If only houses could speak, these splendid structures would have fascinating tales to tell — about its rich legacy and the way these are being neglected now.
Narrow trails lead to beautiful houses in Paragpur and Garli villages of Kangra valley, which were given the heritage tag by the Ministry of Tourism, government of India in 1997.
Done up in different styles with elaborate woodwork, gothic architecture, gabled roofs with slates, jharokhas, huge arches and imposing doors, the architects of these beautiful heritage structures, tried to outdo one another, it seems.
But sadly, most of these structures, nestled in the lap of the Dhauladhar range, are in a state of utter neglect, some abandoned, others locked or have caretakers, as their owners have moved away for better prospects.
The twin villages are a treasure trove of heritage structures and a delightful destination for those wanting to explore the countryside. These two villages are also called the dynasty of Soods. As history goes, the prosperous Sood community, a merchant clan who came from Rajasthan in the 19th and 20th Century after travelling extensively, built grand homes in European styles to establish a trading village. Unfortunately, many of these are crying for attention now.
The buildings have interesting names too! While one is known as Santri Wali Kothi, probably because it has statues of two “santris” (guards) on the roof, the other has been named Raeeso Wali Kothi, as it has beautiful frescos and Rajasthani designs on the walls — reminiscent of the way the rich people lived. There are others that have been named Bhagwan Niwas and Mystery House.
An architectural marvel, the area will catch the fantasy of those who appreciate art or history.
Brij Mohan Sood, a senior citizen who runs a small shop for the past 40 years in Paragpur, said: “Fortunately, the situation is changing now. The descendants of those who built these homes are returning to their ancestral village slowly, as they have realised the significance of their assets and the potential it holds. A few places have already been restored. Mela Ram’s residence, Chateau Garli, which was abandoned for many years, has been restored by his grandson.”
Most of the owners left Garli in 1950s in search of better opportunities. As a result, their homes fell into a state of disrepair.
The ambience of the Heritage Zone is zealously protected by the locals. In their endeavour to retain Garli-Paragpur’s unique character, panchayats have preserved their heritage buildings and want the old structures to be re-constructed or renovated in the same style, if need be. Several structures are now being restored to its original architecture on the guidance of panchayat members.
The area has several streams that drain into the Beas — the mythological river Vipasa, meaning release from bondage. Many places of historic, religious and cultural importance are within easy reach. The Dhauladhar range makes for a stunning backdrop. With its equable climate, easy access, safe passage and a rich flora and fauna, Pragpur and its surrounding areas offer an ideal location for village tourism.
Ajay Sood, from Paragpur, who is senior lawyer in the Himachal Pradesh High Court, says: "The government should set up a development board for the upkeep of Garli and Paragpur villages by inducting members from the area and also from the Sood community, whose ancestors have built these two villages in the 19th and 20th Century. The Sood community wishes to help the state government and play a significant role in developing these two villages as major tourist attraction if the government takes them into confidence. Most of the stakeholders still live in Shimla and the government should take them into confidence.”
Deepak Sood, a businessman in Paragpur, said: “Though the government gave the heritage village tag to Pragpur 20 years ago, no steps have been taken to create amenities for tourists, who visit both these villages, so far. Besides, one hotel ‘Judges Court’ there is no place for tourists to stay.”
Vijay Lal, who was one of the first persons to return to his ancestral village, has done a lot for the development of Paragpur. He has renovated his old house and converted it into a heritage hotel, where hundreds of foreigners come every year to stay. Many movies have also been filmed in this heritage resort. “Much remains to be done. The Tourism Department should create infrastructure like washrooms, proper lanes, rain shelters, proper drinking water and take steps to renovate all heritage building which are either abandoned by its owners or in bad shape,” he said.
Founded in 16th Century
Both Garli and Paragpur villages were founded in the late 16th Century by the Patials in memory of Princess Prag Dei of the Jaswan Royal family. The area of Pragpur was part of the principality of Jaswan, whose chief, in the late 16th or early 17th Century, charged a band of learned men, led by a Kuthiala Sood, to find a suitable place to commemorate Princess ‘Prag’ of his royal lineage.