You won’t find it on highway signboards. You won’t find it on tourism hoardings. To find Andretta, you need to drive through tea gardens and apple orchards, 15 minutes off the highway from the railway junction of Palampur. But you know instantly when you reach it.
Peace. From Gandhi to the Buddha, not to mention a million gurus — some dubious — that populate this land, India is globally synonymous with spiritualism. But finding real-world solitude in a nation of 1.3 billion people isn’t easy. This artists’ village in the lap of the majestic Himalayas offers just that.
Founded in 1935 by Irish dramatist Norah Richards, the village in the state of Himachal Pradesh has hosted generations of actors, painters, sculptors and potters from across India and beyond. Then in 1983, Mansimran “Mimi” Singh and his wife, Mary, moved to Andretta to set up a pottery studio where they’ve trained more than 600 students over three decades. Mimi’s Delhi-based father, Gurcharan Singh, was one of India’s best-known potters of his generation and founded a style that became known as Delhi Blue Pottery. That style, now followed at the Andretta studio, is visible in the handcrafted pots that line the shelves of their picturesque cottage, where Mimi and Mary greet us — my wife, two friends and I.
Tell them how it’s surprising more tourists don’t know about Andretta, and 79-year-old Mimi responds from behind his flowing white beard. “That’s the way it’s meant [to be],” he says. “This place isn’t meant for the average tourist.”
Andretta isn’t for adrenaline junkies. It’s where you go when you want to cut yourself off from the rush of day-to-day life.
And he’s right. Andretta isn’t for adrenaline junkies. You go to the Singh’s studio when you want to cut yourself off from the rush of day-to-day life, slow down and pedal at the potters’ wheel, watching the clay take shape under your own hands. Or take a walk along rugged paths that snake through farmland and hug mountain streams. You’ll pass the house Richards lived in, with an outdoor theater where students from Punjabi University in the city of Patiala enact plays for villagers each year on October 29 — Richards’ birthday. They’re paying her a tribute: For more than three decades until her death in 1971, Richards taught theater to Punjabi University students at her home.
If you’re in northern India this spring, amid the heat and dust of a bitterly fought general election, such a getaway might appear particularly appealing. But if you start getting restless after a day or two, you could try and drop in on a famous neighbor: the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan leader’s home and monastery are just an hour’s drive away from Andretta in the pleasant but bustling town of Dharamshala. That’s also the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
We do that — we don’t see the Dalai Lama, though his abode is impressive — only to quickly crave the quiet of Andretta. We return to the village and to The Mirage, a cottage originally built in 1948 and now run by a New Zealander, Denis, and his French wife, Dolly. They’ve built additional cottages on the premises, and we rent two of them for our stay.
In a village not meant for tourists, The Mirage is one of the few places where you can rent a place to stay. We pay 3,500 rupees ($55) per night for each couple, and soon realize it’s more than worth it. After dinner in the main cottage, Denis regales us with stories of his youth in Europe in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and his acquaintance in those days with Mick and Bianca Jagger — the journalist in me doesn’t know whether to believe that last bit.
What’s certainly no exaggeration is the coziness The Mirage promises. We snuggle into our beds for the night, the mattresses heated electronically through a hand-held remote. If you’re lucky and wake up to a clear day without mist, you might see snow-clad mountains in the distance as you sip local Palampur tea in the morning sun.
At the studio, some 100 meters away from The Mirage, the future of Andretta pottery has now taken charge. Shubham Sankhian, in his mid-20s, is the son of the former studio manager who passed away earlier this decade. Sankhian left his aeronautical engineering degree to take up his father’s mantle at the Andretta pottery studio.
There, as you pedal, the wheel spins faster and faster, hypnotizing you amid the silence of the mountains. It’s almost … yes, spiritual. And you don’t even need a guru.
GO THERE: ANDRETTA
- Directions: Drive south on Palampur Road from Palampur Railway Station, take a left on to NH154 after Chaman Sweets, then take Panchrukhi Road and keep going straight until you reach Andretta. Map.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.