If it wasn’t for the summer heat and Pahari drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli, besotted with the heritage buildings on either side of the arterial road that runs through the hamlet of Garli. Weathervanes gyrated above us, framed by blue skies broken by white clouds. The snow-capped Dhauladhar range, usually visible from the village, was obscured by the summer haze.
Around the 19th century, 52 clans of the Sood community from Rajasthan, came to live in Garli. They came with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen, and other professionals to set up a trading township. As treasurers for the Kangra royals, and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods acquired great fortunes and European tastes.
Their sprawling ancestral homes, in astonishing architectural styles, are mostly in dire need of renovation. The town is cloaked in neglect, which gives credence to a local legend. Wrongly accused of adultery, a young bride cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. As it happened, by the 1950s, most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned.
A few homes, including Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected. Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish painstakingly restored the mansion—constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud— into a boutique heritage stay. Its 19 rooms hold memories of another time, with colonial furniture, crystal chandeliers, and contrasting coloured windowpanes that spill rainbow reflections onto the floor. Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the swimming pool.
The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls, and windows were handpainted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a personal touch. The acute gabled roofs, long windows, and pillared verandas of the main building flow seamlessly into the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed. Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, this annexe transforms into a fairy-tale spot at dusk.
Our lunch was served by the pool, off a mudplastered counter lined with brass pots and an earthern chulha. The staff made us a set meal of regional specialities, such as mhani, a preparation of black channa with jaggery and amchoor, accompanied by siddu, the local steamed bread, and maa ki dal. After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk.
We saw meandering cobbled alleys lined with copper-toned, mud-plastered homes, and brick houses with slate roofs and wooden balconies and balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson Wali Kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls. Santri Wali Kothi was dominated by two turbaned, plaster sentries on its parapet wall, while Nalke Wali Kothi had a public tap in front.
We discovered a town with progressive planning, with a water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago. The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921, and a girl’s school by 1955. These, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, inaugurated in 1928, are still operational. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead of its time.
This planning was marked with a generosity of spirit. The external walls of homes had niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians. Pots of water were left outside to help people combat the heat. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the Chateau Garli, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well fell outside the boundaries and villagers could use it. As Yatish drove us around sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with its Kangra paintings, and the 8th-century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized that though some of the buildings are crumbling, the tradition of hospitality in this region is still well preserved.
Appeared in the November 2016 issue as “Chateau Charisma”.
Accommodation Chateau Garli has 19 air-conditioned heritage rooms and suites in its main house and annexe, and serves robust, home-style Indian, Chinese, and local Kangra meals. Rooms in both buildings are dressed with antique furniture like fourposter beds and baby cribs (www.chateaugarli.com; 9418062002; doubles from ₹5000).
Getting There Garli is located in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is about 70 km/2 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186 km/3 hr north of Chandigarh, and 425 km/7 hr north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal (45 km/1 hr) in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb Andaura, 16 km/20 min away, connected by the Himachal Express from Delhi. Buses ply regularly between Garli and cities like Pathankot, Kullu, and Shimla.