Drive a little North of Shimla during the monsoons and all you see is Apple orchards – trees laden with Apples going from green to red. If the hailstorms are expected, trees wear a soft cover of net making it look like a series of soft huts all over the hills. When I started my Himachal Odyssey in early July, Apples were still green, too young to be plucked or eaten but big enough to tempt me all the time. We drove from Shimla to Thandedar via Narkanda and we kept stopping to admire the raw apples while our driver kept telling us that this is all we would see for next few days, have patience. First sight has that impact before the familiarity takes over.
We reached Thanedhar at a lovely Banjara Orchard Retreat on a ridge overlooking the valley surrounded by the layers of Himalayan ranges that for most of our stay remained hidden behind clouds and mist. As we sat on the balcony overlooking the valley, we heard the story of the Himachal Apple and how this region gained prosperity courtesy this cash crop and how the destiny and character of this region got defined as Apple orchards came all around.
Apples & Satyanand Stokes
In the early 20th CE a young American called Samuel Evans Stokes, who belonged to a wealthy family of Philadelphia, came to India to work with leprosy-impacted patients near Shimla. He landed up in a church in Kotgarh, not too far from Thanedhar, for rest and here he falls in love with the place and its people. He married a local Rajput-Christian girl and decided to live here for the rest of his life. On one of the trips back home, he brought the sapling of Red delicious apples to Kotgarh and planted them. His mother sensing his love for this adopted country bought him 200 acres of land that was a tea estate originally. She also sent him another shipment of saplings of golden delicious apples. In about 5 years the apples bloomed and were an instant hit with the local population. They continue to be hit with apple lovers till date.
Now Apples did exist in India before the American Apples brought by Stokes family took over. Kashmir used to grow apples but it did not come out of the valley much, so you had to visit the Kashmir valley to be able to savour its apples. Remember I am talking about late 19th / early 20th CE. Britishers who were in control of India and were fond of hills, did plant Apples in the Kullu region but they were the sour variety that did not go too well with the local taste buds. Red Delicious apple brought to Hills by Stokes family provided the perfect taste for the locals and this matching of tastes was to change the destiny of the region. Once the Stokes experiment was successful, people around his estate got inspired and they started planting apples instead of their usual crop of potatoes and plums. Over a period of time the whole of Shimla & Kinnaur region became one huge orchard sending its apples across state, national & international borders, bringing in cash and prosperity in return.
The socio-economic impact of apples is more than obvious in this region. You can see prosperity and happiness all around. Migration out of these regions is very low as there is ample employment at home. During my morning walk I could see the fruits being packed in boxes and being shipped in small trucks. People lead a relaxed community life with no major worries about either their lives or their children’s lives. They know the apples and other fruits would provide for many years to come and the demand for apples in the rest of the world is only expected to go up.
Apples – Organic or Not?
When you are sitting surrounded by the apples, with apples hanging at an arm’s length, the obvious question that comes to your mind is – Can I just pluck this apple and eat? Is it safe to eat? Would they have sprayed any pesticides on it that must be washed before eating? There were droplets all over the apples – that could have been mist, raindrops or pesticides. I asked our storyteller Mr Sharma of Orchard Retreat and he said – well pesticides are used to protect the crops but not on the fruits. Made sense. I asked if they do anything to make the color of the apple blood red, for in their penultimate ripe state the apples looked quite green. His answer was no and he said as the fruit ripens it gets its red color.
Legacy of Satyanand Stokes in Thanedhar
Stokes is said to have spent a lot of time with Sadhus who used to use the Indo-Tibetan road, on which Thanedhar lies, to go for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. He was so influenced by them that he converted to Hinduism or rather Arya Samaj to be precise. He changed his given name to Satyanand though retained his family name.
Paramjyoti temple located on a vantage point next to his family home ‘Harmony Hall’ is a symbol of his adoption of Vedic culture. It is a simple room with pillared corridors all around it overlooking the valley that is now full of Apple orchards. The walls have Sanskrit Shlokas written all over them. I tried reading some of them but could not figure out which scripture they are from. Some readings on the net tell me that they come from various Upanishads and Bhagawad Geeta. The room is locked as of now but I was told that it is nothing but an empty room to perform Havana. I could only imagine sitting on a ridge, surrounded by the peaks of Himalayas and performing a Havan could be an ultimately meditative experience.
Harmony hall is a lovely old house. Visitors are not really welcome here but you can admire it from a distance. You can also see the school that was setup by Stokes and is now run by the government. Stokes family continues to be active in Himachal Pradesh politics. Daughter of Satyanand was married to the ex-chief minister of HP and his daughter-in-law Vidya Stokes is prominently active in state politics. A guesthouse of the family overlooking the Sutlej flowing through the valley is dedicated to Satyanand Stokes and his bust sits in the verandah. A huge hall at ground floor is probably used for public functions.
After hearing and reading the story of Satyanand Stokes from many sources, I am not sure if he brought in the Apple saplings with a vision in his heart and mind. I think he experimented with it and he let the people around him benefit from his successful experiment. To me this is a great study of how a pioneer can influence a change by inspiring and encouraging people. This is a great example of experiments that must be carried out, for you never know what would trigger a change and change the destiny of millions for many generations to come.