MAGIC IN THE MOUNTAINS AT THE MOKSHA HIMALAYA SPA RESORT
“In 1972 when I was in the timber business, I became the highest bidder in a government sale of some forests near the city of Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh. Working there, I became intrigued by an area on the back side of a nearby village, and one day I decided to take a closer look. I packed a lunch, put on my knapsack, and headed up through the pines. It was all wilderness; there was no water, no road nearby. But it was a beautiful spot with a lake. I thought to myself, ‘I must have this land.’”
This, essentially, is how the story of Moksha Himalaya Spa Resort begins, and we are hearing it from Ramesh Garg, a sturdy-looking man of middle age and the developer as well as owner of the property that spreads out before us. It is mid-morning. We have recently arrived from Chandigarh, a magical city about a half-hour’s drive on the new Himalayan Expressway to the resorts of Timber Trail in Himachal Pradesh, a state in northern India, where we ascended via cable car to a height of 5,200 feet above sea level. Now, sitting in a lounge with Mr. Garg and drinking cardamom tea, we look out through a glass wall to a seemingly infinite spectacle of mountains continuing from the foreground before us into the far distance beneath a sky that grows from lavender to deep purple. Later on we would explore the resort: a 20-acre complex of winding roads neatly paved with gray brick-shaped stones, stone walls, 62 cottage-style suites (some appear to be perched on the very edge of cliffs) set among individual pine trees (of irregular height and in unexpected places), fabulous floral displays including cascading bougainvillea (so surprising in this temperate mountainous region), and pillared pavilions that look out to miles-long views. But for the moment, we are transfixed as much by the tale as the scenery.
“In 1977 I went to Kuwait to sell my timber,” Mr. Garg continues. “It was a coming-up country, and I knew such countries need timber. But I saw they were buying logs from Norway and Sweden that were five to six meters long where mine were less than three meters.
“I went see a friend, Dr. Penzer, from Hamburg, Germany, who was a specialist in forest research. ‘Ten years from now there will be no timber business in India,’ he told me. ‘They will be importing timber from other countries. Why not look at Switzerland?’
“I took his advice. In the Swiss Alps, I saw cable cars for the first time, and they made a strong impression on me. Years later, I would be reminded of them. Meanwhile, I returned to India, and some years later when the Supreme Court of India outlawed timbering in order to protect the forests, I decided to go in another direction.”
The direction would be away from timbering and towards tourism. If he could no longer cut trees on his forested land, Ramesh Garg would build resorts on land he had already cleared.
First came Timber Trail. Built at the base of a mountain, it opened December 22, 1982. Next was Timber Trail Heights higher up the mountain. It opened April 26, 1988 concurrent with the debut of the first cable car operation in northern India. He had not forgotten. The sight of cable cars silently drifting over the mountains, seemingly suspended in space, was happening in his own backyard, and he was the one who made it happen. Greeted with excitement and acclaim, they would prove to be a practical source of transportation and available to the local population at no cost, courtesy of the hotelier.
If not for the fact that we were sitting in a lounge of the Moksha Himalaya Spa Resort, we might well think this was the end of the story. But, our host assured us, there remained another chapter in the narrative although it would not take place for another sixteen years. At that time, however, a long-held dream would become reality: namely the opening of a world-class spa resort on the very piece of land he had trekked through the mountains to see up-close a long time long ago.
At this point in his account, Mr. Garg paused. A dark-haired woman in a vivid purple warm-up suit had just entered the lounge, and he stood to greet and introduce us to his spa director Panninee Amornrat.
He’d met Penny (whom we found to be “bright and shining as a penny” – hence our name for her) in Bangkok during the early stages of preparation for his newest quest, Mr. Garg told us. She’d had her own spa in her native Thailand, opened and ran one in Macau, and operated award-winning spas for Centara, the luxury Thai hotel chain. Impressed with her resume, he convinced her to become part of his new project.
“When I met ‘the Boss’ (which is how she refers to her employer) it was so exciting,” Penny said. “And when I came here, I just fell in love with the place. There were very few hotels on the mountain at the time. I thought it was awesome.”
The Boss smiled and leaned back, content to let Penny take over the role of raconteur. “For two years after he decided to build this resort, the Boss traveled around the world, visiting hotels, meeting with architects and designers, always working on and developing his concept,” she continued. “Finally, he narrowed down his search to P-49, an exclusive designing company that specializes in designing spas and luxury properties. But he was very hands-on. All through the process, even after the plans were set, he’d fly back and forth for a meeting with the builders and designers whenever some question came up. The Boss had his own vision for the resort; he was going to make it happen.”
At the same time, Penny developed a vision of her own. The spa would embody the “courtesy culture” Thailand is famous for. “I wanted it to have the main characteristics of a Thai place,” she told us, “a very soft, very gentle approach. But as we are in India, I knew we would have to combine our Thai rituals with Indian traditions, principally the ancient Aruyvedic style. We would offer a unique dry Thai massage but also many Indian oil massages. And so, we have Thai therapists and Indian therapists. A big part of my job is training them.”
Another big part of Penny’s job turned out to be meeting with clients, discussing and planning programs for them based on the array of rituals, therapies and treatments available in what is referred to as “A Sanctuary for Body Mind and Soul” a multitude of options for massages facials, foot and hand treatments, herbal wraps, yoga sessions, custom-designed rituals for couples, even Turkish Hamman baths(!). A recent addition is the wellness program introduced and supervised by Penny and an on-site medical doctor. Theirs is a holistic approach that focuses on such issues as stress reduction, weight loss, rejuvenation, and detoxification.
When Mr. Garg suggested Penny show us the centerpiece of his third (and clearly best-loved) resort, we readily agreed. So we left our amiable host and followed her along the road to a white-pillared edifice suggestive of a Greek temple from antiquity, out of place historically, yet in keeping with the aura of sacredness it projects. Standing on a rise on the top of a stairway of palatial dimensions made of the gray Himalayan stone so prevalent in the area, it looked out over a steep, terraced decline into which several rows of teakwood decks lined with chaise lounges, fire pits and Jacuzzis were set, save for the bottom-most row where the waters of an endless swimming pool spilled over the mountain’s edge to heart-stopping effect. In daylight, the image of endless mountain ranges was transfixing. At night, lights from as far away as Chandigarh sparkled; they were as mesmerizing as the adjacent star-filled sky.
That Mr. Garg envisioned the spa being a signature element of his dream resort can be seen by its inclusion in the property’s name. The same can be said of “Moksha” –a term of Sanskrit origin suggesting freedom from the temporal world, something beyond ordinary experience. One senses such a quality throughout the property — a letting go of the here and now, a moving into another place.
At the same time, there are all the comforts and pleasures of this luxury resort and its singular stunning spaces from the exceptionally well-stocked bar where the floors, walls and all the furnishings are made of teakwood, the gleaming halls where extravagant light fixtures hang from the soaring ceilings, and walls are made out of the same Himalayan stone one sees throughout the property for patios and terraces, the grand dining rooms and the excellent Indian dishes flavored with exotic spices as well as more familiar foods (for the more timid diner among us) – being guided by the sophisticated executive chef who told us he’d been all over India and has yet to taste all of its the spices.
Most important, there are the people who make up the Moksha family, who – to a man and woman – are so attentive, eager to please, so warm and engaging. We will always remember their many kindnesses and charms, how in greeting, they would nod and put their hands together as if in prayer.
Such elements were in place by the time Gurmeet Singh Randhawa came on the scene. For the tall and handsome resort manager, Moksha represented a coming home of sorts. He was born and grew up in Amitsar, the historic city in Punjab, famed for its holy temple, and while he had relocated to Delhi to complete his education and then spent eighteen years in the hospitality industry working for the Hyatt Hotel chain, his heart remained in the Himalayas. Which is why he readily accepted an offer in 2012 from the Indian School of Business in Puni, a city in Punjab close to his hometown.
“It was after I relocated in Puni, that I heard about Moksha,” Gurmeet told us. “I had known about the Timber Trail resorts from the time I was a kid; I’d visited the sites more than once. But Moksha was something else. The scenery was so spectacular! It was amazing!
“I met ‘the Chairman’ (which is how Gurmeet refers to Mr. Garg). He showed me around. We toured the resort in a golf cart (the means of ground transportation on the resort; drivers are available twenty-four hours a day, every day). It was the top of the world. I met the staff; every one of them was full of enthusiasm.
“So I happily accepted the Chairman’s offer and am so glad to be living in my home area once again, to be working in this beautiful setting on this incredible property.”
When Gurmeet arrived at Moksha, it had already been in operation for three years, the official opening of the resort having taken place December 22, 2009 with Prem Kumar Dhumal, Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh making the inaugural presentation 27 years, to the day, of the official opening of Timber Trail, the first of the trio of resorts.
It all had come together for the one-time timber merchant: becoming a hotelier, bringing cable cars to northern India, creating a small, exclusive hotel that is in the running for “Best Spa Resort in Asia.” And, at the same time, never forgetting the trees.
During construction, landscapers and builders wanted to cut down pine trees that grew here and there, claiming they were in the way of their plans. But, Mr. Garg told us, he would not allow a single tree to be touched; each one was to be left where it is.
We were reminded of the George Pope Morris poem:
Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me
And I’ll protect it now.
And so they stand, tall and slender trunks, puffs of greenery at the top, a testament to what was and what continues be all over the Moksha Spa Himalaya Resort.
Moksha Spa Himalaya Spa Resort
Telephone: +91 1792 232340