Shimla has a bizarre verticality – a city tipped on its edge. The tourism hub in northern India is blessed with a unique feel, as its buildings cascade from The Mall on the ridge top, down the flank of the mountain in a physically improbable way.
The city’s structures, most of which are four storeys, seem to have been created over time, as bricks and money allowed, so there is a mismatch between floors – windows are different sizes, while shapes and verandas seem to be randomly added.
They appear out-of-plumb,as if they evolved without construction gadgets,
such as set squares and spirit levels. Precipitously perched, the city has a
certain wonky appeal.
Shimla is car-free and vehicles have no place here, except for a few access roads. This adds to the unique ambience of the area – its quiet, gentle and human scale. Houses huddle close and are connected by a web of paths and steps.
The Mall, on the ridge, is one of few flat and spacious areas, and has memorably spectacular views. To the north, layers of forest and orchard-covered hills, with ribbon roads and villages perched on sunny spurs,stretch to the dazzling white line of the Himalayas.
To the south, you look down over the hustle and bustle to forested hills and the plains of India below.
People gather on The Mall just to take in the view and for the enjoyment of being there, out and about on a sunny day.
Gentlemen, dressed neatly in cheese-cutter hats and cravats to keep out the winter chill, sit on benches while soaking up the heat, as honeymoon couples stroll and horses for hire busily give children rides.
The west end of the plaza is English village-like in ambience, with public buildings (the Gaiety Theatre, State Library, Town Hall and Municipal Building) all Tudor and neo-Gothic, encased in grey stone and steep slate roofs.
From 1864, in the summer months, the British colonial government of India would pack-up and leave the heat of the plains and head for Shimla’s mountain coolness.
For a century, until independence in 1948, this was the queen of the Empire’s hill stations.
The British built and ran superb schools (they are still excellent), played golf, had drinks at The Cecil, lived in small bungalows surrounded by pine forest, walked to The Mall, and even attended Anglican Christ Church, which looks as if it has just dropped in from Sussex.
It’s easy to understand why the British loved it here – it was a little England with better weather, cheap servants and divine scenery.
A steep descent from The Mall leads into the tangle of the bazaar’s paths, and I’m instantly out of England and in exotic, colourful India.
The bazaar itself is on three different, almost horizontal foot roads, linked vertically by steps.
I relish the smoky rose incense, the spicy aroma from curry houses, and the honey smell from a sweet shop, where the proprietor is as properly plump as one should be.
Here, there is no such thing as minimalist. The fabric shops are ablaze with pink, peach, orange and cerise – warm colours for winter. Sequins and silver embroidery add dazzle to the ready-made salwar kameez [traditional dress] displayed on wide-eyed plastic models.
There are piles of shawls neatly stacked from floor to ceiling, with mannequins crowding the shop fronts and counters covered with tempting wares.
Jewellery shops glitter with hanging racks of glass bracelets and silver chains.
Nearby kitchen utensil shops are a treasure trove of stacked stainless-steel and brass pots, large round chapati pans and multiple sizes of mortar and pestle. If only I had more time and bigger bags.
Clouds begin to roll in from the mountains and it starts to rain – soft and cold.
The crowd disappears with the sun and, in the drizzle, Shimla truly looks like England, except for the rainbow-coloured umbrellas. They’re bright and beautifully Indian.
By Liz Light