Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 11 September 2010 12:01 UK

Concrete jungle encroaches on Indian hill stations

Tourists in Shimla

By Mark Tully
Nainital, India

The hill stations of India were built by the British to escape the summer heat of the plains - corners of Britain in an alien land. Now concrete and traffic are taking over, making them more and more like any other Indian town.

There are plenty of warnings to drivers on the way up to Nainital, 6,000ft (1,800m) high in the foothills of the Himalayas.

One suggests speed is adulterous saying: "If married, divorce speed."

But the warnings mean nothing to drivers who routinely overtake on blind bends as they twist and turn up the mountain.

Bus crash on a mountain road
The mountain roads can be dangerous

My journey this time was particularly hazardous because we were driving through monsoon clouds and visibility was limited to say the least.

When I reached Nainital, it was impossible to see beyond the near bank of the lake around which the town is built.

From time to time the low-lying clouds broke into rain. But this was September and the monsoon should have been over.

"It's climate change which is doing it," said Ashish Nanda, a member of one of Nainital's oldest families, who own the Swiss Hotel.

He went on to complain: "You know that nowadays we even have to use fans in the hot weather.

"What is the point of a hill station if it isn't cool?"

The Swiss Hotel is a traditional hill station building, constructed of wood and stone with a sloping roof, and is surrounded by tall conifers.

A whole crop of new hotels built in concrete have sprung up to accommodate the Indians who now holiday in the hills all year round, and they are particularly popular with honeymooners.

Ashish Nanda told me that at least Nainital was being saved from the worst ravages of developers because of a strict ban on felling trees.

Under the British, Nainital was the summer home of the governor of the United Provinces.

He lived in a 113-room palace which the locals claimed was modelled on Buckingham Palace. To me, it seems to have more of an ecclesiastical flavour, with its square towers and pointed arches.

Gossip and scandal

The most famous of the hill stations, Shimla - or Simla as it was known - was the summer home of the British viceroys.

Viceroy's residence in Simla (Shimla) in the 1930s
The viceroy's residence: Reminiscent of an English country house

They governed the whole of the vast subcontinent from the remote ridge Shimla is set on.

There, instead of the urban jungle of Calcutta (and then Delhi when the capital moved), the viceroys looked out over range after range of mountains unfolding until they reached the highest Himalayas covered in snow.

Shimla was also famous for it is social life, and the gossip that went with it.

There was plenty to gossip about because army officers and government officials, whose duties kept them in the plains, sent their wives to Shimla to avoid the heat.

Author Rudyard Kipling described the summer capital as having "one of the most unhealthy moral atmospheres in Asia".

Apparently it was not only unattached wives who created that atmosphere.

Kipling also said that courtesans who discussed "things which are supposed to be the profoundest secrets of the Indian council" could be found in the cramped houses of the crowded bazaar lying below posh Shimla.

Some of British Shimla does survive.

Two landmarks are the Victorian gothic church at one end of the town, where the viceroy worshipped, and his home at the other end of the town - a vast monument reminiscent of an English country house.

Amateur dramatics

But Shimla has expanded greatly and much of it is now a concrete jungle with all the worst features of India's inability to plan cities.

The architecture of today's Shimla makes no concessions to the fact that it is a hill station. The drab high-rise buildings could be anywhere in the plains of India.

There are hill stations dotted all over India and they all tell the same story.

Hill stations are losing their difference and becoming more and more like towns anywhere else in India

The British built them to be different from India. They were places where they could feel as though they were back home.

Their cottages had names like Woodlands and The Dingle, with neat gardens filled with dahlias, pansies and other British annuals.

There were Anglican churches, and clubs which were reserved for the British. In Shimla there was a famous theatre for that very English activity, amateur dramatics.

Now the hill stations are losing their difference and becoming more and more like towns anywhere else in India.

They suffer from the over-development, under-planning, and concrete box-architecture of the towns in the plains, the same traffic jams too.

Even the difference in temperatures is decreasing. In the summer the haze formed by pollution in the plains obscures the hill stations' unique selling point, views of the snow-capped mountains, like the ones the viceroys once enjoyed.

But all those honeymooners they attract show that going to the hills still has considerable allure.

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Country profile: India
31 Mar 11 |  Country profiles


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