Birth of Kullu’s Fruit Industry

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The first apple orchard of Himachal, or for that matter Punjab, was planted at Bandrole (Kullu) in 1870.

In 1846, after the Treaty of Lahore, the British East India Company got Kulu from the Sikhs. Soon after, the valley was being frequented by a lot of Englishmen—posted officers, men on expeditions, and folks in search of game (hunting). Some even made Kulu their home after their retirements.

When the British came, they brought various European fruits and vegetables along with them. Resident officers and settlers were the firsts to grow European fruits and vegetables in this region; for a start, to meet their own consumption.

Adding to the fruits that already grew here (apricot, peach, walnut, quince, wild fig, apple, pear, raspberry, hill plum, wild cherry, wild vine, wild apple, lime, citron, and many wild fruits), they brought European varieties of apple, pear, apricot, plum, cherry, grape, currant, pomegranate, and strawberry. The indigenous varieties were used as stock for the newer cultivars.

Among the vegetables, potatoes, pumpkins, beans, a kind of lettuce, and cucumbers grew in abundance and, with the advent of the British, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, french beans, peas, asparagus, lettuce and carrots were also being grown.

According to Colonel Harcourt (AC Kullu, 1869-71), the quality of the produce was equal to the best samples of England’s markets.

“…almost every article fit for human food grows to perfection in this country, so bountifully endowed by nature; and it would seem as if Kooloo well deserved the appellation of the Garden of India, so rich is it in all the products that gratify either sight or taste.”

(Harcourt, 1872)

The British also cultivated tea. In fact, it was the first cash crop grown by them.

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A small garden, the first, was planted in Nagar in the fifties, and around 1861-62 Kooloo Valley Tea Company a.k.a. the Kulu Tea Company was established. The company had gardens at Bajaura, Raison, Nagar, Shamshi and Ghurdaur. KTC’s tea even won first prize for ‘the best black tea of India’ at Lahore Exhibition of 1863.

But, unsuitable agro-climatic conditions for tea, plus the lack of transportation, proved unprofitable for the business. So, the gardeners shifted their attention to fruits. Against all the odds, how ever, a small tea industry survived as far as the 1930s.

Returning to the fruits, the pioneer of pomiculture in Kullu was a retired British Army captain, R. C. Lee, who had come to live here around 1860. He settled at Bandrole where, in 1870, he planted the first commercial fruit garden of Kullu. Lee’s orchard had apple, pear, plum and cherry trees. He had the strains sent to him from his father’s estate in England. In the 70s another outsider, Mr. Theodore, planted apple trees at Dobhi.

A few years later (around 1875) a friend of Lee’s, Capt. Banon, bought land in Duff Dunbar (present day Manali) and planted his own orchard around 1880; the Manali Orchards.

The orchards of Lee, Theodore and Banon flourished. Their success worked as a catalyst in bringing out the gardener in their neighbours, and some of their fellow Englishmen also took up fruit gardening. The gentlemen who followed them were Messrs. Miniken, Rennick, Donald, and Mackay.

The first orchards in Kullu were planted at:

  • Bandrole by Captain R. C. Lee of Bandrole Estate.
  • Duff Dunbar (Manali) by Captain A. T. Banon of Manali Estate
  • Aramgarh (Raison) by H. J. Miniken of Aramgarh Estate

Miniken was the manager of ‘Kulu Tea Company’. After its dissolution (1880), he bought half of the company’s estates, later becoming the sole commercial producer of tea in Kullu.

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  • Bajaura by Colonel R. H. F. Rennick of Garh Estate

Rennick had bought the other half of KTC’s estates. He was one of the biggest landowners of Kullu in his time.

  • Dobhi by Theodore and William ‘Willie’ Donald of Dobhi Estate

Dobhi Estate originally belonged to Mr. Theodore, who had left it to Donald’s sister in his will (1883). Around 1885, Donald came here to manage Rennick’s Garh Estate and his sister gave the estate to him. Donald managed both the Dobhi Estate (his own) and Garh Estate (Rennick’s).

  • Duff Dunbar (Manali) by J. S. Mackay of Dunbar House Estate

Dunbar House was built, early 1870s, by Duff Dunbar (Deputy Forest Officer of Kullu in the 1850s and 60s); he had gifted it to the Mackays when he went back to Scotland around 1875-76.

  • Aani by Reverend Marcus Carleton of the American Presbyterian Mission

Rev. Carleton (1825-1898) planted the orchard in the 1880s. A small jam & marmalade factory was functioning here around 1907 and their products were popular among the British families of Shimla.

  • Banjar (Tesildar’s garden), in the late 1880s

In the early days the favoured varieties of apples and pears were: Pippins (French), Dempster’s Pippin, Cox’s Orange Pippin (both English), Newtown Pippin (American), Russet apples; Marie Louise, Seckel, and Williams (Bartlett) pears.

The growers always tried to improve their orchards; experimenting with cuttings from each other’s gardens, and also with strains from England and America. Alan H. Lee, capt. Lee’s son, introduced persimmons (called Japani by locals), and some other varieties of plum, peach, apple from Japan and other countries. Sub-temperate climate and the fertile soil of Kullu allowed them to grow every kind of fruit and vegetable they were accustomed to in England.

William ‘Willie’ Donald’s trade card, early twentieth century (Chetwode: 1972).

At first, the settlers grew enough for their own consumption, and if there was a surplus, they would sell it in the local market or to the Lahoulis. But, by the mid 1880s, they started to export the fruits (fresh and dried); thus the Kullu Fruit Industry emerged. The nearest and ready market back then was Shimla, 225 kilometres away.

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Initially the fruits were transported to Shimla by mules and relays of coolies via Jalori–Luhri–Narkanda–Shimla route. But it was unprofitable for the gardeners. Then, a more cost-effective alternative was suggested by Mr. Banon of Manali―the parcel post. The postage rate at that time was 2 annas per lb (about ₹1 per 3.6 kg).

The probable postage routes (in orange) drawn on the base map of Forbes (1911).

The fruit parcels were first off transported, by a relay system of harkaras or mail-runners, to Palampur via Bhubhu Pass, and thence by dak-tonga to Shimla via Pathankot. After the commencement of Shimla Railway in 1903, the fruits were transported from Pathankot to Shimla via rail.

A harkara हरकारा (Gore: 1895)

Parcel post was a success and fruit industry of Kullu thrived. In the heydays of the fruit season as many as 200 harkaras were employed at each stage of the 90 miles (about 145 kilometres) postal route to Palampur, and this distance they used to do within less than 24 hours. Each harkara carried fruit parcels weighing a total of 40 lb (5 parcels weighing 8 lb each); so, at the height of the fruit season roughly 3.6 metric tonne (40 lb × 200) fruits were sent to Shimla. By 1910, over 17,000 fruit parcels (estimating to 62 metric tonnes) were being exported yearly from Rennick’s orchards alone; there were at least five other estates in the fruit business at that time.

There was a great demand for Kullu fruits, especially apples and pears, at all the major British stations in India. The apples and pears from Kullu even won many first prizes at various fruit shows and exhibitions in those olden days.

However, due to surplus produce, lack of transportation, and far-off market, a large part of the produce went waste every year; particularly vegetables and soft fruits that couldn’t afford the several days journey to Shimla or further.

A. H. Diack (Settlement Officer, 1887-91) said in the Kangra Gazetteer (1897):

“… At present a great part of the yield of apples and pears remains unsold on account of unfitness to bear a journey of many days’ duration, and for the same reason there is no market for vegetables or for the more perishable fruits–peaches, plums, apricots and cherries–which are produced in Kulu of a quality scarcely surpassed over in England…”

Opening of Larji-Mandi gorge road (1927) and the Kangra Valley Railway (1929) improved the situation somewhat. But then again, the rain and floods frequently halted the road transportation.

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G. D. Khosla, in his 1956 book, thus wrote about the conundrum:

“The Mandi-Pathankot route is long and commercially unprofitable for the transport of goods. The portion of the road between Mandi and Out is frequently closed by landslides during the monsoons, so in the months of July and August when fruit is ripe and ready for export, there is often no means of sending it out. Every year about a third of the total fruit crop of the valley rots and goes waste in this manner.”

The British also taught gardening techniques–grafting & budding–to some of the natives; so as to get them grow fruits, and teach others as well. Though, it wasn’t until the later 1920s, when the natives also took to produce fruits on a commercial level. Up to then, the British gardeners had a monopoly in the fruit industry.

Padha Bansi Lal Vatsyayen was the first local to start an orchard at Seu-Bag (lit. garden of apple), following him was Basant Mal Salhuria (a.k.a. Basant Mal Sood) at Haripur, in the early 30s.

With time new varieties of apples, pears, and other fruits were introduced. Red and Royal Delicious apples; Bartlett pears; Santa Rosa plums; Elberta peaches; New Castle apricots became and still are favourites for the commercial production.

By the time India got independence, most of the settlers in Kullu sold out their properties and went back to England. The Minnikens sold their whole estate to a local named Durga Dass around 1945-46. A few like the Johnsons, the Banons and the Donalds stayed. Of these three the Donald family, survived by two sisters, also returned to England in 1952.

At present, descendants of only one of the early orchardists live in Kullu, the Banons of Manali. They still grow fruits in their inherited orchards and have also developed successful tourism business. Their ancestral villas turned heritage hotels are quite popular among the English tourists.


Sources

Banon, H. M. (1952). Fifty Years in Kulu. The Himalayan Journal, Vol.17.

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Calvert, J. (1873). Vazeeri rupi, the silver country of the vazeers, in Kulu: Its beauties, antiquities, and silver.

Chetwode, P. (1972). Kulu: The end of the habitable world.

Diack, A. H. (1899). Gazetteer of the Kangra District, parts II to IV, Kulu, Lahul and Spiti, 1897.

Forbes, M. C. (1911). To Kulu and back: With list of routes, shooting regulations, and rules regarding coolies, supplies, rest-houses etc.

Gore, F. S. J. (1895). Lights & Shades of Hill Life in the Afghan and Hindu Highlands of the Punjab.

Harcourt, A. F. (1872). The Himalayan districts of Kooloo, Lahoul and Spiti.

Kayastha, S. L. (1964). The Himalayan Beas Basin: A study in habitat, economy, and society.

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Kaura, N. R. (1965). Development of Fruit Industry in Kulu. Punjab Horticultural Journal, Vol. 5.

Khosla, G. D. (1956). Himalayan circuit: The story of a journey in the Inner Himalayas.

Lyall, J. B. (1874). Report of the land revenue settlement of the Kangra District, Panjab, 1865-72.

Randhawa, M. S. (1980, 1882, 1983, 1986). A history of agriculture in India: Vol. I, II, III, IV

Shuttleworth, H. L. (1922). Border countries of the Punjab Himalaya.

Singh, Bachittar (1946). Fruit Industry of the Kulu Valley. The Punjab Fruit Journal, Vol. X (40).

Singh, T. (1989). The Kulu valley: Impact of tourism development in the mountain areas.

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