I came to Gunehar village in Kangra district a month ago, escaping the city for a few months to work at an arts retreat. My work here, however, is fairly urban—putting together a fundraising campaign, brainstorming about artist selections, making schedules on Excel…But when I’m not working, I’m relishing the country life.

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Gunehar, my present home, is a small hamlet and I often walk to the nearby village of Bir. But it’s the weekend market at Chougan, another neighbouring village, that I have grown to look forward to. Chougan is a mere 7-8 kms away from Gunehar and I usually ride in Kashmir’s cab. (In an earlier story, I wrote about Kashmir the cab driver who rues his unfortunate choice of name.) Chougan is also where the paragliders land after taking off from nearby Billing. 

Dotted with shops that sell a mix of Tibetan noodles, prayers flags and modern day packaged food, the colony also houses a Tibetan temple, a rather famous Deer Park Institute, a monastery and herbal medical centre. I have stocked up on cosy fleece jackets and even a pair of boots! I dart from shop to shop like a greedy city slicker starved of things, filling up on as much as I can before Kashmir starts tut-tutting loudly. But my favorite stop would be Dhundup Shop where you can find a variety of Tibetan incense, oriental tea mugs, beads, stones and what look like antique locks. All these are crammed with regular grocery items like cheese, dry fruits and chocolates. Dhundup himself is a genial old man who hosts card games, the favorite pastime of the local Tibetan shopkeepers. But he will allow himself to be interrupted when I finish my shopping, insisting on packing my backpack and zipping it up himself. I also find myself being drawn to the small beauty salons that advertise themselves as Tibetan herbal ones without living up to the claim (of being Tibetan run or herbal) but are great for a quick and cheap head massage.

Because of the Deer Park Institute and other neighboring tourist spots, Chougan also has a lot of small eateries that sell momos, thukpa, chowmein, butter tea and such dishes. I must have tried them all but I now patronise ‘Joy Cafe’ for its spicy fried rice and creamy coffee. It also has partly open seating with tables and benches that offer a view of the temple and the mountains in the backdrop.

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While this is the closest and most accessible getaway, I do venture out further, occasionally. There’s Baijnath—with the famous rock cut Shiva Temple with a view of the Kheerganga river, fabled to have been built by Ravana—and the bustling little market town of Paprola. I love them both for the little shops that sell piping hot samosas and jalebis. And I’ll never forget them for the conversations I’ve had. In fact, the last time I stopped at a tiny tea stall in Paprola, I struck up a conversation with the elderly woman who runs it. Noting that it was getting rather late in the day, she readily offered to put me up in her house for the night. It’s right next to the shop, she said. A true citygal, I could only feel my guard going up as I declined quickly and immediately. Later, I realised that it was generosity that I should have recognised.

A mere 20 kilometres away from Paprola lies an artists’ commune, Andretta. It’s the home of the late artist Sobha Singh and still houses his gallery. The gallery and house, where the artist lived and painted, has a museum attached to it that has preserved his and his wife’s belongings and living spaces.

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A short kilometre’s walk from the gallery leads to Andretta Pottery, which has a one-room museum of its own with exhibits and information on pottery styles around the world. It is here that Mansimran Singh, or Mini Singh as he is better known, runs his trademark residential glazed pottery course where he trains scores of students in throwing clay on manual potter’s wheels shunning the modern electric ones. There is also a small display shop where you can buy trays, vases and mugs done in glazed pottery style. I picked up a few souvenirs which Santosh, (cab driver for the day), insisted on checking for scratches and chips. I was also offered advice on how to pack them for my journey back to Bangalore. By Santosh, not the store attendant.

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I think of the places I’ve been to and people I’ve met here. The woman at the tea stall with her generous offer, the shopkeepers with their invitations for tea, the landlord with his gardening tips and the cab drivers who double up as guide and confidante…I am now headed to Delhi for the Art Fair. Just as I write this, I am scribbling, rather frantically, a shopping list on the ruled pages of a notebook I bought at the village market. It has on its cover, an excited looking duckling and a butterfly with eyes and lips. My list includes everything from shampoo to tissues and rusk biscuits for my chai.

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I must rush now, Kashmir is waiting to drive me to the pretty airport surrounded by the snow mountains with the most gorgeous landings and take-offs over lush green fields.

PS: The inset photographs are by Manan Kapoor, from his forthcoming book, The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky (April ’16). Manan says, “Chougan was a self-awakening journey where the solitude spoke to me in ways I couldn’t comprehend while I was there. The only feeling that surfaced was one of contentment and warmth. And I think that the pictures represent the striking magnetism of the place.”

Featured banner shows the Bajinath Shiva temple/ Shutterstock. 

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