Coming into being. The story of Birdsong & Beyond. Part 2.

Our first visit was over. We – our family of four – had seen the place, and taken a call. This was to be my Himalayan adventure, the home in the hills I always dreamt of. I did have reservations and goosebumps about its remote location and how very back of beyond the place seemed to be, almost suspended in those really high ridges. But these same features also made it the perfect project for my romantic notion of a getaway. And so I took on the project, with zero idea of how I would go about it, what was going to be needed in terms of resources of money, time, learning, and anything else. All I knew was that for me this was a labor of love, a creative journey that engaged my mind, soul, heart and body in so many ways.
The official paper work was carried out over the next few months, the registry signed and the deal sealed. And thus I became a ‘khashtakar’ or rural land owning farmer in an interior village of Uttarkhand. This was all across the years 2007-2008.
Things have a way of working out so different from what you plan, as far as the details go. For the past few years we had scoured Kumaon, agreed to big ticket deals there, and then not been able to seal the deal for some reason or other. Then out of the blue, without our looking for it, without our even being aware of its existence or location, an offer of land sale in a remote, unknown location came our way and some curious adventurer gene in us made us go check it out. And so it all fell in place. From my childhood dream of a mountain cottage to an official government land deed for a pretty little parcel of Himalayan soil in my name.

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The work begins-plotting, planning, marking out rooms, pathways, and more.
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Village cricket league carrying on side by side with our fixing of room co-ordinates.

Then came the actual work on the ground, before which there was all the exciting brainstorming, learning, ideating and creating –  a vision for the cottage in our minds and on paper. We went from working with lego to woodblocks to line drawing to drawing layers and layers on site photographs….trying to get that one perfect fit with our thoughts, our dreams…..then fitting it all with the practical situation on the ground, the size of the plot, the cut of the terraces, the direction of the sun, wind and the snow views.

We read, we looked at pictures, we sketched our thoughts, our fantasies, we visited a couple of other city folks’ dream cottages to see how we felt about them, and what the owners felt and had learnt over time living with their dreams, and delved deep into what inspired us. It was an exciting, creative, alive few months, so full of promise and discovery and possibilities. It was also a time of intense learning, of condensing, of choosing, of prioritizing, of letting go.
By the end of it all , when we had the printed layouts in hand, almost another year had passed and we were in early 2010. The project was coming into shape slowly and along with it, many new ideas and thoughts were stirring in my mind….

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Coming into being. The story of Birdsong & Beyond. Part 1.

The story finally began to come together on the internet, the way so many stories actually do these days. This is a photo essay of that journey from the first site visit in September 2007 till the dream took shape and stood firm in front of us in the summer of 2012.

I was obsessed with a home in the hills since early childhood, and in 2006-7, having finally moved back to live in North India it felt high time to action this dream. So there were trips to hill stations to find out about land or homes for sale, there were enquiries and show of interest from people connected to the hills, but nothing seemed to be working out. Then on the online travel forum I came across a thread about buying plots in the hills. The people in the conversation were all talking about places where we had already tried and failed to get a good deal. But there was just this one girl, now living abroad, who said these areas were getting crowded and would we care to look at her native village, far away and remote, pristine and pure, within  touching distance of the mighty Nanda Devi? Well, why not, I wondered, and got talking to her. One thing led to another and within a few months of first touching base, we were off to check out the tiny remote, unheard of and off the map village of Guniyala Khal, in Chamoli Dist. of the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.

Reaching Guniyala and seeing the little plot for sale for the first time proved to an adventure in itself. We were caught in torrential rains, the last outpouring of a retreating monsoon, in full blast. The drive from the foothills of the Himalayas at Rishikesh 200 kms up to the high ridges of the Central Himalayas around Guniyala was an interestingly gripping one to say the least! Dense clouds that blocked all vision, hairpin bends, raging river gorges, crumbling landslides and washed away roads were just some of the adventurous encounters we faced. The overwhelming feeling after about an hour into the over 6 hours drive (supposedly) was one of utter remoteness and being in the back of beyond, in an unknown, lost corner of the world! It was a thrilling, exciting and sometimes bewildering time.

With myriad breaks, change of transport modes, and the massive patience of explorers on an unknown journey we finally made it to our destination just as the sun was setting, as against the estimated arrival at noon. A warm welcome by the owner of the property next to the plot on sale, and the beautiful, lush green serene surroundings refreshed us a fair bit and we were soon tucking into delicious home cooked rustic fare and feeling warm and rested. 

Next morning we woke up with the tinkling of cowbells to a crisp, clear day as the cattle were led out to the forests to graze by the village herders. Walking out we surveyed the plot of terraced fields for sale, marvelled at the prettiness all around, and our good luck, and said a quick yes to the deal. And that is how we came to create our own little slice of personalised bliss.

 

Coming into being. The Birdsong Cottage story. Part 3

Rites of Passage- To creating Birdsong Cottage

Bhoomi Pujan. The prayer before very first strike of the workman’s tools on the ground to make a building. In our part of the world no home or workplace or any building would ever be deemed ‘sanctioned’ to exist by the forces of nature and by something even beyond nature without the Bhumi Pujan. I had always found this to be a bit of an empty robotic ritual, disconnected from its essence in practice, though it is a strong and inescapable part of life all around me. Even foreigners who work in India have presided over ot at least been to one Bhumi Pujan, no matter how they personally felt about it.

When work started on site for Birdsong, my local Gurgaon civil contractor was sent to manage the local labor. The first thing the crew asked him about was when and how was the Bhumi Pujan to be performed. He asked me for directions. I told him to arrange for it locally, with the village priest. Interestingly, the site supervisor is originally a Bihari Muslim. He and the locals got together to have the ceremony carried out.

So, yes, we did have a Bhumi Pujan, conducted by a local priest. But this was done more for the peace of mind of the crew working the land. But preparing for the ceremony made me think of performing my own ritual too, a rite of passage for my dream taking material shape in mud and stone and wood and mortar. I wanted to signify this step with something that would speak of my underlying intentions and hopes with this home. I wondered how to put my feeling and wishes into action within the structure of a conventional, traditional Bhumi Pujan ceremony .

One of my friends suggested I speak to our common friend and mentor-guide. I called Nithya in Pune. He well understood my dilemma, and asked me to hold clear in my mind my vision and hopes for the home, and then helped me further crystallise my intentions. Thus I was able to work out a vision for what this home in the hills was all about, what it represented to me, why I wished to create it and what I saw as its future and our relationship with it, and its relationship to the place,the local life and people, to the people who I hoped would visit there. These were the ideas to be affirmed, set as intentions, and celebrated in our Bhumi Pujan Ceremony. If one wished, Nithya suggested, one could further relate them to specific attributes of specific deities, and bring in invocations to those deities in the priest’s traditional prayers. I asked the priest if he would invoke the deities as per our choice and he said yes, he would even invoke the special thoughts we wished to invoke. So we did go ahead with the Bhumi Pujan, done our way with a syncretic, quirky and personal twist.

To give you a simplified sense of what I mean, we expressed the intention of a rich, abundant life at Birdsong and around it through the invocation to Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity and plenty. A wish for it to be a place of learning, discovery, exploration, self knowledge and connection was symbolized through invoking the Saraswati, and so on.

Rites of passage are a familiar part of village life.  Everybody understands their meaning and is deeply connected to them. Come to think of it, most situations in these areas are rites of passage, some cyclical and patterned, others bit less certain and fraught with tension. Having familiar, understood rituals to see you through them make the transitions that much smoother. What it also may lead to, of course, is a difficult time when it comes to innovation and adapting to a fast changing world that is now definitely approaching these remote areas at a  fast pace. Customising my own rites of Bhumi Pujan gave me a chance to appreciate the value of ritual as well as the need to allow for a change in its expression.

Meanwhile, the ceremony was over and the priest symbolically hit the first blow on the field, after which the workers took over. Digging started for the retaining walls, to bolster the edge of the plot. The old retaining wall was demolished, and a new reinforced stone wall started coming up in its place. Those were heady and exciting days for me, and for my little site team. Everyday we would catch up on the progress- how many feet were dug, how was the pace of work, how was the weather, what were the ground conditions, how many more days….the hardworking and tough digging crew from Nepal was efficient and fast and we were pretty soon ready for the next big thing, the foundation of the cottage.