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Hidden jewel of Himalayas

Hidden jewel of Himalayas
Aligning my fingers alike a revolver, I placed them lightly on both inner and outer sides of the clay wall I had just created. The yielding and slightly textured feel of the clay tingled my senses as I played with one of the four elements of earth.

“Be soft and handle it with love ….” Jugal ji, the manager of Andretta Pottery, advised me, while guiding my muddied novice hands. And within minutes a raw spiral bowl took shape making me almost feel like God! Like a child I kept looking at my first pottery creation, now lined atop a wooden table kept to dry.  It was my first day of the spiritual tour to Andretta, a quaint village  and artists’ colony in Himachal Pradesh, nestled quietly against the backdrop of the mighty Dhauladhar range of mountains.

Merely a month back, a post on my Facebook page appeared with an invite to a getaway, with an image of a monastery against a blue mountain and a mud house. Partly because I was curious about the name ‘Andretta’ and partly bugged with a mid-life crisis, this escape of three days seemed more of a need than a luxury, and I confirmed promptly. It promised a home-stay with a meditation session, a day in Sherabling monastery and a group of 15 women travelling on their own. The last bit initiated mixed emotions of gaiety, apprehension, indulgence and freedom. I so wanted to do this! To be able to steal myself away from known faces, a known city and home and family responsibilities for a while, seemed exhilarating.

A foreign name for an Indian village, Andretta is not known to many, including a police officer on duty just an hour away from the town. He looked bewildered when we asked for directions. Sleepy and tired following an overnight train journey and then a bumpy taxi ride from Pathankot, we reached Andretta in the wee hours of a cloudy morning. As we neared our destination, well-trimmed tea gardens on both sides of the road reminded us that we were in the Kangra valley, the tea capital of Northern India. At nearly 1,000 metres above sea level, the fresh, cold and unpolluted air smelled of mist, mud, fresh flowers and raw leaves. The first thing I did was to inhale oodles of oxygen.

Turning right from the S Shoba Singh Art gallery we took a narrow twisting road that brought us to a small fenced gate from where we climbed a yet narrower cobbled path lined by trees, to reach our homestay, The mirage, a beautiful mud house restored and run by charming New Zealander Denis Haarap and his beautiful French wife.

Right across an alluring facade of creepers and flowers and an organic setup of earthy cottages and gardens arranged along the hillside was waiting an amazing welcome drink of the local Bageshwari tea. Sweetened by jaggery, an unusual yet very tasty combination, it perked up our tired soul and body perfectly. In no time we found ourselves settled and admiring our mud rooms furnished with colourful rugs and equally bright curtains. It was a museum of handpicked Indian furniture and artifacts, with the Dhauladhar range visible from our room.

It was pretty obvious that Denis, the owner, had used all his designing skills in complementing the natural surrounding with an awesome collection of ethnic and earthy Himalayan pieces, providing a serene atmosphere for meditation. “Close your eyes and take a deep breath!” were the regular words that our meditation sessions started with. But what followed was neither regular nor mundane. Because, unlike many spiritual retreats I attended, the days were not loaded with meditation sessions. Instead, I experienced numerous other ways of meditating and healing with love, while enjoying the bounties of nature and life all around me.

We meditated while having the organic food cooked by the pahari wife of the pahari manager. We meditated while walking down the hills. We meditated on the pottery wheel. We meditated viewing the amazing paintings of Sardar Shobha Singh. We meditated sharing our lives with fourteen other absolutely unknown persons.

Situated near Palampur in the Kangra District, Andretta, over the years has attracted many noted artists, theatre practitioners, painters and more recently potters. How blessed the village of Andretta is can be accessed by the fact that a village that just runs on two sides of a narrow street, saw a fair number of eminent artists and writers take refuge in this serene valley with the Himalayas as a backdrop. Khushwant Singh described this place thus, “This is where drama, painting, pottery and writing marry.” Andretta Pottery itself carries its legacy from the father of pottery in India, Sardar Gurucharan Singh. His son Mansimran Singh, fondly known as Mini, and his British wife Mary Singh, chose this magical village to set up Andretta Pottery and Craft Society, and his studio now attracts students from all parts of the world.

Andretta was once known as “Mem da Pind”. And the “Mem” in question was Norah Richard, an Irish theatre artiste and environmentalist, whose love of theatre and Indian culture made her adopt this village after she shifted here from Lahore. Perhaps Andretta’s freshly snow-capped Dhauldhar range and green dew-laden Shivalik hills that sparkled in the sun reminded her of her beloved Ireland or the Italian village from where it got its name. Also called the Nani of Punjabi theatre, she built a charming, Kangra style, single-storey mud and bamboo house named “Chameli Niwas.” The emerald greenery surrounding the villa, dotted with bamboo thickets and colourful rhododendron shrubs, enhance its magical beauty. She also built a makeshift proscenium, and invited Punjabi theatre amateurs and professionals to perform plays. The little theatre, once frequented by young Prithiviraj Kapoor is still run by Punjabi university students. Every year on October 29, Norah’s birthday, they enact plays under the stars for the villagers.

Norah Richards, obsessed with the idea of turning the small Kangra Valley hamlet into an artists’ village extended invitations to several artistes to come and settle here. On her call, artists like B C Sanyal, Freda Bedi, Sardar Shobha Singh, Sardar Gurucharan Singh and the like, helped her to turn Andretta into an Artists’ hub. With the help of famous artist B C Sanyal, she formed the Norah centre for arts.

Grow More Good, reads the entrance to the S Shoba Singh Art Gallery. I pondered over the three words that said so many things. And inside the gallery I actually witnessed how the famous painter grew so much good through his magic paintbrush. His iconic paintings of Sohini Mahiwal, the Gaddi girl, Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Ghandhi and Guru Nanak (Hand Raised in Blessing) adorned the walls of the museum. And when I heard that every year, in memory of the great artist, an on-the-spot painting competition for local school children is held followed by a langar, I wished I were a child!
One can easily tour the town and surrounding attractions within a day, making Andretta a great option as an extension trip. But, you can also spend more time if you have a strong arty side, as each artist’s abode there has numerous exceptional stories, full of passion for their art and this place.

The evening concluded perfectly with a sumptuous pumpkin soup, farm fresh salad, pesticide-free, brown rice, locally grown organic vegetables, a lip-smacking Aubergine bake and an irresistible French dessert, which the lady cook had learned from her French memsahib. All served at a charming family style dining room with a fireplace, some antique furniture and a piano. Full of thoughts, feelings and experiences, we chatted till we felt sleepy and never missed the idiot box in our rooms. From no house in Andretta did we ever hear any TV blaring peppy item numbers. The only sound audible was that of rustling leaves, twittering birds and nature humming. It was a wonderful reverie, morning, noon, and night. I was loving it! Andretta Pottery centre also offers inexpensive homestays.

About 30 km away, the town of Bir was our next destination. Early morning, as our vehicle meandered through the hills and we crossed the eight large white stupas at the entrance of the road to Palpung Sherabling, a wonderful feeling of peace descended on my heart. The numerous arrays of white and coloured prayer flags waved merrily, showering blessings to all the travellers amidst the pine trees and greeted us at the Monastic seat of the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche.

Aware it was my last day in Andretta, I quietly escaped from prying eyes and walked up the hills to a serene place. Perching myself on a rock I looked around to soak up once again the beautiful abundance of nature open to one and all. There could not have been a better spiritual journey, than in such a lush and un-touristy place, that brought me one step closer to myself.
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