Denis Harrap is a busy man. A large and ruggedly handsome New Zealander (he calls himself a Polynesian) with a defiant chin, he’s constantly on his feet fixing little problems around the gorgeous homestay that he runs in the village of Andretta, in the Kangra valley. An automated nightlight isn’t working too well, so Denis goes up a ladder with a screwdriver. A patch of stuff needs repair, so Denis runs down to the village to get the carpenter. Next he is off to a neighbour’s to help him with the design of his kitchen. While he’s doing this, he calls up his internet provider to complain about an erratic connection.
Denis is a busy man — which is why a guest staying at The Mirage can feel totally at peace.
Andretta is a beautiful place. Scattered homes dot the green valley while the main bulk of the village sits backed up against the north face of a forested ridge in the Shivalik range. The pottery end of Andretta, for which the village is so famous, is on the outskirts. Just before you get to the Andretta pottery workshop, a small path wanders up the hill on the left, past a beautiful wall adorned with pottery and the home of master potter Mansimran Singh. A few steps further and the path divides, with the branch on the right going up a few steps to a little gate marked ‘The Mirage’. Beyond this is a lovely wooded garden; further up, the inviting façade of the house — a long verandah, topped with three windows, and the forested hill rising steeply behind it.
When I get there at six in the morning, sunrise is still an hour away and I see nothing of this. But Denis is up already, drinking tea and watching some war movie. He takes me to a little antechamber behind the lounge and up a narrow wooden staircase to my deliciously warm room.
After a twelve-hour bone-rattling bus ride, the only thing I can think of is getting into bed to sleep. But even in my sleep-deprived state, the room is so pretty that I spend a good hour just staring at it. A large four-poster bed dominates one end of the space, kept company by a lovely chest of drawers and some comfortable rugs and cushions on the wooden floor, and all around the room there are large windows looking out on the courtyard, the hill and the garden. My bed has been pre-warmed with an electric blanket, so I happily crash for a few hours.
I’m here for only a couple of days, so I can’t afford to spend much of my time sleeping. After all, the early December sun is something to savour and I’m dying to see what the Dhauladhar looks like from the valley. I’ve been visiting Kangra for more than four years now, but my perspective has always been that of the valley as seen from the main range itself. I’m itching to see it reversed. I’m already late for breakfast (which is served till 9.30am) but I get down to the verandah and there is that rugged range, completely white with fresh snow, draped like a stunning curtain against an incredibly blue sky.
I am standing in a little sit-out in the garden — which sometimes serves as a yoga deck — sipping my tea and feeling quite gobsmacked, when Saroj announces that breakfast had been saved for me and that I should have it. Saroj and her husband Sushil run the place. Sushil is the manager and Saroj the custodian of the homestay’s creature comforts. The breakfast is just what I need — toasted wholewheat bread, lots of eggs and plenty of jam and butter. As I’m eating, Denis comes in and asks if I’d like to go hang out with a potter pal of his. And so passes the day, with a brief break to devour some more of Saroj’s delicious food and then a snooze in my room, which I just can’t seem to get enough of.
Or so it proves, as my planned hour’s nap extends to three. When I finally wake up at half past four, I wonder mildly about trying to get out of bed to catch the sunset, but it seems better to just lie around and watch through the pretty window as the world slowly gets leached of all colour while warblers and tits and sparrows chatter outside.
I do eventually manage to rouse myself and get downstairs, but I only get as far as the cozy lounge, where I’m claimed by the comfortable heat, a large mug of tea and the room itself. All of the Mirage is built from locally sourced mud bricks, bamboo and deodar wood. Denis has evidently taken a lot of care to reinforce things and add to the amenities, but for a house built in 1948, it is in really good nick.
The focal point of the house, the lounge is a large, cavernous space that bears testimony to Denis’s almost obsessive taste for curios — from a large bronze Tara to Tibetan lampshades to locally made carpets and a large old wood-fired oven that keeps everyone toasty. There are no TVs in any of the rooms, except here, where Denis watches Al Jazeera obsessively. After a while, Denis’s potter friend Reyaz comes over and soon we’re immersed in the dense, warm fug of the oven, discussing everything from Hunter S. Thompson to ceramics and the merits of Vipassana.
Sushil, I hear, makes a mean mutton curry. When it arrives, it is truly delicious. The meat is succulent and the spices just right. After our repast, Reyaz borrows an electric blanket and is off home. I watch the end of a football match and then retire to the comforts of my room and spend some time staring at the bamboo ceiling and listening to the quiet before falling asleep.
The next morning I break with tradition and am up early at seven — though Denis is up even earlier — and we go for a walk around the hill above the village. Yogi, a large and dignified Gaddi sheepdog, accompanies us, delighted to stretch his legs. The air is bracingly cold as the sun hasn’t reached us yet, but the walk warms us up. Just before entering the forest, we come across a Gaddi camp and then some friends of Denis’s — a village family out for a Sunday picnic and a puja at a local snake shrine. Following a convivial cup of tea, we continue up into the forest, past some impressive rocky outcrops and large pines with gum veins inscribed on them by local collectors.
It’s an overcast day and soon we’re standing on top of the hill, directly above the house, and looking at a beautiful alpine panorama of the green valley stretching away to the dull brown meadows and thick black pine forests that make up the foothills, and then the jagged wall of the main range itself. Streaks of sunlight break through the gloom and light up bits of the valley. Some wood smoke from chimneys in the village rises up wistfully and then hovers amidst the ground fog.
I still have a full day ahead, of meeting a Thai potter and an old Thai woman who lives with her adopted Gaddi family in McLeodganj and then a bunch of lovely, raucous Tibetan friends of Denis in the evening. But it is here, in the breaking morning, that I realise that the lovely homestay down in the valley is truly a mirage, an enticing vision that is of a piece with the rest of the sylvan charms of Kangra.
Where: The Mirage is just outside Andretta village, about 18km from Palampur, Kangra, which is about 12 hours from Delhi by road; the nearest airport is Gaggal, 36km from Palampur
Accommodation: 3 double bedrooms and 2 single bedrooms in the main house; 2 double-bedroom cottages. Doubles and singles in the main house can be combined into suites
Tariff: Rs 2,515 (singles) and Rs 3,500 (doubles), including breakfast
Contact: 01894-254434, 9816429091 (Sushil), mirageandretta.com