If it were not for my friend living in Dharamshala, I might have skipped the stopover entirely. “Tapovan,” she clarified, adding, “it’s away from Dharamshala.” The last time I explored the Tibetan settlement was years ago when I was on a whirlwind trip to write a guide to the town: a list of things to do, where to eat, and what to buy, all crammed in 24 hours.
This time though, Tanya introduced me not only to the quieter extension of Dharamshala but also to the many tiny sustainable enterprises that are slowly helping Tapovan metamorphose into a meaningful community, one initiative at a time.
As I pulled into an isolated stretch of the woods, Tanya greeted me together with her housemates: Megha, an artist whose work is inspired by patterns and materials of nature; and Ziggy, an indie Labrador who has been Tanya’s constant companion, including through her relocation from Pune to Dharamshala in the pandemic to pursue her work as an outdoor therapist. Tapovan has exerted this pull over many, as I learnt over the course of my stay.
After a quick orientation, we drove out for lunch and stopped over at Rakkar village in the neighbourhood to take a look at a house designed by the late Delia “Didi” Contractor. The self-taught German-American architect—who made Dharamshala her home in her later years and gained recognition plus the Indian government’s Nari Shakti Puraskar for her work relating to women’s empowerment—has left her legacy behind in this small suburb of Dharamshala. Her work is scattered all over the area in the form of public buildings and private residencies.
Soon, we were at the Teapot Café, a cosy hangout with an adorable obsession with all things teapot, from the paper napkin holder shaped like one to the colourful teapots all over. Everyone seemed to know everyone, as befits such a small place, and after a round of exchanges we settled down at the table outside—for the couch inside had been taken over by several furry friends. The dog love had clearly spilled over from the Dharamshala Animal Rescue close by, an outfit that works with strays.
After browsing through the pre-loved books on sale and picking up a bookmark, we headed back. En route, we made another stop, at Manooni, a homegrown concern with a range of forest-to-bottle personal care products created by Simran Sandhu. A word-of-mouth, all-women-run, fair-trade business, the brand gets its name from the glacier-fed perennial Manooni river that runs through the valley. The enterprise prides itself on creating sustainable cosmetics from natural ingredients.
Another small enterprise driven by similar conservation ethics has found its feet in the neighbouring village of Jia to which we drove the following day. There we found Malini Kochupillai neck-deep in the tenacious pursuit of one more sustainable enterprise. Together with co-founder Kunal Singh, she has set up Tenacious Bee, a collective that works towards the ethical production of honey and its byproducts.
“The bee’s well-being is at the centre of our business,” said Malini. Most bees in the honey industry are uprooted from their native regions and overworked through various seasons, something the people at Tenacious Bee ensure does not happen. The result is small batches of beautifully packaged produce and an ethical business.
On our way back, we drove up the hill from Tapovan for a view of the main town of Dharamshala that was propped up on the hill in the distance, going around the massive structure of the world’s highest international cricket stadium surrounded by buildings, houses, and intersecting roads. Somewhere out there in the clamour was the Dalai Lama Temple that I did not visit, the swanky new Dharamshala Skyway ride that I did not take, and the famous Norbulingka café that I skipped.
As I paused to take in the setting sun and the rising twinkling lights beyond, I was glad to be viewing Dharamshala, but from the other side this time.
Shikha Tripathi is a writer footloose in the Indian Himalaya, specialising in stories woven around nature, sustainable living, changing ecology, and the outdoors.