Kangra - Frozen in time

Strictly speaking, this article is being written about the wrong place. I had wanted to drive to Shimla, but people in the know in Delhi told me it was raining so hard there that old Noah had been sighted floating about with his menagerie. I didn’t particularly feel like spending my road trip being washed away in a flash flood (it happens rather a lot in the hills), so I headed instead for the little known village of Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh. I just love the freedom that comes with having a car, a full tank of gas and a map. Instead of frothing at the mouth on being told you can’t go where you had wanted to, you simply shrug in a nonchalant manner, run your finger over the map (tongue sticking ever so slightly out the side of your mouth) and drive to an equally interesting destination. I get paid to do this. You may all please be envious now.

That was my bit of self-congratulation for the day. Allow me to tell you about all the important bits now. Pragpur, which was declared India’s first Heritage Village in 1997, lies in the picturesque Kangra valley, from where the famous Kangra school of miniature painting originated. It was established by a member of the Kuthiala Sood clan over 300 years ago, in order to commemorate Princess Prag of the Jaswan royal family. The Soods, as a community, lay claim to being Agnivanshis, or ‘born of a sacred fire’. Ancient Hindu texts, such as the Rig Veda, have references to them. When Shimla was the summer capital of the British, the Soods owned more than half of it and they continue to be the dominant community in the region. You will have gathered by now that the Soods were very big cheeses indeed. They chose to locate Pragpur in the shadow of the Dhauladhar mountains, from where it apparently receives the astral influence of prayers offered for aeons at the Shakti temples of Bajreshwari, Jwalamukhi and Chintpurni, all located nearby (See Travel Log). The copious astral energy it’s bombarded with must make it an absolute peach of a place, I thought. 


I was thinking this while I watched a bombardment of a decidedly more violent nature. Stuck in a traffic snarl outside Delhi, I had noticed two Qualis drivers exchange words over scraped fenders. They sure as heck didn’t say ‘Oye, how’s the wife, paaji’ because they leapt out of their cars and began to pummel each other vigorously. I watched with some interest, noticing a crafty feint here and a judicious left-hook there, while wholesome swear words rounded off the spectacle. After a while they were too tired to lift a finger, so they got back in their cars and drove off. There was, of course, only one possible reaction to what I had just witnessed: ‘Bloody maniacs!’. I duly reacted as such.The rest of the journey wasn’t quite as stimulating, although it’s a pleasure to drive on the superb roads in Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. I rolled into Pragpur after a relaxed seven-hour journey, but was somewhat perturbed to find that it looked just like any other small Himachali village. Where was all the heritage and, more importantly, why weren’t any astral influences bouncing off the rooftops? 

I made a few enquiries and was told that the old village was hidden away behind the Judges Court property, which apparently was a Heritage building too. It fully deserved that status, let me tell you. It was a beautiful old manor, built in the Indo-European style and surrounded by fragrant orchards full of fruit and spice trees and I loved it on sight. It had been converted into a hotel, but I was crushed when told that prior bookings in Delhi were essential and they didn’t let just anyone in, least of all unshaven travellers wearing blue-rimmed sunglasses. I went and found a room in a hotel further down the road, feeling a bit disappointed and making a mental note to be more picky in my choice of eye-wear.

The next morning I went back to Judges Court, walked through the garden and headed for the back-gate from where you enter the village. En–route, a big, friendly, black Labrador came bounding up, planted his forelegs on my chest and knocked me clean over. We then indulged in some childish wrestling and hide–and–seek, thereby reinforcing the watching staffs’ notion that I was not to be let anywhere near the premises, regardless of what colour my sunglasses were. No matter, I love dogs and am of the opinion that they should be large, fairly stupid and drool a lot. This fellow passed my canine test blindfolded, and as I swung open the gate and entered Pragpur village, I discovered that he had decided to be my travelling companion for the day.

Pragpur is, quite simply, enchanting. That is not a word I use often (most people I know will say that I use about ten words in total), but walking into the village is really like stepping into another, more serene, world. As I ambled through the cobbled streets, I was struck by how quiet it was. I knew that just a hundred yards or so below me the main road passed through the outer village, but none of that bustle permeated through to where I stood. Here, all that caught the ear were birds practising their do-re-mi-fa and the occasional tinkle of a cow-bell. The morning sun lit up the ancient mud-plastered houses, with their black slate roofs, and made them glow. Lush moss and lichen grew on the stone walls lining the streets, and every few yards I was confronted but a brightly painted doorway or window that added a dash of colour to the earthen tones of the houses. People I passed smiled at me like they were genuinely pleased to see me gawping at their residences and pointing cameras in their face. I don’t know what walking through an illustrated folk tale is like, but I imagine this comes pretty close.

My friend the Lab, meanwhile, was acting as my de–facto guide. He would lead me into little alleys and corners that I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed, and wait patiently or pee on something till I finished looking at what he had pointed me towards. Then he would scamper off in another direction, occasionally looking over his shoulder to check whether I was keeping up, and bark if he decided I was dawdling. It was amazing. Just as I was starting to think ‘Here, folks, is one perspicacious dog,’ he delicately lifted his leg and urinated lavishly over my jeans. He did this with such an endearing grin on his face that I forgave him instantly. Besides, having an incontinent dog as a tour guide has its advantages. You don’t have to haggle about what to pay and every time he gets a little pesky, you fling him a biscuit. 

Pragpur’s marketplace was even quainter, if that is possible. I could see that the village’s inhabitants had consciously maintained its medieval character, the only real token to modernity being a beauty parlour. Even this establishment blended quietly into the weave of the fabric of the place. Next to me, the grocer measured out gram–flour and chatted with his customer. Near his shop, the cobbler put finishing touches to a pair of leather shoes. A trader called out politely further down the road and asked if I would be interested in some shawls, or perhaps the very latest in dhurries. There was even a homoeopath, a sprightly old gentlemanby the name of Megh Nath Sood, into whose shop I went and bought all sorts of pills and powders even though I didn’t strictly need any. This tells you two things. One is that Pragpur is such a delightful place it
immediately puts you in a cheery frame of mind and you feel like doing good to everyone on the planet. The other is that I’m a strange blighter, who’d buy medicines he didn’t need over exquisite shawls and rugs. 

Be that as it may, I sat in Mr Sood’s shop and had a long chat about the village and it’s history, my canine friend idling gently at my feet at about 2000 rpm. He told me that the village had changed, that earlier if you went to a shop or to someone’s house, everything – from a daughter’s wedding to a particularly painful blister – would be discussed over several cups of tea. Now, he said, people didn’t seem to have the time or the inclination any more. As he said this (and this was a good forty minutes into our conversation), I noticed that the grocer and his gram-flour buyer were still shooting the breeze and didn’t look like stopping anytime soon. I imagine in the old days they would have continued till winter came around.

After several hours spent wandering around in an excessively pleasant manner, I found myself, quite by accident, back at the Judges Court gate. The dog was in high spirits and would have done it all again given half a chance, but I was in that nice, tired state where your muscles ache in a...well, nice way. I was so pleased with his services that I gave him all my remaining biscuits and cheese cubes. This obviously made him deliriously happy, because he aimed another squirt at my leg.I nimbly sidestepped, gave him an affectionate pat and headed for the Palio, full of what the Japanese would call ‘joy-joy’ feelings. 

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (a terribly impressive name, don’t you think?) has taken an interest in preserving and restoring Pragpur. Long may its tribe increase.

TRAVEL LOG

Apart from Pragpur’s charms, there are interesting trips to be made in the region. Not least of these is the one to the Jwalamukhi Temple, 20 km away. Legend has it that Sati, upset at Shiva not being invited to a ceremony held by her father, leapt into a funeral pyre. Shiva, understandably peeved at this state of affairs, picked up her charred corpse and began his Dance of Destruction. Lord Vishnu, in order to save the world from annihilation, deftly released his chakra and diced Sati’s body into 51 pieces, which fell to the earth in different locations, now known as the Shaktipithas. The spot where her tongue fell is where the Jwalamukhi temple is located. That isn’t the half of it. The main shrine consists of a square pit about three feet deep with a pathway all round. In the middle, there’s a hollowed out rock from which natural gases emanate. The priest packs devotees about fifteen-deep around it (he stood me right next to it) and holds a flame to the fissure. Before you can say ‘What the...’ a sheet of blue flame shoots towards the ceiling with a great ‘whump’. It’s all most impressive, and I left the temple well-satisfied, a certain lingering smell of singed hair trailing after me. The flame, incidentally, is worshipped as the Jwalamukhi Devi or ‘Goddess who emits flames from her mouth’.

If you’re a birdwatcher or an angler (or even both, it’s not a crime) it’s well worth driving down to Pong Dam (approx 20 km), or Maharana Pratap Sagar as it’s now known.There are over 220 species of birds here, and Judges Court will arrange fishing permits on prior notice.Alternately you can simply drive around aimlessly, taking in the pleasant scenery, and drink lots of apple juice in the evening, as I did.

Pragpur is approximately 434 km from Delhi. Take NH1 to Chandigarh (245 km) and turn left onto NH 21 towards Rupnagar (47 km). From here, the next major town is Una (80 km). Turn right here and head to Pragpur (65 km) via Ambh.

The best place to stay in Pragpur is The Judges Court Heritage Resort (Ph: 01970-24035, info@judgescourt.com) at Rs 1,950 onwards, including meals. Prior bookings in Delhi (Ph: 011-24674135, 24102223) are essential. There’s also Kamal Guest House (Ph: 01970-245145) and Megha’s Heritage Inn (Ph: 01970-245146), both at Rs 400 onwards. A further 7 km down the road in Dehra, there’s the Hotel River View Resorts (Ph: 01970-234268/69) at Rs 800 onwards. It has good views of the – you guessed it – river Beas.

Motor Log
Palio 1.2 ELX
Total distance covered: 585 kms
KPL: 12 kpl