State: Himachal Pradesh
Distance: 431 km NW of Delhi
When to go: All year round but mid-September to mid-July is best
Tourist Office: HPTDC, Chandralok Building, 36, Janpath, New Delhi
STD code: 01970
Air: Nearest airports are Chandigarh (193 km/4 hrs) and Kangra’s Gaggal (55 km/ 11/2 hrs).
Rail: Nearest railhead is Amb Andaura (30 km/ 40 min)
Road: Take the highway till Chandigarh; Pragpur is a 193-km drive from here. Take NH21 till Kiratpur via Rupnagar. At Kiratpur, turn left off the highway onto the road to Anandpur Sahib, and follow the road to Amb via Nangal and Una. At Amb, turn right and follow the 33-km drive to Pragpur via Kaloha
Once upon a time, some 400 years ago, there lived a community of men who, we are told, were hardworking, god-fearing and prosperous. These men set out in pursuit of commerce and travelled far and wide. They set up arhat (wholesale) networks, and even if the Potato Route does not sound as romantic as the ‘Silk Route’s, it nevertheless enabled them to control the Indo-Tibetan trade route. They became moneylenders, built serais, temples and public works, and grew to be commission agents, lawyers and doctors; it is said that their community once owned half of British Shimla. These were the Soods of Pragpur.
Things to see and do
Tiny Pragpur, home to just a thousand-odd people, is now famous for being the only place in India where an entire village has been deemed a Heritage Village. The defining attractions, expectedly, are the Sood mansions, temples and serais. Here, Kangra’s sloping roofs of shining blue-black slate sit atop the local mud-and-lime walls with Rajasthani-haveli-like fretwork windows and the odd British architectural whimsy. You can see the delicate nanak-shahi bricks – small, slim, pale pink bricks, baked in wood – that were used in Punjab before the British arrived and standardised them into the classic, crimson ones, baked in coal.
The comprehensive listing for the Pragpur area by INTACH (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) documents as many as 77 of these properties. You can spend many pleasant hours strolling around and chancing upon these. The Kuthiala complex buildings are the oldest of the lot and include the 300-year-old residence of one Durga Devi. On its exposed brickwork you can see the outer walls reinforced with iron plates technology that helped the house survive earthquakes. The 200-year-old Chaujjad Haveli has a lovely facade with decorative arches. The Butail Niwas, close to 200 years old, exemplifies the grandeur of community architecture, with many integrated units of residence, cowsheds and stables. The houses are built around a sunken courtyard, which was filled with water that cooled the place in summers. The 150-year-old Banta Dwar has an attractive red facade with painted flowers and wrought iron railings. Rehrumal’s Garden and Haveli, of the same vintage, are delightful; these Mughal style-gardens have squares interconnected by pathways and arched gateways and the haveli has ornate wooden doors and stucco work. The peaceful Garhi Pond, with three small shrines, is close by.
There is also the efficient prettiness of the ornamental water tank, which gives a focal point to life in Pragpur. Made in the 1880s by an early variant of an NGO, Pragpur’s Nehar (stream) Committee, the tank was fed with water from natural springs in nearby Buliana village. Pipes of simbal wood, said to resist rotting in water, were laid for this purpose. Later, steel pipes were imported from England in such quantities that reserve stock lies in store even now. Nehar Committee records show that the head mason of the project, who also created the tiger mouth spout of the ornamental tank, was paid two annas and a karchi (ladle) of milk a day for this work!
And then there is the tracery of clean cobbledstoned alleys that run through the village, which defines its rather special charm.
A 2-km walk away lies Garli, Pragpur’s sister village, now also part of the same heritage zone. The houses at Garli show predominantly Colonial influences and are, generally, more impressive. The fortunes of the already prosperous Sood community that dominated the Shimla region rose even higher with Shimla’s meteoric rise when it became the summer capital of the Raj. But the tactful Soods did not deem it wise to erect monuments to their status in the British capital. These aspirations found expression in Garli and are best exemplified in the life of Rai Mohan Lal, who became a timber contractor and supplier to North-West Railways, and then a Punjab Legislative Assembly member. In his hometown Garli, he opened a girls’ school, built a beautiful serai and set up the water supply system. Rai Mohan Lal’s house is an example of a 1920s Colonial wood-brick-stained glass edifice, a combination of material typical of most buildings of the village, built on either side of a kilometre-long road. Some of the houses look particularly eccentric with weather vanes next to their brick chimney turrets.
Kangra is awash with temples and associated myths. Take a leisurely visit to the Kaleshwar Temple and the lesser-known Dada Sibba Temple for a lost peace that now permeates very few ‘successful’ holy places.
There are several myths associated with the riverside Kaleshwar Temple: about its unique, submerged shivalinga, a boon from Shiva to Ravana which the latter unwittingly established here; about how the Pandavas got holy waters from five pilgrimage spots so that there is a panchtirthi (five-fold pilgrimage) pool here; and about the presence of a Parasmani stone that turns what touches it to gold. The Beas has a lovely name here, Bipasha (liberator from bonds), as yet another myth has it that, frustrated by Sage Vashishtha, Sage Vishwamitra tied himself up and jumped into the river, which set him free.
A trip to the Dada Sibba Temple (6 km) yields an astonishingly sea-like view of the Beas, particularly if you are visiting post-monsoon. The temple, constructed between 1830 and 1835 by the local king Ram Singh, has a lovely interior, full of the rich colours and iconography typical of Kangra paintings. Not surprisingly, for nearby Guler has been a celebrated seat of the Kangra School of Art. But the temple was rather cosmopolitan for its time: the raja had the principal artisan brought in from Haryana; Jodhpur stone was transported from Hoshiarpur via bullock carts; and the Radha-Krishna idols were brought from Jaipur.
While Viceroy’s Pool is at a walking distance for anglers, the prime spot for fishing is the Pong Dam. This has been declared a National Wetland; mahseer, singhara and malli abound here. The Judge’s Court can arrange a licence, but you have to organise your own equipment. Pong Dam is also known for its prolific bird life.
Where to stay and eat
The Judge’s Court (Tel: 01970-245035, 245335; Tariff: INR 6,500-7,000; www.judgescourt.com) is a heritage resort with a 12-acre garden. There’s also River View Resorts (Tel: 234268-69; Tariff: INR 1,500-5,000), the PWD Rest House (Dehra Tel: 233116; Tariff: INR 480) and Dee Jay Hotel (Tel: 269100; Tariff: INR 2,000-4,000; www.deejayhotel.com) in Village Dhaliara on Chintapoorni-Jwalamukhi Road.
Those roughing it can also opt for Dhuni Chand Bhadial Sarai (no fixed tariffs but voluntary donations are accepted), a local house with basic accommodation and in which you will have to share bathrooms.
The restaurant at The Judge’s Court offers varied and delicious Continental, Indian and Himachali food. However, if you are not staying there, you’re eating options are limited to the local dhabas on the Pragpur main road.