As the town of Shimla grew through the 19th century, its
Mall steadily developed as the town's commercial street and the hub of its
social life. The road, which some 5-km in length, starts in the west at
the gates of he former
Lodge , the present day Indian Institute of Advanced Study and ends
at Chhota Shimla or 'Small' Shimla, in the east.
The route has bends, as one would expect any hill road to have, ut its nature essentially follows a wide sweeping curve along the hills. The primary aspect is south facing and affords a view of the valley below the town and of the foothills that reach out to the plains from its habitation. In pockets, snatches of the northern aspect spring up for a dramatic view and hold woods of Pine and Himalayan Cedar - the majestic Deodar. This picture of nature's bounty is framed by the distant snow ranges of the Greater Himalaya.
The Intriguing Architectural Grandeur
The core of the Mall is a row of shops that take the approximate mid section of the road and traverse for about a kilometre and a half along is length. At one point of time, it was regarded to be as fashionable as the finest streets of London, Paris or St. Petersburg and every morning, the tarmac was washed down by 'Mashkis' carrying goatskin bags full of water.
Architecturally, this stretch is often likened to an English small town market place. Elements of Tudor framing, a varied roofline, assorted columns and numerous decorations have given this row considerable character. The row also has a variety of windows that range from bay, to sash barred and to diamond cut panes and some unusual elements also find expression and take the form of Mughal inspired cupolas that hold bay windows.
Reminiscent of Italy, acroteria of urns can be found in a couple of structures. While decorative devices abound, the aspects of safety were hardly neglected. The presence of 'fire walls' between buildings ensured that fires remained contained and did not spill over to the adjoining structures.
Apart from the shops, where several buildings still retain elements of a bygone glory, the street holds the famous Gaiety Theatre whose neo-Gothic structure was completed in 1887 and once towered above the town. The theatre itself is modelled after the prize winning design of Bijou theatre and is remarkable for the quality of its acoustic that allow the lowest whisper to carry to the farthest corner of the hall.
Magnificent Specimen's Of The Bygone Era
Adding to the malls ambience, are the municipal offices housed in an impressive dressed stone building. The general post office and the spire of Christ Church on the ridge, add their own touches of background atmosphere. At the cross road, where one arm reaches to the ridge and another to the post office is the famous scandal point and the apocryphal tale goes that a former Maharaja of Patiala carried off the British commander in chief's daughter from this spot. The story is as unlikely as any, and the truth of the place name probably stems from the fact that earlier - as now - it was the place where people gathered for both conversation and gossip.
The southern slopes immediately below this row of shops are regarded to be one of the most densely populated hill slopes anywhere in the world. Over a hundred years ago, the celebrated writer Rudyard Kipling described this stretch in Kim as, "The crowded rabbit-warren that climbs up from the valley to the town hall at an angle of forty five. A man who knows his way there can defy all the police of India's summer capital. So cunningly does veranda communicate with veranda, alley way with alley way, and bolt hole with bolt hole" The description holds true even today.
A Colonial Supermarket With Indian Lifestyles
A major determinant of the town character and social ethos, the mall has modified its colonial and rather snooty ambience to reflect the Indian market centric lifestyle. Yet, the original colonial architecture, somewhat crumbling, somewhat forlorn and yet, almost unforgivingly still its spine, the street remains the town's social hub and for many, also its economic core. There is hardly a person who lives in Shimla who regards his day as complete without a daily salute to its tarmac or an evening promenade.
A Heritage Zone
There is hardly a visitor who will not rush there on his very first day in town. Its stores may be expensive in comparison with the lower bazaar that runs parallel to the mall some metre below, but yet this street is perhaps one of the most visible reflections of the principle of democracy anywhere in the world. This, perhaps, is born out of the fact that this stretch remains one of the longest stretches of open public road anywhere in the world that is lined with stores and where motor vehicles are not allowed through its core. Only select cars, ambulances and fire engines may ply through the street.
Interestingly, before 1947, only three carriages and later, cars were allowed into the town. These belonged to the viceroy, the Commander in Chief and the Governor of Punjab .
This combination of law and local feeling has billionaires practically walking arm in arm if they are not jostling for space in crowded summer evening. This area has also been declared a 'Heritage Zone' by the State Government.