Notes from Chalnichina

Life Style

Where exactly is Chalnichina, I ask him, and he breaks into a laugh. This is it, he says

Where exactly is Chalnichina, I ask him, and he breaks into a laugh. This is it, he says

If it weren’t for the gods, I’d probably never have gone to Chalnichina. Through the pandemic, I’ve pretty much been in a travel bubble, moving around by myself or with family in the vicinity of mountain terrain. So when my parents next picked Dol ashram, a spiritual centre, which currently houses the largest shri yantra (a meditation device composed of eight pure metals) that exists, it became the beacon that lit my path to the obscure village of Chalnichina.

Past Uttarakhand’s tourist towns of Ramgarh and Dhanachuli and on the lone road to Pithoragarh, we stop multiple times to find the road to Chalnichina, lest we miss it. The sweeping Himalayas that accompany us constantly on this crisp winter drive are distracting, but there are barely any signboards anyway announcing Chalnichina, that we need to watch for. We keep an eye out for a place called ‘Chai Khan’, marked predictably by a tea shop. Half an hour later, we leave the tarmac to hit the recently carved dirt road, a gift of the ‘pradhan mantri yojna’. Until a couple of years ago, Chalnichina, like most mountain villages living in the shadow of vacation hotspots, had no road access. But there are no free gifts, and this road too has come with a cost to the environment. The dirt road, though, thankfully remains a deterrent for mass visits. Tossing and turning for the last couple of kilometres on its dodgy curves, we arrive at the House on the Slope, a snug glass and stone cottage that is exactly what its name suggests.

Village homes

Shivraj, the caretaker who has been guiding me on the phone, welcomes us with a soothing hot drink of lemon and cinnamon. Lunch is laid out on the table, and he urges us to hurry. ‘The sun will go any minute!’, he says, for this is a north facing slope with stunning mountain views and intensely cold evenings. Where exactly is Chalnichina, I ask him, and he breaks into a laugh. This is it, he says. The little market above, and the handful of homes on the hillside. His niece is getting married in one of the village homes down below, and post lunch, we accept the invite to walk three kms through a dense oak, bamboo and rhododendron thicket to get there.

The last village wedding I attended was as a child, and I couldn’t help but be amazed by how little has changed in the slow, sustainable manner weddings have shaped up in places untouched, as opposed to urban spaces where they are nothing short of a pageantry. A small gathering, a simple spread of sweetmeats, your Sunday best that is totally okay to repeat, and a heartwarming welcome even for strangers. Most of all, everyone dances to the Choliya, a traditional Kumaoni ensemble of musicians and performers that is a rare sight today, unless it’s a professional troupe signed up for an event. We continue with our village walkabout amidst preserved bakhalis, facades of traditional homes with beautifully carved windows, and go back with gifts of malta, a native citrus fruit that I have not eaten fresh off a tree in ages. A leisurely walk on the winding track takes us uphill from the dip where the village sits, and we amble along the ridge as the sun begins to set. From Trishul to Nanda Devi to Rajrambha, it liberally dabs fiery rouge on the peaks.

Ceiling of glass

Shivraj has reached ahead of the rest, and ushers us into the cosy space where we plonk ourselves on the couch facing a glass wall that perfectly frames the flaming Himalayas. I’ve never been much of a contemporary design fan, but this structure stages not just the views around, but also the stars above when I lie in bed under a ceiling of insulated glass. I’m in love with this house on a slope, its little thoughtfully placed throws and candles, the assembly of orange and lime trees outside, and the quietude that surrounds it; there’s not one sound, save the gentle slurping of hot soup from our mugs, and the crackle of fire that has been laid outside, which eventually pulls us into its circle of warmth.

We step out to huddle around it before getting dinner, in time for an early start for Dol ashram. The last twilight dissolves as the stars stealthily climb up the Chalnichina sky, and night lights pop up in the handful of houses scattered around, including this lone one on the slope. There are few nonchalant places that are worth a detour, but for a sliver of the old ways, I’d make one for Chalnichina in a heartbeat.

Born and brought up in the Himalayas, the author writes on culture, ecology, sustainability, and all things mountain.

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