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Satyanand Stokes and the Himachal Apple

Apple orchards in Thanedhar Photo,

More than a hundred years ago, in 1904, a young American called Samuel Evans Stokes (1882-1946) came to Himachal. Stokes was the son of a Quaker millionaire from Philadelphia. Stokes’s mission in life seemed simple enough: he wanted to concentrate his energies on serving the hill people of India, and this he intended to do specifically by joining a leprosy home in the village of Subathu, near Shimla.

Barely had Stokes settled in when a devastating earthquake hit the Kangra Valley, also in Himachal. Spurred on by his desire to be of use, Stokes took himself off to Kangra and did a lot of voluntary work, helping to rehabilitate those who’d lost family and homes in the quake. Stokes’s work at Kangra was exemplary, but it eventually wore him out, and when it was over, he moved to Kotgarh, (in the vicinity of Thanedhar) to recuperate.

In Kotgarh, things began happening in Stokes’s life. He fell in love with, and married, a local girl called Agnes. He spent some time living in a cave as a Christian hermit. And he realised that this part of Himachal had potential as an agricultural treasure house. If Stokes could grow something more lucrative than what the farmers cultivated at the time, he might be able to help the farmers improve their lot too. The young American began experimenting—initially with wheat and barley, and then with something rather more unusual: apples.

The Stark brothers, in faraway Louisiana, had also been hard at work experimenting. The result of their experiments had been, in 1916, the development of an apple they called the Red Delicious. In 1919, Stokes sent for Red Delicious seedlings from the States, and when they arrived, planted and nurtured them. In 1926, the first lot of fruit from Stokes’s orchards hit the market, and were a success. In the meantime, Stokes had started distributing seedlings to other farmers all across the Kotgarh-Thanedhar area, and the story of the Himachal apple had begun.

Other events had also started taking place in Stokes’s life. He had converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand. And he had become an important and well-loved man in Kotgarh and Thanedhar.

Shortly after he had arrived in Kotgarh, Stokes had initiated a `passive resistance’ movement among the people of Kotgarh to protest against the government’s system of forced labour. The government eventually had to back down, and Stokes became something of a folk hero. Over the years, he helped set up and popularise education in the area (he himself taught a number of subjects in school and paid out of his own pocket to bring teachers to the region). Stokes also set up and ran a dispensary, and distributed grain free of cost during times of scarcity and disease. By 1919, he had entered politics—he joined the Indian National Congress and became an associate of Mahatma Gandhi. He began to actively work for the independence of India from British rule, and ended up even going to jail during the freedom movement—the only American to do so.

Stokes died in 1946, just a year before India became independent. That year, the Kotgarh-Thanedhar area produced 15,000 boxes of apples: 15,000 more than had been grown when Stokes arrived. To this charismatic and unusually dedicated man goes the credit of making an entire area self-sufficient.

Today, Stokes’s name is well-known in Kotgarh and Thanedhar. The stone temple that Stokes built in Kotgarh welcomes visitors, as does his family home in the village—though, since the family still lives there, you need permission to visit. Walls all across Kotgarh and Thanedhar are splashed with pre-election graffiti: Vote for Vidya Stokes, Congress Party. Vidya’s a descendant, and she continues the family’s association with the Congress Party.

And yes, the apples still grow in Thanedhar and Kotgarh. All across the hills, for miles and miles. And every year, between July and September, when the fruit is harvested and packed off for markets far and wide, the people of this area have something, once again, to thank Samuel Evans Stokes aka Satyanand Stokes for.

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