India Stories and Tips

Pragpur: One Side of the Coin...

The Asho Spiritual Healing Centre Photo, Himachal Pradesh, India

My left foot doesn’t like Pragpur. Really.

For some odd reason, both times I’ve gone to Pragpur, my left foot has rebelled. The first time was in November 2005, when Pragpur was the last destination on an itinerary which took us to Palampur and Dharamshala. It was raining in Dharamshala, and I slipped on an algae-covered path. Took a toss and cracked my ankle, so even though we stayed a night in Pragpur on our way back to Delhi, I saw nothing of Pragpur except our room at The Judge’s Court.

Ever since, I’ve wanted to go back to Pragpur. So, about three years after that first debacle, we planned a long weekend at Pragpur. And my luck being what it is, the evening before we were to leave, I fell down a flight of stairs. No bones broken, but my left foot got badly bruised, scraped and swollen. I could still hobble along, so I insisted we go on with the trip: and am I glad I finally got to see Pragpur!

So now a little bit of background—some insight into why Pragpur deserves a second visit.

Pragpur is a village in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. It sits at a modest altitude of about 1,800 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Himalayas, about 9 hours’ drive from Delhi. What sets Pragpur apart from the hundreds of other villages dotting the Himalayas is the fact that it is still very much as it was a century ago, when Pragpur was the home of some of the wealthiest families in this part of India. According to local legend, Pragpur was founded in the 17th century and was named after a princess called Prag Devi (prag, by the way, also means `pollen’ in Hindi, and those with a more vivid imagination like to think the prag in this case refers to the coming of spring in Pragpur). Prag Devi appears to have been somewhat of a local Joan of Arc, and organised resistance to groups of plundering, looting bandits who terrorised Kangra in the 1500’s and 1600’s. It was thanks to Prag that the area finally saw peace, so much so that by the late 1800’s, Pragpur and its neighbouring village, Garli, had become enviably prosperous.

Pragpur and Garli have been, since the 1600’s, the stronghold of a clan known as the Kuthiala Soods. In the 19th century, the Kuthiala Soods headed out of the area—mainly to Shimla, which was to later become the extremely fashionable and prosperous summer capital of the British Raj. Like the Marwari businessmen who migrated from Shekhavati to Bombay to make their fortunes, the Soods too went off and made pots of money. And, again like the Marwaris of Shekhavati, they routed a lot of their wealth back to where they’d come from. In Shekhavati, the Marwari tycoons built massive mansions, superbly painted and decorated. In Pragpur and Garli too, the Soods built themselves large and ornate mansions. These aren’t as impressive (or, in some cases, as bizarre) as the mansions of Shekhavati, but they’re definitely worth seeing.

Pragpur is the smaller and quieter of the two villages—and also, perhaps incongruously, the better known. This is mainly because, in 2002, Pragpur was officially designated India’s first heritage village. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) played an important part in pushing for special status for Pragpur, and has done a fair bit of work (including restoration and conservation) to ensure that Pragpur’s architectural heritage is preserved.

The good thing about Pragpur is that it’s small, and it’s built on very gentle slopes—so, even if you’re not terribly fit (or, like me, have a game leg), exploring the area on foot isn’t much of a problem. The main street of the village, which snakes through the main market, is where almost all of Pragpur’s main sights are clustered. One of the most picturesque is the Pragpur Taal, a water tank dating back to the 1880’s, and surrounded by stunning red-and-cream painted buildings. The houses around the Taal are typical of Pragpur. You’ll see elements of hill architecture (bluish-grey slate tiles on sloping roofs; mud-plastered walls; door and window frames of dark wood, often lightly carved; and shallow arched niches in walls for lamps). You’ll also see how the people of Pragpur incorporated elements of colonial architecture in the buildings they erected: there are gables, wrought iron balconies, semi-circular arches and square columns—and the Taal has Manchester-manufactured steel pipes.

Most of the grand mansions in Pragpur are private residences, so don’t expect to be allowed in. The beauty of most of these, fortunately, lies in the exteriors: in the carved wooden balconies, the traditional stained glass windows, and the plasterwork detail (we saw a particularly pretty bit of plaster carving facing the Taal: the Hindu god Krishna and his consort Radha, with a pair of peacocks). INTACH can provide you a list of the best sights (like the vast Butail Niwas, built 175 years ago by a man for his six sons and their households; or the Rehrumal Garden and Haveli, with Mughal gardens complemented by woodwork and stucco ornamentation in the mansion; or even The Judge’s Court itself).

But the way to see Pragpur is to wander around and experience the place, because there are plenty of sights that probably won’t find a place in the listing. We, for instance, fell in love with a very pretty cobbled street making its way past mud-plastered village houses, to a field of mustard, sprinkled with bright yellow flowers. At one end was a peach tree just bursting into pale pink bloom; at the other end was a placid beige cow munching hay from an old bathtub, standing in a small square courtyard.

We also found ourselves enchanted by the misspelled Asho Spiritual Healing Centre (Asho should’ve been Osho—that’s how it was spelled in Devanagari): a quiet place with a tall, slim arched doorway painted a dull red. And by the unidentified building, with semi-circular arches and tiny niches let into a brick-red façade highlighted in cream, in the market. It had a child’s plastic scooter, a broom, and a tatty signboard saying `Computer Education: Typing, Scanning, Laser Printing Etc’ standing on the pavement next to it.

Which, I think, is really part of the charm of Pragpur: against a backdrop of enchantingly old buildings, life goes on, striding firmly into the 21st century. And yet, a group of old men finds the time to play a game of pacheesi—on an old leather board—beside the Taal. East meets west, 17th century meets 21st. Clichéd, perhaps, but oh, so apt.

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