A staccato vehicle horn made me look up from my book as I sat on the steps of Domino’s Pizza at the Kodaikanal bus stop. My ride to Karuna Dham had arrived: a dark-green mountain jeep with an amicable man behind the wheel, who introduced himself as Murugesh. “Just you?” he asked me. I nodded, climbing into the front and tossing my bag in the backseat.
After weeks of contemplating ducking into the hills, being dodged by busy friends, and being constrained by my budget, I was finally venturing out of the city by myself. On the drive from Kodaikanal to KarunaDhameco-farm, I admired bungalows that looked painted onto the backdrop of sloping coffee and avocado plantations, which gave way to tall, pine thickets,and eventually fenced pear orchards as we drove deeper into the forest.
WhenMurugesh pulled into a deserted nook at the end of a bumpy, gravel road, and gestured for me to Alice-in-Wonderland my way down an almost-inconspicuous path, I realised that they weren’t kidding on the website. There’s no way Google Maps could have directed me to this alcove. Karuna Dham is situated far from the hustle on protected forest department land; the nearest village, Prakashapuram, is about four kilometres away. I had lost my phone signal way before we crossed the village (yay!).
Snaking my way down a makeshift stairway made of tyres, I followed a blue butterfly through the greenery until I found some signboards to Govinda’s, the restaurant and reception area, where I would enjoy hot home-cooked meals during my stay.
The property has a number of trekking trails, and the path to the dorm—freckled with rocks and rivulets—is one of them. After arriving completely out of breath at the top of the hill where I’d be bunking for the next two nights, I took a quick shower in one of the stalls, and set off to explore.
Wandering through the foliage, I stumbled upon the attraction which brought me to this off-beat retreat in the first place: Karuna Earthship. As owner Alex Leeor would explain to me in detail over the following days, the bio-home is eco-friendly and self-sufficient. Unless explicitly told, you’d never guess that the house is built from vehicle tyres, tin cans, glass bottles, and mud; and completely powered by solar energy and recycled water.
During my three days at Karuna, I indulged in idling, writing, and reading by waterfalls. I even took my first-ever shower under the cold, soft currents of its cascades. I disappeared into the forest with some volunteers and guests to forage for fresh blueberries, which I ate right off the branches while fighting off leeches. In the mornings, I joined the free yoga sessions offered by the volunteers in the glassed meditation room. On one of the afternoons, I even helped paint some signboards for the farm.
But for the most part, I spent time by myself. There’s something spiritual about being alone in the mountains. There is the solid stillness of the rocks; the freedom of the wind, juxtaposed with the rootedness of trees;a quiet abundance of life, punctuated by brightly blooming wildflowers. You forget yourself; your ego dissolves into insignificance against all this enormity.
Weeks after my return to Chennai, I catch myself missing the morning song of the Malabar whistling thrush (colloquially called the whistling schoolboy) and the nippy hill breeze. Loud car honks often snap me out of my reverie. I can’t wait for the mountains to call me back again.
Karuna Dham (www.karunadham.org.in) is about 13 kilometres from Kodaikanal. The best way to get there directly is to call Murugesh (+91-9865151047), who will pick you up in his jeep from town. Alternatively, you can drive, or take a bus to Prakashapuram and walk the rest of the way (unless you have heavy luggage). The retreat is also not recommended for people with injuries or physical challenges as the paths are steep.
Guests can choose from the various private cottages (doubles from Rs. 2,600 for two nights) or stay in one of the nine dorm beds. Minimum stay is two nights; all accommodation includes breakfast and morning yoga. Cottages are equipped with kitchens, butmeat and alcohol consumption are prohibited.
Things to Do
Apart from trekking and daily yoga sessions, Karuna Dham also conducts workshops on Earthships, permaculture, and pottery.