Vijai and Rani Lal own and operate The Judge's Court, a heritage boutique hotel in Pragpur.
By Rema Nambiar
PRAGPUR (India) (Bernama) -- The sight of the mighty snow-capped mountains in the distance heralded our entry into Himalayan territory.
Punjab's scenic countryside with its expansive acreage of wheat and rice fields made way for the gorgeous vistas of rolling hills and lush valleys and meadows that the northern state of Himachal Pradesh is famed for.
Our journey, however, was marred by the narrow and bumpy winding roads that are typical of the mountainous state but that's another story.
I was with a group of 35 travellers who went on the aptly-named Heavenly Himalayas & Pristine Punjab tour last month, organised by The Duchess Club of Chennai's (India) travel wing.
The four Malaysians in the group, including me, met our Indian travel mates in Chandigarh - the common capital of the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana - where our tour started.
(We had earlier flown to New Delhi from Kuala Lumpur and taken a domestic flight to Chandigarh).
From Chandigarh, we headed for Himachal Pradesh in a convoy of nine Toyoto Innova vehicles as travelling in a coach was out of the question due to the aforementioned narrow and, at times, treacherous mountain roads that are characteristic of the states located in India's Himalayan region.
CHARMING HERITAGE VILLAGE
This 300-year-old house is among the better-maintained buildings in the heritage village of Pragpur.
One of the highlights of our itinerary was a stopover at Pragpur, a tiny village located about 175 kilometres from Chandigarh, in northwest Himachal Pradesh.
Nestled about 610 metres above sea level in the Kangra Valley in the backdrop of the towering Dhauladhar mountain range of the lesser Himalayas, Pragpur did not look much more than a hamlet at first glance.
Its ambience, however, did evoke the feel of a long-gone era. After all, Pragpur is, in the words of a local hotel operator Vijai Lal, replete with history.
The village was founded about 300 years ago by the Kuthiala Sood community that had migrated to the Himalayan region in the early 17th century from their home state of Rajasthan to escape persecution by Aurangzeb, one of the last emperors of the Mughal empire.
The picturesque village community tank or The picturesque village community tank or "taal" is well maintained and a source of water supply for the villagers.
Pragpur's quaint, age-old "havelis" or mansions and mud-plastered and slate-roofed cottages built in various architectural styles, as well as its cobbled pavements, "taal" or community water tank and shops remain intact and unchanged.
Granted heritage village status by the Himachal Pradesh state government in 1997, Pragpur is believed to be the first village in India to be accorded this honour.
The cobbled streets and some of the buildings have certainly seen better days, nevertheless Pragpur is a "living" heritage village as some descendants of the founding community continue to live and ply their trades there.
The village's jewel in the crown has to be the community water tank, which still has water drawn from an underground source. Fringed by some well-kept houses and sporting a new coat of paint, the tank is picturesque and serves as a lovely backdrop for photographs.
Another grand structure is The Manor which, undoubtedly, is the pièce de résistance of a boutique heritage hotel called The Judge's Court, owned by Lal, 81, and his wife Rani, 73.
As our group had spent a night at the delightful hotel, I had the opportunity to converse with the amiable owner, who was only too happy to regale me with interesting titbits about Pragpur's past.
Lal is an intrinsic part of its history as 11 generations of his family, who belong to the illustrious Kuthiala Sood clan, have lived in the village.
The Manor, a double-storey red-bricked mansion designed in Indo-European architectural traditions, was built in 1918 by Lal's great grandfather Bhandari Ram for his son Justice Sir Jai Lal, who had the distinction of being the second Indian to be appointed a judge of the Punjab High Court.
Lal also has another ancestral cottage in the village, built over 300 years ago by his great, great grandfather Mauja Shah. The attractive brick house with a courtyard is still relatively intact and Lal hopes to restore it into a heritage hotel.
Delving into the history of his ancestors who helped build Pragpur, Lal said they decided to establish their base there following the advice of some of their learned elders.
They had felt the area resonated with good vibrations, ostensibly due to the presence of the three temples of Jwalamukhi, Chintpurni Devi and Brageshwari, where female deities were worshipped.
Today the temples, believed to have been erected more than a thousand years ago, serve as popular pilgrimage sites for Hindus.
Describing the Kuthiala Sood clan as an "energetic" group of people, Lal said they ventured into agriculture and eventually became owners of large tracts of land.
In fact, by the time India came under British rule, the Soods owned more than half of Pragpur, he said, adding that they still continue to be the dominant community there.
According to Lal, what made Pragpur worthy of its heritage tag was not only the ancient houses but also the tradesmen who ply their businesses in the village's main bazaar.
"It is every bit a living heritage village," he said. "The tradesmen operating there belong to generations of tailors, machinists, clothes merchants, weavers, silversmiths and makers of local Indian sweets who had plied their trade there over the years."
Even the local doctor is from a family of medical practitioners who had lived in Pragpur for generations, he added, for good measure.
RESTORATION A COSTLY AFFAIR
Lal had played an active role in getting the state government to declare Pragpur as a heritage village.
Passionate about preserving its legacy and charms and keen to boost the local community's economic status, he was among those who helped to formulate the Indian government's rural tourism policy about 20 years ago.
After conferring heritage status on Pragpur in 1997, a few years later the state government also declared the area encompassing Pragpur and the nearby village of Garli as a heritage village zone.
While Lal is satisfied with the tourist arrival numbers and his hotel's occupancy rate, he said more had to be done to promote the area among domestic tourists as some 80 per cent of the visitors were foreigners, mainly from Britain, France, Germany and Australia.
He also hoped the state government could extend loans to the owners of ancestral residences in the heritage zone to enable them to spruce up their buildings, many of which are, sadly, crumbling due to lack of maintenance.
"It's up to us, the owners, to take care of our ancestral homes," he remarked, pointing out that restoration and maintenance can be costly affairs which many of them could ill afford.
Lal converted his prized ancestral property, The Manor, into a heritage hotel in 1997 and named it The Judge's Court, in memory of his distinguished grandfather.
The Manor has eight spacious rooms; another two rooms were made available after he renovated the servants\' quarters.
About 10 years ago, to meet the rising demand for lodgings in the area, Lal erected another building on the hotel grounds, called the Residency. He took care to ensure that the new structure's architecture and fittings blended with the early 20th century ambience exuded by The Manor.
The Residency's solid wooden doors and windows were made by local craftsmen while construction work was carried out by artisans whose families had been involved in the same trade for generations.
Surrounded by mango and lychee orchards, The Judge\'s Court currently has 27 rooms and a staff strength of 45.
Just a few years ago, it was the only decent place in the area where visitors could spend the night but now there are eight hotels and homestays in Pragpur and Garli.
For a place that was not even mentioned on the road maps of the district where it is located until it was accorded heritage status, Pragpur has done well for itself.
My verdict? For an authentic feel of old world charm and quaint ancestral mansions that transport one to a bygone era , even if some of the buildings are not exactly in good shape, Pragpur is definitely worth a stopover. More so, for tourists on their way to Dharamsala, a town located about 60km away that was made famous by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has his residence-in-exile there.