Making of an Apple Orchard House

The new orchard house in snow. Two decades ago it used to snow a lot more than this. Today one is lucky to have even this amount of snowfall in the orchards.


Following is an account , published in Mail Today, of the construction of my  house in Himachal . 

When my father said he wanted to build a house in the orchards, I was surprised. What’s wrong with this one I said?  We already had an orchard house. Though the   house was a bit unplanned- with no attached toilets or modular kitchen, it was still  beautiful.  It was in the middle of our apple orchards .  It was glazed on three sides and had a spacious lounging area running  around it. The kitchen was the old pahari-style, complete with a chulla where we burnt firewood to warm our hands and sometimes cook. The house had a huge gable with a  spacious living room below it  and an attic with splendid view of the apple  valley.

But my father was not satisfied. He wanted something modern.  Something he had seen in the cities. He had imagined it all- : a  big brick and mortar house near the roadside with two huge iron gates-  (an entry and an exit gate for the car  he said).  A house with marble flooring, jacuzzi toilets, ornate staircases and arched corridors.  A modular kitchen with a victorian fireplace replacing the good old  chulla. In short everything our present house was not. My father’s mind was made. The new house had to be built. He could not be persuaded especially since most of our relatives and neighbors in the area had made or had started making new houses.

The Baghi -Ratnari belt in Shimla district where we have  our orchards, is especially favorable for apple crop. It is  located at 2400 meters above sea level and is about 80kms from Shimla. It has  just the right altitude, the right temperature and the right soil for apple cultivation. The orchardists have flourished here in a relatively very  short time and the only way to show new wealth in this remote place is  either by buying expensive SUV’s or making fancy houses. But the new houses built here are modeled more on houses in Punjabi Bagh Delhi than on  indigenous pahari motifs. Rococo ornate style is in and the local simplistic pahari architecture is out. My father was naturally influenced by the trend of the day.

The old abandoned orchard house in winter. (sanjay austa austa)

Our old abandoned orchard house

And then he threw the volley. Our old orchard house would have to be demolished to get building material for the new one. That’s when I protested.   You can make the new house I said but don’t pull down the old one.  What will you do with this stodgy old house he wanted to know.  I told him it could be a tourist attraction. People who appreciated it better could perhaps take it on rent.  I explained, how holiday makers were fed up of congested hill stations that had all the problems of the cities they had come from.  I told him how they sought  peace and quite. And how village and nature tourism was catching up.  But why will anyone come to this godforsaken place he exclaimed throwing his arms at the huge mountains around us. I live in the city but for the sixty years of his existence, my father had woken up with these mountains framed in   his windows.  They were not going to impress him at this point in his life.

I put out an advertisement in the papers about the house and soon enough had dozens of people calling up. Some of them drove  all the way to see the house.  For them, the idea of living in a house with apples hanging outside the bedroom window was as exotic a fantasy they had ever conjured.  Some of them offered us rental for a room that is the going rate for a two bedroom house in South Delhi. My father was puzzled and the old house was saved.

The foundation stone of our new house was laid. This new orchard house was a compromise between my father’s modern flashy design and the simple plain architecture I had in mind. We could have our modular kitchen, modern bathrooms, the staircase and the fireplace but without any embellishments. The houses in the hills are predominately wooden. The forests provide the wood which helps keep the house warm in  winters.  Apart from the doors and the windows, the wood is used extensively for the ceiling, flooring and paneling.

Houses were built together in a cluster in the villages. Some of these houses are more than a century old but are now abandoned for the plush new houses build in the orchards. (sanjay austa austa)

Misty past? Earlier houses were built together in a cluster to make a village. Some of these houses are more than a century old but are now abandoned for the plush new houses built in the orchards.

Because so much wood is used there is a tendency to carve it.  A simple plank of wood is not considered beautiful unless you have grooves running down it or some design embellished on it.  The carpenters were happy with my father who let them do all that.  But it took a lot of dissuading from me to stop them from doing so.

Making a house in the hills is not only an expensive proposition but a logistical nightmare. Most of the raw material for the foundation- the sand, the bricks, the stones, the iron has to be brought from the cities.  Even delicate bathroom tiles and mirrors come in  trucks and breakages cannot  be avoided in the  winding and bumpy hill road.

Since goods come from so far away there is no luxury to buy one thing at a time to see how it goes with the house. If one is shopping for the bathrooms you have to buy all the tiles and the fittings together. If you are shopping for the lighting you have to pick everything in one go. There is always something that doesn’t match and doesn’t fit.  One has to go all the way to city to  make the replacement.

The carpenters and the masons are not as efficient as you have them in the cities. Most of them are from plains and have little knowledge about hill architecture.  They are especially wanting when it comes to making the sloping roofs we have in hill houses.

The local architect is however the least of the problems.   In these parts were everyone knows everyone, the architect becomes almost a family member.  Over time our  architect Promod became less an architect and more a family hand. He not only helped us design the house but would also be at our beck and call for any errands. He did it all from fixing my laptop to being our key- keeper for our Shimla house.

The house in the first snow of winter. (sanjay austa austa)

The new orchard house in the first winter snow.

The new house was made in almost three years. It is a good time since construction has to be suspended for almost four months between  November and February because of snowfall.

In summers life in the orchards is good. The weather is just right and it’s the time when the apple crop is blooming. The fragrance of the ripening apples wafting in through the windows is a heady feeling.  This sleepy place suddenly becomes brisk.  The bees buzz around the blossoming flowers. Frisky butterflies and birds dash around for the nectar and the worm. There is  fresh new grass in the meadows.  The  labourers  pluck  and grade apples singing soulful Himachali ballads.

Winters are fun but only if you are a tourist. The permanent residents here like my parents have braved them for all their lives to care about the pretty  scenery.  The temperatures go well below zero and one has to constantly worry about heating, quilts, warm clothes and not catching the cold. You have to leave the tap dripping so the water pipes don’t freeze overnight. The electricity can snap for over a week if the snow breaks  the cables or pulls down an electricity pole.

The house in the hills is made with winters in mind. It is ideally built around the movement of the sun so that it is facing the sun at all times. The kitchen where the hill-folk spend most of the time should have a lot of sunlight coming in.  Apart from our individual ideas we tried to  incorporated these basic rules in the new house. And between me and my father we are more or less satisfied.

Pretending to read in the new kitchen. (sanjay austa austa)

Me pretending to read in the kitchen of the new house.

 

 (sanjay austa austa)

Winters first snowfall in 2012

 

Harvesting of apples in an orchard in Kotkhai - Shimla (sanjay austa austa)

Apple harvest season in the orchards.

36 Responses to “Making of an Apple Orchard House”

  1. Anil says:

    Heaven on earth!

  2. Shalini says:

    Wow!! Austa….sounds so interesting…..Tell uncle I want to take the old house :)

  3. rohini says:

    beautiful!

  4. Vidya says:

    What a lovely description, Sanjay. Maintains the line between the personal and the objective just right. I’d love to stay in the old house if I ever come to those parts for a break. :)

  5. Ritu says:

    Very well written. Would be keen to explore your old house as well.

  6. You’re so so lucky. A cityboy always dreams of one of these. Its a silly dream of mine to get one of these built for myself ( eer moolah being the only current constraint) . Anyways, I shall now go back to the mundane necessities of life…working so that one day , i can have a similar house…:((. Love the story though, keep at it..good that you (you’re dad) didn’t sell it

  7. Nusrat says:

    Sanjay, both houses look great!!! I want to visit this place in winter, lets make a plan when you have time.

  8. Vincent Nameirakpam says:

    BOTH THE HOUSES LOOK AWESOME NOW… I JUST REMEMBER STAYING IN ONE OF THE HOUSES DURING THE PUJAH BREAK..:D

  9. Abhilash Chaudhary says:

    Well u did well by keeping things simple…uncarved wood has a raw appeal and it looks more natural. You could have all the luxuries inside and still you could have sticked a little to local slate roofs. Anyway your house looks good and your village is beautiful.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Abhilash. I agree the raw wood has its own appeal. The slate roofs are good but are hard to come by. They are therefore very expensive compared to the corrugates sheets we use in the roofs nowadays.

  10. D says:

    Your new place looks amazing Sanjay (as well as the glimpse of the old house). Congratulations on the completion of the new house. For people from the desert plains, the hills and the seas have always held fascination. Hopefully will get to see the orchards in HP some day!

  11. vibhuti says:

    Just mind blowing :)

  12. Manu Katyaayan says:

    Hi Sanjay, nice house yaar ! I must say, lucky you to live and grow up on hills. Honestly, I’m a bit jealous because the everything about the surroundings look amazing. Congratulations brother for having newly built chambers in the heavenly abode.. :-P

  13. narendra kaushik says:

    Great Sanju. You have retained the writing style I tried to copy from long back. still had to run to dictionary every now and then. gable etc. used it, so will remember it for all times to come. ha…ha..ha.. but where do you get the patience from to work on photographs?

    best wishes,
    narendra

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thank you Narendra. Ha ha.. it is humbling for me to hear that. Appreciate it. But you are a fine writer yourself. As for patience – I think both writing and photography requires it in equal measure.

  14. Bhupinder says:

    just want to ask you may be you know can i buy also one house hier in himachal on somewhere on hill side i live in abroad in europe . we plan to come back in india , im from punjab .thank you

  15. This was a wonderful post Austa! Loved your description of the apple harvest season in the hills, the smell of the apple blossoms, the sounds of the harvesters singing Himachali songs while enjoying their work. Also the tenets of Himachali architecture, with the movement of the sun being a critical component of design, made me think of sunny winter days with tons of sunlight streaming into the living room and kitchen. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

  16. Tabish Anwar shaikh says:

    Hope to explore this side of India someday…take care and thanks for sharing…

  17. m still keen to see d interiors of the old house :)

  18. BHUPINDER SINGH says:

    HI SAJAY
    LONG TIME BEFORE I HAD ASK ADVICE OVER TO BUY ONE HOUSE IN HIMACHAL . BUT NOW WE ARE COMING AGAIN TO INDIA ;AND I LIKE TO SEE YOU IF THIS IS POSSIBEL ? I WIL BE HAPPY TO GET FURTHER INFORMATION BECAUSE WE LIKE HIMACHEL TOO MUCH AND LIKE TO HAVE ONE HOUSE IN HIMACHAL SOMEWHERE IN HILL . I WIL BE VERY THANKFUL TO YOU IF YOU CAN MAKE FEW TIME FREE FOR US . WE WILL BE ARRIVED FIRST WEEK OF THE APRIL 2013 IN PUNJAB . HOPE TO SEE YOU LATER .
    BHUPINDER SINGH

  19. Arpit says:

    Magically beautiful :)

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