People of the plains, during summer, incline to escape from the heat to the pleasant cool shadows of the hills. This year we thought of visiting the Himachal but decided to avoid the overtly touristy circuits and were looking for newer and relatively peaceful destinations. Taking into consideration the holidays and available vacations of all the people concerned, we zeroed in on the Kinnaur belt. This time round our group was also a large one comprising 10 persons and we had a tough time booking accommodation and transportation. Thanks to Runa and Chhotomasi for taking all the trouble.
In the evening of 20th May, we boarded the Howrah-Kalka Mail and reached Kalka on 22nd at 4:45 AM. In the rush of getting off hurriedly we left behind in the train the box of sweets we carried specially, from Kolkata, and we lamented for the misfortune time and again for the rest of the tour. I had handed over the box after boarding the train so I was trying to evade responsibilityJ. The fact that our seats changed after Delhi was also a reason for the misplacement. I would like to share a trick to fellow travellers from Kolkata at this juncture. There are very few tickets available on the Kalka Mail; only 10 AC2 seats to be precise. So one can book from Kolkata to Delhi and then Delhi to Kalka on the same train and the tickets from Delhi are available on the same day itself.
From Kalka, we had to arrange for transportation since we did not pre-book any car. Actually at first we thought of travelling in the narrow gauge toy train to Shimla but did not get any ticket. So, finally, we set off to Shimla in two cars, one Innova and one Indica. It cost us a total of Rs. 3300. On the way we had our breakfast with tea and aloo-parantha at a roadside dhaba.
When we reached Hotel Oceen in Shimla, we had to wait for a little while since our rooms were not yet prepared. However, the staff co-operated with us and ensured that our wait was not a long one. The room was not that great but we already knew that before and anyway we would only stay for one day and start for Kinnaur the following morning. After having breakfast and freshening up, we decided to have a tour of the city. Most of us had visited Shimla before barring Runa, Abhishek and Rishi. Again, we booked two cars to move around the city.
Shimla, at an altitude of 2205 metres, was the summer capital of British India and still has a colonial nostalgia. It has been a popular hill station for long and over the years the number of tourists visiting the city has only increased. Also, it is now the capital city of Himachal Pradesh; so there are many office buildings as well.
At first, we went to the Sankat Mochan Temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman. There were some other temples as well in the complex dedicated to Rama, Shiva and Ganesha. The calm and peaceful surroundings must facilitate meditation of the devout. From the terrace at the back side of the temple, one can have a lovely view of the lush green hills. I remembered taking snaps at that place during my earlier visit, about 10 years before. The laddoos distributed as prasada were delicious and I went back again to have some more of it. Nearly 60 years ago, Baba Neeb Karori Ji Maharaj spent a few days at this beautiful place and his desire of a temple to be built at the place was materialized a few years later. The story and the pictures of the Baba reminded me of another temple near Ranikhet which I visited last year. It was also built by the devotees of the same Baba.
The next place to visit was the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge which has been now converted into Indian Institute of Advanced Study. The majestic heritage building was constructed in 1888 as the residence of Lord Dufferin, the then British Viceroy to India and had been a witness of many historical events and decisions that changed the geography and fate of the sub-continent. Located on the Observatory Hill, this sprawling Scottish baronial building was designed by an architect of the then public works department, Henry Irwin. The south facing entrance portico leads the visitors to the reception hall. Facing the main entrance is a grand fireplace which must have been renovated later on since it comprises the national emblem of India curved in wood and has a large photograph of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on the top of it.
The gallery was decorated with an exquisite teak panelling and the guide told us that in case of any fire, the wax coat of the woodwork melts and water sprinkles by itself.
To the left, is located the erstwhile ball room and dining room, with gorgeous Belgian chandeliers, which has been now converted into a library containing more than one hundred thousand books. We were told that the dining room once boasted of an enormous dining table with a capacity to seat 70 guests at a time, but the table has been relocated to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.
Way back in 1888, this Lodge had electric light and the guide showed us the German switches which are still operational. Beside the reception hall, there was a closed room where the agreement on transfer of power and partition of India took place. It has been now converted into a conference room and since some conference was under way, we could not visit the room.
However, we did visit another room which was probably used as an antechamber where leaders used to wait before discussions and negotiations. A round table joined at the middle, perhaps metaphorically signifying the partition, adorns the room. The room also comprises some lovely portraits including those of Lady Elgin and Lady Minto and the ceiling is decorated with intricate wood carvings.
The Billiard Room, next to it has been converted into a photo gallery with a piano at one end and the huge presidential chair at the other. A 185 year old clock, made in Holland, is displayed in this room and it is still functional. It needs to be wound up once in a week and the peculiar thing about it is that it shows the moon position in the sky along with time and date.
It was astounding to know that a staff of 800, including 40 gardeners, were employed here at one time. The Lodge remained the summer retreat of the President of India after Independence until it was handed over to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 1965. It is said that Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the then President and a leading philosopher and writer himself, was instrumental to this effect.
Bappa had been saying from the beginning that he had visited the Viceregal Lodge during his previous vacation in Shimla. But it turned out that the place he was actually referring to was the place near Kufri where the Shimla agreement was signed between India and Pakistan in 1972. So, it was a pleasant surprise for him as well.
While we were waiting for our cars, after the guided tour of the Viceregal Lodge and after roaming around the lush green lawn and well maintained garden for a while, we sneaked into the Court Gallery which comprised an exhibition of photographs. It was just round the corner beside the erstwhile fire station which has now been converted into a cafe and souvenir shop. There was also a swimming pool located there. Beyond that was out of reach for the tourists.
When we reached the Mall, the first thing we visited was the Christ Church. It is reputed to be the first church of Shimla and the second oldest church in northern India. It was designed by Colonel J.T. Boileau who worked for PWD. The corner stone was laid in 1844 but it was consecrated only after 1857. The clock was donated by Colonel Dumbleton in 1860 and the porch was added in 1873. The simple but elegant yellow structure made of stone and brick in lime mortar can be seen from miles away and is a popular tourist destination in Shimla. The interior is quiet and peaceful and the stained glass windows, depicting the virtues of Faith, Charity, Hope, Fortitude, Patience and Humility, are attractive. However, when we were coming out we noticed some ruckus, resulting from someone’s pair of shoes being stolen, which was contradictory to the usual calm. I was astonished in the first place about the prerequisite of removing one’s pair of shoes before entering the church, as I do not think there is any such obligation in Christianity.
The walk along the Mall road accentuates the one-time colonial presence of the British in Shimla. Even the day to day office buildings such as the municipal office or the mayor’s office are reminiscent of the bygone era. People strolled around leisurely while some enjoyed a pony ride. Bappa treated all of us with ice cream and after a while in the middle of some confusion we got isolated in small groups and with mobile network not working for some, it was some time before we could all reunite.
The day being a Sunday, many of the shops were closed. However, we did shopping to our heart’s content in the remaining shops which were open. While some of us bought gift items, others procured woollen pullovers under the perception that they are cheaper in the hills.
In the middle of the whirlwind shopping, we made some time for lunch at a Punjabi restaurant which Bappa and Poulomi had visited during their earlier visit to Shimla.
After a sumptuous lunch and a tiresome shopping spell around the Mall, we started off towards the famous Shimla Kalibari with heavy legs and the steep road was making it tougher for us. The serene temple was built in 1845 and is dedicated to Goddess Kali who is also known as Shyamala. It is believed that the city of Shimla derived its name from the name of Goddess Shyamala. It was nice to see notices written in Bengali so far away in the hills and even the hawkers outside the temple understood Bengali. Perhaps Kali being a popular goddess in Bengal has its effect on the Bangaliwana of the temple. We were told that the temple was earlier located in the Jakhu hills but was shifted by the British to this place.
Evening was uneventful as we did not go out and took rest in the hotel punctuated at times with tea, pakoras and adda. The actual tour of the Kinnaur circuit would begin from the next day after the initial stopover in Shimla and we were all excited and were engrossed discussing the minute details and intricacies of the planning.