In the sleepy Himachal village of Garli, time comes to a standstill. Part of the heritage zone, it is home to architectural marvels where tales are lost in rubble
There is magic in the morning air. It isn’t raining anymore but the dark clouds are floating. The snow-capped Dhauladhar range shines in the distance. A spring in my step, a wide smile on my face and a camera around my neck like the typical tourist, I am exploring the village of Garli in the scenic Kangra valley.
The population is barely 2,000 and word spreads fast. This is my third day and everyone knows that my base is Chateau Garli. Built in 1921 by Mela Ram, the heritage home has now been converted into a 19-room boutique hotel by his grandson Yatish Sud and great grandson Amish Sud. “You might not believe it but the village was said to be ‘Switzerland of India’ way back in the 1930s. With river Beas flowing nearby, and the merchant ‘Sud’ community turning this into a flourishing space, Garli was vibrant. But a woman accused of adultery cursed the place and folks say that it slowly transformed. In the 1950s, the merchants moved out to find greener economic grounds across the globe. Now, only memories and stories are left and the abandoned homes which are architectural marvels.”
A 6-km arterial road sees all the action. Chateau Garli is somewhere in the centre of this road. My first stop is the taal (pond) which is right behind the hotel and home to hundreds of gold fish. I am attracted by the sound of loud “sukk” sounds as fish snap the food offered by the village women. Birds of all colours and sizes are playing hide and seek, hopping from tree to tree, flying higher as I focus my camera. The sound of the bell from the temple under the peepal tree breaks my concentration. Breathing in the oxygen, I sit on the steps, pleased to see life uninterrupted by the jarring sounds of horns and shouts.
Next, it’s time to explore the colourfully painted homes, slanted roofs, chimneys, old world homes with pillars and corridors. Life is a curious mix of the old, the new, the rich, the regular and the abandoned. Many of the heritage homes have unique names such as Santri Wali Kothi, Bhagwan Niwas, Raeeson Wali Kothi, The Mystery House and more. The deserted homes are fascinating with their slate roofs, gabled windows, tall doors and pillared corridors. Unlike modern homes, here every courtyard houses a tulsi plant and flower beds.
The architecture shows multiple influences such as frescoes and wooden carvings which are similar to the ones seen in Rajasthan. Then there are colonial pillars, chimneys and Kangra-style roofs. Some elements of Islamic style are also visible in the curves.
A metal rooster on the roof is the common element. It was built for earthing, as the area was prone to lightning but is now ornamental.
It is so refreshing to see the age-old practice of worshipping the tulsi plant first thing in the morning. The water from ‘kuanwali kothi’ (house with well) aka Chateau Garli is sacrosanct. The well is closed but a handpump has been installed. The villagers take water for their morning prayers from here. Apparently, this was the site of the first well in the village, struck by Mela Ram. He did not put a wall around the well so that the villagers could freely use it. It’s been almost 100 years, but the practice continues.
Garli transcends time. In 2002, the government of Himachal Pradesh declared this and the twin town of Pragpur a heritage zone. Now, the villagers follow a set of rules for new construction and are working on preserving the old. Garli is built at a cross road of three major devi temples in the area—Brajeshwari, Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi.
Garli and the neighbouring Pragpur came into existence under the Jaswan kingdom. In fact, when the peaceful valley was invaded once, princess Prag Dei from the Jaswan clan drove the plunderers out. It was in the late 19th century that the merchant community of Soods came to the village from Rajasthan. The rich traders built hospitals, schools and the big homes. That reminds me, the names are given on the appearance. So, santri is soldier and the two soldiers on the roof guard the closed doors. Another home with brick jaalis is near it.
Then and now
A small market is on the left side of Chateau Garli. Much like the movies in the black and white era, I see an old tailor sitting in the corridor of an old wooden building. A baker is busy making fresh buns in a coal oven. Fascinated, I watch for a long time, until he becomes uncomfortable. Bang opposite the shop, a marble stone on an old wall tells me that water works were established in the area on February 8, 1928 by RB Lala Mohan Lal. The inauguration was done by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the then governor of Punjab.
I walk on, slightly uphill to find myself standing in front of a small school — Bal Shiksha Public School. The little building has no defined boundaries and no one notices me. But a beautiful lady with pink cheeks passing by smiles at me, wants to know why I am alone.
I find myself crossing a wall laden with pink roses. I stand in front of a school’s main entrance. A little girl is busy cleaning the temple of Saraswati, the goddess of education. Another restored building is the 100-year-old Naurang Yatri Niwas on this side, which was a traveller’s inn. And this houses a shop, Garli Crafts, selling handicrafts made by the villagers. A little ahead, the three chimneys of the civil hospital look so fascinating.
I keep walking for there are more frescoes in an abandoned home. The house is being repaired. Like an intruder, I remove the barrier. The frescoes are the 10 avatars of Vishnu. If only homes had voices, I would have heard the stories. Bees buzz and butterflies ask me to follow, reminding me that it’s time to head home. My walk is over but my heart promises itself a return ticket for I had not gone into the side roads to see what lies near the fields.
There is an overnight train from Old Delhi to Amb Andaura (around 20 minutes drive from Garli). One can also take the flight to Gaggal Airport (aprrox 65 km from Garli). Garli is 60 km from Dharamsala by road.
Things to see and do: Take a trip to the Radha Krishna temple in Dada Siba which houses beautiful frescoes, the Kangra Fort, Baglamukhi temple and rock-cut temples of Masroor. Enjoy a picnic lunch at Nangal Chowk, near Pong Dam. This offers a view of the river and the mountains and is a birder’s paradise. Enjoy high tea by the riverside. Take a night safari to see the famous civet cats and other animals.
Must eat: Take a meal at ‘Dhoniwala dhaba’, en route Kangra Fort. Apparently the cricketer and his team had a meal at Sharmaji’s dhaba and you can see their pictures splashed all over. Do try the fish cooked in a leaf from the vendor en route Jwalamukhi, the traditional dham at Chateau Garli and malai barfi from another vendor in the area.