Wednesday, June 23

Om Mahal

Our 10th Mahindra Homestay was Jaishree & Vijay Mankotia's Om Mahal in Kangra valley near Dharmanshala.

Crossing Shimla is such a pain. The traffic is unbearable and despite helpful cops standing at every turn we took a good one hour to get out of the maze. Since we were 'inside Shimla' now, we decided to pay a visit the dear old Peterhoff Hotel. In 2004 we had come to this heritage hotel to get flagged off on the Raid de Himalaya. 

From Shimla the road is pretty straight to Gaggal... just stay on NH 88. We took a couple of detours because of landslides (yes... even in the summer these things happen) and sometimes because we felt the off-road was more picturesque than the highway. We finally reached Gaggal (via Bilaspur, Hamirpur. Jwalamikhi and Kangra).

Om Mahal is pretty easy to navigate to. When you drive from Gaggal town towards the airport (a.k.a. Pathankot road) take the left that points to Masroor  monolithic rock-cut temples and keep going for about 5 kms. There are no boards so if you request Jaishree Mankotia she will send someone to the main gate to guide you into the estate.
When we entered the mango estate the trees were full of ripe mangoes, ready for harvest. And hidden between them were some Lychee trees.

So, you ask... were the next 3 days spent eating mangoes and lychees? Yes... and many more nice things... all while we looked at the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas.

We asked Jaishree to prepare simple dal-chaval type of meals but she would sneak in one of her specialities in to the menu and we ended up over eating - as usual!

Major Vijay Singh Mankotia, is an officer, and gentleman... not to forget his roots in royalty and politics.  
Mankotia is a member of one of the princely families of Himachal Pradesh. At the Indian Military Academy he was  awarded the coveted "Sword of Honour", and served in the  Gorkha Regiment with distinction. After a premature retirement from the army he entered active politics, where he is remembered as one of the most versatile Tourism Ministers of Himachal Pradesh. Unable to fight the deep rooted corruption in the system for long he has today “quit active politics and decided to relax, catch up on my reading and meet interesting people like you...” he says.

The atmosphere at Om Mahal is spiritual - there are pictures of the Dalai Lama and Swami Chinmayananda all over the house - some of the pictures are with the Mankotias... “our family has been associated with all things spiritual for generations and we continue the tradition” says Jaishree.

There are certain advantages of being the guests of the former Tourism minister - you get to know of the off-roads to take and the best places to see, especially if you are short on time.

The next day we took a quick drive to Norbulingka, a school of Tibetian art and craft, dedicated to preserving Tibetan cultural heritage, located in small village Sidhpur near Dharamsala. Mankotia charted us of a “nice forest road” that was really beautiful... especially because  the entire dharamsala - McLeodGanj area is crowded with Tibetans and tourists.

The art and craft on sale at the Norbulingka store is prohibitively expensive, but I guess you have to consider the fact that they are trying to support about 1,50,000 refugees and run a government in exile... so we did our part for the cause and picked up a few souvenirs. Incidentally the original town of  Norbulingka is in Tibet (now under Chinese rule) and used to be the summer palace of the Dalai Lama.

While the Tibetians are very strict about the teaching of the traditional wood and metal carving techniques, they have given in to the western influences as far as the music their younger generation listens to - the Norbulingka class rooms were echoing with Britney Spears and Shakira.

The 6 o clock aarti and bhajan at the Swami Chinmayananda samadhi was our next stop. Memories of my first school in Kurnool came to mind as I joined in the bhajans, remembering a verse here and a phrase there. Some of the bhajans prayed to the gods to give the parched lands some rains. After the aarti, as we prepared to take the prasaadam it started raining, a fabulous hail storm. 

Everyone was overjoyed, some started collecting the large ice cubes and eating them. A few of the devotees stayed back to chat with us and we also had the honour to meet Dr. Kshama Metre, Director of  Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development who was recently awarded the Padma Shri Award for Social Service.

The next day we decided to go to Dharamsala and McLeodGanj to see the Dalai Lama's personal Namgyal Monastery. The main teaching room of the Dalai Lama is located here and because he was out of the county the palace was not crowded.

We had lunch at the small Namgyal cafe which served some tibetian soups and italian pizzas. There were many monks wandering about in their dark maroon robes and shaven heads. Unless you paid close attention to what they were saying you could not tell if they Tibetin, American or Indian.

Thanks to Richerd Gere and the his charm in the western world a lot of Americans and Europians are actively involved in the support of the Tibetans... some of them have even taken to the robes.

The narrow mountain roads all the way from Gaggal to McLeodganj and back were a breeze for the Xylo... drives like a car, climbs like a SUV.

Back at Mankotia's place (or Palace if you like) the rooms were very comfortable and thanks to global warming they had just added their “first set of Air conditioners... just this year... it has never been this hot!” according to Jaishree.

The house is filled with family pictures and memorabilia from Vijay Singh's many travels. The library boasts of books from Archies digest to Enid Blyton to the teachings of the Dalai Lama or the collectors edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica if you like!

Wandering about the estate, we spotted the elusive Yellow billed blue magpie,  several bulbuls and treepies all over the place. True bird wathcers paradise. 

The silverware is actually made of silver (... not stainless steel), truly royal.  The behaviour of the staff and the presentation of the meals, even if it is a simple chai with biscuits, is just as royal. We were the first Mahindra Homestay customers to come here, maybe the first ever guests they have had since they started the homestay so we felt we were treated morel like family than guests. 

“If all the guests we get are like you, I would be very happy” said Jaishree as we left the next day on our way to Hoshiarpur to stay at our 11th Mahindra Homestay location - Citrus County.


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