There are over 2500 rhesus macaques creating havoc in Shimla; known to the locals as The Monkey Menace.
They are easily identified by their bright red faces and backsides, and by their brazen and fearless manner. In our seven days here, we have had a few close encounters with these scary simians. We were hissed at walking home from dinner one night; without provocation we were confronted by a big red angry face just inches from our path. We’ve been charged at for food. Stephen was polishing off a bag of chips when a large male monkey ran across the street, heading straight for us – we threw the bag in the garbage and backed away. Locals are no less leery of these monkeys; we watched several people jump to their feet and clear out as a monkey made his way along the fence behind a row of benches. It is with good reason – the rhesus macaques will jump on people to grab food, glasses, and hats. They have been known to attack and bite. Efforts to cull and/or sterilize them have proven fruitless, and their numbers continue to grow.
In spite of all this, Stephen and I chose to take the steep climb up to Jakhu Temple, one of the highest points in Shimla, guarded by a healthy simian population. Visitors are warned to carry big sticks to ward off the more aggressive monkeys, so it was not without a fair bit of trepidation that we began our climb.
The path begins with this sign for testing fitness levels. It is a 2.5 km. walk to the top, most of it straight up. (We finished the climb up in 45 minutes; down in 33). Apparently we are “ABSOLUTELY FIT” – news to us.
The climb up was, in a word, – brutal. At one point we both were ready to give up, but for our pride. We were passed by families with small children; many of the ladies wearing thin sandals. We met up with this gentleman, carrying his grandson for much of the way.
We met up with them a little later at a rest stop. This was our turning point – if this sweet man and his little grandson could make this climb, then we would as well.
Our first indication that there were monkeys in the neighbourhood – many cars were covered with thorny branches, to foil simian theft of the windshield wipers.
Dozens of monkeys met us on the final ascent, but interestingly, none approached us. We had no need for a big stick, but we did keep a close eye on them.
One of the gatekeepers at the entrance to the temple. The figure behind him is a statue, not a human.
The 98-foot bright orange statue of Lord Hanuman is lit up at night, and visible from the town of Shimla. When we reached the summit, this was our close-up view.
Back down in town, the monkeys are no less a presence. Many homes and buildings are monkey-proofed, with enclosed chain-link cages and barbed wire.
While we’re on the subject of animals, let me introduce you to the beautiful and unique Rajasthani horses that are a fixture on the Ridge. I did a little research on these animals, and the Marwari horses seem to match the appearance – small, lean and with ears that turn inward to the point of almost touching. However, I asked two of the owners and they both called them “Indian horses from Rajasthan.”
There are usually about 10 horses lined up and ready for rides and it can be quite comical to watch. Each rider is led by the owner, usually with a small press corps in pursuit, so no actual “riding” takes place. I probably could have managed this.
In addition to the usual complement of excited children, there were a number of young men; quite unconcerned about the optics of being led around like a pony ride at a fair.
This fabulous specimen of Indian manhood was happy to pose for a photo. He may have thought I was admiring his biceps, but I wanted to show you his hair. Most Indian men have luxuriant thick black hair – baldness is not as common here as it is in North America.
Many young men style their hair short on the back and sides with a 3-inch hive on top – a hipster pompadour that they carry off very well.
And now onto some of the more enterprising business plans we have run across. I mentioned the bathroom scales in the last post – I tried my luck at another set of scales today (this time one with horseshoes), and yes!…down another 2 pounds. This woman was charging just 5 rupees – she would need 10 customers to make just one dollar.
Right beside her was a woman selling hand-knitted children’s slippers. At least a dozen woman have small stands set up and they sit for hours, knitting and chatting and tending to their children, but I never saw a single sale.
When we first saw this lineup of baby strollers, we thought perhaps a massive birthday party was being held in a nearby restaurant. But no, these strollers and a couple of wheelchairs are for rent. How intriguing! I’m trying to imagine how anyone with either mobility issues or small children would find themselves in hilly Shimla without their necessary accoutrements. Apparently these enterprising gentlemen have seen fit to invest in these products, just in case.
We passed by this one-stop shop a number of times before I really appreciated the diversity of the goods and services being offered. A homeopathic clinic, bolstered by fresh fruit, hot chai, plants, selfie sticks and backpacks.
There were quite a few businesses that were around before Independence and have hung in all these years. This musty old Antiquarian bookshop was a bit of surprise. Who are the customers for this highly specialized business?
The Embassy Restaurant, in business since 1942, has changed with the times – selling “good ice cream to good people”.
The Indian Coffee House is another relic, with a fascinating history and branches all over India. We visited one in Pondicherry, and this one is a variation on that same theme – ancient servers, cracked leather seats, less-than-pristine interior, and really great coffee. You get the feeling the same old gents have been meeting here daily for years – tourists and women stand out, but are still welcome.
Part of the decor…and the charm. Right of Admission Reserved – as I looked around the room, I wondered what the criteria might be for customer selection.
There are many sides of Shimla, and some are less picturesque than others. This is how we imagined Shimla: moody and mountainous.
Here, Shimla from another vantage point – a good perspective of how this city has grown from British hill station to almost 200,000 people clinging to the hillsides.
And, of course, like any city – not everyone gets the great view.
We’ve spoken to a number of Indians who are adamantly opposed to the caste system that is still in existence in India, most particularly in rural areas. We met a young woman who is a lawyer and who is immigrating to Toronto in May. She offered a bright and articulate view of her country (which she fully intends to return to one day), and offered us an interesting perspective on the subject of garbage. She told us that Indians are very clean in their homes, but will sweep out to the streets, confident that their mess will be cleaned up by someone else. In her opinion the reason Indians do not carry their garbage with them until they find a bin is that it is considered “dirty” – the job of the low-caste person who is responsible for garbage, sweeping the streets, etc.
A strong movement is afoot to eliminate the caste system and not relegate lowly jobs to people who have had no means to escape their destiny. A nation-wide strike took place yesterday, with businesses closing down for several hours in solidarity.
The streets of Shimla were filled with dozens of police and military, including these riot police. There were hundreds of protesters out, but as far as we could tell, it was peaceful.
While all this was going on, we were on another epic trek (15 km. return – uphill both ways:>) to explore the wooded areas just outside the city core, and to see Annandale, once the playground for the British elite with horse racing, polo and cricket, and now Shimla’s only golf course.
Although it was a beautiful day, there was just one golfer on the course; possibly this alarming sign has frightened off potential members.
Annandale is also the grounds for the Army Heritage Museum; an excellent museum that showcases the history of the Indian Army and underlines the great importance and prestige the Army holds in India.
The grounds are beautifully maintained; we enjoyed a peaceful couple of hours here before we attempted the ThighMaster of a road back up to the top of the hill.
About halfway up the hill, we came upon the Shimla British Resort; once a grand old dame and now a somewhat musty old hotel that does not appear to have been updated or well maintained. Still…another glimpse into the old days of British rule.
Probably the most impressive of all was the former Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. This magnificent building was completed in 1888 and was the official summer residence of the British viceroys until 1946.
This was the location of government every summer from April to October, and tours are available daily. Our timing was poor as we chose Easter Sunday to visit, along with hundreds of other tourists; the wait for a tour was over 2 1/2 hours. When we asked if it was worth it to wait, the ticket-taker shrugged, “a bunch of photos and old furniture.”
That took the sting out of missing out, so we had a grand time exploring the beautiful grounds instead.
And…that’s it, folks. Our time in Shimla has almost come to an end. We had missed out on the famous narrow gauge toy train to come here ( it books up months in advance), but through a great stroke of luck we are taking the toy train back down. Our host pulled a few strings for us, and we are as happy as if we had tickets to a sold-out concert.
Our last posting will be in a few days – a few photos of our train trip, and a reflection of our time in India.