The Road to Shimla: Adventures in Northern India
Story and photos by Candace Dempsey

On a sumptuous tour of the best of northern India, a land of palaces, polo ponies, and pampering recalls the glory days of the British hill stations.

Indian dinner

I’ve arrived in Gurdaspur to scrub cows with the Sikhs. I want to get this right.

Amritsar temple

Like many wanderers, I’m infamous for cultural mishaps. We began our one-week dash through northern India in bustling Amritsar, an ancient Punjabi border city that is Mecca to the Sikhs. About 100,000 people per day come to the Golden Temple, which is open to all, in keeping with the Sikh philosophy of inclusivity. Hidden behind stark marble walls, this gold-plated masterpiece is reportedly the most visited religious site on earth.

To gain entry, I removed my shoes, washed my hands, covered my hair and swathed myself in stifling fabrics. Then I entered an arched gate and stepped onto a white walkway.

By design, the Golden Temple seems to float like a glittery barge over “the Pool of Nectar,” a glistening saucer of warm water that mirrors its reflection. I watched Sikh men and women descend the steps to dip their toes into the sacred pool, which is stocked with fat gold fish. I wanted to join them, but my head scarf kept slipping down to expose my hair. Turbaned men pointed at me. In desperation, I clapped a sunhat over the scarf. That created a commotion. I went back to the scarf.

Now, in Gurdaspur, a two-hour drive north, I gear myself up for cow scrubbing in a Sikh village of crumbling stone, in a country known for cow worship.

“Sikhs wash their hair once a week,” says our Indian guide, Ravish Sharma, as we descend from our dusty bus. “We have come on that day.”

Cow Soaping With the Sikhs

Sure enough, villagers dressed in bright silks greet us in newly washed turbans and head scarves, looking chic in the unforgiving sun. They show our band of sweaty foreigners to a stone paddock where a soaped black-and-white cow awaits us. I decide—what the hell—just go first. The trembling cow is no bigger than an ironing board.

A tall, bearded Sikh with twinkly eyes and bare feet beckons to me. He wears a short cotton garment cinched at the waist. He picks up a soapy brush and demonstrates a circular technique.

Schoolchildren swirl around me, giggling and waving bedazzled cellphones.

“Selfies! Selfies!” they yell.

“Do not worry about the children,” says Ravish. “They only want to practice their English.”

Yes, but what of the parents? They watch from the ramparts, holding up babies to get a closer look. I can’t read their faces.

“Sikhs are famous for their sense of humor,” says Ravish. “They ask only to be entertained.”

Sikh hair washing day

With a flourish, I run the brush over the cow, enjoying the cool sloshing water. The children snap photos. Their parents laugh. I laugh, too. Why did I make this a character test? Our group is game for a masala of cultural experiences: three Americans, two Indians, two Germans, a French Canadian, one Brit and two Turks. Transindus-India has brought us to the north because, after centuries of invasion, it’s home to madly different cultures. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, yogis, mystics, expats, Anglophiles. As Ravish says, “It’s a traveling kind of place.”

I hand Sherry the scrub brush. She’s from Texas and skillful with cows. In a stylish tunic, she scrubs valiantly. Then we hit the road, a two-lane twister carved out of stone with steep drop-offs. In the days of the British Raj, servants transported heat-struck viceroys by sedan car, then mule and bullock cart from Punjab’s pink deserts to green hill stations edging the Himalayas. We’ll end our heritage tour at 5,500 feet in the famous mists of Shimla, the Raj’s summer capital. The city of “Indian Summers” and Bollywood films, it’s now popular with vacationing Indians. In between we’ll follow the path of enlightenment to Dharamshala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama and a magnet for hipsters who come to trek, meditate and smoke weed.

As our bus climbs out of Punjab, the land turns green; the air sweetens. Kite birds swoop over fields of corn, rice and barley. Red hibiscus bushes adorn old brick towns. Monsoon rains and abundant snowfall feed the stony rivers. 

“Welcome to Himachal,” a sign finally says. “Save Our Leopards.”

Guests of the Royal Prince

horseback riding in India

We reach the lovely Kangra Valley at twilight. We’re at 3,400 feet in the hill station of Palampur, where the white peaks of the Dhauladhar Mountains, a splendid stretch of the Himalayas, rise over tea plantations, temples, monasteries, and camphor-scented forests. We glide through the gates of the Taragarh Palace Hotel, once the sumptuous getaway of a Muslim emir. He dubbed it Al-Hilal, the crescent moon. When Britain partitioned the subcontinent, he left forever for Pakistan. Now owned by the royal family of Jammu and Kashmir, the timbered, western-style palace floats on 15 acres of tea gardens, pine forests and jungle.

We enter an open-air courtyard, where monkeys perch on lounge chairs. To reach our spacious suites, we follow a hallway dotted with photos of Winston Churchill, Jawaharla Nehru, and other historical figures. We have just enough time to dress for dinner. Then we’re off to meet our host, Raja Kumar Vikramaditya Singh, an Indian prince. We wait for him in the clubby little bar, which I’d love to install in my house. I admire the comfy sofas, leather stools and charming paintings of spotted deer and tigers—wild animals that once roamed the valley.

The prince is a pleasant black-haired man in a red-checked cotton shirt and dark pants. Like an English lord conducting a stately tour, he’s cultivated the common touch. He suggests we sample his favorite wine, a smooth red from India’s Sula Winery. Servers offer delightful snacks: fried paneer, cucumber sandwiches, Indian potato chips.

tiger portrait

“Ah, you wish to ride my polo ponies,” I hear him say to Sherry, which seems too good to be true. “I’ll have them brought around tomorrow.”

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Read this article online at: The Road to Shimla: Adventures in Northern India

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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