Morning train to Nowhere
“Where are we going, Jan?”, Jerry asked (for the nth time) one pleasant, summer morning. We were at the buzzing New Delhi Railway Station waiting for our train to arrive. It had been a while since our last train journey together. Also, this was what the world looked like at 5 am! A cool breeze – uncharacteristic for the month of May – wrapped itself around us. It felt divine but had the signature scent of most railway stations in our country. This one contained a hint of early summer with strong notes of urine. Soon, a ginormous rat made an appearance – scurrying in and out of the railway tracks. As with some things so grotesque that one can’t help but look, we found ourselves watching its every movement.
I was glad for the rat’s shenanigans. Anything that would distract Jerry was welcome. This secret birthday getaway and destination had been planned months before! I was determined to not crack under pressure and give information away. The morning had already begun with “It’s my birthday today. You can tell me now, right?”. Which soon turned into panic “Is there hot water where we’re going?!”. Finally, the stuff his nightmares are made of “Are you taking me on a trek?!”. That birthday morning was definitely more fun for me than him.
Our Shatabdi soon pulled onto the platform. Armed with a week’s supply of Archie’s and Tinkle Comics, we boarded the train and proceeded to doze off almost instantly.
Halfway to Somewhere
Fast forward five hours later, we got down at the Kathgodam railway station and left the stifling heat of the plains behind. The sunlight was blinding yellow still but the air outside got colder as we drove up to the hills. Now, the air inside our cab however, was thicker with nervous anticipation. It felt like the right time to dish out some teasers. “We’re going to an incredibly beautiful place. It’s really nice!”, I said. This seemed to help a little but my evil streak got the better of me. I followed up with “We’re heading to a village”. All of which was true but…was I going to be nice and elaborate, or harmlessly mess with my husband’s head? Anyone who knows me, even a little, will have guessed which part of me won that tussle. Jerry’s phone buzzed incessantly with people’s birthday wishes. “I’m really not prepared for a trek”, went one of his phone conversations to a friend, but directed pointedly at me.
After a quick two-hour drive, we arrived at a sharp bend in the road. The Dhanachuli bend – as the road is called – unwittingly became a co-conspirator, working with me towards the perfect reveal. Perched beautifully on a hill and bathed in the glorious afternoon sun was Te Aroha – a gorgeous colonial-style property that could have only emerged straight out of a painting. The trees provided the perfect canopy to the hotel’s entrance. The white and yellow Te Aroha colours seemed to play effortlessly with the rays of the sun. It was an exquisite sight, rivaled only by the priceless expression of delight (and relief) on Jerry’s face.
Te Aroha is an erstwhile summer home now converted into a luxury boutique hotel in the picturesque village of Dhanachuli. It was born out of an immense love for the Kumaon hills and its people by founder, Sumant Batra.
Most travelers will have unknowingly passed by Dhanachuli en route to the more popular hill stations like Binsar or Mukteshwar. ‘Te Aroha’, meaning “to love” in Maori is a curiously charming name for a hotel in the hills of India. Being a huuuge fan of the All Blacks, Jerry was more than thrilled at this unexpected Maori connect.
Over the years, I’ve grown to love the picture book as a medium of storytelling. Te Aroha and Dhanachuli were part love song and part vintage picture book come to life. The property was a veritable symphony for the eyes. What we loved about it the most was how a wonderful story was simply waiting to unfold; in each wing and room, every corner of carefully curated artwork, all interactions with the incredible staff, and the quiet, mysterious allure of Dhanachuli – where all of this had found a home.
Turn the Pages
We stayed in the beautiful ‘Master’s Bedroom’, located in the old wing of Te Aroha. The suite was a complimentary upgrade and such a wonderful birthday surprise. Fabulous curios, furniture, and antiques seemed to have been sourced from various places. Seen here is the birthday boy posing for me in the living room.
The Bedroom: Pale yellow, evening sunlight streamed into the room, with its beautiful French windows, a gorgeous sloping roof, and a luxurious four-poster bed. The side table had a lovely card in it with a quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the joy of sleep. Thank you, Coleridge. I’ve never needed any convincing on that one. I would’ve loved to discuss ‘Kubla Khan’ with you at length though.
Waking up to the calls of an actual Cuckoo would be my favourite sound in those three days. I take that back…my second favourite sound after the rain and wind on the roof.
The living room opened out to a private garden with stellar views of expertly crafted terraced hills. Soothing green of pine and rhododendron trees. Birds soaring through the green. Gentle clouds rolling in.
Things of beauty in unexpected places. Just like the wildflowers around, the hotel seemed to be a natural extension of Dhanachuli – nestled in serene beauty within its breathtaking hills, bursting with organic colours and vibrant life.
The piano in the Old Wing
The rooms and suites at Te Aroha each possess a unique character or a great back story of their own. The suite called “Three Steps Down” requires its guests to climb down three steps into their room, while “The Attic” has a winding staircase leading up from the bedroom to a cozy space of your own, for a closer interaction with the stars. The “He for She” suite, on the other hand, is a tribute to the United Nations campaign for gender parity.
We looked at portraits of people whose love and dedication went into the making of Te Aroha. Labourers, electricians, masons, painters, carpenters, project supervisors. The staff at the hotel all belong to Dhanachuli and surrounding areas. Conversations with them were delightful! They simply radiated warmth and pride while speaking about their homes and about the hotel. It was incredibly heartwarming.
Café Flashback: with its love for nostalgia and throwbacks to grainy, sepia-toned times. Vintage Bollywood posters and advertisements adorned the walls. The place mats contained prints of childhood staples – Ludo and Snakes & Ladders. The sweet, calming lilt of old Bollywood music filled the air. The food was incredible! We highly recommend the Pahadi Chicken curry!
The walls of Café Flashback
A walk up from the café took us to Chitrashila, the hotel’s in-house museum of vintage graphic art – nicely capping off our grandiose trip down memory lane. The warm and cozy Library below the museum stole my heart.
The Old Dhanachuli Village
The hotel organised a wonderful walk to the breathtaking Dhanachuli village which was forty minutes away. We walked, completely spellbound, through rows of wheat, apple, apricot, walnut, and potato farms. Shining and smiling faces yelled ‘namaste!’ as we passed by, followed by countless invitations to join their families for chai.
Our wonderful hosts
Our happy guide
The goal was to reach the original Dhanachuli village further down and we made rapid progress since the walk was completely downhill. Making our way back up later, would be a different story.
In a span of a few minutes, we walked straight into a different time. It felt like stumbling headlong into the magic closet to Narnia.
We stopped to take in the beauty of these abandoned spaces, still carrying signs of a different world. The village is believed to be anywhere between 150 to 200 years old.
It is said that settlers came here to escape religious persecution in the plains. The architecture of the abandoned huts was quite distinct, unlike anything I’d seen before in Kumaon. Arches and carvings on the doors were reminiscent not only of a different time but of places outside Kumaon.
Theirs had been a culturally rich and immensely wealthy community. Remnants of a glorious past were evident in the sheer size of some of the huts! We were told legends and stories of invasion, when families would quickly hide all their wealth (‘Dhan’) inside a fireplace (‘Chuli) and that’s how the village reportedly got its name!
Some of the villagers use these palatial but empty huts to store grain. I met little Jolly outside one of them. He had been put on a leash for troubling the women of the house during their chores. I could see how all the love brimming over could be misconstrued as mischief.
A quick game of cricket at the temple complex. Well alright, everyone else played and I posed for squad pictures.
The exploration didn’t end there as we proceeded to walk even further downhill to a place where we could see the river. “None of the guests have ever walked this far, with maybe the exception of two other girls!”, our guide announced excitedly and we beamed as well. Not too bad for two city slickers.
The river turned out to be a semi-dry ditch that time of the year. We decided to take in the view from here, instead of walking all the way down. This house also happened to belong to a staff member at Te Aroha. His mother was lovely and chatted with us about life in the village, while chiding our guide gently for not informing her that he was bringing guests. “I would’ve arranged for milk and snacks well in time!”, she said, clicking her tongue disapprovingly.
I thought of how we tend to associate village life with an imagined idyll. Living in the midst of all this beauty has its own share of hardships : long walks to get essential supplies from the market, unpredictable weather destroying roads and livelihoods, limited access to medical supplies and a good education. One thing was for certain. Living with the bare minimum filters out a great deal of unnecessary noise in the brain. Where difficulties are a part of life but the emphasis is on joy.
We joined the family in celebrating the birth of a calf, who had decided to come into the world a few hours before we arrived. The black blur in the distance is the mother, resting. The calf seemed to have already found a godparent in the goat.
We could’ve stayed on to chat all evening but it was soon time to head out. The sun was setting rapidly. The walk back would be longer. Our pace was slower and finding the right footing became more challenging. Jerry had been tricked into a bit of a trek after all!
My favourite spot in the village to watch people and life go by
Seven years ago, our first trip together was an impulsive getaway to a village called Naddi in Himachal Pradesh and while we’ve been back to the mountains since then, nothing seemed to come close to that first trip. Until Dhanachuli.
Candles illuminated Café Flashback as we enjoyed dinner in the silence of the night. Of being completely present, while travelling a little back in time – it seemed a fittingly poetic way to celebrate a birthday. Te Aroha took us far, far away and we came back happier, the world suddenly more beautiful, our hearts lighter. When “to love” is the guiding force behind all efforts, it’s only a matter of time before everything else falls perfectly into place. And despite being ambushed into a mini trek, it was evident Jerry agreed.