[Himachal GK] The Valley of Apples in Himacahal Pradesh Kotgarh - Thanedar

Hidden away in the Shimla hills, Kotgarh is famous for its apple orchards but very few knows about the inspiring feature that makes an excellent spring-summer destination.

Kotgarh is situated in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India, its geographical coordinates are 31° 19′ 0″ North, 77° 29′ 0″ East. Kotgarh is a famous enchanting ancient village on the left bank of river Satluj. The culturally rich Kotgarh valley is also the apple heartland of Himachal. It is at a distance of 82
kilometers from Shimla on the old Hindustan-Tibet road and 6,500 feet above the sea level.

Originally called 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.

Close to Narkanda, the hill range known as Kotgarh is just 16 kilometers from National highway that heads into the valley through Kumarsain, Rampur and Kinnaur and towards the Indo-Tibetan border. A branching spur breaking out from the Hatu peak Range that is splited by the fault line carved by the Satluj river, deep in the valley, makes up for what is known as the Kotgarh region.

Hatu peak can be accessed by a narrow motor able road from Narkanda that is functional during the summer months. Alternatively, the 8 kilometer of trek through dense pine, spruce and oak forests are a better option for reaching the mountain top that also mark the tree line of the Himalayan terrain. The view from Hatu Peak is breathtaking. Besides the perennially snow capped chain of the greater Himalayan ranges, very few peaks in the vicinity match the grandeur on display from here. The rarified air and the clouds gliding by, give Hatu peak a surrealistic setting. In early May, hundred of people from near and far villages trek it to the mountain top to savor of a spring fair held at Hatu.
Pre-dating the advent of British settlers in the early part of the 19th century, Kotgarh was overrun by Gorkha warriors. These hardy warriors are said to have established a fort on Hatu peak to maintain suzerainty over the surrounding territory which they held by force. Today, no traces of the fort can be seen as nature has reclaimed the remnants.

An 8 kilometer drive from Narkanda on the road to Thanedhar takes you to a ridge-top lake, popularly known as Tani jubbar, ‘a meadow within a Lake.’ This is a tranquil point, offering solace. A temple in a pahari architectural style sanctifies the lake as a holy one. The enclosing deodar forest keeps the spot shaded and hidden away. Trans-continental migratory birds sometimes do spot the water body and there have been some occasions when some of them have rested by a week or more during the winters.

On the last day of May, a spring festival held at Tani jubbar and this is a good occasion to witness local celebration and gaiety. The local deity, carried in a palanquin, with believers dancing to drum beats is integral to this local fair held amidst scenic settings.

Further on the road beyond Tani jubbar is Thanedhar which used to be the market centre of Kotgarh till it burnt down in the mid 1970’s. Long before this, during British rule, it was a major transition station for those heading into or out of Tibet.

‘Barubag’ is the ridge top at Thanedhar. This was where the American Quaker missionary, Samuel Evans Stokes chose to settle down. He bought the property from an English lady, married a local girl, converted to Hinduism and built Harmony Hall, the name he gave to the house that still stands on the spot. At a little distance from his house, Stokes built a temple, which perhaps is one of its own kinds in the whole of north India. The Gita Temple that Stokes built does not have any idol protected in its sancto-sanctorum. In place of this, there is a sacred fire place (Havan Kund), where amidst the chanting of mantras, a sacred fire was lit where Stokes attended the ceremony religiously every morning.

The temple and Harmony Hall still mark the presence of the man who introduced commercial growing of apples to the hills. In less than a hundred years, apple as a cash crop has become so successful that it gives a livelihood to over a million people and churn up an economy of Rs 1,500 crore, each year. A summer fair held in mid-June ia a good time to be around Thanedhar.

Other than the Hatu peak, Tani jubbar and Barubag there is the locality of Kotgarh village, lower down in the hills, from where the whole area derives its name.

About two hundred years ago, the first British soldiers who came to fight the Gurkha occupation in the hills, converted Kotgarh village into cantonment. Locally the place till date is known as Chavani (cantonment).

Church ta Kotgarh

Like every civilization, the invading soldiers carried their religion and gods along. So A church was established and this 1841 structure is still exist. 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.

St Mary’s Church Kotgarh

Kotgarh, in the 19th century, was a part of the province of Punjab. Going back to the early establishments of mission centres, the Presbyterians from America led by Rev John C. Lowrie were among the early missions to establish their headquarters in Punjab at Ludhiana in 1834. But after a decade in 1844, it was Church Missionary Society (CMS) from England that opened its centre at Kotgarh. It became a mission station along with Simla, Kangra and Dharamsala. Kotgarh was ideally situated in terms of Christianisation.

To comment on the impact it would have, Robert Clarke, a pioneer of CMS — when he came to Kotgarh after almost 40 years of its establishment — called it as a mission on a hill “to give light to the whole country between China and the plains.”

Kotgarh grew with references like these, and by the early 20th century, the field work as described by Rev HFT Beutel comprised an area of about 2000 sq miles. In 1911, there were around seven male native Christian agents.

Kotgarh was not alien to the British establishment at the time of the ecclesiastical invasion. It had already become a station of the British army during the 1814-1816 Gorkha war. A two-storey building was erected to serve as British officers’ mess. In the coming years, the British army withdrew from Kotgarh. Some time later the missionary spirit took root. CMS at Kotgarh worked in close connection with the Berlin Ladies’ Society. Unfortunately, I couldn’t trace any literature on the latter society with regard to their activity in Kotgarh.

What draws attention while one visits the place is a church that stands in the middle of the town. Built in 1872, the CMS church is near the Army mess. Set in the rugged mountainous site, it stands out as an example of the Gothic architecture. The church, a not-so-tall building, has an apse and a tower bell. The front window has a painting of Christ. The exterior is a combination of austerity and simplicity. It was used for daily morning and evening services.

The church — now filled with mature shrubs and apple trees in its backyard — enhances the settings of what is one of the historic buildings of early mission work. Along side the church, a school was opened, and was named after Gorton, a distinguished servant in Simla. Later, it came under the mission control. The school grew gradually, and in 1886 it could boast of a substantial figure of students studying here — 13 boys and two girls.

Interestingly, some medical work was carried at Kotgarh, too. A hospital that comprised only four beds was highly beneficial to the natives and the mission societies alike. Though the hospital was not a missionary enterprise, the latter through its “care and cure” policy spread the message of gospel to the patients. They believed it would facilitate conversions .The mission reports do throw light on incidents that showed interest of the indigenous population towards Christianity.

For instance, a Brahmin, who brought his son for treatment, expressed a desire to learn about Christ. Similarly, a young man in government service with a small salary regularly gave one Re 1 a month as a thank offering for the benefit derived at the mission school. Such descriptions were pronounced but baptism was rare. There are no figures available that tell the exact statistics of the indigenous Christians of that time.

Kotgarh, with its picturesque location, soon became a summer retreat for the missionaries in the plains. Books written during the early 19th century have travelling experiences of missionaries on ponies. Dr Brown of Women’s Christian Medical College and Hospital from Ludhiana was a regular visitor who spent her early summer holidays here. A stay at Kotgarh for her meant time for learning a language like Urdu. Despite the Christian credentials of the place, Kotgarh witnessed a partial process in the spread of Christianity.

Towards the later decades of the 20th century, there was little impetus of mission work here. From this standpoint, ironically, when Samuel Stokes settled in this part of the country, he found his missionary image “unsatisfactory,” and became a Hindu to establish a rapport with Indians.

Near Kotgarh village is the village of Melan, where temple dedicated to Chattar Mukh, the presiding deity of Kotgarh is housed.

Apples have substantially changed life patterns and made life in the hills sustainable. Prior to introduction of this cash crop, it was the fertile irrigated fields on the bank of the river satluj, deep in the valley, that provided the bread and butter for the most of residents. The higher altitudes provide only malginal crops and were used as grazing lands for sheep and cattle in the summer months. A trek or a drive into the valley provides glimpses of variant crop patterns thriving in temperate to tropical climatic zones. Famous for not having introduced commercial growing of fruits into the hills, the unique dress that the Kotgarh women wears ‘raista’, a full length skirt like garment with a attached blouse which has become trademark of Himachali women.

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