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     Volume 4 Issue 25 | December 17, 2004 |

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The marvel of Shimla

Kavita Charanji

From the cool climes of Shimla, the picturesque hill station in India, I return rejuvenated to Dhaka. There is something about the Himalayan hills that never ceases to enthrall me. Is it the heady fragrance of the pine and deodar trees, the caress of the mountain breeze or simply nostalgia?

Whatever the answer, Shimla, situated in the north western Himalayas at an altitude of 2,130 metres, attracts a huge number of tourists--particularly in the summer months when the northern plains are roasting in the heat. This season transforms the Mall into a busy hub. Visitors hop into the numerous shops, restaurants such as New Plaza, Fascination, Dominos, the popular coffee shop Barista, or simply go for long walks and picnic on the few remaining quiet spots.

Though old timers bemoan the transformation of the idyllic hillsides into a concrete jungle, there are still a few fascinating walks such as the steep climb to the Jakhoo temple, Lover's Lane (which attracts fewer couples), and outside Shimla, the Mashobra and Kufri walks.

Then there are famous landmarks of the former British summer capital of Shimla such as the Ridge. This large open space in the heart of town offers a panoramic view of the mountain ranges. On the Mall also is the well-known Scandal Point. This site acquires its name from an old story which linked a daughter of a British Commander-in-Chief to the Maharaja of Patiala and led to their elopement from this spot. However, according to historians, the place acquired its name as a long time landmark where people gathered for conversation

For culture vultures there is the Gaiety Theatre which was built in May 1887. Now undergoing a massive facelift, its first play was titled Time will Tell. The theatre has spawned talent such as Rudyard Kipling, Baden Powell, KL Saigal, the Kendalls, Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni and Anu Pam Kher. Among the plays that have been staged here are Antigone and The Glass Menagerie.

Then there is the Viceregal Lodge (built during the viceroyalty of Lord Dufferin which spanned from 1884-1888). This magnificent five-storey building, with its memorabilia of the British Raj, is a fine example of Victorian architecture. The Lodge also attracts visitors for its well manicured lawns and woodland. Now it houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies where prominent researchers and scholars work on projects.

A must see for people keen on sight seeing is the Glen, a popular picnic spot-wooded ravine with perennially green slopes. This is an over 30-minute walk but well worth the effort for its exquisite surroundings of oaks, pine, deodars and rhododendrons. There is a luxurious undergrowth and this reserve forest plays home to black partridges, yellow throated martins and, if lucky, one can see barking deer, foxes and leopard cats.

For diehard shoppers, there's Lakkar Bazar, adjacent to the Ridge which teems with wood crafts and souvenirs.
For many tourists, Shimla is a base to make trips to other picturesque spots such as Tara Devi, Kasauli, Kufri (which boasts of skiing facilities in the winter months), Naldhera, Narkanda, Fagu, Chail, Tattapani. This last destination houses hot springs and is believed to cure skin and various diseases. Other locales in Himachal are Kangra, Sangla, Kulu and Manali.

Shimla also has other claims to fame. For one, it is the backdrop of the Bishop Cotton School (BCS), said to be India's oldest public school. Founded on July 28, 1859 by Bishop George Edward Lynch Cotton, the school will complete 150 years in 2009. Among this fine institution's alumni are the famous writer Ruskin Bond, golfer Jyoti Randhawa, Himachal Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and a host of industrialists and front ranking defence officials.

In keeping with its motto 'Overcome evil with good', BCS runs a learning centre--the first of its kind for Shimla--for special children. This centre helps these young ones to develop not only academic but also social skills.

Another landmark is the quaint railway train between Kalka and Shimla which is now 101 years old. For those with leisure, the exhilarating five-hour journey takes one through 103 tunnels and glimpses of small places such as Barog, Tara Devi and Kandaghat. There is little to match the excitement of making the ascent to Shimla--this trip is marked by verdant forests, wild flowers and cool environs even when Northern India swelters in the summer heat.

To get to this idyllic hill station, one takes the Himalayan Queen or Shatabdi Express--trains from Delhi to Kalka. From there it is a three hour winding journey by car or taxi. Altogether it takes around eight hours at the maximum to go up from the Indian capital to Shimla.

So for those with the time and inclination for a new travel destination, Shimla is a charming get away. And surely the magic of the hills will draw the traveller again and again.

Ruskin Bond: A famous name from Shimla
Among the luminaries who have emerged from the portals of the Bishop Cotton School (BCS), Shimla is writer Ruskin Bond. In many of his writings, the reader gets a glimpse of Bond's school days, ranging from his escapades as a schoolboy, to his early fondness for literature and the teachers that inspired him along the way.

Bond recalls the library of the school which fuelled his passion for literature. He cites the plays of Barrie and Bernard Shaw and the novels and stories of Priestly, Maugham and Saroyan.

Bond recounts an amusing story of his early days in BCS. Apparently, though he looked cute in his choir dress, he was told not to sing because he 'had a terrible singing voice.' The alternative was to lip synch with his friends.

Now in his 60s, with novels such as The Room on the Roof, Bond has truly scaled glorious peaks. This winner of the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys at the age of 18 for this novel, has other works to his credit. Among them are collections of short stories such as "The Night Train at Deoli", "Time Stops at Shamli" and "Our Trees still grow in Dehra". He also has several children's books to his credit: The Cherry Tree, The Blue Umbrella.

Despite advancing age, there is no stopping Bond's creativity. The Mussoorie hills-- where he now resides--continue to provide inspiration to this literary giant.


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