Those who hail from the fairy-tale hamlet of Harsil must be well acquainted with the tale of Frederick E. Wilson who was the first Englishman to permanently settle in the Bhagirathi valley. Wilson didn’t had a single penny with him, when he headed to Harsil but as fate may have it he soon became the richest man in the northern India and was happily married to a beautiful Pahari girl called ‘Gulabi’.
The chronicle of Frederick E. Wilson also known as ‘Pahari Wilson’ or ‘Raja Wilson’ is often narrated by the locals of Harsil who has kept his adventurous spirit alive with their tales. The young Frederick E. Wilson was an adventure enthusiast who deserted the British Army after 1857 and escaped into the luscious beauty of Garhwal region. Frederick planned a meeting with the Raja of Harsil, seeking refuge from him. The Raja who was loyal to the British didn’t offer any help and asked him to leave. The grief-stricken Frederick didn’t had any other option than settling in the interior areas of the hills. So he resorted to Harsil, a quaint valley idyllically situated on the banks of Bhagirathi River and made his abode amidst the shade of the benedictory pines and tall oak trees.
As we see in Bollywood movies an Angrezi Babu marrying a beautiful Pahari girl, Wilson’s story was by far similar. Wilson was bewitched by the beauty of Raimatta with whom he got married but remained childless. Wilson was unhappy with the news as he was eagerly waiting to be a father, but as time passed by he soon diverted his mind and started focusing on his timber trade.
Chasing the invigorating winds and waking up to the calls of the chirpy birds were his daily schedule until he met a 16-year-old charming Pahari girl called ‘Sungrami’ nicknamed as Gulabi, whose cheeks had the blush of the scarlet rhododendrons that blossomed in the picturesque valley. He was captivated by her utmost beauty and got married to her. Gulabi hailed from the neighbouring village of Harsil called Mukhba. She bore Wilson’s three charming sons- Nathaniel, Charles, and Henry. The tales of three sons of Wilson are often recited by the locals who used to refer them by their local names- Nathhu, Charli Sahib, and Indri.
Wilson and his beloved Gulabi used to stay in the Wilson Cottage, a huge mansion built by him in the late 1850s, which is now left in ruins. The portraits of the lovely couple can be seen hanging on the rustic walls of his boutique forest bungalows located at Dharasu, Bhatwari, and Harsil. Wilson died in 1883. The couple who now rests in peace hasn’t been separated by death and are buried peacefully in the Camel’s Back Cemetery in Mussoorie.
Wilson’s rapidly growing timber trade made him a wealthy person and he soon earned a big name for giving employment to the locals. Wilson expanded his business and introduced apple seed, potato, and green bean in the region. The legacy that he left behind has become the cash crops of the region, which were earlier devoid of sustainable farming. The much beloved Wilson was praised by the locals and was bestowed with the title of “Raja Wilson”. The “Pahari” Wilson shared a great bond with the locals and was referred to as ‘Hulseyn Sahib’. He was generous to the locals and used to keep their larders full with meat and the excess of his hunting. But all of these efforts and generosity was given a cold shoulder by the priests of Mukhba village and Gangotri, who were skeptical about him and his hospitality. Soon after, the attitude of the locals changed and they used to disregard him. Though he made the remotest, Upper Tangnore region of Bhagirathi valley fertile and prosperous, still he couldn’t make the way to their hearts.
He not only introduced economy in the region but also built several bridges in the area, amongst which the 350 feet suspension bridge over Jadh Ganga at Bhaironghati is the most popular. Initially, the locals were petrified of walking over the quiver bridge. To remove the fear out of their minds, Wilson galloped on his Arab Grey Horse to make them believe that it was strong enough to be accessed. There is a famous local lore related to this incident that tells that during full moon night, Wilson can be seen galloping on his horse around the area where the bridge once stood.
The locals of Harsil still remember Wilson for his orchards which were laden with shiny red apples known as “Wilson Apples”. These apples were enough to lure the buyers who used to admire their lustre. Now these apples are sold by the locals to the pilgrims heading to Gangotri shrine.
As per the locals, Wilson had angered the regional deity, Lord Someshwar by hunting wild animals almost to extinction and exploiting the forests. Lord Someshwar then cursed him that his entire bloodline will vanish after a single generation and his three children would squander his fortune and once their life will come to full circle nobody will ever talk about them anymore. This curse came true as within a few decades of his death, Pahari Wilson was soon forgotten and his descendants were either dead or untraceable until Robert Hutchison decided to revive him in his latest book ‘The Raja of Harsil: The legend of Frederick ‘Pahari’ Wilson. “One thing is certain, within his lifetime Frederick E. Wilson became a legend throughout the Northwest provinces of British India.
In Garhwal, that legend lives to this day, even if Wilson has been forgotten by historians and is totally unknown in his home country”.