"Glory lies in the attempt to reach one's goal and not in reaching it " ~ Mahatma Gandhi


Himalayan Village, Sonapani, Kumaon, Uttarakhand

Romola Butalia returns to one of her favourite vacation spots in Kumaon, Uttarakhand to view the Himalayas, catch up with friends, reminisce and introspect.

I am back again at Himalayan Village, Sonapani. Obviously I enjoy being here.

Minutes after we reached, we were sitting with warm cups of tea in hand, catching up with Ashish Arora who, along with his business partners, has set up the place. Ashish confided that his wife Deepa's brother was getting married, and could I suggest a good place for their honeymoon. I thought hard a few minutes. I said, "I suggest you leave here for a week and let them honeymoon here. There isn't a better place". I really meant it.

Two and a half years ago when my son Siddhartha and his wife Prachee had chosen to get married at the ancient temple complex of Jageshwar, 30 kms from Almora town, they had come to Sonapani immediately after. They were later joined by friends and family to celebrate the occasion over two days in a somewhat unusual way. I cannot think of a better place for extended families to meet. And very few other places I would recommend equally to enjoy a relaxed vacation without an agenda.

More on Uttarakhand

Kumaon Remembered
Emerald Trail
Corbett Park

Pindari Galcier
Mountain Biking

Pilgrim Trails
Paharpani Gufa

Sonapani sit-out It is not surprising that I am partial to the place. The 100-year-old stone homestead built by Captain Kushal Singh Burathoki when he retired here at Sonapani Estate, serves as home for Ashish, Deepa and their two young children, and also houses the office and staff quarters. For guests there are 12 independent cottages of home-made brick, stone and wood, rustic decor, warm colours. Flowers grow in wild abandon. Vegetables and herbs grow in terraced patches. A dining hall that is somehow always welcoming. There is a large bell, not to call guests for meals, but to get the attention of the kitchen staff when you want tea or coffee. This is a place where Ashish refuses to bind guests to time tables for meals. So you can have breakfast when you wake up and lunch when you return back from long walks in the pine forests on one side, oak forests on the other, or to the villages nearby. Dinner is when you have finished trading stories for the day at the open air sit-out. The food is delicious and the service warm and caring, and very personalised.

view of peaks, Sonapani And then. When the weather is perfect, in the early days of winter, of blue sunlit skies, the snow-capped mighty peaks are spectacular. You can see so many of them for so long that you can actually identify them in a photograph thereafter. "Which is your favourite peak?" I hear. "Nanda Devi is an obvious favourite, but I really like Pancha Chuli from here" comments someone. "Trishul, definitely Trishul". "Nanda Kot really looks like a fort".

Here, I am awed by darshan of the Himalayan peaks, and dumbfounded by their revelation. I desperately seek to imprint it in my memory to take back with me during the long dark months they remain hidden from my sight and I remind myself they do indeed exist. When they are not covered by clouds they are magnificent beyond compare. I do not want to look away, because I know how hard won is this glimpse. I do not want to take it for granted simply because I can see it constantly now.

Someone exclaims, "My God, they are so high! I did not realise they are so high!" I look at the peaks, like a stranger gaping at an astonishingly beautiful woman, unable to tear my glance away. At the same time I am almost shy to see these peaks so unabashedly uncovered. I quickly look to see if there are clouds to hide them, or can I continue to glance at them surreptitiously. I grow bold. Why, I have seen some of them from so close, known them so well. Surely they must remember me who has wandered in their shadows so long?.

flowers at Himalayan Village, SonapaniA butterfly flits past. Those purple flowers would grow wild where I once lived. The gladiolis, the dahlias, the geraniums, these are not bouquets at a florists shop. Is that a fox running? What bird is that? Is that the sound of a cicada? Ah yes, I would hear the call of the leopard many evenings in a row when I lived at Gethia. These forests are my home. Those are the lights of Almora where I once lived. That is the temple of Syahi Devi above Sitlakhet where I stayed in splendid seclusion. These mountains are not a dream - the lifetimes lived in Kumaon in this life alone are all real. I have not seen the stars so bright so long - do you remember the Milky Way that could be seen so clearly?

At Himalayan Village, Sonapani I am so secluded from the world, that when I walk to the road head some 25 minutes away I wonder why are there so many city people in Kumaon now? Why are there so many houses that look like architects from Delhi have transplanted them here? Where are the simple stone and slate homes? Where are the Kumaonis gone? My eyes blur with unshed tears. Do I want to live here still? They tell me I can easily live here, there are so many like-minded people here now. But I lived here when I did not know what like-minded meant. My three closest friends were well over 70 when I was barely 30. Where is Ija gone, her gnarled hand quickly pulling the slipping pallu over her head? Where is the old sanyasin? And where is my friend with a shuffling gait aided by a walking stick? If I lived nearby, would I really have anything in common with the people who live in these newly built mansions? Their houses have gates, they have fenced themselves in. I unlearned how to lock a door when I lived here. Anyone could walk across my path, anyone could stop for a cup of tea. I would sit on the stone steps and chat with the woman who collected grass for her cow, and the postman would ask what my father had written in the letter he delivered, and someone would come to borrow my newspaper before I could even read the headlines.

flowers at Himalayan Village, SonapaniThe mountains are the same. The people have all gone. Does the magic remain? Why can't I come to Kumaon as a traveller when I travel through every other place without stopping. Why does this earth call me to stay? Why do I feel I am home, let me tarry awhile, let me forget that day after tomorrow I must again drive away from these beloved mountains. But I will return. Again and again. And Kumaon will remind me, like no other place can, that this sacred earth has always been my home.

Ashish asks me, "Will you work as a teacher at the village school?"

I say, "no".

As if there could be no better reason, he says, "We need an English teacher. Would you teach English at the school if you lived here?"

I shake my head. I don't explain what I would do here if I did live here.

For further details and trip planning, contact:
Himalayan Village, Sonapani,
Village and P.O. Satoli
via Mukteshwar 263138
Dist Nainital, Uttarakhand
mobile: (+91) 8006300100
e-mail: ashish@himalayanvillage.com
Click here for : Himalayan Village, Sonapani

Photo Credit: Siddhartha Butalia & Saradindu Bose

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.