Saturday, May 18, 2002

Following the apple trail to Kinnaur
Partha S. Banerjee

The Kalpa village encircled by snow-capped mountains.
The Kalpa village encircled by snow-capped mountains.

NEXT time you bite into a luscious apple, think of the ĎAmerican in khadií. Or better still, plan a visit to Samuel Evans Stokesí picturesque adopted home in Himachal and enjoy a stunning view of mountains in the bargain.

But what have apples got to do with Stokes? Well, if it hadnít been for this unusually remarkable American who married a local girl and eventually embraced Hinduism, there would have been little apple farming in India.

The apple saga began at Thanedar, a charming little village at over 8,000 ft and some 82 km from Shimla, and you can follow the orchard trail to remote Kinnaur, where forbidding snow-capped mountains tower over slopes that grow the best apples in India. Then move on to the enchanting Sangla valley with its quaint hamlets and the swiftly flowing Baspa river. But itís at Thanedar where you must begin your journey for it was here that Stokes began experimenting with apple saplings he brought from America some 80 years ago.


Scion of a wealthy Philadelphia business family, Samuel Stokes (1882-1946) came to India in 1904 to work at a leprosy home near Solan (50 km from Shimla). Soon, however, the young American became increasingly drawn towards Indian philosophy and culture; he turned away from the foreign missionary community and became a Christian fakir, living in a cave for a while, then married a Rajput Christian girl, bought land in Thanedar village and took upon himself to improve the lot of the local hill people who lived then in abject poverty.

After experimenting with wheat and barley, Stokes decided to try apple farming in his land. He acquired apple saplings from America in 1919, and after successfully growing orchards in his land, distributed saplings to the local farmers. By the late 1920s, apple orchards were bearing fruit all over the neighbouring hills and the poor hill people of the area were suddenly growing unbelievably rich. Even farmers in Kulu and Kashmir, where a sour variety grew, borrowed Stokesí saplings to improve their apple crop.

The Paramjyoti temple in Thanedar
The Paramjyoti temple in Thanedar

In Thanedar, you can visit Harmony House, the Stokesí family home, a European style cottage with Himachali features, and be lucky enough to meet one of Samuel Evansí descendants, some of whom shuttle between the USA and Himachal. (One granddaughter, Asha Sharma, recently wrote his biography, An American in Khadi.) Close to the home is the Paramjyoti temple, a slate-roofed square structure with an encircling verandah, built in Pahari style. Stokes built the temple after converting to Hinduism in 1932 and changing his first name to Satyanand. In later life, he joined the Indian freedom movement, was jailed by the British, and became a senior Congress leader.

The Barobag Hill where Harmony House stands commands a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, some slopes are draped in tall deodar trees, others stand studded with apple orchards. The snow peaks are to your right and in the distance, through a narrow valley 6000 ft below, flows the Sutlej. The road to the valley descends in sharp hairpin bends and before long you are in Rampur (3,040 ft), an ugly bustling town on the banks of the Sutlej with concrete buildings and soaring temperatures. But it is the last big town on the way to Kinnaur.

The valley narrows as you drive up, with mountains on either side rising from the grey-brown waters of the Sutlej. The winding road, now high above the roaring river, is busy with lorry traffic thanks to the massive Nathpa-Jhakri hydel power project currently under construction. At Jeori, 23 km from Rampur, a road branches out to your right, climbing the steep hill to Sarahan, 17 km away. What awaits you there in that historic town, once the capital of the princely Bushahr Rampur state, is breathtaking: a vast ancient temple complex, its architecture a splendid mix of Tibetan and the local Pahari styles. It stands against a backdrop of snowy peaks that crown mountains clad in pines and orchards.

It is a setting, they say, that only the gods could have created. Sarahan (alt. (7,100 ft) is a sacred Hindu spot seeped in legends, some of which associate the place with Lord Krishna. The Bhimakali temple complex, spread over almost an acre, is dominated by two towering structures with the traditional arched sloping roofs. The first tower, damaged in an earthquake in 1905, is no longer in use; the second tower, built in 1943, houses the main temple where, along with images of many deities, including the Buddha, are two statues of the Goddess Bhimakali.

Returning to Jeori and proceeding another 57 km eastward along the Sutlej, you enter Kinnaur district and reach Karcham, a major hub of yet another hydel project. Turn right here to take the road to Sangla, the delightful valley of the Baspa, a tributary of the Sutlej. Alexander Gerard, one of the first European explorers to have written about the Baspa valley, described it in 1817 as one of the most beautiful of all Himalayan valleys and most tourists today wonít contest that rating. The road from Karcham initially negotiates a deep gorge but presently the valley opens up and you look down on sylvan pastures, quaint villages with slate-roofed houses, the meandering river and, of course, the high-wooded mountains rearing on either side.

Sangla village (alt. 8,700 ft), the administrative headquarters of the vale, has numerous budget hotels and government rest houses but if you really want to savour all that the valley has on offer, drive up a few miles to Batseri village where, adjacent to the swiftly flowing Baspa, the Delhi-based Banjara Camps and Retreats runs a superbly-managed camp complete with twin-bedded Swiss-style tents with attached bath and bonfires in the evening. After breakfast next morning, go trout fishing or set out on a trek with packed launch, exploring the pathways of shepherds herding their flock or trudging up mountain tracks to reach alpine meadows perched high on surrounding hills. If your eyes have had enough feasting on the beauty to the vale, let your ears enjoy the silence of the mountains, broken only by the gurgling of the river below.

Not far from Sangla village is the fort-temple of Kamroo, its shrine devoted to Kamakhya Devi ó the image was brought here centuries ago from distant Assam. The entrance to the temple has an image of the Buddha; indeed, the Kinners (as Kinnaur residents are called) practise a religion that is a happy mix of Hinduism and Buddism and every village has its own patron deity. Embellished with intricate woodcarving, the Kamru temple, where many of Kinnaurís rajas were crowned, towers over a bare low hill commanding a great view of the valley. The valley stretches some 30 km eastward to the lovely little village of Chitkul (alt. 11,300 ft), which often remains snowbound till mid-April. You can hitch a ride to the village or ask the Banjara Camp people to chart out walks or treks for you in this enchanting vale.

You can even spend a day ambling around in nearby Batseri village. Talk to the villagers, ask about their customs, try Kinnauri tepang, the flat-topped cap with a coloured strip that all local women and most men still wear. Much of the traditional Kinnauri attire is today all but forgotten though women still sport the trimani necklace with gold beads, turquoise and coral stones. Women enjoy a high social status in Kinnaur, being even allowed to divorce and bear children out of wedlock, but they also shoulder a great deal of the work at home and in the fields. Today, of course, with increasing prosperity (thanks to the apple orchards, the Kinners are among the richest rural folk in the country), most people here employ several helping hands.

As the winding road to Kalpa ascends the high mountain, you soon find yourself in a kind of bowl encircled by soaring snow-capped peaks. It is a strange feeling you experience now, a mixture of awe and exhilaration. There is the Jorkandan (21,213) ft) summit towering on one side but more majestic is the Kinner Kailash (19,844 ft), one of the mythical homes of Lord Shiva. You soon reach Recong Peo, the district headquarters of Kinnaur, and half an hour later to the quiet little village of Kalpa (9,700 ft).

Another half an hour and you are on top of one of the summits! Not really, but thatís how it feels, sometimes, from Kalpa ó the peaks seem so close by. This is real mountain country: remote, forbidding, celestial. Though visited by Lord Dalhousie in the 19th century (he loved the place, of course ó and remember, there were no roads then), Kalpa is still an offbeat destination. Which is as well, for who would want hordes of tourists to unsettle the ethereal peace of this heavenly place.

Travel information

Getting there: Itís best to hire a taxi (Qualis or equivalent) from Shimla for the entire trip (about 550 km) but you could also bus it to all the places on the trail. There are deluxe buses to some of the places but even the ordinary HPTC buses arenít too uncomfortable.

Best season: April to October; at least a week is required to do the entire trail.

Accommodation: Sarahan has the Shrikhand Hotel run by Himachal Pradesh Tourism but in most of the other places on the trail, your best bet is Banjara Camps and Retreats, unless you want to rough it out in cheap lodges. Run by an ex-Army officer, Banjara Camps (e-mail;telephone: 011-6861397) has reasonably priced comfortable hotels with good views at Thanedar and Kalpa, apart from the excellent camp at Sangla. The company can also organise vehicles for the entire tour.

Warm clothes: Carry a jacket and a sweater for the evenings, and for the odd chilly day. T-shirts should normally be adequate during daytime.

Other tips: Take a sunblock cream (SPF 50) if you donít want to return with a roasted face, and carry a rucksack, sleeping bag, raincoat and a pair of tough shoes for the treks you might want to do at Sangla and other places.