It’s Mumbai in July, and the air is so thick that even the ever-diligent auto rickshaw drivers are disinclined to get up from their divans and deliver you to your destination. You’re barely five minutes out of the shower, and it’s already time for another. You camp out by the swimming pool – when it’s not doused by steaming monsoon rains – then scorch the soles of your feet walking to the water’s edge. You’ve explored the Indian landscape till you feel you can explore no more, but have a few days spare before your flight home. It’s too hot to eat, to talk and even to think, let alone see the city sights.
You’re faced with two choices. Either retreat indoors to an air-conditioned cafe, hotel room or shopping mall, or do as they did in the heyday of the Raj and as holiday-makers across India continue to do today: decamp back in time to the kinder, cooler climes of an Indian hill station.
Hill stations, a term loosely denoting towns and villages situated at high altitudes and designed for purposes of escape and recreation, number around two dozen dotted about India. Some were originally inaugurated as summer capitals of Indian provinces or princedoms; others as summer headquarters for the British governorate. Though today all have lost their legislative or political importance, they nevertheless remain popular summertime destinations and compelling relics of an India long past.
Simply reaching such places is half the fun. Arriving in Matheran, a relatively easy escape from the Mumbai heat, is accomplished first by a vertiginous ride on a narrow-gauge train – from whose windows groups of young Indian men enjoy hanging as precariously as possible – followed by a choice of journeying on foot, horseback, or by palanquin in the manner of Queen Victoria.
Getting to Darjeeling, in the verdant tea-growing mountains of West Bengal, requires a day-long voyage on a tiny, clattering train along streets so narrow that locals retract their laundry lines and overhead canopies when they hear it approaching. Getting to Ooty, a hill station in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, involves a five-hour trip by UNESCO-rated miniature train. On the bus trip to Kodaikanal, also in Tamil Nadu, a local Hindu priest may board simply to bless you, in the event that the bus – and you along with it – sails off over one of many hairpin mountain bends.
Once there and recovered from the various thrills of the ride, a stay in one of India’s hill stations assumes not only a more temperate aspect, but also reverts to an era long-vanished elsewhere. In Shimla, proclaimed the Himalayan summer capital of the British Raj in 1864, the town hall, library and post office are half-timbered mock Tudor, the Viceregal Lodge resembles a Scottish baronial castle, and the Gaiety Theatre still puts on regular amateur theatricals. An evening might be spent walking up to Scandal Point, or strolling The Mall. In Darjeeling, one can buy temporary membership at the Darjeeling Gymkhana Club or the Planters' Club, and stay in a musty, chintzy room at the Windamere Hotel, to be served tea by white-gloved waiters. Down south in what was known during the British Raj as 'Snooty Ooty', afternoons can be spent perusing the Victorian headstones at St. Stephen’s Church or rare tomes at the century-and-a-half old Nilgiri Library.
But the trick to making the most of a stay at a hill station is to visit when the stress of a voyage through India necessitates a temporary hark-back to a gentler world of rose gardens and cucumber sandwiches. Enjoy a spot of croquet on the lawns of the antique-stuffed Chapslee Hotel near Shimla, row a boat on the lake at Kodaikanal, take a pony ride in Matheran or enjoy fresh Darjeeling tea at the Glenburn plantation within sight of soaring Kanchenjunga.
And however you choose to kick back and escape the rigours of modern India, make sure to leave time for the ubiquitous hill station cocktail hour, when the ghosts of Rajahs and rulers past flit out from the overgrown churchyards in search of that one last perfectly poured gin and tonic.