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You’ve probably heard of many hotels offering guests a one-of-a-kind experience, but by and large, what they offer is pretty similar. That’s why, when given a choice, I try and pick off-beat home-stays and guest houses when I travel. The homely touch, the local stories I can listen to, the peace and quiet… it all adds to the wealth of experiences I collect on my sojourns. Case in point – Jyoti Niwas in Palampur, where I stayed for a couple of nights on my way from the grassy mountainous plains of Bir to the Tibetan town of McLeodganj – it was conveniently located right in the middle!
What was once the residence of a royal family, Jyoti Niwas Cottage is a heritage 20th century villa that is now a home-stay in Palampur. Like a well-kept secret, this home stay in Himachal Pradesh is hidden away in the sleepy village of Alhilal in Kangra Valley, an hour’s drive away from both Bir Billing and Dharamshala, which are located on either side of it.
ABOUT JYOTI NIWAS HOMESTAY
Once the large gates are swung open by Rajkumar-ji, the caretaker, drive past an open grassy area at the side of the house and come out in front. Surprisingly, the house turns its back on the road and the front of it faces a private parking area and lush courtyard that invites relaxation.
Colourful Buddhist prayer flags stretch across the pathway leading to the quaint looking gallery, held up by a couple of solid pillars. On one end, a set of large couches with mustard-yellow cushions appear to be the “chill spot” when staying at Jyoti Niwas. I can already imagine what life here must have been like in the past, with the family moving seamlessly between inside and out, lunching on the lawns in favourable weather.
Built as a summer retreat for the Nawab of Bhawapur in the late 1930’s, this cottage was acquired by a royal family from Jammu and Kashmir two decades later.
I stepped inside the house and swept my gaze through the cozy living room. It isn’t overly lavish by today’s standards, but in the 1930’s, the villa would have probably been a landmark of sorts. Beautiful patterned floor tiles that vary in every room, a vintage-looking work desk on one side and cosy sofas arranged around a centre-table are the main elements that make up the room. My eyes fall on a collection of books placed here for guests to read – from Architectural Digest to glossy travel magazines, and huge coffee-table books on history and art – great reading material for those wanting to learn things about Himachal Pradesh that Google cannot help with.
“Choose whichever room you like,’ says Rajkumar-ji, pointing to two rooms on either side of the hall, before retreating to the back of the house. Being a weekday and off-season in this part of Himachal Pradesh, we happened to be the only guests there. We head to the one on the right first and it looks adorable! A large soft bed neatly set with a yellow patterned blanket and saffron cushions; in front of it, a fireplace (wow!) covered in pale green tiles with decorative bottles placed on the mantle, an armchair, another work desk, a lamp and lots of natural light, thanks to doors that open up to the patio! It was furnished quite simply, immaculately kept and strangely enough, I felt like I instantly belonged here, in this dollhouse of a room!
I walked to the other side, and there, in a smaller room, was a single bed, a beautiful antique dressing table and a cupboard. What was probably a dressing room or child’s room back in the day, now had the ability to contain another adult.
Further on was the bathroom which was unique in many ways. The walls and tiles were bright pink and the shower area had a half-door barrier acting as a shower curtain. What was interesting was the olden-day flush tank – painted silver and fixed on the wall above. To flush, one has to hold the chain and pull down, similar to how you would call a butler in an old Hollywood movie. The bathroom also had another door that led to the back of the house. I loved how every room had a different entry and exit – the kids in the past must have had so much fun playing hide-and-seek here!
Needless to say, I loved the room so much that I parked my bags here and didn’t even consider the second bedroom, which was more or less identical, but had less natural light due to the foliage on that side of the house. You may also like to know that towels, toiletries (soap) and Wi-Fi are some of the amenities provided at Jyoti Niwas Cottage and the villa can accommodate a posse of 6 at a time.
I can honestly say that I felt more rejuvenated here than I had in a long time! In the morning, the sunlight streamed into my room as early as 7 AM and the birds’ song seemed to have gone from chirps to crescendo, urging me not to spend another moment in bed. During the evenings, the sound of silence was broken by hurried raindrops, and by night, we had a power-cut. Jyoti Niwas does have power backup, but I find power-cuts to be a forced way to disconnect from the world, something that does us all good, once in a while. And so, we didn’t go turn on the lights. We just sat there in the patio, as the night turned inky black and a sole owl hooted somewhere in the branches in front of us.
What added to the feeling of home was that the caretaker was present at the back of the house, yet didn’t hover over us – allowing us to catch the rhythm of Palampur and of this heritage bungalow. There was no formality and he didn’t appear to ask if we needed any more tea, or to switch on the lights during the powercut, or even to lock the door at midnight. We literally felt like it was our own home and did everything ourselves. And if we needed something, a trip to the back of the house was all it took to get it.
The food at Jyoti Niwas Cottage is prepared by Rajkumar in the large detached kitchen at the back of the house. I can’t quite describe the feeling of eating in that dining room – it felt so natural and ordinary, as if I was sitting at my dining table at home in Goa, and yet, I felt like I was in someone else’s house, and the owner would walk in at any moment. The colourful table runners on the side table, antique items and black and white photos placed on the stand gave the simple room quite a bit of personality and exuded unpretentious homeliness.
We tucked in to simple, tasty Indian food – rice, rotis, dal, kadhi-pakoda and mixed vegetables along with dahi and fresh salad on the side. It was only during meals that Rajkumar, with his gentle smile,would come in to check on whether we needed anything to be refilled, although he had served us way too much for two people to begin with.
We couldn’t resist sitting outside in the beautiful gallery for breakfast and evening tea – eating toast and butter or parathas in the morning and pakoras at sundown, watching the birds flit from tree to tree, the prayer flags flutter in the wind. The occasional honking car seemed almost alien in such a setting.
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THINGS TO DO AROUND JYOTI NIWAS COTTAGE
Unless you have really itchy feet, I can bet you won’t want to leave Jyoti Niwas for the entire duration of your stay. There isn’t a lot to do here – it is located on the threshold of a small town and to be honest, the scenes from the property are better than those outside. Among the things to do in Palampur, visiting Andretta’s Pottery seems to be the most popular choice. It is one of the oldest potteries in the country. You can enroll in a quick pottery class lasting 15 minutes for Rs. 150/- or 45 minutes for Rs. 650/-. Truthfully, I’d suggest going only if you REALLY want something to do. It isn’t very extraordinary.
Instead, you could drive through the lush tea plantations in Palampur. You will need to drive through in-roads, but as I always say, it is in these little off-beaten tracks that you can experience the vibe of the place. I was also surprised to know that Palampur has a mall as well as a few Café Coffee Days, the first ones that I had seen in almost 2 months in Himachal Pradesh. This is definitely a good place for digital nomads – the great connectivity to work and a dose of serenity are two things that those of us who work on the move, look for!
Jyoti Niwas doesn’t have panoramic vistas and luxury amenities to boast of, but if you’ve ever wondered what ‘home away from home’ felt like, you’ll get your answer here. I had no reason to complain in this charming, cosy little retreat in the countryside. Living in an old home, any old home, makes me wonder what secrets the walls would tell if they could talk. And this one was no different.