When you drink water, remember the spring – says a Zen saying. If you had to apply this thought to red delicious apples on your breakfast table, you would have to remember the valleys of Himachal Pradesh that produce these juicy apples for us. In the Shimla and Kinnaur districts of Himachal you cannot walk a road without an apple orchard in sight. Deep valleys, dotted with sparsely populated small villages are full of apple trees. If you happen to travel just before the harvest time i.e. around this time of the year – you would be tempted to reach out to those red bunches hanging on the trees and take the bite that is as fresh as possible.
Last month when I travelled through these valleys, I knew that this area is the fruit bowl of Himachal that grows pears, apricots, plums, pine nuts, almonds, walnuts and of course apples. It was when I reached there that I heard the story of Apple’s arrival in this land and how it changed its fortune for many generations to come. No wonder it was apple apple everywhere.
The story of Apple in Himachal goes back exactly a century back when a young and affluent American from Philadelphia, Samuel Evans Stokes landed here in a small town called Kotgarh. He came to India to work with the leprosy patients and was taking some rest in Kotgarh that lay on the old Hindustan Tibet road. He fell in love with the surroundings – who would not when you are surrounded by the mountain peaks towering around the vivacious Satlej. He met many Sadhus on their way to Kailash Mansarovar and got interested in the Sanatan Dharma. Very soon he decided to make Kotgarh his home and married a local Christian Rajput girl. Over a period of time the local influence grew on him and he adopted the Hindu religion or Arya Samaj to be precise and changed his name to Satyanand Stokes. He also joined Mahatama Gandhi in his Independence movement and became the only American to go to jail for Indian independence.
On one of his trips back home, Stokes brought back the saplings of Red delicious apple with him. He planted them in Thanedhar – a nearby village, little uphill from Kotgarh. The saplings liked the Himalayan valley as much as Stokes did and the fruit trees bloomed here. A few more varieties were experimented with and by the time Stokes passed away in 1946 as many as 15,000 boxes of apples were being produced. Today this numbers stands at few million boxes. Kashmir still remains the biggest producer of apple in the country, but what makes Himachal’s story unique is the socio-cultural impact that Apple crop brought in. Inspired by Stokes’ success, apple plantations soon replaced the potato and plum plantations that used to be the norm here. Apple being a cash crop became the harbinger of prosperity here. Culturally this meant that people had enough occupation in their own hometown and there was no need to migrate for employment. You can see the peace and prosperity of this region as you take a walk in these villages and meet the happy go lucky people – all of them busy attending their plants, making sure the ones on trees are safe and packing the ones that have been harvested.
Legacy of Satyanand Stokes continues to live in Kotgarh-Thanedhar area. People would fondly talk about him, they all have in some way benefitted from his pioneering efforts. His home called Harmony Hall is still one of the biggest and beautiful houses in this area. Paramjyoti temple stands behind the house on a vantage point overlooking the valleys all around. This is the temple where he converted to Hinduism and the wood carved Vedic verses in Sanskrit still adorn the outer walls of the temple.
There are many places of interest for travellers around Thanedhar like 19th CE St Mary’s Church at Kotgarh that is still in practice. This simple church fuses the pahadi stone and wood architecture with a hint of Gothic architecture. Hatu peak with a Hatu Mata temple at it peak is recommended view point that on a clear day gives a panoramic view of the Shrikand Mahadev ranges of the Himalayas. The Hatu Mata temple is an ancient temple linked to the legend of Mahabharata when Pandavas were on their last journey to Himalayas. My favorite part was the steep drive to Hatu Peak with deep valleys on one side filled with tall deodar trees. Tani Jhubbar Lake is an artificial but beautiful lake reflecting the tall deodar trees in its water. Located next to a Nag devta temple with slanted slate roof, Tani Jhubbar Lake serves as a favorite picnic spot for both tourists and locals.
My biggest recommendations in Apple country would be – Walk around and look at those fruit giving trees, those deep and steep valleys and chat up with beautiful people of the hills.
(Anuradha Goyal is a leading travel blogger from India. You can read her stories at www.IndiTales.com and reach her on twitter @anuradhagoyal)