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Himachal Pradesh: Working From The Valley

Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal
12 Min Read

A member of a wayfaring community is doing wonders for rural Kangra's future

Today, many Gaddi tribals live in Himachal Pradesh, but they are believed to have originally been nomadic Gaderis and Pals (shepherds) dwelling in the plains. In medieval times, macabre tales of Aurangzeb’s forced conversions prompted the Gaddis to seek sanctuary in Kangra, but they proved to be vulnerable there too. So, they set out once again, this time for Chamba, the devbhoomi (holy land) nestled in the snowcapped Dhauladhar, where the plentiful Ravi promised rich pastureland. The Gaddis had found their sanctum.

British rule brought an end to barbarism in Kangra. Also, Chamba would be covered in snow for six months a year. Hence, many Gaddis moved back to the valley. Rakkar, among other villages, became their home. However, no one really wanted to hang around–some harboured dreams of the devbhoomi, while others craved city life. Only Mohinder Sharma, a Gaddi and the founder of Ghoomakad, a co-living and co-working space, dreamed about Rakkar.

I am not used to small aircraft. As mine prepared to land at Kangra airport, it felt like a nosedive. Thankfully, I did not end up meeting my maker. Instead, a lovely hill drive through pine country followed, the vale below lined with potato fields, sunlight shimmering through the trees. Soon, the sight of a compound with a few cottages announced our arrival at Ghoomakad.

Reading is a joy at Ghoomakad

From the second I met Mohinder, I knew he wasn’t your average Joe. I had known hill folk to be laidback, but not him. “Rest is rust,” he said. He was anything but a bore though. Join him for a session of rum drinking, and you’d find his sher-o-shayari and dhol sangeet enriching your evening. His conversation was nuanced, and he was a brilliant, forward-thinking person.

Ghoomakad’s façade can best be described as rustic-chic. Each cottage looks like a cross between a Victorian-era country house (courtesy the use of stone bricks and slate) and a rural mud house (mud-plastered walls). Judiciously add windows, white winding staircases and pale balcony railings to the mix, and you have fine, unpretentious architecture.

Except, there was no architect. Mohinder had merely exercised his pragmatic sensibilities (“It’s all really jugaad [quick fix]”) and conveyed his ideas to local stonemasons, construction workers and welders. Jugaad even defined the furnishings–an outdoor table fashioned from a single piece of stone, chiselled into a round shape. Slabs had been cobbled together to make pathways, fixed by earth and not cement.

I had come to Ghoomakad in search of a responsible tourism initiative. But that was all jargon to Mohinder–for him, the employment of local labour, the use of readily available material, and the need to give back to Mother Earth came naturally.

One of the double sharing rooms at Ghoomakad

But if his actions were really just countryside convention, what makes Ghoomakad special? “We Gaddis have always been ghoomakads [wanderers]. Hence, the name,” Mohinder told me during our first lunch. He then explained how the homestay has the ‘village experience’ as its cornerstone. “Villagers here have been selling their land to outsiders. They are foregoing their roots and craving city life. I thought, why don’t we make ourselves the attraction instead? Log idhar aayenge phir [Then, people will come here].”

But Mohinder found his fingers in too many pies. One day, a computer programmer named Ayush Ghai arrived at Rakkar. Ayush wished to work remotely, and what better place for that than Ghoomakad? He and Mohinder worked out an arrangement where, in exchange for a living space, Ayush would manage it.

Ayush stayed for the next five years. In his wake, people from creative and technical backgrounds began to flock to Ghoomakad. Mohinder enjoyed what was happening. It meant more exposure for the villagers, and when visitors conducted workshops here, he made it mandatory for one-fifth of the attendees to be from the village; this way, the villagers learnt about everything, from stargazing to birding.

Ghoomakad grew too. It had started with the residential cottage, Pyramid, but then the co-working space, Lotus, was added in response to the demand from the remote-working freelancers coming here. Lotus presented an interesting mix of rural and urban– mud-plastered walls existed alongside swanky office seating and the latest electronics. I began this travel piece there, and the words flowed like wine.

The Community Kitchen came last. It had a xylophone, from which I managed to lure out the notes of The Star-Spangled Banner, a well-stocked bookshelf, and a potpourri of paraphernalia other ghoomakads had left behind. A pinboard announced the house rules. Number one was: Clean your room on your own. Similarly, we had to wash our own plates. After all, responsible living also applies to guests. Bonus: though they have a cook, Ram Prasad, you’re free to make whatever you like. The rooms were all high ceilinged, if modest, and presented a miscellany of local handiwork in the bedding. Their red and blue patterns glistened in the daylight peeping in from the windows.

In the morning, I stepped into Ghoomakad’s fields. Here lay embodiments of Mohinder’s inventiveness. The roadside kuhl (channel) brought in water from the nearby river to a pond where water never stagnated or overflowed. How was that, you wonder? The answer was a science lesson: a huge boulder placed in the waterbody sent excess water back to the channel (because of recoil, basically). This kept the water moving. Some of it would also seep through the soil and create a groundwater table. This technique (“khopdi ki [mind’s] technique,” he joked) is an example of the man’s foresight.

Next to it was a waste disposal system. Recyclable waste was kept in a sump, polythene was segregated into a container, kitchen waste was put into the vermicomposting pit, and menstrual waste went to the incinerator.

A portion of the field was now part of Ghoomakad Rasoi, a newly opened café space. Adjacent to it, Mohinder had designed outdoor tents by covering metal frames with seat cover fabric, with cosy beds inside. On the far end of the field, there were three dry toilets, which did not require water and composted human excreta. An abandoned tin container had been turned into the Ghoomakad Outdoor Hostel. A tree house (“built without disturbing any tree”) had been constructed on an old willow. It contained two beds and a sky window.

In the mornings, Mohinder worked the fields. We helped him sow seeds of saunf (fennel) and mooli (radish) in the kitchen garden, and watched him till a portion of the field for jau (barley), sarson (mustard) and mattar (peas). The field could feed five people for six months, we were told.

Plenty of innovations dotted the main compound too: a swimming pool with a funnel that collected and filtered rainwater, an aluminum solar heater that slow-cooked food, and, finally, a wood-fire oven that also had a flat top to heat water in a pot. For one of our lunches, Guddi didi, the bubbly housekeeper, cooked a delicious mutton curry in that oven.

We also went for a stroll along the potato and fodder fields of Rakkar. At the village crossroads was a signboard that read ‘Ghoomakad Chowk’–another one of Mohinder’s quirks. Round the next turn, we came by a picturesque playground. The Dhauladhar provided an imposing backdrop. Nishtha, a two-decade-old NGO run by Dr Barbara Nath-Wiser, an Austrian who lived in nearby Sidbari, had built the beautiful park. Mohinder had grown up with her family, and is an important employee of Nishtha. This is possibly where his acute understanding of social issues developed.

We ambled among the reetha (soapnut), aadoo (peach) and amrood (guava) trees, from the fields to a law college, and then on to Nishtha’s community centre and waste management plant, till we finally reached the village’s giant stone. Usually a kohli (or water master), responsible for the kuhls, would climb atop every Sunday and shout, “Challo manvo kula lo [Let us go collect the water].” The villagers would then proceed to the nearby Baner khad (river).

A Gaddi shepherd with the Dhauladhar range behind him

Mohinder also had an adventure in store for us. We drove southwest for about 30 minutes till we reached a point where there was more rubble than road. Pine was scarce, and the hill dry and covered mostly in shrubbery. From here, we embarked on a trek. We seemed to be headed in the direction of the looming Dhauladhar. At each bend, Mohinder stopped to show us local herbs. He told us about them with botanical precision–first, he found the citric khatlu, which has a flower that can be used to quench thirst. A little ahead grew daruharidra (Indian barberry) with haldi (turmeric) in its branches. It is used in eye drops and for wounds. Further on, we found fulnu, which can both treat and cause asthma, kachnar (orchid tree), which provides relief from stomach problems, and nakh-chikni, which is used to clear the nose.

Our trek culminated at a ridge with a gushing streamlet. Mohinder proceeded to set up a cooking station on an adjacent hillock. As he cut wood with a pickaxe, gathered dry leaves, fanned the fire and layered the utensils with mud, I loafed around by the water. A little later, he produced a bottle of McDowell’s No. 1 rum. Picture this: about 4°C, two large pegs of rum (dissolved in stream water), and ‘rara chicken’ ( a homemade chicken curry). Complete jugaad.

On our way back, Mohinder revealed his plans for the future. In 10 years, he would like to push to his native village, a hamlet called Bhatada, and set up a similar space–Remote Ghoomakad–which he believes has a hundred years’ worth of resources. As for his immediate plans, he wants to open an organic food and souvenir shop in his compound.

On my last evening, I visited the khad with Suraj and Pankaj. While Suraj is part of a tech startup currently stationed at Ghoomakad, Pankaj is a Himachali computer programmer. Pumped, we made our way through the ravine and hurdled across a dense array of boulders. Pankaj, especially, zoomed across the riverscape. I took a few photographs of him attempting a perfect headstand against a sunset backdrop. Momentarily, we were all carefree. And the hills watched over us as a loving mother would–just as they watch over the Gaddis, every single day.

 

The information

Getting There

SpiceJet and Air India fly daily direct flights from Delhi. Note: take a window seat. Kangra Airport connects to the Mandi—Pathankot road, then the Dharamshala road, and then, finally, the Rakkar—Fatehpur road, where Ghoomakad is located. Airport taxis take ₹600 (14km/30min). Pathankot is the nearest station. From there take a bus (₹120; 90km/3hrs). Plenty of HRTC buses from Delhi (approx. 470km/10—14hrs) and Chandigarh (approx. 240km/6— 8hrs) ply to Dharamshala (hrtchp.com). From there, take a direct taxi to Ghoomakad (₹300; 10km/20min).

Ghoomakad
There are 14 double-sharing rooms, and one four-sharing room in the main compound. Their tariffs are:

Daily basis: ₹800 (single w/o food), ₹1,000 (doubles w/o food), ₹1,000 (single w/ food), ₹1,400 (doubles w/ food)
Weekly basis:₹4,200 (single w/o food), ₹5,200 (doubles w/o food), ₹5,300 (single w/ food), ₹7,500 (doubles w/ food)
Monthly basis ₹10,000 (single w/o food), ₹12,500 (doubles w/o food), ₹14,200 (single w/ food), ₹21,000 (doubles w/ food).

The accommodation options in the field area (daily tariffs):

Tent: ₹350 (single)
Ghoomakad Outdoor Hostel: ₹400 (single)
Tree house: ₹600 (single), ₹1,000 (doubles)

There are 10 tents and seven hostel beds. Visit ghoomakad.com

What To Eat
Ram Prasad and Guddi didi make sumptuous vegetarian fare. If these aren’t included in your room tariffs, rates are–₹50 for breakfast and ₹80 each for lunch and dinner (per person). The Ghoomakad Rasoi is in collaboration with a certain Gokul Chaat Bhandar, and has plenty of options.

What To See & Do

>Ask Mohinder to set up a bonfire during the colder months.

>If you’re a large group, ask him to arrange a folk dance and music show for you.

>If you are a group of five or six, he offers a mountain survival camp. You go to a remote location, learn survival techniques and, then, test what you’ve learnt.

>You ought to visit the khad. And please take Pankaj with you!

>In summertime, tell Mohinder (a few days in advance) to brew rice beer, distil local liquor or ferment rhododendron wine for you.

>Go for work staycations. Activities include cricket, day treks and cultural performances with a bonfire.

>Play board games such as chess and carrom.

>But, first: grab a book and choose a corner underneath the winter sun.

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