The making of colonial Simla, 1815-1830: A Re-look

Simla finds first mention in passing in colonial records in 1816. At the time the  area conjointly belonged to two princely states. The first permanent European structure, a residential building, was constructed in 1822. Simla was taken over by the British in 1830 and made the summer capital in 1864.

Rajesh Kochhar

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Simla entered colonial India’s records after the Anglo-Gurkha War, 1814-1816. Colonial-time accounts as well as more recent ones tend to backdate the eminence which Simla came to acquire later.

The Gurkha conquests included Sirmaur, Nalagarh,  Bilaspur and the 12 Simla Hill states. For what is now Himachal Pradesh, the war ended in May 1815 with the surrender of the Gurkhas. Since the British were unfamiliar with the terrain and in addition had a very small number of soldiers of their own, they asked for and received help from the hill chiefs. Another major source of men and general help was the Maharaja of Patiala. After the war, territories of military importance as well as disputed ones were retained by the British. Other territories were returned to the chiefs except that parts of the states of Keonthal and Baghat  were given to the Maharaja of Patiala as a reward for his help. This is how the Simla area came to be conjointly owned by Koenthal and Patiala. Their rulers routinely gave rent-free land  to those Europeans who chose to live  there.

An important consequence of the war was the induction of the Gurkhas into British Indian army. A  Gurkha battalion was raised and headquartered at Subathu , while a detachment was posted at Kotgarh. {The formation was named the Nusseeree battalion. The rather peculiar name calls for some explanation. The British campaign was led by David Ochterlony who  otherwise carried the appointment of  the first British Resident at Delhi. As such he had received the   title Nasir-ud-Dowla (helper of the dynasty or state) from the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. He now named the new battalion after his Mughal title.}

European discovery of Simla was a corollary of the troop and officer movement between these two places {Subathu and Kotgarh}. Simla entered colonial records in May 1816, when a British surveyor pitched his tent on the Ridge ‘and found villages distant and supplies scarce’. I have found from the records of the Survey of India that his name was [Major-General] John Anthony Hodgson, later the Surveyor General of India.

The next Simla surveyor is better known. Alexander Gerard, otherwise stationed at Saharanpur, travelled from Subathu  through Simla to Kotgarh  where his brother  Patrick Gerard was based.  Alexander reached ‘Semla’ on 30 August 1817 and described it as ‘a middling sized village’. European residential interest, as distinct from the surveying interest, can be said to have begun in 1819 when a double-poled tent was pitched on the north-western extremity of the Simla ridge by Subathu-based Lieutenant Robert Ross who from 1815 till 1822 held the post of Assistant Political Agent  for the Protected  Hill States.

During 1819-1821, Simla became at temporary resort for Subathu invalids and some visitors. The first ever permanent residence in Simla was built in 1822, by Ross’ successor, Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy. He  remained in Subathu till 1829 when he was given the higher designation of Principal Assistant to the Resident at Delhi and transferred to Simla where he served till 1835. The French traveller, Victor Jacquemont, who visited Simla in June 1830 as Kennedy’s house guest, recorded that ‘Some hundreds of mountaineers were summoned, who felled the trees around, squared them rudely, and, assisted by workmen from the plains, in one month constructed a spacious house’.

Following the 1826  Bharatpore siege in which the Gurkhas played a leading part, the Governor-General Lord Amherst  visited Subathu the next year and went on to spend two months, April-June 1827, at  the Kennedy House. While his visit made Simla well known, infrastructural development came about the next year thanks to the five-month sojourn of  the Commander-in-Chief  Lord Combermere. Even though he himself stayed at the  Kennedy House, a  large number of houses had to be built for his vast entourage.  To him goes the credit for building a road around mount Jakhu and a wooden bridge over a ravine.

In 1829 Amherst’s successor Lord Bentinck announced his intention to visit Simla. Accordingly, a dak bungalow atop a hill was demolished to make way for Bentinck Castle. Less reverentially, a prominent peak on the north-west horizon was called ‘Lord  Bentinck’s nose’ from the similarity of its outline to the profile of  His Excellency. Kennedy’s 1829 transfer to Simla as Political Agent, already referred to, was no doubt a prelude to a change in the status of Simla.

In 1830, in a negotiated settlement,   13 villages  from  Keonthal and four villages from Patiala that together constituted the Simla ilaqa were transferred to the British and villages elsewhere given in their stead.  We have the names of these 17 villages, but Simla does not figure in the list. Obviously, Simla at the time was not important enough to figure in the revenue or administrative records. It would be interesting to find out the name of the village and the pargana to which the pre-British Simla belonged.

By the time Bentinck visited Simla in 1832, it was part of his empire. Finally, in 1864, it was made the summer capital.



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