Shimla straddles an eight-mile long ridge, buildings clinging to the green hillsides. The British began coming here in the 1820s as a refuge from the summer heat. By 1864 Shimla, nicknamed The Queen of Hills, was the British Raj's official summer capital.

It also became a place of eccentric grandeur. A stroll along the largely pedestrianised Mall takes you past some fine examples of British whimsy. The General Post Office is mock-Tudor with Gothic twiddles. Gorton Castle, built by a British official, is dour Scottish baronial enlivened by Saracenic arches. The Town Hall looks ramblingly medieval. The effect is of a film set where the director is unsure whether his subject is Merrie EnglandBrigadoon or Arabian Nights.

Shimla's current municipal authorities value the town's past – the entrance to a green-roofed pavilion in The Mall is inscribed "Our Built Heritage Is Our Identity, Let's Preserve It" and a new heritage museum has recently opened. Photos show British children on ponies, accompanied by their amahs, on the evening promenade along The Mall; officers recuperating from "Victoria's Little Wars"; carriages conveying suited men and hatted women to Sunday service at Christchurch, where a well-polished brass plaque still marks the pew of the Viceroy – the British monarch's representative in India; and people gossiping at Scandal Point, the town's main meeting point.

The Mall remains a beguiling place to sit and observe the passing world. Now there are Sikh women up from the Punjab parading in sparkling holiday best with their husbands and children, Hindu holymen with ash-daubed foreheads and orange robes as well as some of the town's sizeable population of Tibetan refugees, and Gurkha solders in their wide hats with turned up brims (there are still large army cantonments in Shimla).

Suddenly the shrill blast of a whistle announces the departure of the "toy train" as it's known. Until 1903 the British either rode or were carried with all their paraphernalia up the steep mountainsides to Shimla. Then a narrow-gauge railway was built from Kalka, 60 miles away – a spectacular piece of engineering that now has Unesco World Heritage status. It's fun sitting in one of the pistachio-and-cream carriages as they rattle over high-arched stone bridges and through more than 100 tunnels as they negotiate the switchback track through steeply wooded hills.

The British came to Shimla to play as well as to work. They skated on an ice-rink that still survives. At Annandale, a green clearing below The Mall, they built a racecourse where today the Indian army lands its helicopters. They played cricket in the rarefied air of Chail – at over 8,000ft, still the world's highest cricket ground. Viceroy Lord Curzon laid out the perennially popular golf course at Naldehra just outside Shimla, a spot so beautiful he named his daughter after it.

Above all, the British relished amateur theatricals. For a fee equivalent to 30p, I took a guided tour of Shimla's Gaiety Theatre, which remains an important part of Shimla's social life, holding frequent events. I felt childishly thrilled to step onto the stage where Kipling and Baden-Powell performed and sit where bejewelled, and perhaps bewildered, maharajas politely applauded amateur productions of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Shimla has seen some pivotal events in India's history. On the lower slopes of Jakhoo Peak, now dominated by a giant orange statue of the monkey god Hanuman, lies Rothney Castle, once the home of Allan Octavian Hume. Here in 1885 he hosted the first meeting of India's Congress Party, which he helped found. Though the castle – actually more of a villa – is in private hands, the caretaker allowed me to peer into high-ceilinged rooms that once echoed with radical ideas such as independence for India.

But there's much more to modern Shimla than mere Raj memorabilia. The tinkling of bells guided me up the hillside above The Mall to the Kali Bari temple. Outside the white, green and mustard-yellow building, hawkers were selling marigold flowers and coconuts as offerings. From the temple's white marble terrace all of Shimla spread out below, a jumble of green and red corrugated or sheet metal roofs piercing the cedar forests.

Shimla is an excellent base for trekkers – a five-mile hike takes you to the village of Bihargaon, with its traditional houses and temple dedicated to the goddess of the harvest, Dhanu Devta. It's also fun to drive or ride on horseback into the surrounding hills where British grandees once had their retreats. Lord Kitchener leased Wildflower Hall, 12 miles from Shimla. The original Wildflower Hall was pulled down long ago and a successor burned down, but Oberoi has built a hotel in the original grounds. Kitchener's portrait hangs above the baronial fireplace, casting an appraising eye over arriving guests.



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