A Journey to Shimla - by Toy Train

By Sumit Raj Vashisht


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5 mins

Shimla - A British Himalayan Hill Station

In India, Hill Station is the place where you see gothic villas, towering pines, monkey menace, forested trails, deep gorges, vast valleys, gurgling streams and traffic-less long Mall streets. A place to where the British officers rode and the ladies and the children were carried in palanquins, a place where everything was introduced and built by ‘angrez’ or ‘Gora Sahibs’, a place where angraziyat can still be found scattered around and a place where the 'memsahibs' traveled in hand pulled rickshaws, tinkling through the forested roads. In the evening everyone would assemble in the clubs and have late night parties.

Before the nineteenth century this was not the culture of the hills. The locals were both surprised and glad too to see a large number of white skinned people who, every year in the month of March, would move up and would remain there till October. In those months, the hill stations were full of life. There was a lot of movement in the area. And as winter came, suddenly, everything would come to a standstill.

Everything in the hills became based on their arrivals and departures. Their promptness and presence kept the locals on their toes. The stations grew to new dimensions every year and also the locals, although they remained dominated by them, looked at the new world.

Shimla rose to prominence and still is prominent, but the other hill stations did not develop that much. The reason was that in Shimla the British did what they wanted to do or what they liked to. They loved this place like parents love their kids and brought it up as a baby.

Shimla started growing up in the second decade of the nineteenth century when all of a sudden, the British officers entered the hills to fight against the Gurkhas. The hills experienced their aggressions and they had already suffered a defeat from the Sikhs, but they remained scattered in the hills and raised their heads as and when they got the chance to create disturbances for the local dynasties. Although they were very religious minded and great Hindus, their attacks on the local Rajas earned them an immense abhorrence. So the Sikhs had to seek help from the British East India Company.

The Gurkhas suffered a complete defeat from the British, under the capable leadership of General David Octorlony. Everything returned to peace and then the British officers realized that living in the hills was the best option to escape the heat of the plains. After the war, a British officer arrived here, while moving up a Gurkha troop from Subathu in the lower hills to Kotgarh in the upper regions, and fell in love with a small hamlet called Shayamala. He camped here for a few days. The jungle then was full of hyenas, leopards and bears. Locals were surprised to see the Gora Sahib - a white skinned gentleman, camping in their village and came out from all the twelve mud houses of the village Shyamala, then the name of Shimla. This was their first chance to see a European. Some even touched him and tried to talk to him but the language was a big barrier.

Delhi to Shimla - Early Days

In the nineteenth century most travelers traveling from Delhi to Shimla traveled by ‘Dak Ghari’, the wagon that was pulled by horses and carried post. A long and tiring journey was covered sometimes in two to three days or sometimes it took over a week. The reasons were various. The road had, of course, no light except the lamps which hung on some of the local wagons of the horse carriages but were not enough to light-up the path properly. The road was not very well built and tarring was beyond the imagination, so was full of pits and holes, at some places as deep as a foot. On either side of the road there used to be a trench. Driver and horse lying unconscious was a common sight for travelers and at many places the wagon could be seen completely broken and horse and wagon laying at right angles to each other.

To quote from the book ‘From Calcutta to the Snowy Range by an Old Indian’ by Mr. J. F. Wyman in 1865, “The only approach to excitement on the route is in crossing the river channels on the route. Some of these are of great width, with their beds for the most part dry, but having probably, in the channel some three or four feet water. This necessitates all boxes of packages at bottom of the gharry being lifted out. These rivers are at times flooded by sudden storms and by the melted snow from the Himalayas in the hot season, when communication is sometimes stopped for days; but, fortunately, they subside as rapidly as they rise. When approaching them, bullocks are harnessed to the gharry, and it requires some times two or three pairs to draw the vehicle through the fearfully uneven and soft yielding sand of the river's bed. A’spill’, though not of very frequent occurrence, is sufficiently probable to induce a sharp precautionary look out being kept. Here again, the traveler will be applied to for bucksheesh by the gooruwallahs (bullock drivers) and coolies, which, if prudent, he will refuse. Why up to this day, bridges have not been constructed, I am at a loss to conceive, one is in course of building at the Marcanda river, but does not appear as it would be finished for several years to come.”

Amballa was midway for everyone, coming from both sides. Of those who returned from Shimla after summer, some had made Amballa their temporary home. They would rent a bungalow or a house for a few months, stay in that and also provide shelter at a patient rent to the travelers. When summer came, they returned to the hills. And those who traveled uphill could stop here for a night, relax and next morning take another ‘Dak Gari’ to set off to the hills.

Sometimes, from there, there was change in ‘Dak Gari’. Here is a detailed description of it from ‘Calcutta to the Snowy Range, by an Old Indian’:
“Up to Umballa, only one horse is put to your dak gharry, but you are now permitted the luxury of a pair, owing to the steep and heavy nature of the road from hence to Kalka. The method of harnessing adopted is very original. In place of the usual splinter bar and pole, the shafts are allowed to remain in, one side of them being made to do duty of a pole. A bamboo is then lashed with rope to the shaft, projecting several feet necessarily on one side of the gharry and to this the second hose is attached. So that instead of the strength of the horses being directed to the center of the gharry, that of one is, as it were pulling away from it, more especially so when one or other of the poor quadrupeds takes it into its head to perform a pas seul. The springs of the dak gharries are on account of the roughness of the hill road, ’packed’ with bamboo, and well enwrapped in rope. From the actual necessity for this, as Kalka is approached of the jolting the unfortunate traveler is subjected to”.

Here are a few lines from Lady Lyton’s diary which will drop your jaws with surprise while you learn how the Viceroy traveled on the dusty road in those days.

Kangree Sahib ki Surruck - (The Road of Kenn...

In 1849 when William Edwards was appointed as a Superintendent of the hill states, his attention was drawn to the hardship of the local laborers who were being misused by the ‘Gora Sahibs.’ They were forced to work at different hill stations for the people arriving at the hills or returning to the plains. They were detained for weeks from their homes even during the seed and the harvest time when their presence was essentially required.

The Superintendent thought of expanding the way to Shimla from the plains and save the men by diverting their burden to animal carriage. So, with one of his assistants, he marked the mountain line with flags, in order to build a new road. Those flags attracted the attention of Colonel Pitt Kennedy, the Military Secretary of His Excellency Sir Charles Napier. On his suggestion the Superintendent, with the help of some prisoners, opened some miles of the road which attracted the attention of His Excellency. Sir Charles was so happy with the experiment that he sanctioned the construction of this road.

Some other officers of His Excellency’s staff placed themselves as volunteer assistants under Colonel Kennedy. Nothing was wasted and all the laborers worked so skillfully that the road was opened in a very short period for the loaded animals and travelers.

To quote from ‘Reminiscences of a Bengal Civilian’ published in 1866 and written by William Edwards - the Superintendent, himself, “Colonel Kennedy left Simla and returned to England before the line was wide enough for carts. The work was carried on, however under his energetic and most able, successor, Major Briggs, and now, instead of human portage, wagon trains, drawn by bullocks or horses, ply for the conveyance of goods and baggage between the plains and Simla; and enforced labor on this line is a thing of the past. There is nothing, I look back to with greater pleasure in the while course of my long service, than having been, in some measure, instrumental in relieving the Hill people from this enforced labour, which was nothing short of an insupportable and fearful system or serfdom.”

The locals were so impressed by the work initiated and completed by the Superintendent that later for several years they called it Kangree Sahib ki Surruck’ or The Road of Kennedy Sahib.

Travel to Shimla in those days was an expedition itself. There was no railway bridge on the River Ghaghar near Ambala so that had to be crossed on an elephant. During the monsoon, sometimes the river was swollen so badly that even for this huge animal, it was impossible to cross it and the passengers had to wait for a day or two. Sir Edward Buck wrote in his famous book Simla Past & Present, ‘By the time I packed my luggage on the travelers’ elephant, the water was too deep to be forded even by it and I was kept for fourteen hours hungry and exceedingly cross until the water subsided’.

And when cars came on the scene and some of the British officers started arriving at Shimla by motor cars even then they had a serious problem in crossing the river. As a correspondent who wrote to the Civil and Military Gazette mentioned, “At the present time, two small dithering bridges are erected with a notice that if the vehicle exceeds one ton, it has to forsake the roadway and plunge into the sand and water with the consequent wear and tear of the car.”



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