The missionary man of Kotgarh

The missionary man of Kotgarh
Photo Credit: Milan Moudgill

The happy story of a man, a woman and an apple in an Eden called Kotgarh

Mitali Saran
November 15 , 2014
11 Min Read

Two rose bushes meet in pink clouds over the door of a small-whitewashed church on the hillside. Inside, stained glass windows illuminate a plaque on the wall that reads: “Created A.D. 1872 through the liberality of the friends of the Church Missionary Society for the Christian community of Kotegurh”. Behind St Mary’s church lie the graves of priests, soldiers and settlers, in a tiny cemetery that spills from terrace to terrace amidst trees and wild roses. It’s quiet except for the sigh of the wind and the occasional snatch of children’s voices from the Gorton Mission School below. It occurs to me, as I look on the snowy shoulders of the Dhauladhar, that this is a lovely place to rest in peace; and in Kotgarh, you don’t even have to be dead. There’s absolutely nothing to do but eat, sleep, and soak up its history and sheer physical beauty. It’s a real treat, and a pleasant surprise after the journey up from Kalka.

Your expectations fall even as your taxi climbs to Shimla — past choked Kalka, past grubby industrial Parwanoo, past bald dusty hills and diesel fumes. If Kumaon looks like a virginal nymphet, then Himachal looks like her older, hairier aunt who’s been around the block a few times. But older women have alluring secrets, and Kotgarh is one of them. Turning off towards Kotgarh from Narkanda just before sunset is like entering an enchanted place full of oak, larch, pine and cedar, and snowcaps sprayed across the skies in a line of fiery foam. The orchards announce the heart and soul of Himachal’s famous apple country. Kotgarh — the administrative district comprised of several villages including Thanedhar, Bhareri, Himtala, and Kotgarh itself — is where it all started.

Pretty St Mary’s is one of the symbols of the region’s history. Kipling wrote of it in ‘Lispeth’, calling Kotgarh “the Mistress of the Northern Hills”. The British, who maintained a military post here, encouraged the opening of a Moravian Mission in the early 18th century. The church was built with funds from both Christians and Hindus. Sadhu Sundar Singh had visions here that opened his spiritual eyes. And this is also where the 30-year-old American missionary Samual Evans Stokes married Agnes Benjamin, a local Rajput Christian teenager, in September 1912.

Stokes’s name is synonymous with Kotgarh up to today. He came to India in 1904 to work with the lepers at Sabathu and eventually settled and worked in nearby Kotgarh, which was beautiful but wretchedly poor, until his death in 1946. In his 40 years in Kotgarh he lived an extraordinary life that led to his spiritual, philosophical and social evolution from a Christian missionary to a friar to a ‘pucca pahari’ family man to a Hindu, and transformed Kotgarh into what is today arguably the most prosperous collection of villages in the country.

It’s only because I’m married to one of his many great-grandchildren that I get to stay at the family home that Stokes built on a hilltop in Barobagh, above Thanedhar. Beyond the property gate a long grassy track winds through an apple orchard aglow with the setting sun. Much of the original 200 acres of bad tea gardens that Stokes bought from Mrs Emma Bates for Rs 30,000 he gave away to friends and family, but this hilltop and the orchard that falls away from it belongs to his grandsons.

Stokes designed the house himself, keeping in mind both his own ancestry and local pahari architecture. It’s three storeys of layered stone and cedar wood, laced with an exquisite carved wooden balcony. He named it Harmony Hall after his family’s home in Moorestown, New Jersey. It smells of wood, and long years, and has a large library stacked with novels and books on farming, engineering, education and philosophy. In one corner is a yellowing genealogy of the Stokeses, all the way from William the Conqueror. On one wall, a beautiful oil painting of Agnes is disrupted by two small and sheepish holes — one made by the pellet shot of a grandchild, one by the arrow of a great-grandchild. Stokes’s son modernised the place — added indoor bathrooms, fireproofing, and an extension to replace the pahari-style kitchen. The new glassed-in kitchen looks on the Himalayas to the north and the Sutlej below.

Every sunset makes a gorgeous silhouette of the cone-roofed Parmajyotir temple at the edge of the bluff, which Stokes built in 1937 out of Burma teak and stone. Embellished with shlokas from the Gita carved in wood, austerely empty inside except for a havan kund and a small painting of Arjun and Krishna, it is unique and moving despite four recently-erected and ugly telecom towers that break the view. It is what he intended it to be, “a beautiful book in wood and stone”. And it embodies Stokes’s gradual evolution from Christianity towards a spiritual syncretism unheard of in its time. He had, in his own words, “come to teach and stayed to learn”.

Having weathered the wrath of caste-bound Hindus for converting their children to Christianity, especially an attempted conversion in 1910 which provoked people to violence, Stokes first astonished everyone by suddenly casting off the friar’s life and marrying Agnes. Then he confounded Christians and Hindus alike in 1932 by converting to Hinduism and taking the name Satyanand — a move that deeply divided the Kotgarh community. It was only after a three-year legal battle, a visit to the Mehlan temple and an assurance that he would follow the most orthodox customs, that the conversion was accepted. “The people here were so strict about caste that they ripped out planks and burned them if a non-Hindu or a lower-caste Hindu walked on them,” one of his granddaughters told me. It had the somewhat comical result that Hindu friends whom Stokes had previously converted to Christianity were suddenly unwelcome in his kitchen. But Stokes was nothing if not true to his own heart, and had decided that he could best serve the people of Kotgarh by fully integrating himself with the community in the role of family man and farmer.

And thank whatever lord you subscribe to for that, because when he settled down to farm, Stokes became convinced that Kotgarh was made to grow fruit. Apples already grew in Kotgarh — the oldest orchards dating from the 1870s and 1880s lie near the Mission school — but they were sour English varieties that didn’t sell. On his few trips home to America, Stokes researched American apple farming and experimented with many varieties before hitting the jackpot in 1921 with a plant from the Stark Brothers Nursery in Louisiana. It was called Golden Delicious. (Agnes had to plant the saplings because Stokes was then serving a six-month prison sentence along with M.K. Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai.) They were sweet and easy to grow and Stokes marketed them under the brand ‘H.H. Orchards’. He introduced sceptical local farmers to the idea, spending his own money to import and distribute saplings for free. Once the idea had taken root, the fruit followed: the Delicious variety forever changed the face of Kotgarh, and the lives of Kotgarh’s farmers.

Walking through an apple orchard is a lesson in how to slow down, watch birds flutter crossly over the nets, listen to the wind, smell the smells. There’s nothing to do but let the fruit grow heavy on the boughs while bumblebees buzz around your ears and the wildflowers grow —  nothing to do, that is, unless you’re tending the orchard, in which case there’s a lot of digging and pruning and shaping and spraying and picking and packing. Stokes used to do it all himself, in addition to educating children (his Tara School stands in the garden at Barobagh beside an enormous walnut tree), campaigning to abolish begar, petitioning for roads, writing books and articles, working for Independence, and keeping up rapid-fire correspondences.

Latter-day orchardists tend to hire labourers from Nepal. This leaves them free to pursue other interests — wine-making and golf, or travel, or planting exquisite English gardens in the exquisitely English weather, or researching scientific farming methods. It also means that there’s a lot of time for visits and natters and food.

Speaking of food: living on a farm with fat cows in the garden greatly improves one’s food quality and intake. Every meal is cooked in fresh cow’s milk ghee, including pahari specials like pakain and batura. The whole community makes gifts of ghee, or feasts cooked in ghee, for every wedding or funeral or mela. We drive down to the village of Bhutti in a thundershower, the landscape woozy with receding hills and the Sutlej a silvery slab in the grey light. The deity in the corner has been worshipped, the nati — a hill dance that can go on for hours — is over; but the bazaar is still up with ice cream, bangles, snacks, fake cellphones and a great many bras on sale.

A hour’s walk down the hill from Barobagh to Kotgarh passes through villages, orchards and thick, beautiful cedar and pine forest. The apple blossom season is over, but the hillsides are full of huge fragrant sprays of pink or white wild rose that drape themselves around trees. The air smells of resin and warm grass. Along the way we pass Rhoga Khad, a defile with a huge rock in the middle with a cave in it. In that cave, in a forest locals feared after dark for wild animals and spirits, Stokes lived and meditated for three years before his marriage, with nothing but an earthen pot, an oil lamp and the New Testament. They say a leopard lives there now. I’m awed again by the spirit of the man whose ashes lie in the garden of Harmony Hall.

We drive back past the derelict Satyanand Farmers’ Community Centre. Things have changed. The large family that Stokes begat has gone the other way, most married to non-hill people and living in various other parts of India, many in America. But Stokes’ grandsons still maintain the house and the orchards with regular visits home. And Kotgarh still remembers its debt to the man who gave his life to its betterment.

The information

Getting there

From Kalka take a taxi to Shimla (2-3hr; break for lunch at Giani Dhaba in Dharampur, a traveller’s favourite) and a further 82km (2-3hr) to Kotgarh at 6,500-7,000ft. Kalka-Shimla-Himachal Taxi Operators Stand in Kalka 01733-220963; in Shimla 0177-2651162/2658225. Or take a shared cab from Kalka to Shimla followed by a drop to Thanedhar. A regular bus service plies between Shimla and Thanedhar.

Where to stay
At Banjara Camps, Thanedhar, 011-26861397, 01782-222265, or Government Resthouse, Thanedhar — if you don’t mind the decrepit government style.

What to see & do
Eat, walk. Make friends if you can and visit them. Eat more. Walk more. The British once used Kotgarh as a military post, so some people live in old British buildings. See St Mary’s church (if it’s locked, ask for the key at the Mission School below). Visit the ruins of an old fort-castle at Khaneti where the video for Sony’s Piya Basanti album was partially shot. Lie in an orchard and read Asha Sharma’s biography of her grandfather An American in Khadi (Penguin 1999). Note: most orchards are private property, including the Stokes orchard, and you should assume them to be off-limits. The right thing to do is ask permission to enter, and respect the owner’s reply either way.

Around & about
There’s a pretty wooden temple on a lakeside at Tanni Jubbar; a track leads from here to nice views from Hatu Peak. You can also make a day-trip to Sarahan, where there is an old wooden Bheemkali temple.


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