Images of a bygone era
frozen in time
KOTGARH, the apple heartland of Himachal is perched high above the left bank of the Sutlej about 80 km from Shimla, on the old Hindustan-Tibet road. Located at about 6,500 feet above sea level, Kotgarh commands a panoramic view of the Sutlej valley and the distant snow covered peaks of the greater Himalayas. It is renowned not only for its scenic beauty but also for its contribution to the horticulture revolution for it was here the saga of apple cultivation in the Shimla hills began in the early 1900.
Sandoch and later Gurukot, little is known about its past before the
Gurkhas came to world sway over the region during the early 19th
century. The Gurkha rule ended in 1815 when British forces defeated
Gurkha armies and retained a few pockets of land in the hills. Kotgarh
was one of them and it became a British territory wedged between
autonomous hill states. The British government retained it as a
military post and over the years it became a trading centre as well,
probably the farthest in the north. But soon the cantonment was wound
up and the buildings and property handed over to missionaries. The
British government encouraged missionary work in Kotgarh to enhance
its influence in the area. St Mary’s Church was built in Kotgarh in
1873 and schools were opened in Kotgarh and the surrounding villages.
Murry’s Handbook of Punjab, 1883, described Kotgarh as a
"pretty little place with a post office, a pretty church and a
missionary station". Little has changed since then. Unlike Shimla
that grew from a tiny village to become the summer capital of British
India, Kotgarh has remained almost frozen in time. The pretty wooden
church with its old graveyard, the Gorton Mission School and other
buildings that survive today hold lingering images of a bygone era.
Kotgarh is best known for its Delicious variety of apples. Once a poverty-ridden and unproductive area, it is today one of the most prosperous regions of the state. Samuel Evans Stokes, a missionary worker from Philadelphia, USA who first visited Kotgarh in 1904, laid the foundation of this prosperity. He was so captivated by the scenic beauty of Kotgarh that he stayed on and made it his home. He married a local Christian girl, Agnes in 1912 and settled down in Kotgarh to the life of a hill farmer. Stokes initially came to Kotgarh as a missionary worker but over the years serious doubts arose in his mind over the question of converting local people to Christianity. He soon discarded his European way of life, converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand and his wife’s to Priya Devi Stokes purchased a large estate at Baru Bagh near Kotgarh where he built a house in the traditional pahari style. He named it Harmony Hall after his ancestral home in Philadelphia and made it his headquarters from where he conducted his pioneering work. Apart from social work and contributing to the freedom struggle, Stokes introduced the Delicious variety of apples in his farm, which he imported from the famous Stark Brother Nurseries of Louisiana USA in 1921. He encouraged the local farmers to plant apples in their fields instead of traditional crops of barley and maize. The Delicious variety of apples introduced by Stokes have earned the state the title of apple state of India.
Enthralled by the scenic beauty of Kotgarh Captain Alexander Gerard wrote in his travelogue Tours in the Himalayas: "I have no hesitation in saying that...it is the place where I should desire to pass the remainder of my life. Its climate is temperate, its sky deep yet brilliantly blue, and its surrounding country full of majesty and sublimity. All these give joyousness to the mind and health to the body. More cannot be asked, nor can more be found. It is only at this elevation and in this parallel that it exists".
Kotgarh is a place of great natural beauty. Dense pine forests give way to picturesque terraced fields dotted with apple trees and bungalows nestled in tranquil surroundings. Kotgarh is at its best during the spring season when wild flowers add colour to the apple blossom. This is also the season for local fairs, which provide a rare glimpse into the unique cultural life of Kotgarh.
Thanedhar, the commercial centre of the region is a good base to explore the apple countryside. It has an impressive resthouse built in the traditional pahari style overlooking the Sutlej valley. Further up on a spur stand the elegant Harmony Hall and the temple built by Stokes at Baru Bagh. From Thanedhar, Kotgarh can be reached by a trail that passes through several villages and orchards. On way lies the cave at the Rhogha Khud where Stokes lived the life of a sadhu in 1905. Not far from Thanedhar towards Narkanda is the scenic picnic spot of Tani-Jubbar with its ancient wooden temple besides a lake and a breathtaking view of the Hattu peak and dense forests of Baghi and Khadrala. The Hattu peak can be reached from here by a track that winds up the slope through forests of pine and oak.
Kotgarh has all the features of an
attractive tourist destination and several enterprising farmers have
been quick to cash in on the vast untapped tourism potential of the
region. Many have converted their traditional homes into guesthouses
and are now taking in tourists. Repeated crop failure in recent years
has badly crippled the local economy and the money from tourism will
certainly help supplement the farmers’ income.