Surajwanti Marskole welcomes me to her green and white mud home in Khamba village, near Pench National Park’s Turia Gate, with a tika. Surajwanti then demonstrates the traditional cooking practices of the Gonds, while Sanjay Tekam, my local guide for the day, explains them to me. When they invite me to participate, I hand-pound rice, split toor dal in an earthen mill (chakki), and wield an axe to chop firewood. After many laughs at my lack of skill with an axe, we relax in the backyard, in the shade of a bottle gourd vine. A vegetable patch with cherry tomatoes and turmeric roots surrounds us. Corn and rice fields stretch beyond. Surajwanti brings out a tray laden with black tea, flavoured with lemongrass from her garden. She hands me a bowl of ghugri, similar to a chickpea salad, made with whole toor dal from her fields, lightly spiced with onions and lime. This is farm-to-table dining in its truest form. And it’s delicious.
Khamba is a Gond village that shares a boundary with Pench National Park. For centuries, the Gond tribes have been forest dwellers, dependent on the forest for medicinal herbs, firewood, wild vegetables, and other needs. When forest areas were declared protected reserves, these communities’ traditional way of life faced a threat. Living in proximity to the wild also leads to conflict with the other residents of the forest. Often, the tribes’ agricultural fields are destroyed by herbivores, or carnivores pick up their cattle. A reduced dependence on the forest and an alternative, sustainable source of livelihood were the need of the hour.
My hosts at Khamba are among 27 families in the village on board with the Tiger Tribes initiative. Conservation Wildlands Trust established the community-led rural tourism model, in partnership with Grassroutes Journeys. Three villages in Madhya Pradesh on the periphery of the forest—Khamba, Khamrith and Ambadi—offer guests a chance to interact with the Gond community and experience and learn about life on the edge of the forest.
On tours like the one I am on, trained locals showcase their traditional way of life and share their intimate knowledge of the forest with guests. On a walk through a meadow where cattle are grazing, Sanjay points out deep scratches on a cow that was attacked by a tiger just the previous day.
Community-based tourism models like this have a multi-pronged approach. When local communities become stakeholders and reap the benefits of tourism, they are encouraged to preserve their way of life and coexist with the forest. Guests like me can sample farm-fresh food and learn the fascinating stories of living in the wild. It’s a great activity for a Wednesday afternoon, when the park is closed to tourists, or on days you don’t get safari tickets.
As the sun sets, I sit on a high machan sipping tea, listening to more of Sanjay’s stories. The core zone of the forest is metres away, full of calls and creaks.
The forest’s fabric is an intricate tapestry, woven from the trees, the animals, and the communities that have, for centuries, inhabited the same space. To truly understand the wilderness, what better way than to simply ask the people who call it home.
Getting there: Khamba is located 15 minutes from the Turia Gate of Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The closest airports are at Nagpur (90 km/2 hrs) and Jabalpur (192 km/4 hrs).
Booking a local experience: Book a local village trail and experience through your lodge. The Tiger Tribe Trail tour costs ₹450 per person plus the lodge’s fee. Free for children below 10.
Address: Baghvan, Pench National Park, Village Awargani, Post Duria, Tehsil Kurai, District Seoni, Madhya Pradesh.
Tariff: Doubles from ₹37,920 per night, including all meals; plus taxes. Rates are dynamic and also vary by season. Rates for the village visit (Tiger Tribe Trail Experience) ₹1,500 per person, plus taxes.
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