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Indian Summer OverviewA fascinating selection of places which have the common feature of relating to the last years of the Raj. Shimla, the grandest hill station, the buildings a hotch-potch of European styles. Reached by the famous mountain ‘toy train’. Chandigarh, the modern ideal city built by Le Corbusier
Both the high noon of the British Empire in India and its closing years were played out in the city of Delhi and in the ‘summer capital’, Shimla (formerly Simla), dubbed by many the grandest outpost of the Pax Britannica. Tracing the ebb and flow of the Raj in two imperial capitals, this tour covers architecture, events, lifestyles, and landscapes of the Western Himalaya and numerous stories of places and people. Amritsar is part of this story, and Chandigarh provides a glimpse into Indian Utopia after Independence. Built, destroyed and rebuilt a dozen times, Delhi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and also one of the most multilayered. It is home to some sixteen million people and its heterogeneous population has genetic strands that span the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and several other parts of the world. Today, towers of chrome and steel stand side by side with centuries-old monuments built by the Mughal rulers. Between the two, the immense architectural momentum of the Raj culminated in the creation of New Delhi, still the core of this fast-expanding city.
Up in the hills of the Western Himalaya, Shimla was the summer capital of British India, the grandest of the British hill stations. For around a century, a fifth of the human race was ruled from its heights for the better part of every year. The architecture is practically a gazetteer of western styles, but often with a twist, a nod to the heritage of the subcontinent.
The town created an enigmatic way of life and the steamier side of its social world gave inspiration to Rudyard Kipling, who as a young correspondent spent some summers amidst the cedars. Many decisions that shaped India and the region were made within sight of the snow-clad Himalayas. Today it is the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh and many of the grander buildings, bungalows and streets still evoke the heyday of a past age.
West of it lies the fertile ‘Land of Five Rivers’, the Punjab. Here is the sacred city of Amritsar, site of the Golden Temple, the most sacred shrine of the Sikh faith. This was also where the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in 1919, when a crowd of unarmed civilians was fired upon. The event totally altered the face of Indian nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore was moved enough to renounce his knighthood, condemning the atrocity as ‘without parallel in the history of civilised governments’.
The border with Pakistan is close to Amritsar, and with belligerence which is almost histrionic, the sundown ceremony of lowering the flags and closing the gates is played out daily. Nearby is the former princely state of Kapurthala where the Francophile ruler, Jagatjit Singh, completed a palace in 1908, loosely modelled on Versailles. He tried to introduce French as his court language.
When the Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947 the state capital Lahore was replaced in the Indian portion by a brand new city, Chandigarh. Its building in the 1950s was a deliberate break with the past. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it ‘a new city of free India, totally fresh and wholly responsive to the future generations of this great country.’ Led by Le Corbusier, the city design and urban elements were unabashedly modern and western. Still admired and criticized in equal measure by planners, architects and urban historians, it is yet rated as among the best cities in India in which to live.