What? You are going to Shimla for your annual holiday?” — was the first reaction of my mother when I told her. Reason: Having been born and brought up in Delhi, one had seen Shimla, among the closest hill stations to the capital, a million times. So, when invited by Cecil, one of the most respected grand heritage hotels in the Oberoi stable, the concern was, what’s left to explore in Shimla over a weekend. But one look at the suggested itinerary and I knew I had made the right choice.
There’s something mystic and charming about the heritage of this beautiful hill station that attracts you endlessly. For variation, I decided to ditch the typical tourist spots and the usual roaming about on the famous mall road, in favour of exploring history. And it is during that exploration that I went to the Viceregal Lodge.
Described in the official tourist guides as The Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, I gave it a miss each time during my previous visits, dismissing it as yet another Sarkari building. But in the words of Srikant Peri, the very affable General Manager of Oberoi Cecil, it was a ‘must visit’ place. The fact that the hotel is walking distance from the Viceregal lodge helped matters further.
History all over
Located on the observatory hills barely minutes away from the Himachal State Museum, the Viceregal lodge, also known as the Rashtrapati Niwas, is a majestic building with an impressive façade, ringed by pine trees in sprawling lawns. Designed by the Scottish architect, Henry Irvine in 1888, the spectacular grey building made of stones, housed Lord Dufferin, the then Viceroy of India.
Historical notes on Shimla indicate that the building was the first in the entire region to get electricity, and that every stone used in its making was carried atop the hill by mules, since there was no train connectivity. After Lord Dufferin, thirteen other Viceroys stayed in the lodge prior to 1947 when India gained independence. However, it is during the independence movement that the building got its rightful moment in history. It is here that you can see, amidst grand oak spiral staircases and lavish aristocratic furnishings, the conference room that was the venue of the famous Shimla Conference in 1945.
Further, in 1947, the momentous decision to partition India and carve out the states of Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was also taken here. Despite the building now being home to a government department and a huge research library, a gallery depicting photographs such as that of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru arriving on a horse to attend the summit, and those of lavish parties organised in the ballroom by the Viceroy for princes and nawabs, is a big attraction.
Despite coming back to the hotel after such a heady historical visit, it seemed as if the dose of heritage hadn’t yet ended. The over 100 year old building of the Oberoi Cecil is in itself a treat for history lovers. The staff proudly explains the legacy of the hotel, and the fact that it is at Cecil that Late MS Oberoi, the doyen of Indian hotel industry and the group’s founder chairman, started his career as a front office clerk.
Today, after restoration, the hotel retains its colonial charm with luxurious rooms around a magnificent wooden atrium providing a splendid view of the mountains, with modern day facilities like an indoor heated swimming pool, a spa, health club and activity centre for kids being a big draw. For all those who haven’t been to Shimla and are interested in exploring the history of colonial times, a trip to the hill station and in particular to the Viceregal Lodge is simply not to be missed.