By: Rishad Saam Mehta
Narkanda is a typical Himalayan town with its share of fruit vendors lining the bazaar, Nepali porters scurrying around like headless chickens, snow-capped peaks in the background and jeep taxis bursting at the seams with humanity. The national highway number 22 takes a sharp U-turn after the market and continues towards Rampur. However there is a narrow road leading straight from the market up into the mountains and it was this road that led me to the story I now relate to you. Fifteen kilometres on that road lies the pretty little hamlet of Thanedar and a cosy little bungalow that is the Banjara retreat in Thanedar. Prakash Thakur runs this cottage surrounded by apple orchards. And as I came in from the cold, tired and stiff after a seven-hour drive through snow and ice, his cook put on the kettle and had a cup of steaming ginger tea ready in a snap. He told me the story of the man who introduced to India, the deliciously sweet apples that we now enjoy. Samuel Evan Stokes, 21, came to India with the intention of working at a home for lepers in the Simla hills. He married a local pahari girl, played an active role in Indiaâ€™s freedom struggle and was even jailed by the British. Somewhere along the way, he introduced apple crop in the hills around Shimla.
Samuel Evan Stokes lands in Bombay on February 26
He marries Agnes, a Rajput-Christian woman on September 12
Six kilometres away from Thanedar at Kotgarh stands an old church built by the British in 1843. In the early 1900â€™s Stokes was sent here to recuperate from the heat of the Indian plains. Heâ€™d come to India with a doctor couple â€” Mr and Mrs Carleton â€” who were working with the Leprosy Mission of India.During a visit to Philadelphia, the couple had been asking for donations at the local church for their work in India and young Stokes was very moved by their cause and dedication and wanted to help out by voluntarily working for the mission in India.
Stokes plants a few apple saplings in his Barobagh orchard in Thanedar
He faced a lot of opposition from his family because he was heir to the familyâ€™s prosperous business of elevators. Incidentally, Stokes and Parish Elevator Company later merged with Otis Elevators. But young Stokes was determined and his family relented to let him follow his heart and Samuel landed in Bombay on the February 26, 1904.
His voluntary work with the Leprosy Mission started in Sabatoo in what was then Punjab. Now the heat of the Indian plains doesnâ€™t go too well with everybody and soon Stokes found himself a victim of the heat and dust and was sent to the Kotgarh church to rest and recuperate in May 1904.
With time on his hands he set about exploring the surrounding hills and the trail that was the old Hindustan-Tibet road. And Thanedar (called the â€œMistress of the Northern Hills ? by Rudyard Kipling) worked her charms on him and he found himself completely in love with the place. In a drastic step he decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life here.
He is arrested and jailed. Pictured above: His jail number at Lahore Central Jail
Though he was a westerner he didnâ€™t share the British notion that dark skinned was inferior. As a matter of fact he had a way with the locals and he tried to understand their problems and help them in any way he could. He also stood up for them and was one of the most forceful protesters of the British system of forced labour. This delighted the locals who took him into their hearts and he became one of them. He married a Rajput-Christian woman called Agnes on September 12, 1912.
Realising that her son was determined to spend his life in India, Florence Stokes came visiting in 1911. During that time, the area that is Thanedar today was a 200-acre tea plantation owned by a widow called Mrs Bates. Stokesâ€™s mother bought him the plantation as a gift on February 6, 1912 for the princely sum of Rs 30,000.
Captain R C Scot of the British army had introduced apples to the Kullu valley in 1870. These apples, the Newton Pippin, King of Pippin and the Coxâ€™s Orange Pippin were strains of the English sour apples that were not popular because of their taste. To meet the demand of the Indian market, sweet apples were still being imported from Japan.
The first apple trees bear fruit and the apples are sold
It was during a visit to America in 1915 that Samuel Stokes heard about the new strain of apples patented by the Stark Brothers nursery in Louisiana called the Red Delicious. He bought a few saplings and planted them at his Barobagh orchard in Thanedar in the winter of 1916. Five years later his mother sent him a consignment of saplings of the Stark Brothers Golden Delicious Apples as a Christmas gift. The first apples bore fruit a few years later and were sold in 1926.
They were an instant hit. The divinely sweet taste and the inviting colour had the Indian market going crazy over them. Their popularity even spurred locals into planting these, rather than their usual crops of potato and plums.
Also, because they considered Samuel Evans Stokes as one of them, they sought his advice and he helped them achieve rich dividends with their harvest. Soon the demand for the Kotgarh apples sky-rocketed and orchards cropped up all over the valleys of what is today Himachal Pradesh, to meet this demand.
Stokes becomes an Arya Samaji and changes his name to Satyanand Stokes
The imports from Japan stopped.
It is from these first few saplings that the Sweet Delicious Apples of Shimla and the Golden Delicious of Kinnaur became popular and Himachal Pradesh grew to become one of the largest producers of the fruit today.
So the next time you bite into a juicy red or golden apple think about Samuel Evans Stokes whose vision and desire to help the locals brought these apples to Himachal Pradesh.
The next morning Thakur took me around to explore Thanedar. We went up to Harmony hall â€” the Stokes family house. A two-storied house built atop a hillock surrounded on three sides by snow capped peaks. Around the house are the apple orchards of Barobagh â€” the place where it all started.
He builds the temple that becomes his legacy to Thanedar
Next to the house is an Arya Samaj Mandir. As we sat in the courtyard of the temple reclining amidst the wooden pillars, surrounded by inscriptions from the Upanishads and Bhagvad Gita and gazing at the lofty white Himalayas that seemed a stones throw away, Thakur told me the second part of the Stokes story.
During his rest and recuperation days at the Kotgarh church, young Samuel came in contact with a lot of Sadhus on the Hindustan-Tibet road making their way to Kailash Mansarovar. While the priest of the church was finely robed and had three meals a day, the simplicity of these Sadhus perturbed him and set him thinking about the Hindu religion.
Later on in his life he also studied the Bhagvad Gita in English and then in an endeavour to understand it, learned Sanskrit and studied it again in that language. In 1932, he became an Arya Samaji and changed his name to Satyanand Stokes. The temple he built in 1937 was to be his legacy to Thanedar. Juggal Kishore Birla, a scion of Indian industry at that time contributed Rs 25,000 to encourage him. Called the Paramjyoti Mandir or the Temple of Eternal light, he wanted it to be a storybook in wood and stone.
Standing next to it 65 years later, I realised that it is indeed that. On its walls are verses from the Gita and the Upanishads, reading which give the seeker strength to bear his sorrows and help reach his goal.
Samuel Evans Stokes was the only American to participate in the Indian freedom movement. As a matter of fact when the first saplings of the Golden Delicious apples arrived from Washington in 1921, his wife Agnes planted them because Stokes was in jail along with other prominent leaders of the Indian freedom movement such as Mahatma Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai. Satyanand Stokes died on May 14, 1946. The widow of his youngest son Lal Chand
Stokes is Vidya Stokes, who is the Congress party president of the Himachal Pradesh Congress party. She is also the former speaker of the HP Legislative Assembly and is rumoured to be the next chief minister of Himachal Pradesh.
Such is the story of Thanedar, a simple town high on a ridge on the Hindustan-Tibet road. A place so charming that it captured the heart of a young foreigner. Talk to the locals and even today and theyâ€™ll have a story about how this American in khadi touched the lives of their parents or grandparents and endeared him to their hearts.
To know the entire life story of Satyavati Samuel, read – AN AMERICAN IN KHADI: The Definitive Biography of Satyanand Stokes, by Asha Sharma.