Inside India #17: Simla – summer capital of the Raj

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

For over a century Simla – usually pronounced ‘Shimla’ – was the summer capital of the British in India. Each hot season, with the mercury touching forty on the plateau, Governor-Generals, viceroys, and senior bureaucrats, complete with their enormous entourages, would decamp to the hill resort that is now synonymous with the Raj. 

Picture attribution: Rsharma001. Commons Creative.

Simla is the capital and largest city of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. 

Before the arrival of the British, much of the present-day conurbation was little more than dense forest, dotted with a handful of huts and a dilapidated old temple on Jakhoo Hill where locals believed the God Hanuman had once rested. (The area was named ‘Simla’ after the Hindu goddess Shymala Devi, an incarnation of Kali.) Simla is spread across seven major hills namely –Prospect Hill, Observatory Hill, Inveram Hill, Summer Hill, Jakhoo Hill, Elysium Hill and Bantony Hill. 

British forces took control of the area in 1815, and, by 1830, had established a makeshift town to take advantage of the cooler conditions. In 1864, Simla was officially designated the British summer capital. 

Within two decades, the Viceregal Lodge had been built on Observatory Hill, as the official residence of the British Viceroy. 

As the British summer capital, the city hosted many important political meetings including the Simla Accord in 1914 – a treaty negotiating the status of Tibet between China, Tibet, and the British government. In 1945, the Simla conference was hosted there by Lord Wavell to approve the Wavell Plan for Indian self-government. It was here that the final draft of India’s Partition Plan was hammered out by the likes of Lord Mountbatten, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.

Throughout the Raj, Simla remained a relatively small town, the streets narrow and steep, the altitude making it difficult to move around the place with any degree of comfort. For years, only the viceroy was permitted to take his carriage along the Mall. For the rest, there were coolies pulling upholstered sedan chairs up the stepped slopes. 

Today, Simla is one of India’s most sought after tourist destinations. 

For Indians, the city represents a welcome break from the dust and heat that marks the rest of the country; for foreigners, Simla is a gateway to the Himalayan foothills. There are miles of hillside paths for walking, spectacular mountain views, and the occasional meadow to stop for a picnic. The British marked the area with more than just the stamp of colonial architecture. They grew green bell peppers in the region – even now, north Indians call green bell peppers ‘Simla Mirch’. 

The city itself has changed little since its earliest days. The principal thoroughfare, the Mall, was built over a century and a half ago, and, until recently, might have been recognisable to those early wayfarers. Scandal Point – so named due to the supposed elopement of a British viceroy’s daughter with an Indian maharajah – remains a fixture of curiosity. The tallest hill on which the city is perched levels off at approximately 7,000 feet to a promenade called the Ridge, at one end of which lies the Christ Church, a Simla landmark. Even recent additions only add to the charm and sense of history. A new one-hundred-foot tall statue of Hanuman, Hinduism’s monkey god, at Jakhoo Temple is taller than Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. 

The romance between the British and Simla lasted right up until the British departed India. Today the hill station remains fondly regarded by the former colonialists, nostalgically recreated in fiction and in misty-eyed travelogues. 

As for Simla… the city known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’ goes from strength to strength, a picture-perfect slice of the subcontinent’s past.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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