History isn’t guaranteed alone by political ramblings or wobbling economies. The social milieu or fabric is what actually seams history. So, even as we may talk of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century or the building of the railways, it would be incomplete unless we have a look at how life was being lived in the upcoming town of Simla, which was now the most fashionable sanatorium in India. And, at the same time, let us not forget that Simla was coming up in the backdrop of an uprising against the Raj in the rest of India. In this chapter, we shall only talk about life in the 19th Century in this Summer Capital. For the 1900s had a different story to tell, which we will follow later.
Simla was now home to two sets of people, primarily- the English and the Hill People. Of course, we can then go on to talk about the Tibetans or the Chieftains or the Pahari Soods and the Punjabi Soods, as also, the Europeans, the Government officials, the clerks, the labourers and so on. Yes, a whole new set of communities were now coming up in Simla. If anyone chooses to tell me that there were no lines of divide and ill-dressed Indians not allowed on the Mall was a myth, I will refuse to believe them. Because division into segments was as much a reality in Simla, as in the rest of the country and, had its own ramifications. But I will choose to speak of the English and the Hill People first.
For the English, Simla was a holiday destination. Yes, the Viceroy, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief, as well as their cavalcade meant business, but most Englishmen rushed to the hill town to restore their sinews and enthusiasm. Soon enough, Simla became popular for its endless festivities, match-making, height of fashion, amateur dramatics, gambling, picnics, ballroom parties and the at least once a day sauntering on the Mall. The English had every reason to be here! The world of Simla was difficult to understand without seeing it. No wonder, it was the town most written about and writers like Rudyard Kipling felt that it was the best haven for a writer! A place, where, it is popularly said that “everybody knew everyone”. A statement that holds true even today!
By the year 1873, Simla had almost become a “sinful place”, as quoted in some records. There were enough scandals and a lot of gossip. As if, the English residents had nothing much to do, but to enjoy themselves. One such story of scandal is that of the popular Scandal Point, named thus because the daughter of the British Viceroy supposedly eloped with the Maharaja of Patiala from this point. The Maharaja was banned entry into Simla by the British and he set up a palace in Chail. There are many contentions to this story but it was the Simla of gossip mongers back then and many ifs and buts to the tale continue to fog the truth. In absence of news about mercenaries and shipping, the papers too, simply wrote gossip. Many beautiful villas came up in Simla and several government buildings that form an integral part of its history, and which require a complete series for itself. Not only the English, but even affluent princes from the royal folds of Punjab and other states began to look for property in the hill town. All this became a cause of concern for the British government, who were already worried about the town becoming crowded with structures and people. So, they decided to curb this development. In fact, the Nizam of Hyderabad was refused permission to buy property in Simla, when he so desired to, for the very same reason.
We are all aware of the Revolt of 1857 that rightly became the First War of Independence in India. England decided to take over from the East India Company and did their level best to control things in the Himalayan region. Because this region was strategically very important for England, due to its growing interest in Afghanistan and its desire to hold back Russia there.
So, how did England decide to appease the rulers of small hill states in and around Simla? Well, in the revolt of 1857, the hill states by and large, assisted the English, who ensured them that their kingdoms would never be annexed.
The 19th century Simla belonged to the whims of the English. As development took place, the town got divided into two separate zones- the station ward and the bazaar ward. The station ward was a British area- beautiful, aesthetic and the bazaar ward had the Indians, always in service of the station ward. It was a crowded area, dirty and filthy. The English wanted a haven to recuperate but they needed services of the people of the bazaar ward to maintain the magnificence of the station ward.
Simla Bazaar in the 1890s. Picture courtesy: Pinterest
The people of the bazaar ward were the hill people, simple, uncomplicated, ever smiling, honest, with great physical strength. They were wood-cutters or coolies. Often, they were spotted carrying heavy loads on their backs, walking up hill. This included their women as well. Some came down from the upper reaches where they grew several fruits. These people were Tibetans or even people from Cashmere who were brought down to work as coolies. In fact, at a point of time, the Viceroy needed 10,000 coolies to carry the luggage of his entourage during his journey from Kalka to Simla, before the mighty railway line came up!
Basically, there were three parts- the upper bazaar (namely, Lukkar Bazaar, the Kotwali & Ridge. The shops and homes on the ridge were only razed after a massive fire and cholera that spread in the area.) , the middle (the Mall Road) and the Lower Bazaar where by this time many traders from Punjab and Kangra had landed for business, which was ripe. These included the Pahari Soods and the Punjabi Soods. Of them Puran Mal went on to become a sought after money-lender. Some Punjabi Sardars set up business in the Lukkar Bazaar area. At the same time, you had Indians working as clerks, rickshaw pullers, labourers and the like.
While the Station ward had stories about scandals and picnics to relate and many beautiful shops adorned sides of the Mall and the Ridge, the hill people or the bazaar ward had mystical stories to share. Religious belief was strong and the goddesses were worshipped. Tara Devi was a sacred shrine where an annual fair was held. It was even a favourite hiking spot for the boys of BCS, a popular boarding school that was first set up in Jutogh. When the British government shifted from Calcutta to Simla in summers, they brought with them many Bengalis, who also made the town their home. Of them, Ram Churn Brumaharee, a Bengali Brahmin, set up the famous Kali Bari Temple in 1845.
Jakhoo was a popular peak with the locals who often roamed around its circular roads. The story of the fakir who gave water to passers-by is already known to you. It must be mentioned that Jakhoo was a popular resort for monkeys and they found in abundance there. In fact, even Lukkar bazaar was known for its mischievous monkeys. Another story about Jakhoo that does the rounds is of an English boy, Charles Russet, who was a student at BCS. Charles gave up his English lifestyle to join the fakir at Jakhoo and is said to have never got back to his people. Known as Jakhoo Jogi or Charlie Ram, he became a respectable figure.
The hill people had several tales of ghosts to narrate, the most popular being the one at churail baoli. It was at the foot of the water-fall at on the Mall near Glen Hotel and is said to be frequented by the ghost of a woman who lost her life during child-birth.
Many such stories filled the lives of the hill people, who were known for quietly embracing whatever came their way. So, with two life-styles that existed in 19th century Simla, the town became a source of merry-making for the elite, that included the aristocratic Indian princes and government officers along with the English. On the other hand, another life dwelled in the bazaar wards, that had little interest in the beauty of the valley and that was happy staring for long hours at a stray dog or a child flinging mud.
DO YOU KNOW?
After the Revolt of 1857, Simla was well-equipped by the British for any eventuality. The presence of the army was very much visible. Many cantonments were at hand. A body of paramilitary volunteers was raised. Even at Bishop Cotton School, every boy above a certain height, had to be a volunteer.
(*old spelling of places has been used in the text.)
Source Information: Simla: Past and Present (Edward J Buck)
Simla: The Summer Capital of British India (Raaja Bhasin)
Seminal Work by Pamela Kanwar
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