Nostalgia: No more frolicking on the ice in Shimla

Even as it celebrates the centenary of its creation, Shimla’s iconic natural ice skating Rink seems to be dying a slow death, primarily due to environmental changes and unplanned urbanisation in its surroundings.

Even as it celebrates the centenary of its creation, Shimla’s iconic natural ice skating Rink is not just losing its old world charm, but changing weather patterns is affecting the once popular events that the Rink hosted. After last week’s heavy snowfall, ice skating sessions had to be stopped.  Even last year, just a little over 40 sessions could be held. Scheduled competitions had to be cancelled due to uncertain weather.

Listen to Peter Ta Tung 56, a veteran ice skater, as he recalls activities at the Rink in the 60s and 70s. Tinged with nostalgia and a touch of despair, Tung and others of his era mention the visit of former Yugoslav President and president of the Non-Aligned Movement Marshal Josip Broz Tito in 1954. Tito came specially to Shimla to see the Rink, bringing a trophy, which is on display there and is awarded to the winner at the end of the annual ice skating event. “Being the centenary year, it’s time for celebrate those times and think of options to save the Rink”, said Peter, sitting at his famous Chinese shoe shop located next Scandal Point on Shimla’s Mall road.

Peter has fond memories when 150 to 200 Ice-skating sessions used to be held along with dozens of competitions like Ice-hockey, Ice dancing, figure skating, torch–light dancing and couple dances. The mood in Shimla then used to turn festive, especially when VVIPs thronged the hill town to be a part of such events.

The Rink has also been featured in some of Bollywood’s top hits of the 60s and 70s. Like Woh Kaun Thee starring Manoj Kumar and Sadhana (1964), directed by Raj Khosla, which had scenes shot at the Rink. Clips of the movie showing the Rink became very popular and attracted several other movie-makers and stars from Bollywood. Raj Kapoor‘s Mera Naam Joker begins with shots of Shimla’s Ice-skating Rink. A few southern movies too featured the Rink. Famous stars like Shammi Kapoor, Danny and Shakti Kapoor and some leading actresses of the time have not just enacted scenes here but also stayed on to watch some events.

Natural advantages

Located ideally on the north side of the town downhill from Shimla’s Ridge on the Circular road (also called as Cart-road), the Rink dates back to 1920. Old Shimlaites, recall some interesting anecdotes. Like when one English gentleman, Blessington, who used to live in the Rink’s vicinity, had left a water tap open during the night. The water accumulated on the tennis courts in the vicinity and froze solid. The tennis courts turned into an impromptu skating Rink and a place for ice parties in that winter of 1920.

The Shimla Ice Skating Club was formed in 1920 to maintain, organise and manage events in the Rink, said Bhuvnesh Banga, incumbent secretary of the Club. It is the only club of its kind in South East Asia. During the British era, the Club permitted only Europeans members but later opened its doors to Indians as well. After Independence, the Club’s activities expanded making it quite famous for winter sporting activity, not just for domestic but for foreign tourists too.

The Rink has several natural advantages. The warm rays of the sun, rising above the surrounding mountains, would hit the Rink late, after the morning sessions. There used to be beautiful hill landscaping, a broad-leaf tree line and a bowl shaped natural surrounding terrain. Unfortunately the slope where a tree line provided a thick shady cover to the rink has today been replced by a string of constructions, a Tibetan market, a makeshift shelter home, and vendor stalls selling various knick knacks. The entire slope has been degraded with no tree cover.

In the old days, the Club used to hire the expert services of Garhwal high-landers for freezing of the water. The highlanders would come down to Shimla ahead of the winters and stay through-out the season overseeing freezing of water in the Rink. “It was a monopoly of those skilful Garhwalis for years,” said Shishu Patial, 74, an old Shimla native who enjoys skating on the ice. No one ever complained about their work, which needed their traditional knowledge of how much and what quality of water was needed and the time needed for the water to freeze. As sessions used to be held morning and evening, these Garhwalis were real masters in freezing the water and in maintaining the frozen surface.  The club now uses the services of a group from Ladakh. It used to be a seasonal earning opportunity for the Garhwal highlanders. But as the changing weather made skating sessions on the Rink uncertain, they stopped their winter migration and the club turned to the Ladakh workers.

Normally, December and January used to be a packed season for ice skating when the Rink, spread over four old tennis courts, get covered with a thick layer about 15 cm of ice. At a time when Shimla used to become a silent city after the winter closing of schools, no vehicles on the roads and families moving out for a break, the ice skating Rink was the hub of all the action and entertainment in town. Burning of charcoal for heating (now banned) used to cover most parts of the town with smoke and polluted air, but the Rink always remained a popular recreational centre. Men and women of all ages and background would kick off the winter action to the cheers of visitors, local and from outside. The late Dr. Vignes, the Australian Ice Skating Champion was a frequent visitor during winters.

“Late Mrs Indira Gandhi and both her sons Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, State’s first Chief Minister Dr Y S Parmar, Punjab Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon and Justice M. Hidayatullah and Justice G D Khosla are still mentioned as some the VVIPs gracing the Ice-skating Rink several times”, recollects P C Lohumi, a veteran journalist. He, however goes all emotional when recalling names of local celebrities like the late Prof M L Sharma, a college maths professor, once a handsome young man known for his ice-dancing and figure dancing who also trained and groomed several talented young boys and girls in ice-skating, free-skating, ice-hockey and couple skating. Prof Sharma also did bit roles in some movies shot at the Rink.

Races, jumping competitions, ice-hockey, carnivals, music and the annual Gymkhana were some of the eagerly awaited winter events. A red-balloon raised on top of Shimla’s historic Town hall used to signal the start of ice-action at the Rink during the season. However, after the renovation of the town hall, the Red-balloon is no longer hoisted. “We have taken-up the matter with Deputy Commissioner Amit Kashyap, who has assured to ask the Mayor to make arrangements for display of British era red-balloon since this is the Rink’s centenary year,” said club secretary Banga.

Slow death

Unfortunately, the once iconic Rink is dying today. Not only are weather changes making skating sessions completely unpredictable, other factors like haphazard construction all-round the Rink, its shrinking size due to encroachments, the sliding of the Ridge and the sudden disappearance of the old tree line have resulted in massive degradations of the soil and environment. This in turn has led to problems in the ice-freezing and also disturbing snowfall.

Today, when I look at the Rink and surroundings, I feel like crying,” said Peter Tung. “If steps are not taken to save the Rink, it will die an unnatural death. The bus stand which came-up next to the Rink and construction of concrete buildings and removal of standing trees are causing its slow death”.

Tourism Director Yunus, however, offers some hope. “We have prepared a Detailed Project Report (DPR) which is awaiting funding,” said Yunus. “The project to restore the Rink to its old charm will involve spending Rs 18 to 22 crores. Nearly Rs 12 crore will be spent in purchasing high-tech machines for ice-freezing so that it could be made a round the year activity during its 100th year. The bus stand will also be relocated and necessary maintenance of the Rink will be done with the help of top experts, The project is already approved”.

The Smart city project, which Shimla Municipal Corporation is mandated to implement, is also expected to help in this effort. Municipal Commissioner Pankaj Rai sounded optimistic about the Rink getting a new lease of life even as the Ice-Skating Club plans its centenary celebrations.

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