While posted at Chandigarh I was specially enamoured of the hills up in the North. During the visits to the then centre of the town, Sector 17, I used to wistfully look at the Himalayan range of Dhaula Dhar. On a clear day, and Chandigarh days were mostly clear with bright sunshine and turquoise skies, the range would be clearly visible with snows clinging to its tops. A fascinating site! As luck would have it, I could never get close enough to the Dhaula Dhar.
The year 1977 was a good year when my newly-acquired wife and I forayed into the Himachal. The first trip had to be Kasauli – a place one could see on the top of the Shivaliks and close to Chandigarh. I had heard of Kasauli from my father who had been there to admit one of his ailing junior colleagues in the TB sanatorium that the place was famous for. Sanatoria, with a lot of greenery and located away from urban concentrations, was where patients of tuberculosis used to be taken to before Alexander Fleming came on the scene with his peniciline. What the patients needed was a clean and clear air not to congest the lungs further. In those days it was practically waiting it out for death in healthy environs. Maharaja of Gwalior had a bed in the Sanatorium for his people and my father took his colleague after the bed was allotted to him. The Sanatorium was still there when we visited Kasauli but not so much as a refuge for tubercular patients.
An old family friend, who has, unfortunately, passed on, from our Gwalior days was also insisting on a visit. He was a Deputy Director in the Central Research Institute located there which, I understand, has since been closed.. He had a house on the Upper Mall, a good pleasant walk away past the summer floral blooms on the two sides of the road. We had a very happy time with him. A very happy and lively man who used to be a very good sportsman in his college days, he had cultivated the same happiness and liveliness in his wife and three lovely children.
Kasauli looked every inch a colonial town. It was established by the British in the first half of the 19th Century. The place traces its origin, once again, to the British efforts to stall the progress of Gurkhas. In the process they established a garrison here. Nonetheless, it must be said that they had a knack for discovering beautiful places in the midst of nature with pleasant climate for colonization. The town, small as it was, grew around for the satisfaction of the needs of the cantonment that was established there. Once the Gurkha pressure was eased and the rebels of the 1857 War of Independence had been tamed the place remained as a sanatorium-cantonment – quiet and peaceful. The peace and quietude prevails till today along with seasonal floral blooms.
Today it is a resort for tourists, especially those who do not wish to be jostled around by the summer crowd in Simla on its Mall. Kasauli had at that time nice peaceful walks on its Malls with pines, oaks as also chestnuts whispering right through. One of the finest walks probably in the entire state one had the added pleasure of walking in the midst of blooms. We used to walk up on to the Mankey Point from where one gets a fair view of the Punjab plains spread out below. The place was around that time given away to the Indian Air Force to install their radars for early warnings about air raids from across the Western borders.
Down below in the town were the quaint shops selling nick knacks for the benefit of the tourists. The town square is dominated by the 150 years old Christ Church clock tower which had since stopped chiming. It was restored by the Army only in 2015. A nice small place with pleasant weather and lots of flowers – good for a quiet sojourn!
After a few very pleasant days at Kasauli we moved out for Chail. The idea was to catch a bus from Dharampur, a small town at the foot of the Kasauli Hills. A look at the bus that arrived made me think of other alternatives. Luckily, a taxi was passing by. I hailed it and the man agreed to go and drop us at Chail. He, however, asked for a sum that I found astronomical for a distance of about 50-odd kilometers. I had not budgeted for such an amount. Yet I thought might as well take the plunge, as it were, and we piled into it with our baggage. In those days there were no backpacks and strolleys. We had to travel not light but heavy with regular suit cases.
From Solan (or was it Kanda Ghat?) the climb, though short, was very steep. Kasauli and Chail were almost at similar elevation but Chail was higher. The climb was difficult and the Ambassador taxi started groaning as it struggled to go up. I was sure the vehicle was not in the best of conditions. Taxi owners seldom spend money for proper upkeep. Thankfully we were dropped at the Forest Rest House where we had reservation. It was a lovely place and we were among the pines on top of what was perhaps a fairly big forest training institute. The room had lots of windows and would let in sun and breeze through the conifers. It was summer but not hot at all, and one did not need woolens either.
Chail came into prominence after the Maharaja of Patiala was banned from Simla because of an incident that took place at what is known as Scandal Point. As the story goes Maharaja Bhupender Singh of Patiala eloped with the daughter of the Viceroy in 1892 because of which he was banished from Simla by the British. Peeved by British action he built up Chail as an alternative and also had the highest cricket field in the world laid there. We had managed to walk up to it – all of the 6 kms. of the climb. One gets a fascinating view of the surrounding mountains from there. I am not sure whether cricket is played there these days.
The Maharaja built up a Palace of immense proportions set in approximately 75 acres. Its ambience is royal in every respect and presents spectacular views. We would have quiet walks in it extensive and beautifully laid out grounds. Today the palace has been converted into a hotel for common folk to explore and experience the way of life of the maharajas of the bygone days.
One must mention the Himachali “aalu ka paratha” that used to be available near the bus stand. It is the famous pancake of Himachal with stuffing of potatoes. We used to go a kilometer or so every day to experience it with the Himachali pickles and curd. That’s where we could update ourselves on all that was happening in the world as that’s where fresh newspapers would be available. Sitting on the parapet on the roadside that was mostly devoid of traffic we used to get the news while chewing on the delicious parathas.
Spending almost a very pleasant week we moved on to Simla where we had reservations in a hotel. It was the peak of tourist season and crowds were maddening on the Upper and Lower Malls. It appeared to us that it was no place for a holiday. Apart from tourists, the place was so closely built up that, it seemed, many houses would not get enough of fresh air. We thought we would be better off in our Chandigarh house, and, disappointed as we were, the next day we took a taxi and came back. We have never been to Simla after that.