Indian Summers: Visiting the town made famous by the Channel 4 series

Together with its outlying hills, Shimla ranks as one of the most absorbing places I’ve visited

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The Independent Travel

At first I blamed the monkeys. It had been with an inward smile that I’d read that a new series about the twilight years of the Raj that would be coming to our television screens. Starting on Sunday evening, Indian Summers is a sort of hybrid of Jewel in the Crown and Downton Abbey: a 1930s drama that unfolds in Shimla (or Simla as it was then known), the wonderfully scenic little mountain town that was the summer capital of British India from the 1860s more or less until independence. But my grin turned to a grimace when I learnt that the real Shimla plays no part in the series, which was shot on the Malaysian island of Penang.

Why would pretty Shimla, with a host of colonial-era buildings still standing, be rejected? Perhaps the town’s population of seriously impish rhesus macaque monkeys had been the main deterrent. But when I contacted Channel 4, which is broadcasting the 10-part series, petulantly wanting to find out more, I was told that Shimla’s monsoon period was in all respects a big dampener, and that access was awkward, too.

Penang, on the other hand, has similar colonial architecture and was an altogether smoother, more convenient option, the Channel 4 spokesman said. Grudgingly I had to admit that this made sense, even if it was all at the expense of authenticity. But what a shame for the viewers – and the film crew, too. The real Shimla is captivating.

Today it seems astonishing that for a good five months of the year – from May until the end of September – a fifth of the world’s population was ruled from this small hill station some 2,200m above sea level. Thousands of colonial Brits decamped here every summer to escape the heat of Calcutta (or Kolkata as it is now) and, latterly, Delhi.

Together with its outlying hills, Shimla ranks as one of the most absorbing places I’ve visited. Granted, as you reach the town the winding mountain roads are almost invariably clogged with traffic, and the sprawling outskirts tend to dull the spirits, but head to the heart of Shimla and you find modern India cheerfully melding into architecture that, nearly 68 years after independence, is still redolent of the Raj. There’s pretty much the full gamut of Victorian and Edwardian styles here, from mock-Tudor and neo-Gothic to Scottish Baronial and dainty country cottage.

Mostly pedestrian, the core of the town makes for superb wandering. I strolled the gabled, timber-frame terrace on The Mall, the main street that runs along part of the ridge over which the town is draped. I gazed at majestic views across hills so richly pine-clad they seemed to have acquired an extra dimension. And I spent many hours browsing the gloriously chaotic Lower Bazaar which, twisting sharply down from The Mall, teems with traders.

 

For an insider’s perspective on the extraordinary history of the town I took a guided walk with Raaja Bhasin. An author, curator, historian, journalist and latterly history consultant for Indian Summers, when he’s not too busy he also enjoys showing visitors around. We met at the Cecil Hotel, a gracious establishment that was the first hotel at which the entrepreneurial young Mohan Singh Oberoi worked. He acquired it in 1943, and it remains an Oberoi hotel today. In the 1880s a two-storey cottage, The Tendrils, stood on the site, Raaja told me. It became the summer home of Lockwood Kipling, curator of the Lahore Museum, and is said to be where his son, Rudyard, wrote Plain Tales from the Raj. Published in 1888, this was one of Kipling’s first big successes.

From the Cecil we took a steep hike west and entered the grounds of the Viceregal Lodge at the top of Observatory Hill. What a grandly spectacular building: its turret and gables seem to have escaped from rural Perthshire while its portico and arches are very Tudor palace. It was built in the latter 1880s, Raaja told me, and was the obsession of the viceroy, Lord Dufferin, who oversaw construction in such detail that those around him marvelled at his lack of attention to the business of governing India.

We took a turn around the immaculate lawns and called in at the main building. Today, it houses the august Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, which allows the public access to a series of exhibition rooms about Shimla and also to the principal hall, complete with a stupendous teak staircase.

Moving back towards the heart of town, Raaja advised me not to look at the monkeys – they can become aggressive if you make eye contact, he said. With teams of little primates moving rapidly overhead and skittering along our path, that was a challenge, so, to lighten the mood, Raaja regaled me with stories about Shimla’s scandals. The most famous, I learnt, was the liaison between the Maharajah of Patiala and Florence Bryan, an Irish woman who came to India in search of a husband. She achieved her goal, marrying the maharajah in 1893.

We ambled over to the Maria Brothers store on The Mall, calling in to browse its terrific collection of prints and antiquarian books. Walking on, we passed Christ Church – a beacon of Victorian Gothic glory – and paused by the brick-and-timber town hall before making tracks to the splendid Gaiety Theatre. Finished in 1889, this was one of the great hubs of colonial Shimla’s social life and it is still much treasured today.

After that, I headed for the hills, enjoying walks along vertiginous paths awash with purple violets and staying in style at Wildflower Hall. This woodland haven was the summer bolthole of Lord Kitchener when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army in the early 1900s. The original mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1993, and the site was acquired by the Oberoi group, which rebuilt the property as a suitably sumptuous Raj-style retreat.

On the evening I was there, I made for the wood-panelled bar, where I picked up a copy of Raaja’s book, Simla, The Summer Capital. It fell open at a section about monkeys. In the 1940s, I read, the police saw fit to hold a file on these thugs. And, I learnt, they were a big nuisance even in the days when Kipling came to town. The monkeys play a crucial part in the Shimla’s heritage – I hope the town’s fictional counterpart has space for them too.

 

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Getting there

From the UK the most convenient international gateway for Shimla is Delhi, served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) and Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) from Heathrow, and Air India (020 8745 1005; airindia.com) from Birmingham and Heathrow.

Shimla can be reached by taking a domestic flight from Delhi to Chandigarh with Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com), SpiceJet (00 91 987 180 3333; spicejet.com) or Air India (020 7760 3290; airindia.in) and driving about two-and-a-half hours from there. Alternatively, you can drive direct from the capital – about an eight-hour journey.

Harriet O'Brien travelled with Greaves India (020 7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk) which offers a nine-night trip to Shimla via Delhi from £2,215pp. Includes British Airways flights from Heathrow to Delhi, domestic flights to Chandigarh, a private car with driver, B&B at The Oberoi New Delhi, The Oberoi Cecil in Shimla, and Wildflower Hall Shimla, a tour of Shimla with Raaja Bhasin, an excursion on the narrow gauge Shimla-Kalka Toy Train and other guided trips.

More information

India Tourism: incredibleindia.org

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