I was furloughed in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand when a friend shared details of a retreat in Kumaon. The idea of another escape to the hills is as alluring during a vacation as it is while struggling with dusty, man-made city life. I said yes without thinking.
I briefly knew that the three days long getaway has a format. I was aware that we will be in the company of people divided by geography and united by the love for nature. There was information available to read and people available to answer questions, but I wanted to be surprised. How much planning do you need to rejuvenate in the lap of nature, anyway!
We flew from Ahmedabad around sunrise on May 24 and a cab had been arranged to get us from Delhi Airport to Pangot, near Nainital in Uttarakhand. We arrived at The Nest Cottages after dusk and were welcomed by a smiling group of people, fairy-lit place and a chilly hill breeze.
Dilda White & The Water Mountain is not just a resort you book as an accommodation. It is a concept, a fusion, an attempt. Founded by two friends; Digvijay Singh, a Fashion Designer by profession and a rebel by ideology and managed by Sushil Chintak, a Creative Director by profession and naturist by inclination is this experience curated to gather people of different skills and turn them into a tribe. The duo is as passionate about nature as it is about food. The place does not have typically categorized areas like rooms, restaurant, lobby and entrance but random, hidden corners. ‘Ground Zero’ is the starting point for both, the property and outdoor activities, ‘Sunset Point’- the terrace, ‘The Edge’- an earthy balcony for movie-screenings, ‘The Tavern’- a cosy bar and hall for open mics, ‘The Hub’- for activities and cafeteria for meals.
We freshened-up and gathered for dinner. The food was simple yet delicious, a combination best suited to the feel of that place. There were introductory conversations amongst the tribe that revealed the skill diversity present under one roof. Jewellery designer, investment banker, poets, bikers, painters, graphic designers, singers, guitarist, photographer, writers, art director, concept cafe owners, filmmaker, educationist, politician and entrepreneurs; it was such a powerful yet grounded group! Everyone was tired after long journeys so we kept the night light and withdrew timely.
Even eight hours long sleep does not suffice in air-conditioned bedrooms for me but I woke up feeling fresh in the simple yet tastefully done wooden cottage, brimming with pure air and soft sunlight. The photographer friend who had asked me to join for this trip came to our room excited like a child, ready to go out and explore. We got ready and headed for breakfast to a table adorned with fresh flowers and herbs. What a pristine beginning! People were mingling during and after the breakfast to know more about each other. Soon the breakfast had settled in our tummies and we left for a small, downhill trek. The tall oaks and pines provided a soothing shade and various birds were flocking and chirping around. The Jim Corbett range is home to thousands of species of birds, making the name ‘Nest Cottage’ even more relevant. We reached a spacious spot where a huge canvas was placed along with some buckets of eco-friendly paint and brushes for ‘strokes of meditation’. We made ourselves comfortable and sat on the ground. Each one of us was blindfolded, had to select a brush and colour, and paint something on the canvas with not more than two dips of colour. The idea was to connect to the unidentified thoughts and vent them out on the canvas, with different colours meaning differently to people. Shades of blue dominated the canvas in the first half, replaced by orange in the second. Blue, a symbol of water and orange, the colour of fire subtly hinted the co-existence of the opposites. People talked about what they had in mind while moving the brush and finding meaning on the canvas. The end result was a beautiful spectrum of colours, emotions and their fusion.
We then trekked back with hungry tummies for another good meal at Dilda White. With the passage of time conversations became more about exchanging perspectives on food, practices and beliefs. Post-lunch, we learnt the Japanese art of paper-making with hemplab. Using newspaper waste as the raw material and wooden frames for processing, making paper and decorating it with petals, leaves and herbs was such a calming process! The same can be done with machines but involves harmful chemicals. Additionally, making paper using one’s hands is meditative, really! The guy who taught us the art was so passionate about it, he travelled all the way from Auroville to teach us.
The highlight of the day, yes it did get even better, was the Sufi evening! A Qawwali group of five performed during Ramadan (a month of fasting in Islam) and concluded the soulful eve with Iftar (fast-breaking meal). As the music progressed, so did the spirits! I love both Urdu and poetry and together they make the most enchanting fusion possible! It is not an art form you get to witness often, I have had the fortune only once before. The vocalist recited Shayari (couplets) for everyone on the spot, making us feel so very special. Singing high notes on a stomach void of water and food with such zest is unimaginable for a no-water phobic like me. I shall remember this evening forever! It was only fair to continue the musical night in our own way, so we gathered around a bonfire with songs, spirits, guitar and food.
The breakfast of our second morning at The Nest Cottages was followed by a papercraft session. This Japanese art is known as Origami and was conducted by the founder of Kaagazi, Kavya. Simultaneously, a calligraphy session was on by Kabya and Daya from Cafe Otenga (Ahmedabad). The table at work was covered with colourful paper tulips with stems and pots by the time session ended. We then went for another trek in the jungle, only a little longer this time. The tribe carried Dilda White diaries and we were given eco-friendly palettes and colours to paint our hearts away. Most people painted nature, in their own perspectives and colours. Some painted pine cones from the forest while some others sketched the person sitting nearby; listening to soft, soothing music all along. Lunch consisting of starters and biryani was brought down by the hard-working team of Dilda White. We just lay on the ground facing the sky, watching the Sun play hide and seek with tall deodar trees, listening to the songs of exotic birds. It felt divine!
After trekking back to the property everyone took rest for a while and gathered again at night. We sang numerous songs as the youngest adult played the guitar. Intoxication paved way for wittier remarks and funnier stories. The night was young and people were in their elements! 😉
The third day was equally exciting. After breakfast began a local cuisine cooking challenge. The tribe was divided into four teams that went to the adjacent village and selected four women as their team leaders, who taught their respective teams four unique Kumaoni recipes. The leaders guided well and the teams were on their toes. We had 90 minutes to prepare and some extra time to present. This activity brought out the competitiveness in all of us. From trying to find the best prop for plating, searching for flowers and leaves to decorate to chop salad vegetables creatively, the excitement around the four clay ovens was worth a watch. Teams observed the ingredients of rivals and did everything to improve their own chances of winning. When the time was up, all the four groups laid out their preparations in the most artistic ways possible. Little had we expected to go all out and present the recipes with master chef standard. We were eager to know the judges and to our surprise, the most pleasant surprise, they were seven people who had been serving us, feeding us and taking care of us. They were shy yet happy to taste the food and gave great feedback. The fight was close and results were announced. B team won and the team leader was awarded, but prizes were given to all the four women and their children. All the members decided to contribute to the education of those children and the locals sang and danced to a popular folk number ‘bedpa ko balmasa’. Digvijay had prepared a special kadhi (a yoghurt based curry) with vegetables along with other delicacies.
By this time, the conversations had taken a deeper turn. Short breaks between activities were stretching longer as people wanted to speak and listen more. It took 2-3 reminders for us to start moving to the jungle for seed bombing. Seeds of yellow calendula were put inside cow dung balls and were thrown away in the woods using catapults. The fertilizer would melt in monsoon and little sunshine would spread across the jungle in a few months 🙂 After botany was the turn of zoology. We used cute stencils to paint shapes of birds and animals on a rooftop. Kids looked quite excited! 😀 An open mic session was the most appropriate way to conclude the night, the last night! A room was lit with candles and we recited poems, sang songs in their warm glow. It was amazing to see most of us write, sing or play and how! Spirits were flowing and so were the emotions, it was a beautiful night! It later progressed outside around a bonfire with more music and talks. Many of us had to leave early the next morning but it was difficult to go to bed. Somehow, around 2:00 am, we retreated to our rooms.
We relished our last breakfast at The Nest Cottages and bid adieu with a heavy heart and bundles of promises to come back to the Water Mountain.
Photography Credits: Gennext Studio