The drive from Haridwar to Simla or Shimla looked a short distance on the map but as with most of Indian roads it took longer than planned. Slow means more interesting though, and 5 minutes spent in a traffic jam is 5 minutes of a short film. You are the secret observer of everyday life. Sometime before, we had waited and watched as five or six guys dug out a lorry stuck in monsoon mud under a bridge with a sign No Lorries. Something one wouldn’t normally do but actually ultimately fascinating watching a disorganised team extricating the truck..In Indian it’s called Jugga..the ability of an almost impossible situation to come right.
The last part driving up to Simla was in darkness and the fir and cedar trees and twinkling lights of the town on top of the hills and ridges reminded one of an illustration of an old fashioned Christmas card.
Cars are banned from the upper part of Simla, consequently we had to walk the last part to our hotel. Visting is good for a cardo-vascular fitness programme but tough on asthmatics.
The views from Simla are stunning. The foothills of the Himalayas are unlike those of the Alps. The people are different also, they are mountain people.
Simla is unlike any other part of India. It was created by the British to be a little bit of the English Shires in the midst of an alien and sometimes hostile country where the expats lived in heat and died of unkown illnesses. Simla is a monument to homesickness. Here they constructed this faux Britain , with the huge Christ Church in the centre of the Mall, Social clubs, a Gaiety Theatre and one the largest post offices in India (to run the Empire through the summer months).
Even now it is like looking through a prism back in time to the days of the Raj. The English quarter was built on the Ridge , with it’s rows of English style shops, it’s coffee houses, but now the customers are the Indian Civil servants and middle classes who have replaced the rulers of the British Empire. The shops for the most part are the ones that existed at Independence, the Antiquarian Bookshop, sadly on it’s last legs, the Haberdashers, where I bought a waistcoat, was piled high with bolts of tweed like cloth and three or four saleswomen who knew their materials. The Indian Coffee House, exactly the same as pre Independence, with turbanned waiters and now with local businessmen for clientele.
Half shut your eyes and yes , there is Mountbatton with Nehru, drinking a cup of tea in the corner, stitching up India for their own different reasons..
The Mall now is full of smiling relatively wealthy Indian tourists of all religions from most parts of India.
The upper part or the Ridge was the domain of the British rulers, starting in 1822 when the first ‘Pucca’ house was built by the political agent Charles Pratt Kennedy, and below, further down the ridge are the Indian bazaars and quarters as they have been for 150 years.
Word spread of the wonderful cool summers and importantly away from the ‘native plains’, and with the progression of better roads, rentable villas, theatre and a summer meeting place for the Raj’s elite, led finally in 1863 to Simla being declared the summer capital of the Raj. A mock tudor Town Hall, Law Courts, shops and mainly Parsi businessmen followed.
The 1857 mutiny had passed Simla by with hardly a shot being fired so it was seen as a safe place for women to spend most of the year , and great marriage alliances of the latter part British rule were made here. Kipling spent four summers here in the 1860’s, drawn in part by the newfound cultural importance of the town.
The latter part of the nineteenth century, with the ever increasing bureaucracy of running an empire, resulted in the constuction of a railway to Simla, linking into the expanding British built network , bringing up the many civil servants, the viceroys contingent and all the diplomatic entourage from Indian States to sovereign countries, to Simla for 6 months of the year. The journey from the winter capital in Calcutta took three or four days.
From about 1870 for 60 or 70 years one fifth of the worlds population was ruled from this small town clinging to a ridge in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Today Tourism has replaced the Summer influx of the machinary of Empire. On the Mall and upper ridge there are no beggars, no poor Indians ,it has been sanitised. The mainly Tibetan porters carrying immense loads on their backs are the only vestiges of old school Indian labour.
The weather is so British with sun and mist the same day, and if one ignored the mountains you could be in any midlands market town, except with a few more smiling faces.
Manali was only 170 miles from Shimla but after driving all day we arrived at dusk to find newish hotels lining one side of the road into town, the other luckily was a compulsively watchable torrent of a Himalayan river.
Manali might be a short distance from Simla but it was like being back in India after a quick stop in another land. Here were mountain people , smaller perhaps and with broader faces.
The British Raj used Ethnicity, Religion and the Caste System to divide and rule in India and in Simla they created for themselves a place that reflected the mother country rather than India. Importing Parsi businessmen, Sikh administrators and elite civil service Hindus and Simla is a continuing reflection of that Today. A car free, beggar free cosy market town on top of a ridge. But in Manali it was back to religion, Temples and a Tibetan monastery. Holy men begging, TucTucs wizzing and round street food .. India!
Back in the sixties Manali was a happy hippy , dope smoking destination with an old town of beautiful old houses at over 2000 metres altitude.
Tourism followed with many odd facets. Manali is a stop on the road up to Ladekh and Indian Tibet and also a smuggling and distribution centre initially for cannabis. From the seventies both Indian and Foreign drug mafia have been fighting for control leading to a long list of murders ( some British ) commited both by each other and probably the police, who found planting dope on hippies and demanding fines supplemented meagre pay. For the last twenty years Manali has become a destination for young trekkers, seekers of spirituality and drugs, and more recently Israeli youth who arrive after military service for freedom, drugs and sex..Apparently the Israeli mafia now control most of the drug trade, and buy off most of the local police and politicians. Murders and disappearances in this area have given the area the name Valley of Death.
It is also a honeymoon destination for young middle class Indians and the little cafes next to river in Old Manali offer pretty views. The 500 year old wooden triple tiered Hidimba Devi Temple in the forest harks back for Hindus to the beginnings of the religion as essentially consisting of forest shrines. The small forest is a protected part of a once great forest of old Deodar trees.
The other side of the Beas River down in the Valley is Vashist village home to one of the older Hindu temples.
Many Sadhus , Holy men make the pilgrimage to one of Hindus oldest temples.
It is said that a temple has stood on this site for 4,000 years.
Vashisht, both Temple & Village were named after Rishi Vashisht one of the seven sages of the Hindu religion. Legend has it that the saddened Rishi Vashisht after learning that his children were killed by Vishwamitra tried to commit suicide. But the river refused to kill him. The river was therefore named as Vipasha which literally means ‘freedom from bondage’. It was later shortened to Beas River.
The Village with mountains above, the river below does have an aura of tranquility.
The other significant influx into Manali has also happened over the last thirty years. Tibetan refugees from Chinese Tibet.
Manali has one of the largest concentration of Tibetan refugees in the area mainly living around The Gadhan Thekchoking Gompa monastery near the centre of the new town.
The Temple and surrounding area is so colourful , with flowers everywhere. I found a blue locked up open shed with prayers, prayer flags, amulets and many small memories of a previous life in now Chinese occupied Tibet, very moving.
Manali brings in Hindu Sadhus and Tibetan priests, tourists, honeymooners, truck drivers on their way to Ladakh..a really cosmopolitan region.