Returning to India ~ The Himalayan Cottage

I was on my way to Mother India once again The emotions stirred up before my departure left me with a deeply depressed heart. But I knew why I was going: to finish the manuscript and illustrations for my book, to have more time studying with Ustad Ji and to pursue my meditation practice deeply and undisturbedly. Clarity about my intentions allowed me to move forward with decision and precision.

The flight seemed to go relatively quickly and before I knew it, I was stepping off the plane in Delhi. There really is something a bit shocking about boarding an airplane in Utah and exiting into the fantastic world that is India. The noise and bustle of the autos, the smells, and the colorfully clothed people. It felt dream-like. “How am I here? What is happening?” were thoughts running through my mind.

Himalayan Wonders

Ustad Ji was still traveling internationally, so I decided to open myself to a whole new adventure until his return. Instead of going directly to Amritsar, I had arranged to rent a small 100-year-old mud cottage in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand.

Two things informed my decision. First, I would be able to focus intently on my work and meditation practice in a remote setting. Second, I had always dreamed of living in a place surrounded by nature. I was curious to see if I would thrive in a rural environment or go insane! I realized that the realities of living in forested isolation might not be as wonderful as the romanticized idea. But, I figured worst-case scenario I could always leave if it turned out to be a nightmare.

I felt afraid. My destination, the rural village of Deenapani, wasn’t easy to get to. I had never been to this part of India before and I didn’t know anyone there. My only contact was with the landlord/host who I had communicated with via email. From the airport, I transferred to the train station. After about a three hour wait, my train arrived and I traveled for several hours before disembarking to begin a four-hour cab ride.

Foothills of Uttarakhand near Kathgodam

As I exited the train, I realized I was about to become acquainted with an entirely new side of India. The lush jungle was already encroaching all around. By this time, I had been traveling for over 35 hours. My feet and ankles had swollen beyond recognition, I was exhausted and my mind was full of dark, depressed thoughts. Fortunately, I was able to sleep through most of the taxi drive through the curving mountain roads.

Chandra Mehta “Auntie” preparing to bless me

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by my host and landlord, Mayank, and his in-laws, Narender and Chandra Mehta (Uncle and Auntie as per custom here). Mayank lives with his wife, Kiran (who was expecting their first child), in the neighboring city of Almora and Auntie and Uncle live just next door.

Mayank announced that the first order of business was that Chandra Auntie was going to give me a blessing. I felt stunned and held by the Divine in that moment. I had always received plenty of welcoming cups of tea when arriving in India, but never a blessing. The darkness that had plagued me for months lightened as I felt that despite other’s negativity and judgement surrounding my decision to return to India, the Divine did indeed want me to be there. India was embracing my return with a prayerful benediction.

My hosts directed me to sit on a chair in the courtyard of the cottage where Auntie placed a bindi dot on my forehead and reverently placed flower petals upon my head.

Mayank gave me a quick tour of the cottage and a welcome basket containing home-grown herbal teas, fruit, chips and some chocolate. I lived off that basket for two days until I had enough energy to walk to one of the village’s general stores.

The Lakshmi doorstop of my cottage, bringing abundance and blessings.
View of cottage from the road

The air was clear and humid and the few homes around the cottage nestled themselves quietly in the folds of the surrounding jungle. During the summer season, mountain regions of India escape from the intense heat experienced in the lowlands. Nights are always pleasantly cool and no fans or AC are necessary.

I began to take walks early every morning after my meditation Sadhana. The natural world surrounding me felt like a healing balm. I relished the contrasting beauty unfolding through days of sunshine or misty rain.

The walk to the East

And there were many moments when I would just stop and stare in reverent awe at the magnificence before me. It didn’t take me long to conclude I had been guided to an amazing place where my time would be wisely spent and richly filled.

Morning in Deenapani

I never procrastinated from the one main reason I had come, to work on finishing my book. As soon as the jet lag had worn off, I began focusing on my manuscript and illustrations with laser-like precision. The weather during the daytime was pleasantly warm and I was able to set up a workstation outside. When the sun became too intense, I would move inside and use the windowsill as a desk.

The view from my outside workspace
Detail of illustration sketch © by Amanjot Kaur

I sat working 6-8 hours a day on fine tuning and corrections within the manuscript, and finishing the remaining 32 preliminary pencil sketches for the book’s illustrations. There were many times Uncle Ji would see me outside and call out, “Madame, are you free?” and invariably, I would have to answer, “No, I am working.”

I also made time for deep meditation practice. On those days I would hang a note on my door which read “Meditating, please do not disturb.” Sometimes uncle came to check on me, just to make sure I was still okay.

Afternoon break

Things are different in the mountain villages. Shops generally close by 6 pm. So if I needed grocery supplies, I would take a break in the late afternoon and walk to the general store. One day on my way back, I paused to shift my bags, then just stood and stared in awe at the scene opening out before me. Then I took a moment to capture the photograph that follows. How lucky am I, that THIS is the view I see when going out for groceries! I thought with disbelief and gratitude for the experience I was having.

Walking back from the general store
Villager with goats

Sometimes I would look up from my work to see a vignette of rural village life that made me pause to admire the simple beauty.

Every evening hosted an amazing sunset. Sometimes golden. Sometimes rosy pink. Sometimes with towering clouds, reflecting the light. Most nights, I sat outside at dusk eating a light supper and enjoying the view until the mosquitos arrived for their nightly duty.

I soon found I had a new friend in the form of the neighbor’s dog, Bruno. Sometimes he would go exploring the forest with me.

One Saturday, Mayank came to take me on a field trip. We rode on his scooter towards Almora to see the Kasar Devi temple. Kasar Devi is renowned as a special meditation spot which includes a temple atop the hill above a cave that had been meditated in by Swami Vivekananda. Later on my own, I sometimes woke up early and made the hour-long walk there, so that I could meditate alone in the cave.

Below the meditation cave at Kasar Devi
At Kasar Devi

I have mostly lived among Sikh people, so it was really interesting living in an area that was predominantly Hindu. I enjoyed hearing their music, the conch shell being blown at dawn and dusk, hearing the bells, and smelling the incense that are all part of their daily Puja.

I continued to focus on my work, even while on outings. I took many photographs that became references for my sketches. My illustrations were taking on new life and richness from the inspiration of my surroundings

By early September, I had finished my manuscript revisions and the last of the pencil sketches. It was now time to go over them with a nib pen and black India ink. Uncle Narender Ji brought over a table, and I reorganized my workspace to prepare for the next phase of my project.

I sat for hours day after day, until the sun was going down and the bugs were starting to bite. One day a lovely Indian woman and her father passed down the trail next to the cottage and saw me working. They said they were in the area for a few days on holiday and were curious about what I was doing, so I explained and showed them some of the work I had completed that day. We talked for a while and they invited me for tea the next day at the forest service cottage they were renting on top of the hill.

Detail of Illustration © by Amanjot Kaur

One of my favorite things about living in the Himalayan foothills and jungle was the experience of living amongst primates. This was the first time in my life living somewhere where such creatures were freely roaming the landscape. Mostly I saw or heard them as they tried to raid the neighbor’s apple tree, the orange tree next to my cottage.

If you have never experienced it before, there is an awesomeness of seeing and hearing the primates crashing through tree branches with their strength and speed. I never got tired of watching them whenever they unexpectedly appeared. The villagers dislike them however. I couldn’t help but giggle whenever I heard the people grunting and shouting in an attempt to scare off the unwelcome troops.

I was discovering that I really enjoyed living in a rural setting. Being alone most of the time really didn’t bother me. Neither did the absence of entertainments and excursions. However, there were other challenges and difficulties to the living situation. The remoteness of the village meant that access to diverse vegetables and fruits was very limited compared to the bigger cities.

Power outages lasting many hours were a daily occurrence, which tended to take out the internet and interfere with the ability to fill the water tank on my roof – my only source of water. The geyser for heating the water would also be off when the power was out. Let me tell you, mountain water that has been chilled over night in the tank on the roof will provide you with one of the most shocking cold shower experiences of your life!

Another major challenge of cottage life was that there was only screening in the windows along with wood shutters – no glass. When the weather was warm it was delightful, but once the season shifted, it was really uncomfortable. Late in the monsoon, we were deluged with about a week of torrential rain. If I wanted daylight, I had to reconcile myself to cold draughts from every opening. If I closed them, it it was like being in a dark cave. I hunkered down inside, trying my best to work. To me the benefits outweighed the challenges. After all, even heaven on Earth has its gritty realities, right?

Visit to Kasar Devi Mandir

The summer had flown by and a huge portion of my main work had been completed but I still had some important things to go. It was time to pack up to return to Punjab. I was looking forward to seeing Ustad Ji and all my Indian family in Amritsar, but my heart was also sad to leave behind my new family in the Himalayas and the beautiful Indian wilderness.

Several hours into the journey towards Punjab, a quirky and lovable side of India made me smile with the following sight. The journey of life was continuing…


Comments

8 responses to “Returning to India ~ The Himalayan Cottage”

  1. What a wonderful journey to the lush forests of India. Looks like a very scenic & magical land. I loved read your experiences. I’m excited for your book!

    1. Thank you, I’m really glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you for all the ways you have contributed to the book and for your friendship 🙏🏽🙏🏽

  2. Cecilia Cartolin Avatar
    Cecilia Cartolin

    Hello, I think you have a very special live in the India, the environment, the food, the people . I am so happy for you this is unique experience for your life, but take a time to know more people. Take care , I hope so see you soon pretty soon.

    1. Dear Cecilia, I feel so blessed to have you in my life all these years! Thank you for your comments. I also hope to see you soon 🙂

  3. Joe Hutchings Avatar
    Joe Hutchings

    Satnam Amanjot! What a beautiful story. I felt the beauty of your experiance in your marvelous expression. I felt the love and joy you have for the people and country. The picture you took on the way back from market and all the pictures made me happy. What an adventure of living your having. Excited to read the book and hear you sing once again. Many blessing to you on your journey.

    1. Satnaam Joe / Dayal Singh 🙏🏽 Thank you for your comments and loving words! I am so glad you enjoyed the post. I sure miss seeing your smiling face. Hopefully we meet again in the not too distant future 🙂 Big Hugs

  4. Polly Soren Avatar
    Polly Soren

    Dear daughter,
    You are always in my heart and in my mind. The beauty and challenges you’ve experienced in your travels is also shown through your beautiful spirit as you share yourself with those you meet. Wonderful that you share your spirit, your talents of music, art, writing, knowledge and love of mankind and the creations with others. I love you my daughter. With love from your mother, Polly

    1. Thank you for supporting me by allowing me to explore the things I loved.

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