With Gothic churches and Tudor-style castles, Shimla holds its colonial past close to its heart. Humra Afroz lists five of its most majestic Raj-era buildings
It’s been raining for a while now and our car carefully winds up the mountain road sandwiched between tall deodars on steep slopes and meandering trek routes disappearing into the clouds above us. At a bend, the clouds clear and on a slope across the valley, I catch a glimpse of an imposing stone castle spiral way above the rising mist, its grand driveway lined by wild pink primroses. I can almost imagine a gentleman in a dress coat helping his lady in a flowing gown step down from a horse-driven carriage… I could well be ensconced in Victorian England. But I am in Shimla, that flaunts its colonial past in restored British-era buildings. Row after row of sloping tiled roofs, exquisite neo-Gothic architecture and stained glass church windows evoking an era gone by and the air of a quintessential hill town animated by the quaint and the cosmopolitan all at once. Spread on a ridge and seven spurs, Shimla is laid out in levels.
Once the favourite summer sanctuary of Britishers in India, this bustling modern state capital houses many heritage structures – the Viceregal Lodge, Rothney Castle, Gaiety Theatre, Gorton Castle and the Christ Church, to name a few. We start our tour of history at the most extravagant of them all.
The Viceregal Lodge
Easily one of the most impressive buildings, both historically and architecturally, the lodge was completed in 1888 and was the summer residence of the British viceroys in India till the Second World War. The Tudorstyle structure is situated on top of Observatory Hill and makes for an interesting day outing, in which tourists can visit some of its staterooms, enjoy its carefully maintained gardens and partake of the panoramic views from the hill.
Perched atop an airy hillock, the castle was constructed in 1904, then intended to be the new government secretariat under the British Raj. The imposing three-storey building is reflective of the Gothic-style architecture typically followed in that era, with a chalet-like facade, bay windows and grey stone walls. Today the office of the state accountant-general, the castle has changed many hands over the years and was even caught in a devastating fire in 2014. But it is being restored to its former glory once again.
During British rule, Wildflower Hall is said to have been Lord Ripon’s favourite retreat. It was also the summer residence of Lord Kitchener, a senior British army official. After the original building was damaged in a fire, a second building was built at the present site. In 1909, after Lord Kitchener went back to England, the property was sold to Robert Hotz and his wife, who soon turned it into a three-storey hotel. After Independence, it was taken over by the government and is now a luxury hotel.
Formerly called Barnes’ Court, this Tudor-style heritage building is where the historic Shimla Agreement between India and Pakistan was signed in 1972. Now the office and residence of the governor of Himachal Pradesh, it was built in 1832 and first inhabited by the then British commander-inchief of the Indian Army, Sir Edward Barnes (hence the name, Barnes’ Court). The twostorey building, with teakwood doors and large bay windows, has also served as the residence of various British commandersin- chief, such as General Napier, General Campbell and General Rose.
The Himachal State Museum
This was once an old Victorian mansion, now carefully tweaked and converted into a museum. During British rule, the building was the private residence of Lord William Beresford, the military secretary to the viceroy, Lord William Bentinck. Since Independence, it has served as a residence to many Indian government officials.
But even as I list my favourites, there are many more such historical gems here, run over by bushes and the vagaries of time, waiting to be discovered.