An Exclusive Conversation with Sumit Raj: Preserving Shimla's Heritage and Culture Through Shimla Walks and Literary Exploration"

by Suresh Nair

Sumit Raj is the founder of Shimla Walks. The concept of Shimla Walks has been a hit in the tourism industry.  Sumit launched Shimla Walks in 2006. He loves taking long walks in the hills; this is how the idea of Shimla Walks came to mind. 

He gives new and memorable experiences to the visitors to his hometown, Shimla. 

As a responsible tourism professional, Sumit has introduced many programs that make your visits memorable. 

Sumit Raj was born in 1967 in Shimla.He is a writer, a poet, and a tour guide. His knowledge of the city of Shimla is encyclopedic. He is a well-known speaker and a trainer. His father, a railway engineer, was a known Urdu poet. He was never interested in leaving Shimla. But because of his official transfers, he had to move first to Rohtak and then to Delhi. Sumit did his education in three different cities. 

Sumit was a blue-blooded nature lover. He was a writer by heart.

He never acquired the culture of big towns. Sumit tells stories, conducts walks, writes books about his travels, and runs an experience-providing company, Shimla Walks. He is a perfect tour companion for Himalayan valley outings. 

He helps British citizens who visit Shimla looking for their family history. In his words- “I cannot live away from the mountains. Mountains travel like blood in my veins; when I inhale, they enter my mind and soul". 

Sumit has vast knowledge of Shimla and the culture of the Indian Western Himalayas. He started working here as a Heritage Tour Guide in 2000 and has studied in detail the origin & history of Shimla. He says, "Many clients are from Britain who come to see the houses built by their parents and grandparents. Many of them were born, grew up, and studied here". 

1.)What inspired you to start Shimla Walks and could you share the story of how the
idea first came to you?

I have always been a walker, learner, observer, and enthusiast about the history, nature, and lifestyle of different areas, cultures, and people. As a student, we walked to school and then to college. Walking is something that keeps you fit and healthy. Also, when you walk you see more and gain better knowledge about the area. And when I became a tourism professional and returned to my hometown, Shimla, I started taking people around. This was way back in 2000. I noticed that the quality of tourism in Shimla was limited only up to the natural paces like Kufri, Naldehra, Chail, and Narkanda or to some historic places like Jakhoo temple, Tara Devi temple, etc. The guides would take people there but shared no information with them. The only thing in the guide’s mind was that people like hills and forests so they must be taken there. The common question from every tourist that came to me was, ‘What is there to see?’ or ‘What is there to do in Shimla? So practically Shimla was a one-day destination or in some cases two days. 

I thought if we did not introduce something better in Shimla, we would lose business and we would not be able to satisfy our clients by giving them a new experience. There must be someone who can narrate the history to the visitors. Or tell the lovely stories of the past and present of the town. Shimla has such a rich history so why not share it with the tourists? Even now we meet some visitors who have been to Shimla several times but they know nothing about this place.  And we decided to take people around on foot. This is how Shimla Walks was born and today it is liked by all. 

2. As a passionate walker and nature lover, how have your personal experiences shaped the unique offerings of Shimla Walks?

When I had made up my mind that I am going to show Shimla to the visitors, on foot, I started thinking of how to do that. We started with History Walk or Heritage Walk as we call it. Shimla Heritage Walk is a unique idea of learning and knowing Shimla. I had to do a lot of research on the historical facts of this place and my research has not ended yet. It will keep going. So when we thought of Heritage Walk, first of all, a route of the walk was decided. A certain stretch and a distance to cover the walk. Then we had to find out the stories of its past, or about its origin which took a long time. I didn’t want to speak with false knowledge or on the basis of rumors. So went through a number of books in the libraries, met a number of people, the old residents of the town and read articles from the archives. Now the other challenge was how to design the walk. We had to start from one end and finish at the other end so on the way and at both the ends some interesting stories must be there. On the stretch of five kilometers a few points were designated to stop, stand and narrate the stories. Talking only about the history could be monotonous so we learn about the architecture or the Victorian and Post Victorian era, the lifestyle during the Raj in Shimla, the challenges of the migration every year from Calcutta and other places to the hills that they faced, their eating habits, bazaars in Shimla and the old shops, people who were the prominent citizens of the town who played vital role in creating this town, etc. 

After the history walk had been designed, I thought of adding some more walks and create a full menu of walking experiences. The research continued and we came up with Forest Walks, Village Walks, Nature Walks, Bird Watching, Cycling, visits to the local families, Yoga experiences, Cultural Walks, Multi day Walks, Day Hikes etc. All these walks have been curated after much reconnaissance. We constantly keep growing and researching on our trails. To create a new trail, we have to visit it several times because after every season the vegetation changes. 

3. With your extensive knowledge of Shimla's history and culture, could you share some fascinating or lesser-known facts about the city that readers might find intriguing?

That is why we curated Heritage Walk. This walk gives the answers to all the curious questions. We have come up with many answers to one question, ‘What is there to see in Shimla or to do in Shimla?’ All the lesser-known facts are talked about in this walk. To talk about a few that People hardly know Shimla is set up majorly along a ridge and then around seven hills. The ridge is a dividing line of the Indian Sub-Continent through the flow of its water in two different directions. Shimla was the venue of the decision of the partition of India and Indian Independence. Also, no one knows that Shimla originally was a tiny village only with twelve houses. And there are a number of stories that we share.

4. What motivated you to assist British visitors in tracing their family history in Shimla?

My interest in the history of Shimla motivated me. In tourism, I have always tried to introduce new ideas. So, one day I went to a Cemetery in Shimla where I saw a number of graves of the Brits. The inscriptions of the slab stones told me that they were some of the prominent citizens of Shimla who loved this town. Immediately an idea landed in my mind that these people who are buried here must have some descendants in England or some other parts of the world. I decided to put the information on the internet. After that, I spent nearly a week in the cemetery, cleaned it properly, removed all the weeds and moss from on and around the graves, and copied all the names of the dead and other details in my copy to upload it to my website.  That information was read by BACSA in England, (British Associations of Cemeteries in South Asia) and FIBIS (Families in British Indian Society and these organizations took on their panel. The rest is history. Till now we have helped a number of Brits find their roots in Shimla.

5. Balancing the preservation of Shimla's heritage with modern tourism demands can be challenging. How do you approach this delicate balance?

It is really challenging. The governments have to be aware of this. Modernity does not mean that you should play with your Heritage and your history or let others do so. A recent example is the building of Town Hall given to some rich entrepreneur from Delhi to open a food joint in that building. This is not acceptable at all. Why should a Heritage Structure be used for this purpose? When asked they said that they are getting a handsome amount from the company which can be used to maintain the building. Then why couldn’t they think of the local artisans who have to keep traveling across the country to sell their products? They could be given space here, in the center of the town.

The other point that I have already mentioned is that Shimla is Walker’s paradise. Also, Shimla has always enjoyed Shimla the concept of sealed roads for traffic which means the roads are open only for pedestrians. In recent years the government has started opening the sealed roads for traffic for everyone, locals and tourists, and after that, Shimla started losing its character. 

I think that our governments have not been able to manage the town as it was managed during the Raj, by the British government. The situation today looks like a woman leaves her house neat and clean to go to the bazaar but when she returns, she finds that her children have messed up everything. Similar is the situation in Shimla. The Brits left it in a decent mode but the later governments and people have messed it up completely.  

I sometimes feel that a number of tourists, especially those coming from the Northern part of India do not know why are they here. They have no urge to learn and also have no respect for the wilderness, Heritage, culture, and people. They do not understand that for them it is a picnic spot but for us, it is our native place. There are people living here with families. They have women, young girls, and children in the families. These noisy tourists play loud music and shout, and many times it has been seen that they are looking for women to spend some time with them. They have this wrong anticipate that women are easily available in the hills.  

6. What makes Shimla a unique destination for travelers, and how do you aim to showcase its uniqueness through Shimla Walks?

Shimla’s history its settlement in the foothills of the Himalayas, its Victorian and Post-Victorian architecture, its towering pine and cedar trees, the monkeys jumping on these trees, its walking trails, its cemeteries, its forest cover, the tiny principalities around it whose descendants still live in their old palaces, its rituals and traditions – all make it unique. One has to explore all of them and create unique products for the tourists. And that is what we have been doing for more than twenty years. 

7. Looking ahead, what are your plans for the future of Shimla Walks? Are you planning to introduce new experiences?

Yes, of course. We are coming up with a Yoga retreat that will not only provide Yoga sessions but also the stay will include walks with Yoga. The structure of the retreat is almost done and now we have to concentrate on its interior and the facilities that we need for the guests. It is located in the wilderness with no disturbance from the city chaos and also one has to walk uphill a bit to access the retreat.

8. "Shimla Bazaar" captures the essence of local markets. Can you share an experience that influenced your writings?

Shimla Bazaar has nothing to do with the Markets of Shimla. It is just the name of the book and the story in the book with the same name. the stories are based on my travels, my observations, and my own experiences of life which make it unique for the reader. One day I planned to see Shimla without people and it was not possible during the day. So, I walked to the center of the town at 3 a.m. And what I saw and observed I mentioned in the story.

9. How have you portrayed diverse cultural and commercial aspects of Shimla's bazaars in your book? Could you provide an anecdote that highlights this blend?

As I said Shimla Bazaar is a collection of stories, all penned by me. They are based on my personal experiences of life. Yes, some of them do talk about the lifestyle of different people. A piece from the story, Shimla Bazaar is as follows:

I read somewhere that a ghost of an English man roams here between midnight and early morning. He can be seen sitting on benches placed for visitors or standing next to any lamp post or maybe sometimes on the stairs descending towards Mall Road. He wears a long coat, and a hat and holds a walking stick in his hand. He has never disturbed anyone but remains visible here in this area during these hours. Perhaps he comes to look at the dying beauty of the town that was actually set up by his forefathers. But he is helpless. He is visible but cannot say anything. No one shall listen to him. People of the modern age do not understand the thoughts of people of his era. He is unlucky as he cannot appear during the day and teach people not to pollute this town. 

I look around to find him but in vain. Perhaps one day I shall also be at this place. I want to be. After leaving this world I would like to be in these hills with the ability to help people because I cannot see this town in bad shape.

Thinking of him I proceeded towards the stairs leading to Mall Road. From there I shall take another set of stairs descending towards Ram Bazaar and then to the bus station. 

As I near Mall Road a man appears in the dark near the stairs wearing a long coat, hat, and a stick in his hand.  

I stop.

He looks at me. 

He is not visible clearly but his full profile is in front of me. He just came up from the lower stairs and stood in the shade of a wall. The light of a bulb is ahead of him and so he is not clearly visible. He looks around and then it appears as if he is looking at me. 

Another piece from the story – Foot Steps in Snow

I got up rubbing my eyes and looked for my footwear near my bed.  As I kept my bare feet on the floor, I could feel the freezing cold holding my legs. Sliding my feet into my footwear, I picked up my shawl to wrap myself and walked towards the door to the balcony. As I came out on the balcony, Oh no!’ I was in a different world. The entire area was wrapped in a white sheet of snow. It had snowed all night and the sky was still grey. I looked towards the north. A thick cloud was rising up from the valley and was going to cover the entire landscape. I did not see any birds not even monkeys. They must have found refuge in the trees or some old houses. 

The bridle path below my balcony looked like a carpet of cotton batting It was difficult to see its extent. I noticed someone’s footsteps on that. 

‘Who must have ventured out in this harsh weather?’ I thought.

Government employees go on long leave during winter in the hills. Most of them save their leaves throughout the year and for this season so that they stay from the chilly weather.

Porters – ‘Khans’ as we call them, and I call them ‘vigorous Khans’ the lifeline of this town, do not start their work so early in this weather. 

Shopkeepers open their shops around eleven in the morning and shut them by seven o’clock which is the maximum time limit, as there are hardly any tourists during this period of the year.

Schools are closed for winter vacations and reopen only in March. So no students are seen on the roads. The population of the town reduces to half in winter. I don't want to go away from the mountains due to my intimate bond with them. Every moment of my life I want to spend with them. I seldom leave the mountains, only when I need to, due to my profession. Mountains change color every moment. Sun or rain, snow or clouds, summer or winter attract me. I wish I could hug all of them and kiss them. I work as a freelance tourist guide and spend the entire day with my clients, I work hard during the peak time of the tourist season, and the rest of the days  I keep it for myself.

Anyway, I wondered if I could find whose footsteps were they. in the snow and entered my room. Last night I had planned the next day’s program. 

10. "A Journey to Shimla: by Toy Train" captures the magic of this ride. What emotions and sensations did you intend readers to experience during this journey?

Traveling on Toy Train has always fascinated me. My father was a railway engineer and was posted at Shimla Railway Station from 1964 to 1977 as Train Examiner. I think almost everyone is fascinated by its ride which begins from the foothills at Kalka from an elevation of 684 meters and rises up to 2195 meters in Shimla.  My book – A Journey to Shimla by Toy Train tells you the stories of every station, tunnel of bridge and also talks a lot about its feat of engineering in the early twentieth century. The curves of the line on the hills, the tunnel through the big mountains and the forests and the villages, and of course the vista of landscape keep you busy with your camera. 

11. Balancing nostalgia and new experiences can be tricky. How did you ensure your book resonates with the people who have and haven't experienced the toy train ride?

I have spoken about all that I have mentioned above. As you go through the book you feel like you are on the train and traveling to the fairyland. Also, there are interesting pictures of the route from Kalka to Shimla.

The story begins in the era when not even the road was there till Shimla. So it talks not only about the KSR but also a bit of the history of the establishment of Shimla.

12. "Tea Shop at Narkanda" focuses on a specific location. What prompted you to center a book around this tea shop, and how does it reflect the broader themes of your works?

The Shop at Narkanda is a novella. A story of a young boy from the hills who has lost everything in a flash flood or cloud burst. He comes to Shimla to look for his survival. And then one day he comes to know that his mother and his two siblings are alive and are in the hospital. So he goes back to his native village and then to look after his family, further, he finds a job at a tea shop which is located in the bazaar of Narkanda.

When I was working on the plot of the story I was looking for a place that is colder than Shimla during winter and is a place where the busses stop for a tea break. And Narkanda was an appropriate place that suited the story. That is how the name came to my mind – Tea Shop at Narkanda.  

The idea was fetched from the life of a soldier who used to drink a lot. I met him in Ladakh. He told me when he was a kid he lost his father and his uncle and other relatives threw him, his mother, and his siblings out of the house. So, to earn his living he started working at a tea shop as a helper. At that time, he was only fourteen years old. The owner of the tea shop put him into the habit of drinking so that he could work late on cold nights. That is how he got into this habit. This is what fascinated me and the story developed in my mind that resulted in the shape of a novel.

13. Narkanda seems to have a special place in your heart. Could you elaborate on the emotions that compelled you to dedicate a book to this place and its stories?

I think I have answered this in the previous question. 

14. "Shimla - A British Himalayan Town" delves into colonial history. How did you create a balance between historical facts and personal perspectives, and what do you hope readers will gain from this exploration?

This book is a Guide book and I am a tour guide. So I wrote it as a Guide tells stories. There are so many hidden facts of Shimla which are never mentioned by the Guides. The book does talk about historical facts but on the other hand, there are so many other things, like the monkeys in Shimla, and its different buildings with a variety of architecture, the porters, the railway, the roads, the religious facts, the festivals celebrated throughout the year, the British influence and much more. So, the readers learn a lot from this book and before they plan their first visit to Shimla, this book gives them a pretty good idea about the town and leaves a spark in their minds to know more when they come here. 

15. Could you expand on the impact of the British colonial period on Shimla's architecture, culture, and way of life, as uncovered in your writing?

I call it a British Himalayan Town and that is what it is. A town in the lap of the Himalayas that was all set up by the British officers. When they started building this town the only style of making houses used was the hill architecture in which only stone, wood, and mud were used. The British liked it very much and they merged this style of architecture with the Half Timber style, generally called the Moc-Tudor style, which remained very common in Europe from 1480s to 1605. You cannot imagine Shimla without its colonial buildings. Everyone knows that it was built by the British and was built to be used as their summer capital. People care carrying the impact on their minds that Shimla means, Gothic villas, towering cedars, alpine roofed houses, an English Church, a walking street called Mall Road, monkeys, and trafficless roads. And that is what Shimla offers. Even after seventy-five years of Indian Independence still, you can see the same rules being followed by the residents. For example, afternoon tea is a part of life here, the evening stroll at the Mall is what everyone wants, And the dressing sense is the same as old men used to dress up with a coat and tie. People still talk a lot about the British who built this town and spent most of their life here.

16. What is your message for upcoming writers?

Write what you want but you must follow the basic techniques of writing, especially in poetry.