Not far from the Dhauladhar range in the Kangra valley, lies a hamlet that is a treasure trove of heritage buildings. I had never heard of Garli until I was invited by a friend to visit The Château Garli, a restored mansion belonging to one of her friends. A three- to four-hour drive from Chandigarh, Garli is a delightful destination for anyone looking to getaway from Delhi over a long weekend or simply to explore Himachal Pradesh’s beautiful countryside. History buffs will be delighted to know that Garli and nearby Pragpur have been designated heritage zones by the Ministry of Tourism, HP.
The village of Garli was the former bastion of the Sud clan, prosperous timber merchants who built grand homes here in the early 20th century. The Suds travelled extensively during the British Raj, which exposed them to various cultures. From Italian and Portuguese to Islamic and Rajasthani, the heritage structures in Garli showcase an amalgamation of architectural styles that will capture anyone with an appreciation for history and art. Sadly, by the mid 20th century, most of these palatial homes were lying vacant, their owners having moved away to bigger cities in search of better prospects.
Now, however, with the surge of interest in heritage buildings and people travelling to learn more about the rich history waiting to be discovered in offbeat destinations, the descendants of those who built these stately edifices are returning to their ancestors’ village and discovering the potential it holds. One such person is Yatish Sud, the owner of The Château Garli, a heritage property now being run as a hotel with 19 air-conditioned rooms. When I arrived here I couldn’t help but whip my camera out and rushed around taking pictures making the most of whatever little daylight was left. Restoring the mansion built by his great grandfather in 1921 was a joint effort undertaken by Yatish, and his children Amish and Tarini. They retained the essence of the original structure, only adding modern amenities to suit travellers of today. Yatish also built a new wing that overlooks the swimming pool. Prepare to be dazzled by the striking red, blue, green and yellow windowpanes in this building, which create a dramatic effect once the sun sets and the lights come on indoors. It reminded me of a grand cathedral with stained-glass windows. Tarini added an artistic touch by painting delicate designs around doorways and along the walls in the bedrooms.
The old house has a wealth of items from a bygone era. A gramophone and large wooden radio in the living room brought back memories of my grandfather’s home. Don’t forget to look up as you explore the interiors or you’ll miss the beautiful blue and red Belgian chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. A large copper platter, known as Chamba thal, adorns one wall in the living room. It depicts the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu and was used during religious and cultural ceremonies. A cabinet in a corner contains a set of ivory handled knives engraved with Yatish’s great grandfather’s initials. Notice the door handles in the dining room – they’re shaped like peacocks, as are the light fixtures in the living room. Pop in to the reception to check out the organ and a telephone that looks more like an old accounting machine.
Out in the verandah sit a huge hammam that was used to heat water and a food smoker cum heater made from solid Burma teak, along with various other knick-knacks from the past. Before stepping into the bedrooms in the old house look down and you’ll notice a horseshoe carved into the threshold. Inside one of the bedrooms is a solid vault with silver doors built into the wall. Yatish regaled us with a funny story related to the vault. Thieves had broken into the home once while the family was away on holiday. They managed to force open the vault but instead of the valuables they were expecting, all they found were bundles of clothes! Apparently Yatish’s grandmother had foreseen such an event and had hidden all the family heirlooms and valuables in a hole she’d had dug out under the bed, over which a stone slab had been placed.
If you truly want to experience Himachali cuisine then request the kitchen at The Château Garli to prepare a Kangri dham for you. Dishes with flavours ranging from spicy and sweet to sour and tangy unite on a thali ensuring that you will enjoy every bite. Be warned though, the dessert portion is extremely sweet and kids will definitely get a sugar high afterwards.
This is also the place to binge on fresh fish caught from the Beas River that flows close by. If you’ve been consuming frozen or day-old fish for years, you’ll be able to tell the difference right away. The chef smears a few spices on the fish and pan-fries it till its skin is crisp. You can sit by the pool in the evenings with a drink and snack on this delicious fish that will have you going back for seconds. The staff, who are all from the village, will be more than happy to ply you with food and drink. Notice the property’s boundary wall here; it reminded me of a Rubick’s cube with its panels of red, blue, green and orange glass.
At the time of my visit one portion of the old building was being renovated to house an Ayurvedic spa. That’s one more reason for you to head to Château Garli – the healing combination of clean mountain air and Ayurvedic massages is sure to rejuvenate even the most city-battered bodies.
One of the biggest attractions here is the collection of heritage buildings. A walk around Garli is like stepping back in time. Armed with a handy map that details the sights of interest, a hat and a bottle of water, wander down cool alleys and lanes flanked by thick foliage to discover decrepit two-storied mansions. Even in their state of disrepair it is obvious that they must have been glorious in their day. If houses could speak, these structures would have fascinating tales to tell. Apart from the gabled roofs with slate shingles, which are common to all, the builders of these homes tried to outdo each other. Keep an eye out for unique features like two sentries standing guard on either end of the roof in one house to rose and jharokha windows in others. One structure has elegant brick jaali work while another is crowned with a weather vane. I came upon a lone doorway at one point. I couldn’t tell whether it had been part of an enclosed garden in decades past since it did open onto a neglected plot or if it had been part of the house it faced across the alley.
Garli was a pioneering village in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s founding fathers built educational institutions for boys and girls, a women’s hospital, a veterinary hospital as well as infrastructure for sanitation and waterworks. The old pumphouse, which began in 1896, is still standing. Close by is a huge mortar and pestle, which was used to grind spices in the old days. The mortar was built into the ground. Since it was outdoors, I am assuming there must have been a protective structure over it at some time.
Further down the road from Château Garli lies Naurang Yatri Niwas. This striking brick edifice was built in 1922 to serve as a sarai (inn) for travellers. As with several buildings in Garli it fell into neglect after a couple of decades. Thankfully the grandson of the original owner, Atul, and his wife Ira decided to restore it a few years ago. It recently opened its doors to visitors. A wide corridor at the entrance leads onto a sunny central courtyard, around which lie the rooms and common areas. The rooms are simple yet tastefully furnished and the common areas are comfortable and inviting. The Rang outdoor café adjoining the inn, also run by them, is the perfect place to spend an evening under the stars. If you love freshly baked bread, check out the local bakery, which offers fresh buns around 7.30am.
A visit to Garli would be incomplete without a day trip to the Kangra Fort (47km away) and Masroor Rock-Cut Temple. The former is the most magnificent fort I have ever seen. Built atop a hill with a sweeping view of the valley, it’s no wonder that this fort was a much sought after conquest by invaders and other northern kingdoms within the subcontinent. Built around 1500 BCE by one of the Katoch kings, it is India’s oldest fort. Opt for an audio guide during your tour of the fort. Produced by Narrowcasters and narrated by Roshan Seth, it brings the history of the fort and its inhabitants to life as you walk along the ramparts and explore the ruins. While a good portion of the fort was destroyed in 1905 during an earthquake, luckily one intricately carved wall of the Laxmi Narayan temple within the complex escaped destruction.
The Katoch family still worships at the Ambica Matta Temple here once a year carrying on the tradition begun by their ancestors to honour their patron goddess. To one side of the central courtyard are the treasure wells, which were supposed to have been filled with riches beyond anything we could imagine today. It was these riches that attracted invaders, such as Mahmud of Ghazni, who looted the treasury several times. Remember to wear a cap or carry an umbrella especially in summer as the sun gets very sharp by mid morning.
After a drive with numerous twists and turns, we arrived at a tiny village hidden amongst the hills, known as Masroor (57km). Here, on a ridge overlooking the valley lies a little-known architectural wonder. It is hard to describe in words the feelings of awe the Masroor Rock-Cut Temple evoked in me the first time I saw it. Dated to the 6th– 8th centuries, this series of temples were carved out of huge monoliths in the classical Indian architectural style featuring shikharas (towers). Intricate carvings on the towers and lintels depict gods and goddesses. I scrambled up a series of steps cut into the stone to reach the roof of the complex to watch the sun dip behind the surrounding hills. Unfortunately, several parts of the complex were destroyed in the earthquake of 1905. A large pool in front of the complex reflects the temples, reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Several large carp live in the pond and you can buy some puffed rice to feed them.
Back in Garli, don’t miss out on a night safari. A reserve forest nearby is home to several animals including leopard and wild boar. Even if you don’t see anything, driving around forested hills in the dead of night, never knowing what might appear around the next bend will set your pulse racing. If you’re lucky you might just see smaller animals in the village. I saw a civet cat walking along a wall one evening! Another thrilling activity is a Beas safari. If the riverbed is dry then your tour guide may just take you for a drive on it, else stay by the banks and enjoy a beautiful sunset.
I would have happily spent a few more days there, enjoying the clean air and quiet village life. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. As we drove away, I promised myself that I’d return to Château Garli in the near future.
When to go Any time of the year
The Château Garli
VPO 12, Garli Dist. Kangra, Himachal Pradesh
Tel: 1970-246246; Cell: 09418062002
- Heritage walk around Garli
- Visit Masroor Rock Cut Temple
- Visit Pong Dam
- Daytrip to Bhagsu Waterfall
- Visit Kangra Fort
- Beas River safari
- Night safari
Air Nearest airports: Chandigarh (190km/ 4.5hrs; and Kangra’s Gaggal (60km/ 1.5hrs). Taxi from Chandigarh Airport to Garli is ₹5,000–5,500 for a drop. Taxi from Gaggal Airport to Pragpur is ₹1,500–1,800
Rail Nearest railhead: Una Himachal (67km/ 1.5hrs), connected to Delhi and Ambala by the overnight Himachal Express. Château Garli arranges pick-ups (₹1,500–1,800); alternatively, taxis at the station charge about the same
Road Garli is a 200-km drive from Chandigarh from where you head for Kiratpur via Kurali and Rupnagar. At Kiratpur, turn left off the highway onto the road to the holy township of Anandpur Sahib, and follow the road to Amb via Nangal and Una. At Amb, turn right and follow the 40-km drive to Garli via Kaloha and Pragpur Bus Volvo buses depart daily at 8.00pm for Dharamshala from Delhi’s ISBT Kashmere Gate via Jawalamukhi. Get off at Nehran Pukhar, where the bus stops at approx 6.00am. Plenty of taxis are available for Garli at Nehran
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