Saturday, January 16, 1999
From an obscure hamlet to a renowned hill resort
By Rakesh Lohumi
IT has been a long and eventful journey for the Queen of Hills from an obscure hamlet "Sheyamlah" to a bustling, internationally- acclaimed hill resort known as Shimla.
The two centuries of its existence have been a saga of numerous momentous events which have left an indelible mark in the history of the country. Most of the script of Indias Independence struggle, right from the birth of the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 by A.O. Hume, a retired British civil servant, to the Partition of the country, was written in the cool climes of shimla, which was the capital of British India, later of Punjab and finally of Himachal Pradesh.
Accidentally discovered during the Gorkha war, the picturesque abode of Goddess "Shamla", reminded the heat-weary British officers of their own country. They quickly set up a veritable tent village to rest in the cool and salubrious environs of the hills in the arduous process of empire- building, hardly aware of the fact that they had laid the foundation of a premier hill station.
Starting with the wooden cottage raised in 1819 by Lieutenant Ross, assistant political agent for the hill state, the construction activity entered the era of permanent structures in 1822 when the historic Kennedy House was built.
The new settlement began to thrive from 1827, after the Governor-General, Lord Amherst, started the practice of residing in Shimla during summers. Gradually it became a destination for young officers, who were banished to India by Queen Victoria for improper conduct.
Away from the rigid rules imposed by the young queen, they began to lead a life full of fun and revelry. Impromptu dance parties, riding, sport, picnic, fairs, fetes and fancy dress balls became the order of the day. The endless opportunities for romantic escapades made Shimla a favourite haunt of bachelors. Its name was associated with "bright ladies and gay gentlemen".
The observation of Col S. Dewe White in his Travels of India (1844 to 1866), aptly described the emerging social life. He wrote: "An officer aspiring to get an appointment by currying favour would select Shimla which was pre-eminently the most fashionable sanatorium in India. For six months, when it becomes the headquarters of the civil and military government of India, it was time for endless festivities, gaieties and frivolities".
Another visitor Dr Hoffmeister, the physician of Prince Waldemar of Prussia, wrote while referring to the bal masque given in the honour of the prince. "There was by no means a lack of young ladies, for the kind and thoughtful relatives at Shimla never fail to bring up from the plains everything in the shape of young and marriageable nieces or cousins. And here, where so many agreeable officers are stationed for pleasures sake alone, many a youthful pair are thrown together and many a match is made."
The importance of Shimla continued to rise as more and more top officers took up residence for a longer period. However, the growth of the town actually picked up after 1864 when the Viceroy, Lord John Lawrence, made it the official summer capital. The number of buildings shot up from about 250 to over 1,000 within a short span of two decades. While the main town developed on the seven spurs Mount Jakhoo, Observatory Hill, Prospect Hill, Elysium Heights, Summer Hill, Potters Hill and Museum Hill of the irregular, crescent-shaped Ridge, the suburbs came up on the offshoots.
Most of the important buildings were constructed during the last quarter of the 19th century. The magnificent Viceregal Lodge, the summer residence of Viceroy, was completed in 1888. Designed by Henry Irwin, the building, which now houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, is a fine specimen of Elizabethan Renaissance style.
The Gaiety Theatre, which was designed on the model of Royal Albert Hall, London, was built in 1887. The Cathedral of Saint Michael and Joseph came up in 1885, the Ripon Hospital in 1882 and Ellerslie, currently housing the state secretariat, in 1899.
The imposing Christ Church which stands majestically on the edge of the Ridge, has been an important landmark of the town ever since it was built in 1857. In fact it has become synonymous with Shimla and no picture of the town is complete, without it.
Some of the elegant houses were the residences of top Indian princes. Oakover, at present the residence of the Chief Minister, was built by Maharaja of Patiala. Similarly, there were Nabha House, Darbhanga House, Faridkot House and other buildings belonging to rulers of various princely states.
The last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the current century were the most important phases in the development of the town. It started flourishing after it became the headquarters of the Punjab Government in 1871. The civic amenities like roads and water supply expanded during the period.
During the eventful tenure of the controversial Viceroy, Lord Curzon, the narrow-gauge rail line linking Shimla with Kalka was built. The longest mountain track was inaugurated by the Viceroy himself in 1904. The incredible feat, involving boring of 105 tunnels, some of them more than 1 km long, was accomplished in just two years.
The "toy train" was a shot in the arm for the elegant summer resort and the introduction of regular train services further increased the flow of holiday-makers into the summer capital.
Another important development was the commissioning of the Chaba power plant in 1912 which ensured adequate power supply to the town.
All this further accelerated the growth and the Mall came into existence with the coming up British-style shops. The Swiss chain of hotels owned by Faletti opened the doors of Cecil Hotel to an increasing number of elite. Subsequently, rail car was introduced for the convenience of the Viceroys entourage. It completed the journey, in about three hours, almost half of the time taken by the train.
The outbreak of World War-I was a turning point which started a new phase in the social relations between Indians and Britishers. The Indian princes vied with one another to demonstrate theirloyalty to the British and offered their support in times of crisis. Indian officers were taken into the army by the British. The wives of Indian officers became more and more visible in social gatherings in Shimla. The colour bar on the Mall was also lifted.
After the war, there was little development as nothing much was required by the "Pride of Raj", which was at its zenith with all the basic amenities.
The fast-changing political environment,with Independence struggle entering a decisive phase, and the outbreak of World War-II made matters worse.
The summer capital lost its exalted status following the exit of the British in 1947. A bleak future stared the erstwhile imperial capital in the face when the capital of Punjab was shifted to Chandigarh in 1956.
However, November 1, 1966, was yet another turning point which put the rather deserted hill station in the position of ascendancy. Exactly 150 years after the British landed in Shimla, the premier hill-station was restored back to the people of hills. Once again Shimla became a proud capital of a proud state when Himachal Pradesh was accorded statehood in 1971. It was the most important event in the chequered history of the town which set the stage for its further growth.
Queen of Hills now a concrete jungle
THE Queen of Hills has lost much of its imperial grandeur and scenic charm since Independence. The transition from being the imperial capital to its present status of being the headquarters of the native hill state has not only completely changed its face but also its character.
Its identity as a township of the elite has been wiped out by the surging middle class. In the process, the clubs and social institutions, once an exclusive preserve of the elite, have passed on to the masses.
The face of the posh Mall, which rivalled the fashionable streets of London, has also been altered.
The uniform double-storeyed buildings with typical features of colonial architecture are gradually giving way to modern, concrete structures. In some buildings, additional storeys have been added. The big department stores, which catered to the needs of the elite, have been fragmented into a number of smaller shops.
A large number of colonial buildings, lending a distint character to the town, have been consumed by fires which break out in winters with unfailing regularity. The destroyed buildings have been replaced with concrete monsters.
The town is spilling over in all directions and large patches of verdant slopes have already been transformed into concrete jungles. Multi-storey structures have come on the lawns and tennis courts of old buildings.
The enforcement of the Tenancy and Land Reform Act, which debarred non-agriculturists from purchasing land in the rural area, was also to a great extent responsible for the congestion and concentration of construction activity in the main town. The traders, who are mostly non-agriculturists, were left with no alternative but to purchase whatever land was available in the town.
The increasing population and haphazard construction activity have played havoc with the ecologically-fragile hill environment. The impact is evident in the changing weather pattern. Snowfall is becoming increasingly scarce and irregular with each passing year.
The phenomenal growth witnessed by the capital town since 1971 has led to chronic problems of parking, traffic congestion, sanitation and water shortage. Civic amenities come under severe strain, particularly during the tourist season in summer.
The service system of Shimla was planned for a population of 16,000 but the present permanent population, with the inclusion of peripheral villages in the corporation, has crossed the 1.70 lakh mark.
Little was done over the years to augment the basic civic amenities and the result of the prolonged neglect is visible in the shape of bad roads, clogged sewers and a wornout water distribution system.
The problem of water shortage, which remains throughout the year, worsens during summer when the demand increases and availability from sources declines.
As against daily requirement of 30 lakh gallons, only 20 to 22 lakh gallons is available. Consequently, taps in tail-end colonies like Chakkar, Boileauganj, Bharari and Kaithu often go dry. While the ambitious project to lift water from the Sutlej to meet the requirement of the town has remained a pipedream, another scheme, even more ambitious and expensive, has been drawn up to bring water from the far-off Chansal lake in Rohru.
The transport system has reached a point of collapse. The roads do not have the carrying capacity to take the load of the increasing vehicular traffic. The number of vehicles has crossed the 5000 mark, while an equal number enter the town every day during peak tourist season. Inadequate parking facilities compound the problem as vehicles are parked along the narrow roads.
Traffic- jams are as common as in any congested city in the plains. The local municipal corporations plan to develop parking lots has remained on paper only.
The Shimla Municipality was once the richest in the country but today it is starved of funds. It is even facing problems in maintaining roads, water supply and sanitary services.
The swelling municipal waste has of late become a major source of environmental pollution, as there is no scientific and eco-friendly system for the disposal of garbage. Piles of rubbish litter the green hills, for municipal corporation is able to collect only half of the 50 tonnes of solid waste generated daily. That too is dumped in a nullah on the bypass road.
The situation is likely to improve after the proposed project for the treatment and conversion of bio-degradable waste into manure is implemented. The ban on use of recycled polythene bags will also provide some relief from the pollution caused by non-biodegradable waste.
Tourism boom a major boost to economy
ALTHOUGH Shimla continues to be a town of the middle class, economic activity has been fast picking up, particularly since 1971 when Himachal Pradesh became a full-fledged state.
The economy virtually collapsed after the shifting of the headquarters of the Punjab Government from Shimla to Chandigarh during the fifties. It touched the nadir over the next decade as most of the traders, sensing a bleak future, either shifted to Chandigarh or set up business establishments at both places.
However, its merger with Himachal Pradesh in 1966 checked the slide. Business once again started flourishing after the grant of statehood to Himachal. The opening of numerous new offices of the state government, central government, banks, insurance companies, universities, colleges and other institutions provided the much-needed fillip to the local economy. Shimla has not been a industrial town but it has regional offices or branches of all the commercial banks and insurance companies, all of which are doing reasonably good.
With the commercial activity gaining momentum, the market has also expanded. New shops have come up all over the town and in suburban localities like Sanjauli, Chhota Shimla, Boileauganj. People have been fashion conscious since the British days and the market, used to catering to high tastes, continues to keep abreast of the latest trends in items like jewellery, ready-made garments and shoes. It is hardly surprising that tourists from cities like Mumbai and Delhi find Shimla a good place for shopping. The real boost to economy has been provided by the tourism boom over the past one decade. The outbreak of militancy in Kashmir diverted much of the tourist traffic to Himachal Pradesh. Shimla has gained tremendously from Kashmirs loss.
The hotel industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the period. The total number of hotels have shot up from 98 in 1990 to 210 in 1998. Besides, many big tourist complexes have come up in nearby areas.
The number of taxis, public call offices and travel agents have also increased in the same proportion. Tourism and allied industries have added to the commercial activity in a big way, generating income and employment opportunities.
The state-of-art telecom facilities have also played a major role in promoting commercial activity. The state is already on the Internet and almost every village has the subscribers trunk dialling (STD) facility. The hotels and travel agents use fax and electronic mail for confirming bookings instantly. Most of the private business establishment have also switched over to computers. With the government also opting for computerisation of its offices, those dealing in computer hardware and computer education and training are in for a more prosperous time.
In the absence of any big
industry, the service sector has been playing a major
role in generating employment. Once limited to the
automobilies, the service sector now extends to consumer
goods, computers and, of course, the tourism industry.
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