I try to make sense of the violently shaking view in front of me. On my left are swaying swathes of reeds, golden in the autumn sun. On my right, there is the river Beas, a ribbon of silver gurgling along grapefruit-sized rocks. But the river trail I am on is no smooth asphalt stretch.
Rather, my four-wheel drive has to conquer boulders, sand and other slop before it meets the curve of Beas. Very soon, the Thar curls around stones strewn across a weathered terrain, tilts at a 30-degree angle and hurtles down to the water’s edge.
My off-road experience is part of a river safari in Garli, a tiny heritage village in the vast Kangra valley, mostly off-grid for mainstream travellers. The safari starts at the entrance to Garli village and stretches nearly five km onwards, and lasts about 30 minutes. Approximately 171 km from Chandigarh and 60 km from Dharamsala, and, nestled in the backdrop of lush forests, Garli is a quaint settlement. One can simply hop on to the Kalka Shatabdi to reach Chandigarh before driving through the last leg of the journey to reach Garli — where citrus trees droop with fruits, bakeries come to life at the crack of dawn, hill dogs with shiny coats follow you around and winding roads lead to nowhere.
However, in the shadow of the snow-smeared Dhauladhar range, Garli thrived once upon a time as a mini-township, where the prosperous and entrepreneurial Sud clan laid down their roots. Today, it’s a pretty hideaway in the hills, basking under its heritage glory — back in 2002, the government of Himachal Pradesh declared the Garli-Pragpur area as a heritage zone.
I make my way to the edge of the Beas at day’s end, with the sun starting to dip into the river and colour the horizon. Around the same time, I see a lone fisherman by the river bank, taking the last few drags of his beedi. Taking off his pullover and shawl, he lets them fall into a neat pile, before folding his pyjamas loin-cloth style. Snuffing out his beedi on the nearest rock, Shankar says, “Peak season for fishing is monsoon, when the river is raging and the fish surge to the surface. But winter is conducive too — you can stare at the heart of Beas, because of the absolutely still water. Carp and mahseer are the two main varieties that float into your nets.” As he guides his fishing canoe upstream and leaves, I start chatting with the locals who tell me that the prized catch, a variety of carp, is harvested in the wee hours of the morning, when shoals of fish emerge from Beas’s tranquil waters.
A prominent tale, part of the village’s rich storytelling culture, explains how the Garli-Pragpur area was once part of the Jaswan kingdom, ruled by the Katoch clan of Kangra lineage. However, pillagers threatened the serenity of the Kangra Valley’s foothills around the 16th and17th centuries. It is believed that resistance efforts in these precarious times were led by Prag Dei, a princess of the royal house of Jaswan. Not surprisingly, Prag Dei’s success was commemorated by setting up the village of Pragpur, a strategic location blessed by the benevolent energies of adjacent shakti temples (Brajeshwari, Chintpurni and Jwalamukhi).
“Lots of communities settled in this part of the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s, prominent among which are the Suds,” says Yatish Sud, proprietor of The Chateau Garli, a heritage hotel in the area, whose original structure was constructed by his grandfather, Lala Mela Ram Sud in 1921. “They chose this location for various reasons, not least because it offered them respite from the scorching heat of the plains as well as high-altitude snow,” he says, in between warming his hands at a bonfire lit up for guests at his atmospheric property.
On my last day in Garli, I sign up for the haveli trail — a tour of grand wood and brick mansions, scattered across the village. I come across opulent residences, built ages ago by the flourishing mercantile class of the Suds, that are equipped with modern drainage systems, and have global architectural influences. Today their plush interiors lie vacant. A deserted house I troop into has all the avatars of Lord Vishnu etched as frescoes on its walls. Another has ornate wood-panelled fireplaces in its sprawling rooms. Sadly, there’s no one to answer the door and take you on a tour of this vintage world. The owners of these houses have migrated to distant shores, and their cobwebbed living rooms are in urgent need of renovation.
After the charm of Garli, I set off in the direction of Pong Dam, Beas’s scenic embankment dam that has the potential of a seriously immersive travel experience. The Pong lake, 15 km from Garli, created as an offshoot of the Pong dam construction, is a birding haven like no other. One can see the skyline awash with carmine shades, and packs of cormorants and gulls glide across it.
Later in the day, I wander around the Masrur rock-cut temples, close to 45 km from Garli — admiring the monolithic rock sculptures built in the Nagara architectural style in the early 8th century.
Garli may be located in Kangra valley, but instead of the usual mountain views, there’s a network of grand mansions cutting dramatic impressions in a village landscape. Stunning woodwork, oriel windows with coloured glasses and well-crafted weathervanes stand as testimony to its importance as a business township of a bygone era.
Susmita Saha is an independent journalist based in Delhi.