Apple harvest in the Himalayan foothills
The hill station of Shimla attracted British settlers with its cooler climate. (Jodie Griggs/Getty)
Some 80km north of Shimla -- the former summer capital of the British Raj and now the capital of the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh -- the small rural community of Thanedar is home to the Pahari, the people of the hills.
The community is also home to the century-old Harmony Hall orchards, a farm that is central to the region’s history of fruitful apple harvests. Samuel Evans Stokes, son of a wealthy American Quaker family and a convert to Hinduism, built the estate in 1912 and – intentionally and strategically – changed local history by importing the first Red Delicious apples from the US in 1916.
Better known in India as Satyanand Stokes, Samuel became part of Mahatma Gandhi’s inner circle. His vision for a sustainable local economy was a benign colonialism that worked, and apples became the area’s primary produce. Today, farming families throughout the foothills of the Himalayas have better health, education and prospects than many other rural communities in India.
In October 2012, Stokes’s descendants and local villagers held five days of centenary celebrations, including traditional free-form, slow and stylised nati dances performed to a combination of percussion and massive horns played by local bazo bands.
Heading northeast from Shimla, Highway 22 still follows the old Hindustan-Tibet trade route. It was here that the British first settled in 1822, attracted to the climate that provided relief from the heat of the plains and enabled familiar plants to grow. English country garden flowers – roses, honeysuckle and dahlias – still give gorgeous spring and summer displays, though the small orchards of Pippin apples planted by the British have mostly gone. It was only after Stokes’s introduction of the sweeter Red Delicious, more suited to Indian tastes, that the fruit industry took off.
On clear days, the orchard landscapes alongside Highway 22 are a travel photographer’s dream. Steep slopes rise and fall on either side as the narrow road zigzags through progressively spectacular landscape with the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. Flat land is at a premium, and orchards are planted pragmatically, stepping higgledy-piggledy uphill or weaving a line along thin terraces cut into the hillsides. Birdwatchers will have a field day too. Huge Himalayan vultures wheel eye-level with the road, while tiny tits inhabit a range of vegetation, from conifers and cedars to broadleaved oaks and rhododendrons.
Townships on the apple trail include Narkanda, Theog and Rampur. Each offers simple fresh food and hot sweet chai (tea), and while there is basic accommodation available, most travellers visit on day trips from Shimla. The adventurous take local buses, with all the challenge, chaos and colour they entail, but hiring a taxi for the day allows for more flexibility in stopping to enjoy the scenery and less strain on the nerves.
The six-month apple season, from spring flowering to the last harvest in late September, brings people flooding into Himachal Pradesh. Paharis from around the region are joined by Nepalese families from across the border to maintain the orchards and pick the crop. Trucks and tourists crowd the roads; some are international travellers heading to trekking destinations in Ladakh, a long day’s drive away, others are holidaying Indians from around the country. Honeymooners take photos against backdrops of blossoms, and visitors escaping the summer heat of the plains relish in the prospect of fresh fruit. Enterprising roadside vendors sell apples juiced, whole or sliced on a plate; Shimla bakers make delicious fresh apple cake.
Apples are freighted nationwide in all manner of ways, and watching from a roadside tea stall is a great way to get a snapshot, literally and figuratively, of how the produce is moved in the mountains. Cartons of apples are loaded higher than seems possible onto small tray-back trucks, with squashed boxes of apples on the road testifying that this is only a relatively secure practice. Passengers on motorbikes embrace packs of apples as the driver struggles for balance on steep corners. Sway-backed mules are loaded with boxes and led two abreast along the road. Men bend doubled over, carrying several crates of apples on their backs, held in place by a long strap tied against their foreheads. Knobbled hessian bags, sewn shut, wait to be collected at homestead doors.
Apple wholesale sheds appear intermittently along the roadside and convoys of interstate trucks wait to go to market. These trucks are decked out in classic Indian style: half fairground carousel and half Hindu temple, with vermilion and sunshine yellow as the favoured colours. Painted instructions on the rear to “horn in passing” are enthusiastically followed by all and the resultant cacophony adds to the thrill of the road trip.
By October, harvest is over. The roads are quieter and orchards lay silent again, waiting for the first blanket of snow and the long hibernation of Himalayan winter.