By Vishal Gulati
Shimla: The Queen of Hills, as Shimla was fondly called by the British colonial rulers, is fast losing its grand heritage. The relics of the Raj are either crumbling or being reduced to ashes.
Gorton Castle, one such iconic structure that commands a view from all corners of Shimla, was partially gutted in a fire early Tuesday. The building, constructed in 1904 in the half-timbered Tudor style – all-wooden frames and shingled eaves – housed the state’s auditor and accountant general.
“It’s really sad to know that the grand heritage is fading away from memory one after the other,” Ian Sherwin, a tourist from Wellington in New Zealand, told IANS.
Visibly depressed to see the crumbling Gorton Castle, he said local authorities “must ensure safety of the British heritage that gives a distinct character to this town”.
More than 60 years after the British left, this Himalayan town still attracts their descendants who are eager to know their roots.
Before Gorton Castle, another heritage structure, a railway station at Kandaghat, some 25 km from here, also built by the British in 1903, was totally reduced to ashes May 3, 2011.
Records with the state fire department say that since independence at least a dozen British-era buildings in Shimla, most of them under government occupation, have been consumed by fire.
The prominent ones include Snowdown Hospital, Wildflower Hall, Kennedy House, Peterhoff, the Western Command Headquarters, Raj Bhavan, General Post Office and US Club Army Mess.
Home to seven viceroys during the British Raj and housing the Punjab High Court where Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathu Ram Godse was tried, the rebuilt Peterhoff, now a state-run guest house-cum-hotel, was gutted in a massive fire Jan 12, 1981. It then housed the Raj Bhavan.
Likewise, Wildflower Hall, also rebuilt and now a landmark luxury hotel on Shimla’s outskirts, was destroyed in a fire in 1990.
It was once the residence of Lord Kitchener, the commander-in-chief of the British Army in India who went on to play a significant role in the early years of World War I, though he died midway through it.
“Lack of fire-fighting equipment in most of the heritage buildings is mainly responsible for fire-related incidents,” said a senior fire official.
“Since most of these structures are wooden, it’s practically impossible to control a fire once it starts,” he added.
Shimla, which served as the summer capital of British India between 1864 and 1939, currently has 91 British-era heritage buildings, but most are in bad shape.
The hydrants used by the British to clean the streets of the town are either missing or have been rendered useless. Even the stately emblems that adorned the British buildings have been stolen, old-timers say.
Still there are some honourable exceptions: Ellerslie, housing the state secretariat; the Vidhan Sabha; the Town Hall; the United Services Club; Barnes Court, which is the Raj Bhavan; and the Viceregal Lodge, which is home to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.
Conservationists are keeping their fingers crossed they stay this way. Amen to that!