London To India To Build A Yoga Retreat

17/10/2016 12:06

Part 2: Bricks and Mortar

The Western Ghats are spectacular. We drove through Sakleshpur as the sun was rising and Mahesh made me wear a blindfold as we meandered up the track towards our soon-to-be land. I removed my eye-wear as the car stopped. 'Wow!" It was truly magnificent. The panoramic views of the Western Ghats and bustle of life from the surrounding coffee estates took my breath away. We were in paradise. There were hundreds of trees, flowers, birds, butterflies, plants, coffee bushes, black pepper creepers, fruit trees and vegetable crops surrounding a small lake!

We'd both fallen in love with the place, but of course acquiring any land in India is a very complicated and drawn-out process and even more so when it is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nevertheless, we decided to press on with construction. Our vision was to create a beautiful rustic farmhouse (in keeping with rural India), using local materials, reclaimed pillars, window frames, doors and crafted artefacts. Because so many wonderful old buildings are being pulled down in India (due to family disputes and people wanting to sell-up to properly developers), it's possible to pick up charming wooden doors, carved pillars, fabulous shuttered window frames and terracotta roof tiles for next to nothing. We both agreed that we wanted to design the buildings ourselves, rather than paying a haughty architect lots of money to come up with something unbefitting. I loved the idea of having a sweeping veranda all around the house and enormous bedrooms with heaps of natural light. Mahesh wanted a spacious kitchen and sizeable ensuite bathrooms. We both agreed that a church-like living room would be fun. So that's what we built. The old farmhouse that was already on the land became our living room and the walls were raised to over twenty feet, allowing us to create a picturesque tiled-roof, which slopes over our fifteen foot terrace. Around the living room we added three large bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen and a huge veranda (part of which is now a dining area with a fireplace). My yoga shala looks out over the Western Ghats and next to Mahesh's outdoor kitchen is a fabulous wood-fired oven. We built a lovely cottage for guests and plan to construct a couple more. We have named our coffee estate 'Nirvṛta' (which means 'joyful' in Sanskrit) and designed our homestay yoga retreat with the intention of creating an idyllic space in nature for free-spirited, like-minded individuals, to escape from urban living, practise Ashtanga yoga, feel connected and to revitalise the body, mind and spirit. The next phase will be to make a wonderful swimming pool at the top of the hill, which looks out over the Western Ghats.

One of the most striking aspects of the Western Ghats, is its lush vegetation. For three months of the year there is torrential rain, so no construction work can happen. The other major challenge in South India is to find reliable, skilled workers, who will actually show up. We realised pretty early on that local construction labourers aren't dependable. They'd promise to come, but never appear. In the end we had to ferry a team of guys from Bangalore to Sakleshpur, but they would only stay for two weeks at a time and then need at least a month off. As a result, it took several years to build the house, cottage, outdoor kitchen, auxiliary buildings and to design the landscaping. The work ethic can be quite lackadaisical in India, with an overwhelming sense of self-deserving, without actually making any effort to do anything. If Mahesh was not project-managing every moment, our workers would literally sit and do nothing and if he was not overseeing them they would magnificently manage to do the job wrong. One day I explained to the mason that the shala floor must to be level. I took my Stanley tape measure and gave him the exact specs. I had to pop back to Mysore for a few days and when I returned the shala floor was dramatically sloping. "Ramesh! The floor is sloping, it must be level!" "Madam, for water drainage." "What water drainage, Ramesh?" It took another three days to re-do the floor. The plumber fitted the waste-water-pipe outlet along an upward slope, so the water couldn't drain away. The shower heads were fitted eight feet high, so only a giant could reach them. The electrician's make-shift wiring, blew up my lovely flat-screen TV and the painters splattered so much paint on our beautiful grey-stone veranda pillars and walls, that we ended up having to paint them too. The plumber dropped a hammer in my bathtub and cracked it and the workers forgot to remove the enormous water tank (that was being stored in the house), before building the final wall around it ... These are just a few examples of jobs that had to be re-done under constant supervision. Of course construction workers like to be paid by the day, rather than the project! After the carpenters put up more wonky selves and I rolled an orange from one end to the other, I had a bit of a meltdown. Miraculously Mahesh's uncle had been working with two very talented carpenters from Bihar and they agreed to help us out. They looked at the two kitchens that needed fitting, under-bed drawers and bathroom cupboards that needed making and gave us a quote for the whole project. Two weeks later they had finished and their craftsmanship was impeccable.

The workers did seem to enjoy themselves though. Being in nature in such a stunning part of India, must have been a welcome escape from overpopulated, polluted and noisy Bangalore. On the first day of each monsoon the team would stop everything, run around in the rain and bury each other in the muddy earth. It's quite wonderful to watch people embracing the natural rhythm of nature with such care-free aplomb. Thankfully we have a beautiful lawn now, so the Glastonbury antics can't be replicated by our guests!