Simla's Raj legacy

Looking back

Simla's Raj legacy

The story of the making of Simla as India’s summer capital epitomises India’s colonial encounter in its extremes. The history of the making of Simla is essentially the history of discovery, domination and exclusion practised by the British, and subsequent resistance by Indians. Simla in the 19th century became a site where the political culture of social exclusion practised by the British was at its height.

Simla, as we see it, was created by the British. Not just Simla, but all the major Indian hill-stations — Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Ooty, Nainital to name a few — were created by the British. Prior to British arrival, Indians had a different relationship with their mountains. They were a source of faith. The height and the mystique created faith and reverence, also a fear of the unknown and the inaccessible. Mountains were visited only for pilgrimage. The relationship of traditional India with its mountains was that of distant reverence.

The area around Simla consisted of smaller settlements which existed at the foothills, governed by local chieftains. The British changed all that. The 19th century started a process of conquest and a systematic exploitation of the mountains. This process transformed not just the character of Indian mountains, but also the very image of the mountains. At the turn of the 19th century, Simla (from Shyamala, the Goddess) formed a part of a small principality of Keonthal. It was all jungle with just one temple at Jakhu and a few scattered houses.

It was actually a war between the Sikhs from Punjab and the Gurkhas that brought the British to Simla. The Gurkhas were defeated in the war with the Sikhs and were pushed into the hills around Simla. Once into the hills, they captured power from the local chieftains. The British help was needed to push them out of the hills. Both the Maharaja of Patiala and the British helped in ejecting the Gurkhas from the hills. This brought British to the hills of Simla. The accidental discovery of Simla must have been extremely exhilarating for the British. The hill tracts of Simla offered great potential to be tapped and exploited. 

British imperialism underwent a fundamental transformation in the 19th century. From a minimalist state of a pre-modern kind, interested only in trade and surplus extraction, it gradually developed into an over-arching, intrusive and interventionist state, interested not just in surplus extraction, but an over-all subordination of the Indian economy and society. This necessitated a large number of committed and dedicated young officials to come to India and rough it out in the hot, humid atmosphere. The British capital Calcutta (now Kolkata) had the image of being a vast pestilential vapour bath for six months in a year. In the times before the steam was invented, it would take anyone around six to eight months to travel from England to Calcutta. Many of the British officials could not hope to go back to England once they came to India to serve British imperialism.

Cool incentive

If any incentives were to be offered to these young officials, hill stations had to be created and developed. A large number of hill tracts had to be transformed into habitable stations for retreat. Over 80 hill stations were created by the British during the early decades of the 19th century. All the regional governments started the practice of shifting to the hills during summers — Madras government to Ooty, Bombay to Mahabaleshwar, Bengal to Darjeeling, and UP to Nainital.

But, of all the hill stations, it was Simla that captured the British imagination. Sanatorium for the invalid and the sick, holiday resort for the young officials, and a place for fun and frolic for the wives of the Europeans, Simla grew in a brief period from a cluster of mountains into a favourite British resort, ‘a little England’. It was a site for games, entertainment, parties, ball, lavish dinners, horse racing and romance. It was truly a home away from home for the British. It reminded them of all their favourite places in England. The British writers wrote on Simla more than any other Indian city. All the major Governor-Generals since 1930 onwards made it a point to visit Simla and spend some time there. Soon a hotel, cricket ground, bank and race course, all developed in the city to cater to the increasing British population desirous of making Simla their home during summer months.

All this was in spite of the fact that it was not easy to reach Simla. People could get to Simla either on the back of a hill-pony or on a jampan (a sedan-chair fitted with curtains, slung on polls and carried by four people, almost like a palanquin) all the way from Kalka to Simla. Luggage had to be carried by coolies all the way. Lord Amherst, the first British Governor-General to stay in Simla around 1827, needed 1,000 coolies to carry his luggage to Simla. From then onwards, every year, around 10,000 coolies were needed to carry British luggage. They were procured from nearby plains and were virtually coerced into the job. It was not very different from slave labour, even though slavery had been banned in Europe.

Queen of the hills

Having been made a favourite British hill station, Simla’s status was further altered with the decision to make it the summer capital in 1862. John Lawrence was the Viceroy responsible for this decision. The reasons were clear. Quite apart from Simla’s proximity to Punjab and UP, it was also on the pathway to Tibet, and from Tibet to Afghanistan. It was necessary for the British to have access to the pathway to Afghanistan in order to control Afghanistan. More importantly, it was to prevent the Russians from controlling Afghanistan and coming anywhere close to prized British colonies. Simla thus became the summer capital of the British and thousands of files, clerks and peons travelled every year over 1,200 miles from Calcutta to Simla. The train journey from Calcutta ended at Ambala. The journey from Ambala to Simla via Kalka had to be completed in patches of five miles each. For all these hazards, it was still a welcome annual retreat.  

The story of 19th century Simla belongs to the British. Its destiny, contours and social morphology were all being determined by British imperial needs. Simla grew in the 19th century exactly as the British wanted it to grow. British wanted an exclusive resort where they could live the life of indulgence and luxury, and in complete isolation. As the city developed, it got divided into two separate zones — the station ward and the bazaar ward. The former was a British zone, beautiful, elegant and aesthetically decorated. The bazaar ward consisted of Indians perpetually at the service of the station ward. It was filthy, crowded and chaotic. But the elegance and the beauty of the station ward could be maintained only by the slum which the bazaar ward had grown into. Simla was an imperial baby and was growing according to the social requirements of British imperialism.

As Simla grew and expanded, its pristine charm began to be adversely affected. The lifestyle of the rulers and their cultural practices began to take their toll on the city. Sophistication and snobbery began to affect the natural beauty of the mountains. The imperatives for expansion began to destroy the very thing that had attracted the British to Simla in the first place: its pristine beauty and charming mystery. With more and more constructions of hotels, government buildings and markets, Simla became like a manufactured and well-cultivated museum losing its rustic beauty in the process. As the city was being tamed and urbanised, it was acquiring grandeur but losing its own intrinsic and innate essence. As Simla fell upon the gaze of one Viceroy after another, more and more kept being added to it. The grand Viceregal Lodge was built in 1888.

The British obsession with maintaining Simla as an exclusive cultural island had a contradictory side to it also. Maintaining such a heartland required a large class of traders, shopkeepers, clerks, coolies, servants and rickshaw pullers. In other words, a large social army was needed to maintain Simla as a British heartland, meant for the officials, tourists, sick Europeans needing a sanatorium, and for the rich idles. The presence of such a large social army threatened to alter the very character of the city. Therefore, Simla had to be developed as two different cities — Simla at the top as an exclusive British preserve, and the larger Simla located at the lower echelons to service the top, but also be excluded from the top.

For our use only...

The British were worried that non-British Simla might want to encroach and infiltrate into the British Simla. There was a fear that the rich Indian princes may buy property from the British officials and settle into what was planned to be an exclusively British preserve. The government got alarmed when it discovered that around 1/5th of all the good houses were owned by Indian royal families. This practice then began to be discouraged. The Nizam of Hyderabad was denied permission to purchase a house in Simla.

Efforts began to be made to restrict the entry of “unwanted” Indians into the top city. Those who came to Simla from outside in search of employment began to be discouraged. The Commissioner of Delhi wrote to the Punjab government that Simla “like a cantonment of our creation, is the outcome of our rule and the peculiar conditions of that rule, and there is no reason why we should admit persons to be residents of the place except upon such conditions as we consider necessary with regard to the peculiar conditions of it. Sentimental reasons of freedom of movement and politico-economic reasons of liberty of trade do not apply to such a case.” Simla was a great British experiment in maintaining an island of exclusive British resort in the midst of the ocean of dirt and pollution of the larger Indian Simla.

Simla was a pet British hobbyhorse and they rode it with zeal and gusto. They probably wrote more about it than any other Indian city. Interestingly, most of their writings — from Lady Dufferin to Rudyard Kipling — belonged more to 19th century Simla than to Simla in the 20th century. Simla in the 20th century grew very differently from how the British had planned and visualised. The story of 20th century Simla is actually a story of nationalist resistance to the practice of imperialist exclusion. Simla grew as a site of nationalist protest. In the process, it got transformed from a British heartland into a nationalist heartland. This subversion in the image of the city happened with a small though significant episode in the year 1925.

Jageshar, a rickshaw coolie, was waiting outside a big building on the famous Simla Mall, waiting for the dinner party to be over to carry his passenger home. He may have dozed off in the wintery night. Mansel-Pleydell, the English army official who came out to wake him at the end of the party, got enraged for some reason and kicked the coolie so hard that he died of a ruptured spleen. The other coolies watched the whole act in silence, and after it was over, took Jageshar to the police station. A case was registered against the official.

The Jageshar case virtually split the Simla society into those sympathetic to the British official and wanting a lenient treatment for him, and enraged Indians wanting a severe punishment for him. After a prolonged trial of six months, the English official was sentenced to 18 months’ rigorous imprisonment. This event triggered off the dormant anti-imperialist energies of the city. Earlier in 1921, Gandhi had visited Simla and had received an unprecedented welcome. Huge crowds gathered at places either to watch him or to listen to him. They shouted the slogan betaj badshah ki jai (hail the uncrowned king). Gandhi, in his notes on Simla, called the British government ‘a government working from the 500th floor’.

He used the height of Simla to highlight the huge gap between the government and the people. Soon trade unions of rickshaw coolies and other workers were formed. There was a successful agitation against begar (unpaid labour), forcing the government to declare it illegal in Simla. The civil disobedience movement too was quite widespread in Simla.

Reading between the lines

Suddenly, in the course of a decade, Simla was transformed. From an insular cultural island of the British, it began to resemble any other Indian city pulsating with nationalist energies. By the 1930s, the city began to look and behave like any other capital city of the country — protest, demonstrations, picketing, salt satyagraha, arrests, women empowerment — all of it began to happen like elsewhere in the country. It was almost as if Simla had a point to prove. The local pride was at stake and the city could not lag behind other cities. The city became desperate to peel out the various layers from its body that had been artificially grafted on to it by the British. The stigma of being a ‘British city’ was simply too unbearable.

The British recognised these signals and scaled down the level of their involvement in the city. British investments in the city — social, economic and emotional — came down significantly. In 1939, the government announced a reduction of one-third of the government employees who were to come to Simla. The funds sanctioned for Simla’s development too were withdrawn. In 1941, the army headquarters was shifted out of Simla to New Delhi. These were all signals of a declining British interest in the city of Simla.

After Independence, Simla grew primarily as a premier hill station, attracting thousands of tourists every year. The Kalka-Simla railway line, laid out in 1903, became a major catalyst for the burgeoning tourism in the area. As Shimla grew as a tourist heartland, it ceased to be a political heartland it had been since the 1860s. The Viceregal Lodge was converted into a research institute, Institute for Advanced Studies, in 1964. After a separate state of Himachal Pradesh was carved out of Punjab in 1966, Shimla became the natural choice for its capital.

Shimla, today, thrives as a major tourist destination. Its self-image does not show many traces of its 19th century past. Yet, its social morphology shows many traits of its 19th century image. Its old buildings, churches, markets and the Mall are all reminders of Shimla’s imperial past. As Shimla  scales new heights, literally and metaphorically, its face still bears the stamp of 19th century Simla.

(The writer teaches history at the Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) and wishes to acknowledge the seminal work on Simla by Pamela Kanwar, Imperial Simla: The Political Culture of the Raj, from where most of the story has been derived)

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