Shimla's Colonial Past
18th Century India saw the growth of a totally new urban concept- the 'HILL STATION'. Intially built by the British Rulers of the country, these towns grew to become retreats from the heat and dust of the plains. With the mighty Himalaya mountains and its sub systems as their backdrop, the state of Himachal Pradesh has towns that date back to the hey day colonial rule – Kasauli, Dalhousie, Palampur, Dharamsala and the grandest of them all, Shimla.
From a nondescript village whose name is variously reported as Shimlu, Shemalaya, Semla, Shumla and Semla, Shumla and Shemla, the today went on to become the 'Summer Capital' of British India and this is the state capital of Himachal Pradesh and a favored tourist destination. Another variation ascribes the origin of the place name to Shamla - blue, or dark lady – another name for the Hindu goddess kali who is held in high veneration in these hills.
The first house, built by a European in 1822, is regarded to be 'Kennedy House' which was the residence of Charles Pratt Kennedy, the newly appointed Political Officer to the hill states. In 1827, the station was visited by Lord Amherst, the British Governor – General of India, and the following year, the Commander-in-chief, Lord Combermere also came to Shimla.
In 1864, under the Viceroyalty of John Lawrence, Shimla was officially declared the 'Summer Capital of British Empire in India' – a status it retained up to Indian Indian Independence in 1947. Interestingly, the government ended up spending more time in this little town than in the real capitals – Kolkata (earlier- Calcutta) and later, New Delhi. The move to the hills was normally made in early April, and the migration back to the plains took Place in late October or Early November. And during this period, a staggering one-fifth of the human race was ruled from these heights as the jurisdiction of the Indian Empire extended from Aden in the West, to Mynammar (earlier, Burma) in the east. From 1871, the state government of the Punjab also began moving to Shimla from Lahore for summer months.
As the summer capital, Shimla also saw a spate of remarkable building activity in the town and some of the finest structures of the British-colonial genre still stand over its seven hills. Today, the lingering strands of Shimla’s past still echo through its streets and buildings – which have so much history packed into them. In its old architecture, the town still holds the memory of Britain’s imperial dream – made all the more fascinating as much of the design is European while many structural elements are indigenous. The Mall with its resemblance to an English 'home countries' marketplace has, perhaps, one of the longest stretches of purely pedestrian shopping anywhere in the world. The town also holds what may well be one of the last urban forests to be found on our planet.