The loud noise of water woke me up in the middle of the night. I turned my groggy eyes towards the window–thunder, lightning and rain. It all seemed unfamiliar, including the bed and the room. Was I in a dream? No, the lightning said that I was in Palampur, safe in my cottage at The Lodge at Wah. I had come to explore the scenic Kangra region and my base was this homestay. By the time I recalled all this, my eyes were shut again.
The morning was clear. Far away, the snow-tipped magnificent Dhauladhar range shone in the clear sky. If we had wings, the flight to the mountains would take barely five minutes. Out of my charming cottage, past the flowers, humming bees, green shrubs and trees, I walked to the breakfast table where my host Nikhita Patel, who had trained the staff in hospitality, offered me some baked eggs and sandwiches. A hospitality professional, she ensured that all ran like clockwork and the food was farm to fork. The homestay manages to grow a lot of its own produce. A garden at the back has tomatoes, onions, geraniums, lemongrass and more. It is a part of the Wah Tea Estate, which is one of the older estates in this green town.
Among the bigger towns in Kangra Valley, Palampur gets its name from the local word, palum, which means water. The area was filled with streams and brooks, now there is the Neugal stream. The roots of the town go back to 1849 when Dr Jameson, superintendent of Botanical Gardens, introduced a tea bush from Almora here.
Once upon a time, Palampur was known as the tea capital of north India, but now it’s a dwindling industry here. Labour and migration to the cities being the major issues, Wah has helped workers build their small homes on the land and given them plots to grow vegetables. Women in the area work more than the men was the unofficial buzz. I did see many in the tea estate, the factory and the homestay. Wah also has its green houses, grows its own wheat and has plans to start a fruit orchard.
“Did the roof leak in the room last night?” asked the young owner Surya Prakash, who runs it with his wife Upasana Todi Prakash. The Lodge is actually a mud house and has been built with indigenous resources. The slates on the roof overlap and tend to slip during storms, letting water in sometimes, he explained. Luckily, I faced no such issue.
The idea of a homestay was dreamt up by his father, Deepak Prakash who was inspired by the lifestyle of the gaddi tribe in the region. Located in the village of Deogran, The Lodge is like an English cottage offering modern amenities. It is aesthetic and organic in many ways. Pine wood interiors, slate roofs, beds put on a mud platform, cotton curtains, and a garden full of veggies and herbs. “The doors come from the erstwhile Palampur court. The balcony of one of the cottages was the witness box,” said Prakash. There is an earthen oven for fresh pizzas, tandoor, along with trenches to cook the famous Kangra dham on firewood. Dham is a meal cooked in the temples of Himachal Pradesh, which made its way to celebrations. “It comprises 14 dishes and no rotis or non-vegetarian food. But we have added roti and chicken in our dham to suit the modern palate,” explained Patel. “It is also cooked the traditional way for our guests.”
The Prakash family owns over 500 acres of land in the area, out of which almost 250 acres are the tea gardens. “My great-grandfather bought this in an auction. It originally belonged to Nawab Muhammad Hayat Khan who ran it until 1947. He belonged to Wah, a place in Pakistan, and the region was full of European tea estate owners,” said Prakash taking us on a tour of the gardens and the factory. The Wah cantonment in Pakistan is quite easily traceable on Google maps.
It took us a while to understand the tea manufacturing process, from growing to plucking to processing and finally tasting different kinds of tea. While most of the tea goes to the wholesale markets in Kolkata where the family has a base, some is used for retail purposes. There is some handmade green tea on the premises too.
It wasn’t just the green tea plants, but the birds, the sky, the air and the smiling people were equally inviting. The koels were busy singing their songs. Some orange crawlies on a cluster of leaves caught my eye. Harmless pests, I was told, as we walked out towards the road leading back to the homestay. An old man was weaving bamboo baskets at the estate’s boundary; the lamps in the homestay garden had come from him. You don’t find any concrete boundaries here; only shrubs define the divisions.
It was interesting to discover that many creative ones have flourished here, their efforts alive even now. While the municipal council Palampur has been home to European tea growers, the little village of Andretta in this council has been home to the famous artist Sobha Singh, Irish writer and dramatist Norah Richards and Sardar Gurcharan Singh who introduced studio pottery there. Their little cottage homes were a delight to explore. Would nature smile on me one day too, giving me a chance to live in these beautiful surroundings, away from the concrete jungle, letting my creative buds bloom? Maybe, if I managed to say goodbye to some harsh truths!
Sobha Singh, whose home is now a museum, moved there in 1947 from Punjab. No photography is allowed inside this museum, but I wish I could have touched the rabab which lay in his bedroom on the first floor. There was also a photograph of the artist with Norah Richards. We had visited her quaint house earlier. This Irish writer, dramatist and follower of Tolstoy had settled in India in the 1930s after her husband’s death. He had been a professor at the Government College at Lahore. In these idyllic surroundings, she taught drama to students studying in Punjabi University. Some have referred to her as ‘Lady Gregory of Punjab’. She had first come to Punjab in 1911. In 1914, she produced the first Punjabi play, Dulhan (The Bride), written by her student I.C. Nanda. Her work continued till her passing in 1971. The university made her a fellow and the house was bequeathed to the university. On October 29, the students celebrate her birthday by enacting dramas in the open air auditorium outside her home.
One bend, and we were in front of a sign board which read Andretta Pottery. Sardar Gurcharan Singh’s son Mansimran Singh turned the father’s summer pottery retreat into a thriving Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. Young Shubham Sankhyan who manages the place doesn’t want to exchange the green life for the concrete jungle. His father Jugal Kishore was earlier managing this place. “A student saw 315 birds in a single day here,” Shubham told us, “and that too while just sitting in one area. As for pottery, the USP is the traditional rangoli design on the earthenware. The art form is known as likhnu and the ladies would make the rangoli designs during celebrations. It’s not common now.” Traditional potters were at work in one corner while students were busy in another shed.
The valley has a lot more than art and tea to offer. Andretta was the harmonious, quiet life, but on another road were the buzzing towns of Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans. This drive had many places to please the eye and the soul.
“Bear,” said the driver, waking us out of our reverie. Stopping, we gazed at this black bear sleeping in the sun, within the confines of the Gopalpur Zoo. Next was Chamunda Devi temple. This fierce goddess had killed two demons, Chanda and Munda, hence the name. She is associated with the even fiercer Kali.
Prayers done, cameras in hand, we reached the Norbulingka Institute where Tibetan arts and crafts are being kept alive. The sounds of music floated and we opened a door to find one of the guides with a small guitar. She was learning and embarrassed at the intrusion. The architecture of the institute is based on the proportions of the patron deity of Tibet–thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara. This enchanting place with flags, bamboo trees, bright coloured pillars was quiet as it was Buddha Purnima. Normally, it’s buzzing as people come to learn thangka painting, wood painting, wood carving and appliquÃ©. There are residential facilities and it is a self-sustaining community where almost 300 people work.
In the temple, I found paintings of all the Dalai Lamas. Tibetan life lived on in the museum. The map of this land embroiled in turmoil, painted on a wall, caught my attention. But I got busy rotating the prayer wheels, hoping they would be answered by the time I left the place. No such luck!
More curves and bends, and we were at the famous Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium. The sky had turned dark; it was surely going to rain. The mountains were now a different shade. The red and yellow stands looked even more picturesque. The state team was practising. A quick round and back to the bends with windows rolled down.There was a slight chill in the air now and the moment the car came to a halt at the church of St John in the Wilderness, it began to rain.
The grey of the neo-Gothic structure matched the grey skies, but the swaying green deodar trees gave it life. Dedicated to John the Baptist, this Anglican church was built in 1852. It was the Belgian stained-glass windows donated by Lady Elgin (Mary Louisa Lambton), wife of Lord Elgin, the second Viceroy of India, which took our breath away. The rain prevented a walk to the cemetery close by where Lord Elgin is buried. We had caught a glimpse of it at one bend, before reaching the church. The graves of victims who died in 1905 earthquake were also there, I came to know later.
The stomach was growling by now. Within two minutes we hit the much talked about McLeod Ganj market. Lined with cafÃ©s, it can be quite confusing which place to enter. But we had references. A quick lunch of chowmein and sweet ‘n’ sour at Tibet Kitchen and we hit the long street to see what little Tibet was all about. I found an interesting wall hanging of the Tibetan flag woven in thick cotton. Monks rushed past before I could push the click button of the camera. Once again, I turned the prayer wheels at the Kalachakra Temple in the main street. Past jewellery stalls, and I reached Tsuglag Khang aka the Dalai Lama temple. There is also a Tibet Museum here, housing many old photographs. Rhythmic sound of prayers, deodar forest all around, rows of butter lamps, scripts from Tibet–all keep the light of faith burning bright.
A few metres down and we had lemonade and waffles at the Illiterati cafÃ©. Known for its organic food, this offered a spectacular view of the paragliders faraway. The well-trodden path had ended. Much ado about nothing? No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say spend a few more moments and absorb the beauty to know why the valley pulls everyone.
All too soon, we were on the road to Pathankot railway station, watching the sun go down, the birds fly home and the tea stalls pulling down their shutters. The thunder, the lightning, the storm, the mud houses seemed to belong to another world, as the whistle of the train engine filled the midnight air.
Getting There: SpiceJet and Air India have flights from Delhi to Kangra Airport (40km from Palampur). Alternatively, one can take the train till Pathankot and it is a three-hour drive from there. Some overnight trains from Delhi are Jammu Mail, Jammu Rajdhani, Jhelum Express and Dhauladhar Express (2AC, approx â‚¹1,500). There is also a narrow gauge connecting Palampur from Pathankot, the railway station is at Maranda. But this 112 km journey could take around 6—8 hours. Palampur is connected by road to all major cities and towns in and around Himachal Pradesh.
The Lodge at Wah: This 8-bedroom property has all modern amenities and offers fresh home-cooked food (approx â‚¹9,000 for double occupancy with meals). Can organise picnics and taxis for day outings. There are indoor games, mountain bikes and wi-fi (+91-9831443282, thelodgeatwah.com)
What to See & Do:
Neugal CafÃ©, run by Himachal Tourism, is popular and offers a spectacular view of the Dhauladhar mountains and Neugal stream.
Meat and rice at local eateries in Maranda, which is just 4km from Palampur.
Dham at any of the local eateries around is also a must-do.
What to See & Do: Numerous treks can be done in the area such as one to Triund or Birni Mata temple from Bundla winding through oak and rhododendron forests.
The famous Bir and Billing where paragliding is done is just 35km away. The Paragliding World Cup 2015 was also held here.
Saurabh Van Vihar is where one can enjoy boat rides.
The Shiva temple in Bajinath was built in the 12th century and is known for its craftsmanship.
Tashi Jong Buddhist Monastery is the place to enjoy some quiet moments and find peace.
Norbulingka Institute has a souvenir shop. Entrance fee â‚¹40, norbulingka.org.
Sobha Singh Museum too has a souvenir shop and interesting items include chairs made from thin rolls of chart paper. The entrance fee is â‚¹20 per person.
Try your hand at pottery at Andretta Pottery (â‚¹150 fora 20-minute session, andrettapottery.com).