What comes to mind when you think about Shimla? Colonial architecture, scenic vistas as far as the eyes can see, remarkable greenery, and age-old customs of the hill people. For many of the Indians, this capital of Himachal Pradesh has been the first hill station experience. Shimla, which is also the largest city in Himachal is blessed with bountiful nature and untouched sceneries although over time it has turned into one of the most popular and most visited hill stations of India. From turning into a winter wonderland during the peak winter season to unfurling its real colors of deep blue skies and lush green cover, every face and aspect of Shimla is filled with such wonder and serendipity.
It goes without saying that it was one of the most popular honeymoon destinations in India when it quickly attracted every type of travelers from all over the world. Shimla is spread out across 7 different hills which together form the city of Shimla, these are – Observatory Hill, Prospect Hill, Inveram Hill, Summer Hill, Elysium Hill, Jakhoo Hill, and Bantony Hill. So you can imagine the amount of adventure and thrilling experiences you can indulge in Shimla.
The name Shimla is inspired from the Shyamala incarnation of goddess kali and the spiritual vibe here remains omnipresent. It is a wholesome holiday destination complete with temples, places of worship, Adventure Sports, and sightseeing places as well. All this is what we see in present-day Shimla. But what about the past? How did Shimla turn into what it is currently? Did you know that a major part of Shimla was covered in thick forests of oaks and rhododendrons? The history of Shimla will surely be an eye-opening experience for you due to its rich ethnic background which is also super vibrant and dynamic.
Early History of Shimla
The earliest recorded history of Shimla can be traced back to the epic Mahabharata. This is because during those times these hill regions of India were very exclusive and difficult to conquer given the unfamiliar jagged terrain and violent local tribes residing there. Reaching there was something doable but conquering and ruling over the hill people was another thing that many leaders, kings, and emperors over time failed to do. Coming back to Mahabharata, Himachal Pradesh was made out of combining several Janapadas or small tiny republics. These small republics constituted a state and cultural unit.
Here is something that you may not know about the early tribes that had managed to rule Shimla:
Audumbras: They were the most prominent ancient tribes of Shimla who had inhabited the lower, foothills region of Shimla. They had made the lower hills region between Pathankot and Jawalamukhi, their home. This north Indian tribe had established rule over the lower hills of the Himalayas between Sirmaur, Chamba, and the Yamuna. However, by 2 B.C they formed a different state of their own.
Kuluta: Do you love Kullu? The word Kullu is believed to be derived from the kingdom of Kuluta. The first discovery of the term Kuluta was found embedded in a coin dating back to the 1st century AD. They had established control over the lands spanning between rivers Beas, Sutlej and Yamuna. These constitute for the Shimla and Sirmaur Hills. According to sources, their political structure constituted a republic with the members belonging to the central assembly sharing their powers with the king or the leader incharge.
Kuninda Kingdom: Kuninda which is also known as Kulinda in ancient literature, was an ancient central Himalayan kingdom that was documented from 2 to 3 BCE. Their rule covered southern modern regions of Himachal like Shimla and the far western regions of Uttarakhand. Other than the Indian epic Mahabharat their mention is also found in the Puranas.
Gupta Empire: Gupta Empire has been described as the golden age of India according to historians. Their kingdom covered most of the 4th century India. When Chandragupta was ruling they slowly subdued most of the republics of Himachal Pradesh. They did so by a show of their strength and use of force although he did not rule the Himachali people directly. When Ashoka became the ruler he extended his boundaries deeper into the Himalayan regions and introduced Buddhism as well. Kullu valley stupa is the living reminder of this influence.
Harsha Rule: Once the Gupta Empire in Himachal collapsed prior to the rise of Harsha, the Himachali regions were ruled by the thakurs and ranas. Harsha ruled for the 5th to 6th century and at the height of their power, his empire covered most parts of the north, northwestern, and South India till Narmada River and eventually Kannauj. The power and might of the Harsha rule was acknowledged by the smaller local rulers who pledged their allegiance to him.
Shimla during the British Rule in India
In 1864, Sir John Lawrence had officially declared Shimla as the summer capital of the British Empire. The region encompassed a 3 km radius with the Centre point of the town being the iconic landmark and face of Shimla, Christ Church on Shimla Bazaar. Once the English established their control there, it quickly turned into a bustling little town with the facility of the telegraph, post office, armed forces headquarters, government of India secretariat, the government of India press, clerks cottages, the public works department secretariat, the financial department office and the home department of the government of India.
The British fell in love with Shimla and soon shifted their summer capital from Calcutta to the wonderful Himalayan hill town. They mostly occupied the hill station from April to October. The summer capital officers soon purchased houses there but with the norm being that they would rent the house for the said months only. The concentration of British officials and executives in Shimla attracted a large number of Indian royals to the hill station as well. The native chiefs would go there to make it a point to mingle with the British circles and attend imperial durbars as well and by the 1800s they were also among the people who had purchased some houses in Shimla along with their British counterparts.
Native Chiefs in Shimla
The Raja of Nahan owned 14 properties while the maharaja of Jaipur and Maharana of Dholpur owned 2 properties each. This did not bode well to the British rulers, because Indian chiefs and kings used to travel in massive numbers which included their followers, helpers, and an army of people to accompany them. It kind of hurt the prestige of the British viceroy because technically it was the summer capital of the British which they left unattended most part of the year and was all the time occupied by the native chiefs of India. Indian rulers had boisterous festivities and loud parties which the British did not appreciate so it became increasingly difficult for British folks to purchase houses near the houses owned by the local rulers. They also saw it as an attempt by the Indians to outdo the British in their own game. They tried to sneakily and indirectly not sell the houses to the native chiefs and discourage them from buying property in those parts. However, that discouragement did not really work because Indian princes had the legal right to buy any property they liked as long as their wealth permitted them to.
Shimla after Independence
Post-independence, the chief commissioner’s province of H.P came into being on 15th August 1948. This was the result of an integration of 28 princely states in the western Himalayan regions which was known by its full name that was Shimla hills states and the 4 southern Punjab hill states. On 1st April 1954, the state of Bilaspur was incorporated into the newly formed Shimla state. Later on, on November 1st, 1956, Himachal Pradesh became a union territory. Realizing that the size of Himachal Pradesh is massive, on 18th December 1970, the state of Himachal Pradesh act was passed by the Indian parliament. The new state of Himachal Pradesh came into being on 25th January 1971. This is how Himachal emerged as the 18th state of the Indian union.
There are still many remnants that remind us that Shimla was one of the most treasured and most loved British holiday destinations. Pre-independence buildings and structures are still maintained in Shimla that reminds us of the tumultuous past. Some of these buildings include – Viceregal Lodge, Assembly chamber, Auckland house, Christ Church, Shimla town hall, and gaiety theatre. The British Shimla used to stretch out about a mile and a half along the ridge in between Jakhoo Hill and prospect hill with the iconic mall road of Shimla functioning as the spine of the entire city of Shimla.