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Romola Butalia

Romola Butalia, Editor, India Travelogue

writes about Banjara Orchard Retreat, Thanedar, Himachal Pradesh, as "a place one returns to, again and again, with the same delight and joy, as the first time."

A travelogue by Romola
(Courtesy: India Travelogue www.indiatravelogue.com)

Sangla Valley in Kinnaur, Himachal
The Kinner Kailash kshetra, like all Kailash kshetras is supremely sacred. Memories of earlier visits are indelibly imprinted on my screen of consciousness, clearly visible as a samskara, because the details of events remain trivial, but its importance has not receded. I had first vacationed here 12 summers ago, simply because it was a remote area of the Himalayas, at the time, untravelled. The Baspa river, the Sangla valley weaved its own magic. I had gazed with wonder and awe at Kinner Kailash from Kalpa, blissfully unaware of its spiritual significance, mesmerised by its beauty and grandeur, drawn irresistibly to the divine energies here. Three summers ago, I had returned intending to do the parikrama of Kinner Kailash. I find myself here yet again, with no ostensible raison-de-etre.

The entire stretch of Sangla valley runs alongside the Baspa river, with sheer mountains as a surrounding fortress. Yet the valley is open-faced, light and free. Rarely, in the Himalayas is there such a long and perfect un-shadowed stretch of sunshine from sunrise till sunset.

On earlier visits to the Sangla valley, I had always stayed in tents – something impermanent, itinerant, nomadic about it, not to mention the awareness of the elements - the chill winds, the constant rumbling murmur of the river below, sun, rain, even snow.

The last time I was here, I had stayed at Banjara Camps, across the river from Batseri village in Sangla valley. The tents here had unspeakable character - the inviting cane chairs outside, the bright fabrics inside, comfortable beds with warm quilts and hot water bottle replete, distinctive furniture, attached super-functional toilets with the sun filtering through the canvas overhead. The understated practical luxury was the best of both worlds - one could not ask for more. The central parachute was where everyone gathered for morning tea, evening coffee and friendly conversations. The evening meal at the cheerful dining hall with wooden benches and tables is remembered as much for the excellent meals as it is for the campfire and barbecue and soups that precedes it.

The 11 km walk from Rakcham is through forest paths, the purple-pink haze of flowers, boulders along the river bed, Batseri Gaon, remarkably neat and clean, the old wooden bridge across the river. Chitkul, 20 kms away on a motorable road is the highest and last village of this area within our country's border. At some 12,000 feet , the icy winds cross the snow-capped peaks directly in front - no sheltering protection of green trees and undulating mountains between.

Memories cannot be trained to remember what should be important - they have their own logic. So I recall the turning weather with an evening snowfall as we camped at Thangi village, the icy bath in the river below the Rakshi temple, from where the trek for the Kinner Kailash parikrama begins. I remember the midnight walk to the river, sitting on boulders as the night moved on with the moonlight shining silver streaks and shadows, and Kinner Kailash, remote, forbidding, magnetic. It was a powerful connection to an eternity known, remembered, forgotten.

This time at Sangla valley I stayed adjacent to the tented accommodation at the newly built Retreat of the Banjara Camps - a 14-room stone and wooden structure unlike anything even remotely similar in the entire Kinnaur region. The building blends with the environment, even though you cannot miss it. The USP of Banjara properties and their hospitality is that you are not unduly aware of them or their contribution and yet, they are as much a part of their surroundings as the sunlight in the valley, and you are glad your visit to the area was made richer by having all the nitty-gritty taken care of by them.

From the rooms, the wide glass windows overlook the river below, the devadar forests ahead and the snow-capped peaks on either side. The flowers blossom on the apple trees around. The sunshine yellow dandelions peep through the earth in this early spring after the late snowfalls we witness. The butterflies spread their wings as they flit between flowers in the brief span of their lives. The walks to the village, a growing familiarity with the culture and the people, have their own intangible effect.

I stay several days, but even as I live them and attempt to record them, the days move without awareness of the hours that cannot be counted. Mornings as the sun rises, I watch the harmony and co-ordination of tai chi practiced in a clearing. Early evenings are spent in meditation and contemplation. Some time is spent with words, spoken and written. And between the lines, unspoken, are memories more personal - of friendships, of caring, of sharing - without a traceable past or a future that leads anywhere. Of the wisdom that was garnered through subtle dimensions. Has all this got to do with Sangla valley ? Or is that merely the stage where a certain living played itself out. Time will tell, or perhaps not.

There was something magical, something mystical, a little known, a lot unknown - I am not sure what was the fulcrum - was it the magic of the Kailash kshetra - was it a perfect combination of a time and place and people?

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