Setting Up Camp in Remote India

  • Monks blow conch shells from the monastery's terraces.

    Monks blow conch shells from the monastery's terraces.

  • A reception tent is set on the banks of the Indus River.

    A reception tent is set on the banks of the Indus River.

  • Luxury tents boast chandeliers, four-poster beds, and made-in-India fabrics.

    Luxury tents boast chandeliers, four-poster beds, and made-in-India fabrics.

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A seasonal encampment of luxe tents has pitched up below a monastery in Ladakh, bringing a measure of sophistication—and support—to this remote corner of India.

In the realm of unlikely trifectas, that of a high-society event planner, a retired Indian Army general, and a Tibetan-Buddhist monk ranks near the top. In the former Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh in northern India, so too does the outcome of their combined efforts: a mobile luxury camp that is low-impact, high-luxury, and philanthropic to boot.

When Dhun Cordo, one of Mumbai’s most exclusive wedding planners, began searching for remote Indian holiday destinations to send her discerning clients to, she soon realized that far-flung locales didn’t often come with swanky—let alone clean—accommodations. Her solution? The Ultimate Travelling Camp, an assemblage of high-end tents that could be moved almost anywhere she wished. For help, she reached out to her longtime friend Deepak Raj, a recently retired lieutenant general who readily admits, “At that time, I had only heard vaguely of the term ‘glamping.’ ” But Raj, no stranger to army bivouacs, brought military precision and logistical expertise to the equation, and in early January 2013, along with a team of experienced hoteliers, he and Cordo erected a trial camp in the hills above Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. The setup spared no expense: powerful rain showers, gourmet cuisine, butlers, and chandeliered tents replete with private decks, four-poster beds, and hand-blocked cotton fabrics. But the real coup was the backdrop—Maha Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu gathering held only once every 12 years.

Word of the camp reached Nawang Chamba Stanzin, a.k.a. Thiksey Khenpo Rinpoche, head lama of the Thiksey Monastery in central Ladakh. A warren of whitewashed monks’ quarters and saffron-and-crimson prayer halls poised on a hilltop above the Indus River, the monastery, founded more than five centuries ago, had recently fallen upon hard times. Receiving less support from its increasingly secularized community and forbidden by tradition to engage directly in business, it was in dire need of alternative sources of income. Seeing the potential of the camp to help, the Rinpoche offered Cordo and Raj an annual lease of 11 hectares of riverside land below the monastery, which they eagerly accepted.

The result is the Chamba Camp, which set down stakes in June and will operate for the rest of the Ladakhi summer. Situated about 20 kilometers southeast of Leh and over 3,500 meters above sea level, the compound comprises 14 air-conditioned and heated khaki tents along with canvas-covered dining and reception areas beside the river. For Ladakh, a mountainous region in the northernmost Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the camp represents a whole new level of luxury; and for the monastery, it means fresh support for the education of younger novices and healthcare for elderly monks. As for guests, they can expect privileged access to monastic events and ceremonies (including July’s Kalachakra festival, presided over by the Dalai Lama); polo matches featuring sturdy Zaniskari ponies; rafting trips on the icy Indus; archery, mountain treks, and séance sessions with a local oracle; and prime bird watching (rose-finches, yellow wagtails, and crested hoopoes are common in these parts).

Come October, the camp will be packed up onto the backs of dozens of trucks and moved around a circuit of isolated locations elsewhere in India, tying down its flaps on a pristine jungle site in Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa National Park in November, in Nagaland for the Hornbill Festival in early December, and in the gardens of the Anhalwara Palace above Kashmir’s Dal Lake next spring, before returning once more to Thiksey.

Sipping fresh sea-buckthorn-berry juice in his reception room overlooking the campsite and the jagged, snow-capped Himalayas beyond, the Rinpoche, swathed in a scarlet robe, demurs at the suggestion that he could be a role model for other remote community leaders to follow. “I wish only to raise consciousness globally about Thiksey,” he says. “This allows us to stand on our own resources and provides good jobs for local Ladakhis.” Who says the material and spiritual worlds can’t coexist?

THE DETAILS

Until it pulls up stakes on Sept. 20, Chamba Camp Thiksey (91-11/ 4090-2222) is offering six-day packages priced from US$3,505 per person, double, including guided excursions and all meals. For information about The Ultimate Travelling Camp’s other Indian outposts, visit theultimatetravellingcamp.com.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Camp Karma”)

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