Palampur makes an ideal, offbeat hill destination
It is a dream. You’re walking down a lovely, long mountain road, shady with a thick cover of graceful, tall pine trees rising from mysteriously plunging slopes. Even without touching the deep green leaves, you can sense their velvety softness. Again and again, you reach out to steal a fistful of the elusive mist, in vain. Its a gentle glide on undulating waves of serenity as the pines whisper sweet-nothings.
Melt dreams with reality. Choose Palampur, an offbeat hill destination in the Kangra valley, at the foothills of the majestic Dhauladhar mountain ranges. Its claim to fame is that its the only tea-producing region of North India. But more importantly, you’ll have it all to yourself.
An early start from Delhi and a pleasant 10-11 hour drive (including the mandatory Murthal pitstop), will have you there by late afternoon. The highway narrows in cozily after Mohali (Chandigarh), eucalyptus trees line the route, villages dot the landscape and a hazy silhouette of mountains starts to form. Beyond the white arched gates of the holy town of Anantpur Sahib, with its splattering of Gurudwaras, and the dam town of Nangal, where water rushes down a canal beside the highway, the mountains get clearer. Past a dry river bed filled with smooth, round stones and rocks, where the ascent begins, pull over at a small eating joint called Hill View. No hill view. Just a modest meal of flavourful kadhi rice on an ordinary table under whirring turquoise fans and orange window panes. It will do. Time to buckle up for the shortest route to Palampur via Hamirpur.
The absence of traffic on the winding road hugging the edges of the mountains is comforting. Except for a small stretch, it is protected on both sides by trees and green mounds and tiny villages. Alternately ascending and descending the gentle slope circling the green mountains, manoeuvring a few hairpins and the one-odd gaping cliff edges, you reach the army area of Yol. The Google lady directs you 200 meters left from Kaalu di Hatti (she pronounces Kailoo with a heavy accent). By now, Palampur road signs have started appearing. In little over an hour, “your destination will be in front of you.”
The briefly busy marketplace gives way to a patch of pine trees and a small clearing with a sign announcing the Church in the Wilderness leading to the Bundla Tea Estate, where your home in the hills greets you. It’s a row of five cottages with green slanting roofs, each with its own parking slot and little porch. A staff member walks up, nodding knowingly when you introduce yourself. No check-in formalities, you are escorted directly to your cottage instead. It will be taken care of later, he assures you with a gracious smile.
The cottage is adorable. A few steps down the little lobby is a living and dining area, a service kitchen and a bedroom. A large patio from the tall glass doors beyond the living / dining overlooks sloping tea gardens punctuated by tall firs and pines. Upstairs are more bedrooms. A balcony facing the tea gardens and a border of mountains on the right side…Dhauladhar. Is that snow? Yes! Delightful little touches everywhere, a mirror and console at the foyer, novels in the bedroom, collectibles on shelves, candle stands on end-tables, a crockery cabinet and even a fireplace near the dining table. Even a personal caretaker. Order a snack and enjoy it on cane chairs in the private sit-out, listening to the whistling birds and squawking parrots. In the evening, lounge on the couches, sift through the book collection, laze on the outdoor lawn area, study the vibrant flowers, listen to soft music and sip hot soup before a lavish dinner. So much to do!
Next day, drive along a romantic road encased in a thick cluster of bamboo thickets, rhododendron shrubbery and banana boughs, till you arrive at Andretta, a quaint artist village. Established by an Irish theatre artiste and environmentalist called Norah Richards, an Irish dramatist and environmentalist who lived there from 1920’s to 1970, it was once frequented by yesteryear Bollywood moviemaker Prithvi Raj Kapoor and now is home to a renowned pottery centre. Andretta pottery and craft centre is run by the renowned potter Mansimran Singh and his British wife Mary Singh, son of the famous potter Sardar Gurcharan Singh (who set up Delhi Blue Art Pottery in 1952, inspired by blue Persian glaze). It is said that a young Prithvi Raj Kapoor also spent time learning theatre here. B C Sanyal, who played a key role in setting up the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi was a frequent visitor. Freda Bedi, actor Kabir Bedi’s mother also lived in Andretta was a friend of Richards. Portrait painter Sardar Soba Singh and Sardar Gurcharan Singh were among those Richards invited while establishing Andretta as an Artist Village.
But first, a necessary stop at Sir Sobha Singh’s art gallery. The famous 20th-century Indian artist’s impeccably preserved studio, bedroom, personal possessions, in this little house which looks straight out of Stratford-upon-Avon. Outside at a counter selling local cookies called mithroo and vibrant coloured ruby-red and emerald-green sherbets. Norah Richards’ deserted mud house, reminds you of Marie Antoinette’s rustic hamlet at Versailles. The little Andretta pottery workshop complex has several dedicated potters at work, including foreigners. A trader is engaged in pricing and negotiations to sell the wares in Delhi. The designs are lovely…you wander, linger, contemplate, then indulge by buying a aqua green milk jug.
If art is near, can architecture be far behind? Explore the ancient Shiv temple of Baijnath, a half-hour away by road. Tiny specks of paragliders at Bir-Billing make a interesting contrast on the way. Baijnath is an ancient 5000-year old stone structure completely enclosed by a brick wall. In the scalding heat, you quickly walk barefoot over the green rubber mats laid out in the temple’s inner walls. Despite the fact that you’re on your toes, the hotness is unforgiving. Peering into the small interior of the temple, you’re depressed that the original grace of the inner sanctum has been marred by glaring floodlights and ugly CCTV cameras. Does the priest have a ‘proud’ look on his face, or is that a vain pose for a tourist?
Its perfectly acceptable to have no other agenda in this erstwhile obscure hill town, but fragrant, delicate and soothing tea is all around. Visit a tea garden to see a small white tea flower, and the tips (little bud with its two just-opened lower leaves) which sells for Rs80 for 250g. The rest of the inferior category is used for tea bags. At a tea factory, leaves dry in wire-bottomed troughs, suspended above whirring fans. In another large hall, people stomp on tea leaves and sweep piles into mammoth trays. Buy some. Unadulterated. Pure. Fresh from the lap of nature.
Wrap up your treasured souvenirs carefully. Those large dried pine cones will find a loving place in your home, along with other objects of travel affection. On the way, keep your eyes peeled for quaint huts, village women carrying water pots and milkmen cycling by with milk cans. Wonderful memories of a tranquil and picturesque little town in Kangra. An unmistakable sprinkle of city-dust, but the untouched, unspoilt vistas still shine through. The pines and the peace of Palampur will stay in your heart forever.
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