About Shimla

Shimla city gets its name from Shyamala Mata, a fearless incarnation of the goddess Kali. The temple of the goddess is situated on Bantony Hill, near The Ridge, named Kali Bari temple. According to another version Shimla gets its name from the word ‘Shyamalaya’ meaning blue slate by faqir on Jakhu. But generally, the society finds the first version more believable, acceptable and reasonable.

Recently the state government decided to change the city’s name from Shimla to Shyamala, but fierce opposition from the populace resulted in the government beating a hasty retreat.

The ever acquisitive British East India Company took control of the territory after the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814–16) and Gurkha leaders were subjugated by the storming of the fort of Malaun, under the command of David Ochterlony in May 1815. This colourful character was steeped in the Indo-Mughal culture, embracing with gusto Persian marital practices, taking 13 wives/concubines, whom he regularly displayed at elaborate parades.

The accounts of the Britain-like climate started attracting several British officers to the area during the hot Indian summers. By 1826, some officers had started spending their entire vacations in Shimla. Shimla’s attractions caught the attentions of senior officials and in 1830, the British acquired the surrounding land from the chiefs of Keonthal and Patiala in exchange for the Rawin pargana and a portion of the Bharauli pargana. The settlement grew rapidly after this, from 30 houses in 1830 to 1,141 houses in 1881.

Over time, Shimla’s popularity grew and in 1832, hosted its first political meeting, between the Governor-General Lord William Bentinck and the emissaries of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Over time, Shimla due to its salubrious climate, became a hill station famous for balls, parties, and other festivities. Subsequently, residential schools for pupils from upper-class families were established nearby. By the late 1830s, the city also became a centre for theatre and art exhibitions. Indian businessmen, mainly from Sood and Parsi communities, arrived in the area to cater to the needs of the growing European population.

In 1863, the Viceroy of India, John Lawrence, decided to shift the summer capital of the British Raj to Shimla. He took the trouble of moving the administration twice a year between Calcutta and this separate centre over 1,000 miles away, despite the fact that it was difficult to reach.

Jakhoo temple

With the influx of Brits, the town started changing character and the Brits did what they did best – create a schism in society. “City planning” slowly coerced the native Indian population that lived in the “Upper Bazaar” nowadays known as the Ridge, to move to what is now known as the Middle and Lower Bazaars on the lower terraces descending the steep slopes from the Ridge. The “Upper” naturally was reserved for the Brits and was cleared for a town hall, with many facilities such as library and theatre, as well as offices for police and military volunteers as well as municipal administration.

During the “Hot Weather”, Shimla was also the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, and many departments of the government. The summer capital of the regional Government of the Punjab moved from Murree, in modern-day Pakistan, to Shimla in 1876. They were joined by many of the British wives and daughters of the men who remained on the plains. Together these formed Shimla Society, which, according to Charles Allen, “was as close as British India ever came to having an upper crust”, ironically comprised of most who actually were not. It is well known that those who ventured to seek their fortunes in India were more often than not uneducated young men from dodgy backgrounds with dubious “skills’ under their belts. Hotly following them were equally dodgy if not more desperate, husband seekers from the Motherland.

The presence of many bachelors and unattached men, as well as the many women passing the hot weather there, gave Shimla a reputation for adultery, and at least gossip about adultery: as Rudyard Kipling said in a letter cited by Allen, it had a reputation for “frivolity, gossip, and intrigue”. This reputation endures.

Kalka-Shimla Railway

Passenger train on the Kalka-Shimla Railway route.

The Kalka–Shimla railway line, opened in 1903, added to Shimla’s accessibility and popularity. The railway route from Kalka to Shimla, with more than 806 bridges and 103 tunnels, was touted as an engineering feat and came to be known as the “British Jewel of the Orient”. In 2008, it became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then history of Raman Villa is intertwined with that of this famous railway line.

In addition, Shimla was the capital of the undivided state of Punjab in 1871, and remained so until the construction of the new city of Chandigarh (the present-day capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana). Upon the formation of the state of Himachal Pradesh in 1971, Shimla was named its capital.

Pre-independence structures still dot Shimla; buildings such as the former Viceregal Lodge, Assembly Chamber, Auckland House, Christ Church, Gorton Castle, Shimla Town Hall and the Gaiety Theatre are reminders of British rule in India. The original Peterhoff, another Viceregal residence, burned down in 1981. British Shimla extended about a mile and a half along the ridge between Jakhoo Hill and Prospect Hill. The central spine was the Mall Road, which ran along the length of the Ridge, with a Mall Extension southwards, closed to all carriages except those of the viceroy and his wife. Shimla in many ways, is deliciously stuck in time and one would be well advised to visit this relatively unspoilt relic of the Raj.

Crowborough Rest House

Entrance of the Crowborough Rest House built in 1921

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