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Perfect Himachal Homestay for Snowfall? This Woman Built It in a 100-YO House

Planning to enjoy the snowfall in Himachal? Shaila Siddiqui’s Kathkuni homestay makes for the perfect escape.

Perfect Himachal Homestay for Snowfall? This Woman Built It in a 100-YO House

Tucked away amid secluded tall trees, this rustic Kathkuni homestay in Old Manali offers the warmth of a 100-year-old stone house. Here, one can rejoice in the mesmerising view of the snowcapped mountains over a hot cup of vanilla coffee.

Shaila Siddiqui, who runs the homestay, hosts nearly 50 guests every year. Decades before this, a 1922 cloudburst had wreaked havoc in the region, washing away everything that came its way — people, livestock, roads, trees, and homes.

“But this house stood tall,” says Shaila.

Kathkuni — which translates to a wooden corner — was constructed only with mud, limestones, and wood. “Traditionally, these are the kinds of homes that were constructed in Himachal. The wood and the limestones gave strength and sustainability to the structure. Back then, the wood that was used to construct houses was extracted from trees as old as 100 years! Interestingly, their wood also resists termite and fungi attacks,” she tells The Better India.

Built on a mountain, the house has four large rooms, a kitchen, and a lavatory. Without a profit-making conscience, Shaila hosts guests with the intent to introduce them to the real Manali, its local culinary cuisines, festivals, and culture — far away from the touristy Manali known to the world.

This Kathkuni homestay was constructed only with mud, limestones, and wood.
This Kathkuni homestay was constructed only with mud, limestones, and wood.

“I do not believe in hosting a large number of people at a time. If fewer people stay for numerous days then it allows them to open up and bond. Most of my guests end up staying for at least two months. One of the guests stayed for about a year. I have hosted a lot of first-time solo travellers. This homestay has given direction to so many people,” she says with pride.

But before this homestay became a lodging for other travellers, it became a safe haven — a home — for Shaila.

Escaping a life of agony

Born and raised in a conservative family in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj, Shaila had a tormented childhood. Often, she would either yearn to leave the house or take away her life.

In 2002, when her father wanted to marry her off forcefully, Shaila decided to flee the house. “I lived in a joint family and I saw extreme brutality in that house. I remember once my mother told me that it is haram (forbidden) to take one’s life. Now, I had decided to run away. I took her blessings and fled to build a life on my own,” she says.

After leaving her home at the age of 22, Shaila, now 40, never went back to her parents who, she says, did not strive hard to bring her back anyway.

Shaila hosts nearly 50 guests every year.
Shaila hosts nearly 50 guests every year.

A graduate in commerce, she started working in a call centre for Bharti Tele-Ventures (now Airtel) in Delhi. Eventually, she ventured into learning the nitty-gritty of marketing and sales and moved to Dubai for work in 2006.

However, in 2017, she came back to India and one of her escapades took her to Old Manali. “I used to travel a lot but I understood that it was just an escape. I was quite lost when I went to Old Manali. I was searching for peace,” she says.

While trekking, Shaila found herself standing in front of this Kathkuni house. This trek changed her life!

Found peace in a dilapidated structure

While the 1922 cloudburst washed away all the houses in the village, this Kathkuni house remained, however, in a rundown condition. “I was told that it was abandoned for nearly 40 years. But I just fell in love with this house instantly. It was love at first sight,” she smiles.

Meanwhile, Shaila who is also a dog lover, had observed the misery of street dogs in Manali. “People, especially in villages, disliked dogs and there was no dedicated non-profit to take care of abandoned street dogs. That is when I thought of converting this dilapidated structure into a homestay and using the income to look after abandoned street dogs,” says Shaila, who houses 12 street dogs in her homestay.

It took Shaila nearly four months to restore the house.
It took Shaila nearly four months to restore the house.

Her decision invited a lot of uninvited warnings from the local people. “The house was in such a pathetic state that many people warned me that it was beyond restoration. It did not have any proper room where one could reside temporarily. It was just a structure of wood and stones. But your decisions are stronger when you are on your own,” says Shaila, who thereafter quit her decade-long corporate career.

Without taking away its essence, Shaila decided to restore the structure.

From spending all her money in shopping complexes right after her salary was credited, Shaila adopted a minimalistic lifestyle in Manali. In place of purchasing new clothes or shoes before they are worn out, she started investing her savings into restoring the structure.

For this, she would hike uphill to procure mud to insulate the inner walls of the house.

Initially, the house was in dire condition with a broken roof, overgrown vegetation, inadequate rooms, and no bathroom. “I opted to reuse the same broken wooden planks for continuity. I covered walls with a mix of mud and cow dung for insulation and ensured longevity by coating them with Vedic plaster,” she says.

“Additionally, I constructed a septic tank using locally sourced stones and revitalised aged wood with a fresh coat of paint,” she adds. From painting the house to constructing a toilet, and decorating the house, it took her nearly four months to restore the house, roughly costing her Rs 3.5 lakh.

“To give an aesthetic transformation to the house, I covered flaws in the walls with creative drawings and decorations. I also introduced bright rugs, sufficient lighting, and small windows for a cosy ambience. I even converted a small attic from storage to a meditation room!” she shares.

On the suggestion of her loving friend who is no more, Shaila named the homestay ‘Seize The Time’, an English translation of Carpe Diem, a Latin aphorism. “Our guests stay for a long time and seize their time during their stay with us,” she remarks.

Although Shaila welcomes as many tourists to her homestay, she herself has stopped looking for escapades.

“Now, I cannot stay in any other place for more than a week, even if it is for work. I am in love with Old Manali and its people. There was a time when I left my own house and lived in many rented houses, but this house is what I can call mine. Here, everything happens on my terms. Maybe I was not a traveller; I was just running away from situations. Now, I have found my place and my peace,” says Shaila.

Edited by Pranita Bhat. All photos: Shaila Siddiqui.

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