India’s hill stations: rising to the challenge of the 21st century

The cool allure of India’s hills drew the British onwards and upwards during the Raj. The hill stations they established are enduring attractions that offer relief from the heat and dust of the plains during summer and even – in the north – offer snowfields and skiing in the winter.

In fact they’re so popular that they risk being loved to death. Shimla, famous as the former summer capital of the Raj and beloved by Bollywood directors for its historic and scenic backdrops, is heavily visited. This means that while there’s a mass of things to do and see, there’s also increasingly chaotic traffic and people-pressure on the landmark Victorian buildings, institutions and infrastructure. So what to do?

'Shimla' by ruffin_ready. Creative Commons Attribution Licence

Well, the notion of reduce, reuse, recycle has been taken on board in Shimla. One of the town’s working strategies is to reuse old for new, and reviving colonial buildings for contemporary purposes is one way to keep historic buildings viable. The massively opulent 1888 Viceregal Lodge (more baronial castle than lodge, actually) now houses the highly regarded Indian Institute of Advanced Studies and there’s public access to its gorgeous grounds. The Gaiety Theatre, one of the hubs of Raj-era social life, has recently been restored and is a hive of dramatic activity where theatre workshops and visiting performers now compete with local dramatic society productions.

'Institute of Advanced Studies' by shradda chaudhari. Creative Commons Attribution Licence

Green initiatives are being introduced. The Himalayan Queen – the world heritage-listed toy train that makes a daily zig-zag journey up to and down from Shimla – has invested in solar panels on each coach to reduce fuel consumption. Plastic bags have been (mostly successfully) banned in local shops for some years; a knock-on effect of the ban is that more newspapers are being recycled to make paper bags in replacement. And while littering is still an issue, at least paper disintegrates faster with the monsoon rains (and makes it easier for the town’s resident monkeys to perform their own daily digestive recycling initiatives).

Nostalgia isn’t the prerogative of the British in India. Conversations with older Shimla locals reveal a reluctance to embrace modern building styles and standards. This is balanced by the realisation that 100-year-old buildings designed to be staffed by an army of servants are hard to maintain without them. Mock-Tudor cottages in various stages of decaying grandeur (often with emphasis on the decaying, rather than the grandeur) are dotted all over town.

'Himalayan Queen' by mkosut. Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Some are in use as heritage hotels that cater to all budgets; some are government guesthouses and private residences. Others are tumbledown ruins, with overgrown gardens of roses and honeysuckle. All are great photo opportunities. A fond childhood memory of many is the daily performance of the police band, in the classic bandstand on the Ridge, up until the late 1960s. The bandstand is now a restaurant, with terrific views across the valley.

Similar scenarios can be found throughout the popular northern hill stations – like Manali and Mussoorie – while less-visited locations such as Kasauli and Chail retain more of a small-town feel. Heading south, hill stations in the Western Ghats – Kodaikanal, Ootacamund (immortalised during the Raj as ‘snooty Ooty’) and Conoor for example – offer a gentler experience. The hills here are just that – hilly rather than mountainous – with manicured tea plantations interrupting the contoured slopes.

'Western Ghats'  by aloshbennett. Creative Commons Attribution Licence

Outdoor pursuits enjoyed by the Raj visitors are still available in the hill stations. Marked walking trails abound for do-it-yourself types. Entrepreneurial, multi-lingual guides offer their services for hiking and wildlife-watching in spectacular landscapes. There is horse-riding, golf and cricket. While history and politics may have well and truly moved on, the attractions of the past are still well and truly present.