The British had an affectionate nickname for their favourite Indian hilltop station: the Queen of Hills. For over a century, they ascended to Shimla (or Simla, as it was then known) for the cool mountain air, and travellers still flock here for the same reason. Channel 4’s drama Indian Summers was actually filmed in another former outpost of Empire – Penang in Malaysia – because Shimla was deemed too modernised. But readers will find much in the town that feels familiar, from homes seemingly lifted from the British suburbs to the colourful hubbub of the old bazaar, and much else besides.
Each summer, the show’s characters travel to this town in the foothills of the Himalayas by train, and arriving by rail is still an essential part of the experience. Built by the British in 1903, the Kalka-Shimla line (one of three Indian rail- ways given World Heritage Site status by Unesco) spared colonial administrators what was previously an arduous five-day trek from Calcutta by horse, elephant, village cart and sedan chair. The “toy train” trundles along narrow-gauge tracks at a maximum speed of 16mph as it climbs out of the valley. The journey lasts five hours, so there’s plenty of time to admire the relentlessly pretty views: a shifting sequence of terraced farmland, tumbledown villages and increasingly alpine-looking trees.
The Kalka-Shimla line
Upon arrival, the favoured activity is still a walk along The Mall, a long, winding and mostly pedestrianised main street made for promenading. Families pay a few rupees for their children to ride on a decorated pony, and honeymooning couples stroll hand-in-hand eating ice cream. The official town centre is Scandal Point – so named because it was said to be where a local maharaja and the daughter of a viceroy met before secretly eloping.
The official summer residence of viceroys since it was built in 1888, Viceregal Lodge was the British Raj’s seat of power for half the year. Located on one of the highest hills in Shimla, this sandstone Scottish baronial building was designed by Henry Irwin as an imposing symbol of Empire. Today it houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Study – you can take a half- hour tour to see its magnificent teak staircase and photo exhibits explaining the Lodge’s role in India’s talks for independence, or wander the handsome grounds. During the viceroy’s tenure the fine lawns were kept garden-party ready by a team of 40 staff – he also employed 16 people to keep the mischievous monkey population away from guests’ scones and sandwiches.
The viceroy had his own box at Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre, where performances by the local amateur dramatic society were – as Indian Summers portrays – considered one of the highlights of the social calendar. Visitors can take a tour of its impressive auditorium, recently refurbished in rich shades of green and gold, and explore a back room displaying period photographs of the various productions. Featuring everything from Romeo and Juliet to The Importance of Being Earnest, the players are shown in extravagant costume and heavy stage make-up, hamming for the camera.
Shimla at sunset
Perhaps the most famous British person to tread the boards here was Rudyard Kipling, who appeared in one of the Gaiety’s first productions. Although his performance was forgettable – then-viceroy, Lord Dufferin, described it as “horrid and vulgar” – Kipling’s writings about Shimla and India almost single-handedly conjured the popular image of the British Raj. As a newspaper reporter covering the Shimla season during the 1880s, he acknowledged that his brief featured “as much riding, waltzing, dining out and concerts in a week as I should get at home in a lifetime”.
On the site of Kipling’s former Shimla home, the Oberoi Cecil Hotel, a grand property known during Crown rule in India for its fashionable ballroom dances, and still possessing colonial charm in abundance. One of Kipling’s first big publishing successes – Plain Tales from the Hills – was written on this very spot, and the town also inspired some of the most evocative passages in his novel Kim.
The book’s “crowded rabbit warren” of bazaars remains an intriguing place to explore: corrugated iron roofs conceal endless narrow alleyways filled with traders selling everything from street food to pashmina shawls. The locals’ first choice for sustenance is the old-fashioned Indian Coffee House, where waiters in starched-white uniforms serve breakfast dishes and bargain dosa pancakes to diners seated in worn leather chairs. Nearby antiquarian bookshop Maria Brothers has a similarly old-world feel, its shelves stocked with Himalayan travelogues, maps and engravings.
The Lakkar Bazaar is best known for wooden handicrafts, and a recommended purchase here is one of the decorative walking sticks, which doubles as a device to deter Shimla’s numerous and overzealous monkeys. These rhesus macaques are particularly abundant at Jakhu Temple, a steep 30-minute hike up from the centre, where some of the town’s best views of the snow-capped Himalayas are also to be found.
Indian Summers continues on Sundays on Channel 4
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