A legacy of the colonial days, Shimla’s Mall Road is rapidly shedding its understated elegance to give way to commercialisation

It was over a century and a half ago — during the British rule — that that the famous Mall Road of Shimla was constructed. While nothing much may have changed structurally since, except the installation of the statue of Lala Lajpat Rai after Independence or the opening of a few new shops, its ethos and character has undergone a sea change. As historian and author Raja Bhasin says, “Once likened to the elegant streets of London, Paris and St Petersburg, the intrinsic character of the Mall Road today has altered.”

According to him, it is perhaps because today the place is catering to a variety of clientele.

Old timers recall the evenings spent watching plays staged by prestigious drama companies at the famous Gaiety Theatre on the Mall. If not the Gaiety Theatre, many a couple would dance to the tune of the Western Band at the Devicos as the influence of the British Raj lingered well after Independence. Devicos is still there but sans the glamour it was identified with.

Rajiv Sud of ‘Maria Brothers’, where one can find the rarest of books on Himachal Pradesh, says: “The old vestibule or the heritage shops are slowly on the way out and it is gradually giving way to multi-brand stores — which I presume are the in thing with our modern day youth.” The shop used to attract a lot of tourists at one time; but today, it wears a deserted look.

With the new generation of tourists more comfortable with hanging out at fast food jaunts or shops selling branded goods, many locals agree that commercialism and consumerism is fast taking its toll on Shimla’s Mall.

A regular visitor to Shimla, Chander Kumar, says, “Every time I come here, I find hoardings of some new multi-brand showroom that has opened shop; the Mall Road of yesteryears has now been turned into a ‘shopping mall’.”

While some changes have been taking place over the years, it is during last few years that the character of shops on the Mall has changed rapidly. Many of the old shops have been given a makeover or their owners have decided to sell fashionable dresses, jewellery, shoes or fast food instead of other wares. One can see the sale discount billboards hanging out from shops on the Mall almost throughout the year.

Kikku Kapoor, shop manager of an exclusive shoe brand, says earlier tourists used to buy mainly the local gift items but now they want to buy branded stuff. That what has not changed perhaps is the ‘Scandal Point’. Pulsating with life, the ‘Scandal Point’ has generated many theories on how this name came about. F. Beresford Harrop, author of Thacker’s New Guide to Simla published in 1925, wrote: “The transmitters of gossip are ever at work and savory and unsavory secrets of our society are flashed to the uttermost limits of Simla with all the speed of wireless.”

For the residents, even today, the ‘Scandal Point’ on the Mall is a place to meet friends, gossip or discuss politics and then take two or three rounds of the Mall before calling it a day. But with the rapid increase in the number of tourists every year, many feel that it has become almost impossible to take a stroll on the Mall leisurely. “You either have to push your way through the crowds or you are carried forward by a wave of people that throng the Mall Road from the Telegraph Office to the High Court building during the tourist season. Ironically, almost every season has become a tourist season in Shimla these days.”

Yes, the Mall may no longer be a pedestrians’ paradise that it used to be and the old world charm may have been lost, but a visit to this historic tourist town is incomplete without taking a round of this famous haunt.