Were there to be a competition among Indian highlands, it would be difficult to pick out the winner for the title “Queen of Hill Stations”. Such is the enduring appeal of this epithet that virtually every major hill station claims to have won it: Shimla, Nainital, Ooty, Darjeeling, Mussoorie.

Even the smaller resort towns celebrate their beauty in regal, female terms, with Kodaikanal accepting the tag of “Princess of Hill Stations”.

In a country like India where toxic masculinity is visible in so many spheres of everyday life, it is a joy to observe this wholehearted spatial embrace of feminine identity through nomenclature. To call Shimla, Mussoorie or Darjeeling the “King of Hill Stations” would sound odd and out-of-place. How, then, can we understand the gendered character of cooler climes?

Colonial underpinnings

In Western philosophical thought, the combination of the feminine and the beautiful goes back to the late eighteenth century treatises of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. In these works, the conflation led to an understanding of a female identity that was timid, fetishized and subservient to men. On the other hand, Kant and Burke aligned masculinity with the aesthetic of the sublime, where ideas of dominance and control strongly infused the equation.

It was this prejudiced view that came under the scrutiny of Mary Wollestonecraft’s famous 1790 political pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she strongly condemned the gendering of beauty for discriminatory, patriarchal purposes. Despite this, the link between beauty, fetishisation and control continued to retain its stronghold in the public imagination (as it still does to an extent). That is why India’s colonial-era hill stations also gave expression to this relationship when they were built in the nineteenth century.

In the early days of colonial settlement, the distant Great Himalayan range, viewable from Nainital, Shimla, Mussoorie and Darjeeling seemed like a terrifying, sublime landscape that disturbed even the most adventurous of white men. But the ridgelines of the hill stations – almost half the height of the permanent snowy peaks in the distance – were far more manageable and conducive for domestication. Ideas of domesticity have traditionally been associated with feminine and household spheres. With their rarefied identities as being a “home away from home” for the colonists, hill stations were linked to a femininity that was both naturally and architecturally beautiful.

Shimla in the 1880s.

Furthermore, numerous native Indian hill communities were interpreted in emasculated and effeminate terms. While femininity and effeminacy are not synonymous, the colonial project worked to club the two, fostering the gendered identity of hill stations.

The presence of a larger number of women in hill stations in comparison to the plains also added to this character. As Dane Kennedy writes in his history The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj, hill stations “were the preferred sites within the subcontinent for single young adults to conduct their courting rituals, for married and widowed matrons to exercise their skills as society hostesses, for pregnant women to spend their confinements and new mothers to care for their infants”.

Similarly, in The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj, Anne De Courcy describes the abominable marriage market of the Raj, which involved women travelling to the subcontinent from Britain to find husbands. A number of these women would find their way up to the hills and become the subject of romances – and scandals. Popular culture of the time, from Rudyard Kipling’s poems and stories to drawing-room theatrical comedies, documented many such women in both stereotypical and exaggerated terms. Figures such as the dancer-courtesan Lola Montez and the fictional character of Mrs Hawksbee who appears in several Kipling short stories became synonymous with the larger-than-life appeal and atmosphere of Shimla. Their femme-fatale personas entrenched the mysterious glow of these far-flung landscapes.

A particularly delicious guidebook explicitly illuminates the feminised identity of Shimla was Ragtime in Simla, an irrepressibly humorous illustrated primer to the town by a writer named Doz published in 1913. Having just introduced the imperial summer capital as the most “distinctive” among hill stations on the very first page, Doz swiftly moves on to observe that “the first Governor-General to succumb to the charms of Simla was Lord Amherst, in 1827; and she has ever since been playing the part of a very successful and charming Cleopatra”.

Noteworthy here is not only the use of the pronoun “she”for the hill town but also two very fine caricatures of Cleopatra and Amherst facing each other across the body of the main text. While the queen depicted in half profile literally commands a hallowed and higher stature, beckoning Amherst with an outstretched hand pointing towards him, Amherst on the other hand occupies a lower and diminutive spot, hands spread out and legs about to buckle over a mountain ledge. So profound is the charming seduction of Shimla-as-Cleopatra that the subtitle underlining Amherst’s little portraiture indexes an overwhelming, exclamatory response: “Lead me from hence, I faint!”

In spite of the white man spearheading the popularisation of the hill town, Doz dazzlingly overturns the gender hierarchy, so that it is not the male governor-general but the female Shimla that eventually gets to pull the strings. The explorer’s male ego succumbs as the feminized aura of the landscape triumphs.

Indian allusions

But landscapes always triumph, whether charmingly or menacingly. Much before the establishment of colonial hill stations, countless Himalayan summits were already regarded in feminine terms through their translation into “jognis”: female hill deities whose shrines emerged as prayer sites. Some barely accessible and others simply unclimbable, these jognis represented the mother goddess, the giver and protector of life as well as someone to be feared and revered.

Similarly, the origin of the “shakti peeths” (the sites where the pieces from Sati’s burnt body are said to have fallen from Shiva’s embrace as he angrily journeys the cosmos) also embodied a femininity that had little to do with effeminacy or subjugation and everything to do with fierceness and purity.

Shimla in the 1880s.

Both the jognis and shaktipeeths continue to be celebrated and venerated by the common folk of the hills, the sacred feminine defining not only religious dispositions but entire ways of life, with rituals, songs and festivals held on routinely basis. For all their Englishness, some colonial hill stations themselves play hosts to such female deities and are named after them, like Nainital (a shakti peeth) where Sati’s “nayan” (eyes) are said to have fallen, and Shimla, after the local Shyamala Devi, an incarnation of Kali.

But if religion serves as the age-old link to the feminine identity of the hills, then the most evocative contemporary link has to be Bombay cinema. Hindi cinema enshrines the “woman from the hills” motif in popular consciousness like nothing else, with a large number of evergreen melodies tracing her movements and lure.

Raj Kapoor’s 1985 classic Ram Teri Ganga Maili perhaps best illustrates this “charm” through Ravindra Jain’s gorgeously composed musical melody Husn Pahaadon Ka (The Beauty of Mountains), that opens with Mandakini singing to (and not only “in”) the Himalayan valley, turning and gesturing towards the zooming grandeur of the landscapewhile the hero Rajiv Kapoor’s camera tries to capture a frame of hers. One recalls many other songs as well such as Aaja Re O Mere Dilbar (Come, O My Beloved) from Manmohan Krishna’s 1979 Noorie, starring Poonam Dhillon and Farooq Shaikh, and Pyaar Hua Chupke Se (Love Happened Secretly) from Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 1994 1942: A Love Story, where Manisha Koirala sings and dances with great abandon in the pristine Himalayas, once again embodying the purity of the hills.

The American Indologist Philip Lutgendorf has noted that numerous Hindi cinema narratives featuring the hill girl and the city boy duo “invoke the ‘supposed’ sensuality and sexual forwardness of the mountain maiden both as a pretext for erotic spectacle and as a plot-driving motif”. Thus we have “a Pahari girl boldly choosing the outsider, pardesi boy in defiance of the family and community”. Sometimes, such “boldness” also takes an overtly supernatural-thriller turn, as for instance with the ghostly presence of Malini (played by Malini Sharma) lurking in the hills and forests of Ooty in Vikram Bhatt’s 2002 horror venture Raaz (Secret). Of course, the femme-fatale again comes to mind. And who can forget the haunting Sandhya wading through the snows of Shimla in a white sari singing “Naina Barse” (The Eyes Weep) in Raj Khosla’s 1964 Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?), even as a perplexed Manoj Kumar tries to make sense of this mysterious persona?

Over the years, Shimla and other major hill stations have changed a great deal, with haphazard urban development and water-scarcity now becoming commonplace, not to mention the agonies of climate change and the frustrations of seething traffic-jams. But what has nonetheless remained intact is their feminine identity, which thrives in visible symbols and everyday language.

The stone embankment of Shimla’s Mall Road, for instance, is decorated with murals illustrating the womenfolk of Himachal engaged in everyday hard labour. The even better-known life-size statue of “Himbala” (Mountain lass) quietly poses on the Ridge’s south-facing wedge and similarlyattests to this resilience and bounty, a pitcher placed in her hands very much like Mandakini of Husn Pahaadon Ka. In a recent edition of the town’s annual classical music festival, a famous sitarist who had spent his childhood in Shimla prefaced his performance by warmly acknowledging how his annual return to the hills felt like the return of a “bride to her parents’ home”.

Inherent to the title of Queen of the Hill Stations is the connection between femininity and care, warmth, innocence, and childhood comfort. Femininity in the context of the hills does not remain an individualistic trait. Rather, it spreads across the collective consciousness and conscience of highland cultures as an idea to be valued and celebrated, as well as as a conduit to connect to beloved landscapes.

Siddharth Pandey is a cultural historian of Shimla. He recently held research fellowships at Yale and LMU, and has a PhD in English Literature and Materiality Studies from the University of Cambridge.