Heaven is a place on Earth..And when the Great Indian Summer arrives, mud houses is where that place is !

by Navjot Randhawa

I have been living in Andretta since 4 years now but I had a never-before realisation this morning while walking in the fields. But before I share my realisation, I’d like you to scroll down & look at the photos below. These photos were taken by Sonny from Moira, Goa. Sonny & his girlfriend are guests staying at The Mirage at the moment.


The Mirage Garden


I realised that heaven is really a place on Earth ! (Yes, I wasn’t convinced until now..or I hadn’t deeply felt it until now I guess). When one has been in Delhi in the scorching heat running from one meeting to the next, coming back to one’s kachcha mud house is nothing short of paradise. The driver (local Himachali) brought up an important point. The villagers are getting rid of their mud houses and going for pucca concrete houses while the citywallahs are increasingly waking up to the joys of living in mud houses.

“Mud is a versatile building material that has been used to make some extraordinary architectural marvels -- from 1,000-year-old ksars (forts) in Morocco and 6,000-year-old arches, vaults and domes in the Nile Valley to multi-storeyed houses of adobe, sun-baked bricks of mud and straw, which is the traditional building material throughout much of Latin America“ (Down to Earth). Mud has countless advantages. Apart from making us feel close to Earth all the time (there is this typical fragrance of mud houses which is so magically intimate that one feels united with our very busy revolving planet all the time), it is extraordinarily malleable, offers better insulation, is readily available (especially in India), is simple to use as far as construction is concerned (the village folk can themselves make mud bricks & are skilled in maintenance of mud houses).

For the city folk, it is beautiful, good for the senses. It is art. The real joy is experienced when the village folk and city folk join hands to encourage mud architecture. The former know centuries-old techniques while the latter have the aesthetic knowledge. And the cooperation is heart-warming when it is not just about the money, not just about providing employment but when the latter help the former restore their own houses, particularly in areas such as roof strengthening, heating mud houses, etc.

In the summer, mud houses feel like the best thing ever because of the natural air-conditioning. Combined with a beautiful garden like the one at The Mirage, one is able to welcome the heat and make friends with the rising temperatures. After a long session of yoga, lying down on the mud floor of your cottage/Earth home is a feeling that can’t be described in words !

The Mirage hosted a yoga retreat by UK based teachers Hugh Poulton and Sarah Haden a couple of years ago. They took their students on a journey of “Mountains, Monasteries & Mudhouses”. These three are a heavenly combination for a yoga tour. I have been using the word heaven so many times in this post that it is time for more photos to give you another glimpse into what I mean..

And then if you are somewhere in Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta & feeling sick of being in AC rooms/cars all the time, come home. You can lie down in the garden, in the hammock, in the fields, in the swimming pool (it should be ready any day now) or simply help us pick the mulberries ripe for another season of delicious home-made jam..And we can take a walk in these fields around The Mirage and discuss more about what/how heaven feels like in your head..

Tashi Jong, Jung and Jogis

by Navjot Randhawa

Tashi Jong is a sacred village about 7 kms from The Mirage, Andretta. One can reach there in a taxi in about 20 minutes. The taxi costs about 300 rupees. The famous monastery Khampaghar nourishes the atmosphere of the village which sees many Dharma practitioners flock to this little village all year round. It is the main seat of Khamtrul Rinpoche, one of the most important spiritual masters of our times. 

A day trip to Tashi Jong is good for a yoga retreatant at The Mirage because it is filled with energy of a very special group of Yoga practitioners. They are called Tokdens. They are supposed to have reached high levels of realisation because of years of disciplined practice. If one goes to them with an open mind and heart, one is sure to feel their "power". I had such an experience last summer with one of the Tokdens. I had heard they can fly. I did not see any one flying but I felt "blessed", truly touched by the Yogi's presence. And after coming out of his room, I felt like I could fly !

Jogi (not the caste) is just another familiar word for a Yogi. But in my title, I used the word Jogis and not Yogis for the Tokdens I was going to talk about for the following reason. I first heard this word used in a folk song. It was referring to someone who was seeking the highest union. And that after all is the goal of Yoga which literally means "Union". And that is what this blessed feeling was all about. I felt I was with someone whose elements were in total unity and who had the knowledge to guide one to achieve that unity. In his presence (photo below), I felt one with everything and every one around me.

For some reason I could not stop thinking of Jung's philosophy of Alchemy while I was there. For example, even when you are choosing a yoga retreat...how do you finally make your decision? I mean of course you take all the practical things into consideration. But then all retreat spaces have something or the other exciting to offer. How do you really "choose"? Isn't there always that gut feeling or the inner voice that goes "Boom" and then the decision gets made? Isn't there always a bit of alchemy at play, especially when big decisions, like travelling to a foreign land are concerned?  

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst who died in 1961, says in "Psychology and Alchemy", 

"The real mystery does not behave mysteriously or secretively; it speaks a secret language, it adumbrates itself by a variety of images which all indicate its true nature. I am not speaking of a secret personally guarded by someone, with a content known to its possessor, but of a mystery, a matter or circumstance which is "secret", i.e. known only through vague hints but essentially unknown."

I had this feeling again when I stayed at Tashi Jong a few days ago. Of the way we take our decisions being essentially an unexplained phenomenon. I was climbing down the stairs of my guest house when a group of very young people arrived in a taxi. They started walking to the temple as I did. They seemed to be very excited so I decided to enter after some time. I wanted to go in when I could be alone there...But since they were taking quite a bit of time, I just went in. And I found myself in absolute silence. All of them were sitting in a row, hands in prayer. I sat behind them. We sat there together, in silence, for a long time. An answer I had sub-consciously been wanting to appear since a few weeks appeared, right then! And that night at the cafe of the guest house, I watched a cricket match with 2 monks ! I felt so much at home..

We could be listening very sincerely to all our advisors, we could be making our choices according to our patterns or in an effort to rebel against them.

But my understanding is that decisions, especially the ones that have something to do directly with our body and spirit get made in that part of our mind which cannot be explained by logic. And so however much we try to explain through words why we are doing this or need to do that, we fall short of words. That's why perhaps sometimes we just come in the presence of a stranger and feel something we cannot articulate...that's why perhaps sometimes we look at the picture of a space and we feel like it is calling out to us...

So if you are still planning a trip to The Mirage, the decision will of course just make itself but if you are already here looking for miracles/answers, perhaps a trip to Tashi Jong and an attempt to try to seek out the Tokdens is worth it..  Hopefully the mystery will reveal itself..even if only through vague hints !


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 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.