My mother often recalls her childhood spent in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh – her father would take foreign tourists into the forests to live in tents and photograph the wildlife. She would tag along on those excursions and observe everything around her and lock it away in memory. Years later when I was a child, she’d tell me about the tall grasslands, the cracking of dry leaves on the forest floor and the red mud that would be thrown up in the air after a vehicle passed by. I listened but didn’t think about it much, until, that is, I visited the Sarai at Toria. Located on the banks of the River Ken, opposite the Panna Tiger Reserve, the Sarai at Toria is run by Raghu Chundawat, a conservation biologist, and Joanna Van Gruisen, a former wildlife documentary filmmaker. A cross between a homestay and a hotel, this delightful country-side getaway is perfect for those with an interest in wildlife and an eagerness to learn more about the region’s culture and its varied attractions, including the world-famous Khajuraho Temples.
A half-hour’s drive from Khajuraho airport, the Sarai At Toria has been named after the neighbouring village of Toria. My taxi turned off the main highway onto a dusty kuccha road that leads to the property. The Sarai’s parking lot is connected to the main portion of the property by a narrow bridge that stretches across a canal, which joins the Ken. While it may look like its a long way down to the water, Joanna mentioned that the water level can reach the bridge during the monsoon. Tall, dense grass flanks the paths, which lead to the cottages and the baithak. Don’t ignore the grass, for it’s home to a beautiful little insect called the jewel bug, which looks like a green bauble. The baithak (common living room) is a wonderfully inviting area which makes you want to kick off your shoes and lounge on the comfy sofas. This is where you can access Wi-Fi and chit-chat with other guests over a cup of masala chai or coffee. Since it is open on all four sides you can listen to the sound of the Ken rushing by and admire the surrounding countryside. Joanna met me here and we sat down for a quick chat while I tucked into a simple lunch of buns, carrot soup and spinach quiche followed by warm apple pie. Yum! I had just about an hour before my first activity so I headed to my cottage for a quick siesta.
Joanna and Raghu were determined to create a haven that would be environmentally friendly, so they set out to build cottages with locally available construction materials using traditional techniques acquired from the local villagers. These, and a design from their mud-experienced architect, Eugene Pandala, ensured that the cottages would stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The walls and floors of the cottages are made of mud while the roofs are covered with a thick layer of grass. I noticed that my cottage’s rust coloured floor had a shiny surface. This is the result of a unique craft wherein cement is mixed with natural mineral oxides and then applied on the floor to give it a buttery smooth finish. Since the mineral oxides differ, each cottage comes with a different floor colour. Plenty of natural light filters in from the windows and I certainly didn’t feel the need for artificial cooling even though this part of the country can get murderously hot in the day. Everything here is run on solar power, so remember to switch off the lights and fans when you’re not around. Hot water for a shower comes from a heater outside the cottage – it uses burnable waste materials and wood for heating. The natural shampoo and soap in the bathroom are sourced from Neev, an NGO in Bihar devoted to women’s development. Satisfied with my inspection and feeling very pleased with the ethnic chic interior decor, I plopped down for a nap before heading down to the Ken river for a boat ride.
The Ken is a major river of the Bundelkhand region and flows through Panna Tiger Reserve. During the evenings, if you’re lucky, you may spot a few wild animals on its banks drinking water. I could see hoof prints of nilgai in the wet mud near the water’s edge and I wondered if I’d be lucky enough to catch sight of anything that evening. I was accompanied by Jaipal, the resident naturalist of sorts, and Raju, who is a fisherman by trade. Both of them have worked at the Sarai for years and hail from nearby villages, as do the rest of the staff. The trunks of submerged trees and reeds stick out of the water along with several clusters of large boulders, which make for good perches for many birds. I saw plenty of lapwings and wagtails, a striking black and white woolly stork and an ibis. Raju’s sharp eyes caught sight of a jackal grooming herself on bank. Luckily Jaipal had carried a pair of binoculars so I got a good look at her. There was a slight disturbance in the water to our left and we turned just in time to see a crocodile’s tail slithering off the rocks. A moment later its eyes rose out of the water, staring directly at us. It was thrilling to see that ancient reptile but I quickly made sure my arms weren’t anywhere near the edges of the boat after that. The main attraction of the boat ride is the sunset; and sure enough the giant yellow ball put on a spectacular show for me. Its firey yellow reflection in the water gradually grew shorter as it began to dip lower. Meanwhile the sky turned from a pale blue, to orange, then pink and finally purple. No matter how many sunsets I witness, each one seems special.
Back on land I just happened to glance up and was star struck. Quite literally. The Milky Way, in all her glory, was visible that night. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. After years of city living, and knowing there’s no point in trying to stargaze thanks to pollution, this was an exquisite treat. It looked as though the strands of a diamond-studded necklace had drapped itself across the midnight-blue sky. Raghu mentioned that I was very lucky since the sky hadn’t been that clear the previous night.
On the way back to my cottage after dinner I glanced around nervously, half expecting a wild boar to come charging out of the grass, but an accompanying member of staff assured me that no dangerous animals visit the property and that the Sarai was far enough from the tiger reserve. I know I was being silly, but still heaved a sigh of relief. The song of crickets is loud here and you’ll be surrounded by it. It was such a pleasant change after the jarring honks of vehicles in the city. Since the cottages are spread around the property each guests gets a mobile phone which can be used to call Joanna, Raghu or the reception in case of an emergency during the night. Don’t be startled if you hear noises after dark – owls, jackals and other harmless nocturnal creatures do emerge but they’re as keen on avoiding you as you are them. The cutest and tiniest frog I’d ever seen, no bigger than my little finger’s nail, was on my porch one night.
You’ll need to rise early if you’re going for a morning safari in Panna Tiger Reserve. Slightly bleary eyed but well rested, I made my way to the baithak at 6.15am the next day, where I was given a hot cup of tea before setting off with Raghu. Panna holds a special place in Raghu’s heart. It’s where he conducted a pioneering 10-year study on the tigers of Panna, and formed a close bond with those magnificent felines, even if it was one-sided. Just a few years ago, Panna lost all its tigers to poaching. As a result, tigers from other national parks and reserves had to be introduced into this region to balance the predator-prey ratio. The current tiger population is stable but it’s a constant battle to keep poachers at bay and educate villagers about the importance of protecting the tiger. It didn’t take long to catch sight of Panna’s residents since we were on flat open ground, in this case a wild boar followed soon after by a female sambar deer. She crossed the muddy red trail directly in front of our vehicle and I managed to get a few excellent shots of her. We left the open grassland behind and began ascending a rocky path, which is when we came upon a massive male sambar with a spectacular set of antlers. He was as startled as we were and darted off into the underbrush, but those few seconds were exciting nevertheless. Seeing one up close made me realise how huge adult male sambars can become.
Joanna always sends guests out on safari with a picnic basket to keep hunger pangs at bay. After driving around for about two hours we stopped near a cliff, which also acts as an excellent viewpoint for sweeping vistas of the reserve. I devoured a few slices of delicious banana cake and cheese straws and washed it down with coffee, all the while admiring the landscape spread out below us. These cliffsides are usually the favoured nesting grounds of vultures, but we saw only one. I couldn’t help but worry for the future of these old world birds, whose survival seems bleak around the globe.
During the second half of the safari we passed by a troop of langurs who were drinking water from a shallow pool. By the looks they gave us, I think a few curses must have been thrown our way for disturbing them. Two herds of spotted deer, not far from each other, were resting under short trees growing in the midst of tall grass, providing the perfect camouflage for them. A female nilgai with her nervous babies, who darted away even though we were quite far from them, a couple of giant wood spiders sitting in their webs, a chinkara, and a few birds such as peregine and black winged eagle were some of the other creatures I got to see. No tiger but still enough to make for a fulfilling safari.
For a glimpse of village life, you can go for a walk till Toria village and back. I was accompanied by Jaipal and we shared an interesting chat about his life in his village. We passed by several friendly little kids en route and a herd of goats very intent on heading home as the sun set, even with no shepherd to guide them. The villagers are fairly used to the Sarai’s guests and they’ll greet you with a ready smile. At one point there were several langurs around us but they were focussed on eating something in the fields on either side of the path and ignored us.
One of the best things about travel is the people you meet. That night I ate dinner with an American family, who were travelling around the world for a year, to expose their children to an array of cultures. Prior to arriving in India, they’d been in Mongolia living in a yurt surrounded by snow! Quite a contrast to Madhya Pradesh’s climate in October.
While I’ve been lucky to have eaten good food at most of the places I’ve visited during my travels, the Sarai at Toria’s varied changing menu deserves special mention. It’s not fancy, the food isn’t heavy and rich, but you come away after every meal licking your lips, wishing you could accommodate more in your tummy. That’s how I felt. From simple yet delicious Malwa dishes, crisp dosas and sambar - better than any I’ve eaten at Naivedyam or Sagar Ratna - to freshly baked bread, sticky toffee pudding and vegan yogurt, the chefs here get everything right. Many of the herbs and vegetables used in daily meals come from the Sarai’s own organic garden. Such is the popularity of their food that guests can request for a cooking class to learn how to prepare these dishes at home.
I felt a slight pang the day I had to leave. Out here by the Ken, you can forget your urban worries for a while, and bask in Raghu and Joanna’s warm hospitality. Make new friends. Sit on the comfortable swing to read a book or let the sound of the river lull you to sleep. Go sightseeing or don’t do anything at all. There’s no need to rush. You will be disconnected out here (my cellphone couldn’t catch a signal and the cottages don’t have TVs) and what a relief that was.
- Solar power
- Employs locals
- Organic garden
- Educate local children on the importance of wildlife conservation
When to go 1 October to 15 April
The Sarai at Toria
Mela Wali Gali, Village Toria
Dist Chatarpur - 471101
Tariff ₹17,800, includes all meals, Wi-Fi, boat ride and village walks
- Boat ride
- Cooking class
- Village walk
- Visit Khajuraho Temples
- Safari at Panna Tiger Reserve
- Visit Ajaygarh Fort
- Air Nearest airport: Khajuraho (20km/ 30mins) offers connections to Delhi and Varanasi. Taxi charges ₹1,500–2,500
- Rail Nearest railhead: Khajuraho Railway Station (18km/ 30mins) is linked to Delhi by the UP August Kranti express. Taxi charges ₹1,500–2,000
- Road Drive from Khajuraho to Bamita; take a left here and it’s another 9–10km to the Sarai at Toria
Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Responsible Escapes