In the Footsteps of the Himalayas

Taking to the hills of northern India, Tricia Welsh finds cutting edge urban architecture, harmonious green spaces, breathtaking Himalayan landscapes and acres of tea.
September 2022

Travelling to the northern states of India is truly a breath of fresh air: to the modernist Punjabi capital of Chandigarh which, thanks to its parks and gardens and flourishing vegetation, is perhaps the greenest state in the country; to Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas which, during the Raj, became the summer capital of British India where temperatures could be 15 to 20 degrees cooler than on the dusty plains; and further north to Palampur in the lush tea-growing Kangra Valley.

On arrival into Chandigarh, we know not to expect a typical Indian city with teeming masses, general chaos and where traffic rules are only a suggestion. It is clean, tidy and orderly, with white lines on the roads and traffic lights which people respect, wide boulevards and leafy suburbs and an order to everyday life not seen elsewhere in the country.

In August 1947, after nearly 200 years, British rule in India ended — the sub-continent being partitioned into two: India with its Hindu majority, and Pakistan a majority Muslim state. Chandigarh, a city of some 1.2 million, is the capital of both the Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana. It replaces the former Punjabi capital of Lahore, which, after Partition, found itself located in Pakistan.

After Independence, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted to show that India was no longer a regressive country of villages and backward people, pronouncing, “Chandigarh will be a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future”.

In 1950, he commissioned celebrated Swiss architect Le Corbusier, known for his unique concepts of private homes and public buildings, to design the new city from scratch. His philosophy incorporated all aspects of living, working, circulation and the care of body and spirit.

The city is divided into 56 self-contained numbered sectors, each having its own neighbourhood market with shops and services, gardens, jogging track, open-air gym, primary school, meditation point — even a water fountain in the centre of the garden to create positive spaces. Buildings are no higher than three floors enabling all to enjoy sunshine and greenery.

Watching local families relax and stroll leisurely around man-made Sukhna Lake, you could easily mistake the scene for a European lakeside locale — except for the beautiful saris and colourful turbans worn by the locals.

Le Corbusier’s architecturally splendid Capitol Complex comprising the High Court, Secretariat and the Legislative Assembly spread over some 100 acres, is one of the city’s main drawcards. Today, it is internationally recognised as a modernist masterpiece and has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. It is here, too, that the architect’s iconic Open Hand sculpture swings in the breeze above the park symbolising "peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive."

At weekends and on holidays, local families love to stroll in the manicured Rose Garden with its 1500 rose varieties, or meander through the labyrinthine Rock Garden created by Nik Chand. The former transport official transformed a rubbish dump full of debris from some 50 villages destroyed to build the new capital, into the second most visited attraction in India (after the Taj Mahal) with between 8,00010,000 visitors a day.

It might be just 115kms north-east to Shimla, but it’s uphill nearly all the way to its 2,073m mountaintop location in the mid-hills of the Western Himalayas. A fun way to approach this doyenne of the hill stations is to take the Himalayan Queen express train from Kalka, considered one of the most famous railway routes in the world. This UNESCO world-protected century-old narrow-gauge ‘toy’ train negotiates 102 tunnels and 889 bridges as it wends its way through the Himalayan foothills affording passengers beautiful views through pine forests and sleepy villages over its five-hour journey to Shimla.

But spare a thought for the British administration who, around May each year, would set out from Calcutta, the then capital, to decamp to Shimla for some six to eight months to avoid the summer heat. This ‘city on the move’ historically travelled by horseback, elephant-back, flat-bottomed bargeroles up the River Ganges — some even on palanquins.

Approaching Shimla, our driver/ guide, Ramesh, points out the yellow spires of Christ Church that in the mid-1800s served the Anglican British community in this capital of Himachal Pradesh. Today, multicoloured, multi-storied houses and residences cling to steep mountain slopes as the city continues to spread in its lofty location.

We stay a little out of town at the new Taj Theog Resort & Spa located on a ridge above thick forests of conifers, cedars and rhododendrons with spectacular views to dramatic snow-covered mountains and the Churdhar, the highest peak of the outer Himalayas. Snow edges the winding mountain road and the air is noticeably cooler and cleaner. At nearly 2,500m, the Taj thoughtfully has small oxygen canisters on hand should guests suffer from altitude sickness. Early mornings are brilliantly refreshing as the sun sparkles on the far horizons almost bringing these near-mythical peaks to life.

In Shimla, we wander along The Ridge — the central shop and café-lined pedestrian street that is still the heart of the town. We admire charming reminders of the bygone era such as the old Telegraph Office, the main post office, the Gaiety Theatre, Clarkes Hotel and Christ Church whose frescoes were copied from original designs by writer Rudyard Kipling’s father. Born in India in 1865, the Nobel prize-winning author spent much time in Shimla in the 1880s, describing it as a “centre of power as well as pleasure”. He wrote of Shimla’s society, its raunchy social whirl of parties, amateur dramatics and cricket tournaments that gave the hilltop town its racy reputation.

The Ridge converges with the seven-kilometre long Mall, centre of the social scene at Scandal Point, so called because it was here that the Maharajah of Patiala kidnapped a young British girl to add to his harem.

The Ridge converges with the seven-kilometre long Mall, centre of the social scene at Scandal Point, so called because it was here that the Maharajah of Patiala kidnapped a young British girl to add to his harem.

A highlight is a visit to the impressive Viceregal Lodge, the 132-year-old Scottish baronial-style castle that became the home of the Viceroys of India for several months each year. It was from this seat of power, that the viceroys ruled the entire Indian Empire, which at that time comprised Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, the UAE, Sri Lanka, Singapore and today’s India. It’s difficult to comprehend that from this tiny hilltop village, one of the world’s most powerful governments ruled more than one-fifth of the human race for nearly a century. Photographic displays in the lodge include images of British leaders who met with Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten to discuss Partition that would follow Independence.

The road to Palampur backtracks down the steep mountain whose sides are terraced with bright green wheat sprouts and ravines plunge to dry creek beds below. Women balance large bundles of cut grass on their heads, cows graze scant roadside grass and monkeys skip across the winding road.

After a lunch stop in the market town of Mandi, we pass several processions of musicians beating drums and blowing long brass trumpets called karnals, as these devotees of Lord Shiva take local gods ‘out for a walk’ to celebrate Shivratai festival.

Just out of Palampur, fourth generation tea plantation family member Surya Prakash and his wife, Upasana, welcome us to The Lodge at Wah. This eco-friendly accommodation offers six large bedrooms spread over three cottages overlooking a cared for garden with views through to the snow-capped Himalayas. Built from handcrafted bricks made from mud excavated when the foundation was being prepared, it features slate roofs, much recycled pine from the Old Palampur Courthouse plus doors and windows, and cedar from the estate.

The 500-acre tea estate is one of the largest in the little-known but burgeoning Kangra Valley tea-growing region of India. Named after a previous owner who was the son of the Nawab of Wah in Pakistan, what started as a humble two-room cowshed has been transformed into a cutting-edge factory producing a range of f ine teas that find a ready market through wholesalers in Kolkata.

We take a tour of the factory including a tea tasting session prior to enjoying an evening sunset picnic in the tea garden around an open fire as the last rays of the sun glow pink on the snowy peaks around us. Dinner back at the lodge is a treat featuring produce from the kitchen garden coupled with organic and fresh local ingredients. There might be a dham thaali, the traditional dish of this state of Himachal Pradesh, followed perhaps by freshly fried crispy jalebi — an Indian-style string doughnut dipped in saffron-flavoured sugar syrup.

Next day, we visit Tashi Jong Monastery where resident monks are cleaning up after a ceremony for locals. Home to some 200plus Tantric Buddhists from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and India who devote their entire life to meditation, it is a haven of calm and tranquillity and we don’t want to leave.

Everywhere we venture around here, we are in constant awe of the magnificent mountainous backdrop and aware of the cooler salubrious conditions, understanding perfectly why this pocket of India is, indeed, a breath of fresh air.

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