At times it is surprising what all India has to offer. I have travelled extensively across North India and explored many nooks and corners of Himachal Pradesh but did not know that tucked away in the foothills near Dharamsala lies a quaint heritage village. The small hamlet of Garli was given this status by the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Ministry but it is still off the popular trail so not many have discovered the myriad charms of this destination.
Garli is dotted with heritage buildings, havelis and mansions whose architecture style varies from Belgian, Italian, Islamic, Rajput to Portuguese, making it one of India’s most unusual village.
On a morning walk we discovered a treasure of architecture as we meandered through the village. Narrow paths lead to mansions done up in different styles – with elaborate woodwork, gothic windows, gabled roofs, jharokha windows, brick jaali work, huge arches and imposing doors. The buildings have interesting names such as Santri Wali Kothi, Mystery House, Raeeso Wali Kothi, Bhagwan Niwas and there is a reason behind these names. For example Santri Wali Kothi has statues of two guards knowns as “santris” on the roof of the house. Raee¬so-waali Kothi has opulent murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, reminiscent of the way the rich lived. All this lies in the shadow of the Dhauladhar range.
The village was built by the prosperous Sood community from Rajasthan, a merchant clan who came to Garli in the 19th century after travelling extensively across the world to establish a trading village and built grand homes here in European styles. Unfortunately, many of them are in dire need of renovation.
Most of the owners had left Garli by the 1950s in search of better opportunities and as a result their homes fell into a state of disrepair. Fortunately, however, a few places have been restored as some of the younger generations realise the potential of their heritage. One of them is Mela Ram’s residence, Chateau Garli, which lay abandoned for 20 years, and is being restored by his grandson, Yatish Sud.
Made in 1921 by Mela Ram Sood when he was just 16, this heritage stay is a delight for architecture buffs. Done up in Belgian glass mirrors, colourful windows, it has two wings – a heritage wing and a new one.
Each corner of this mansion reminds you of a bygone era – for example instead of a simple lock and key in the rooms, there is a heavy lock in the shape of an open mouthed lion face, an old-world huge telephone lies at the reception, there is a wooden radio, an old gramophone, a mud counter with a chulha and brass pots and much more. What is most striking are the windowpanes in green, blue, red and yellow colours that reflect different hues and the use of mirrors everywhere – my room had six of them and across the property there were countless others. The lights in the swimming pool change colour at night, adding to the drama.
The most loved was the traditional dham that they served one night for dinner – it is a finger-licking, delectable combination of Himachali dishes. Everything here goes back in time.
On the last day we spent here, Satpal Sharma, whose family been has selling Malai Kulfi since 1835 came to serve delicious kulfi that he churned out from a container in a wooden case, and served on a leaf instead of a paper or plastic plate. One bite and you’ll reached a different world – it was creamy and soft, unlike anything sold in cities. There is no doubt that recipes handed down in families hold secrets that are not easy to copy. Another building which has been redone and is now open to travellers is the Naurang Yatri Niwas, which was built in 1922 to serve as a “sarai” or inn for visitors. It is not so opulent but has been tastefully and comfortably done, with the rooms lying around a central courtyard. Just outside is the Rang Cafe, where you can relax and enjoy food. Garli is different because it has managed to hold onto its heritage by not giving way to too many restaurants, cafes, but retaining its charm.
What to do around
While architecture is undoubtedly its principal attraction, there are plenty of other things to do around Garli – go for a picnic lunch to Pong Dam, visit Dadasiba Temple, take a riverbed safari on the Beas at sunset, explore the magnificent Kangra Fort and visit the gorgeous Masrur rock cut temples, which date back to the 6th cenutry and are done up in traditional Indian style with exquisite carvings of gods and goddesses. You can even take a night safari in a forest nearby that is home to many wild animals. Otherwise just enjoy a gorgeous sunrise or sunset at this spot, one of the few quiet destinations you will come across in India.