SHIMLA’s cool climes, with its lush valleys abounding with oaks and pines, drew the British in the 19th century so as to escape Delhi’s scorching heat. Thus began ‘summering in Simla’ of gora sahibs and their memsahibs; later, by our very own elite brown sahibs. It became a perfect place for the ‘rich, idle and invalid,’ as French traveller Victor Jacquemont opined. Eventually, unknown Shimla, whose name originated from the nondescript Shyamalaya, became the summer capital of the Raj, which Rudyard Kipling aptly described as the ‘Jewel in the Crown.’
In 1819, Lt Ross set up the first British residence in Shimla — a wooden cottage — followed by Charles Pratt Kennedy’s pucca one. Soon, Shimla was dotted with elegant villa-like Swiss chalets amid flower gardens with English names on the gates. ‘There were 30 houses in 1830... by 1880, there were 1,000,’ wrote author Pran Nevile. As Shimla reminded them of ‘back home’, early settlers nostalgically gave charming names to their houses — Cosy Nook, Winterfield, Sherwood, Sunny Bank, Belvedere. Cottages were named after primrose, ivy, violets, slopes/valleys/hills — Summer Hill, Bemloe, etc. Kipling lived at Tendrils and Lord Dufferin at Peterhoff.
However, there’s a fascinating twist to the names. When Lord Curzon visited Naldehra, about 21 km from Shimla, he was so fascinated by its green glades that he promptly rechristened his youngest daughter Lady Alexandra Naldehra. Later, Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten named their granddaughter India due to their emotional bonds with our country. ‘Simla is floating on water!’ an English lady jested. Few know that a reputed steamship company named one of its liners The City of Simla! A prestigious boys’ school in Shimla even gave English names to its Indian students, such as William and Richard.
Once, a foreigner asked me the way to Lala Lajpat Rai Marg, which was mentioned in the official map that he had kept rolled under his arm. I was taken aback as I had never heard of such a place, only to learn later that our famous Mall had been renamed so years ago! And no one was even aware of it. The Mall, Shimla’s main artery and a great place to shop and socialise, will always remain the Mall. The same goes for Boileauganj, a locality whose new name is Tilak Nagar.
Renaming belies historical facts and can cause confusion, whipping up communal or racial sentiments at times. History is not always about wars and coronations; it also reflects social life.
Why must we go on a renaming spree? What’s wrong with the existing names? What’s in a name? Well, there’s plenty… it’s part of our heritage. Shimla is still among the most British of Indian towns. The traditional names lend an aura of charm and romance to Shimla, attracting hordes of visitors. Let them not disappear from the pages of history books. Let’s not tinker with our history.
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