It is common saying that Shimla is the Queen of Hill Stations and Mall Road is the Queen of the Roads in Shimla. That is why a large share of the amount flowing from the kitty of the Asian Development Bank is being spent on the facelift of The Mall these days. Streetlamp posts have been replaced by gorgeous new ones. These go with the ambiance of The Mall and the surroundings. We feel happy when the tourists appreciate its beauty and say that it looks exactly like a small town English market.
Although the crowd here, now, is not what it used to be 30 or 40 years ago. It is rowdy, loud and raucous today. The adage ‘apparel oft proclaims the man’ was in vogue then and visiting Mall meant dressing to the nines. Today, visible is the sea of casuals, some even wearing ‘hawai chappals’.
Shimla had become the summer capital of India in 1864 and five years after that ‘The Mall was but an ordinary hill road, fit for use only by pedestrians, horses, jhampans and dandies.’ I am stealing a few words from Sir Edward Buck to explain these means of transportation – jhampans and dandies. Jhampan was certainly a jolting, back-aching carrier which looked like a miniature bedstead with curtains on all sides to protect the rider from the sun or rain and carried by four coolies on their shoulders. The dandy was even worse. It was a loose durry or carpet fixed by iron rings on to a single pole, so as to form both seat and footrest for the ‘load’. Imagine white men ruling over the country and travelling in such carriers. In many parts of The Mall of that time, Edward Buck writes in ‘Simla Past and Present’, “only two horses could go abreast, and this not without some danger to the riders, as in early days ponies were generally unruly, squealing beasts, always ready to kick or bite, and very different from the well-trained animals which are now (1904) ridden in Simla.”
Lord Mayo was the Viceroy from 1869 to 1872 and he had a powerful hill pony. When he used to ride on this pony on The Mall, pedestrians had to cling themselves to the sides so as not to put the Viceroy into any inconvenience. The Mall remained very narrow till 1878 – 14 years after Shimla became the summer capital of India. Still why do several say that British rule was swift and fast in delivering things? I have no answer.
It was during the tenure of Lord Lytton (1876-1880) that first impetus to good roads in Shimla was given. The Mall stretching from the Viceregal Lodge (present IIAS), some 10 miles in length, was widened and improved into a carriage drive. It was in 1879 that the first wheeled vehicle – a jinirickshaw – entered onto The Mall. There is a bridge on The Mall called Combermere Bridge built in 1828 and joins the main Shimla with Chhota Shimla. That time it was a ‘sangah’ or mountain bridge made of pine trees. It was improved several times and latest in 1971-72 under the eyes of Engineer Tara Chand Tondon. The bridge is a part of The Mall which stretches up to the Secretariat. Such is the heritage and history of the Mall Road of Shimla.
The Mall is being given a bridal look these days besides the already talked about ambient illumination. It was tarred recently and now cobblestone work, an idea borrowed from European cities, is on. During the British times, the drains were cobblestoned and the road was pucca. The water flowing in the cobblestone drains would throughout its journey gradually seep through the purposely not cemented joints of cobblestones and make the lower ground humid and moist, advantageous to the green growth.The present reverses that order. The drains now have been cemented thus the water gushes to the outlet. Shimlaites feel that cobblestone Mall is waste of money and is encroachment on the town’s ‘history’. They feel that cobblestones have snatched the original spirit and the inherent ambience of the Mall.
Raaja Bhasin calls present Simla “a gracious lady who has aged and wrinkled long before her time”. Are we bringing her grace back by this cosmetic job?
(The writer is a retired bureaucrat)