It was tucked well away from the road. And if you came around the bend too fast, you could miss it all together and just speed on towards Shimla.
My first tryst with ‘Kiari Bangla’ happened when I was working with a newspaper in Chandigarh and was going to Shimla in the mid-1990s. I stopped for a cup of tea and was hooked. And there was no looking back after this love at first sight.
Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) had a fancy name for it – Apple Cart Inn. No one knew how that name came to be. Locals continued to refer to it as Kiaree Bangla.
Unlike other HPTDC properties which were all suitably ‘modern’, this one retained the old world charm. Wooden pillars with creepers wrapped around and a red tin roof. A massive tree right in the middle of the garden. And beds of roses in front of the rooms. In a row. “Please don’t pluck flowers” – the signboards said in English and Hindi.
The barrack-type accommodation of six rooms in a single corridor was quite basic. Over the years, flat screen TVs replaced the 21 inch TV sets of yore and DTH made its appearance replacing cable TV, giving the place a semblance of modernity. But the moment you stepped inside the rooms you could feel the age of the bangla in your bones. The defunct fireplaces, the mantles, the roof, the walls. They all were witnesses to tales going back 150 years or so.
It is here that I brought my protesting wife and kids time and again for a weekend of solitude. “At least let’s go to some new place if you have to come to the hills every time,” my wife would say before she too gradually started loving the place. And it is here that I successfully imbibed the love of hills and wanderlust in my two boys.
The degradation of surroundings was the first warning sign that times were about to change. The proliferation of construction, the massive buildings of educational institutions that came about nearby heralding a new age. Gradually, it became known that Kiaree Bangla will also have to make the ultimate sacrifice for the prosperity of HPTDC. A convention centre was to come up in its place.
Historians estimate that the Dak Bungalow at ‘Kiaree Ghaut’ (as spelt then) came up in 1851 and say Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor General, too visited it upon completion.
Shimla-based historian Raaja Bhasin, who is considered an authority on Raj-era developments, says it is sad that the original dak bungalows have not survived the ravages of time. “Kiari bangla was originally a staging post where travellers changed horses and rested. HPTDC had two such bungalows converted to hotels with the other one at Barog. That too has been razed to make way for a modern building some years back,” he says.
A few dak bungalows dating back to the early days of the Kalka-Shimla road and beyond exist near Naldehra on the old Hindustan Tibet road, says Bhasin. But these too are crumbling and in a state of disrepair.
On our last visit to Kiari Bangla, I stood next to the shiny brass plaque for the convention centre, feeling helpless. Countless sunsets, sunrises, foggy mornings, windy afternoons and rainy evenings spent at the bangla raced through my mind. On the day we left, we passed to take a final look at it from the driveway, our hearts filled with sadness.
And on a recent family trip to Shimla, we raced past the turn at Kiarighat, unable and unwilling to look towards the ongoing construction. But on our way back, we could not ignore it. The chatter in the car fell silent. Even the teenager and the pre-teen in the backseat. Luckily we could not see beyond the huge metal sheets put up to cordon off the construction site. Luckily, we could not see the hole in the ground where the dak bangla once stood.
They did not want us to pluck the roses. They plucked Kiaree Bangla.