The Kangra Valley is fast becoming a millennial hub for co-work and co-living. It remains, however, a beautiful getaway with monasteries,
tea estates, pine-lined drives, ancient heritage and quaint village homestays with the Dauladhar range travelling everywhere alongside
BY RITU AGARWAL
Our descent into the quaint Dharamshala Kangra airport from aboard a Q400 turboprop aircraft was the perfect start to an impromptu getaway to the mountains as Delhi sweltered at 46°C. As we stepped out of the aircraft to airport grounds at an altitude of 2,492 ft, spread over 1,269 acres surrounded by the lovely Dauladhar range, the stress was already starting to melt away.
Our home for the next few days was a pretty cottage in Rakkar, dressed up in mint and pastel hues, situated bang in the middle of a village, with mooing cows, birds, village people going about their daily chores, swaying fields a short walk away, and the Dauladhar mountains skimming
the skyline. Poetically named Ahmiyat by its creator, Anshuman Agarwal, the place helped us connect with the essence of slow life: Less Is More!
Rakkar village, in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley, is the gateway to Dharamshala, Mcleodganj, Dharamkot, Palampur and Bir Billing. It became a good base camp as we explored the surrounds. Returning to Ahmiyat tired from our explorations, to chat on the balcony that
wrapped the rooms in its running girth, and soak in the night sky, was blissful beyond words.
Rakkar emerged as a millennial hub during the pandemic. Youngsters from Delhi and the northern plains escaped to the pristine surrounds to seek an alternative lifestyle. Co-work co-living spaces abound, as do cafés and bakeries, run by these ‘immigrants’.
The flight from Delhi was at an ungodly hour of 6.40 am and we were at Ahmiyat by 9 am. Not having slept a wink through the previous night, we tried to rest but were too excited and needed to step out. So off we went to the beautiful Norbulingka, an institute dedicated to preserving the integrity of Tibetan artistic and literary traditions. Named after the Dalai Lama’s traditional summer residence, in Lhasa, Tibet, the institute, a 10-minute drive away, provides education, training and employment for Tibetans.
Set amidst Japanese-inspired gardens, it has the Seat of Happiness Temple and a four-metre-high copper statue of Buddha Sakyamuni, which is one of the largest statues outside Tibet. My personal favourite was the Losel Doll Museum, displaying a stunning collection of 160 dolls crafted by monks and representing gorgeous ritual, regional, theatrical and religious costumes and masks of Tibet.
You can stay at Norbulingka as they operate two guesthouses, Chonor House and Norling Guesthouse. There is a café offering Tibetan, some western fare, and a simple buffet that is ₹350/head. The high-quality traditional clothing, art objects and furnishings produced at in-house
workshops and a design studio are sold at the Norbulingka shop.
Just outside is a line-up of cafés and bakeries and we went back one afternoon to eat at Joyful, recommended by a friend living locally. Ken, who runs the place, was friendly, and the pizzas were topnotch gourmet; I would go back for his smoked meats: chicken and pork, which he proudly prepared in equipment acquired abroad. Ken also saved us from confirmed trauma waiting to occur the next day. When he heard we were planning to do Mcleodganj, he firmly said, “NO. Bad day, since it’s Saturday. If it’s a weekend, you will be trapped in traffic, long hours up the singlelane winding roads!”
After much research we decided to explore a unique, ancient hidden gem: the rock-carved Masroor Temples. An hour and a half’s drive on a very hot day (unusual in the mountains) took us to these fascinating eighth-century temples that often resemble the carvings of Ajanta-Ellora and Khajuraho. There is very little information about them and not many travellers land up there. They are believed to have been built by the
Pandavas while they were travelling through these mountains. It’s claimed to be a Ram temple complete with a stairway which the Pandavas would use to ascend to heaven! There is nothing here except a stall selling water, soft drinks, packaged snacks and tea-Maggi.
PALAMPUR AND BIR BILLING
We kick-started an early Sunday with a beautiful drive lined with deodar and pine trees to Palampur where we were meeting our travel Instagrammer friends Saurav and Kanika for brunch at the Wah Tea Estate. Palampur is picture postcard pretty. So is Wah. Run by the third and fourth generations, Deepak and Surya Prakash, who personally look into the entire manufacturing process. The history of the place is entwined with the Goodrich Tea Estate which was leased by their forefathers, a family of chaiwalas managing kirana shops, back in 1917. They went on to acquire Wah Tea Estate in 1953 which was originally established in 1857 in Palampur by the British.
Creative, quirky and cheeky quotes on tea are scattered around the 500-acre rambling tea gardens. ‘Hey Hot-tea,’ says one. ‘You can’t buy happiness but you can buy tea. It’s kinda the same thing,’ says another. This mood leads us to the café that has the tea bushes unrolling before us like an undulating carpet. The menu is sharp, simple with an interesting array of, what else, tea. We got humid weather but it would be simply mind-blowing to sit and do nothing here with a bit of rain blowing across the estate!
One can take a tea factory tour, walk around the estate, pick up some produce from their store or even book a night stay at the Wah Lodge. The teas are pesticide-free. Chamomile Green, Kangra Black, Rose Tea, Masala Tea, lemongrass… we were spoilt for choice and brought back some to share with family and friends. From here we were whisked away by Inspired Travellers (the Instagram account Saurav and Kanika run) to Bir Billing where they are currently living a charmed life in a pahari mud house, in the middle of a field with stunning sunsets framed in their window and paragliders soaring in the skies above. Another millennial favourite way of life around here is ‘Influencing’ with many well-known Instagram travel influencers having settled in and around Himachal.
Life is indeed beautiful. Treks, bike rides to discover freshly fallen snow, picnics by streams, working in cafés eyeballing mountains all the while, growing your own food, and a beautiful well-bonded community of like-minded people that serve as ‘friends like family’, every Instagrammer’s favourite phrase, after BFF & BAE, that is. Go figure.
MCLEODGANJ & DHARAMKOT
Since you cannot go to Dharamshala and come away without paying obeisance to the Dalai Lama, off we went to Mcleodganj on our final day. The roads were typical and single-car lanes. We got stuck a wee bit and decided to hop off and walk to our lunch destination: Nick’s Italian.
We were very grateful to our friend from Joyful café, Ken, for having saved us the weekend crowd mania.
The Dalai Lama Temple, as his abode is popularly known, was reached by walking down a lane lined with typical Tibetan stores of junk jewellery, woollen clothing, caps, shawls, mufflers and so on. You can pick up reasonably priced baubles and ‘prezzies’. The temple was reopened recently after the pandemic shut-down. The spiritual leader remained indoors at his residence in Dharamshala through the lockdown, and is likely to visit the Union Territory of Ladakh between July and August this year in what would be among the first of his public visits after the Covid-19 outbreak. The first building inside the complex is a Tibet Museum that displays, among other things, photographs of the Chinese incursion into Tibet. The museum showcases the major cause of the inflow of Tibetans into India. The biggest Tibetan Temple outside Tibet, this monastery has a big meditation hall filled with beautiful thangkas and statues along with a Kalchakra temple, and can also
be reached by a cable car which is a ropeway from Dharamshala to Mcleodganj.
We drove up to Dharamkot where the pine forests get denser, the air gets cooler and misty. Walk around, get a honey-lemon tea at any mountain-facing kiosk precariously balanced on a cliff crammed with backpackers or grab some food at the Israeli cafés that dot the lanes. As Israeli and European travellers started staying at Dharamkot more and more, a brimming pot of culture and cuisines has developed that is unique and pretty awesome.
We left for Delhi with our minds full of thoughts and visions. The beautiful evening on the rooftop of Blossoms Village Resort wrapped in the twinkling lights of the settlements on the slopes of the Dauladhar; Anshuman sharing experiences of his slow life of swims in the khud (mountain stream) and enhanced creative process at a quiet design studio he set up in Rakkar that led him to Ahmiyat; the parrots that flew into a small tree outside our cottage every single morning to feast on its fruit in frenzy as we watched in quiet awe….