HIMALAYAN hill stations built by British colonial officers to shelter them from the fierce Indian summer and remind them of home are to be restored to their former glory by a new generation of middle-class Indians eager to savour a similar lifestyle.
Government officials in Himachal Pradesh, home to some of the most evocative Raj summer towns, including Simla, Dalhousie and McLeod Ganj, have lifted a ban on outsiders owning homes.
Property developers and members of Delhi’s increasingly affluent middle classes are queuing up to restore the faded grandeur of Himachal Pradesh’s many Victorian summer houses, and to build new bungalows based on original designs.
The rehabilitation of one of the most enduring symbols of colonial domination reflects the increasing confidence of India’s middle classes and a previously suppressed admiration for the style in which the British lived.
Prices are rising fast. A three-bedroom bungalow in need of some restoration will fetch about £70,000, while a 10-bedroom house recently sold for £300,000.
Hill stations such as Simla and Darjeeling in the northeast were “discovered” in the mid-19th century by British officers who saw them as ideal family summer retreats from the heat and dust of the plains.
Gothic churches with stained glass windows were built along with schools, racecourses, cricket grounds and private clubs for officers, tea planters and their wives.
From 1864 to independence in 1947, Simla was India’s summer capital. Admirers argue over whether the British were trying to recreate home counties England or Highland holiday towns. Many houses have features of both. What made them different were the verandas, where the colonials would recline on teak and cane chairs, sipping a gimlet (gin and lime) as they looked out over the snow-capped peaks of the high Himalayas.
According to Ruskin Bond, an author who was born to British parents in India and has lived most of his life in Simla and Mussoorie hill stations, each town had a different reputation.
“Mussoorie was a quite raffish, gay place in the old-fashioned sense. Hotels like the Savoy had dances and balls where the Indian princes would come,” he recalled.
“Mussoorie had a racier social life than Simla, where the viceroy was looking over your shoulder – you had to be on your best behaviour. If you wanted a mistress tucked away, you came to Mussoorie.”
Himachal Pradesh had banned outside buyers to protect the interests of local inhabitants, but officials are now anxious not to miss out on India’s property boom.
Y R Sharma, the housing secretary, said developments would have to be sensitive to the heritage. “The Raj heritage is a big attraction for many people. We are still carrying forward British traditions, British manners here.”
Deependra Singh Rathore, a Delhi developer, is planning to build an apartment and cottage complex modelled on Simla’s Viceregal Lodge. “Any building by a Britisher in India is excellent, we love the design and the lifestyle that went with it,” he said.
“Our parents were influenced by the British — the way they dressed, the morning cup of tea. We shouldn’t shy away from it, they did it well. I’m now targeting [Indian] people who want to live that life too.”
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