Can I have a fresh dead body? asked a British lady in all seriousness. The man selling chicken looked confused. It was only after the driver explained that she was looking for a taaza murga (fresh chicken) and not murda (dead body) that he understood what the lady wanted. This is just one of the delightful anecdotes that Mary Singh shares about learning Hindi and living in Andretta.
Mini and Mary Singh are potters who have lived in the Kangra Valley for around 30 years. Mini (Mansimran Singh) runs pottery courses in his home studio with a backdrop of the snow covered Dhauladhar range and a sun-soaked stream. He is arguably one of the most iconic potters of our times,a legacy that he inherited from his father,Gurcharan Singh. They are best known for re-inventing pottery,transforming a traditional art into trendy glazed tableware and also starting the Delhi Blue Pottery trust.
I had wanted to visit Andretta since I first heard about it from my mother about 15 years ago partly because I was curious about the name Andretta and partly because I love the feel of clay slipping between my fingers. On a whim,I decided to visit it even if I couldnt complete the three-month course. I dragged my husband and a friend along,neither of whom have a particular fondness for pottery. But all of us share a common love for the mountains,and doing nothing.
We took a taxi from Amritsar early in the morning and reached Andretta by noon. Mini called to say that they would have lunch ready for us,with the authority of a grandparent who wants to ensure you come straight home and eat no junk en route.
A quiet winding 12km road from Palampur takes you to the one-street village of Andretta. Our cab driver looked incredulous when we stopped at our destination. He asked if we were paying a short visit and said that he would be willing to wait!
We were greeted with lemon squash,a beautiful verandah and a range of snow-covered mountains. After a home-cooked meal with the Singhs and some delicious apple crumble and custard,we knew we had come to the right place for a vacation. Mini makes the best scrambled eggs and marmalade and Mary bakes like a dream.
A short walk ahead of Mini and Marys house is a lovely homestay option called Mirage. It is an old mud house that has been restored with modern amenities. The garden is verdant and there is a yoga retreat at the edge of the forest that gives way to meadows.
We were fortunate to have clear skies,except for one day when we got rained in and spent most of the day next to the fireplace playing Scrabble. When the skies cleared up the peaks were covered in fresh snow.
The sleepy little village of Andretta was formed in the 1930s when Norah Richards,an Irish writer and dramatist settled there after her husbands death. Her husband taught at Government College,Lahore and she had met several artists there. She invited artists like BC Sanyal and Gurucharan Singh to work in Andretta. She was made a fellow at University of Patiala and after her death the land was given to the University. Her house continues to host annual Punjabi theatre performances every year on her birthday on October 29. Even after 80 years,this town in Kangra Valley retains its unspoilt beauty and it is easy to see why it would inspire any artist.
The next day we decided to drive down to Bir,a vast stretch of open meadows and the landing ground for paragliders. It is a Tibetan settlement surrounded by monasteries. When we saw people floating above the mountains,we were lured into trying. There are several trained professionals in Bir. They drive you up to Billing (20km up from Bir),through red rhododendron forests and to a take-off point where you feel you can scrape the snow off the hillside.
Before you know it,you are strapped into a comfortable chair,a huge parachute-like contraption and standing at the edge of a cliff. The pilot stands behind you. Beginners are not allowed to take off on their own. I am weak-hearted but curious. I cross torrid rivers on all fours,walk on mountain sides clinging to bushes,but I have to do it. While I stood at the edge of the cliff with the chilled wind slapping my face,I decided that this is not for me. I would rather walk back 20km. The drop was 900m. While I was protesting,with a gentle push I was in air. Weightless and nowhere to run. I was cold and scared but it was the most thrilling experience. It was surreal to have an actual Google Earth view and no ground beneath ones feet. I stayed up for about 20 minutes. The brave ones stayed longer. The moment I landed,I wanted to go up again.
Billing is considered the second best paragliding site in the world after New Zealand. It costs between Rs 2,000-3,000 per person depending on the season. Apart from paragliding,Bir and Billing are popular places for artists,filmmakers and musicians to stay and work.
After the thrill of floating in the sky,we decided to spend some time on the ground,with mud. A day in Minis pottery studio only gave us a taste of how difficult it is to create something. Pottery is meditative and consuming. It is also extremely relaxing. We met a group of old schoolmates who had reunited after many years to try out something new. It is easy to enrol,though limited seats are available and only for a few months in a year. Learning from Mini is a pleasure. He had a near fatal accident in which half of his body got paralysed,but the call of the wheel was strong and he never gave up potting.
A morning of pottery,an afternoon of paragliding,hours of Scrabble,Minis special whiskey sour,Marys marmalade pudding and sitting around with them with cups of tea and conversations made me warm and content. When we were leaving,I knew I had to come back. I left not just with lovely memories,but also of conversations lingering by the fireplace.
How to reach:
Bus: There are Himachal Roadways Volvo buses from Delhi to Kangra/Palampur.
Some of them leave from ISBT Kashmere Gate and some from Majnu ka Tila (near North Campus)
Closest Bus Stop: Palampur,12km from Andretta
Train: Overnight train to Pathankot,then bus or cab to Andretta
Aditi Banerjee is a filmmaker who teaches at Srishti School of Art,Design and Technology,Bangalore