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The last outpost of the British in India
Suparna Banerjee, Oct 08, 2010
The British Raj built its summer capital high in the Himalayas. The Indians didn't know what to do with it until now.

The Himalayas

Rudyard Kipling's Kim was taught the rules of the Great Game by the mysterious Lurgan Sahib, who owned a small shop in Simla's Mall, a Wonder House where Tibetan devil-dance masks hung above fiend-embroidered draperies. But that was a work of fiction written 100 years ago when the British ruled India and the Game was a private cold war fought against the Russians in the high passes of the western Himalayas.

As you walk along the Mall today with its English seaside architecture and a "sea" breeze blowing from the snow-topped mountains, it comes as a shock to find the Maria Brothers shop. The dark, tiny room also has a fine collection of Tibetan masks (perhaps even the same ones that Kipling wrote about) and its walls are stacked with the books the British left behind in 1947, an incredible treasure trove of Indian and central Asian literature. Not the least odd thing about it is that there can surely be few other shops in the world where most of the stock has not moved from the shelves in 50 years.

I would have been happy to have bought a lot of the books there but they all cost the earth and a little more. The owner is reluctant to let most things go: "That is a very valuable book, and I regret I cannot possibly part with it for less than 20,000 rupees." Ooh, that really sends a pang down one, supposedly three times the going rate in London or New York.

Simla didn't exist before the British came, and they built the town in their own image, turning their backs on India and trying to imagine they were in Sussex. (When they finally retired to Sussex, many of them spent the rest of their lives wishing they were back in Simla, which is how it goes.)

The Indians don’t really know what to make of Simla, and the town is falling apart, an embarrassing, best-forgotten relic of empire. India has become a modern country, and Simla has changed. Since the troubles in Kashmir, this part of Himachal Pradesh has become one the country's main summer tourist areas. Most of the old houses have been restored, and many new ones built, diluting the Englishness. To most Indians, the British "Raj" is old history, and they come to Simla for the same reasons that the British did: the beauty of the scenery and the gentleness of the climate. But in Clarke's Hotel, you can still eat lamb rissoles, potato croquettes and string beans in white sauce, followed by bread-and-butter pudding.

At the bottom of the hill, the Bishop Cotton School is still a perfect old-fashioned minor public school, the kind that has almost disappeared in England. On the plaques on the walls of the dining hall, the names of the scholars and victors ludorum change abruptly in the 1940s from English to Indian without any apparent disruption to the character or routine of the school. The day still starts with a church service, even though almost all the boys are Hindu or Sikh.

In the chapel, I met an Indian banker wearing a blazer, grey flannels and an Old Cottonian tie: "1952 to 1962, best days of my life," he announced himself, without a trace of irony. The chapel was his favourite place: "There is so much bigotry in India today, but you will never hear any of that from an Old Cottonian. Not from us who were proud to carry the cross in chapel." His favourite hymn was Abide With Me. The British have lost faith in their past, and I cannot think of anyone who has been through the English public school system who could talk with such unconditional affection for their schooldays.

Simla's best time was in the 1820s and early 30s, when it was a frontier outpost adjoining Ranjit Singh's great Sikh empire of the Punjab. In those days, the British residents enjoyed being part of India; they often wore Indian clothes, spoke the local languages and took native wives and mistresses.

There is no sign of Marie Gilbert, who in the 1830s at the age of 15 eloped to Simla with a Captain James. Emily Eden, sister of the governor-general wrote to a friend: "She is very pretty and a good little thing apparently, but they are very poor... and she is very young and lively, and if she falls into bad hands she would soon laugh herself into foolish scrapes." Something of an understatement as it turned out.

What remains of old Simla is mostly Victorian and Edwardian, a bizarre mix of "cricket pavilion" and institutional Gothic architecture with odd mock-oriental and Tyrolean flourishes, little of it of merit, like most British-Indian buildings before Lutyens. Viceregal Lodge, built at enormous expense and effort, and needing 800 servants to sustain it, has the solid charm of a Victorian sewage plant. The Mughals may have been decadent, lazy and brutal but at least they had style.

The British liked the place so much that in 1862 they made it the summer capital of India, moving the entire administration there for up to seven months of the year, with all the files and papers carried on mule-back from Calcutta, and later Delhi, up the steep Himalayan paths. It was, of course, a completely ludicrous, impractical and ultimately disastrous idea. Simla became an increasingly claustrophobic society, entirely cut off from intelligent Indian opinion, a breeding ground for some of the worst excesses of English snobbery, arrogance and prejudice.

The working day seldom lasted beyond noon and they amused themselves with picnics, parties, balls, bridge, gymkhanas, dire amateur theatricals and shooting anything that moved. This is not to say that there were not many heroes in British India, particularly among the engineers and explorers, and even the army, but few of them were in the higher ranks of Simla society.

William Johnson was one of the greatest surveyors of his age, as a climber he set altitude records that stood for 60 years. Years ago, my grandmother used to know an old man called Mr Nelmes, who was forced by unemployment in the 1930s to leave his wife in England and enlist for 10 years as a private in the Indian Army, and in the whole of that time he didn't once speak to a white woman.

After leaving Captain James, Marie Gilbert reinvented herself as a Spanish dancer called Lola Montez. She became briefly the most powerful woman in Europe as mistress of "mad" King Ludwig and virtual ruler of Bavaria. She died of syphilis at 42.

Kipling wrote Plain Tales from the Hills while staying in the annex of the Cecil, which for 50 years was one of the best hotels in British India before going into an inevitable post-colonial decline. From the 70s, it was shut down for more than 10 months of the year. Now open year round after a total refurbishment, it offers a standard of service and comfort far beyond anything the British would have enjoyed in its heyday.

You may wonder how long balsamic vinegar has been a staple of Indian cuisine but there is no doubt that this is a modern hotel of a very high order. The Cecil's sister hotel, Wildflower Hall is even better, a couple of kms away at Mashobra (8,500ft) and at another 1,200ft higher up, standing on its own on the top of a ridge surrounded by protected forest. The original building was the summer retreat of Lord Kitchener, but it burnt down in 1991. The new hotel, which opened this summer, has taken a workforce of 1,000 nearly five years to build. It is part of modern independent India, not a colonial relic, and all the better for it. No one calls you "Sahib", tipping is discouraged and you would have to go a long way to come across such friendly, intelligent and enthusiastic staff (come to think of it, it is rather a long way).

From Wildflower Hall, you can walk or ride in the mountains, raft on the Sutlej river or play golf on one of the highest courses in the world (just how far can you hit the ball at that altitude?). The hotel has bought a couple of helicopters, which will take you on day trips to Everest and to remote valleys, possibly even the one where Gini, the hotel's entirely rational trekking guide, claims to have seen a whole herd of yetis. Or you can stay at the hotel and use the swimming pool, two spas with treatments ranging from Swedish to Ayurvedic massage and indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis.

Further away grow the deodars, which were introduced to Europe, grow tall and straight, sometimes as high as 200ft, with few lower branches, very different from the cedars you see in England. Between them are evergreen Indian oaks, Himalayan pines and a single species of rhododendron, about 30ft high on a single trunk, very much a tree, with good, very deep red flowers. The air smells of pines and distant woodsmoke. Jackals howl in the hills. Kites and eagles circle above the treetops.

High on a hillside, out on my last evening walk I found a small temple and two sadhus with cotton loincloths, matted hair and glittering, mischievous, slightly dangerous eyes. We sat for an hour or two without much need for talk, staring at the white-topped mountains and laughing absurdly for no particular reason.
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