Saturday, December 5, 2009

A mountain charm

A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to visit Shimla in India to attend a conference. I had heard about Shimla since my childhood days (one of my aunts had lived there during the 60s). The movie “Aradhana” which I mentioned in my previous posting, was filmed there including picturising the famous song “Mere sapno ki rani..”. Shimla turned out to be a very charming mountain city. The Brits had chosen it as a place to escape from the scorching summer in New Delhi or Calcutta (the capital city during British Raj), so they developed it as a “hill station”. The colonial imprint is everywhere – the road and rail infrastructure, the buildings (tudor and neo-gothic architecture), street names, names of government buildings etc. One of the longest narrow gauge railway in India brings tourists to Shimla from Kalka. The city today is the state capital of Himachal Pradesh, and as such has grown considerably because of employment prospects, tourism and other entrepreneurial opportunities. I found it to be a very clean city, its people very friendly and its culture similar to those found in the highlands of Nepal. Indeed, the Gurkha empire in its prime had extended its power to these regions, and I was told, their descendants still live there. On the streets, I heard people talking in Nepali and other local dialouges which sounded very much like the languages spoken in the far western mountain regions of Nepal.

The main market center in Shimla is anchored by a historic church located at an altitude of 7200 ft. I went inside the church, and read some of the plaques posted there describing the early pioneers of Shimla, for example, the first British principal of the convent school. Two life size statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were nearby. Looking across the city and over in the northerly direction, you could see the snow-capped mountains. Shimla has the atmosphere of a major city tucked high up on the mountains, its little charms include the “Mall” a pedestrian-only street that stretches from the State Parliament building and through the main streets lined with shops enticing tourists to buy local made textiles, general consumer goods, restaurants (yes, Chinese and Mexican too!), banks, western union, etc. I was delighted to see so many people walking, chatting, and just milling around and basking in the afternoon sun. There was something warm about the place and the people, a welcoming environment, which you don’t feel when visiting other big cities whether in India or overseas. I felt I was in a familiar surrounding and decided right there that should an opportunity come in the future I would return to this place again and expore it some more. The snowcapped mountains were inviting me, and I imagined myself someday on a drive or trekking tour to the land of Leh in Laddakh, not very far away from Shimla.

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