Enjoying an apple after a nice lunch on a Sunday afternoon at Banjara Retreat Thanedhar, I wondered how many people in India know the wonderful journey of apples, all the way from North America to India.
The first apple tree in this country was planted by Capt. R.C. Lee of the British army in the Kullu valley way back in 1870.The apples he planted were the Newton Pippins, King of Pippin and the Cox s Orange Pippin, but unfortunately because of their sour and tangy taste the cultivation of these English varieties was not undertaken by the local farmers. Indians, who were used to traditional fruits like mangoes wanted something sweeter.
It was Mr. Stokes, who started commercial apple cultivation in India and transformed the economy of Himachal Pradesh from a poor backward state into the most prosperous horticulture state of the country.
Samuel Evans Stokes was born on 6 th August 1882 in Germantown, a Quaker suburb of Philadelphia. He graduated from Mohegan Lake Military academy in New York State in 1900 and joined Cornell University. Samuel Stokes was an active member of YMCA and took active part in social service. One day during a church congregation, he had a chance to listen to Dr Carlton, a physician who had dedicated his life for eradicating leperacy from India. The talk by Dr Carlton on the plight of lepers in India was so touching that it brought tears in young Stoke s eyes. This became a turning point in his life; he decided not to pursue his studies at Cornell any further but to join Dr Carlton. He along with the Carlton family set sail to India on 9 Jan 1904 and reached Bombay on 26 Feb 1904.
The Sabathu Leper Home located in the foot hills of Himachal Pradesh was set up by an American Presbyterian missionary Rev. Johan Newton in 1868. Dr Carlton and his wife use to run this Home and nurse the lepers who were disowned and discarded by society. It was here that Samuel Stokes started his illustrious and noble carrier of serving humanity. The sight of a disfigured leprosy patient was a shock to Samuel Stokes, but he did not fell any repugnance, he felt sympathy for these less fortunate children of God and worked hard to mitigate their suffering. He even adopted a four year old destitute Kirpa Ram whose descendants are today healthy and well settled. The area of operation of this Home was the whole of Punjab and Stokes along with Dr Carlton use to extensively tour the plains of Punjab.
The sultry heat of the Indian plains was too much for this you American youngster from Philadelphia. Samuel Stokes fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalized.
To recoup from his illness he was send up to Kotgarh, a small village perched on a mountain slope, overlooking river Satluj. The Britishers after defeating the forces of the Nepalese general Amar Singh Thapa in 1815 decided to set up a garrison at Kotgarh. In 1872 a church was built which is still used by the small Christian community of this area. This last outpost of the British Empire, situated on the Hindusthan Tibet mule track was frequented by travelers going up to Tibet. Rudyard Kipling called it The Mistress of The Hills and based one of his stories Lispeth on Kotgarh. Samuel Stokes fell in love with this place on first sight and as destiny would have it, few years down the line, he became the most reverend member of this area.
In 1905 there was a major earthquake in Kangra, an important town situated in the foothills of Himachal Pradesh. Samuel Stokes along with other voluntaries rushed to the earthquake site and helped the local authorities to resettle the earthquake victims. This devastating earthquake orphaned hundreds of children and rendered thousands homeless. Stokes being a noble soul, could not see the suffering of these orphans, he adopted five small children and later helped them settle in life.
Months of toil in Kangra valley had drained the energy from Samuel Stokes. In March 1906, he decided to go up to Kotgarh and lead a life of renunciation. He started dressing up like a sadhu and stayed in a cave, deep inside a forest. He would cook his food in an earthen pot, have a cold water bath in a stream flowing next to the cave and spend his day meditating and reading the New Testament. While staying at Kotgarh, he met a very interesting man, Sadhu Sunder Singh, who was born in an orthodox Sikh family but converted to Christianity early in life. He is reverend and has a large following amongst the north Indian Christians.
The Brotherhood of Imitation Of Jesus was formed by Stokes on the primitive Christian model .He followed the Franciscan ideal of service than the existing missionary ideal. He and his new found friend Sadhu Sunder Singh would go from village to village and preach the Bible, attired as sadhus. Apart from few conversions, they were not able to do much in an orthodox Hindu society.
In 1910 he got the news of his father’s death. He went back to the America to visit his family but was back by May 1911.On his return; he decided to leave the Brotherhood and lead a family life. .He married a local Christian girl Agnes.
Emma Matilda Bates, a widow of an English forest officer, owned a large tea estate at Thanedhar. Mrs. Bates wanted to sell her estate and go back to England. Stokes bought the estate with the intention of during farming. He conducted various experiments in hill farming, but ultimately he was convinced that only fruit growing could transform the economy of this region. In 1914 he went to America with soil samples of his estate and came back with five apple samplings of Red Delicious bought from the famous nursery growers- Stark Brothers of Louisiana.
Over the years he propagated and distributed these apple plants amongst the local farmers.
The transformation from primitive farming to modern apple cultivation was not easy. He motivated the farmers to improve their lot by growing this wonder fruit .Even the elementary school which he set up on his estate, for the local children, imparted training on various horticulture practices , so that the young children passing out from this school , would one day turn out to be exemplary horticulturists. He not only brought in an economic revolution by introducing apples cultivation in this country but also demonstrated that horticulture is the only solution for transforming the economy of the poor hill states of India. Bhutan and Nepal also benefited from this success story by introducing the progeny of these apples in their respective countries.
His contribution against the Begar movement is also legendry. He along with eminent people like Lala Bishan Dass, Munshi Kapur Singh and C.F.Andrews took up a passive resistance against the evil custom of Begar. It was an age old custom introduced by the native rulers. All subjects of the state had to render free labour to the governing powers like Jagirdars, native rulers and Britshers traveling in the area. It was due to the effort of people like Stokes that beggar was abolished by the Britishers on 23 August 1921.
Mahatma Gandhi under the aegis of the Indian National Congress launched the first Non-Cooperation movement on 1 August 1920. Like all nationalists of that era, Mr. Stokes heeded Mahatma Gandhi s call and joined the freedom movement. He became an active member of the congress party, and rose to become a member of the AICC and a close confident of Mahatma Gandhi. He along with Lala Lajpatrai represented Punjab as a delegate at the Nagpur Session of December 1920. On October 4 th 1921, a manifesto was signed by Mahatma Ghandi and forty seven other leading Nationalists defining the role of Indian civil servants and soldiers under the British government. Mr. Stokes was the only non-Indian to put his signatures to this historical document. Mahatma Gandhi decided to commemorate the first anniversary of the non-cooperation movement by burning foreign clothing at Parel Bombay. Mr.Stokes discarded and burnt his western attire and adopted khadi, which he continued to wear throughout his life. Mahatma Gandhi writes that -Stokes was the only American to have participated in India’s freedom struggle.
Samuel Stokes was always interested in theology. He believed that Christ’s message was infinitely more than what the church preached. He could not accept the orthodox view of Christ s message. To find out the true meaning and purpose of life, he started to read the Hindu scriptures. According to Stokes the Vedanta and Christian concept of salvation if taken together profoundly influenced and modify each other, the Christian experience will preserve individuality and Vedanta will demonstrate the essential unity of the spirit. On 4 th September 1932 he and his family embraced Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand. The writings of Maharishi Swami Dayanand, the founder of Arya Samaj had a lasting impression on Stokes. He became an Arya Samaji and built an Arya Samaj temple on his estate, known as the Paramjyotir Temple.
When he died in on 14 May 1946, the apple production in Himachal Pradesh had already touched 15000 boxes.
Although his portrait adorns the walls of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library- New Delhi, but very few people outside Himachal Pradesh are aware about the legacy of this great man, who has been rightly bestowed with the title of The Economic Emancipator of The Hills.