Shepherds, Shepherdesses and a little bit of Spirituality...

by Navjot Randhawa

I was born and raised in a Sikh family. In Sikhism (an Indian religion founded in 1469), there is a lot of emphasis placed on “Ek”, The One. One is Reality. One is Truth. This Truth is often manifested in and around The Mirage. Nowadays one can feel this Truth all around in and through the Shepherds (Gaddis in Himachali language) on their way up to the higher mountains. A shepherd family is camping on the piece of land next to The Mirage. Their flock surrounds us like a protective thread. They are often grazing in the forest behind the heritage hotel.  The sounds they make add to the sacred atmosphere of the area. All meals are cooked by the shepherdess on the fire in traditional pots & pans in their make-shift blue tent. Simple conversations about their day and their challenges,  the little children’s conversations gentle altercations with their father often beginning with “Baapu !!!” (papa) can be heard in the verandah where we often sit with the guests sipping a cup of tea admiring the snow-covered Dhauladhar mountains standing tall in a distance. Sometimes these gaddis come to the property with humility asking for water. They’ve been coming since many years now, so they know exactly where the taps are in the The Mirage garden. But still, they take permission and are so grateful.

Their whole energy blends so well with the nature around them that they seem to be a perfect example of being one with one’s surroundings, the very reason that makes us leave the city to go to the country-side. The very reason yoga is so popular. Yoga caters to the most basic human need to feel one with one’s body/being & the Universe at the same time. 

We are living in times where human ambition and human recklessness has put man’s own material needs over and above the sustenance of our planet itself. Even though all traditional wisdom talks about endless needs & desires of men/women being the cause of all suffering, humanity seems unable to break out of the habit of wanting more & more.

But these shepherds represent hope for me. Like the Good Shepherd who is the Guide in Christianity, these Shepherds who visit Andretta in two seasons, one in the Spring while going up and then just at the beginning of winter, coming down, bring with them so many subtle teachings. The importance of a harmonious family, looking after one’s need & not greed, humility, interacting with deep care with nature, animals & every one that one comes in contact with, being strong in the face of adversity (it started raining the other day & they still slept in their makeshift tent without making any fuss). Stoic & always smiling, they have so much to offer while they have almost nothing, on the material level.  

The biggest takeaway for me has been realising that one of the most important dimensions of Truth  is being at ease with the eco-system we live in. To give it back what we take from it. To be in balance. 

I spent the second half of November and December 2018 in Kashmir with Kashmiri shepherds & shepherdesses. They are called “bakarwals”. I was there with a film crew for a film in which I am playing a female shepherdess (bakarwali). The film is called “The Shepherdess & The Seven Songs”. I spent a lot of time with goats & sheep internalising the character. In the beginning, & perhaps if I am honest, right till the end, the most difficult thing was getting used to wearing their clothes that hadn't been washed in ages. They smelt so strongly of the animals & the memory is so fresh that as I type this I can feel what I felt then. I feel the weariness, both of the animals & the shepherds. I feel the joy of camping after having walked miles for days on end with horses, the latter carrying the gaddis’ whole world on their backs. 

During the film workshop, I had stayed in the mud house of one of the shepherd families. The goal was to reduce the distance and the divide between the character & “me”.

By the time the film finished, the boundary line between the shepherds and “me” had definitely thinned. They had given a part of them to me & I had left a part of me amongst them. We had all become “One”, in that sense.

I have seen guests at The Mirage achieving that same friendship with the shepherds in the past few days. The mud cottages were built with the philosophy of trying to offer to the spirit of the visitors an opportunity to feel one with Earth itself. The presence of the Gaddis in spring and autumn adds to this nourishing experience. Their attitudes & activities are in stark contrast to that of us, the “city-educated” village dwellers. If not anything else, at least having the Gaddis as neighbours for these two seasons makes us introspect. When they leave, fresh beginnings would have been made. The snow on the mountains would have melted. The soul, if there is one, would have been laid bare. 

These nomadic shepherds re-define happiness, journey, love, patience, joy, perhaps even art, if one looks closely. I looked out of my window just now and saw the shepherdess gathering her sheep. It’s like a painting, time is standing still. She is just standing there with a harmless branch in her hand. The way she moves in space gives the sheep an indication as to which direction to go in. Every movement of hers, every sound she utters matters. it’s poetry manifested. If one goes deeper into the moment, perhaps more epiphanies can be had. But I am after all a city girl and need to go to the next task. But just a glimpse into Oneness has been enough to make me want to stay on here. Hope you look out of your window right now and find yourself One with your current time & space too.


The Sacred and the Profane in the Himalayas : A little something to set you free

By Navjot Randhawa

I have been in London for business meetings and I keep looking around me at all the wonderful people wondering what really makes them happy. The truth is, they say, happiness is a state of mind. They also say desire is the root of all despair & ego-less-ness leads to enlightenment. These are my findings over a period of 3 years in the mountains in northern India where I moved from Bombay, a big city in Western India, home to many independent actors like myself. Even though these conclusions are based on my experiences, I hope they will take you someplace you’ve never been before, every word intact like a seed, from my body cells to yours, finally growing roots in your heart because this is really for your heart. I’ve not been very sure these past few months that words are the way to go about expressing, they just always seem to come out wrong even & especially after long hours of meditation ! But then it would be really sad to give up on words, so here I am, beginning my writing journey again.

The Indian Himalayas always beckoned me. So many yogis spent so many years in caves across the length & breadth of them. There are so many monasteries, temples, places that promise ‘peace’…Also, the weather is so much cooler than the intense heat & pollution of the plains (quite unbearable in the summer which is when even the British, while ruling India, moved their capital to Shimla in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh which is where I moved in 2015).

And then as a little girl growing up in Roorkee, a small town at the foothills of the Himalayas, it was difficult to not get influenced by news of Hollywood stars & famous people being nearby looking for something. Richard Gere’s visits to Mcleodganj (Tibetan government-in-exile’s home in India) & Beatles’ coming to Rishikesh stopping in Roorkee at Hotel Polaris a kilometre from my parents’ house also ignited my desire to live in the hills one day. I also remember watching Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray & Love ‘discovering’ herself in the Himalayas. And then even after growing up a little, news like that of David Lynch coming to India in 2009 to make a film on Maharishi, an Indian yogi, was not just news for me. Deeply & superficially, the pull of the mountains just kept getting stronger. The question was “Do the mountains really carry answers to existential questions, to what lies beyond? to the restless monkey-mind? to the real purpose of human life?”

It was July, 2015. I had started writing a play in Paris about Amrita Shergil (half Sikh half Hungarian), one of India’s most well- known modern painters & I was looking for a quiet space to finish it. July is when the monsoon season begins in India & I was warned by family & friends that it was not the best time to go to the hills as there had been a couple of landslides & any kind of touristic activity with the lashing rain would be practically impossible. I still went. Against everyone’s wishes, I found myself settling in Andretta, a little mysterious village with an Italian sounding name. It is ironical that one does the most egotistical things in the pursuit of nirvana, on the path of liberation from ego. And that is fine. That was my first finding.

A beautiful colonial style house in Andretta looked at me from amongst the thick trees growing in front of it & when I turned my gaze, I found myself standing in front of the mighty snow covered Dhauladhar range. I was in love. I moved in immediately realizing only later that I had landed in a community of artists in what can perhaps be called independent India’s first artists’ village. There were painters, potters, a lot of theatre history, a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking up, a lot of fresh mountain air, a lot of dancing, singing, a lot of hiking, a lot of time to brood, write, think & a lot of time to fall in love. Everything just felt purer, more innocent, slowed down, but in the beginning a little scared. However pure the environment is, the human mind remains trapped in sub-conscious patterns of competition, jealousy, ambition & is most tormented by the fear of losing out. And so initially, a dis-connect from the other world was never possible. There was WiFi, TV, phones & then there was the pressure of earning money. So unless one is going to a cave to meditate & become a hermit, the mountains, because of the isolated atmosphere, force one to evaluate what one is doing with one’s life even more. There are no long queues at the bank, no millions of people changing tubes at rush hour, no traffic jams but just silence, most profound & most tormenting at the same time. But ultimately the biggest gift. And so my second realization in that silence was that genuine human connections were most important. The Himalayas became a beautiful setting to explore the villages, the locals, their motivations, their behaviours & their values by learning their language. Most of them were always smiling, even when they were complaining. They were light- hearted, joking, laughing out loud..

There was this one-eyed young Himachali boy Aju who had never stepped out of his village. Observing his total devotion to others & his wanting to be of service to others was life-changing for me. His hunger for learning & his soft-spoken manner was saintly. He started working with me in my theatre company & was always there to pull me out of sticky situations (that an urban artist can easily get into in a remote village in India). He learnt cooking, baking, gardening, English, art...& today is the manager of The Mirage, a beautiful artists’ retreat in Andretta. He showed me how the only way to receive was to give. And how important it is to receive with open arms. Even today when I go back & even if my taxi arrives in the middle of the night, he’s there standing at the crossroad beyond which the car cannot go. He is there smiling, happy to help, truly happy to help.

The second most significant meeting was with the Dalai Lama. He for me is the definition of ‘holy’ & a bundle of answers that I had been looking for. The search, in a way, stopped after meeting him. There was no need to look further. I met many more people with similar stories, who, by coming in the mere presence of His Holiness understood the meaning of their lives ! India definitely did one thing right in recent political history. She opened her doors to the epitome of ego-less-ness on our planet. Every other spiritual master I had met in India seemed not to be completely free from ego though that’s what they were teaching their students. The Dalai Lama projected no ego, & all his teachings centered around just one topic—Compassion. And perhaps not surprisingly, the connection with him led me to my most important finding. There is only one way of stripping oneself from ego. One has to be ready to replace the ego with something otherwise the void can kill us. And spirituality is nothing but the search for a suitable replacement. To my mind & heart, the only suitable replacement is love—boundless love, intense love, passionate love, compassionate love, chemical-less love, infinite love, unconditional love, love for everyone & anyone that crosses our path & everyone & anyone who is sitting in a corner far away from our little bubble.

I found this love most tangibly manifested when I was trying to climb to a hidden waterfall, a little distance away from Andretta. I wanted to go there alone & since mobile network is quite bad up there & in any case since this waterfall doesn't show up on google maps, I had to find my own way. After a little climb up, I lost my way & was feeling quite helpless. A taxi driver came to my rescue. All their life in India, girls in India have been told to not get too friendly with strangers as they can rob you, rape you, cut you into pieces & throw you to the dogs in the forest. All of these thoughts crossed my mind when this stranger tried to help me. And then I just watched my thoughts & let them pass. I took the stranger’s hand & climbed the mountain. He narrated me stories about how he used to bunk classes with his friends & go there as a little child. He knew which herb could be used as an anti-dote when I got stung by a poisonous plant while trekking up. He waited for me as I meditated at the waterfall. He also took many pictures. His presence was sacred, protective, a glimpse into the divine. He taught me to stop taking pity on myself, to keep loving & asking for help because we humans are nothing without each other.

With so much focus on the heart & the mind, the obvious question you want to ask straight away is what about the body? The body of course feels healthier, fitter in the sacred Himalayas but does it learn the fruitlessness of desire & does it curtail its need for pleasure? As the body starts becoming aware of its various sensations & memories, does it become more careful about what it does with itself, about sex? “So are you celibate now?”, a few friends asked. “Are you going to become a nun?” The area where I lived is one of the most preferred honeymoon destinations for Indian couples & foreign hippies alike. So all around there would be the smell of sex. Ascetics & hedonists live in harmony up in the Himalayas. There are books on this subject that you will easily find in the hills, either in a café or a heritage hotel or in a friend’s house. If you are there, sooner or later you will stumble upon them. And I really hope that once there, one day you will find yourself reading “From Sex to Superconsciousness” tucked in with an electric blanket toasting your bed & a kind companion by your side. The book was written by Osho, one of India’s most well-known spiritual masters (& his retreat Nisarga not very far away from the Dalai Lama’s temple !). I can promise you it will change your perspective about bliss or “ananda” in Sanskrit. Inner & outer conflict related to sex in an Indian woman is as old as Indian society itself. This conflict is perhaps not very different from what a Catholic or a middle-Eastern woman may feel. The only difference is that India is both a land of Kamasutra, Tantra & Bollywood which, like most Indian parents, taught sex for the longest time through stories of birds & bees. Every time a couple would come close to kiss in an Indian movie, a flower would cover their lips. Times are changing but talking about sex is still a taboo. It is an open secret ! The Himalayas taught me that sex is life-energy. The monks preserve it to use it for other purposes which lead them to see reality differently, something neuroscience is getting increasingly interested in. In a nutshell, we have the power & the choice to channel it in the direction we’d like to. The direction we take can either enhance or weaken our life- force.

The mountains became the perfect place to have realizations because they didn't judge, they let me be, they guided me & taught me that standing tall with spine erect is the first step..

I wish that whosoever reads this gets to experience the Himalayas in this life-time. You wouldn't have to do much (if you are ok with doing nothing that is !). No part of your being-body & mind- will be able to remain untouched by the sacred energy. Science has confirmed that our Universe is nothing but energy. But if you are still in doubt, make this trip. Go to the Himalayas to experience the 3’o clock blues differently ! You wouldn't be able to help modifying your language to accommodate talking about the mysteries of life, things that cannot be explained by logic & rationality. Strangely you will also feel more compassion for the profane, for those who are supposedly immoral, for the ones you don't agree with, for the ones that don’t seem "normal" to you, even for the ones who spread hatred. And you will be free because you wouldn't have to take sides anymore...

Whatever they say, you will start experiencing & whatever you say, they will.

A Spring Day In The Life Of The Mirage

I wake to the sound of noises on the roof above, and think it must be monkeys.

When I turn my groggy eyes towards the window, I realise it's the thunder, lightning outside.

Everything feels unfamiliar: The rustic room with its uneven adobe walls, the sounds, and the four-poster bed.

Then I remember that I am a guest at The Mirage.

Yesterday my soulmate, travel companion and wife Anne, drove down to The Mirage in the artist colony of Andretta from McCleod Ganj, exploring, on our way the Wha Tea Estate near Palumpur.

I sleep for a further two hours, and reawaken for breakfast.

Outside, the morning is still wet, cloudy and dark, and the Dhauladhar mountain range is shrouded in cloud, getting another dusting of springtime snow.

When the rains clear, and the sun shines, the view is breathtaking. The peaks here are all 3000 meters higher than any single peak back home in the Pyrenees.

We step out from our traditional mud brick cottage, up the stone path, past the flowers, green shrubs and trees, across the terrace, to the breakfast room, where Denis pours Anne and I a cup of piping hot chai from a large thermos.

“Did I hear monkeys on the roof in the night?” I ask.

Denis explains that it's hard to keep the animals out of the residence, and the slates on the roof can shift in the wind.

Denis is well known in the Kangra valley, and a much-liked personality. He reminds me of a dear surfer friend in Northern Ireland.

As we sit with our tea, everything about us feels organic and elemental. The gardens, terraces, verandas, and rooms are adorned with Indian curios lovingly curated and exhibited by Denis for our enjoyment: Slate roofs, Nepalese beds, cotton curtains, various statuettes, and a garden landscaped from local stone and pebbles.

Amongst this cluster of cottages I glimpse Denis' latest addition: The Glass House Yoga Studio, a hexagonal yoga shala, decorated in bright mosaics and surrounded by bamboo plantations.

All about the garden tits and warblers chit chat as they too enjoy their breakfast.

The Mirage is one of several residences that make up the Andretta Artists Colony, and we’re slap bang in the middle of the Andretta Woodland that was once home to artists like the saint philosopher, painter, sculptor and poet Sobha Singh, and the Irish writer and dramatist Norah Richards, as well as Sardar Gurcharan Singh, who founded the flourishing Andretta studio pottery.

The pottery and the little cottages are a delight to visit, and we feel blessed as guests in these beautiful surroundings, far from the hubbub of busy life, letting our hair down, and drifting between one artist house and another, across the wooded grounds.

Sobha Singh, whose art is famous throughout the world made his home here in the 1940s. After an illustrious career as an international painter of repute, he died in 1986, leaving his home and studio, which combined, are a well maintained local museum.

Inside are photographs and postcards documenting his peaceful, but well travelled life, as well as a photograph of the Him with his neighbour Norah Richards having tea.

Her quaint mud house is also just up the lane. This Irish writer, dramatist and follower of Tolstoy settled in India in the1930s. She passed in 1971, but on October 29, every year, the students celebrate her birthday by enacting dramas in the open air auditorium in the garden outside her house.

In the Andretta Pottery, the style of the earthenware is the same as that which Denis uses in his homestay, with the same rustic glaze, that we like so much.

A glazed fruit bowl catches our eye and I'm delighted when the showroom manager knocks the price down for me, from 2000 to 1500 rupiah, because the glaze is imperceptibly bumpy so I buy it, along with an earthen coffee mug each to remind us of our visit to this special artist community in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.

On an outing in his car, Denis drives us through the back lanes to Bir, just North east of Andretta. He knows everyone and everyone knows him, including all the local bus drivers, who honk as we pass. Denis drives his 4x4 Mahindra like a local, swerving at speed off the roadside to let oncoming traffic pass, which is exhilarating.

We pull off the road after passing a barber shop in Bir that we will return to later for a shave, to lunch on Thali and Tuborg at a terrace cafe right on the edge of the world circuit paragliding landing spot.

Denis cracks open a beer and launches into tales of his paragliding at Bir, which he did when he wasn't busy guiding groups on treks.

He's deceptively young for his age. Earlier that morning I had accompanied him and his dog "Friendly," on a brisk pre-breakfast jungle walk up the forested hill behind the house. He was quick, sure footed, and fit, and clearly still abides by the moto "carpe diem."

Our outing with Denis into the backwaters of Himachal takes us past many places that please the eye and the soul. As we drive home, I spot a Puja, a group of women and children chanting and dancing beside their local deity and shrine.

Denis pulls over at my behest, and we spend a glorious 30 minutes in their delightful company, taking photos of their lovely festival, Anne joining them ladies for a dance, and the kids eager to practise the English they've learned in their English-medium schools.

The colours, the light and the festive spirit of this sundown community occasion fills all our souls with glee, and reaffirms all the beauty in Indian rural life.

Once again we feel our privilege as guests in this rich cultural district of India, absorbing its beauty, and appreciating the way this valley nourishes its people so well.

As we drive home we watch the sun go down, the birds fly home and the tea stalls close.

The thunder, the lightning, the storm of the previous night feel distant now. Throughout the day the mountains have changed colour and the rains have given way to sunshine.

As we near The Mirage, Denis pulls over for one final "authentic" local experience.

On Andretta high street, inside a blackened tea shop, Denis' gardener's wife greets us with a smile, sits us down, and serves us a copious glass of the local brew.

I don't know what it is, and Denis doesn't seem to know either, but Do know that I'll be back for more, when I return for my trek over the Indrahar pass.

Thank you Denis for a wonderful few days in your company.