Travel Diaries: Laxmi Ashram, Kausani

5

Dharti hai ek,
Aasmaan ek hai.
Phool hain anek,
Baghbaan ek hai.

All the squeaky voices, hushed conversations, and noisy banters were replaced by a mellifluous chorus as I sat down in the back of the classroom. Morning prayers at Laxmi Ashram, as I found out, are always unifying affairs, and down-the-line cheerful and cathartic.

Forty five minutes previous I was tossing Imli toffees in my mouth to prepare myself for the ensuing altitude sickness. I was going to hike to a seven-decade-old, all-girls residential school run on the principles of Gandhi’s Nai Taleem. Established in 1946 by Catherine Mary Beilman or Sarla Behn to empower rural girls and women through education and holistic skill-based learning.

When I reached the Ashram, there were two smiling faces, waiting. Waiting to open me up to a world of simplicity and unity. To show me how empowered and independent young girls go on to become pillars of strength for the rural community.

I was a bit late, thanks to the multiple stops I’d made during the hike. Some girl students were collecting their books while others had already started ascending the stairs to their classroom. I entered the room from the back, and quietly sat on the floor like everybody else. I was soon going to hear them sing a prayer song that would footprint my heart.

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I left the place humming a tune of togetherness, and optimism. Of a song that distilled in a few words this beautiful message:
There is one Earth. And it is but one sky that canopies the flowers on its face. The flowers may look different, still there’s but one Gardner who looks after all of them.

Travel Tale: Floating in the Poetic Dusk

A big ring adorned Mamta’s nose, silhouetting half her face as we huddled around a bonfire for warmth. And sitting there with the glorious Kumaon hills girdling us and Mamta reading one of her poems for me, I learned how nature and words soothe a crumbly spirit.

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It was only a day before that I had met Mamta for the first time when the hosts of my retreat centre introduced us. Our small chat had concluded with her beaming at me and exclaiming in broken Hindi, “Didi, I will come and see you at the inn tomorrow!” She wanted to know what a bunch of college girls from Delhi were doing in Kausani!

Which brings me to: What could I do here? In 3 days?

For starters, I could sit on these porches that always welcomed us with tea and viands. I could talk to these people who always regaled us with colourful stories. With them, I could drink these buttery noons and tangerine sunsets. Maybe along the way, I could pick up a few Kumaoni words, understand a new culture, unspool its richness and authenticity. But, who could’ve imagined that I would do just that and more, and that Mamta would help me with most of it!

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She joined our group for tea just like she had promised. A few moments later, we were scribbling Aipan designs on random scraps of paper—and in the next few—up on our feet, matching folk tunes with our own versions of Chholiya as the sun dived between the hills. Here, in an Indian village in the quiet vicinity of the Himalayas, the Italian saying of il piccolo mondo got a whole new meaning!

Within hours, I was sitting under the pin-pricked night sky, listening to Mamta’s voice as she read a poem from her notebook. And while her words warmed the December air, I took a closer look at the poetry of the land I was in. I could see and feel it in the Buransh (Rhododendron), in the chartreuse farmlands, and in this amazing rendezvous of nature, people, and history.  

That’s how I was always going to remember this village cradled in these verdant hills. As a place where I felt freer, happier, lighter—all at the same time. My souvenir: A friendship that began with a Kausani local asking me, “Tumar naam ki cha?”