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Time(less) Travel: India’s First Heritage Village

Mukul and Shilpa Gupta

It starts off as a distant drone, faint and unidentifiable. But in no time − we must have done barely a dozen more steps − it turns into horrendous high-pitched squeaking. Daunted and, more than that, intrigued − what exactly is it? − We quicken our steps to follow the sound as it gets louder and shriller. Peering from a bend in the alley we see the stuff that tales of the spook are made of. There, in the dappled sunlight, is an army of ugly, repulsive beasts: fruit bats in hundreds and thousands, their silhouette stark against the late-morning sky as they hang from an entire forest of trees, squawking away relentlessly.

We stand entranced.

The setting seems prosaically perfect. We have just walked past some haunting ruins of an era only read about and the grotesque sight together with the cacophony, merely a few yards from the nearest inhabited hut, lend added eeriness to the decay. It is overwhelming.

Garli-Pragpur can do that to you. For long an incognito dot on the Indian landscape, the twin hamlets in Himachal Pradesh leapt into the cartographer’s consciousness (and subsequently also of the eager traveler looking for offbeat destinations) at the turn of this century when they were designated a heritage zone. Pragpur is India’s first notified heritage village; Garli earned the distinction subsequently. What worked in their favor was a uniquely magnificent legacy: heritage buildings, havelis, sarais (rest houses) and temples, a few as old as 250 years. Some are now in advanced stages of disrepair, a few are on the verge of atrophy, and many have entirely surrendered. But even in the midst of the pitiable ruins, you get a sense of wonderment, a real shock and awe.

Past Present

Think an Indian village and images of rickety huts, bulky buffaloes, scrawny children, dirt tracks and olfactory assault come to mind; in short, the epitome of squalor. Not so with the two villages of Garli-Pragpur, nestled in the lap of the Dhauladhar ranges. The houses here wear Gothic spires, Victorian gables and fancy wind vanes. Fretwork windows, latticed grilles, wooden balustrades, niches, domes and arches are par for the course. The architects of the time even borrowed from Mughal architecture − verifiable in the use of marbles, motifs, colors − while retaining the signature Hindustani touch of chhatris and courtyards decorated with a huge mosaic planter in the center for the holy tulsi. To add to the spectre of other-worldliness, the imposing structures of the past are interspersed with typical Himachali huts: sloped slate roofs atop mud walls. Underlining its superiority over Indian villages, Pragpur has cobblestone pathways, narrow and tight, snaking through. It’s a complete mish-mash but it fuses surprisingly well.

Pragpur’s claim to fame is the heritage property of The Judges Court, an old family home-turned-hotel (see box). While the main building of the hotel is just over 100 years old, the three rooms comprising the annexe—the ancestral cottage—are said to be older than three centuries. They are right next to the Taal, the pond that is the pivotal ‘social’ point of Pragpur as this is where the young and old gather for their sessions of banter and gossip. The gleaming red quadrangle around the pond houses the Dhuni Chand Bhardial Serai, the Naun, the Nehar Bhavan and the ancient Radha Krishna temple.

Butail Niwas is where all locals will direct you. Said to be a work of art from the late-19th century or the early 1900s, it is an attractive structure but you can see only a hint of it from the red-brick façade. Cordoned off by a high boundary wall, it is out-of-bounds. These, however, are only a few of the more ballyhooed structures. Apart from them, there are innumerable houses that have remained inexplicably unheralded. Just behind The Judges Court is a derelict old building threatening to disappear any minute. Trees have sprouted from its windows, doors and roofs; the first floor has buckled—it lies in a heap of dust and debris; the carvings on its doors have got all but erased; and the railings of its terrace have collapsed. Pride must be the only reason it’s still standing. Walk on and there are houses with beautifully carved iron doors. Some buildings are adorned with meenakari-style (enamelled) frescoes. A few boast thick wooden banisters and pretty angular niches. Together, they are a staggering reminder of the past.

Stuck in a time warp, the town’s languid pace of life finds resonance even in the lanes. Lined with ramshackle grocery shops, rickety sweetshops, somnolent silversmiths and sundry tailors, the cobbled alleys are a rewind to the past. Where else can a radio rasping out an older-than-yesteryear Zara haule haule chalo more saajna (a Hindi film song from the 1950s) lull you and where else are hand-propelled sewing machines still sold by the dozens? The stereotype of a utopian village even makes us imagine a tonga somewhere. Garli-Pragpur, though, is anything but a cliché.

Back to the Future

Folklore harks back to the 16th century when the two villages were part of the Jaswan kingdom. Apparently, Pragpur was named after princess Prag Dei who had managed to thwart a plundering army of invaders. The grateful residents, in her honor, named their village Pragpur. But it is the Kuthiala Soods, a merchant community who some say fled from Rajasthan-Gujarat centuries ago, who deserve the credit for converting the two sleepy villages into a spectacular oasis of affluence and beauty, sometime in the early 19th century. As Simla, the British summer capital, rose into prominence, so did Pragpur-Garli. Owing to their proximity to our then rulers, the Soods managed to imbue their mansions with the influences and styles of the British, nuanced farther with ideas brought back from their overseas sojourns. Ergo, the eclectic touch.

Garli, separated from Pragpur by a mere 4 km, is a tad more partial to the British. The houses here display a penchant for weather vanes and make abundant use of colored glass. Among the most breathtaking structures here are Bhagwan Niwas with its stained-glass windows; Mohan Niwas; the Government Girls High School; and Melaram’s house that is better known as the former UCO Bank building. It is now being overhauled as a sprawling heritage hotel. The humungous red brick structure called Naurang Yatri Niwas was built as a rest house and, with minor alterations, has now emerged in the avatar of a modern-day hotel. Don’t miss other historic wonders with enticing names like The Hidden House, The Mystery House, and Ruins.

Changing Winds

While the past has been kind to Garli-Pragpur, the present is anything but. Time brings changes and not all are good. Many of the houses lie abandoned. Their owners have found greener pastures elsewhere, leaving the houses with no upkeep, repair or maintenance. Several carved wooden doors and windows have been either sold by owners or plundered and replaced with flimsy tin ones. Some renovations have not remained loyal to the originals and are jarringly ‘modern’ and inferior. The new houses coming up are hopeless copies of their gaudy urban counterparts. Unlike Rajasthan’s Shekhawati, heralded as an open-air art museum for the stunning frescoes on antiquated kothis, Garli and Pragpur have remained unheralded.

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has intervened and, along with the efforts of the Himachal Pradesh Government, may be able to stem the rot. If not the legend of Prag Dei, at least the legacy of the unique havelis of Garli-Pragpur deserves to be perpetuated.

SNAPSHOTS:

Getting There

Pragpur is 59 km from Dharamsala. There are daily flights to Chandigarh and Amritsar, 244 km and 200 km from Dharamsala respectively, as well as to Dharamsala’s Gaggal Airport. There are daily overnight buses from Delhi (474 km, 12 hours). Trains run up to Una, Pathankot (86 km), Chandigarh and Amritsar. From there, you can take buses or taxis.

Why You Should Go

  • To get a glimpse of India’s glorious heritage.
  • To understand all things medieval in the modern age.
  • To see exotic structures.
  • To take leisurely walks amid ancient ruins.
  • To enjoy rural tourism.
  • To relax.
  • To travel to a little-known destination.

When You Should Go

Any time of the year is good though Kangra witnesses a heavy monsoon from July to September. Summers are tolerably warm (nothing over 35 degrees C), winters are cold (up to -4 degrees C).

What You Should Eat

It is a teeny, not tony, place so don’t expect fancy food. There are a number of dhabas and basic restaurants (near the Pragpur bus stand and in the periphery of Garli) that provide simple dal-roti-rice as well as South Indian and the mandatory noodles and burgers. Our advice: Ask for Himachali food like chamba madhra (kidney beans with curd and ghee) and chukh (chilli sauce with lemon juice and mustard oil), or Jammu specialties like kadhi and rajma.

What You Should Do

  • Walk through the cobbled streets of Pragpur and the bylanes of Garli.
  • Make the 8 km trip to the Beas River for river sports and boating.
  • Go up to the Pong Dam for fishing and angling (permission needed).
  • Visit the Shaktipeeth temples of Chintpurni and Jwalamukhi, and Bajreshwari Devi temple, all in close vicinity.
  • Offer your obeisance at the holy sites of Panchtirthi at Kalesar, 8 km, and Chanosidh, 5 km.
  • Spend time at Dharamsala.

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