The pointy snow-slathered peaks of the Himalayan Ranges stretch across my horizon like an endless sea of mountains. A blue haze covers the lower portion of the mountains, giving the illusion that they are floating in the air. Where I’m standing is almost 5,250 feet (1,600m) above sea level — the world seems so immense and I feel so small and insignificant.
I am in Dhulikhel, a village in the fertile, mountain-sheltered Kathmandu Valley. We may be just 18 miles (30 km) from the Nepali capital of Kathmandu but it’s a completely different world here — there is no traffic, pollution or noise; only plunging gorges, snow-topped mountains, clusters of villages and complete tranquility. Because of the high altitude, the air here feels pure and fresh, and there is an overwhelming sense of peace and serenity.
For many centuries, this was an important trading center on an ancient commercial route linking Nepal to Tibet. People of Nepal traveled to Tibet to bring salt and gold, while the Tibetans entered Nepal every year with their flocks of sheep. From here, you could even see the Tibetan borders and mountains in the far distance. Today, the view continues to impress — not only the locals but also tourists alike. Dhulikhel is still the gateway of Tibet but it has also grown into a mountain retreat for tired trekkers and curious travelers seeking peace.
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Visiting Villages and Meeting Locals
On my first morning here, I head out to explore Dhulikhel but end up wandering around the small villages around it instead. I meander past mud houses, farm lands full of fresh green spinach and red rose bushes. Young boys hard at work with their water buffalos stop what they’re doing to stare at me. Local ladies smile at me warmly when I call out, “Namaste!” There are no tourists in sight — only young giggling students and old native ladies walking past me.
In the village of Bhattedada, I meet two 10-year-old girls who ask me for chocolates and refuse to beg down. I shake my head and say no, trying to explain that they shouldn’t be doing that. They decide that chocolates aren’t that interesting anyway and decide to take me in as their new playmate, holding my hands (one on each side), leading me around their house. Right around the corner of their mudhouse, the girls’ family members as well as other villagers are gathered on the grass field, discussing something important or so it seems. I smile, wave and say namaste. That morning, I’m so happy that I cannot wipe off the smile on my face.
In the afternoon, I return to the hotel I’m staying at, Dwarika’s Resort Dhulikhel, a holistic retreat that focuses on ancient Himalayan philosophy and lifestyle. The location of the resort itself is awe-inspiring: high above the Kathmandu Valley, set amidst the forests surrounding several villages. The resort’s bungalows are all styled upon the traditional Nepali pagoda-style architecture and decorated with Newari antique and ornaments while its restaurant and spa hone in on Himalayan living through fresh, organic local produce, Ayurvedic treatments, yoga and meditation.
My suite opens up to a ridiculously stunning view of the Himalayan ranges and the plunging slopes of the valley beneath. Lunch is usually served out on the open-roofed deck of their in-house restaurant Nature’s Flavours under the balmy sun, where I feast on delicious local cuisine prepared with fresh ingredients from their farm. The Singapore-trained chef has an infectious love for food and he’s always eager to share his secret ingredients. Out on the resort’s terraces, I love watching the squirrels scurry around the cherry blossom tree and birds chirping away above my head, with the smell of red roses and wild basil amidst the pure mountain air.
At the resort, I also strike up a friendship with the gentle and soft-spoken Dr Nimala, an Ayurvedic doctor from Bhaktapur who’s moved here to help run the spa. With fervor and passion for holistic wellbeing, she explains to me the Vedic philosophy of pancha kosha or five layers of being: Annamaya (physical), Pranamaya(vital air), Manomaya (mind), Vigyanmaya (intellect) and Anandamaya (inner bliss). Thanks to seven years of training, she’s well-skilled in these treatments that can address each of the koshas.
I also meet the mastermind behind Dwarika’s, Ms Sangita, an elegant and wise Nepali lady who spots a British accent. Having been educated abroad, she decided to return to her home to finish what her father started and fulfill his dream. He had originally created Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu to host his impressive Newari artefact collection dating from the 13th century. It’s now one of Nepal’s finest hotels, with an excellent display of Nepal’s craftsmanship and heritage that can rival any of Kathmandu’s temples.
A few years ago, Sangita started to work on Dwarika’s Dhulikhel with the hope of not only showcasing Nepal’s artistry but also the Himalayan nature and way of living. She shares her philosophy behind the creation of Dwarika’s Dhulikhel, “We want our guests to explore nature and their inner self. Our hope is that no matter what you are seeking, after a stay at the retreat, you will leave with a greater sense of peace.”
Witnessing a Traditional Hindu Puja
That evening, I’m invited to be part of a special puja that the hotel is having. The word puja, in general, refers to a Hindu worship ceremony — Nimala explains that everyone does pujas at home and it’s an important part of their culture — but this one held today is a special one to commemorate new beginnings. Having just opened in October 2013, the resort is having this puja to pray for positive energy and blessings.
Held on the gardens overlooking the valley, the religious ceremony is performed by two bajes (priests) with a slew of offerings and dye power spread out before them. Dr Nimala tells me that only bajes know the right way to perform a Hindu puja. Bajes are from the Brahma caste, the most respected caste in Nepal, and often inherit religious knowledge from their fathers.
First Nimala shows me how to give offerings to the gods: using two middle fingers and the thumb, we scoop up the mixture of rice, sesame seeds, and cow ghee (a type of fat) and sprinkle them into the fire. Then the bajes start chanting prayers in Sanskrit and call out the gods’ names we are praying to. Each time we throw the offerings into the fire, he shouts out “Sahee”. Other offerings are placed around the fire, from the sal roti (rounded buns made from dough) to coconut and bowls of rice with bananas on each of them.
“Don’t think of this as a religious ceremony; this is more of a Nepali way of life than religion,” says the resort’s owner and Managing Director Sangita. As a devout believer and a spiritual person, she believes that having positive energy will help cleanse the surrounding and make it a welcoming place.
After a few rounds of prayers, we head down to a shrine near the hotel reception and present our offerings to the holy basil. As Nimala explains, the holy basil – an important plant in Nepal – is regarded as the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In fact, to honor Lord Vishnu, the resort has a holy basil plant in front of every room to protect and look after the guests.
At the end of the ceremony, the bajes bless us each with a tika on our foreheads (center point of our spirit and mind) and food offerings as a way of receiving blessings from the gods. I thank him with all my heart — grateful to have this opportunity to witness and be part of such an interesting traditional ceremony.
By this time, the last ebb of the sunlight is slowly fading into the distance; I head up to the highest rooftop terrace in the resort for a view of the sunset. The sky turns pink and the entire landscape changes from gold to purple in a matter of seconds. I’m almost moved to tears by the beauty of the view and this magical place, a place that I’ve clearly fallen in love with.
Just like Sangita wished for, I leave feeling revived — almost like a new me. I’d come to Dhulikhel in search for some peace and it gave me just what I needed
More Info on Dwarika’s
Dhulikhel is located about an hour’s drive from Kathmandu. The resort can arrange pickup from the airport. All of the resort’s 40 suites have spectacular mountain views and spacious living areas that are both stylishly designed and functional. Each suite features handcrafted wooden furnishing, antique ornaments, large daybeds and spacious outdoor terraces. Room rates start from USD 375 for a double junior suite. Click to read my full review or find out more on Dwarika’s Dhulikhel website.
Disclosure: My stay was made possible by Dwarika’s Dhulikhel, but as always, all opinions expressed above are my own.