This post is a continuation of a series documenting our travels to Himachal Pradesh in November 2019. We were now ending the trip with our last two days in the capital city of Shimla. As Shimla was known for its crushing crowds we had decided to stay in the pretty little B&B known as the Sunnymead estate. (The Sunnymead Estate, Part 1 – A blissful oasis in the middle of chaotic Shimla).
The Sunnymead had exceeded our expectations in every way. It was so peaceful and beautiful there that I was seriously thinking about scrapping all sightseeing and just spending all our time in the Sunnymead itself. But the hectic sightseers in us took offence at coming to Shimla and not seeing any of the sights the hill station offered. So we gave in and decided to go ahead as planned and see the sights of the crowded ” Queen of the Hills”.
Rockyji, our driver was a resident of Shimla and Madhaviji, the owner of Sunnymead had suggested a few places that we shouldn’t miss visiting in Shimla. Plus it was our marriage anniversary that day and the religious better half wanted to visit a temple on the occasion. So armed with all that information we made our own short list of what we wanted to see and decided to return to the Sunnymead by early evening so that I get some more time with my winged friends.
First on the list was the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple. This is a fairly new temple established in 1950 but is located slightly outside the city itself and hence wouldn’t be crowded early in the day. We reached the temple and it was almost empty. That made walking around the complex a very pleasant experience. The better half paid obeisance to the Gods while I walked around and took photos of a beautiful albino pigeon that was posing for the camera.
The temple also has a balcony which gives a great panoramic view of Shimla itself and a perfect place to take photos. It shows you how congested the area around the famous Mall road has become and the extent of concretisation along the once completely green slopes.
The better half had by now finished her prayers and we walked around the temple grounds for some time before returning to the car and leaving for our next sight. Even though the temple is relatively new, the brightly coloured statues and the equally brightly coloured flowerbeds deserved some attention from my camera.
When we returned to the car we asked Rockyji if it was always so peaceful and empty. He said that you wouldn’t recognise the place after a few hours when the big tours set out and swamp the place. We were glad we had seen the temple at its peaceful best, making for a perfect start to the day.
The Rashtrapati Niwas ( Presidential residence) or the former Viceregal Lodge is one of the most famous buildings in Shimla. Madhaviji had spoken highly about it and it looked photogenic enough in the stock photos on the internet. My only concern was that it would be overflowing with tourists. That’s when Rockyji told us that only limited visitors are allowed for a particular time inside the complex itself. So we rushed to the lodge from the temple with Rockyji using his knowledge of the small roads of the city and getting us there as quickly as possible.
As we reached we saw a crowd of people waiting outside and our hearts sank. But when we reached the ticket window there were tickets available for the next slot after half an hour so we wasted no time and bought our tickets. The ticket seller also informed us that we could wait in the lawns behind the office itself instead of the crowded lawns in the front.
We climbed the stairs to the lawn behind the ticket office and found it completely empty. I wondered if the information we got was not given to everybody or they simply chose to ignore it! We were not complaining we enjoyed the sunshine in the empty lawns till it was time for us to visit the complex itself.
The Rashtrapati Niwas at Shimla is currently also an active educational institute known the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. So only a small part of it is open to tourists. With a rowdy bunch of other tourists we visited the rooms open to the public accompanied by a guide who tried her best to keep the group in order. The information about the history of the building is widely available online so I won’t bore you with it. The rooms had some pieces of original furniture that had been graced by the famous freedom fighters of my country as they discussed the road map to India’s independence. On a lighter note it was funny to note that the guide called every other leader by their given titles – Mahatma Gandhiji, Pandit Nehruji, Sardar Patelji; but Mohammad Ali Jinnah who was a part of the group was referred to as Mr Jinnah. Curt but not rude at the same time!
Sadly photography is not allowed inside the institute itself but the central hall with its wooden panelling and winding staircase is worth gawking at for a few minutes. As the short and sweet tour of the interior ended we were told that we would have a good 45 minutes to visit the vast gardens around the building itself. This was the part I was looking forward to the most.
It was a beautiful sunny day and there were beautiful wispy clouds in the sky, making for pleasing photos of the imposing Rashtrapati Niwas.
Even though this was November and winter was almost looming on the horizon, the gardens at the Lodge were in fine shape. Huge roses of different colours, Dahlias and Rhododendrons galore made it a better experience than the interiors for us. Also the crowd of tourists seemed to have no interest in the gardens as most of them walked on right through to the exit. Only a handful of the roomful of people that started the tour were left in the gardens after a few minutes. That was something that was inexplicable to me, but again I wasn’t complaining! We got to enjoy the gardens at leisure and take photos wherever we wanted.
The last part of the gardens we visited had expansive views over the mountain ranges beyond Shimla. We sat here for some time as we still had time before our allotted slot ended. Next on the list was the crowded and ever popular mall road and the Ridge, so we enjoyed our peace and quiet to the hilt before leaving the memorable Rashtrapati Niwas.
As our visit ended Rockyji picked us up from the same spot that he had dropped us outside the ticket office and we were now headed to the Mall road. Rockyji quickly explained to us how the series of elevators up to the mall road and the Ridge worked. We bought our tickets and soon we were travelling up the confusing series of elevators up to mall road. If it hadn’t been for Rockjis instructions we very well might have joined the few people who took the elevator down again instead of taking the second elevator up!
Mall road was as crowded as I had imagined, maybe even more. We walked along with the sea of people up to the ridge where there is a view of the surrounding snow clad mountains. We passed the well known Christ Church which is the second oldest church in all of North India. We wanted to visit the interiors but it was closed for the time we were visiting, so we had to be satisfied with just taking photos of the iconic exteriors.
As we moved towards the Ridge the crowds got even denser and the notorious monkeys of Shimla made their presence felt. Swooping down and snatching ice creams from the hands of unsuspecting tourists and creating havoc.
It wasn’t a scene which appealed to us. We just took a few photos of the mountains beyond from a rare empty spot along the railings at the ridge and moved on without lingering for any time.
The best place to escape the crowds was the Gaiety theatre right on mall road. The Gaiety is a well restored Gothic styled theatre which still hosts regular plays & performances of all types. The interiors are pourable and so we bought our tickets and walked in. Except for a small group of Caucasians on an organised tour the theatre was empty. We decided to visit the balcony section first and wait for the tour below to end.
We were the only people in the balcony and we sat there and rested our legs for some time and took a few photos of this painstakingly restored theatre.
Soon the tour below ended and we walked down to the section below. It is a wonder that places like these are totally ignored by most people who visit Shimla. We visited the stage and saw the back stage area props before taking more photos of this beautiful heritage structure.
After going through the photo gallery of the theatre we left the theatre and re joined the crowd at mall road. I literally had to wait 10 minutes to take a photo of the theatre from the outside without someone stepping right in front of the camera.
We had exhausted the sights that we wanted to see in Shimla. The original plan was to have a late lunch after completing our sightseeing on mall road itself. But the heavy breakfast at the Sunnymead and the crowds of mall road meant that we preferred not to eat a formal lunch and instead buy some fruits and eat them on our walk down to Cart Road where our car would be waiting.
As we walked down to Cart Road the better half pointed to the towering Hanuman statue at the Jakhu temple a bit farther away from Shimla. We had neither the time nor the inclination to visit it so we took a photo of Hanuman standing protectively over Shimla before resuming our descent.
We returned to the cosy confines of the Sunnymead estate just in time to see the birds visit the various bird baths in and around the house. Although the mall road had lived up to its crowded reputation, the Viceregal lodge/ Rashtrapati Niwas / IIAS & the Gaiety theatre had made our sightseeing worthwhile and memorable.
We would spend the rest of our 9th wedding anniversary at the beautiful Sunnymead estate. But that is story for another post, some other time, some other day.