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Chail A Princely Preserve

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Political intrigue, petty quarrels, jealousies, flirtations… these were some of the ingredients that were woven into the fabric of Shimla’s society. And the Mall of what was then the summer capital of British India became the haunt of pleasure-seekers, match-makers, cads and flirts. Shimla was also a watering hole where many a maharaja indulged his eccentricities.

And some came to grief like the handsome and dashing Maharaja Bhupender Singh of Patiala who was banished from Shimla because of his involvement with the Commander-in-Chief’s daughter. There is no historic record of the liaison between the two but residents still swear that they eloped. Some say he kidnapped her. Whatever the reason, the maharaja was banished from Shimla. Smarting at the high-handedness of his imperial masters, the maharaja was motivated by a single burning desire – to build his new capital which would be within sight of the glittering English capital. The village of Chail was the perfect option for not only did it face Shimla from across the valley, but better still, it was located on a higher hill. And so Chail as we know it today was born in 1891; the creation of a maharaja who sought to cock a snook at the British.

However, an ancient curse hung over Chail and each time the maharaja proceeded to build his new palace, the structure would collapse and dozens of snakes would attack the workmen. Then one night the maharaja had a dream in which a sage appeared and told him that the spot where he had planned to build his capital was the site where the holy man used to meditate till he was swallowed by the earth. He suggested an alternative place where the maharaja could build his summer getaway. A temple to the sage now stands at the spot on Siddh Tiba where Maharaja Bhupender Singh had tried so unsuccessfully to build his grand reply to the British.

At 2,250m, Chail still has a lonely aggrieved air partly because it remains largely untouched by unbridled mass tourism. It preens pretty across three hills and at its heart is the hilltop palace, now a resort run by Himachal Tourism. A cluster of pine cottages that dot the lavish grounds and which once housed the maharaja’s support staff are now part of The Palace hotel complex. The maharaja, a keen cricketer, also created a cricket ground by leveling the top of a hill and today it is the highest pitch in the world, ensconced in the shadow of mighty oaks and deodars.

The drive to Chail is a sensual delight as the wind hurries the morning mist over iron-hard peaks, their caps powdered with snow. And way below in the valley the Sutlej river flashes past. The canvas is stunning – a flower-spangled hillside, a cobalt blue sky and flaring sunsets that turns peaks into blood-red sculpted forms. Indeed, these parts are the ultimate escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

During the time of the maharaja, however, Chail epitomized the good life. The maharaja and his entire retinue of 1,000 people, entire secretariat, stables etc would be transported to Chail for six months of the year. During this time Chail would be lit up, there would be royal hunts, tennis, badminton, cricket tournaments… There were a lot of high jinks too – for Maharaja Bhupinder Sing was not averse to whooping it up. He once organized a cricket match in which all the players dressed as women. And when it was his turn to bad he strode up to the crease in a nun’s gown, his beard flowing down his chest like a black river! As one local resident observed: “Today, anyone with money is a king. At that time, there was just one king and one God.”

Nostalgia aside, Chail has many trekking trails that run across the hill resort like veins on a knotted hand. One is to Choor Chandni mountain which romantically translates to The Mountain of the Silver Bangles where one can almost feel the silence. The only sound that one hears is of pine needles rustling in the soft breeze.

Fact File
The closest airport is at Shimla (45 km). Chandigarh (120 km) however is far more convenient as it has more flights.

The closest railheads are Kandaghat 30 km, Shimla 45 km (both on the World Heritage Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge line) and Kalka (broad gauge) 86 km.

The approach to Chail is along the Kalka-Shimla highway via Kandaghat. Chail can also be accessed from Shimla via Kufri. Regular buses leave for Chail from Shimla, Chandigarh and Delhi.