My Travels Through The Himalayas – I – Monuments of Simla – 1

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My Travels Through The Himalayas – I

Monuments of Simla-1

Viceregal Lodge (Now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study)

I said in the last post that the British Empire in India was ruled from the Viceregal Lodge from 1889 onwards. Built on the summit of the Observatory Hill, it’s an imposing building, with a housing capacity of about 800 people – the Viceroy had a retinue of about 400 people. Besides, he used to have house guests from England and from the Indian royal families. Hence, Lord Dufferin felt the need to build this grand mansion in Simla at the height of the Empire. During the colonial period, it was an all – White area – only the Indian princes were the exceptions who could go in. Towards the end of the colonial period, this building also served as the venue for the Simla Conference, attended by all the important leaders of the India, presided by Lord Mountbatten, which resulted in the decision to partition the sub-continent. The round table around which they sat to have this conference is kept in the room near the entrance, which has been converted into a museum of the artifacts from those days. But before that, this building saw many a ball and dinner being hosted, attended by the dignitaries of the land and abroad, many important meetings took place here and at one point, Gandhi was kept under house arrest in the Council Chamber of this building – so called because the Viceroy used to meet his Council members there. The original silk upholstery, brought from Damascus, is still hanging on the walls of the long Morning Room, though now showing the signs of age. The entire building is made of greenish granite and Burma teak wood panelling. Railings  along the main staircase are made of fir-wood. Bringing all these blocks of stone on the backs of mules along the steep slopes of the hill and building this huge mansion after levelling the peak of the hill itself is a testimony to the architectural genius of the British. This was also the first building in Asia to get electricity.

The chambers of the Viceroy and the Vicereine are still kept exactly in their original form. The upholstery is changed from time to time, but they try to match the print of the cloth to the prints in the photographs they have of the original. These rooms are not in use.

After Independence, the building was used by the President of India for a few days a year when he visited Simla. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who had been an academic and an eminent philosopher before he became the President, donated this building to the nation and built a prestigious Postdoctoral research institution here, called the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS). The erstwhile Ball Room, the Drawing Room, The Dining Room and the Council Chamber form the various parts of the library of the IIAS. The Belgian chandeliers made of sterling silver still hang from the ceilings of the Ball Room (now a part of the library) and also in the Morning Room (now the seminar room for the Fellows). I have attended and presented papers at many seminars in this room. The main rooms which were used by the Viceroy’s guests are reserved for the distinguished scholars who visit this Institute. Fellows occupy as research-offices the rooms which were used by the members of the Viceroy’s family and their guests. There are two rooms connected to each other in a corridor called the Princess Corridor, flanked by other rooms. The larger of these two rooms was the sleeping area of Lord Curzon’s daughter. The other room connected to it was her living room. I was given this living room to stay in! Her sleeping room is the Fellows’ Lounge now, where they meet and sometimes hold smaller seminars. It’s big enough for about 25 people to sleep in! 🙂

Of course a building like this not only has elite-class luxurious rooms, but also the dark dungeons and tunnels and much plainer and smaller servants’ quarters. Going from the elite-class area to this part is like transcending into another world. When I went there, these tunnels were so dark one couldn’t see anything here. But now tube lights have been installed there. They contain a wine-cellar, storage area, washing area and the living quarters of the servants. The storage area is rumoured to have been a temporary prison, because of the heavy metal door it has. But there are another door and a large window on the other side, making it easy for anyone to go out of this side. This made me suspect the story of the prison. On making enquiries, I was told this was a storage area. The labyrinths of this part of the building end into dead ends and it’s easy to lose one’s way here. Once a German architect came here and I took him to this side. He explained how these thick walls of labyrinths actually support the weight of the massive building – the living area, where we stayed has three storeys above the ground and the labyrinths have four storeys below the ground.

During the rainy season, in the night the building looks truly haunted with clouds floating in the garden and enveloping the building. Indeed, there are many ghost stories about this place, but the only people who are supposed to have seen the ghosts are the security guards who keep the watch in the night! 🙂 I was told some Viceroy’s (not Curzon) daughter committed suicide in her sleeping room next to my room and in the night one can see her coming out of one room and going into another, dressed in white. I was so scared I could never stay there after evening!

I talked about the monkeys of Simla in the last post. These monkeys are always hanging on the walls so that we could never open our windows and doors. We were told about a monkey who once went in through an open window and picked up a dictionary from a Fellow’s table, thinking it was something edible. Taking it out, when it realised it wasn’t edible, it brought it back and left it at the reception desk of the building near the entrance! Quite a decent monkey that was. 🙂

In 1927, one end of the building was extended – this extension being called the Public Entry. It held offices of some staff. Now too it has some offices, but the first floor is given as residence to the old Fellows who can’t walk up the hill.

Facing this building is the Observatory House, which was the residence of Colonel Boileau and his brother. One brother was an architect and the other an engineer. The market below the hill is named as Boileaugunj after them. Observatory House is even older than the Viceregal Lodge – the former was built in 1840 when there was no Viceregal Lodge and the Viceroy used to stay in Peterhoff – more about this in the next post. Now the Observatory House serves as a guest house of the IIAS and its dining room is the Fellows’ dining room.

The Observatory House has the first indoor swimming pool in Asia – of course used only by the guests of the house and by the Viceroy and his guest. Behind the Viceregal Lodge is a huge stepped garden sprawling down the hill with a fountain, a sun-dial with differences in railway timings of Madras and Simla marked on it and a map etched on a brass plate which shows the gradients and peaks of Simla and its surroundings. There is also the first indoor sports stadium in Asia – complete with a tennis court.

Near the entrance of the campus was a large stable for the horses of the Viceroy and his staff – there are about a hundred rooms there for the horses and their grooms. Now this part has been completely renovated into two-room suites and used by the participants in seminars as residence.

Down the slopes are the houses of the Viceroy’s officials, now used as Fellows’ residences. I lived in one such villa, known as the Dell Villa and perhaps even older than the Observatory House – judging by the kind of minarets it had on its two corners. It is built on the edge of a precipice that looks at a deep valley below – hence the name Dell Villa.

Reversing the earlier policy, now only the Fellows and staff can have access to all parts of the building. Visitors are allowed till the main entrance hall, where a tourist guide explains about the building to them. Foreign visitors are usually not housed inside this building. Since I was a Fellow there, I had the occasion to see all parts of the building and I took some photographs.

Unfortunately, the building shows signs of decay because of excessive use. Although efforts are being made to renovate the building, the process of decay of this heritage monument can’t be checked. It’s the responsibility of the government to preserve this building and eventhough a lot of resources are constantly spent to keep it in shape, I strongly feel it should be handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India and turned into an archaeological museum. The IIAS should be shifted to a modern building. This will also be convenient for the Fellows, because despite all the historical importance of this place, it’s actually not a good idea to make this building into a research institution. First, the historical baggage of this building is too distracting for the scholars. Second, modern amenities can’t be installed in the building because it’s a heritage monument. In cold weather Fellows shiver because central heating can’t be installed and electric heaters can’t be used for too long because of wood work. A modern building will serve the research purpose of the scholars better, while the ASI will do justice to this building.

The Viceregal Lodge at Night

Archana and other Scholars in the Fellows’ Dining Room in the Observatory House

Observatory House with a Green Roof (View from the Top of the Viceregal Lodge)

Dell Villa

Entrance Hall Seen from My Room

Entrance Hall and Reception Desk

Table of Partition of India

Fellows’ Seminar in the Morning Room

My Room in the Princess Corridor

Archana (Extreme Right) at a Seminar in the morning Room

Archana Chairing a Seminar in the Fellows’ Lounge

German Architect Near the Wine Cellar

Viceregal Lodge after Snowfall

Come back for the next post – Monuments of Simla – 2

as research-offices

10 Responses to “My Travels Through The Himalayas – I – Monuments of Simla – 1”

    Archana live!
    How about ur Associate friends,Archana?
    These wonderful and fascinating pictures do remind me my happy days in the GOD’S OWN COUNTRY.
    Let me poetically explore:

    It grants all wishes,
    Fearsome, intriguing
    And mystery to many.
    His magic unravels
    Through vivid animation and screenplay.

    Jaydeep Sarangi

  2. Archana says:

    Thanks, Jaydeep,
    I think I’ll do a post on my reminiscences of Simla, in which I’ll talk about the Associates as well! Wait for the post.

  3. oby says:

    Once again a wonderful post. Thank you so much for going into all the details…that is what makes traveling so interesting. It feels like one is there and experiencing oneself. I especially liked the part about the place being haunted. I have always found the idea of ghosts fascinating. You must have really enjoyed your time there. Thank you once again for sharing your story and travels with us. If you have more I would love to see them.

  4. Archana says:

    Thanks, keep coming back. There is a lot more! 🙂

  5. Shreesh Chaudhary says:

    I can say only one word for your essay and pictures – Exquisite!
    May the Goddess bless you!

  6. Archana says:

    Prof. Shreeshji,

  7. hilal says:

    Dear Archana

    Lovely piece of work. I walked down the lane of memories and relived them. I still remember that we always had differance of opinion and use to discuss a lot. It was fun

  8. Archana says:

    Hi Hilal,
    Thanks for your comment. Keep coming back for more on Simla and Himachal.
    Hope we will keep on having differences of opinion. 🙂

  9. Jaydeep Sarangi,writer/editor/professor says:

    Always rejuvenating and refreshing!

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