The Hill Station Caught in a Time Warp

In this classic Himachal Pradesh hill station, find warmth in old buildings from the 19th century
A view of the hills around Kasauli
A view of the hills around Kasauli

If you had come to buy these same gloves a week ago, they would have cost you Rs 90,&rdquo announces the woman, holding out a pair of black gloves with a wavy pattern in grey. Perhaps I appear puzzled, because she looks at me with the air of one explaining something to a very stupid child. &ldquoBecause it was snowing, madam. You couldn&rsquot take your hands out of your pockets even to pick up a cup of tea, without these. But now the sun is out, so...,&rdquo she trails off half-heartedly.

With minimal bargaining, we acquire two cheery woollen caps and three pairs of gloves two black-and-grey &lsquoChinese&rsquo ones, one bright blue and hand-knitted. Once breathing into our cupped hands is no longer necessary, we return to our slow amble down the cobblestoned market street that does so much to maintain Kasauli&rsquos reputation as North India&rsquos best-known hill-station-in-a-time-warp.

Family friends and websites alike have told me that Kasauli has &ldquoa British colonial feel&rdquo, so I&rsquom expecting the cobbled road, gabled roofs and potted geraniums, and even the sight of bread and butter pudding on the Hotel Alasia menu doesn&rsquot surprise me. But it&rsquos the angrez-style weather talk that catches me unawares. &ldquoKaise ho, aunty&rdquo calls a young woman to a sari-clad lady. &ldquoKya thandi hawa chal rahi hai na&rdquo A hotel waiter describes in unsolicited, sorrowful detail at exactly what hour of evening the wind will start to blow, and when a slippery frost will form on the road. Later that afternoon, when Father Ashanand, the gentle young priest who&rsquos just been posted to Kasauli&rsquos old Anglican church, excitedly shows us a musically-annotated video recording of last weekend&rsquos snowstorm on his cellphone, I&rsquom convinced. In Kasauli, the weather is the only news.

To give Kasauliwallahs some credit, though, winter here does have many shades. It can be wet and windy, grey and gloomy, or as crisp and golden as a crunchy slice of toast. We have good luck &mdash it&rsquos a bleak, grey morning when we arrive, but two almost-toasty days follow. The wind stays sharp as a whiplash, but the sun warms your back as soon as you&rsquore out of the shadows. &ldquoArrey, madam, I can&rsquot tell you how lucky you are,&rdquo gushes Aruna, who helps run the reception (and much else) at Ros Common, the Himachal Tourism hotel where we&rsquore staying. &ldquoIt was raining, then it was snowing. Grey, then white, then grey again &mdash no blue sky. We&rsquove been aching to see this for two months&rdquo &lsquoThis&rsquo is pronounced while waving expansively in the direction of a semi-circle of snow-clad peaks that seems almost to surround us as we sit in the semi-paved garden of the restored colonial bungalow. I&rsquove never been much of an enthusiast for mountain views, but this is simply stunning.

Aruna points out the Dhauladhar range and the famous peak called Choor Chandni, all the while providing tidbits about Ros Common&rsquos previous lives. &ldquoThis used to be a girls&rsquo school, and then a CID office. The hotel started in 1983. I first came here from Shimla with my uncle, in 1987 &mdash it was my first posting. There was none of this cement and paving then, it was a garden a mass of creepers, and roses and ghadi phool (they look just like the dial of a watch) growing all over the roof. I just took one look at it, and at this view, and fell in love. I&rsquove been here ever since,&rdquo she laughs. The old mali responsible for that glorious garden retired a few years ago, and the riot of life and colour has since receded into a more subdued, matronly existence black wrought-iron chairs and tables, with only the odd yellow cosmos peeking through. &ldquoLots of things have changed here, even though we tried to preserve everything,&rdquo muses a pensive Aruna. &ldquoThis was built as a private house with interconnected rooms, but we walled up the doors &mdash guests complained about the sound travelling. We replaced the old wood pelmets with curtain rods, but they keep falling off &mdash today&rsquos nails don&rsquot stick in these walls&rdquo

Kasauli has many buildings dating back to the 19th century, though they&rsquove been through several incarnations since. The imposing grey stone structure of the Protestant Christ Church was erected in the 1840s, and although the fittings were redone over the next 50 years, a lot of the woodwork &mdash the pews, the gallery and the altar &mdash is very old. (There&rsquos also the stone engraving of the Ten Commandments, whose sonorous magic can only be absorbed by reading them aloud when you&rsquore there.) The Lady Linlithgow Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients is now the Research and Training Wing of the Central Research Institute. The Kasauli Club was founded as the Kasauli Reading and Assembly Rooms in 1880, while the twin hotels now known as Maurice and Maidens began life in the 19th century as the Kasauli Hotel and Hotel Grand. The faintly seedy Kalyan Hotel used to be Kali Charan and Sons, a fancy store which stocked French wines, Scotch whiskies, Swiss dry fruits and British cakes and cookies. All that remains of the original owners is the statue of a black cocker spaniel outside, presumably the likeness of a loved pet.

The old may not have stayed unaltered, but not much that&rsquos new is allowed in. The town is administered by a half-military Cantonment Board, which is fairly strict about what it permits. &ldquoConstruction is not banned entirely, but new properties are not allowed. If you have existing property that you want to build upon, you have to submit a plan of the proposed changes, and a maximum of 10-15 percent increase is allowed,&rdquo explains old Mr Gupta, who&rsquos been running Gupta Brothers, Kasauli&rsquos most well-stocked all-purpose store since 1978, and was once elected Vice President of the Cantonment Board. &ldquoYou see, there are more than 60 bungalows owned by really big guns. And they don&rsquot want anyone new to come in.&rdquo Mr Gupta is still smiling sadly when a burly gentleman in the store jumps into the fray. &ldquoHah All these folk supported the British and got a knighthood,&rdquo he smirks, &ldquoThey don&rsquot want anyone else to get a piece of the pie. The idle rich, y&rsquoknow, they don&rsquot want the hoi polloi around.&rdquo

It&rsquos certainly incredible how many recognisable names from Delhi and Punjab own summer homes in Kasauli. There are the khandani rayees &mdash like Khushwant Singh, whose house is inscribed with the name of his grandfather, Teja Singh Malik the army-wallahs &mdash a host of generals and brigadiers too numerous to name the artist-intellectuals &mdash like painter Vivan Sundaram (who recently lent his house to actor Pankaj Kapur when Kapur had trouble finding a place to stay) not to mention doctors and lawyers. More recent arrivals &mdash politicians and cricketers &mdash have to settle for what they can get a mansion, but outside the town. Surjeet Singh Barnala&rsquos massive estate is on the way down to Parwanoo, while Yuvraj Singh is building his home in Jagjit Nagar, 8km away.

The other source of visitors to Kasauli are the nearby boarding schools &mdash earlier Lawrence School, Sanawar, but now several others. &ldquoPeople come to get their kids admitted, then later to visit them,&rdquo says Jai Kishan Thakur of Daily Needs. Thakur and his son Akhilesh are the third and fourth generation to run this popular shop, still remembered for its ham sandwiches and hamburgers by nostalgic old Sanawarians. &ldquoEarlier the kids used to come down every Sunday. But recently there have been problems &mdash too much money, drinking, misbehaving with elders. Now students are allowed just one or two trips monthly, and then too accompanied by their teachers,&rdquo rues Thakur.

New Sanawarians may have been partially barred from the town, but plenty of the old ones can be found looking down from the walls of Sharma&rsquos Photography Studio. A curly-haired, impish Pooja Bedi (next to her mother Protima) shares space with an impossibly young Maneka Gandhi and an equally unlined Sanjay Dutt. There are also gorgeous portraits of Farooq Sheikh and Deepa Sahi, though it&rsquos only when I see Shah Rukh Khan circa 1990 that I realise why they&rsquore together here. &ldquoYes, Maya Memsaab was shot here,&rdquo smiles Mr Sharma. &ldquoThat house at the corner, opposite the church, was Maya&rsquos house. And Paresh Rawal was the dukandar of the shop next door.&rdquo

I summon up my memory of Ketan Mehta&rsquos film, and it&rsquos true, it&rsquos all echoing streets and swirling mists. The mists are missing, but this is certainly the same place, in the same season. We walk all the way up the Upper Mall without meeting anyone except the crotchety old Sikh gentleman who guards the entrance to the Kasauli Club. There&rsquos no sign of students (rowdy or otherwise), or parents, or even the odd brigadier walking his dog. Best of all, there seem to be barely any other tourists &mdash except on the obligatory but pointless trek up to Monkey Point, where a whole busload of college girls were being shepherded along. We see no tourists in two days. But we decide to spend the third morning in even more splendid isolation &mdash walking along Gilbert Trail, a pine-fringed hill path that veers off the tarred road just above the Army Holiday Home. I tread carefully, imagining some memsahib a century ago walking the same path. We walk for two blissful hours without meeting a soul, listening to the wind whistle in the pines. Maybe, I say to myself, Mr Thakur at Daily Needs has a point &mdash &ldquoYeh badal jayega toh phir Kasauli nahi rahega&rdquo


Getting There

By Train 
Your best options are the Kalka Shatabdi, or the Kalka Mail. From Kalka, the fastest way to get to Kasauli is by road &mdash one hour on a bus, or an overpriced taxi. A more picturesque option is to take the Kalka-Shimla &lsquotoy train&rsquo till Dharampur, from where you can hop on a local bus for the remaining 12 km to Kasauli.

By road
Kasauli is a comfortable 6hr drive from Delhi (325km).

Where to Stay
Hotel Ros Common is a lovely old bungalow converted into a comfortable six-room hotel by the HPTDC. Glorious view, laidback but friendly service, and great chicken sizzlers.

Hotel Alasia is old and atmospheric, though the lawn looks rather sorry for itself and the old games room hasn&rsquot recovered from a fire a few years ago. There&rsquos an almost-Victorian carpeted lounge complete with a piano, and functioning fireplaces in some rooms.

Hotel Anchal is located at the end of the Lower Mall, Anchal and its competitor Gian provide options for budget travellers. Basic, clean rooms with attached baths. The incredible &lsquofamily suite&rsquo sleeps eight and has its own balcony overlooking the valley.

What to Eat
Eat a bun-sum (a hot samosa stuffed in a bun) at Narender Singh&rsquos shop in the bazaar. If you&rsquore feeling intrepid, try his other &lsquospecial item&rsquo &mdash bun-gulab jamun (&ldquoWoh jam jaisa ho jata hai,&rdquo offers its inventor). Try the Daily Needs burger, with its peppery ham and perfectly toasted caraway-strewn bun (tell them to go easy on the ketchup). Definitely stop by the chai shop at the end of the bazaar for a plate of pakoras in the evening &mdash superb by any standards.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller