Guided by his Bradshaw's 1913 Handbook of Indian, Foreign and Colonial Travel, Michael Portillo embarks on a classic rail journey from Amritsar to Shimla.
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I'm in India,
with a 1913 Bradshaw's handbook
to Indian, Colonial And Foreign Travel.
Published at the height of the British Raj,
my 100-year-old guidebook will lead me
on a spectacular railway adventure
through a land of majestic mountains and holy rivers...
..where magnificent beasts roam, and epic stories are told.
I'll encounter maharajahs,
explore ornate palaces,
witness the technology of modern India,
and ride some of the most exhilarating trains in the world.
I'll discover how Imperial railways and the English language
inadvertently spread ideas of independence
among hundreds of millions of Indians,
who today live in the largest democracy in the world.
I'm in Punjab, meaning "region of five rivers",
bringing fertility flowing down from the Himalaya mountains,
making this the breadbasket of India.
Here is the spiritual home of the Sikhs.
Although their empire was overthrown by the British,
by the time of my Bradshaw's guide they were Britain's loyalest allies.
After independence in 1947,
the Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan.
And this region bore the brunt of the casualties
in the chaos that ensued,
including along the line where I will travel.
I will journey through time,
from the British Raj to the India of today.
This is the most northerly of my four journeys in India.
I'll begin near the border between India and Pakistan,
in the Golden City of Amritsar.
I'll travel through fertile farmland to the city of Ludhiana.
I'll continue to Ambala,
a centre for silks and saris,
before stopping in
the surprisingly modern capital
of the Indian state of Punjab,
The final leg takes me from Kalka
to the foothills of the Himalayas
and the hill station of Shimla.
On my travels, I learn of the dark role that trains played
in India's past...
There are hordes of people on the rampage,
and trains, paradoxically, become a very easy target.
..visit a curious Colonial outpost...
Here is one of the world's most powerful governments,
which has jurisdiction over a fifth of the human race,
being ruled from this tiny village. It's bizarre.
..and go on a train journey of a lifetime.
Chugging through the foothills of the Himalayas.
Now, this is what I call a great rail adventure.
My first stop will be Amritsar,
a city which will always be associated with British infamy
due to an atrocity there in 1919.
My Bradshaw's says
that the principal object of interest in Amritsar
is the Golden Temple,
"much venerated by all Sikhs,
"who consider it a meritorious act to contribute to its adornment."
I look forward to exploring this gentle religion,
which paradoxically has produced some of the fiercest warrior lions.
I'm now one of 23 million passengers
who use India's vast rail network every day.
My first experience of an Indian railway station - it's teeming.
Although not the capital,
Amritsar is one of Punjab's largest and most important cities.
It was the centre of the powerful Sikh Empire
during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The old town with its intricately carved wooden facades
dates back to that period.
But like Bradshaw's travellers,
most visitors today come here to see
a building made of more-dazzling material.
The Golden Temple
is at the spiritual heart of the Sikh faith
and every day welcomes over 100,000 visitors from all over the world.
It's part of a huge gurdwara, or place of worship,
known to Sikhs as Harmandir Sahib.
With 100,000 pairs of shoes a day being stored,
I'm hoping I'll see these again.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
As well as removing our shoes,
we must cover heads and wash feet
before entering this spectacular spiritual complex.
The Bradshaw description is perfect, even for today.
"The building of white marble is small,
"the roof is covered with a thin layer of gold.
"It is placed in the middle of a large tank.
"A causeway of marble conducts to the Temple,
"and the marble pavement borders the lake."
And my first impression is that despite the size of the place
and the brilliance of the gold,
you are struck by its elegance,
and despite the enormous crowd, there's a sense of tranquillity.
To guide me around this magnificent place,
I'm meeting a British pilgrim.
Well, I think this is one of the most beautiful buildings
that I have ever seen. Tell me about its origins.
Michael, this building was founded in 1588
by our fifth Guru, Guru Arjan.
He wanted a building which was accessible to all.
When we go and we see major places of worship in the world,
they're all grand, majestic, domineering structures.
And yet here, you see it's lower than the surrounds.
Every feature of this building shows humility.
You have to step down to go into the building,
and even the domes are subdued,
the windows are small, the building itself is very small.
And I don't want to cause offence,
but Bradshaw says that,
"Sikhs never shave or smoke,
"but indulge in opium or cherry brandy."
OK, well, Michael, I'm not sure who Bradshaw met in that day,
but that's not quite true.
Initiated, baptized Sikhs who are practising,
they will not touch alcohol or intoxication of any kind whatsoever.
The Sikh religion broke with Hinduism in the 16th century,
as it rejected its rigid caste system,
a social hierarchy determined by birth.
Sikhism embraced the idea of welcome to all.
And here, they practise what they preach on an astonishing scale.
This is the world's largest free kitchen.
Known as a langar,
the free canteen was introduced by the first Guru
and is offered at every gurdwara around the world,
but not to such numbers.
Vast quantities of rice and bread,
and enormous vats of vegetarian food are prepared every day,
so anyone from any religion can share in the meal.
And it's served to the thousands of hungry visitors
by a team made up entirely of volunteers, which I'm going to join.
I've never been in such a crowd in my life, nor such a colourful crowd.
And all these people, Sikhs and non-Sikhs, all of them,
maybe 100,000 a day, will be fed a meal for nothing.
The hall can seat 3,000 people at a time.
The meal is served with speed...
HE SPEAKS LOCAL LANGUAGE
The feeding of the thousands is spectacular.
And with one sitting over, serving begins again.
This time, I'll be receiving my own portion.
Leaving the Golden Temple,
I'm making my way a short distance to the Jallianwala Bagh.
It's a city park enclosed by buildings,
where pilgrims and visitors rest after visiting the Golden Temple.
Nowadays, it's also a memorial to hundreds of lives lost
in a shocking event that took place
six years after the publication of my guide
and which marked the beginning of the end for the British in India.
On the 13th of April, 1919,
Brigadier General Reginald Dyer
was unable to get his armoured car into the Jallianwala Bagh
because of the narrowness of the entrances - thank goodness.
But he did march in a troop of heavily armed soldiers,
with horrible results.
Dyer was sent to regain control of Amritsar
after outbreaks of political unrest amongst Indian nationalists
calling for independence.
He banned public meetings,
but the 13th of April was a religious festival
and many men, women, and children went to the gardens to celebrate.
Alongside them, many more gathered in peaceful protest
against the ban.
This large space was filled with thousands of people.
Dyer lined up his soldiers and ordered them to fire into the crowd
and to continue firing for ten minutes.
People running in every direction,
General Dyer's troops fired until their ammunition ran out.
He was later ordered to resign from the Army,
but his actions damaged Anglo-Indian relations irrevocably
and strengthened the cause for independence.
The walls of the Jallianwala Bagh
still bear the bullet holes
on a day when hundreds of people were killed
in relentless firing by British soldiers, without warning.
Surely one of the most disgraceful events in the whole history
of the British Empire.
I am leaving Amritsar
and taking the Shatabdi Express train
eastbound to the city of Ludhiana,
a journey of two hours.
-My name is Michael.
How do you do? How do you do? What's his name?
-Does he travel by train very much?
-This is his second trip.
-He looks pretty relaxed at the moment.
Yeah, so far, so good.
We were just going to Amritsar, the Golden Temple.
Now, are you a Sikh?
No. We're not Sikh, but Hindu.
-But you go to the Golden Temple?
-Even though I think of that as being the gurdwara...
..of the Sikh people.
It's good to learn about different religions, I think.
-That's a very interesting philosophy.
I didn't even have to pay for it.
-Yeah, yeah, free.
-Yeah, it's free.
Oh, it's so sweet.
Excuse me. I'm enjoying using the trains in India.
Do you use them a lot?
I enjoy the trains very much in India.
But the best thing in the trains about India is, you know,
-you meet friends very easily in the trains.
-So I see, so I see.
-Like this gentleman, we met him today, only two hours back.
And we are already sharing a cup of tea and snacks...
Well, how very, very nice. And... Oh, thank you!
You have many different classes and possibilities when you buy
a railway ticket. Tell me what the options are in India.
Options are, for the poorer people we have a 2nd class.
And maybe for some, you know, people, we have AC class
and 1st AC, and maybe a chair car like this.
-We have three or four options.
-So AC meaning air conditioning?
Air conditioning, yes.
You don't get people riding on the roof any more?
I can't say that, but it has reduced.
But still, it has much, much improved.
The train timings have improved, AC coaches have improved,
and now we're talking about even bullet trains.
Maybe in the next couple of years, we'll have bullet trains.
That was a dream but now it's coming true.
It's nightfall as I arrive in Ludhiana,
so I'll explore this city in the morning.
Ludhiana is busy.
Full of traffic and noise.
It's Punjab's manufacturing hub
and there is industry everywhere you look.
It's also long been an important centre for education.
Ludhiana, says Bradshaw's, "was once a frontier station
"close to where the first British victories over the Sikhs
"were gained in 1845 to 1848,
"since that time, gradually deserted by Europeans,
"though it still remains the field of extensive work
"by the American Presbyterian Mission
"and of the Female Education Society.
"The North India School of Medicine for Women is also here."
Now, I had no idea that women were being educated in medicine in India
a century ago, but this is the address
and so this is the place to check up on it.
Today, India trains around 50,000 doctors a year
and women make up just over half that number.
The Women's Medical School referred to in my Bradshaw's
was set up in 1894 by a British missionary, Edith Brown,
and today is called the Christian Medical College.
-Yeah, yeah, nice to meet you.
-Pleasure to see you.
Dr Abraham Thomas is an eminent microsurgeon
and the director of the college.
Dr Thomas, how was it, then,
that an Indian medical school for women was founded
-all the way back in the 19th century?
-It's interesting, you know.
Edith Brown, she saw what was happening in this part of India,
where the Muslim women had no access to medical care,
especially the women in the child-bearing age.
Many of them were having difficulties because of it.
Those women would have felt a complete taboo
-about being treated by a man?
-That's right, that's right.
And she said, "I will start a medical school for women."
Edith Brown was a qualified doctor
who travelled to India with the Baptist Missionary Society,
moved by the plight of the women that she met.
To help to treat their needs,
she set about training female doctors and midwives.
It was very difficult to convince girls to take up medical studies.
And over the years, gradually it became, you know...
It attracted a lot of people from the work which was done.
And the government was very supportive for her work.
This became one of the important medical colleges in the country.
Men were admitted as students to the college in 1953.
Dr Thomas achieved worldwide acclaim in 1994
when he performed ground-breaking surgery on a nine-year-old girl.
She needed a complete face and scalp replant after catching her pigtails
in a threshing machine.
It was the first operation of its kind and was a huge success.
The patient, Sandeep Kaur, is now a nurse,
and works at the college's teaching hospital.
How long have you been a qualified nurse?
I finished my nursing in 2009 and since that time
I've been working in this institution.
-And you enjoy the work?
-Yeah, of course I enjoy it.
I am happy working here as a staff nurse.
Now, you yourself made medical history on one occasion.
I don't think so, but...
Well, was it not the very first face replant ever to be done?
-Yeah, it was the very first.
-I think that's medical history.
So, when you're treating patients like these,
are you thinking back to your experience as a patient?
Because it is very easy for me to understand their pain,
because when I'm taking care of these patients,
I'm thinking of my history and when I was a patient.
I'm thinking of that time.
-I'm sure you make a wonderful nurse.
The college that Dame Edith Brown founded,
which began with just four students, now incorporates a hospital,
a dental college and a college of nursing.
Does the name Edith Brown mean anything to you?
Yes, quite a lot!
I am a product of this college, I've studied here, graduation,
post-graduation, everything here, really.
We respect that name, we remember that name.
I think she was a very brave woman.
And she did a lot at that point in time,
when women were not really at the forefront of most fields,
she took up the cause for providing care to the women in this area,
and I think she was a great woman.
Punjab is not one of India's biggest states
but it is one of its most important.
With fertile soil and an abundance of water,
82% of all land is used for farming.
I've come to the countryside surrounding Ludhiana.
"The popular idea," says Bradshaw's,
"is that the staple food of India is rice.
"But this is only the case in Bengal and steamy districts.
"The bulk of the people of India live on millet,
"and wheat is largely grown."
With many more than a billion mouths to feed,
agriculture in India has had to come a long way.
And whilst manual labour is still widespread,
the adoption of modern farming techniques
has helped to secure Punjab's title as the granary of India.
This small state produces around a seventh of all India's food grain.
Much of this wheat goes into industrial food production
but women in the countryside still hand-make
one of India's most ubiquitous foods, the chapati.
The oven is known as a chulha, and it's very well-insulated,
I suppose, made of clay, but here it's very hot on the metal pan.
The ladies seem to have no difficulty just picking the bread up
with their fingers and flipping it over.
And when you do flip it over finally, there is a fascinating
moment when it bubbles up. One more turn,
and then we will...
..hand it over for the addition of the clarified butter.
And the next one goes in.
Thank you very much. Thank you.
Mm! The bread is absolutely delicious.
Mm! Fantastic. Lovely.
Wow, that is so fresh, that's wonderful.
For the next leg of my journey, I'm leaving Ludhiana
and heading south-eastwards on the Shan-e-Punjab Express,
a train that runs the important route that crosses the border
from India into Pakistan.
The view from the window is glorious,
but this line has been part of some very dark history.
I'm joined by a professor of modern history.
This line has a very unfortunate place in history
and it's known as a place where a lot of blood was spilt. Why?
In 1947, right after Partition, this railway line,
this particular route from Lahore or Peshawar,
Lahore to Delhi and beyond,
became the line on which thousands, indeed millions of people
moved on to these strains, imagining that with a train ticket
they were going to get somewhere safe
and then found that these trains became just moving sites, in a way,
for terrible tragedies.
In August 1947, after 200 years, British rule in India ended.
The subcontinent was partitioned
into Hindu-majority India, and Muslim-majority Pakistan,
which was split into two halves, East and West.
The new border was hurriedly and secretly drawn up
by a British lawyer
and revealed two days after independence came into effect
and the British had withdrawn.
For the masses, it's the weary trail of the road.
Carrying their few possessions, they flee from savagery and butchery
that has never been exceeded, even in India's stormy history.
What followed was one of the greatest migrations
in human history,
as Hindus and Sikhs fled to India,
and Muslims in the opposite direction to Pakistan.
And this exodus was accompanied by brutal violence.
Some people take to the trains, believing they can escape to safety.
Well, isn't that the real irony of it all?
Railway is a state enterprise, so when you get onto a train
you believe that ticket is going to get you to where it's supposed to get you.
But rather than that, it becomes...
They become most vulnerable because there are hordes of people
on the rampage, and trains, paradoxically,
become a very easy target for people to loot and murder,
and women being abducted and raped. I mean, one could go on.
I remember seeing, as a child, and being very shocked, in a movie,
one of these train massacres.
Do they loom very large in the Indian imagination?
I think you put that very well.
Every big event of this kind,
whether it's the Holocaust or genocide or whatever,
there is always an iconic image which gets associated with it.
And very clearly with the Indian Partition,
it is the image of the moving trains, loaded with corpses.
There are no reliable numbers of how many people were killed
in the months following Partition
but estimates range from a few hundred thousand to two million dead,
and more than ten million displaced.
What was the role of the Indian government,
the Pakistani government and the British Empire?
Well, first of all, the British government,
their attitude was one of complete indifference.
In fact, there was a kind of secret satisfaction, if I can call it that,
that, well, you know, India's going to pieces,
and this is what...
"We were there to bring unity and you guys messed it all up."
It was madness.
72 days was announced by Mountbatten
to divide a subcontinent of this proportion.
I mean, I'm sorry to say, but this was nothing short of lunacy.
They left without anything in place.
Nothing was properly handed over.
It's clear to me that there is a sense of incomprehension and
betrayal at Britain's handling of Partition.
And there is continuing hostility between India and Pakistan.
Sadly, India's longed-for independence
began with hatred and recrimination.
I leave the train at Rajpura Junction outside Ambala,
close to the 19th-century Baradari Palace,
which is now a heritage hotel.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much indeed.
I've been joined by a friend for breakfast.
And it's an Indian breakfast.
It's called aloo curry,
so this is a spicy vegetable soup,
and this is a dough that you dip in it.
My Bradshaw's tells me that, "early rising is an essential custom,
"as it enables the European
"to perambulate in the cool of the morning."
I intend to perambulate in the city of Ambala.
I'm taking a rickshaw into Ambala's busy centre.
It's an important railway and transport junction
which connects the major cities of North India.
This strategic location has given birth to the largest cloth market
I'm going to do some shopping while I'm in Ambala
and Bradshaw's has some very good advice -
"Hawkers are abundant and are always accompanied by two or three coolies
"who carry their enormous large packs on their heads.
"It's impossible to transact business with them
"without much haggling, to which the European must submit."
There are close to 1,000 wholesale shops selling silks and saris,
and tailors are everywhere.
India is absolute chaos
but after a while you begin to think of it as vibrancy, colour and life!
These people really know how to live.
In a place like this it's hard to resist the urge to shop.
-Hello, hello, sir, hello.
-As you see, I quite like bright colours.
I wondered if I could get maybe...
-Yes. And the trousers?
-And the pyjama.
Yeah, I will show you the colours.
Colours, yes, please. Bright colours, please. Yes.
Don't bother with the dull ones.
Look at that! That's spectacular.
-Maybe a bit brown for me.
-What about this colour, sir?
-This is a wonderful colour, sir.
-That is amazing.
I will get your measurements.
-After that, I will tell you how much it will cost.
Chest size, sir. You can breathe easy, sir.
You're not in a gym.
I think there must be a fault with your tape measure.
Here, most kurta and pyjama
are made to measure by a team of seamstresses.
And in just a couple of hours, a tailored outfit is ready.
Oh, Michael! Looks very nice.
-Are these the ladies who were responsible?
Thank you very much.
They have made your kurta and pyjama.
What's this? Ooh!
This as well?
-I will help you, sir.
-Thank you very much.
What do you think? Does that look nice?
It's so elegant, isn't it?
-It's a lovely style.
Now you are looking in full Indian dress-up.
-Thanks to you. Thank you so much.
I'm halfway through my journey and about to leave Ambala.
My route turns north to the Punjabi
state capital of Chandigarh.
My next stop will be Kalka
and here I'll take my place
on one of the world's most famous
mountain rail routes,
ascending into the Himalayas
to my final destination, Shimla.
My Bradshaw's guide, dated 1913, tells me that,
"Lahore is the capital of the Punjab,
"one of the most ancient and famous cities in India,
"seat of the Lieutenant Governor and military command."
But nowadays, Lahore is in Pakistan.
I'm headed for the capital of the Indian state of Punjab, Chandigarh,
and it's not even in the state of Punjab
but the neighbouring one of Hariana.
I smell something highly political.
Chandigarh is a relatively new city.
It was created in 1950 after independence and Partition.
To get a sense of this modern capital, I'm taking a taxi
to the administrative centre, the Capitol Complex,
and I'm already noticing some rather curious sights, such as roundabouts.
Chandigarh is quite different from anywhere I've been in India.
It's so clean and tidy.
The traffic is orderly, there are white lines painted on the roads
and people respect them!
There is greenery and flowers everywhere.
It's like travelling to a different planet.
It is extraordinary to find such an orderly city
in the commotion of India.
Architecturally, it is overwhelmingly modernist.
I'm meeting an architect,
to find out how this city came to be.
Why and when was Chandigarh built?
Chandigarh was actually made after India gained independence,
there was a very traumatic partition.
The capital of this whole state of Punjab, which was Lahore,
went into Pakistan, there was a hunt for a new city,
"How can we make a new capital?"
They tried many cities, "Maybe you could expand this one or that one."
Ultimately, they came to the conclusion, "Let's make a new city."
What was intended with the building of Chandigarh?
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India,
what he wanted to show the world was that India is no longer a regressive
country of villagers and backward people. In his own words,
what he said was that Chandigarh
will be a symbol of the nation's fate in the future.
To design this new city, in keeping with his bold vision for India,
Nehru hired celebrated Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier,
famous for designing unique, private houses, public buildings,
and housing projects.
Le Corbusier had never before been given the chance
to implement the town planning ideas
that he'd been working on for 20 years.
What was his philosophy of town planning?
He broke down the needs of a modern man into very four, clear,
distinct categories -
living, working, circulation and care of body and spirit.
So, living basically meant your sector, which was self-sufficient,
it had all the needs that you had.
Circulation had to be very efficient because he felt the more efficient
the roads, the more efficient people will be in their lives.
Working, he had dedicated areas for offices and markets.
And, of course, care of body and spirit you see everywhere
in Chandigarh, the greens and the lakes, and the Leisure Valley.
So, basically, he had a very clear-cut definition
-of what a modern city should be.
-OK, a new city.
But there is nothing Indian about these buildings.
That is where the genius of Corbusier comes in.
There is no nothing in any building.
You can't say it is British, it is Colonial, it is Mexican.
It does not belong to any era.
He wanted a very timeless kind of architecture, which you could not
put into any slot. It is deliberately not Indian.
The city is internationally recognised
as a modernist masterpiece, and the Capitol Complex
has recently been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
One of the sectors that the architect created
to take care of the body and spirit of Chandigarh's residents
is Sukhna Lake.
A man-made reservoir at the foothills of the Himalayas,
it's become a favourite place to go boating
or to relax with an early evening walk.
-Are you from Chandigarh?
-Yes, I'm from Chandigarh.
Very interesting. Do you enjoy living in Chandigarh?
I do. It's amazing.
-Because the weather here is very nice,
and we have a lot of greenery around here.
I am born and brought up in Delhi,
so as compared to that, this is amazing.
It strikes me as very different from everywhere else I've been in India.
Yeah, actually, it is a planned city.
This is what I have experienced, being from Delhi.
You don't feel that it's too planned?
No, I just love it because, you know, you can breathe.
This park is also the place of much entertainment,
including traditional Indian dance.
Bhangra is associated with the farmers of the Punjab.
The choreography reflects their daily activities,
like sowing seeds and cutting wheat.
I'm struck by its exuberance.
And you know me - I'm itching to have a go.
And if I'm going to engage I need to look the part.
-Thank you, madam.
Well, now you've got me all dressed up, what is this dance?
This is the dance of Punjab.
We will celebrate Vaisakhi festival,
we will perform dance only to feel happy.
What is Vaisakhi? What does that mean?
That is the festival of Punjab. There is, like...farmer festival.
Harvest festival? So, for a traditional dance
you look rather modern to me. It looked a bit like Bollywood.
-So, Bollywood copies our folk dance.
So, bhangra is the origin of it all?
-Yeah, bhangra. Bhangra.
Let the music begin.
Thank you very much.
Another unforgettable moment in my dance career.
I'm leaving Chandigarh on a commuter train.
But my next ride will be anything but routine.
There's a fresher breeze blowing now
and that's because I'm within sight of the Himalayas,
my first view of these gorgeous mountains.
And this train will take me to Kalka,
which is the starting point for a railway journey
that enthusiasts will know to be one of the most beautiful in India -
indeed, on many people's lists of the things that have to be done
while you're on this Earth.
The Kalka to Shimla line opened in 1903,
and today is one of the world's most celebrated mountain railways.
Its regular services attract both domestic and international tourists.
INDISTINCT CHATTER IN OWN LANGUAGE
So, this is the train that's going to take me up to Shimla.
Narrow gauge and, at first sight, it seems almost like a toy railway.
These carriages are kind of cute.
But, actually, it must be immensely powerful because we're going to rise
up to 7,000 feet over a distance of 60 miles.
I've always wanted to ride this railway.
And I'm excited to begin the five-hour trip
up into the highest mountain range in the world.
Bradshaw's says that, "The railway has been carried from Kalka
"by a fine piece of mountain engineering to Shimla."
My guidebook is guilty of an understatement.
When this railway was completed at the beginning of the 20th century,
it had 107 tunnels, 864 bridges and viaducts, and spectacular views.
It was - and remains -
one of the great achievements of the railway age.
These feats of engineering have put this railway
on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
At 2'6", it's a narrow gauge railway,
its lightweight vehicles able to navigate the winding route
up and down the mountain.
May I ask you, are you travelling for the first time
-on this wonderful train?
-Yes, first time.
-And are you enjoying it?
Yes, very enjoying.
Definitely, yes. We are enjoying it.
I think it is a very hilly area.
And the weather is very cold.
You're expecting quite cold weather, I see.
You've got me quite worried because I haven't brought a coat like that.
Do you think I'll be OK?
Oh, that's beautiful, look at that.
As the train ascends for 60 miles, the air cools.
In summer, temperatures below
can be a sweltering 43 degrees,
while up the mountain they average 28.
Like most long-haul Indian train journeys,
there is much camaraderie and spontaneous entertainment.
Chugging through the foothills of the Himalayas.
Now, this is what I call a great rail adventure.
With no-one telling you to keep the doors closed,
passengers are rewarded with gorgeous views.
If you're wondering why such a great train service
was built into these mountains, then Bradshaw's has the answer.
"Shimla," my guidebook tells me,
"is the residence of the Viceroy and the Commander in Chief
"between April and October, called the summer capital of India,
"on a ridge near the Sutlej River,
"7,000 feet above the sea, in sight of the Himalayas."
I like to think of the British Raj in the late spring,
loading up the trains with typewriters and filing cabinets,
embossed Imperial paper, rubber stamps and ink pads, and then,
in October, bringing it all back down again.
The stop at the end of this spectacular line was,
for over 80 years, the place to which India's British administration
decamped for the summer.
And I'll be excited to explore it tomorrow.
This morning, I'm exploring Shimla,
a curious Himalayan town.
While some areas feel typically Indian,
the historic centre resembles a corner of England.
Tibet may be on the horizon
but the architecture is distinctly Home Counties.
At its heart is the Viceregal Lodge built in 1888,
which served as the seat of power for several months each year.
Towards the end of British rule,
this was also where Indian leaders met Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten
to discuss the partition that would follow independence.
I'm meeting a historian and Shimla resident.
My Bradshaw's says,
"Shimla is often regarded as the doyen of the hill stations.
"Indeed, for some six months of the year, Shimla, and not Delhi,
"is the political capital of the Indian Empire."
-What was that Empire?
if one was to look at it in terms of area, was all of today's India,
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.
even Sri Lanka, and Singapore, were all governed from this little town.
And when you mention six months, it's more like eight months.
Here is one of the world's most powerful governments,
which has jurisdiction over a fifth of the human race,
being ruled from this tiny village up on a hilltop,
connected to the rest of the world, at least in the early years,
by one narrow mountain path. It's bizarre.
What sort of paraphernalia of government had to be moved
from the winter to the summer capital and back again?
It was almost like a city on the move.
The time when Kolkata was the capital and Shimla
the summer capital, here is this distance of 1,200 miles.
We are talking about a point of time of no roads, no railways,
people moved in these almost mind-boggling combinations
of elephant-back, horseback,
on these flat-bottomed boats, up the River Ganges,
and from the foothills, even piggyback
because they were carried up
often enough on palanquins.
For example, the Viceroy Lord Northbrook, when he came to Shimla,
it's about 500 men were employed simply to move his kitchen utensils
between point A and point B.
What was the impact of the railways?
It killed the old bullock train which existed,
which was a convoy of bullock carts
which just moved 24 hours up the hill,
carrying things as diverse as cases of champagne,
to stone to make this building.
Interestingly enough, almost all the great, grand buildings of this town
were built before the railway came into Shimla. The sheer scale
of things and the sheer logistics that went into it
are quite remarkable.
Throughout its more than 75 years as India's summer capital,
Shimla's society was a whirl of picnics,
amateur dramatics and cricket tournaments,
with the social scene centring on the Mall.
How did the British Raj conduct itself here
on the ridge and on the Mall?
For one, the early mornings, they would have had the nursemaids,
coming out with the children in their prams,
airing the children for the day.
Mid-morning would have had the single ladies
coming up for their shopping.
This is where everybody came to show off, to see and be seen.
Shimla, despite it having been such a tiny, little place,
ended up having a very cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Isolated from the rest of Indian society,
the elite relaxed and enjoyed themselves,
and the town gained a rather racy reputation.
As we come into the closing years of the 19th century,
the town somewhat does start getting steamier and steamier.
You have the... the fishing fleet coming in.
These young girls coming in to India in search of husbands.
The ones who went back without an engagement ring or a wedding band
were the ones who were termed as "returned empties".
And, then, more interestingly,
what you have is the somewhat older widows,
middle-aged women who came up, generally, to have a good time,
more than just mild flirtations and, of course, as we know,
Kipling wrote an enormous amount about these women.
Born in India in 1865,
writer and poet Rudyard Kipling spent several summers in Shimla
as a journalist for the Civil And Military Gazette,
covering the social season. During this time,
he garnered plenty of material for his novels and poems.
We have this point where... this middle-aged lady
who draws all the young men to her side and the young teenagers
are rather jealous of it. And the last line of that poem goes,
"They walk beside Her 'rickshaw-wheels
"None walk beside mine
"And that is because I'm Seventeen
"And She is Forty-nine."
And what was the particular attraction of the older women?
The safety that she has, and the experience that went with it.
The British lived an idyllic life during the Raj here in Shimla,
drinking tea, playing croquet
and falling in love, attended by squads of servants.
But British India was not designed for Indians,
and after years of struggle against British rule,
key negotiations about independence
were held here in the foothills of the Himalayas. When freedom came,
it was accompanied by Partition between India and Pakistan
and appalling levels of violence. And it was perhaps with that in mind
that India's first Prime Minister Nehru designed Chandigarh
as a new city that would leave behind the old India
and commit his country to modernity.
Next time, I play the sport of kings with royalty.
-Hit it, hit it.
-It's your timing.
-My timing, indeed.
I'm moved by India's architecture of passion.
For the millions of visitors,
the Taj Mahal is the greatest monument to love in the world.
And relate to some of the country's most revered animals.
Was it something I said?
Guided by his Bradshaw's 1913 Handbook of Indian, Foreign and Colonial Travel, Michael Portillo travels across India. He embarks on a classic rail journey from Amritsar to Shimla. Along the way he helps to feed the thousands at the world's largest free kitchen and travels the railway routes used by millions of migrants during Partition. He gives his trademark colourful wardrobe an Indian twist, and reaches the foothills of the Himalayas, where the epic Kalka to Shimla hill railway carries him to the former summer seat of the British rulers of the Raj.
Published when the British Raj was at its height, Michael's guide leads him to some of the key locations in India's 20th century story, from the massacre in Amritsar in 1919 to the bloody events of Partition.
Beginning in the Sikh holy city, Michael is dazzled by the beauty of the Golden Temple and awed by the scale of its langar - the world's largest free kitchen.
His route then takes him through the Punjab, India's breadbasket. Michael samples traditional chapattis, has a colourful kurta made up in one of the Punjab's biggest cloth markets, and can't resist the foot-tapping rhythms of Punjabi bhangra dancing, made famous by Bollywood. Portillo's journey also reveals surprises. He uncovers a pioneering women's medical college in Ludhiana, before plunging into Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier as a modernist expression of India's post-independence future.
At Kalka, Michael glimpses the Himalayas for the first time and joins the 1906-built mountain railway for a stunning climb to Shimla. There, he relives the days when the crème de la crème of expatriate society went to socialise and rule - their exploits recorded by a young Rudyard Kipling.