Northern India 3

Saturday 18th February

A 9 hour drive today to Shimla. There are some drives that should only be attempted by the elderly and this one. Why the elderly? Well, I lost track of the number of times I said to myself, “Well, Richard, you’ve had a good life, and while it would be nice to have longer, one mustn’t be greedy.”, followed by ,”Goodness we did get through that gap / miss that lorry/ fail to plunge 1,000 feet down that ravine!” A younger person might not be so sanguine, I feel.

But what an amazing journey it was. Down the steep hills and narrow lanes of McLeodganj and Dharamsala. Then onto wider roads between the ranges of hills, through bright green fields of wheat and mustard. Over spectacular river valleys and squeezing through congested towns. On the way we passed groups of monkeys by the roadside along with the ubiquitous cows.

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We stopped for a pee break in Jawali Ji and I wandered along the road which was buzzing. Stalls crowded the roadside with people selling wonderful fruit and veg., cobblers mending shoes, tailors stitching dressers and a road crew repairing the road. Cars, people and motorbikes fought for space and somehow none of us got killed or taken to hospital. It was great and I could have stayed longer, but on we had to go.

Lunch was in Hirumpur and then we started to climb and the roads got narrower. Our driver was excellent, but at times prayer seemed the only way to survive. We are going to church tomorrow, but those last few hours in the bus I think I was nearer to God than I am ever likely to get in church! We scrapped past buses, aimed flat out at lorries coming in the opposite direction and somehow got past them. We swung around hairpin bends, almost re-enacting the Italian Job, but thankfully not quite. Then more buses appeared as it was the end of school. There are few things more terrifying than a school bus, late on its schedule and driven by a driver who believes in reincarnation. To these children Alton Towers would seem like a joke.

Shimla itself seems as congested and manic as any Indian town and a far cry from the times of the Raj. However our hotel which dates from 1888, very much emodies that colonial spirit. Situated on the pedestrianised Mall it is resonant if a bygone age and I felt I should order a chotah peg as I entered its fine foyer. However we had just climbed fifty steps to get to it and we at 7,000 feet so all I could do was gulp for air.

Church tomorrow and an attempt to recapture those bygone days when Britain had an Empire and all was right with the world. I think I’m coming over all Farrage. Time for a cold shower. Goodnight!

Sunday 19th February – Shimla

An interesting day in some ways. We had a good breakfast slightly later than usual, then Christine and I went off to explore and walked along the Mall to Chhota Simla in the west. We passed many monkeys, some of them rifling the rubbish bins. We strolled back in the cool morning air and met with Mark. The rest of the group were assembling at 10.00 and taking a leisurely stroll to the church for an 11.00 service.

I thought we had time to visit the Hanuman temple on the top of the hill and so we set off upwards. Shimla is at 7,613 feet and the temple is at 8,038 feet, so we were noticing the altitude and puffing a lot. then we got a bit lost but asked the way from a very pleasant young man who was on his way to the temple anyway and offered to show us the way. He reckoned it would take about 20 or so minutes, but it took quite a bit longer and we arrived about 10.35 ?

Still it was a beautiful, if hard walk. At one point Davinder (for that was his name) pointed to steps and said it would be quicker if we could manage to go up them. We gulped a bit as they were nearly vertical, but off we went. At the top he dropped off his shopping at his sister’s house. We were glad of the short breather but a little alarmed when emerged with a heavy stick! He explained that this was to ward off the temple monkeys. Most of the time we were in coniferous woodland, but occasionally got spectacular views to the west. At the top stood the 108ft statue of Hanuman the monkey God. I was warned to remove my glasses as the monkeys would take them off me along with anything else they could lay their hands on.

 

We took off our shoes and followed Davinder into the temple. While he prayed we wandered around. The air was heavy with incense and the place felt rather special. As we were now unlikely to make it back to the church on time, I prayed briefly as well. Davinder wanted us to stay for food, which is freely given at the temple after worship, but we made our excuses and left.

 

The journey back to the church was very steep and we both found it hard going. The views once we were out of the forest were stunning. We eventually came out at theRidge, right next to the church. We crept in at the back a good 40 minutes late. We at least made the intercessions, one of the hymns and the collection. We we’re Los all presented with beautiful woollen shawls by the local PCC, which was very kind.

There was then to be a 15 minute memorial service and lunch. But the memorial service went on and on. I was getting a bit impatient, as we only have a day here and I was attending a memorial service for a man I’d never met. We waited until the Bishop finished speaking and slipped out.

We wandered across the Ridge and to the beautiful old Post Office and then back past the Gaiety Theatre, which seemed to be closed. Back at the church, the others had emerged, but we wanted to explore some more while they had lunch. We walked out to Scandal Point where an English lady was reputedly abducted by a Maharaja. The ridge is a wide open area where parades were held. After a bit of hunting we found the entrance to the Gaiety but it was closed for lunch. We went further east, but the place looked rather uncared for with some of the old colonial houses in a sorry state of repair. Monkeys jumped and swing all over them, but they were clearly not being repaired.

We we walked along at lower road lined with shops and then back onto the Ridge. We split our forces here and Christine headed back to the church to meet the others and go back to the hotel. I went to the Gaiety and paid my 45 rupees entry fee. It was very dark inside, but it is a little gem opened in 1887 for amateur dramatics to entertain the British in the evenings.

Back at the hotel we joined all together and went off to the Viceregal Lodge on a hilltop to the east. Unfortunately the mini-buses couldn’t get close to th hotel so we had to take lifts down to the lower level streets where they could get to. The lifts were very small and I felt very claustrophobic. I made it down (there are two lifts in stages) but knew I wouldn’t be able to go back up!

Then our mini-bus driver got lost on the way up to the Lodge. He kept asking the way and doubling back before finally settling on his original route. ‘Lodge’ is an interesting word for what is really a castle built in the Scottush style by Lord Dufferin in 1888. It is a monument to British power and arrogance situated for all to see at the highest point around. The stone is grey and very forbidding. It is now an Institute for Advaned Studies in the Humanities, so some good has come of it! We walked around the grounds and then had a guided tour of the four rooms open to visitors.

The rooms were interesting with pictures of the House as it had been and then the room where Wavell had tried to negotiate the signing of a treaty for a United India and where finally the petition agreement had been signed by Mountbatten. However the star attraction was the Great Hall which was 3 storeys high and made of teak. It was breath-taking and clearly designed to impress. This was British colonial arrogance at its most arrogant!

I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed in Shimla. I had hoped that it would be better preserved as an important historical centre. I had in my mind that it would still be redolent of the Raj and all that that meant, both good and bad. However that past can only be found in a few places such as the Gaiety Theatre and indeed thus hotel. Perhaps it is right that Shimla has become like any other Indian city but perched precariously on a hill. Why should it be preserved in aspic? I just hoped that it might and the reality is different from my fantasy.

Tomorrow we take the railway down the hills and on to Delhi. Now it is time to curl up in our oversized bed in our vast room and dream that a Maharajah is having an illicit affair with a General’s daughter in the room next door!

 

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