Rural

Responsible Living In Rajasthan\'s Shahpura Bagh

Responsible Living In Rajasthan\'s Shahpura Bagh

They are descendants of Maharana Pratap and their ancestors served Shah Jahan. But their biggest legacy is their continued contribution to Shahpura

What does it mean to be part of a royal family in modern-day India? For Jai Singh, 52, a descendant of Sujan Singh of Shahpura, it means being a custodian of the people. “They look up to you for help, and you feel that you have a responsibility towards them,” he says matter-of-factly. Back in 2005, when Jai and his elder brother, 54-year-old Shatrujeet Singh, left their successful, enriching careers in metropolitan cities and returned to their ancestral home in Rajasthan, the locals greeted them with gratitude. Their uncle and mother had aged and gradually withdrawn from the everyday affairs of the villagers. So Shatrujeet and Jai, with their intent and youth, became the princes who had returned to save the day. All this may sound anachronistic in 21st-century India. But a peek into the history of the bond between the Singh family and the locals puts things into perspective.

Photo Credit: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, Shatrujeet and Jai Singh at their family residence, Shahpura Bagh

In 1900-1901, Shahpura suffered a terrible famine. Seeing the plight of his subjects and to protect them from such disasters in the future, Raja Nahar Singh ordered the construction of an enormous 15 sq km ‘tank’. The construction of an earthen dam that would enable collection of rainwater in the catchment area was done by a British architect. It took four years and cost over `4.5 lakh. Legend has it that the raja mortgaged his property and family jewels, and survived on bare necessities himself to funnel funds into this construction. Another popular local legend says he almost got washed away while inspecting a breach in this dam. In due time, another such ‘tank’, Umaid Sagar, was built 11km away, and a third, Arwar dam, was started. The latter project couldn’t be completed due to lack of funds and was eventually taken up by the government after Independence. Since then, these huge artificial lakes have changed the landscape of Shahpura, irrigating huge swathes of farmlands that break the monotony of a parched desert largely dominated by the invasive Prosopis juliflora. To a bird gliding over arid Rajasthan on an arduous journey, Shahpura looks like an oasis, a cornucopia of food, water and ample verdant shelter.

Today, Nahar Sagar alone irrigates around 9,000 acres of farmland, Jai says. It is supposed to provide water to about 6,000 acres, but pipes have been laid illegally by desperate farmers to steal water from the lake. As we drive on the periphery of the lake, we encounter these pipes as speed bumps, slithering a few feet under the patchy tarmac as their surreptitious contours crisscross the road. The incessant drawing of water coupled with the lack of rain in 2017 has led to Nahar Sagar drying up completely as early as January this year. The glimmering water has been replaced by a grid of crop plantations. The land was sliced up into tiny polygons and distributed among poor families by the state government a few decades ago. Since then, every year as the collected rainwater recedes, wheat, sarson and cotton crops rise from the ground. Jai is actively engaged with these farmers to dissuade them from using artificial fertilisers in the soil, which would pollute the collected rainwater during monsoon.

Photo Credit: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, Jai Singh looks for the early bird near Dhikola Fort

On better days, the area sees hundreds of birds flocking to the waterbody, many of them winter visitors from lands afar. This avian biodiversity is a pleasant side effect of the artificial lakes of Shahpura. As many as 191 species are found in the region.

While most of the winged visitors have left Shahpura this year on account of the parched lakes, some tenacious ones have stayed on. They’re found fishing in the waterbody adjacent to the royals’ residence, Shahpura Bagh, which doubles up as a homestay for tourists. Knob-billed ducks with their iridescent green wings perch meditatively on the surface as coots peck at the grassland on the banks, red-wattled lapwings raise their usual cacophony, and river terns glide above the water stalking their marine prey. There’s the occasional flock of Asian openbills and Eurasian spoonbills flying in the distance. On an early morning walk, our guide Shabbir Khan spots pochard ducks, Indian spotted ducks and even some rare Mallard ducks, their gleaming green heads and tail curls distinguishing them from the other feathers of the flock. The greylag and bar-headed geese have already left these shores for greener pastures. Shabbir’s birdspotting skills are on full display when he points out a rare visitor camouflaged at the far end of the lake–a Eurasian curlew.

Take a 15-minute boat ride across this lake, and you arrive at a tiny island. The only structure on this forlorn piece of land is a dilapidated remnant of royal history. It once hosted guests of the raja for private picnics. In 1947, as the princely states merged into the Union of India, the island was handed over to the panchayat. The erstwhile royals’ request for it to be turned into a recreational park for the public obviously fell on deaf ears. Today, the only living entities here are herons who have built nests on its bare trees, and a colony of bats that routinely fights it out with crows for a place to hang.

Even at the palatial homestay and its gardens, there’s no dearth of wings. Scores of peacocks raise a storm with their mating calls, and parakeets are spoilt for choice with over 70 birdfeeders placed around the property. Inside the walls of the two structures, Nahar Niwas and Umaid Niwas, time has stood still. The walls are dotted with ancestral portraits, stuffed heads of game trophies–antelopes, a tiger and a leopard–and vintage décor items. The Singh family, with their three delightful dogs, lives in one part of Nahar Niwas that’s inaccessible to the visitors. But the younger members are more often than not seen mingling with guests in the dining area and basking in the sun on the front lawns. While they are routinely addressed as ‘hukum’ by the staff, all locals, there’s no air of arrogance about them. As you discuss the region’s challenges with Jai and vintage photography equipment with Shatrujeet–formerly a professional photographer in the advertising world–it’s easy to forget that they’re direct descendants of Maharana Pratap.

The provenance of the family’s royalty goes much further back than Raja Nahar Singh. The rural tehsil of Shahpura was once called Phulia. This was before the jagir was granted by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 to Sujan Singh as a reward for his services to the Mughal army. Sujan Singh had entered the Mughal service after being insulted by his elder brother, Jai recounts with a chuckle. He renamed the Phulia region to honour his patron. This history is increasingly relevant in an India where the Mughal—Rajput story is thoroughly politicised, if not altered. “Shahpura is as old as the Taj Mahal,” declares Indrajit Deo, drawing an indelible link between our Mughal and Rajput histories. The maternal uncle of Shatrujeet and Jai, Indrajit formally adopted the two brothers to continue the royal family’s lineage since he didn’t have any children of his own.

Photo Credit: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, Jai Singh meets the kids of a school which his trust funds

Not only have the two men carried on the family name, they have also taken upon themselves to shoulder the needs of the poorest in the region. A trust, named after their grandfather Sudarshan Deo, is dedicated to fund healthcare and education in the region. To this end, it single-handedly runs a Hindi-medium primary school that currently educates 166 children free of cost. Around 30 of these kids come from surrounding villages; the rest from Shahpura town. Their tuition fee and daily conveyance costs are paid for by the trust. Now an e-learning facility, replete with laptops, is also coming up on the premises. A visit to the school shows just how involved the soft-spoken Jai Singh can get with the locals. After greeting us with a sing-song chorus of “Good morning, sir”, the children inundate Jai with their classwork scribbles to earn a pat on the back. And he doesn’t disappoint anyone.

Apart from funding a primary school, the family also recognises individual talent and encourages it with resources. One example of this is Ghisalal Berwa. As a young boy, Berwa showed exceptional academic prowess, topping his classes despite the financial instability prevalent in his home. The son of a farmer who was neck-deep in debts, Berwa wanted to train as a teacher, but lacked the funds to follow his dream. The Singh family helped him with cash donations at various stages of his career. Today, 24-year-old Berwa is one of just two teachers taking classes at a primary school of 34 kids in a remote village, 13km away. Berwa’s story is one that vindicates Jai’s idea of helping promising locals who go on to succeed in their own careers and eventually prop up others in their homeland.

Photo Credit: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, Phad painter Praveen Joshi paints a popular folktale character

Another fine example is our guide for the tour, Shabbir Khan. A miniature painter par excellence, the impressionable Khan dropped out of school in Class 7 to follow his guru, Hakim Mohammad Shaikh, to Over four centuries old, Dhikola Fort is now being restored as a luxe stay option 15km from Shahpura Bikaner, where he practised his art for seven years. But when he returned to Shahpura, Shabbir realised he had no practical means of earning a livelihood. “Even a good artist needs a market to sell his craft,” Shabbir says as he navigates the narrow lanes of Shahpura in a bulging SUV with ease. After trying his luck in Jodhpur in vain, Shabbir finally knocked on the doors of Shahpura Bagh. Seeing his art, they gave him a permanent shop in the property.

But Jai and Shatrujeet saw more potential in Shabbir than he saw in himself. The brothers groomed him in hospitality. Not only did Shabbir pick up English and interpersonal skills rapidly, he even gained expertise in bird spotting from Shatrujeet. Today, he proudly carries an author-signed copy of Birds of the Indian Subcontinent under his armpit, as he gazes into the distance with a nifty pair of binoculars and identifies migratory wings faster than he can twirl his handlebar moustache. His paintings, meanwhile, sell themselves at the shop. Among other local artists, the Joshi family of Shahpura, reported to be the pioneers of Phad painting in the region, is also supported by the Singhs. Tourists to Shahpura Bagh are ferried to the modest home of the Joshis to witness the archaic form of painting done with colours that are extracted by grinding stones mined from the Aravallis. More often than not, they spend a few bucks to acquire these paintings as souvenirs. The Joshi family has been practising the craft for nine generations. Besides the colours they use, the figures they paint are the distinguishing trait of the art. Phad painters tell the folktales of a certain lokdevta–called babaji in Jaipur and Jodhpur, and devnarayan in Shahpura and nearby Ajmer. The painting is usually done on khadi, but locals also order murals for their houses in times of weddings. The Joshis’ most elaborate paintings are used by bhopas–local artistes who sing and dance while narrating folktales with the aid of the paintings. The family’s pièce de résistance is a 23-foot-long painting made on order. During a demonstration, Praveen Joshi paints a quick freehand portrait of a quirky folktale character named Ajab Ghazab–a tiger’s body and stripes with parakeet heads for feet, a camel’s neck for tail, wings of a raptor, and a human head. There’s no dearth of fantasy in this kingdom.

Local employment, Jai says, is his main concern. He made sure that the restoration of Shahpura Bagh in 2005 was done by local hands, as is the ongoing construction of two new suites. The design for this follows the Indo-Saracenic architecture that the original residence features, and the materials have been sourced from nearby villages.

The opulent gardens of Shahpura Bagh are filled with birdsong and offer a refreshing spot for outdoor dining

Jai is also excited about the revival of another heritage structure, the Dhikola Fort. A family-owned property located 30 minutes away, this military fort once served as the first defence against invaders. Post Independence, it was given to the Dhikola village for a token sum of `1. For years, a primary school was run in its premises. But once the school moved out of the decaying structure, the fort fell into ruin. In 2005, it was rented for a period of 60 years by the royal family. Now, a couple of its rooms are being restored along with a host of facilities, while the rest of the structure retains its wrinkles. The idea is to enable adventurous couples to ‘rent a fort’ for a truly royal holiday. Until that happens, guests of Shahpura Bagh are hosted for a champagne dinner atop a lookout tower here. As the sun drowns behind the horizon, birds leave the seven surrounding lakes for the comfort of trees, flame torches light up the fort’s empty halls, and history rises from her slumber to greet you on the ramparts. Or maybe it’s the champagne. It’s hard to tell.

 

The information

Getting There 
Shahpura is almost equidistant from Jaipur and Udaipur (220- 230km). But the best way to get here is by train. The nearest rail junction is Bhilwara (45km). A better—connected option is Ajmer (120km), serviced daily from Delhi by multiple trains. I took the New Delhi-Ajmer Shatabdi (7hrs). The property can arrange for a pick-up from Ajmer (3hrs, `2,500).

Where To Stay
 Shahpura Bagh offers four suites and five royal suites with little to differentiate between the two (from `20,250 including breakfast plus taxes during Oct—Apr, and from `13,750 during May—Sept; +91- 9529417801, shahpurabagh.com).

What To See & Do
 >If you’re a birding enthusiast, Shahpura’s lakes will be a delightful experience in the winter months (Dec—Feb). As many as 191 species can be spotted in the region. A guided birding tour of 2—3 lakes in a jeep costs `3,000 per person plus taxes. 
>You can visit the royals’ former picnic place on a tiny island by a 15-minute boat ride (`1,500 per couple plus taxes). 
>Take a tour of the family’s ecofarm and get some insights into organic farming (`1,500 per couple plus taxes). >A champagne dinner can be organised at the Dhikola Fort (`5,500 per person plus taxes). >A cycling tour of the rural hinterlands with a picnic meal is also arranged for people wanting a taste of the local life. (`3,500 per person plus taxes). n sumeet keswani

 

 

 

Discover Community Living in Himachal Pradesh\'s Ghoomakad

Discover Community Living in Himachal Pradesh\'s Ghoomakad

A member of a wayfaring community is doing wonders for rural Kangra\'s future

Today, many Gaddi tribals live in Himachal Pradesh, but they are believed to have originally been nomadic Gaderis and Pals (shepherds) dwelling in the plains. In medieval times, macabre tales of Aurangzeb’s forced conversions prompted the Gaddis to seek sanctuary in Kangra, but they proved to be vulnerable there too. So, they set out once again, this time for Chamba, the devbhoomi (holy land) nestled in the snowcapped Dhauladhar, where the plentiful Ravi promised rich pastureland. The Gaddis had found their sanctum.

British rule brought an end to barbarism in Kangra. Also, Chamba would be covered in snow for six months a year. Hence, many Gaddis moved back to the valley. Rakkar, among other villages, became their home. However, no one really wanted to hang around–some harboured dreams of the devbhoomi, while others craved city life. Only Mohinder Sharma, a Gaddi and the founder of Ghoomakad, a co-living and co-working space, dreamed about Rakkar.

I am not used to small aircraft. As mine prepared to land at Kangra airport, it felt like a nosedive. Thankfully, I did not end up meeting my maker. Instead, a lovely hill drive through pine country followed, the vale below lined with potato fields, sunlight shimmering through the trees. Soon, the sight of a compound with a few cottages announced our arrival at Ghoomakad.

Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal, Reading is a joy at Ghoomakad

From the second I met Mohinder, I knew he wasn’t your average Joe. I had known hill folk to be laidback, but not him. “Rest is rust,” he said. He was anything but a bore though. Join him for a session of rum drinking, and you’d find his sher-o-shayari and dhol sangeet enriching your evening. His conversation was nuanced, and he was a brilliant, forward-thinking person.

Ghoomakad’s façade can best be described as rustic-chic. Each cottage looks like a cross between a Victorian-era country house (courtesy the use of stone bricks and slate) and a rural mud house (mud-plastered walls). Judiciously add windows, white winding staircases and pale balcony railings to the mix, and you have fine, unpretentious architecture.

Except, there was no architect. Mohinder had merely exercised his pragmatic sensibilities (“It’s all really jugaad [quick fix]”) and conveyed his ideas to local stonemasons, construction workers and welders. Jugaad even defined the furnishings–an outdoor table fashioned from a single piece of stone, chiselled into a round shape. Slabs had been cobbled together to make pathways, fixed by earth and not cement.

I had come to Ghoomakad in search of a responsible tourism initiative. But that was all jargon to Mohinder–for him, the employment of local labour, the use of readily available material, and the need to give back to Mother Earth came naturally.

Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal, One of the double sharing rooms at Ghoomakad

But if his actions were really just countryside convention, what makes Ghoomakad special? “We Gaddis have always been ghoomakads [wanderers]. Hence, the name,” Mohinder told me during our first lunch. He then explained how the homestay has the ‘village experience’ as its cornerstone. “Villagers here have been selling their land to outsiders. They are foregoing their roots and craving city life. I thought, why don’t we make ourselves the attraction instead? Log idhar aayenge phir [Then, people will come here].”

But Mohinder found his fingers in too many pies. One day, a computer programmer named Ayush Ghai arrived at Rakkar. Ayush wished to work remotely, and what better place for that than Ghoomakad? He and Mohinder worked out an arrangement where, in exchange for a living space, Ayush would manage it.

Ayush stayed for the next five years. In his wake, people from creative and technical backgrounds began to flock to Ghoomakad. Mohinder enjoyed what was happening. It meant more exposure for the villagers, and when visitors conducted workshops here, he made it mandatory for one-fifth of the attendees to be from the village; this way, the villagers learnt about everything, from stargazing to birding.

Ghoomakad grew too. It had started with the residential cottage, Pyramid, but then the co-working space, Lotus, was added in response to the demand from the remote-working freelancers coming here. Lotus presented an interesting mix of rural and urban– mud-plastered walls existed alongside swanky office seating and the latest electronics. I began this travel piece there, and the words flowed like wine.

The Community Kitchen came last. It had a xylophone, from which I managed to lure out the notes of The Star-Spangled Banner, a well-stocked bookshelf, and a potpourri of paraphernalia other ghoomakads had left behind. A pinboard announced the house rules. Number one was: Clean your room on your own. Similarly, we had to wash our own plates. After all, responsible living also applies to guests. Bonus: though they have a cook, Ram Prasad, you’re free to make whatever you like. The rooms were all high ceilinged, if modest, and presented a miscellany of local handiwork in the bedding. Their red and blue patterns glistened in the daylight peeping in from the windows.

In the morning, I stepped into Ghoomakad’s fields. Here lay embodiments of Mohinder’s inventiveness. The roadside kuhl (channel) brought in water from the nearby river to a pond where water never stagnated or overflowed. How was that, you wonder? The answer was a science lesson: a huge boulder placed in the waterbody sent excess water back to the channel (because of recoil, basically). This kept the water moving. Some of it would also seep through the soil and create a groundwater table. This technique (“khopdi ki [mind’s] technique,” he joked) is an example of the man’s foresight.

Next to it was a waste disposal system. Recyclable waste was kept in a sump, polythene was segregated into a container, kitchen waste was put into the vermicomposting pit, and menstrual waste went to the incinerator.

A portion of the field was now part of Ghoomakad Rasoi, a newly opened café space. Adjacent to it, Mohinder had designed outdoor tents by covering metal frames with seat cover fabric, with cosy beds inside. On the far end of the field, there were three dry toilets, which did not require water and composted human excreta. An abandoned tin container had been turned into the Ghoomakad Outdoor Hostel. A tree house (“built without disturbing any tree”) had been constructed on an old willow. It contained two beds and a sky window.

In the mornings, Mohinder worked the fields. We helped him sow seeds of saunf (fennel) and mooli (radish) in the kitchen garden, and watched him till a portion of the field for jau (barley), sarson (mustard) and mattar (peas). The field could feed five people for six months, we were told.

Plenty of innovations dotted the main compound too: a swimming pool with a funnel that collected and filtered rainwater, an aluminum solar heater that slow-cooked food, and, finally, a wood-fire oven that also had a flat top to heat water in a pot. For one of our lunches, Guddi didi, the bubbly housekeeper, cooked a delicious mutton curry in that oven.

We also went for a stroll along the potato and fodder fields of Rakkar. At the village crossroads was a signboard that read ‘Ghoomakad Chowk’–another one of Mohinder’s quirks. Round the next turn, we came by a picturesque playground. The Dhauladhar provided an imposing backdrop. Nishtha, a two-decade-old NGO run by Dr Barbara Nath-Wiser, an Austrian who lived in nearby Sidbari, had built the beautiful park. Mohinder had grown up with her family, and is an important employee of Nishtha. This is possibly where his acute understanding of social issues developed.

We ambled among the reetha (soapnut), aadoo (peach) and amrood (guava) trees, from the fields to a law college, and then on to Nishtha’s community centre and waste management plant, till we finally reached the village’s giant stone. Usually a kohli (or water master), responsible for the kuhls, would climb atop every Sunday and shout, “Challo manvo kula lo [Let us go collect the water].” The villagers would then proceed to the nearby Baner khad (river).

Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal, A Gaddi shepherd with the Dhauladhar range behind him

Mohinder also had an adventure in store for us. We drove southwest for about 30 minutes till we reached a point where there was more rubble than road. Pine was scarce, and the hill dry and covered mostly in shrubbery. From here, we embarked on a trek. We seemed to be headed in the direction of the looming Dhauladhar. At each bend, Mohinder stopped to show us local herbs. He told us about them with botanical precision–first, he found the citric khatlu, which has a flower that can be used to quench thirst. A little ahead grew daruharidra (Indian barberry) with haldi (turmeric) in its branches. It is used in eye drops and for wounds. Further on, we found fulnu, which can both treat and cause asthma, kachnar (orchid tree), which provides relief from stomach problems, and nakh-chikni, which is used to clear the nose.

Our trek culminated at a ridge with a gushing streamlet. Mohinder proceeded to set up a cooking station on an adjacent hillock. As he cut wood with a pickaxe, gathered dry leaves, fanned the fire and layered the utensils with mud, I loafed around by the water. A little later, he produced a bottle of McDowell’s No. 1 rum. Picture this: about 4°C, two large pegs of rum (dissolved in stream water), and ‘rara chicken’ ( a homemade chicken curry). Complete jugaad.

On our way back, Mohinder revealed his plans for the future. In 10 years, he would like to push to his native village, a hamlet called Bhatada, and set up a similar space–Remote Ghoomakad–which he believes has a hundred years’ worth of resources. As for his immediate plans, he wants to open an organic food and souvenir shop in his compound.

On my last evening, I visited the khad with Suraj and Pankaj. While Suraj is part of a tech startup currently stationed at Ghoomakad, Pankaj is a Himachali computer programmer. Pumped, we made our way through the ravine and hurdled across a dense array of boulders. Pankaj, especially, zoomed across the riverscape. I took a few photographs of him attempting a perfect headstand against a sunset backdrop. Momentarily, we were all carefree. And the hills watched over us as a loving mother would–just as they watch over the Gaddis, every single day.

 

The information

Getting There

SpiceJet and Air India fly daily direct flights from Delhi. Note: take a window seat. Kangra Airport connects to the Mandi—Pathankot road, then the Dharamshala road, and then, finally, the Rakkar—Fatehpur road, where Ghoomakad is located. Airport taxis take ₹600 (14km/30min). Pathankot is the nearest station. From there take a bus (₹120; 90km/3hrs). Plenty of HRTC buses from Delhi (approx. 470km/10—14hrs) and Chandigarh (approx. 240km/6— 8hrs) ply to Dharamshala (hrtchp.com). From there, take a direct taxi to Ghoomakad (₹300; 10km/20min).

Ghoomakad 
There are 14 double-sharing rooms, and one four-sharing room in the main compound. Their tariffs are:

Daily basis: ₹800 (single w/o food), ₹1,000 (doubles w/o food), ₹1,000 (single w/ food), ₹1,400 (doubles w/ food)
Weekly basis:₹4,200 (single w/o food), ₹5,200 (doubles w/o food), ₹5,300 (single w/ food), ₹7,500 (doubles w/ food)
Monthly basis ₹10,000 (single w/o food), ₹12,500 (doubles w/o food), ₹14,200 (single w/ food), ₹21,000 (doubles w/ food).

The accommodation options in the field area (daily tariffs):

Tent: ₹350 (single)
Ghoomakad Outdoor Hostel: ₹400 (single)
Tree house: ₹600 (single), ₹1,000 (doubles)

There are 10 tents and seven hostel beds. Visit ghoomakad.com

What To Eat 
Ram Prasad and Guddi didi make sumptuous vegetarian fare. If these aren’t included in your room tariffs, rates are–₹50 for breakfast and ₹80 each for lunch and dinner (per person). The Ghoomakad Rasoi is in collaboration with a certain Gokul Chaat Bhandar, and has plenty of options.

What To See & Do

>Ask Mohinder to set up a bonfire during the colder months.

>If you’re a large group, ask him to arrange a folk dance and music show for you.

>If you are a group of five or six, he offers a mountain survival camp. You go to a remote location, learn survival techniques and, then, test what you’ve learnt.

>You ought to visit the khad. And please take Pankaj with you!

>In summertime, tell Mohinder (a few days in advance) to brew rice beer, distil local liquor or ferment rhododendron wine for you.

>Go for work staycations. Activities include cricket, day treks and cultural performances with a bonfire.

>Play board games such as chess and carrom.

>But, first: grab a book and choose a corner underneath the winter sun.

Uttarakhand: Rural homestays and authentic community

Uttarakhand: Rural homestays and authentic community

Experience the beauty and charms of living the authentic community life in Uttarakhand\\n\\n

The Himalayan ranges are home to several secluded communities, their isolation having given them a uniqueness in their way of life, and a hitherto unexplored cultural and natural wealth. Staying with hardened highland families in their homesteads and alpine huts on remote mountain ridges is an experience a traveller is unlikely to forget in a lifetime.

Working with Been There Doon That on community homestays in the Uttarakhand region has been bittersweet. Our model is based on walking and slow tourism. The idea of homestays was born out of the idea of slow travel, and we started about two years ago when we began leading heritage walks to distant villages. We were struck by how different life and its daily routines were as compared to our own lives in urban sprawls.

An alpine hut with slate roof tiles and pine panelling

Very often, communities succumb to the allure of unrestrained tourism, the ill effects of which we are all too familiar with. Our experience tells us that for homestays to be successful representations of a distinctive micro-culture, the community must desist from making any alterations to their vernacular homes. We have come across government and professional travel agencies often adding ‘comforts’ to these abodes, or attempting to make them more ‘hygienic’, thereby severely diluting the authenticity of experience for a visitor. This approach mutates, for example, into a trekking holiday where one pretends to embark on an adventure, but only after ensuring that the element of risk has been completely eliminated.

Interiors of a home in Shiraji

Thus, for the traveller seeking a memorable homestay experience, it is essential to approach a community as a learner, be willing to step out of one’s comfort zone, and experience an alternate lifestyle and worldview. We often challenge visitors to live with communities and imbibe their way of life, preparing them to resist the urban temptations of packaged food, bottled water or hot showers. After all, what is the point of a holiday if it is experienced at the same pace as your regular life? Sensitive travellers hoping to gain a new experience in a homestay will even give deep thought to the gifts they carry for village children.

While it is a challenge for communities to pick and choose sensitive and sensitised visitors, it is incumbent upon the traveller to respect local custom. On a slow travel vernacular homestay tour, travellers must surrender their ego and prepare to be one with the elements. It is a lesson in how one can live so much more with so little in terms of worldly possessions. On the more mundane side, one returns with knowledge of trees and herbs, birding and entomology, and maybe a Pahadi recipe or two. Or one learns to meditate on a rock under the deodars (the tree that is ambrosia for the gods) or bask in the sun while watching insects frolic in the grass

https://www.outlookindia.com/outlooktraveller/public/uploads/2018/02/IMG_3134.jpg

When we work with communities, we look for sites situated off the highways and those that can be approached through short walking tracks. Local architecture and a strong will within the community to develop slow and ecologically sustainable tourism are essentials. These villages are usually base camps for treks and hikes, and we train local youths to be walk leaders. For our Garhwal homestays at Bhangeli and Devalsari, we have, besides heritage walks, moth, bird, fern and butterfly trails. Interpreting and working these walks makes locals appreciative protectors of their own natural wealth.

A typical homestay near Uttarkashi

Visitors also actively engage in community work, like weeding fields and grazing sheep. If the community homestay is a base camp, such as Bhangeli leading to the pristine Gidara Bugyal, the biggest alpine pasture in Asia, or Devalsari to Nag Tibba Peak, we discourage camping, ensuring that travellers stay in chanis–small village homes in fields–or huts of the transhumant Gujars. We ask tourists to sample the local cuisine and participate in village rituals. Once you experience that languid pace of community life and the complete absence of individualism, you return home a different person. That, according to me, lies at the core of a successful homestay.

Unfortunately, most homestays have begun to take the ‘guest is god’ adage too literally and pander to all sorts of unreasonable requests. One cannot sustain village-based tourism if we alter community life so radically that it loses the vitality that urban souls seek.

The Information

Been There Doon That’s homestays cost â‚¹5,000 per person per day, inclusive of food, stay and activities. See beentheredoonthat.org or call +91-9634564434

 

 

 

Reconnect With The Child Within At Our Native Village

Reconnect With The Child Within At Our Native Village

With farm animals, rural activities and children’s games, Our Native Village, a fully eco-friendly resort near Bengaluru takes you back to a

An eco-friendly resort set amid organic farms near Bengaluru, Our Native Village seeks to take travellers away from the din of urban sprawls and back to the rustic charm of village life while promoting environment conservation with its activities. The resort maintains an eco-friendly approach towards tourism based on “the five basic pillars of environmental conservation–earthly architecture, nutritious food, energy and water conservation and proper waste management”.

The 24 deluxe rooms here have been built using sun-baked clay bricks and are dotted with murals hand-painted by indigenous artists from across the country. Solar heaters are used to heat water for bathroom use, and the resort is 90 per cent powered with solar energy and biogas turbines.

The restaurant at the resort sources its ingredients from local farmers and the property’s organic farms, and the landscape is irrigated with harvested rainwater. The restaurant specialises in authentic Karnataka cuisine; North Indian and Continental dishes are also served, and there is a separate ‘kids menu’ that offers pasta, sandwiches and noodles.

Interiors of a room

Not only is the resort pet-friendly, it also encourages guests to meet its own farm animals, including cows, goats, rabbits and poultry. As an internal policy, the resort takes in abandoned puppies and kittens from the villages nearby and encourages travellers to adopt them.

The activities on offer include village routines like milking cows, riding bullock carts, pottery and farming. Our Native Village takes tourists back to a carefree childhood with games like gilli-danda, spinning tops, kite flying, cycle-tyre racing and taking aim with catapults. Or one could just spend the afternoon in a natural pond and the evening singing and dancing around a bonfire. Introverts love the quiet spaces peppered in the region. One can go for a bicycle ride or a nature walk in the area around the resort, or find a charming book in their mini library and soak in the rustic surroundings.

The resort offers peace of mind coupled with avenues for physical wellness. The health services offered here feature Ayurveda therapy in the spa, Kalari yoga, and traditional dance workshops in association with Nrityagram. Call 9901233353, 8041140909 or email bookings@ournativevillage.com for reservations. For more info, see ournativevillage.com.