Saturday, February 23, 2002

Shimla’s Afghan
Roshni Johar

THOUGH many miles away, the high Himalayan town of Shimla has had Afghan connections but of a different kind.

Perhaps the most interesting was the visit to Kabul by Shimla’s British dentist named A.O’Meara. In the 1850s, Ravenswood, which houses Himachal Pradesh’s High Court today, was his property. He was the only dentist in the whole of Punjab for twenty years, his professional reputation spreading far and wide.

The Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman, had a nagging dental problem. Despite all kinds of local treatment, he failed to get relief. So he called A. O’Meara to come all the way to Kabul to attend to his infected teeth. The dentist’s trip to Kabul and back to Shimla took six months.


A O’Meara advised him tooth extraction. Wary of doctors, the Amir wanted to play safe. So he had the dentist extract teeth of his courtiers before allowing him to remove his own! The Amir pompously displayed the new set of his royal teeth in open durbar too! Kabul’s Governor too needed similar treatment. A. O’Meara taught one of Amir’s courtiers the technique of making artificial teeth.

One crosses Khyber Pass when walking on the Mall to Chhota Shimla. Near Oberoi Clarkes Hotel lie Oakswood (official residence of Himachal’s Chief Minister), Cedar and Cedar Lodge, built by the Maharaja of Patiala. They are located on the so-called Khyber Pass, named after the famous gorge forming the chief gate of Afghanistan from Peshawar. This area gets intensely cold even before the advent of winter.

The First Afghan War and the disasters it brought in its trail was heraled from Shimla’s Secretary’s Lodge, now called Chapslee Hotel and owned by the Maharaja of Kapurthala. Lord Auckland, the British Viceroy, lived in Auckland House in 1838. As the accommodation was insufficient, he converted the adjoining Chapslee into offices for his private and military secretaries. Chapslee was the venue where the ‘Simlah Manifesto’ declaring war with Afghanistan was signed on October 1, 1838.

Pat Barr and Ray Desmond cite in Simla: A Hill Station in British India, "Ladies whose husbands had been posted to Afghanistan visit (Chapslee) to console themselves with a little music to take a little tea and coffee and talk little. Small en famille dinners were arranged for most companionable among them, when we can furnish gentlemen enough apart from balls and twice weekly dinners".

For long, Caboul or Cabul was mispronounced by the British as Cabool. Even Arnold did so in his Sohrab and Rustam. Though months after his arrival, Lord Ellenborough had heard the name Cabul correctly spoken, he persisted in calling it Cabool, till he met chief Dost Mohammad Khan and corrected the error.

Emily Eden, sister of Lord Auckland, entered in her journal on May 25, 1839, that twelve-foot-high banners with words ‘Candahar’ and ‘God save the Queen’ hung in trees during Queen’s (Victoria’s) Ball in Shimla.

In 1919, an Afghan delegation visited Shimla to discuss a peace treaty. Jawaharlal Nehru (member of Annie Besant’s Home Rule League) and Afghans happened to stay in the same hotel. A British magistrate told Nehru that since his presence was not desirable in Shimla, he should give an undertaking that he would not contact the Afghans. Nehru refused. He was told to leave within four hours or else be escorted out of Shimla.

The present leader of the interim government in Afghainistan, 44-year-old Hamid Karzai, studied in Himachal Pradesh University in the 1980s. He was greatly influenced by his stay in democratic India.

Shimla had the distinction of having the world’s only Mail Tonga Service. Mail was carried on tongas pulled by Kabul’s strong horses, and driven by fearless Pathans facing snow storms, rains and landslides en route to summer capital of imperial India. These Afghani horses and ‘daredevil drivers’ have passed into Shimla’s history.

From faraway lands of Chaman, Candahar, Cabul and Peshawar, the Afghans travelled over high mountain trails and passes, braving icy winds, bringing bagfuls of fresh and dry fruits to tickle the White and Brown sahibs’ palates in Shimla. Unfailingly they arrived very after year at Shimlaites’ doorsteps, their poverty-writ faces always smiling. Apart from pistachios, pine nuts, sultanas, figs, dates and grapes of Chaman, their ware included:

‘Prunes of Bokhara, and sweet nuts

From the far groves of Samarkand’.

(Moore, Lalla Rookh).

As Bernier informs, Bokhara prunes came from Usbec and nuts from Persia and beyond too. Also cherished were Candahar’s priceless and succulent — ‘... pomegranates full of melting sweetness’. (Light of the Harem).

Choga, an Afghani garment with long sleeves, was worn as a dressing gown by Shimla’s European men. The Life of Lord Lawrence reads, "We do not hear of ‘shirt-sleeves’ in connection with Henry (Lawrence)... we believe his favourite dishabille was an Afghan choga, which like charity covered a multitude of sins."

Described as ‘East’s baggy trousers tied by draw strings,’ the salwar commonly worn by Shimla women is the normal attire of Afghani men and women.