It’s a sunny August morning in Thanedhar, a quaint village in Himachal Pradesh situated just 80 kilometres north east of Shimla. Kushal Bhalaik, a local dressed in loose grey pants, black boots, a green checked shirt fitted with a pahadi jacket, stands amid an orchard, holding a puja thali. It has petals of a red flower, two ladoos, and an incense stick. The trees around him are laden with ripe, red apples. I am tempted to pluck and bite into one, but Bhalaik stops me.
“It is a custom in the hills to thank Mother Earth for the harvest before we begin the plucking,” he says. Having said a prayer, he then ushers his cousin Damini, who owns this orchard, to pluck the first apple of the season. As she holds it up for us to see, I gaze at the stunning backdrop. Snow-capped Himalayan peaks seem to alternate with lush green ones that are covered with dense deodar forests and apple orchards.
Amid this thrives Thanedhar — an unlikely village that has been pivotal to apple cultivation in India.
With a population of less than a thousand people, the Thanedhar village situated in the Kumharsain taluka lies on the old Hindustan-Tibet Road. It was a major trading centre in British India. “The name 'Thanedhar' comes from two pahadi words: 'Thando' meaning 'chilly' and 'Dhar' meaning ‘flow’, denoting the cool wind that blows here,” Damini Sinha explains. The 46-year-old Delhi-bred woman has only recently turned into an apple orchardist, after inheriting property from her mother. She is the third generation of women running this orchard.
We are enjoying a cup of hot ginger tea in the patio of her ancestral house, known as the Thanedhar Estate. It was built by her grandfather Rai Sahib Devi Das Bhalaik, a trade agent with the British, and later, the wazir to the King of Rampur Bushair. The four-bedroom house, which was formerly a tea estate, is now situated in an apple orchard and is quite rustic and cosy — fireplaces, wooden flooring and low ceilings adorn it.
Each room showcases old artefacts such as sewing machines, telephones, wine jars and portraits that tell the story of the rich legacy of the Thanedhar Estate, which is interwoven with the history of the village.
“My family had close connections with Samuel Stokes, the man regarded as the father of apple cultivation in India,” Sinha says.
Born to a wealthy Quaker family in Philadelphia, Samuel Stokes came to Himachal Pradesh in 1904 as an American missionary. Greatly interested in the upliftment of the locals, he started working at the Sabathu Leper Home in Solan. “At the time, there were peculiar traditions in the mountains. The families wouldn’t get their daughters married to men who lived higher up in the hills, as the topography did not support abundant agriculture,” Sinha recalls. Stokes wanted to address this issue. On one of his trips back home to Philadelphia, he took soil samples from the region and returned with saplings of the ‘Red Delicious’ variety of apples that he purchased from a farm in Missouri.
Above: Samuel (Satyanand) Stokes was born on 16 August 1882 and passed away on 14 May 1946
India was no stranger to apples, though. Reports suggest that the 'Ambri' variety of apples that originated in Central Asia travelled the Silk Route to reach Kashmir. The British too encouraged locals to grow the 'Red Pippins' variety; however, the apples' sour and tangy taste made them quite unpopular. Stokes realised that the ‘Red Delicious’ variety that was sweeter and juicier had potential.
He bought a 200-acre tea estate in Thanedhar from an English widow called Emma Matilda Bates and planted saplings there. The plantations were not just suitable to the topography but were also an instant hit among the locals, who started working on apple orchards throughout the region. Stokes then built a large, traditional pahadi house on the estate in 1912 and named it ‘Harmony Hall’ after his home in Philadelphia. This house became the centre of apple production and distribution in the region.
Harmony Hall retains its former glory. Done completely in shades of brown, the two-storey house, just a 10-minute walk away from Thanedhar estate, has a wooden facade with a sloping roof and three brick chimneys that rise against a dusky purple sky. Apart from the orchard and mountains, the house also boasts of stunning views of the Sutlej meandering through the valley. It now belongs to Samuel’s four grandsons who are settled in the US. One of them, Vijay Stokes, comes to Thanedhar every year and spends three months as an orchardist on the estate.
Next to Harmony Hall is the home of Santosh Khindari, a jolly 78-year-old woman, who holds fond memories of her late grandfather Samuel Stokes. “My grandfather was a witty and compassionate man who helped uplift the economy of Himachal. His life was full of challenges,” Khindari recalls. She talks about Samuel’s early life in the hills when he was not accepted by the locals, because he ate beef. To break barriers, Samuel learned the Pahadi language and fitted his suits with patches. He also married a local Christian shepherdess called Agnes.
Stokes did have one dear friend in the region — none other than Sinha's grandfather, Rai Sahib Devi Das Bhalaik. Khindari narrates a memorable conversation between the two men: “One day, Grandpa Stokes wistfully asked Mr Bhalaik, ‘Who will marry my two sons here?’ To this, Mr Bhalaik responded, ‘I have two daughters who will.’... That is how our grandfathers went from best friends to relatives.”
Apart from the several apple orchards in sight, the social systems that he fought are also a testament to the legacy that Stokes built.
He played a pivotal role in abolishing the begar system in the region, a form of bonded labour. He opened schools, helped uplift the lepers and even took part in the Indian freedom struggle. Stokes was, in fact, the only American to be part of the All India Congress. During his time here in India, he was deeply moved by Hindu spirituality. He converted to Hinduism with the help of Rai Sahib Devi Das Bhalaik and changed his name to Satynand Stokes. He is also credited with building the beautiful Paramjyoti temple near Harmony Hall.
Stokes’s grandchildren and extended family, along with several others from the region, take his legacy forward by being orchardists. With the production of more than 15 varieties of apple, Himachal Pradesh is now known as the apple basket of the country, most popular for its 'Red Delicious' and ‘Golden Delicious' varieties. “It contributes almost Rs 3500 crores to the economy of the state. However, apple cultivation has changed over the decades,” Sinha informs. The temperatures have become warmer, there is water scarcity and frequent hailstorms in the region. “Not everyone can afford nets to protect orchards. Moreover, apple cultivation requires an investment of time and energy all year round. Profits have become meagre, so several youngsters are now going to the cities for service-based jobs,” Kushal Bhalaik adds.
Every creak in the wooden floor of this splendid house reminds Sinha of the time she spent here in the summers. When you sit in the patio, you imagine the many conversations that Rai Sahib Devi Das Bhalaik would have had with Samuel Stokes as they watched the apple orchards grow. The views of the Himalayas and the old-world charm of the house lend to Thanedar a sense of timelessness.
To encourage an understanding of apple cultivation in India, along with preserving and promoting Stokes’s legacy, SaffronStays, a unique travel company curating India’s finest private home-based experiences for families, now offers Thanedhar Estate to travellers. This curated home experience includes picking apples in the mornings with locals to understand the history and topography of the region, as well as the process and techniques of tissue-culture, grafting, pollination and grading used in apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh.
For Sinha, opening up her ancestral home to travellers and showcasing its history and her connection with Samuel Stokes is a way of paying homage to her family.
—All photographs by the author