Nicholas Roerich’s art is at the center of the Eila Art Hotel

Standing in the middle of a bunch of white eggshell, asymmetrical domes, I’m uncertain and amazed at the same time. With one flick of the door key, I am immediately transported to the room. Twilight filters in from odd, triangular fixed windows on the concave ceiling, and the massive glass wall that frames the twinkling lights from the night scene in the valley far below maintains the illusion of floating in an interstellar world. I’m living my science fiction dream in this spaceship of a room and it’s hard to believe that this modern architectural wonder exists in the quiet hill town of Naggar in Himachal Pradesh.

Tree of Life Eila Art Hotel is a space conceived, curated and designed with ideas of art and nature, both heavy influences from Naggar. Nestled in a soothing cedar forest overlooking the meandering Beas with the Dhauladhar range in the distance, this art center doubles as a unique abode. Eila is the Sanskrit word for earth as well as moonlight, and this binary in its meaning associates it with both clay and cloud, elements also deeply intertwined with the art history of Naggar, which first came into the limelight due to its association with Nicholas Roerich.

Professor Nicholas Roerich, a painter par excellence who also donned the many hats of writer, philosopher and spiritual teacher, was a 20th century artist who made Naggar his home. His visionary work as an artist spanned the spectrum from archeology to theater and design, and his work as a humanist led him to found the Roerich Pact, an international treaty for the preservation of culture. He eventually
settled with his wife and children on an estate in Naggar, which is now a well-maintained museum. His presence in the nondescript village that he made his home left an indelible mark on Naggar and its cultural heritage.

While the Roerich Museum has drawn art lovers from all over the world to this alpine settlement, so close to Manali and yet a world away in its embodiment of slow living, Eila has taken this legacy forward by expanding this ecosphere offered to travelers here. Painstakingly created over a decade by renowned art collector Rama Shankar Singh and his art-loving daughter Palak, the structure follows the natural contours of the mountains as a design inspiration combined with an anthill. Its armature creates multiple points with intersecting lines, resulting in many triangular surfaces with different slopes. Apart from a bird’s eye view, there is no single point from which one can fully see the structure, giving each individual a unique interpretation of the space.

If unparalleled architecture is at the heart of the Tree of Life Eila starship, art is the fuel that drives it forward. Each room and common space here is named after old schools of traditional miniature art emerging from the state of Himachal Pradesh. A walk within the compact but interactive hectare, divided into five levels, displays a range of contemporary paintings, sculptures, murals and installations specially conceived and created for the site. Nain Sukh, the in-house art gallery, is named after a Pahadi school painter of extraordinary brilliance. A 75-seat amphitheater has been created for events, artist camps, literary retreats and more.

The icing on the cake is the 80-feet long art wall in the restaurant, an ode to the flora, fauna, fairs and festivals of Kullu, the food and handicrafts of the region and its evergreen folktales. Roerich’s rich legacy also finds a special place on this wall, conceptualized by renowned artists Wahida Ahmed and Manish Pushkale.

Complementing the fine art around is the delicious food, a carefully curated experience where ingredients are locally sourced for not only Indian and continental dishes but also for some in-house Bundelkhandi specialities, a nod to Singhs’ roots.

While traditional roots remain strong here, no trees were uprooted to create this place, nor were the contours flattened. Sustainability has been beautifully woven into its architecture, so much so that the rooms’ superstructure was manufactured off site to cut the carbon footprint in half. The study of the building took years by experts, as there was no such structure in the country to compare with.

On my last evening I decide to see the Roerich Museum, as I always do on my Naggar visits, and begin the languid walk uphill under the gentle conifer giants around. I pause to admire the small arched wooden balconies of the 15th-century Kathkona-style Naggar Castle and the deep gold of the afternoon sun on the Dhauladhars beyond, prompting my obligatory coffee and cheesecake stop after that at the Wool cafe next door of the castle. I trudge up again when I get to the museum and admire the paintings as if it were my first visit. A few postcard purchases later, I’m back on the trail to Eila, the city’s newest museum in the making.

Naggar is 37 km from the nearest airport at Bhuntar and 23 km from Manali. The Tree of Life Eila Art Hotel was launched earlier this year and will host more art events in 2023. Sky Domes start at Rs 14,000 per night with breakfast plus taxes.

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