5 THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND PRAGPUR
WORDS BY REEM KHOKHAR
Two abandoned brick mansions rise up in a mustard field of green and gold. The light filters through the broken panes, dancing across the silent, empty hall, walls heavy with conversations long concluded. As the sun sets, it looks like a film location. Nestled in the foothills of the Dhauladhars in Himachal Pradesh is Pragpur, India’s first heritage village. The cobblestoned lanes, local craft shops and rambling havelis are reminiscent of a simpler, slower time. A visit here is a pleasant break from the frenetic pace of urban life.
Explore the Village
Pragpur’s winding lanes are flanked by shops, homes with slated roofs, and sprawling havelis. A bright blue water tank dominates the village centre. The village was created to honour the memory of Princess Prag Dei (from the ruling family, Jaswan) by the Kuthiala Sud community. Prag means “pollen” in Hindi, and Pragpur is ablaze with flowers in the springtime, blooming in memory of a princess from the 17th century.
The Suds were a prosperous merchant clan that travelled extensively, their travels influenced Pragpur’s architecture. Elements of Rajput, Anglo Indian, and even Italian design feature in the structures. Wander around the mansions of Brij Bihari Lal Butel, the Chaujjar haveli, and the ancestral cottage of the Lal family that run the Judge’s Court heritage hotel here. Beautifully carved wooden doors, intricate floral etching, Mughal-style gardens, and spacious courtyards are just some of the distinct features around the village.
There are weavers and silversmiths in the market. The shawl weaver is happy to show off his dexterity on the loom as he swiftly intertwines an expanse of beige threads with green, yellow, and white to create vibrant patterns.
Dine at The Judge’s Court
Dominating this sleepy village is a sprawling country manor, The Judge’s Court, set amid 12 acres of lawns and fruit orchards. The cow and calf at the little dairy bat their eyelashes at passersby but shy away if you attempt to pat them on the head.
Now a heritage hotel, the structure was built in 1918 by Bhandari Ram, an influential merchant from the area, as a home for his son, Justice Sir Jai Lal. The latter was the second Indian to become a judge of the Punjab High Court during the British Raj (it is now managed by his son and family). Guests experience the property’s grandeur and can travel back in time through the photographs, certificates, curios, and other memorabilia on display around the manor. Justice Lal’s close relationship with the ruling British is showcased through certificates with the royal seal confirming his appointment as a judge, “…do appoint our trusty and well-beloved Rai Bahadur Jai Lal”, a letter awarding him a medal to wear to “Their Majesties’ Silver Jubilee in 1935”, and an invitation to the Coronation Durbar of 1911.
Meals here are decadent, with the resident chef churning out a range of cuisines, but the local Himachali dishes are distinct – simple vegetable preparations in yogurt gravy (palda), puffy babroos (kachoris stuffed with black gram dal paste, mildly sweetened and spiced with aniseed), and a tangy kala channa ka khatta.
Visit the Dada Siba Temple
A 45-minute drive out of Pragpur takes you to Dada Siba, a state once ruled by Raja Ram Singh. A Krishna devotee, he built a Radha Krishna temple here to help his subjects avoid the annual pilgrimages to Mathura and Vrindavan. Inside, Kangra miniature paintings adorn the walls and ceilings. Sheltered from the sun, the murals have retained their vibrant colours two centuries later. They detail mythological scenes: Ram and Lakshman’s victory over the rakshasas, Sita’s swayamvara, and portraits from Krishna’s life. There is also a Sikh influence illustrated via a panel showing Guru Nanak under a tree and a meeting between Sikh royalty and the Pahari royals.
A band of territorial monkeys hang around, sometimes entering the inner shrine to steal the prasad. Thankfully, now enclosed in a glass case, the idols are less susceptible to being robbed of their belongings, including the clothes off their back!
Take the Train
Though not aimed at tourists, a ride in the Kangra Valley narrow gauge train is a great way to absorb the gentle pace of life in the region. Even a 20-minute ride between Jwalamukhi Road Station to Guler is a pleasant journey. The train is not too crowded, but aim for a window seat to take in the scenery. At times the train passes through a narrow passage, almost grazing the grassy rock on either side, then into a tunnel only to emerge into the sunshine with views of plunging gorges, mustard fields, luminous streams, and the Dhauladhars glimmering in the distance. You can disembark at Guler Station to peek into the lamp room where the station master still lights an oil lamp to illuminate the signal every evening.
Find Nature at Pong Dam Lake
Pong Dam is a two-kilometre dam on the Beas River. The lake behind the dam is a dazzling expanse of blue with the creamy Dhauladhars in the distance. It is home to a wildlife sanctuary, one of the largest wetlands in North India, with a reported 220 species of birds and 27 species of fish. Migratory birds flock to the shallow areas of the lake. Attempts to get closer to photograph the dark plumed cormorants will probably be met with a disinterested shuffling away of the entire flock.
Still, for visitors in May and June, there is the promise of the Bathu Temples surfacing from the lake, where they remain partially submerged the rest of the year. The regional sports centre offers visitors a chance to canoe, sail or water ski on the lake.
All photographs by Reem Khokhar