Gothic style or Swiss Bavarian style greets your eyes. As I walked with Seth, it gave me a feeling of travelling back in time. In spite of changes and considerable growth since India became independent, Shimla is reminiscent of an attempt to build an English town in India. The Scandal Point in the Mall remains the hub of Shimla’s social life. The place was so named because saying goes that a British Commander-in-Chief's daughter eloped from the spot with the Maharaja of Patiala. However, according to historians it is more likely that the name is the result of it long being the place where people gathered for conversation. A landmark architecture on the main mall is the Gaiety Theatre, which was opened in 1887. Renowned for its fine acoustics, it witnessed the histrionics of famous personalities like writer Rudyard Kipling, artist Amrita Shergil, famous singer KL Saigal, and actors like the famous Kendalls and Anupam Kher. Further down the Mall, just short of the lift is Combermere bridge which was the first construction of a public nature in the town. Himachal State Museum, perched atop Inverarm, is an old colonial building. Ancient historical sculptures, pahari miniature paintings, philately, coins and a separate Gandhi gallery reflect the cultural heritage of the Shimla. It has a historical letter box that the British got from Dharamshala.

Another building worth a dekho is the Viceregal Lodge. Built during the viceroyalty of Lord Dufferin (between 1884-1888), this five-storey building is a magnificent example of Victorian architecture. The lush green gardens sprawl across 100 acres. Now, it houses the Indian Institute of Advance Studies.

A 20 minutes walk down from the Viceregal Lodge and you come to the Kennedy Chowk, past the Cecil Hotel. A road downhill (there’s a road plaque) leads to the Glen, which offers an excellent walk through rustling woods. About 1.5 km down the line, the path of the glen branches off the main road. Another kilometre along a narrow trail will take you to this wooded ravine where several tiny brooks pour their water into a large perennial stream. This is a Reserve forest and is one of Shimla's oldest and popular picnic spot. The oaks, rhododendrons, deodar and pines stand huddled together. The undergrowth is luxuriant too. You can see pheasants, black partridges, yellow throated martins, and if lucky barking deer, foxes and leopard cats.

A wide road from the Scandal Point goes up towards the ridge. The level ground at the ridge is the favourite evening rendezvous for visitors. Spread across 12 kms along the ridge, which overlooks terraced hillsides, cultivations and dense forests, Shimla covers seven hills - Prospect Hill, which has the temple of Kamna Devi, Summer Hill, Observatory Hill, Inverarm, which houses the state museum, Bantony, Jakhoo hill and Elysium. I stood on the ridge staring at the verdant green slopes covered with fir, rhododendron, pine and the Himalayan oak. Nestling among the foliage are traditional homesteads. The Kinner range with snow-capped crest runs in a semi-circle. A soft soothing breeze caressed me as the serenity seeped in. Perched on the Ridge is Christ Church consecrated in 1857 and embellished with some fine stained glass. The fresco that surrounds it was designed by writer Rudyard Kipling's father, Lockwood Kipling. Adjacent to the church is the neo-Tudor structure of the library.

The road uphill between the church and the library leads to Jakhoo hill, while the one that forks left goes down to Lakkar Bazaar, famous for wooden handicraft items. You can ride a pony to Jakhoo hill if you want (the pony stand is right here), or climb 1.5 km uphill. Replete with history and architectural charm, the forested hill towers over Shimla and offers a bird’s eye view. As swish blows the air through the pine branches, a light, sweet aroma comes wafting. A temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman who is believed to have rested here, crowns the hill. "Watching sunset and sunrise are really spectacular experiences," Seth said. I missed it this time.

Shimla is an ideal place to unwind. If you want to jive away the night, then sorry you have come to the wrong place because Shimla doesn't really have a nightlife. After 8, the shops roll down the shutters and then it is you, the hills and the rustling woods. That is not to say there isn't any entertainment. The government is planning to revive the theatrical activities at the Gaiety Theatre. There's a pool hut called City Pool in Lakkar Bazaar. The Indira Gandhi Sports Complex offers a temporary membership at Rs 25 per hour. And you can have a go at the badminton or tennis court and use the gymnasium. However, the best way to enjoy the stay is by forgetting all the frills of city life. Just relax and enjoy the picturesque beauty - enough to soothe your frayed nerves.

Getting There

If you are not time-starved, it is best to travel here on the quaint hill train from Kalka, which was commissioned for service in January 1, 1906. The Shivalik Deluxe Express with a seating capacity of 120 seats, chugs over dramatic loops, high arched bridges, passing through 102 tunnels to the hill resort of Shimla.

Air : Vayudoot services connect Jubbor-Hatti (23 kms from Shimla) with Kullu, Chandigarh and Delhi. Delhi is in turn connected with Calcutta by Indian Airlines flights. Jagson Airlines has also flights from Delhi to Shimla. Fare: Calcutta-Delhi Rs 4797 (J), Rs 3445 (Y).

Rail: Shimla is connected by a narrow gauge railway line with Kalka (90 kms) which in turn is connected with the major cities in India. Fare (approx): Calcutta-Shimla Rs 1406 (AC-2A), Rs 1105 (I), Rs 334 (II).

Road: Regular bus services connect Shimla with Chandigarh 117 kms, Kullu 220 kms, Manali 260 kms, Delhi 343 kms, Mandi 150 kms, Pathankot 380 kms, Ambala 151 kms, Chail 43 kms, Dehradun 240 kms etc.

Local Transport: Taxis are available here as the main local transport. Fare : Basic rate for outstation is Rs 6 per kms with a minimum charge of 150 kms per day plus Rs 80 as night halt charge.

Where to Stay

Shimla has no dearth of hotels - a total of 280 to be precise. There are some 30 hotels in the mid-market category whose tariff ranges between Rs 650-1600 and an assortment of 5-star, 4-star, heritage and boutique properties.

  • The Cecil, (Grand Heritage property) Chaura Maidan, Shimla. Tel:91-177-20 4848, email: www.thececil.com
    The 79 key property is located at the quiet end of the famous Mall and is an ideal base from which to discover the unique beauty of the mountain ranges, pine and cedar forests. A fireplace at the entrance offers a warm welcome, while the rooms overlook the Himalayan ranges. Cecil’s decor epitomise classic elegance. It has a heated indoor swimming pool, a health spa and offers tailor-made flexible conference packages. Tariff: Between Rs 6,000 -9,000
  • Clarke’s Hotel, 4 star The Mall, Shimla, Tel: 91 -177-25 1010
    Clarke’s Hotel embodies the charm and elegance of yesteryear with conveniences of today. The rooms are spacious and tastefully furnished. The conference hall can accommodate up to 100 persons and is equipped with modern facilities. Tariff ranges between Rs 4650 and 4990.
  • Asia The Dawn, 4-star, Tara Devi, Shimla, Tel: 91-177-231162/63/64/65
    This 38-room property offers all modern facilities. There’s a health club with Jacuzzi, steam, sauna and massage services, a gift shop and 24-hour currency exchange facility.
  • Hotel Combermere
    It is the only hotel connected from Circular Road to Mall Road by its own lift. Centrally heated, the rooms are tastefully decorated. All the 43 rooms open to a balcony, while the suites have private terraces and mini bars. Tariff: Rs 1800 - 4000
  • Hotel Holiday Home, Tel: 0177- 212890
    Himachal Tourism’s flagship hotel is conveniently located and offers comprehensive facilities. There is a 120-cover restaurant serving Chinese, Indian, Continental and Himachali cuisine. The best ones in the mid-market category which offer a comfortable stay are Ashiana Regency, Baljee's Regency, Crystal Palace, Harsha, Lord's Grey and Pine View. Tariff varies between Rs 700 -1600.
  • The Chalets, Naldehra
    This boutique hotel extends from a thickly forested mountain spur and has a view of a deep valley. In fact, every window offers a different view. It has been built from fir logs imported from Finland. Privacy and comfort are the hallmark of every log-home. It also offers a range of activities golf, white water rafting on the Sutlej, horse riding etc. Special 2 nights /3 days packages are on offer which can be extended up to 7 nights/8 days.
Eating out

Surprisingly, the Ashiana restaurant on the Ridge, run by HPTDC, is the only place that offers Himachali cuisine (three dishes to be precise), while Dominos and Barista have made inroads. Otherwise, you get all the regular tandoor and curry items, Chinese and a wide choice of drinks. For a quick bite try the varieties of pastries. Check out the following joints for good nosh. Pure Vegetarian: Nalini in the Mall, Deepak Bhojanalaya and Agarwalji's in the middle bazaar area. Fast Food Joints: Dominos, Barista, Beekays, City Point, Food Dotcom. Bakeries: City Point, Trishool, Pastry Garden, Baljees Restaurants: Devicos, Fascination, Alfa, New Plaza (middle bazaar)

The Mall, Lower Bazaar and Lakkar Bazaar offer quite a variety of shopping options to pick and choose from.
Readymades: If you want to pick up some readymades head for Deewan Chand Atma Ram, rated as the best in Shimla. It deals in woollen clothings, shawls, shirts, jeans etc. You can also try Shezadi, which deals in designer salwar kameez, shawls and gowns. Snowhite, Top Shop or Chaman's are other joints for both gents and ladies garments.

  • Handicrafts: Himachal Emporium, a unit of HP State Handicraft and Handloom Corporation Limited, offers traditional jewellery, tea, shawls, caps, socks, gloves and other handicraft items. It has a separate section on furniture. Lakkar Bazaar is famous for wooden handicraft items and souvenirs. A number of shops sell a variety of decorative wooden articles like lipstick holder, trays etc.
  • Gifts: Wardhan Corporation, or Happy Brothers on the Mall are other options for gift items.
    Leather products: Shimla has some good Chinese show stores. Hop in at Hopson & Co, C Fook Chong & Co or Ta Tung.
Sightseeing around Shimla

There are some beautiful places around Shimla. The roads, often laced with orchards, wind through undulating hills robed in pine and cedar forests, providing wonderful views of wide floored valleys and the magnificent Himalayas. You can hire a taxi or book conducted tours offered by Himachal tourism.

  • Kufri: An hour's drive from Shimla situated at an altitude of 2622m, it offers an excellent view of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Pirpanjal and Shivalik ranges. It is famous for Yak riding. A winter sports capital, it offers excellent facilities for skiing.
  • Chail: Built on the three hills, the former capital of the Maharaj of Patiala is situated about 45 kms from Shimla. It's a charming tourist resort, well known for its cricket pitch, the highest in the world, wildlife and Sidh Baba ka Mandir. Walking through the majestic pines, or excellent view of Choor Chandni and twinkling lights of Shimla at night can be a memorable experience.
  • Naldehra: Originally called Naldeo, it is 23 km from Shimla and offers a breathtaking view of thick pine forest . It has India's oldest nine-hole golf course laid out by the British viceroy Lord Curzon. It also hosts the annual Sippi fair in June. A leisurely walk through the pines acts as a tranquilizer.
  • Narkanda: Situated on the Hindustan Tibet Highway at a distance of 64 kms from Shimla, it is at an altitude of 2708 m. It offers a panoramic view of the inner Himalayas. Eight kms from Narkanda is the Hattu peak at the height of 3300 m, which has a choice of ski slopes - a beginners' run, a slalom slope and sharper dissents for the seasoned skier.
  • Pabbar Valley: The drive to Hatkoti and Rohru in the Pabbar valley will take around 4-5 hours. Fruit laden orchards border the route. The ancient temple of Hatkoti is situated on the bank of Pabbar river, while Rohru is an excellent place for fresh water fishing.
  • Sankat Mochan: This is a temple located 7 kms from Shimla at an Altitude of 1851 m. It is dedicated to Lord Hanuman and commands an excellent view of Shimla.
  • Kasauli: About 77 kms from Shimla, this small hill station is encircled by woods of pine, oak and horse chestnut. On one hand, it offers a spectacular view of the snow-capped Himalayas and on the other a panoramic view of the well planned city of Chandigarh.
  • Tattapani: At a distance of 51 kms from Shimla, past Mashobra and Naldehra are the hot sulphur springs of Tattapani which are known for their therapeutic powers. From here drive 10 kms to Karsog, which is surrounded by beautiful orchards.