Pastoral pandering of soul and style
A unique gourmet destination with sustainable design aesthetics took a hedge fund manager and celebrity architect seven years to build
Don’t bet on it. It may not be there if you leave it too late. It would’ve returned to whence it came, from the grassy earth and contoured hillside from which hedge fund manager and hospitality maven Deepak Gupta, and architect Bijoy Jain, carved out Amaya—a unique collection of five luxury villas of 15 rooms lodged on 25 acres of tiered mountainside in Darwa village near Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh. “Should anything happen, there will be no traces of Amaya left in a few years,” smiles Gupta. Perhaps the infinity pool will stay—a gleaming mirror of water in which guests can bask in heated comfort as the mountain winds burr in the pines.
Amaya is a miracle of sublime imagination, patience, persistence and will. It took Gupta, a finance guy living in Singapore, seven years to develop the property, which is an hour-and-a-half-long drive from Chandigarh. He bought an entire hill in 2014, studied the undulating landscape and let the resort develop in his mind first. Most of the buildings are built village-style and the material was transported on local ponies. Gupta and Jain decided to go with native Himachali building methods that have outlasted concrete monstrosities. They used the kath kuni masonry technique, which excludes mortar. “Bijoy’s work is experimental in nature. He uses construction styles and designs based on topography and location,” says Gupta. The walls are of local stone, soil and limestone.
Amaya takes the safety of its guests seriously; whether the villas, or the long, high-ceilinged dining room lit with low-hanging paper lamps that give off a buttery glow at dinner time, they can withstand earthquakes. The large copper roofs have already acquired the greenish patina of age. Each villa has two single bedrooms, a master bedroom and study, which is connected with the large living room and kitchen. Amaya aesthetic is earth language in muted tones of beige and white.
The furniture is Scandinavian light, with darker wood holding panels in slim, clean lines, with occasional flashes of polished brass. The long brass door bolts are customised. Gupta and Jain haven’t stinged on style: the bathrooms have Villeroy & Boch fittings and Oudh wood toiletries by Ayca Natural Skincare. You sink into deep mattresses sheeted in pristine white as the blades of the bespoke fans overhead whir somnolently. The light inside possesses a special quality.
The sun coming in through the doors and slanting windows bathe the rooms in a lambent ivory glow, thanks to the thin slices of marble panels in frames. “Bijoy embraces contemporary elements only when they are needed to create some of the comforts we need in our lives,” elaborates Gupta. But the elegant bowls and small flower vases with the sum-of-the-soil statements are surprisingly expected. So is the massive antique chest crouching on bulky legs that dominates a verandah. These are the forgivable foibles of designers, easily ignored in a place with greater merits.
Amaya is a gastronomic destination, too, with a sustainably ethnic menu orchestrated by chef Prerna Bandal, a young Maharashtrian culinary prodigy who went on a solo bike tour through her home state, before arriving at Amaya. The food is proprietary: Amaya farm peas are from the sprawling vegetable garden on location. Emmer khapli wheat used in the pot duck ragu is grown in Gupta’s farm in Nabha, Punjab. Bandal draws from her own upbringing as a Konkani Maharashtrian by philosophising, “Cooking is your own story created by one’s upbringing and personal experiences.”
Her rawa-fried trout with mustard and poppy seed curry gets its inspiration from the sea food preparations of childhood. Dining here is both an upmarket and indigenous experience. Spicy Miso ramen shares space with bhedu broth and smoked cheese dumpling. Soft dal khichdi coexists with the soupy gucci yakhni bhaat. Upon arriving in Darwa, Bandal spent days with village folk learning about their recipes and cooking techniques. The result is dishes like the dunghar murgh; Himachal’s dhams use coal in cooking—sealing the pot after tossing a glowing ember in dal with mustard gives food a smoky flavour. The region’s cuisine is tangy; for example, Bandal’s anardana trout is a piquant balance of pomegranate seeds, yoghurt and dried mango.
With a wide smile, the young chef confesses to have unlearned city life to live and work at the resort. At Amaya, everyone is smiling: the staff, the gardeners and the guests. Gupta seems to be the only thoughtful one. But then contemplation is his thing. It is the vibe of Amaya.