All of India is crisscrossed with mystical meridians – something like ley-lines, which trace the paths of the “earth forces”. Wherever these intersect, it is believed that the place is sacred and powerful. Shrines have always stood at such places, sometimes built over the other, as centuries melt one into another.

A mere 300 years ago, in the lower hills of Himachal Pradesh in north India, a warrior clan that ruled these parts, built a village to honour their Queen, Prag Devi. They chose a spot geometrically equidistant to three important Shakti (Primordial Energy) temples. There is a deeply symbolic story about these three temples. Long ago, when the earth was young, Parvati, the Great Goddess, immolated herself in a fit of indignant rage. Her husband, Shiva the Destroyer, in an agony of grief, carried her charred body in his arms and danced the terrifying Dance of Destruction until all creation quaked. Parvati’s disintegrating body fell to the earth, and wherever a piece fell, the earth became charged with Parvati’s dazzling primordial power.

There are 52 such Shakti temples in India – three of which are here in these hills. Brajeshwari where her breasts fell; Chintpurni, her feet; and Jwalaji, her flaming tongue – where even today, blue flames lick from fissures in a rock, much to the puzzlement of the Oil & Natural Gas Commission which can locate no gases in the area.

Pragpur village, named after Queen Prag, stands in the auspicious centre of a triangle formed by these miraculous temples. It’s a well-chosen spot in the pretty Kangra Valley – covered over with forest, neither too high nor too low, and salubrious all through the year. What is truly miraculous about Pragpur is that it’s India’s first and only UNESCO-designated “Heritage Village” – a tiny settlement of well-preserved 16th-century mansions, arches and temples set along winding cobbled lanes.

India has typically been dismissive of its monumental heritage, so in Pragpur, it’s heartening to see the pride the village folk take in their carefully preserved and restored homes. It’s an intriguing mix of architectural styles – Rajasthani stone fretwork, British colonial wood-shuttered windows and weather-cocks, wood-baked pink bricks from Punjab and the slate-topped sloped roofs of the Himachal hills. The disparate elements chronicle the story of the prosperous merchant community that built the village and who continue to rule affairs.

Staying in Pragpur is a restful and gentle contact with Village India, set against a medieval canvas. That, and then there are the magnetic vibrations from the three temples to tune your inner soul. Pragpur is a small village of just a thousand. The most important house here is Judge’s Court, a turn-of-the- century country mansion once owned by a judge of the Lahore High Court. Vijai Lal, his grandson, who lives here with his wife Rani, tells us that the choice of site and the design of the house was done in accordance with the principles of Vaastu – an ancient Hindu building code, which when followed, will harness the energies of the elements to benefit of the occupants of the house. Over drinks that evening, it certainly felt so. The Lals’ warm and elegant drawing-room with a crackling fire in the grate; a mellow Himachali wine sipped between nibbles of crisp, roasted roti; our hosts’ wise and thoughtfully enunciated conversation, the kind that flows from lives well-observed and deeply-absorbed, the kind that makes you realise that youth is overrated.

Lunch is served under a spreading mango and sometimes a village-boy will drop by to play on his flute while you put away quantities of Mrs Lal’s delicious spread. An afternoon well spent would be one where you appropriate a garden bench and let the Kangra sun act on you like a general anaesthesia. It causes you to go under instantaneously and awake half an hour later craving a cup of Darjeeling’s finest. The Kangra Valley produces its own tea, a wonderfully fragrant liquor second only to Darjeeling as Europe’s favourite chai. And there’s no better place to drink Kangra tea than here in the Lals’ orchard garden, where the fragrance from the old camphor and cinnamon trees fills the air, and where the quiet is so deep that even the sound of your spoon stirring the teacup is too loud.

Pragpur village is built around an old water tank that dates back to 1881, into which water trickles from a tiger-mouth spout. Old ladies arrive with their knitting for their daily dose of gossip. Young girls on their way to college walk briskly by, holding the books to their chests. They wear tight-fitted salwar-kameez (long shirts with loose pyjamas) with long chiffon scarves draped over their shoulders; long dark plaits swing down their backs and silver anklets tinkle on the cobbled stones.

Pragpur is prosperous, its people educated, but life is miraculously unaltered by the temptations of modern living. It is almost as though this little hill village has weighed its slow, quiet ways, its traditional architecture and its leafy green courtyards, against what the world has to offer – and has made its choice. The postman still reads out the locals’ mail in exchange for a tiny cup of sugary tea.

It’s still possible to choose colourful wool from the local merchant and have old Bishambhari Devi, the weaver, make it up into a bright plaid blanket. It’s still possible to place an order for a soft pashmina shawl and watch the Hoshiar Singh, the pashmina man, stretch the warp on the handloom. It’s possible to spend a morning at the silversmith’s, bargaining cheerfully over old silver jewellery. The local astrologer/face reader/guide will invite you home for tea made by his pretty daughter while he attempts to decipher your marriage prospects. But if your planets are murky and unclear, he will refuse to accept your money. It’s possible to wheedle Mrs Lal of Judge’s Court to part with a small bottle of her home-made pickle to take home with you – or her matchless marmalades, wild honey and ghee (clarified butter) from the four cows that low tunefully in the pen. Pragpur has preserved these possibilities from the past, instead of trading them in cheaply for an easier but less satisfying present.

Change is coming to Pragpur – much of it under the aegis of the Lals – but in ways that buttress the Pragpur heritage. Government funding is being augmented by local contributions to restore homes, build a library and teahouse for senior citizens, set up solar lights, improve drainage and sanitary facilities, and set up a herbal garden to preserve traditional healing and even a Sanskrit university in nearby Garli.

A two-kilometre walk away, Garli is Pragpur’s sister village and is part of the same heritage zone. The old mansions here, built by the prosperous Sood community, are an eccentric mix of local and British colonial styles with stained glass built into mud-brick edifices, and weathercocks and chimney-turrets on slate rooftops. The Pragpur homes show a strong Rajasthani influence in their carved wooden lintels, and latticework in metal and brick. The painstaking brickwork with thin wafers of unclad brick shows a level of refinement unusual for a village sensibility. The wealthy Soods, conscious of staying on the right side of the gods, built many temples on nearby hilltops and on the banks of the Beas. And when their prosperity tempted hungry, wandering ghosts, the exorcist at Baba Bharwagh temple made short shrift of those. The temple is still hugely popular for exorcisms.

The Lals are deeply involved in community work, and villagers keep dropping by to discuss and consult, or merely to share a smoke. Even as she hosts her guests at a candle-lit table set with fine, hand-embroidered table linen and plies them with fine wines, what really animates Mrs Lal is her meeting with the block-development officer and the village sarpanch (headman) over water-management initiatives. Her great grandfather-in-law’s old mansion, thrumming with the vibrations of good vaastu, is a doorway into an interior India. A tiny fragment of India held in suspension at the fulcrum of the old and the new. Held there perhaps, by the power of Shakti’s trihedral energies.


Judge’s Court – 3/44 Shanti Niketan, New Delhi 110 021, India, tel 91 11 2411 2223, email [email protected]

Rates start from US$53 (single occupancy) with breakfast, US$56 (double occupancy), US$66 (single) full board and US$82 (double).