Discovered by chance, Dalhousie has managed to keep its old-world charm intact
The retreat of a British governor general during his trips in the Himalayas, simply tranquil Dalhousie, situated on five hills, continues to be as pristine, as beautiful and as idyllic as it was back then. Located neatly on the western edge of Dhauladhar ranges of the Himalayas, Dalhousie has the power to draw all your pains, sorrows and tiredness. In fact, the city is called the gateway to the ancient Chamba hill state, now Chamba district in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
Despite belonging to the royal state of Chamba, Dalhousie became famous during the British Raj in 1853 when a tired and overworked Lord James Andrew Ramsay, the Marques of Dalhousie, went out hunting for a suitable place to idle away a few days. He chanced upon this unexplored spot on a ridge overlooking the plains. Thereafter, he started acquiring land swiftly and bought the four hills of Tehra, Kathalag, Bakrota and Portreyn against an annual payment of Rs 2,000 to the state of Chamba. He also introduced modern connectivity here including rail and roadways as also post and telegraph.
In 1866, the British government acquired the fifth hill, Balun along with Banikhet and Bakhlow lower down. A decade later, simply tranquil Dalhousie was an established sanatorium town. By the 1920s, number of British officers and their families started arriving to the hill station for their summer break and soon it became a hub of vibrant social calendar.
As it can be quite a challenge driving on the narrow roads here, I choose to do a quick round of the city with cabbie Swarn Singh. A seventh generation Himachali, Singh not only knows the town, he loves it like he owns it. Our first stop is St John’s Church, nestled quietly in one corner of Gandhi Chowk and is the first one to be built here. Nothing much seems to have changed here when you have a look through its stately windows and stained glass. Though there are other churches in Dalhousie like St Andrews, known commonly as the Church of Scotland, they are situated in the cantonment area. St Andrews was built in 1903 by Protestant Christians while St Patrick’s is the largest one in town with a seating capacity of 300. Constructed in 1909, the church was built exclusively from contributions made by officers and ranks of the British Army. The church is, at present, managed by the Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar.
From Rabindranath Tagore who wrote a few lines here (he apparently visited the place in 1873 with his father), author Rudyard Kipling, the Nehru family and even the Dalai Lama have all sought solace here, shares Singh. Perhaps sensing that I wasn’t too convinced on what he had just told me, Singh drives me down to Subhas Baoli, a kilometre from Gandhi Chowk. History says that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose visited Dalhousie in 1937 and stayed here for around seven months while recuperating from ill health. Every day, Bose would visit this natural spring to drink its water and get back the strength to fight the Britishers. We also meet an 82-year-old man who apparently fought alongside Netaji as a part of the Indian National Army. The octogenarian has turned a recluse but still manages to keep the interest of the memorial alive.
Another reason why simply tranquil Dalhousie has been always famous is courtesy the Hindi film industry. Bollywood finds the town’s tranquil environs a perfect locale for human drama. “It was years back that I had driven superstar Hema Malini and her daughter, Esha,” recalls Singh as we pass a group of students on their way to school. I enquire from Singh as to how much do they travel every day? “It depends on where their village is… but it would be anywhere between 10-15 km a day,” he has me know.
Our next stop is Panchpulla, 2 km from GPO Square. Not too long ago, a river flowed under the five bridges here, thus the name Panch (five) and pulla (bridge). Right next to it is the samadhi of Ajit Singh, the paternal uncle of Sardar Bhagat Singh. He died here on August 15, 1947 as he was heartbroken from the news of the Partition of Punjab. It wasn’t the India he had dreamt of…
We next drive down to Khajjiar, the mini Switzerland of India. The saucer shaped plateau is surrounded by deodar and pine trees. It is one of the 160 places throughout the world to have been designated the status by the Swiss National Tourist Office. Khajjiar was officially baptised by the then Swiss Ambassador on July 7, 1992. Singh shares that Khajjiar once had an islet with a small lake surrounding it. With each passing year, the lake shrinks and is now a shallow pool today.
On our way back, Singh showed me Bakrota Hills, hidden by rich deodar that even the sun cannot pierce through. And just below lies the village of Bhatri, apparently the only one which the Britishers could never capture… And to end, it is simply tranquil Dalhousie.