Shimla, aptly nicknamed ‘the Queen of Hills’, is known for its natural beauty and pleasant climate. Situated at a height of 6,890 feet, it welcomes visitors with its serpentine roads, thick deodar forests, cool breeze and fresh clean air. In the winters, it transforms into a snowy wonderland, with its majestic Himalayan peaks glistening around us. The refreshing beauty of Shimla has inspired many travellers and writers who’ve made it their home, just like the British, who were so mesmerised by the city and its weather, that they made it their summer capital.
Today, the colonial legacy still lingers in the country’s historical narratives, in works of literature where Shimla became the muse, in stories of Sirs and Madams that make the rounds, and most of all, its architectural heritage that forms the charm of this picturesque destination.
It also formed the theme of an exciting heritage walk organised by Sahapedia through its outreach programme, India Heritage Walks. Held on the 17th of February, the walk was directed towards gathering knowledge about the rich history of Shimla’s buildings that are preserved in their original Tudorbethan style of architecture.
This kind of architecture, usually modelled after a typical English country house, employs modest characteristics such as a steeply sloping roof, herringbone brickwork, half-timbering, thatched roofs, pillared porches, and roofed windows that are done up in bright shades. The interiors usually consist of wooden floors, large wooden staircases, a fireplace, and a high rising chimney with a spacious hall and dining room. Walking through the winding roads of Shimla down the Mall Road, one will mostly see old buildings, bungalows and heritage hotels boasting of this kind of architecture.
It can be best observed in the Town Hall which was built in 1908 to house municipal offices. Situated at a picturesque location where the mall meets the ridge, it has huge glass windows that allow the winter sun to seep in from all sides. It is often said that the Tudor style of architecture developed in response to the ornate Gothic style, and in rejection of mass production to embrace simplicity. But even the intricacies of Gothic architecture can be observed at the GPO building, formerly called Conny Lodge. Employing something called the Wild West Gothic style, the three-storey building established in 1883 is one of the very few heritage post offices in the country.
The Ridge Christ Church, the second oldest church in the country, also employs the neo-gothic style of architecture. With pointed arches and roof gabble, it is a prominent space in Shimla, appreciated for its splendid yellow facade.
Another stop on the walk was the beautiful and unique BSNL building designed by the Scottish architect, Scott Begg in 1922. Constructed in red brick, it is said to be the home of the world’s first automatic telephone exchange with 2000 lines. In the 1930s, the then Viceroy was the first to speak on the line as the exchange was connected to England. It is also said to be one of the most photographed buildings in the hill station.
Shimla as a city has evolved and has facets of traditional hill architecture as well as contemporary architecture co-existing to produce the common fabric of the city. On the walk, participants learnt about the different characteristics, significance and preservation techniques behind each style as they travelled through time observing the architecture from 1816 to 1947, whilst listening to myriad stories of the past and the present that brought the brick and kiln to life. They also traversed through the historic ridge, the lifeline of Shimla that comes alive during fairs and festivals.
At Shimla, every building has a narrative to share, with its own distinct identity that transcends stone and wall, living through time to tell its story.
The walk was led by Shadab Khan, who has been working with Sahapedia in the field of cultural documentation and preservation. Having studied Urban Regeneration and worked as an architect in Delhi, he is currently pursuing his dream of research and academics in Himachal Pradesh. An avid reader and traveller, he has a keen interest in traditional industries and is engaged in research work on the evolution of traditional architecture in the upper Himalayan region. What’s more? He breaks down the complexities of architecture in simple narratives and is a compelling storyteller.
To learn more about the rich cultural legacy of Shimla on Sahapedia, click here.