Some how the thought of senseless laughter enhanced by alcohol, dancing because one ought to and waking up on Christmas day feeling lethargic had no appeal. It once did in the yester years when the Eve events meant just that, in the name of celebration. I decided to make it some what different and called Sister Alphonsa, the Mother Superior of the Convent of Jesus & Mary Khandala and sought permission to spend Xmas eve at the House of Prayer, Nuns’ Hill, Khandala.(+91 2114269130).Usually guests are not taken in during Christmas. It is a period when the 6 nuns who stay in the vast twenty six acre hill, spend time in prayer within the community. Since I was a frequent visitor, the nuns gave us special permission for lodging only & breakfast.

24th December 2006 Mumbai (Powai) to Khandala 86kms, driving time 90minutes

 HIGHWAYS By Nasirkhan
The day broke as cool as Mumbai can get and after sharing a late breakfast with some friends, my husband Digby & I set out for Khandala at 1pm. We sped down the Eastern Express, took a left through Mankhud Link Road towards the Pune road till we crossed the first toll booth (Rs 25 for cars). The Mumbai Pune Express Way was a smooth dual carriageway three lane on each side, drive, with low traffic at that time of the day. Crossed the 1058m well ventilated Bhatan tunnel onto the next toll booth of an odd sum of Rs.71 then stopped for coffee at the road side drive in plaza. There were signs showing up 200m before the stop that there was a Food Plaza ahead to the left. The plaza had two huge sub sections with a filling station in between. The lane to the left had a coffee vending machine which spurted a strong hot brew for Rs 30. The plaza had lots of shops to buy savories, bottled soft drinks and hot snacks.

The drive was scenic and the rugged brown hills on either side of the highway with its sharp escarpments and flat table topped wind & water eroded surface would be any rock climbers’ delight! Digby stepped on the accelerator, rolled down the windows & we sped through the short 305m Madap Tunnel, through the Khandala Tunnel taking the left exit which showed Khandala-Lonavala. One straight drive it was until this turn. A short 100m drive & then a sharp right turn took us to the signs displaying Duke’s Retreat. Our destination was just past this hotel, opposite the hotel Zara.

The small Iron Gate was shrouded with creepers and a faded sign board displaying, The Convent of Jesus & Mary & a tiny grotto. The gate keeper pushed back the gate as we drove up Nuns’ Hill. A massive twenty six acres totally forested and a narrow winding road ahead, awaited us. We had been here before so the terrain was familiar. For the first time visitor, the sudden change from metal road & urban settings to a forest may be daunting. Especially with the evening setting in and the silence of the surroundings, one could feel a bit uneasy. This was a panther zone even as late as 2002 and who could tell if one such stray jungle big cat crossed the path?

Nuns Hill is a church property with two establishments. One is the Bombay House (phone:+91 952114269131), a beautiful but run down mid 19th century rambling mansion, & the other is the newly built House of Prayer, a one storied house with many rooms and a chapel. The two houses are separated by ample trees and cannot be viewed unless one ambles about. Bombay House is open to families & budget holiday makers.Rs200 for board and lodging per person per night. The House of Prayer is for those seeking “quiet time” & introspection. Charges are Rs 350 for board & lodging per person per night. It is the residence of the Mother Superior and two other nuns. The guest entries are selective here & open to scrutiny of the Mother Superior.

A non smoking policy and no consumption of alcohol in this House are strictly adhered to. The nicotine addict could however step out of the House of Prayer to the large gravel strewn compound to blow a few smoke rings! A hundred meters to the right of the gate of this premise, is a bonfire pit where one could have a drink, open to the dark skies. The House of Prayer has 16 bedrooms, some with attached bathrooms and some shared. The ground floor of the one storied house has a medium sized sitting area, a large aquarium, a dining room accommodating 40, a large chapel, an aviary of budgerigars and a decent sized verandah running along the side and front portion of the house. The security of the entire area rests with the canines. Danny, the black Great Dane, a German Shepard, Uncle Socks and Golda- both a cross breed. The dogs are let out in the compound twice a day and a placard is hung on the gate stating, DOGS ARE OUT. The gate opens to a narrow path which leads to an open field. Across the field is the view of the valley and on one corner are two bungalows called House of Prayer, Annex 1 and Annex 2 which is a large dormitory. Across the gate is a sign board, with an arrow pointing to a hillock. Spend some time with Mary, it says. It is the rosary garden.

We stopped by the main house, took the keys to our room and drove up to Annex 1.It was 2.30pm. The two brick walled bungalow had two rooms. Each room had an attached bath and a common verandah running in front. The rooms were large, clean, Spartan and functional. Three beds with clean sheets, blankets and mosquito nets. An antique writing table with a chair was carelessly pushed in one corner. The bathroom was tiled, very clean and had a tiny instant geyser which spouted warm water.

We quickly unloaded our luggage and opened the windows of the room. The winter sunshine filled the room with comfortable warmth & the leaves from the bamboo thicket and other creepers created a green backdrop. There was a cool breeze filtering through the open window setting the curtains to flutter. I inter twined the curtains through the grills so that it did not flap about.

Digby immediately took out his P.G.Woodehouse, stretched out on the bed and said it felt like Christmas holidays way back in the school days. The sun was pretty strong so I decided to take a long nap & venture out after 4.30pm.

I stepped out after the much relished nap & headed directly to the hillock, to spend some time with Mary. The hillock had a rough stone cut pathway. I had been here before so I passed the familiar gardens as I trudged up. The hillock is designed with fenced gardens, each one leading to another. The gardens are labeled as, The Garden of Sorrowful Mystery, the Garden of Luminous Mystery, the Garden of Joyful Mystery and the Garden of Glorious Mystery. The gardens have small paintings tracing the life of Christ from his birth to his crucifixion.There are 20 paintings in all & each garden has a wicket gate to enter & exit. The paintings are mounted on slim tree trunks, carved out as a crucifix. Known as the Stations of the Cross, the sufferings of Jesus is mapped from the foot of the hill to the last garden of Glorious Mystery, where a figure of resurrected Jesus is kept on the crucifix along side the painting of the ascension to heaven. The gardens are not manicured. Trees & shrubs grow wild.

The last garden is the garden of Glorious Mystery. This is my favorite spot. It faces west & a large boulder towards the edge of the garden creates a natural seat. Beyond this garden is a 50ft drop. To the left of the garden is the magnificent view of the Duke’s Nose, a grand rock formation of the Ghats.

The beauty of the Nun’s Hill is the encompassing serenity that permeates through the inner most cores of the body & the soul. The wheat color grass in winter growing tall, the thick forest, the faint hum of crickets & the setting sun in the backdrop of the Western Ghats give a surreal feeling.

I headed to the boulder seat to watch the setting sun. There was a tree across where I sat & the sun behind it. The dazzling sunlight was like a filigree work through the leaves of the tree. I stared transfixed. There was no scorching heat from the rays, just a brilliant light. I felt as Moses would have felt on the Mt.Sinai when he heard the voice of the Almighty through the burning bush. I shut my eyes & felt the strong desire to pray. I could feel His presence. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I felt an overwhelming feeling of tender happiness flood me. My tryst with God was suddenly broken by the crunching sound of footsteps on dry leaves. Digby had found his way up to this spot. And exclaimed,” Why are you crying?”

The skies had turned a beautiful rose pink now. We sat in silence for a while, enjoying the hush that had fallen. We walked out of the Garden, out of the wicket gate which led to an open air grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. We sat before her on the stone bench for a while & then made our way down.

I had brought an electric kettle & tea bags with me. It was dusk & tea time for us. I headed towards the kitchen of the House of Prayer to make us a cup of tea, when I met Sr.Alphonsa. She was on her way back from her evening walk. She asked me if we were comfortable in the Annex & after exchanging a few pleasantries I told her that I had been up the Rosary Hill. She asked if I had asked for anything from Mary. She referred to Mary up there as Mamma. That mamma was very powerful, looked after this entire place & if any one sought her help it was never denied. Mamma Mary was the compassionate loving mother & miracles happened. A childless couple was gifted a baby girl after 9 years of marriage, when they prayed to Mamma Mary etc. I was prey to human greed immediately. I regretted not having asked the Mother for anything whilst I was up there at the grotto. It would have to wait for Christmas morning because it was already getting dark. I rushed back with the hot water to our room & we both had a cup of tea.

A sense of calm had seeped into me & it filtered into Digby as well. We decided to take a walk down the forested path as darkness fell on Nuns’ Hill. It was Christmas Eve and the strain of music from the hotels in the surrounding area was audible. The pathway was soon lit by moon light. I looked up and saw the florescent moon. It looked like a sheer translucent glass. I stared at it in awe for a while & then my eyes moved on to the stars. There were countless stars twinkling, their luster slightly paled by the strength of moon light. We pulled out two chairs from our room onto the open field in front of the Annex. There were just the two of us, the rosary hill to our left, a winding path leading to the rear of the quaint Bombay House silhouetted by the moonlight now & six nuns immersed in prayer in the tiny chapel in this vast forested hill. I sang a few lines of the Christmas carols I could recall. Digby listened in respectful silence & joined in his toneless tenor when it came to Jingle Bells.

We drove down the hill to the main gate, parked our car and crossed the road to have dinner at Zara’s. The Zara resort served ample chicken kebabs for a price of Rs80 per plate. The food was served hot though they took quite a while to prepare it. With nan & kebabs stuffed in our stomachs we headed back to our zone. Sister Alphonsa had given me a set of duplicate keys to the main gate. I checked & double checked the lock and made Digby re- check it before we drove back. It was a great responsibility Sister had entrusted me with.

There was no Mass at the House of Prayer. The nuns left at 10.30pm to go to a church 6kms away for the midnight Mass. We went to sleep way ahead of midnight.

25th December 2006.Christmas Morning.

Christmas morning broke beautifully bright & pleasantly cool. I walked up the rosary hill to have a last word with Our Lady. Sister’s voice was still ringing in my ears… this mother looks after the entire hill & denies none who seek.

Breakfast was quite a treat. There were slick slices of luncheon meat, fried eggs, bread & coffee. We lazed around the graveled patio of the House of Prayer & played with the litter the German Shepard had given birth to just a few weeks ago. Uncle Socks rounded up the straying pup & their mother kept a wary eye on us, as I stroked these soft furry balls of joy. There was a sense of tranquil contentment in the air.

It was around 11am when we finally said our good byes & got into our car, homeward bound. We drove past the familiar land marks, the Annex, the House of Prayer, the rosary hill & then suddenly Digby stepped on the breaks. There in front of us were a brood of chestnut brown monkeys. This was my 4th visit to the Nuns Hill in the same year & I wasn’t even aware that the trees that surrounded us had its own lively inhabitants! The langurs were playing with gay abandon in their own turf. We watched them quietly. Some looped over the branches & the older ones sun bathed with an air of the dignified elderly members of the troop. It was clearly their time now at the Nun’s Hill.

It was time for us to move on. We drove through the leafy forested lane that wound its way out to the shrouded gate of the Convent of Jesus & Mary. In our minds we both knew, we would be back soon.