Hallowed precincts: The Viceregal Lodge of Shimla

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Text and photographs by Sohail Hashmi
First published in

Those driving to Shimla through National Highway 22, reach a bypass known as Tuti Kandi, it is here that one has to decide if one wants to continue uphill to the former summer capital of colonial India or to avoid the busy, traffic jammed Shimla and carry on ahead to Kufri and beyond.

According to Google, ‘kandi’ stands for a wicker basket. This was too pat an answer so I asked my Himachali filmmaker friend Subhash Kapoor, the director of the black comedy Phans gaye re Obama, and he said in his part of Himachal, i.e. Kangra, ‘kanda’ means a thorn and ‘kandi’ means a small thorn, so ‘tuti kandi’ could also refer to a small broken thorn.

Why would anyone name the Shimla bypass after a broken wicker basket or a little broken thorn beats me? Anyway I am not going to be detained by a mere wicker basket, broken or whole or a thorn, big or small. I have more important things on my mind, things one has to decide at Tuti Kandi.

From among the tourists that arrived at Tuti Kandi in 2009, at least 1.5 million decided to take the uphill route towards Jakhu Hill. Jakhu is the hill upon which Shimla was initially located and has now like a healthy parasite almost devoured its own host. On May 6, 1821, Major Sir William Lloyd saw the Jakhu Hill area for the first time and was overwhelmed. This is how he described the exhilaration of the moment in his journal: The mountain air seemed to have instilled either into my veins, for I felt as if I could have bounded headlong into the deepest glens, or spring nimbly up their abrupt sides with a daring ease……I shall never forget this day. (For more on Shimla and its history see ‘Viceregal Lodge and the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla” by Raja Bhasin, email proiias@gmail.com).

Within a 100 metres or so of taking the road that leads up to Shimla from Tuti Kandi, there is a sharp bifurcation; while the main road carries on straight to Shimla proper, the bifurcation leads to the Observatory Hill passing through Boileauganj, now corrupted into Baluganj. One branch leads to Lower Shimla while the other carries on to the magnificent building that now houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS). This article is about this building.

In a country, apparently so deeply engaged with its past, its traditions and its history, I find it rather strange that out of the almost 15 lakh (1.5 million) tourists that visited Shimla last year, only 90,000 went to see this building – i.e., about 6 per cent of the total number of tourists that came to Shimla.

You could at this point ask me, “So?, what is so great about a building, even if it houses one of modern India’s finest academic and research institutes – the IIAS – that you are taking the tourists to task?”

Here is my answer. As a colonial structure there are few buildings that can match its impressive proportions and probably none that is so lovingly and carefully preserved. This was the summer residence of the Viceroys and Governors-General. Built at a cost of Rs 38 lakh (3.8 million) in the 1880s, the building gets its unique character from the eclectic mix of Tudor, Neo-Gothic and English Renaissance styles that have been combined in its design and detailing. And if this alone was not enough, there is the role that this location has played in the destiny of the subcontinent.

Without sounding too sanctimonious, let me confess that this was only the second time that I was visiting the place and the first time that I had the opportunity to explore little bits of the rich history of the structure. And this despite the fact that I have known about the Institute and the remarkable academic work that is being done here and have visited Shimla scores of times. So when I deride the tourist, I speak of I, Me and Myself.

My visit to the IIAS was made possible thanks to Prof. Peter D’Souza, the current director of IIAS and an old friend. Despite at that time being in Delhi to look after his daughter who was admitted to a hospital, he had left instructions that I be shown around and be permitted to take photographs.

The British chose Shimla to be their summer capital while they ruled from Calcutta during the more tolerable part of the year. The first long distance train incidentally connected the two capitals through the Howrah and Kalka stations and was numbered I UP and 2 Down, The Kalka-Shimla journey was completed on the magical narrow gauge track,the train still operates and is one of the finest heritage trains of the world.

Now if the government was to function from this hilly resort, the chief administrator’s residence and quarters for the entire regal or almost regal paraphernalia had also to be located at this summer retreat. And that is how the Viceregal Lodge came to be built on the Observatory Hill in Shimla.

Many Viceroys and Governors-Generals had to in the meantime put up in accommodation that was ‘neath their dignity’. Though the Viceregal Lodge was inaugurated during the term of Lord Dufferin 1884-88, the British had begun using Shimla as a summer retreat from the early 19th century, during the term of Lord Amherst, the then Governor-General (1823-28). In all, 19 ‘Governors General’ or ‘Viceroys’ or ‘Viceroys & Governors General’ were posted to India in the intervening period, and almost all of them spent some time or the other at Shimla, in accommodation that most found inadequate. Some had to put up with accommodation infested with fleas and at least one Viceroy lived under roofs that leaked so badly during the monsoons that an umbrella had to be constantly positioned over his head as he worked on his files, sipped his morning tea or evening drink or had his food. The poor blighter must have looked a sight.

The situation continued to be grim even when “Peterhof”, a property of the Raja of Sirmour, located on Observatory Hill, was rented during the term of Lord Elgin (1862-63) as the residence of the Viceroy. None of the residents liked the place and eventually after another two and a half decades, the Viceregal Lodge came into being in the late 1880s.

History and time play strange games – a residence for the British Viceroy and one that could only be built after 19 of those worthies had come and gone, was after its completion to host just 13 of them between 1888 and 1947, before it ceased to serve the purpose for which it was erected.

For most part of its existence as the summer abode of the Viceroys and Governors-Generals, the calendar of events at the Viceregal Lodge, consisted of the mundane and the grandiose. The rulers and representatives of the hundreds of Rajas and Maharajas, their spouses and sundry other hangers on, that accompany the powerful, vied with others of similar ilk for admittance within its august portals.

Though construction officially came to an end in September 1888, a couple of months after the formal inauguration, changes and alterations were to continue well into the 20th century, with each new resident adding something of “value and beauty” to the structure, provoking a wit to comment that the Viceregal Lodge was “a joy and an expense forever”.

Writings about the Lodge, both positive and negative, continued to issue from the pen of residents and visitors for decades and will do so as long as the edifice survives and is well taken care of. One of the earliest and extremely graphic descriptions was penned by Lady Dufferin, the first occupant, who along with her husband, Lord Dufferin, was instrumental in deciding the detailing of much of the interior and a large part of the look and feel of the Lodge.

Her record takes you through a leisurely walk of the interiors and describes at some length the grand entrance hall, the ball room, the drawing rooms, the balconies, the upholstery, the curtains, the high ceilings and walls panelled in the finest of teaks brought all the way from Burma and the arms of former Viceroys and Governors-General mounted on Spanish leather covered walls. In her description, she includes mention of the splendid views from the bow window of her boudoir and from the nearly-all glass, tower-room recess window. She talks of the first use of electricity in Shimla and of the gentle glow of the lamps as the first of the many dinners to be held at the Lodge was organised for 60 plus carefully selected invitees.

Neither her description nor the photographs that accompany this account, can adequately capture, the thoughts that crowd your mind as you walk through the main gate into the grand entrance hall, with its sweeping teak staircase leading to the two floors above. The teak panelled walls on the ground floor and the beautifully carved teak pillars that support the ceilings of the verandahs on the first and second floor, still glow in the light filtering in through the teak framed squares of glass that cover the ceiling.

Go visit the place and see for yourself. Much has changed, the ballroom is now a very well stocked library, where some of our finest scholars from the social sciences, humanities and pure and natural sciences theorise on issues as varied and diverse as social, political and economic philosophy, comparative literature, philosophy, religion, education, culture, arts, problems of logic and mathematics and grapple with fundamental concepts and problems of natural and life sciences, environment, Indian civilisation and problems of contemporary India.

But much remains as it was 122 years ago, when the lodge was completed and much remains unchanged as it was some 65 years ago in 1945, when the famous Simla Conference took place here. The talks that involved Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Bhulabhai Desai, Liaqat Ali Khan and Master Tara Singh and most significantly Mahatma Gandhi, though indirectly.

The Mahatma was here in Shimla, though not at the Lodge, during those crucial days. He did not join the talks, held between the colonial masters, seeking an honourable exit, and the representatives of the Congress and the Muslim League. All three sought the wise counsel of the Mahatma but went their separate ways. The talks failed and sealed the fate of the subcontinent.

The Second World War ended in March 1946. The British, battered by the war, were no longer in a position to hold the subcontinent and the people of India were not ready to be ruled by them for a day longer and so the Cabinet Mission arrived to negotiate the transfer of power. It was the summer of 1946, May 5-12 to be precise, when the final round of talks was held (exactly 125 years, to the day, after the breathless description of Shimla by Major Sir William Lloyd). Once again the Congress and the League failed to agree and the decision to cut up the subcontinent was taken here, in this very building. In one of the sitting rooms in the former Viceregal Lodge, there is a small circular table. It is believed that this is the table across which the representatives of the three parties, the Congress, the League and the British sat and appended their signatures to create two nations and to give birth to an unending strife, a strife that shows no signs of abating even after more than 64 years.

This structure that has been witness to epochal changes is located atop the most important geographical watershed on the Indian subcontinent: Rainwater falling on the western side of the slopes of Observatory Hill flows to meet the Arabian Sea while that falling on the eastern slopes travels all across the North Indian plains to join the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Those who chose the site for its geographical significance could never have imagined that the most significant event that would unfold within the confines of the Lodge atop this watershed would also be a watershed event in the history of the subcontinent.

Sometime after the departure of the British, the Viceregal lodges both in Delhi and in Shimla became the abode of the President of the new Republic: The one at Delhi came to be known as Rashtrapati Bhawan and the one at Shimla was given the name Rashtrapati Niwas.

I don’t know for how long, if ever, Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India and a staunch Gandhian, stayed in his summer retreat at Shimla during the 12 years of his presidency. What I know, as do many others, that it was our second President, the scholar philosopher, Saravapalli Radhakrishnan, who decided to put the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge to a more regular, permanent and meaningful use. He decided to dedicate the place to the nation. In October 1964, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study Society was registered and a year later the institute was inaugurated by Radhakrishnan.

In his inaugural speech, Dr Radhakrishnan said it is crucial for the institute to grapple with the question ‘whether what has come down to us as truth is in fact true or requires some kind of modification’. ‘We should not’, he said, ‘be prisoners of the status quo’.

Truly there is much in our past that we need to learn from, but the one thing that we need to be wary of is the unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom.

One thought on “Hallowed precincts: The Viceregal Lodge of Shimla”

  1. Stayed in the same building for a couple of days when went to participate in a study week in IIAS. Felt a bit guilty for admiring a colonial structure.. but surely takes your breath away.


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