About one-and-a-half decades ago, the patch of hill where Te Aroha stands today was a virgin canvas. One man passing through Dhanachuli fell in love with the place, slowly filled it up with everything that he loves in life… and now, it’s making everyone else fall in love with it, too.
The hills of Kumaon have always had their place on the international tourism map, courtesy the various tals – Nainital leading the pack – but Dhanachuli is not a name that strikes a chord immediately. Seven out of 10 cars that leave Kathgodam station for the hills turn left from Ranibagh for Nainital; those heading towards Bhimtal are the ones who’d see the Dhanachuli milestone for the first time. At a height of just over 7,000 feet, this place has remained merely another little hamlet that comes on the way to the Mukteshwar temple.
As we drive up a road with sharp bends, the first hour’s journey doesn’t show us anything that justifies the claim that we are headed for an ‘abode of tranquillity’. In fact, the cluster of hotels by the roadside, the taxis and buses honking past, and a traffic logjam along the Bhimtal route may rather put you off. Our driver – like all others on this route – is quick to point out the retired Colonel’s bungalow atop the hill that was “Preity Zinta’s house in Koi Mil Gaya”. But the excitement still can’t gloss over the dinginess.
Suddenly, after Padampuri, the view changes. Pine and oak forests on the Bhatelia road replace the concrete jungle. Signs of human habitation, and the number of people you can see, get increasingly sparse over the next 20-odd kilometres. The air gets cooler by the minute. And our driver points, again, at a hilltop bungalow. “Woh peelawallah (that yellow)” house is not, fortunately, another building blessed by Bollywood. This is our destination, Te Aroha.
A quick climb up a few stairs and it’s a different world altogether. Nothing extravagant, but everything catches your eye. Neatly placed water-filled vessels with fresh flowers floating in them, little stone and metal artefacts in strategic corners, half-pillars that were originally the base of an antique table – there is much to feast your eyes on, while sipping the welcome drink of rhododendron wine. Though a separate museum awaits us, I wonder why they haven’t declared the entire property as one, as we are led through the lobby of this colonial-style summer house. The boutique hotel – it has only 12 rooms and suites – has a collection that can make a connoisseur shed a tear of happiness. There’s an 1857 survey map of Dhanachuli procured from England; a century old piano; a grandmother’s jewellery chest with secret compartments; intricate wood carvings. We seem to walking through many ages, until we reach one of the most important displays on this 12-acre property – this, I realise, is what Te Aroha is about.
The ‘artist’ of the property is Sumant Batra, a man with many hats. A collector and a law practitioner, he greets us in the Oak Room, the restaurant. With a “collection of a lifetime” to see later, he leaves us to our own devices for a while. My room is named the Morning Sun, and the massive bed invites sleep after an early morning start. Instead, I decide to catch up on the MCC vs Rest of the World Bicentenary match at the Lord’s Cricket Ground. There’s no television in the rooms at Te Aroha, but for those who need their fix, a minimally furnished TV-music room is provided. It’s evident that the hotel owner is encouraging you to get away from the box.
Tribute to India
The museum at Te Aroha is called Chitrashala, an apt name for a collection that boasts thousands of essentially Indian artworks. Still in its nascent stages, the museum starts with a room that takes you into the world of calendar art in the country. There was a time when these had a proud place on the walls of most households in the country. Freedom fighters, great men and women, deities – from Bengal to Bombay, each of these had a distinct style of their own. A dying art in the present era of digital photography and Photoshop imaging, these calendars recall a genre of commercial art whose creators never got due credit.
Sumant also owns two of the only 12 hand-painted posters of the Hindi film classic Trishul that remain in the country. Amitabh Bachchan, on the cusp of acquiring his ‘angry young man’ moniker, glowers from the massive poster, 20 feet in length, propped up against a wall. This is a room dedicated to Indian film posters. The art had primarily two gharanas: the Bombay style and the Madras style. From classics like Madhumati and Mere Mehboob to the coming-of-age Do Ankhen Barah Haath and Nai Roshni, it’s a journey through lithographs, oils painted posters and even 3D art. Lobby cards and booklets – used to engage the audience in the cinema lobbies before the show started – take up the next room. One gets to see the rare and framed story narration of the Bimal Mitra-classic Durgesh Nandini and the 1956 Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen-starrer Ekti Raat.
Match boxes, fire cracker boxes – these have always been in front of us for generations. Somehow, we never noticed the importance of these everyday art forms. The next room takes you to that world. How big a world it was for pulp fiction, sold at railway stations in most cities even today, is depicted on one of the walls.
The next section of the museum has restored works of Raja Ravi Varma, and some rare British-era commissioned portraits from Gwalior and other royal dynasties. The combined worth of this wooden cubicle must be considerable.
There’s more that will feature in the museum and at Café Flashback, coming up soon at the property. But, seriously, what’s the point of setting up such a display at Dhanachuli? The entire range of Lux soap advertisements (from Suchitra Sen to Madhuri Dixit); a wood-carved cabinet from Lahore; the first pressure cookers in India; the earliest paper mashers; pre-Independence era weights and sewing machines; Mughal-era water carriers; typewriters and a massive collection of books to die for; the entire collection of Billoo, Lambu-Motu, Chacha Chowdhury; the American Peoples Encyclopedia – I’m just seeing the tip of the iceberg here. On second thoughts, it may be best to house the things you love at a place you love.
Enriched and exhausted, I step out to see the sun setting over the South Gola Range. Almost every balcony has this view. The place still doesn’t have a bar – it should ideally come up along with the planned cigar club soon. Some Indian red wine does it for the evening. The museum, poker room, games room and the library are fine, but the best part of life at Te Aroha is sitting on the balcony, sipping your poison, and talking about everything that city life doesn’t let you. Even the wonderful forest and village trails through potato fields and abandoned ruins become secondary to watching the mist rise from below the Family Cottage deck. I can only imagine the place under two feet of snow in the winters!
The high point
Every room at Te Aroha, the Maori words for ‘the place of love’, has a story to tell. A couple of days is too little time to soak in everything. Luxurious amenities, a carefully crafted menu that leaves you a happy soul and, the icing on the cake, attentive yet discreet staff. That brings me to what really makes Te Aroha the place it is. Remember the most important display we spoke of? It is a wall hanging, a framed collage that tells you about each and every worker – from carpenters to gardeners – who helped create Te Aroha. This is not a hotel hammered together by a battery of hotel management graduates; it is a welcoming house shaped by the hands of smiling pahaaris. Frankly speaking, I don’t remember if I’ve ever heard about the regular staff of a hill resort going for an off-site in Goa! That is precisely what you need to maintain a life-long commitment to your love.
Dhanachuli is 53km from Kathgodam. The Kathgodam Shatabdi leaves Anand Vihar Station in east Delhi at 6.15am. Driving down from Delhi takes about 7 hours.
Where to stay
The Te Aroha boutique resort has a total of 12 rooms, which includes suites, family cottages, one Master’s Bedroom for honeymooners, and some standard rooms. In the Long House and Master’s Bedroom, children are not permitted. Guests are free to carry their own liquor. Tariff Rs 3,900-Rs 17,900; meals extra. Contact +918755080736-37, www.tearoha.in
What to see & do
There is much trekking and birding to be done around the hotel. Guides are provided for trekking and village walks at no extra cost. Mukteshwar temple is about 15km away. Except in peak monsoon, you can visit all year. It snows in winter, but the hotel remains accessible, and the views are magnificent. There is an open terrace where meals are laid out on clear winter days.