At a time when America appears lost, and its leadership continues its reckless bid for global supremacy, it is interesting to recall the story of the only American who participated in India’s freedom struggle and was imprisoned by the British-Indian government. He gave up Western clothes and donned home-spun Khadi dress.
A highly impressed Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his Young India: “No Indian is giving such battle to the (British-Indian) Government as Mr. Samuel Evans Stokes Jr. He has veritably become the guide, philosopher and friend of the hill men.”
Born into a famous American Quaker family (and son of a Philadelphia millionaire), Samuel Evans Stokes Jr. made India his home when he was only 21. He turned into a political activist. Stokes is also credited with the introduction of “American Delicious variety” of apples in Shimla Hills, which resulted in many significant social and economic changes in the region.
On Stokes’ arrest 17 years after his arrival in India, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “That he (Stokes) should feel with and, like an Indian, share his sorrows and throw himself into the (freedom) struggle, has proved too much for the (British-Indian) government. To leave him free to criticize the government was intolerable, so his white skin has proved no protection for him…”
Stokes’ portrait adorns the walls of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library at New Delhi (a building where India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru lived), but few people outside India’s northern State of Himachal Pradesh are aware about the legacy of this great man.
Better known by his Indian name “Satyanand” Stokes, he arrived in India in 1904. Kotgarh in Shimla Hills, overlooking Satluj river, became his new home. It was the last outpost of the British Empire, situated on the Hindustan-Tibet mule track. Rudyard Kipling described the area as “The Mistress of The Hills”, and based one of his stories “Lispeth” on Kotgarh. Stokes soon became the most loved and respected member of this area.
Stokes’ journey to India began on January 9, 1904, when he boarded the old Haverford at Philadelphia, writes his granddaughter, Asha Sharma, in her book An American in Gandhi’s India. “Little did he know this would be a journey of no return. His destination was Subathu, a small town in Shimla Hills, to work in a leper home.
“Among the crowds of friends and relatives assembled to bid goodbye to ‘Sam’ were his father, Samuel Evans Stokes, Sr., engineer, holder of numerous patents, successful businessman, pioneer of elevators in America, and founder and proprietor of Stokes and Parish Machines Company in Philadelphia; his mother Florence Spencer Stokes, a devout Christian, devoted mother, an American proud of her heritage and family values: his brother Spencer,20; and sisters Anna, 19; and Florence, 14.”
After a short stay in England where he met leading personalities working among leprosy patients in India, Stokes began his India journey aboard “Olympia” in February 1904 and headed towards Shimla Hills. He travelled extensively in Punjab to learn about leprosy work there. Although he himself came as a missionary to spread Christianity, he was soon disillusioned by the work and lifestyle of the missionaries, and differences arose. (See here..)
The story of how a “Sahib” Stokes became a “Sadhu” (ascetic mendicant) Stokes is equally fascinating … He grew a beard, wore a saffron choga (a loose cloth) and hemp slippers on his feet. His austere belongings were a blanket, lota, and a degchi to cook food and eat in. Stokes’ family was distraught to get the news of his new life. But more distraught were the Christian missionaries in and around Kotgarh.
Kotgarh was one of the few small pockets in hill areas of north India directly under British rule, surrounded by big Princely hill states (including my hometown – the Princely state of Nahan or Sirmaur). The British forces, invited by local hill Rajas and Maharajas to help repulse the attack from Gurkha army from Nepal, reached Kotgarh in 1814. In such small areas as Kotgarh, the British Political Agent to Hill States, Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy, wanted to help spread Christianity to win the loyalty of the locals.
Stokes arrived in Kotgarh at a time when local missionaries were tearing their hair because they could not make much headway
in conversion work. A handful of converted people were declared outcastes by the locals. With his sadhu’s attire and a different attitude, Stokes was welcomed by high caste families, including Rajputs and Brahmins. (See here…)
Stokes’ granddaughter Asha Sharma, who studied at Columbia University, gives a detailed and fascinating account of this legendary American-turned-Indian’s journey … from his childhood in America to his role as a leading member of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent freedom movement in India; from his ascetic life to his marriage to a local girl; from his pioneering work in treating leprosy patients to bringing about a horticulture revolution in hilly northern India.
To read Satyanand Stokes’ full story please click here…
Where do I fit into this narrative? My association with Kotgarh began when I was in school. I would visit my aunt in Kotgarh during my school/college summer holidays, providing much relief from the dust and heat of Delhi. My aunt was married into a local Rajput family who were leading apple growers in the area.
Her husband, Govind Ram Bhalaik’s two sisters were married to Prem Chand Stokes and Pritam Chand Stokes, sons of Samuel Evans “Satyanand” Stokes. Hence the children of Prem and Pritam, the third-generation Stokes, were my contemporaries and, in a way, my second cousins. These families are highly talented and we used to have spirited discussions, and wonderful pahari food, at their home “Harmony Hall”, named after their ancestral home in America. (Here is a pictorial glimpse…)
I would often walk from Bhareri Estate, my aunt’s house (a spacious and elegant colonial mansion that once belonged to the British Political Agent during the East India Company rule), to the Stokes house at Thanedhar, a few kilometres away – with apple orchards on both sides of the road. The temple built by Stokes, after his conversion to Hinduism, overlooks the rolling hills around and has shlokas written on the walls.
Almost all among the third-generation male members of the Stokes’ immediate family have returned to America. But many of them do return to the land of their legendary grandfather who left all the luxury in America to work among the poorest of the poor … and sincerely believed in the dignity of human life and freedom.
Swaraaj Chauhan describes his two-decade-long stint as a full-time journalist as eventful, purposeful, and full of joy and excitement. In 1993 he could foresee a different work culture appearing on the horizon, and decided to devote full time to teaching journalism (also, partly, with a desire to give back to the community from where he had enriched himself so much.)
Alongside, he worked for about a year in 1993 for the US State Department’s SPAN magazine, a nearly five-decade-old art and culture monthly magazine promoting US-India relations. It gave him an excellent opportunity to learn about things American, plus the pleasure of playing tennis in the lavish American embassy compound in the heart of New Delhi.
In !995 he joined WWF-India as a full-time media and environment education consultant and worked there for five years travelling a great deal, including to Husum in Germany as a part of the international team to formulate WWF’s Eco-tourism policy.
He taught journalism to honors students in a college affiliated to the University of Delhi, as also at the prestigious Indian Institute of Mass Communication where he lectured on “Development Journalism” to mid-career journalists/Information officers from the SAARC, African, East European and Latin American countries, for eight years.
In 2004 the BBC World Service Trust (BBC WST) selected him as a Trainer/Mentor for India under a European Union project. In 2008/09 He completed another European Union-funded project for the BBC WST related to Disaster Management and media coverage in two eastern States in India — West Bengal and Orissa.
Last year, he spent a couple of months in Australia and enjoyed trekking, and also taught for a while at the University of South Australia.
Recently, he was appointed as a Member of the Board of Studies at Chitkara University in Chandigarh, a beautiful city in North India designed by the famous Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier. He also teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students there.
He loves trekking, especially in the hills, and never misses an opportunity to play a game of tennis. The Western and Indian classical music are always within his reach for instant relaxation.
And last, but not least, is his firm belief in the power of the positive thought to heal oneself and others.