August 15 marks the day of Independence for India, but in Himachal Pradesh, it also signals the beginning of the apple season. Much more than a pit stop on your way to the usual getaways in the Lahaul-Spiti region, are you aware that the town of Thanedar is actually at the heart of the apple cultivation revolution in India? To think, it was all started by one man, an American, Samuel Stokes!
Thanedar, about 80 km northeast of Shimla, at first sight, seems like any other quaint Himachal village, until you see the apple trees lining the by-lanes and picturesque orchards decorating the slopes. It is then that you realize that this is the heart of the apple cultivation industry and a robust horticultural economy.
Born to a wealthy businessman, Samuel Stokes was more interested in helping the needy and moved to India
Samuel Evans Stokes was the son of a wealthy American businessman. Stokes Sr. was the founder of a leading elevator manufacturer, the Stokes and Parish Machines Company. Young Samuel, however, instead of joining his father in the world of business, was more interested in helping the less fortunate.
Stokes arrived in India in 1904, aged 22, to fulfill this spiritual quest in the capacity of a Christian missionary, part of the Christian Quakers religious movement. As fate would have it, he ended up converting himself to the ways of his new home in India.
The Sabathu Leper Home, located in the Solan district, was where Stokes first embarked on his quest, nursing leprosy sufferers. However, he soon realized that he was mostly seen as an outsider due to his appearance. So, to break barriers, he learnt the Pahari dialect and started dressing up in local garb. Gradually, he came to be accepted by the locals.
To break barriers, Stokes learnt the Pahari dialect and started dressing up in local Himachali garb
Stokes eventually moved away from his rehabilitation work, but his love for his new home in the hills made him stay on in the country. In 1911, after his father’s death, he returned to India, decided to leave the Quakers Brotherhood and settled down, marrying a local Christian girl Agnes.
He decided to turn farmer and bought the tea estate land of Emma Matilda Bates, widow of an English forest officer. After various experiments in hill farming, he reached the conclusion that only fruit-growing could be done on the scale needed to give the local economy the boost it needed.
Originating in Central Asia more than 4000 years ago, in the area encompassing current-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China, the apple fruit was certainly not alien to the Indian subcontinent, with the Kashmir region in particular having a connection with the fruit over thousands of years. Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309-1388) was known to have planted several fruit trees, among them apple, in the 14th century city of Hisar-e-Firoza (Hisar in Haryana today).
Himachal Pradesh initially saw apple shipments from the Far East such as Japan in the early 20th century, becoming a favored snack on Raj tables in Shimla. The local varieties were smaller berry apples that grew wild in the region. The British also used to grow their own varieties such as the red-flushed Pippin, a crisp cooking apple, in the neighboring hills, but these didn’t find acceptance in the locals’ palates, owing to their sour taste.
So, it took Stokes to lay the roots of the apple cultivation industry in Himachal Pradesh and change the face of the state for the better. In 1914, he went back to America with soil samples from his land and came back with saplings of the sweeter-tasting ‘Red Delicious’ variety, from the famed Missouri-based growers, the Stark Brothers.
In 1912, he set up Harmony Hall, his Thanedar estate house, which became the center of his growing experiments and distribution operations. He started small in 1916, with a few pear, plum and apple saplings. A few years later, his mother sent him a shipment of the ‘Golden Delicious’ variety, which he added to the mix.
By 1928, the apples from Harmony Hall had taken over the Himachal valleys. Himachal Pradesh officially became the ‘Apple State of India’ owing to Stokes’ efforts bearing fruit. Stokes also set up a training school on his grounds, to groom future horticulturists.
Apart from his fruitful endeavors, Stokes also left his mark on the freedom movement in the late ‘20s, campaigning against begar, an unfair practice giving governing jagirdars free reign to exploit the locals for free labor in the Kumaon region.
He also played an active role as a member of the Indian National Congress. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919 had a profound impact on him. A series of firsts would follow. In 1920, Stokes became the only non-Indian, certainly the only American, to attend the Nagpur session of the All India Congress Committee in December, representing Kotgarh (Shimla Hills).
The following year, he signed the Congress manifesto calling upon Indians to give up government service and join the freedom movement, becoming the the first and only American to do so.
Stokes’ protest against Edward VIII’s visit made him the only American political prisoner of the British during the freedom struggle
He also protested against the Prince of Wales Edward VIII’s visit that year, attracting charges of sedition from the British and subsequent prison time. This made him possibly the only American political prisoner of the British during the freedom struggle. Gandhi termed Stokes’ arrest ‘a unique move on the part of the government.’
In 1932, he embraced Hinduism and changed his name to ‘Satyananda’. Inspired by the writings of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founder of Arya Samaj, Stokes built a temple on his estate, known as the Paramjyoti Temple.
While he died in on 14 May 1946, shortly before Indian Independence, he had emancipated the hills of Himachal from economic deprivation. The apple production in Himachal Pradesh had touched 15,000 boxes a year at the time and today is a flourishing international business worth crores, moving lakhs of tons of produce a year.
Satyananda Stokes’ portrait adorns the walls of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, but very few people outside the state of Himachal Pradesh are aware about his legacy. No commemorative stamps were issued and no institutions were named after him, to honor it.
A few apple trees still surround Harmony Hall today, possibly the only real reminder of the man who gave the Apple State, a taste of freedom.
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