Set like a jewel in the Kangra valley, in the shadow of the Dhauladhar mountain range in Himachal Pradesh, is a charming village whose homes and other structures are a mix of – hold your breath – local Kangra and Rajput architectural styles as well as British, Portuguese and Italian features!
This is Pragpur, about 200 km from Chandigarh, and its winding cobbled lanes, wooden balconies, slate roofs, carved wooden eaves and colourful mud-plastered walls have a marvellous story to tell. Rest your gaze on anything here and chances are it’s over 300 years old. But what is this Anglicised village doing in these parts?
– ‘Pragpur’, in Sanskrit, means ‘full of pollen’, which aptly describes the region when it is ablaze with spring blossoms.
It was founded in the late 16th or early 17th century in honour of princess Prag Dei of the Jaswan kingdom, whose rulers were the cadets of the Katoch dynasty of the Kangra state. This was a time when the hills were under regular attack from marauding armies and the princess had successfully organised resistance to them.
Soon, Pragpur welcomed immigrants in the form of the Sood community. They were caravan traders and merchants who had settled in Sirhind in Punjab. Sirhind was a prosperous commercial centre under the Mughals till it came into conflict with the Sikhs when Mughal Governor Wazir Khan ordered the killing of Guru Gobind Singh’s youngest sons in 1705. The Hindu population of the city was ordered to be evacuated for their safety and most of the Soods migrated to the Kangra Valley, including to the village of Pragpur.
When Kangra was annexed by the British in 1846, the enterprising Soods set up shop as cloth or timber merchants in Shimla and opened sarais or inns along the Hindustan-Tibet highway. They became very wealthy when Shimla was made the summer capital of the British.
With their newly acquired wealth, the Soods returned home to Pragpur in the winter to build homes in the new style inspired by the foreigners. The havelis and mansions were thus interspersed with mud-plastered and slate-roofed homes replete with European features. The brickwork is typical – 5 inches x 9 inches – standardised by the British in 1847.
– The grandest of these mansions is the Judge’s Court built in 1918 by Bhandari Ram for his son Justice Sir Jai Lal, only the second Indian to become a judge in the Punjab High Court.
The two-storey, red-brick country manor stands in the midst of a 12-acre orchard full of mango, lychee and camphor trees. The complex also has an ancestral cottage that is over 300 years old. On its exposed brickwork you can see the outer walls reinforced with iron plates, the technology that helped the manor survive earthquakes.
Another beautiful building is Butail Niwas, close to 200 years old. It exemplifies the grandeur of community architecture with integrated units of residence. Built by Lala Buta Mal, it has six identical apartments, one each for his sons.
Close by is Lala Rerumal’s haveli with a Mughal-style garden. Interestingly, all these houses are built around a sunken courtyard, which was filled with water that cooled the homes in summer.
The focal point of the village is the Taal, a tank constructed in the 1880s by the village’s Nehar Committee. It was filled with water from natural springs. It is said that, originally, the pipes that drew water from the tank were made of simbal wood, which were resistant to rotting. Later, steel pipes were imported from England. The Committee’s records show that the head mason of the project was paid two annas and a karchi (ladle) of milk a day for this work!
In 1997, Pragpur was tagged as a ‘heritage village’ by the state government, which brought it to the attention of the media. Today, most of its population, not more than 1,000 people, is involved in arts and crafts, and interact with tourists who are more than happy to return to simpler times.
– LHI Travel Guide
Air: Nearest airports are Chandigarh (193 km/4 hrs) and Kangra’s Gaggal (55 km/11/2 hrs)
Rail: Nearest railhead is Amb Andaura (30 km/40 min)
Road: Take the highway till Chandigarh; Pragpur is a 193-km drive from here