Golf, river rafting, hot water springs, heritage walks, local cuisine… there’s a lot to do around Lord Curzon’s favourite haunt Naldehra, as ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find out
The clouds hung low over Shimla, where houses perched on the mountains like mushrooms on a giant dunghill. At least, that’s how it looked after 200 years of unbridled development. Drawn by its cool weather and pleasant surroundings, the British elite trickled into Shimla between 1813 and the early 1830s, helping it evolve as a centre of education, entertainment and high life. Viceroy John Lawrence shifted India’s summer capital to Shimla in 1864 and it remained so till 1947. In the pre-independence years between April and October, the British Empire – stretching from Aden to Myanmar, nearly a fifth of the human race – was governed from these heights.
Today, the bustling capital of Himachal Pradesh seemed to split at its seams, as we turned left from the only traffic light in town and continued 22km north to the laidback retreat of Naldehra. Smitten by the undulating grassy meadows fringed by tall cedar trees, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905) devoted much of his time here. This scenic spot was Curzon’s favourite campsite and he even renamed his youngest daughter Alexandra as Naldehra – a rare departure from the norm of naming places and sightseeing spots after British officers and their families. Curzon set up India’s oldest golf course here, also one of the highest 18-hole golf links in the world. Its undulating terrain made the Par 68 course one of the most challenging in the country.
We swung up the slope of the Chalets Naldehra driveway and a lift transported us to the upper level. Beyond the manicured lawn and a pretty garden, Finnish log cabins stood at multiple levels, each unique in design. Set on a 2-acre property owned by the enterprising father-son duo Yatish and Amish Sud, it was originally a personal holiday home close to the golf course that had now become a resort. Every chalet, named after historic people from the region, sported nameplates – F Younghusband Chalet was named after explorer, adventurer and friend of Lord Curzon Sir Francis Younghusband. The Gerard Chalet celebrated brothers Patrick and James Gerard, early explorers who mapped the hills. Captain Kennedy Chalet was dedicated to Charles Pratt Kennedy, the first Political Officer to the Hill States, a Scotsman who built the first pucca house in Shimla – Kennedy House. Sir Henry Collet Chalet hailed British botanist and army officer who authored ‘Simla Simlensis’, a handbook on the flowering plants of Shimla. Local historian Raja Bhasin, who authored the fascinating book ‘10 Heritage Walks in Shimla’ was responsible for the nomenclature and we hoped to go on a heritage walk with him.
Our room was scented with pinewood and the balcony offered a view of cedar forests and troops of curious monkeys. We really needed the nature hike after devouring all the food! The snowy peaks stood in a ragged line like tardy students at the morning assembly. We could have sat at the viewpoint for hours but chose to take a diversion and trudge up to the Naldehra golf course. There, the old temple of Nanahal Dev (or Mahu Nag), the paramount deity of the region, stood by the greens. Tourists rode horses to the sightseeing points while the adventurous tried the zipline. Some were content to pose in Himachali costumes. Even the zipline gear was up for a photo-op! By evening, we were back at Chalets Naldehra perched on the revolving restaurant, 360˚ Top of the World, the first and only one of its kind in Himachal Pradesh! Like Piz Gloria atop Swiss peak Schilthorn, made famous by James Bond, the small octagonal restaurant seated 20 and was a great place to unwind and enjoy a delicious meal with laser lights, sunset views and starry nights.
Chalets Naldehra was also perfectly placed for excursions. A long winding 25km downhill drive past rolling countryside took us to the River Sutlej cutting swiftly through gorges. White water rafting was conducted along a tame 5km section of the river. However, the rapids were so mild, they didn’t even merit having names! Starting near Sunni, the biggest thrill was a customary dip at the waterfall gushing down from the pumphouse. Serious rafting enthusiasts undertook daytrips to tackle Grade II-III rapids that began further upstream. The trip culminated at the hot water springs of Tattapani.
Tourists had circled out the therapeutic sulphur springs with stones and pebbles. Hot water bubbled forth on the right riverbank, prompting people to cool or warm their heels, take dips, mineral baths and even indulge in mud slinging! Sadly, Tattapani faced imminent threat of being submerged by reservoir waters of the Kol Dam by the end of the year. The historic Shiva Gufa (cave) was just 5km away at Saraur but we continued 40km to Mahunag instead.
The temple of Mahunag, amid forests of pine and deodar, was believed to be the embodiment of Raja Karna. As per legend, during the Mahabharata war, as Karna lay bloodied on the battlefield, Krishna lamented that the sun of magnanimity was setting. Arjuna was amazed that Krishna was praising Karna before Dharmraj Yudhishthir, the epitome of justice. To prove his point, Krishna disguised himself as an old Brahmin and went to Karna. Claiming to have heard of his large-heartedness, Krishna asked for alms. Having nothing on him, Karna slammed his jaw on his shield, dislodged his gold tooth and offered it to him. When the Brahmin rejected his bloodied offering, Karna summoned his last ounce of strength, shot a varunastra arrow into the earth, cleaned his gold tooth in the fountain and offered it anew to the Brahmin. Pleased, Krishna revealed his true form and Karna lay down his life at his feet. We marveled at the legend as much as the ornate wooden door, silver-plated entrance and the strange stone idol of the guardian deity Jallah Maharaj.
There were several Mahunag shrines dotting the region, as we discovered on our leisurely morning hike to the charming 500-year-old village of Kogi. As the sun lit up the village, the beauty of Naldehra’s surroundings came alive. The ancient temple of Nanahal Devta (Mahunag Mandir) with beautiful woodcarvings lay in the heart of the village. Despite the garish renovation job in 1994, the tower shrine retained a rustic charm. The typical Himachali village had homes covered by slate roofs and horses tied in open sheds below.
For a taste of typical pahadi cuisine we dropped by at the Grameen Bhandhar Naldehra, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it eatery cum store. Run by local women who man the adjacent Himachali Craft Centre, the intriguing menu sported items like Babru, Khairu and Siddu. They sounded more like thugs rather than dishes! Siddu, a steamed dumpling was eaten with spicy, mint-chili chutney and hot ghee. Curries like khatta (tangy) and meetha (sweet) paired well with rice.
Just 11 km from Naldehra was the country’s first private apple orchard set up by Alexander Coutts, tailor to former Viceroy of India Lord Dufferin. Established in 1887 as Hillock’s Head in Mashobra, the farm generated 90 English varieties of apples, pear, plum and ornamental plants. It gained fame as Coutts Garden and new apple varieties like Yellow Newton, King of Pippin and Granny Smith were introduced. Raised as a Research Station by ICAR in 1953, it served as the Regional Horticultural Research & Training Station and Centre for Excellence for sustainable apple farming since 1985. The station helped Himachal Pradesh become the ‘Apple State of India’ with over 238 varieties of apples. Spread over 64 acres at a height of 2286m, it housed rare trees and flowering plants with an uninterrupted view of the Himalayas.
Equally nice was the drive along meandering mountain roads and swathes of forest towards the Himalayan National Park at Mahasu massif. The snowy slopes of Kufri (16 km from Naldehra), a winter sports capital in its heyday lured skiers to carve the snow. Today, it bore the brunt of mass tourism as scabs of shanties dotted the hill. A steady line of mules, yaks and horses wound up the slushy narrow roads bearing tourists who thronged the little hamlet for resplendent Himalayan views. Few visited the high altitude zoo at Kufri, home to rare antelopes, wild cats and Himalayan birds.
Since Raja Bhasin was out of town leading a tour, we grudgingly returned to Shimla for a heritage walk, albeit with Amish Sud in tow. A quick cuppa at Wake & Bake Café on the Mall and we were good to go. Walk No.1 from Scandal Point to Viceregal Lodge took us past several colonial and historic landmarks – the 1883 built General Post Office Building, St Andrew’s Church that was now a library and college, Bantony Castle, residence of the Maharaja of Sirmour slated to be a museum, the Railway Board Building, Gorton Castle (currently AG Office) whose upper storey burnt down recently, the 1862 building Knockdrin or the Chief of Staffs’ residence and the Central Telegraph Office.
All around us there was a buzz in the air. Locals thronged Lakkad Bazaar for provisions. Rosy-cheeked schoolgirls chatted animatedly in chorus. Nostalgic old men ambled down Mall Road recounting the years of their youth. And the words of F. Beresford Harrop from his 1925 ‘New Guide to Simla’ rang true, “The transmitters of gossip are ever at work and savory and unsavory secrets of our society are flashed to the uttermost limits of Simla with all the speed of wireless.”
Getting there: Take the Kalka Shatabdi train from Delhi to Kalka (4 hrs) and take the narrow gauge Kalka Shimla Heritage train (5 hrs). If you’re in a hurry, drive 99km from Kalka to Shimla (3 hrs), from where Naldehra is another 22 km.
Stay at Chalets Naldehra http://www.chaletsnaldehra.com
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 9 August 2014 in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu.