Lat sahibs stayed here, so can you

The ‘dawk bungalow’ at Kiarighat, now a Himachal Tourism hotel, was built in 1851 to serve travellers on the new Shimla road

The road to Shimla is a string of hotels, dhabas and shops now, but back in the Raj days, you would have marched a long way to find a night halt on it. In A Guide to Simla (1870), W H Carey writes: “The dawk bungalows or rest houses, where shelter and rest can be obtained, and meals provided ‘at the shortest notice,’ are as follows: At Durrumpore (Dharampur), 14 miles from Kalka; at Solon (Solan), 12 miles from Durrumpore; at Kearee, 15 miles from Solon, and 15 from Simla.”

Where’s Kearee? A report in The Indian News and Chronicle of Eastern Affairs (1851) has the answer: “The most noble the Governor-General and the Marchioness Dalhousie arrived at Simla on the 3rd (of November 1851), after encountering a severe storm of wind and hail at Kearee Ghaut on the Kennedy road.”

The Shimla road was initially called Kennedy road after Colonel John Pitt Kennedy, who planned it in the 1850s. The Dalhousies were returning after attending a durbar in Kalka on the afternoon of October 28 when the storm sent them scurrying for cover to the ‘dawk bungalow’ in ‘Kearee Ghaut’.

The name is spelt ‘Kiarighat’ now, and if you’ve stopped by for tea at Himachal Tourism’s Hotel Apple Cart Inn, a few minutes after crossing Kandaghat — where the road for Chail takes off — you have seen the property.

Amid the bustle of playing children, the constant creaking of restaurant doors and the rattle of heavy hotel crockery, it is hard to imagine that this idyllic, sloping-roofed bungalow with a wide covered veranda is 165 years old. It was brand new when the Dalhousies stopped by, purpose-built along with another bungalow in Solan for Colonel Kennedy’s new road.

Work on the two bungalows was started in December 1850 and completed in September 1851, “between which periods there were only 248 working days, in consequence of the severity of the winter and the long continuance of the rainy season,” notes Captain D Briggs in his Report on the Operations Connected with the Hindostan And Thibet Road, adding, “In October 1851, the Most Noble the Marquis of Dalhousie personally inspected the whole of the completed works.”

The hotel or bungalow still has only six rooms, as recorded by Briggs, who was superintendent of hill roads and oversaw the construction of the Kennedy road. “Staging bungalows of six rooms were built at Kearee and Solon, at a total cost of (East India) Company’s rupees 7,355–0–0 (rupee-anna-paisa).” So, each one of them cost about Rs 3,700 to build, which is less than what you would pay for a two nights’ stay at this ‘budget’ hotel now.

It’s an excellent retreat for someone seeking a quiet weekend away from the city. It does not have a market, restaurants, mall road, pony rides, skiing, rafting or golf course. By hill standards, the view is ordinary, but that has been the case from the start.

William Howard Russell, special correspondent of ‘The Times’ of London, wrote of Kiarighat in My Diary in India in the Year 1858–9: “The scenery here is large, monotonous and uninteresting…deep cuds (khads) or valleys, torrents swollen by rains (he came in July), bare receding mountainsides; now and then steep wooded cliffs, and precipices of clay-slate and limestone.” But he also admitted: “We halted for the night at the bungalow of Kearee, where we were very well accommodated.”

What Kiarighat offers is a quiet holiday in clean air with May or June days that are cool under the shade of a tree and nights that can be borne with just a tightening of the shoulders.

For guests staying at the Inn, the day begins the old-world way with birdsong. Sparrows and other small birds sweep in to pick out insects from the flowering vines entwined around the wooden pillars of the veranda. Sunlight streams into the east-facing windows a little later, delayed by the hill under which the Shimla road passes. You can have tea in bed, or in one of the swings or the garden chairs with a book in hand. It is an ideal place for reading and writing.

While it’s not spectacular like Chail, Kiarighat’s landscape is certainly soothing. The southern hill and valley are sparsely populated with huts and small houses spread out in little clusters. Kasauli lies on the southwest and its TV tower is clearly visible from the Inn’s parking. Better still is the view at night when stars shine brighter than the distant lights (there is no light pollution) and the moon seems bigger than it does in the plains. You can pick out the schoolbook constellations like Orion and Big Dipper with ease.

Only in the north, private university campuses remind you that ‘development’ is drawing near by forced marches. The Shimla highway is being four-laned, and in a few months gangs of workers and heavy machinery will appear at the Inn’s gate also. Hopefully, they will respect heritage and not encroach upon its grounds.

BOX: Cheap taxi fare

A reference book for civil officers written in 1903 mentions Kiarighat as the first halting stage from Shimla towards Kalka. Ekkas with space for three used to charge Rs 3 for the journey in summer, and Rs 2 in winter, in those days.

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