Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Armchair traveling to ...Simla, India

Just a few more knee therapy sessions and it will be over.  It seems that this second knee surgery was easier than the last one.  But in the last few days I have developed more pain in my left ankle and foot - I had an injury there years ago and the ligaments are gone.  I'll see an orthopedist soon.  As the character of Gilda Ratner, Roseanne Roseannadanna, in the TV show Saturday Night Live used to say: "'s always something - if it ain't one thing, it's another."  C'est la vie!  I spent much time reading the first few weeks after surgery, not in an armchair, but in a sofa bed since I was not allowed to step upstairs to my bedroom.  (Below painting is "Reading Girl on a Sofa" by Isaac Israels (1865-1934) a Dutch Impressionist painter.)

The last time I went to our house in Georgia I gave about 400 more books to the library, but there are thousands more to go through.  For years my husband and I gathered books from book sales and second-hand bookstores.  Many are still unread and it is difficult to decide which ones to keep - of course my husband, because of his advancing Alzheimer's disease, cannot read anymore.  I brought several boxes of books to Nashville and while recuperating from my knee surgery I read "light reading" mysteries.  Then I decided to read a slim paperback I had bought in Monreal, Canada, years ago.  It is called "The Pool in the Desert" by Sara Jeannette Duncan.  It contains four novellas originally published in 1903.  The back of the book says "Sara Jeannette Duncan was the first Canadian woman to achieve international success as a journalist, novelist, and travel writer.  Born in 1861, she wrote more than twenty books during a career which took her to the Far East, India and England."

Sara Jeannette Duncan was a vey interesting and successful woman.  She was the first woman to be employed full time in a daily newspaper, the Toronto Globe, in 1886, and also worked for the Montreal Star.  She embarked on a world tour with a fellow journalist and while stopped in Calcutta, India, met Everard Cotes, a British civil servant.  She returned to India within two years to marry him.  She then spent the rest of her life in India, although visiting her family in Canada often and traveling to other countries.  Most of her books describe India in realistic local colors and her stories are in the setting of the manner of the Anglo-Indians of the British Raj, as the ruling party, the British Crown, was called in the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947.  (Click on collage twice to enlarge.)

The book The Pool in the Desert contains only 189 pages but it provided me with hours of research and travel.  The stories are set in Simla, India, as it was called then; now it is called Shimla.  I researched this city and its history.  It turns out that starting in the early 1800s the British took refuge from the summer heat in this western Himalaya town because of its cooler climate.  At some 2,100 m (6,889 ft) above sea level, Simla, surrounded by deep forests of cedar, oak, deodar and pine, was a cool hilly town with green pastures and snow-capped peaks.  In 1864 it was confirmed as the British imperial summer capital of India.  It was nicknamed "The Queen of the Hills."  Below are some old engravings of Simla (be sure to click on collage to see well.)

Every year close to 5,000 British civil servants (imperial clerks and staff,) viceroys, military attaches, wives, children and servants made the tiring 1,200 miles journey from Calcutta to Simla.  There they built houses, cottages and bungalows (bungalow is an Indian word) in timbered houses, in mock-Tudor architecture, flower gardens, etc.  They also established several schools, a theatre, art exhibits, a post office, a mall with exclusive shops and a big bazaar.  They played croquet on the lawn, golf, and took afternoon teas.  It became a popular British "Hill Station."  Here are some vintage postcards.

To serve the Anglican British community Christ Church was built in 1857.  Below is a vintage postcard of the church back then and the way it looks now.

The English novelist, journalist, writer and poet Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) visited Simla yearly with his family.  His father, Lockwood Kipling was asked to serve in Christ Church.  Kipling wrote often about Simla.  Other personalities visited and some built summer homes there, including Lord Kitchener, commander of the British Army.  Artists visited Simla as well, such as the English artist and poet Edward Lear (1812-1888) who drew a series of watercolors of Simla and the surrounding areas.  (Shown below courtesy The Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

During the era of the Raj Simla had a reputation for being exclusive and expensive.  It also had a naughty reputation because of the concentration of so many unattached men (civil servants, engineers, soldiers, merchants) bachelors and women visiting during the hot weather season.  Young single women came from England in search of a husband among all the single English men there.  Rudyard Kipling said in a letter that Simla was a place for "frivolity, gossip and intrigue."  An area in Simla is even called "Scandal Point" because of its improper past.  It is a small square between the Ridge and the Mall Road.

Because the British viceroys spent from early April to late October in Simla and ruled the entire Indian subcontinent from there an official residence was built 2+ miles (3.5 km) from Simla in 1888.  British Viceroy Lord Dufferin and Lady Dufferin were the first to occupy the lodge on the 331 acre site, on top of Observatory Hills.  It was state of the art for the time, the first building with electric lighting, its own steam generator, and running hot and cold water.  Below is a vintage photo of the Viceregal Lodge, Lord Dufferin (1826-1902) Lady Dufferin (1843-1936) and one of the dining rooms - photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons Canada.

This magnificent building was in the "English Renaissance" style with elements from castles of the Scottish highlands, and interior walls covered with teak wood from Burma.  Its gardens were a perfect setting for garden parties; the immense lodge could host 800 guests.  At the time it employed a staff of 700.  Notable personalities were its guests and even Mahatma Gandhi visited the then  Vicery in 1940.  Below he is surrounded by a crowd upon his arrival in a rickshaw in Simla in 1940.

After India independence in 1947 the Viceregal Estate went to the President of India who just spent a few days a year there.  In 1964 the building renamed "Rashtrapati Niwas" (Presidentiel Residence,) became the Indian Institute of Advanced Study with the support from the second president of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a scholar of comparative religion and philosophy.  Now the Institute offers 2-year fellowships for research and study of cultures, civilization and meeting of different viewpoints.  The building has been renovated.  Several rooms are still open to the public.  (Photo below courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

India is a large country with an abundance of diverse and beautiful sights to visit so Shimla is not on the regular tourist circuit of common Western travelers.  Shimla is now the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh.

Owing to its romantic setting Shimla has become an ideal destination for Indian honeymooners in summer and also in winter, under the snow.

In 1903 to afford easier access to their summer capital the British built a narrow gauge 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) railway from Kalka, near Delhi, into Shimla.  Until then everything, including official documents, came to Simla via mules and porters.  This railway is still in working order and a great tourist experience providing dramatic view of the hills and villages of the lower Himalayas.  This toy train travels at a clunky 15 miles an hour through 103 tunnels and 865 bridges.  It is one of the steepest railways in the world climbing from 2,152 ft (656 m) and ending at Shimla at an elevation of 6,811 ft (2,076 m.)  The journey takes almost 6 hours and goes through 18 small stations and 102 caves, making 919 curves and turns where many monkeys appear.  Originally known as the "British Jewel of the Orient" the Kalka-Shimla Railway became part of the Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008.

Once in Shimla one can stop at an outdoor cafe on a hill and observe the mountain tops nearby such as the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas, more than 19,000 ft high, the Rakt Dhar at 20,100 ft and the Badrinath at 23,190 ft.  Trekking circuits from Shimla are also popular - one day's travel will bring you to Dharamshala where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government are in exile (also in the state of Himachal Pradesh.)  It is a spiritual center for Buddhism.  Every year Shimla hosts one of the toughest mountain bike races in India - the MTB Himalaya biking race which covers 400 miles (650 km) in 8 stages and draws competitors from around the world.

After spending so much time with Simla and its history I was hoping to find other books with stories set there.  At the Brentwood library I found the whole 12 mysteries written by British author Barbara Cleverly.  They cover the adventures of Inspector Joe Sandilands of Scotland Yard, after WWI, while on assignment in Simla.  Cleverly recreates the atmosphere of the Raj with wonderful descriptions of the area during the waning years of the colonial culture.  I kept my iPad close by to look up many of the Indian words she mentions.  One of them was "tiffin" as in a character saying "... will  you come and join me for tiffin ..."  Tiffin is an Indian English word for a type of meal, from a snack to a light breakfast or luncheon.  It is still popular today and usually is a packed snack or lunch.  A whole industry now produces tiffin boxes of different sizes.  In a Nashville Indian grocery shop I bought a small tiffin box to carry a snack when I'll drive back and forth to Georgia.  I even found a book of reminiscences and tiffin recipes from an expat from India.  I have read five books of the Simla mysteries and will read the next seven.  I'll be armchair staying in Simla for a while longer.

You could say I am immersing myself with nostalgia for the atmosphere of the old British Empire, but I am reading fiction.  In reality, I think that under the guise of helping faraway lands, Western powers plundered these countries like India on a huge scale.  Instead of being beneficial and humane colonialism robbed them of vast economic resources and wealth.  Imperialism had contempt for native populations, it was arrogant and self-serving.  The British were not benign and considerate, they were in India to exploit and for the benefit of their home country, not the local population.  For example India in the 18th century was prosperous with a 23% share of the world economy but when the British left in 1947 it was only 3% and 90% of the population was poor.  In 10 years (1891-1900) 19 million Indians died in famines alone.  I am just armchair traveling, escaping the realities from the pain of my surgeries, the stress of being a 24/7 caregiver for my husband and the difficulties of moving from Georgia to Nashville, TN.

I'll end this post with a quote from Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who, with Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru, registered in 1964 the Indian Institute of Advance Studies now located in the former Viceregal lodge of Simla, India.

"The greatest event of our age is the meeting of cultures, meeting of civilizations, meeting of different points of view, making us understand that we should not adhere to any one kind of single faith, but respect diversity of belief.  Our attempt should always be to cooperate, to bring together people, to establish friendship and have some kind of a right world in which we can live together in happiness, harmony and friendship.  Let us therefore realize that this increasing maturity should express itself in this capacity to understand what other points of view are."  - Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

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