Cosmic Energy: Finding Peace in the Indian Himalayas

Cosmic Energy: Finding Peace in the Indian Himalayas

There’s something otherworldly about the Himalayan mountains. Backdropped by the snow-dusted peaks of India’s Nanda Devi range, the hilltop region of Almora is overflowing with the bounties of spring. As we search for solitude, the veil between this world and the next seems just that little bit thinner

up in the
is ethereal. Streaks of sunlight and birdsong lure me
out of sleep. Staggering across the hotel room, I roll up the
blinds to be greeted by a sparkling view of the snow-covered Nanda
Devi, India’s second highest mountain.

Located at the edge of a ridge, The Kumaon hotel offers guests a
front-row seat to pine-covered valley, perfect sky and powdered
Himalayan peaks. Sitting in the striped shade of my
stone-and-bamboo building, I savour my morning coffee and inhale
crisp mountain air. There’s no one else but the horizon and I – and
the hotel’s resident turtle doves. To experience such solitude and
unadulterated nature is a quiet luxury I once thought impossible to
find in a country of 1.4billion people.

Early in my travel writing career, I’d read an article that said
to get somewhere truly isolated you needed to take at least three
different modes of transport. It’s a theory that was verified on my
arduous trek from Mumbai: I travelled 25 hours by
air, rail and road before reaching my destination of Almora.

The journey started innocently enough, with my girlfriend and I
hopping on an afternoon flight from Mumbai
to New
. We ate an early dinner in the village of Hauz Khas and
rose at dawn to catch the Shatabdi Express train. On arriving at
New Delhi Railway Station, confusion ensued. With less than 30
minutes before departure, we’d arrived at the wrong gate – our
correct one was 2km away.

Piling into the next available cab, we experienced the most
stressful 20 minutes of our lives. Stuck in bumper-to-bumper
traffic we anxiously counted down the minutes before reaching the
correct entrance with just five to spare.

We hailed a station worker to help with our bags and started
sprinting – thankfully he knew a shortcut. Following him blindly
down back alleys and over tracks, we jumped aboard the train, lungs
burning, just in time for departure. As the train made its
five-hour journey through the dilapidated outskirts of New Delhi
and across the mustard fields of Uttar Pradesh and into Kathgodam,
our racing hearts finally settled.

Kathgodam is a base town from which travellers proceed into the
mountains, and our final leg was to be a winding three-hour drive.
As we ascended, the vegetation began to change around us; cool air
felt like soothing balm on our weary faces. When the car finally
came to a halt at The Kumaon, waiting staff took our bags and
pointed us down a long dirt path.

To enter this hotel is to embrace real soul; there’s a certain
consciousness in every detail. The Kumaon was brought to life by
Pradeep Kodikara and Jineshi Samaraweera of Colombo’s award-winning
Zowa architects. Like an homage to the mountains, floor-to-ceiling
windows are used across the property, from the dining room to each
of its ten bedrooms. Local materials – fly-ash bricks, indigenous
pinewood, linen woven nearby – are married with a modern,
minimalist aesthetic. Sustainability plays an important role too:
the hotel harvests rainwater, hires its staff locally and
celebrates the region’s local culture across its service, food and
activity offerings.

The first day we simply drank it all in, mesmerised by the
natural setting. We caught a glowing sunset, sipped wine on our
terrace as the stars came out and ate home-style goat curry,
lauki-chana (bottle gourd with chickpeas) and kheer (rice pudding)
made with local millet.

Over the following days, we set out to explore the region. I was
struck by how different Almora was from typical Indian hill
stations. Its forests were cleaner, roads less crowded and its
natural beauty was not yet overrun by unplanned development.

Our first expedition was a walk through the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. We hired a local guide,
Puran Singh, who pointed out the local flora and fauna as he talked
about the region’s biodiversity. It was spring and the pine forest
was in full bloom; the velvety, crimson rhododendron trees were a
feast for the senses. Singh taught us how to differentiate between
green and silver oak tree leaves, pointed out blackberry flowers –
who knew they grew in India! – and helped us identify a pine marten
scurrying through the grass. After a two-hour amble we ascended to
Zero Point, the sanctuary’s highest vantage point, where an
elevated gazebo offered panoramas of the Nanda Devi range and
birdwatchers were spotting steppe eagles.

Later that evening, we regrouped on the sanctuary’s border near
the Gairar Golu temple, where Singh told us it was possible to spot
leopards there at dusk. While we didn’t catch sight of the big cat,
we chanced upon mountain goats and gazed through binoculars at
red-billed blue magpies and whistling blue thrushes flitting around
the pine and oak trees.

On our second excursion we visited the Kosi River, a ribbon of
white threading through the Kumaon hills. En route we passed the
market of Hawalbagh vibrant with sari shops, vegetable vendors and
chai stalls displaying piping hot aloo-daal pakoras with bhang
(hemp) chutney. Neeraj, our guide from the hotel, chose a secluded
spot away from the town and we tiptoed on rocks to reach the
oak-lined banks. Under a cloudless sky, the roaring river was
punctuated by mammoth boulders. We spent a lazy afternoon
picnicking with the sun hot on our backs and our feet dipped in the
cool water.

By the time we returned to the hotel, we were hungry for the
dinner chef Dhirendra Singh had prepared. We feasted on bhatt ki
churkani (a local soybean stew), a chaat dish incorporating papaya,
and a tangy condiment called sana hua nimbu made with limes and
yogurt. All the breads and rice were made with local grains
including maduwa and jhangora.

Despite living in India for most of my life, I had never tasted
these dishes before. Instead of the typical hotel fare of curries
and kebabs, The Kumaon exposes its guests to a cuisine rooted in
the region’s bountiful ingredients – fitting when our meal was
backdropped by the enigmatic Nanda Devi range at dusk.

Poetically, our most outstanding encounter happened on our final
morning in Almora. Just three kilometres from the hotel, the quaint
pink Kasar Devi temple is, according to the American psychologist
Timothy Leary, one of just three places on earth – the others being
Stonehenge and Machu Picchu – that falls under the gaps in the Van
Allen belt, a sphere radiation trapped by the earth’s magnetic
field. Believed to be imbued with cosmic energy, the temple counts
scholars and artists from across the world among its former
visitors including Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, Bob Dylan and D.
H. Lawrence.

As my girlfriend and I walked back to the hotel to pack our
luggage and prepare for the tiring journey back, I felt truly happy
and centred. Whether it was because of some celestial intervention
or simply our heart-warming experience in Almora, I’ll never know.
Frankly, it did not matter.

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