The lengths the British were prepared to go to in order to escape the rigours of the Indian summer must have been a source of amazement to their subjects. Each year, the entire administration of the Raj, their families and households, used to travel 1,000 miles across the Gangetic plain from Calcutta to Shimla, a hilltop in the foothills of the Himalayas, where a miniature England had been created among the cedar trees, complete with Anglican church, bandstand and theatre.
Now the capital of Himachal Pradesh, the town started life as a remote Hindu village of timber houses where British veterans of the Gurkha war used to go to convalesce in the 1820s. Word of the refreshing climate and clean air spread, and within a couple of decades droves of holidaymakers had started travelling there in the summer, many of them young and single, or away from their spouses for long periods – which ensured ‘Shimla’ became, in the words of Kipling, a byword for “frivolity, gossip and intrigue”.
The hill station remains a popular, and largely frivolous, holiday destination today. Strolls along the Mall, shopping expeditions in the warrenous bazaar and pony rides through the pine forest are the order of the day. Echoes of the Raj have grown fainter, but are still there for those with eyes to spot them. The Gaiety Theatre survives, along with numerous mock-Tudor bungalows, the stately Viceregal Lodge, and cream-painted tower of Christ Church. Created in 1906, the engineering marvel that is the Kalka—Shimla railway also continues to function, its locomotives chugging slowly up from the plains each day.
For travellers heading north towards the Inner Himalaya, though, the literal and metaphorical highpoint of a visit to Shimla is the view at dawn from the Jakhoo Temple, on a hilltop high above the town, from where, on clear mornings, a spellbinding panorama of crimson-tinged ice peaks unfolds on the horizon.