- Nita Bajoria
Andretta – A Clandestine beauty of Himalayas Or Where mem of the pind lived
Aligning my fingers together, I placed them lightly on both the inner and the outer side of the clay wall I had just created. The yielding and textured clay tingled my emotions 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 muddy 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 village sitting quietly below the backdrop of the Dhauladhar range of mountains.
A month back, a post of the retreat appeared on my Facebook. Along with it was an inviting image of a monastery against a blue mountain and a mud house. Partly because I was curious about the name ‘Andretta’ and partly because, bugged with the mid-life crisis, this gateway for three days looked more of a need than a luxury retreat, I affirmed promptly. It promised of a home-stay with a meditation session, a day in Sherabling Monastery and a group of 15 women on their own. The last point brought forth in me mixed emotions of gaiety, apprehension, indulgence, and freedom. I wanted to do this. To be able to steal myself away from the known faces, the known city, the known home and the recognized responsibilities for a while was intriguing enough.
What’s in the name?
A foreign name for an Indian village, Andretta is not known to many—including the police officer in duty just an hour away. He looked at us bewildered, unable to decide whether to admit his ignorance or avoid it. Half sleepy and tired from an overnight train and then a bumpy taxi ride from Pathankot, we reached Andretta at the wee hours of a cloudy morning. As we neared our destination, well-trimmed tea gardens on both side of the road reminded us that we are in the Kangra valley, the tea capital of northern India.
At nearly 1,000 meters above sea level, the fresh, cold and unpolluted air smelled of mist, mud, fresh flowers and raw leaves. And the first thing I did was to inhale oodles of them. Turning right from the S. Shoba Singh Art Gallery, we took a narrow twisting road that brought us to a small fence gate. From here we climbed a yet narrower cobbled way lined with camellias, hydrangeas & lychee trees to reach our homestay. It is owned by a charming New Zealander, Denis and his beautiful French wife, Dolly.
Arranged along the hillside was a line of earthy cottages and gardens with a facade of creepers and flowers. And across from them was waiting a refreshing welcome drink of the local Bageshwari tea. Sweetened by jaggery, it was a healthy yet delicious combination, which perked our tired souls and bodies.
Baked mud and baked pie
In no time, we found ourselves settled and admiring the surrounding, from our mud rooms furnished with colourful rugs and bright curtains. We had forgotten the madness of the city life within minutes. It was evident that Denis had used his designing skills to complement this natural surrounding with ethnic and earthy elements,and had coupled it with modern amenities. There are even few cozy corners with an interesting selection of books and magazines to please book lovers like us.
“Close your eyes and take a deep breath!” These were the words with which the meditation session started with inside the glass house every day. But, what followed was neither regular nor mundane. Because unlike many spiritual tours I had attended, the days here were not designed to be loaded with conventional meditation sessions. Instead, I saw and experienced numerous ways of meditating and healing ourselves with love, while enjoying the bounty of nature and life at large.
We meditated while having the organic food cooked by the wife of the manager, both of them hailing from the hills. While walking the hilly paths. On the pottery wheel. While admiring the fantastic paintings of Sardar Shobha Singh. And while sharing our lives with fourteen other unknown persons.
How blessed the village of Andretta is can be assessed by the fact that a hamlet that is situated on just two sides of a narrow hilly street, saw a fair number of eminent artists and writers take refuge in it. Famous writer Khushwant Singh has described this place, as: “This is where drama, painting, pottery, and writing marry.”
The Andretta Pottery itself carries its legacy from the father of pottery in India, Sardar Gurucharan Singh. His son Mansimran Singh chose this valley for one-of-its-type glazed blue pottery studio that attracts pupils from different parts of the world to get hands-on training.
The Irish connect
The village was once known as “Mem da Pind.” And the “mem” in question was Norah Richard, an Irish lady whose love of theatre and Indian culture made her adopt this village. Also known as the Nani of Punjabi theatre, she believed in simple living and regarded Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman as her bible. Her little Kangra style single storey mud house named “Chameli Niwas” with an appealing staircase rising from the front told us a lot about her personality. As I went around the house I imagined her working on her typewriter in those rooms. The aroma of the yellow bottle brush trees filled the place. To envisage what made Norah choose this place as her home, I scanned up and around, and found my answer in those freshly snow-capped Dhauldhar ranges and Shivalik hills that sparkled in the sunshine like silver foils. The emerald green surrounding the villa, dotted with bamboo thickets and rhododendron shrubs added to its beauty. The little theatre once frequented by young Prithviraj Kapoor is still run by the Punjab university students. Every year on October 29, on the anniversary of Norah’s birth they perform plays under the stars, among the village folk.
Norah Richards, as she was obsessed with the idea of turning the Kangra Valley hamlet into an artists’ village, had extended invitations to several artists asking them to come and settle here. Artists like B.C Sanyal, Freda Bedi, Sardar Shobha Singh, Sardar Gurucharan Singh and others had come and helped her turn Andretta into an artists’ hub. With the help of famous artist B.C. Sanyal, she formed the Norah Centre for Arts.
Going the art way
“Grow More Good” read the entrance of the S. Shoba Singh Art Gallery. I pondered over the three words that said so many things. And inside the gallery, I witnessed how the famous painter grew so many good through his magical paintbrush. Paintings of Sohini Mahiwal, the gaddi girl, Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi and Guru Nanak with his 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 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 days if you are fond of art, as each artist-abode is filled with numerous stories, of passion for art and this place.
The evening concluded with a sumptuous pumpkin soup, farm fresh salad, pesticide-free brown rice, locally grown organic vegetables, lip-smacking baked aubergine and an irresistible French dessert, which the cook, Saroj had learned from her French memsahib. All served at the common dining room, that held a fireplace, few antiques, and a piano. Our mind filled with various thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we would chat till we felt sleepy. We didn’t even notice the absence of our dear “idiot box” in our rooms. It was rather nowhere. From not a single house in Andretta, did we hear any sound of television or blaring peppy item numbers. The only sound audible was that of the leaves, the twitting of the Himalayan Blue Tail and of the human souls. Morning noon and night.
The town of Bir, about thirty kilometres away, was our destination next day. Early morning as our vehicle meandered through the hilly roads and we crossed the eight large white stupas while approaching the entrance of the Palpung Sherabling, a wonderful feeling of peace descended upon my heart. The numerous white and coloured prayer flags that swayed amidst the pine trees greeted us to the Monastic seat of the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche with a blessing. The architecture of the monastery is an example of how the Buddhist Master had used geomancy (the art of placing or arranging buildings or other sites auspiciously) and the traditional Tibetan architecture to form a work of beauty, art, and divinity in the lap of sacred Himalayas.
An urge to come back and plan a stay at the monastery took over me the moment I stepped on the large sandstone courtyard of the main building that houses the shrine, quarters of the monks and also a great amount of peace, calmness, and simplicity. Guarded by gargoyles of snow lions, a host of stairs emerged from both sides and they finally merged onto the entrance of the holy shrine embellished with murals and paintings. The sight of a 42ft golden statue of Matriaye Buddha made us all bow in reverence, our hands joined together. We gathered at one corner of the shrine to meditate with Lakshmi, our spiritual guide. Ten minutes down our mediation, we heard a soft commotion that almost tempted me to open my eyes and look around. But something told me from inside to just take in the sound and experience the bliss. The sound of the gong, the gentle chants and the warmth of pure, devoted souls gave goosebumps to us all, and each of us felt a divine presence showering blessings and love on us. I knew the monks were praying and sharing such a divine space with them provided a ssense of bliss and a rare experience that none of us will ever forget.
Still in a daze, we were driven to the lamp house for our lunch where what happened next, made me wonder if this could be included as one form of meditation, primarily for women at large. We rummaged the store beside the café that sold incense sticks, wall hangings, cushion covers withchants and symbols on them, silk woven wallets, bags, jackets, and pieces of jewellery, as the storekeeper endeavoured to handle the commotion that lasted almost an hour.
Back home after unloading our shopping bags on the Khatiya, a wooden woven bed, near the dining hall, we gathered around a bonfire, meditating and sharing our experiences of the day. We wrote about our guilt, hatred and ego that we wanted to do away with and threw them in the bonfire with a gentle prayer that they vanish gradually from our heart.
Aware that the last day of our tour had arrived, I escaped everybody’s eyes and walked up the hills to a quiet place. Perching myself on a rock, I looked around to soak once again the abundance of nature open to one and all. There could not have been a better spiritual journey, than in such a lush and an un-touristy place that brought me one step closer to myself. I closed my eyes as the cold breeze caressed my hairs, soothed my temples, eased out my brows and I knew why I had to come.