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Responsible Escapes: Romancing Rural India

The simple yet elegant interiors and verdant environs of Dhuri Homestay,
17 Min Read

Culture Aangan is an organisation dedicated to development projects at the grass root level, in the sectors of agri-community tourism, revival of traditional art and culture, and education

My trip to the Sindhudurg district in Maharashtra had quite the rocky start. Not only was my flight delayed, it was also diverted to Bengaluru as Goa – the closest airport to the homestay I was headed to – had very low visibility, which was unsafe for landing. After finally reaching Goa, a two-hour drive to a remote village near the town of Sawantwadi was in order. I was feeling a mix of trepidation and excitement at the prospect of staying at the homestay. Although I had spent several summer holidays in my grandfather’s village in Himachal Pradesh as a child, I had never quite had a rural experience as a grown-up. The lovely drive, passing fields of emerald and trees rejuvenated by the recent rains, lulled me into a peaceful slumber, and I began forgetting my terrible flight experience.

The simple yet elegant interiors and verdant environs of Dhuri Homestay

I awoke just as we were about to reach the homestay, and the scene outside my window was as idyllic as rural areas are usually described in works of fiction. I was so grateful that for the next two days, this would be my reality. Surrounded by lush greenery, Dhuri Homestay in Math village, set up with the assistance of Culture Aangan, made a delightfully quaint picture that I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in.

Founded in 2005, Culture Aangan is an organisation dedicated to developing projects at a grass-root level. They are pioneers in the sector of agro-rural tourism and assist villagers in setting up sustainable homestays. This also helps in the revival of local traditional art forms. When travellers visit these homestays that are tucked away in the lap of nature far from bustling urban centres, they are also encouraged to think about the preservation of these small villages and their cultural ethos along with conservation of the bio-diversity that these places exhibit. With homestays in Sindhudurg and Alibaug in Maharashtra, and Pali in Rajasthan, Culture Aangan plays an important role in bringing attention to the natural beauty and artistic wealth of rural India. During my stay, I was privy to these efforts and took home many fond memories that I will cherish for a long time.

Women hard at work at a cashew factory in Vengurla

I was welcomed by Prashant Ganpat Dhuri, a native of Math, who has been running this homestay for the past five years. He showed me to my room, which was minimalist, adorable and incredibly homely. The bed looked very inviting, so I knew that a nap was going to be the first thing on my agenda. My host saw me looking longingly at it, and thankfully, suggested that I rest awhile. After a short snooze, it was lunch time and boy had I built an appetite. It was my first tryst with Malvani food, and my mouth waters as I recall my meal. The thali comprised of cashew curry, dal and beans served with two hot chapatis and a bowl of delicious kokum curry – this simple and wholesome meal made with locally-sourced ingredients (some from Prashant’s own farm a few kilometres away and some from the courtyard in front of me!) was more delicious than any Michelin-star preparation could have ever been. After savouring the food and showering Prashant’s wife, Prachi, with a gazillion compliments, it was time for me to head out of the homestay.

The first thing on my itinerary was a visit to a local cashew factory, which mostly employed women. The Narmada Cashew Industry run by Mandakini Dilip Samant produces over 500kg of cashews every day and they have over 26 grades of cashews for sale! Through the efforts of this company, the humble yet delicious cashew has become a symbol of womens empowerment and independence. It was very interesting for me to find out how the raw cashew you find growing on trees becomes the dry fruit that we find in our kitchens.

Culture-Aangan9_TI

Next up on my list was a visit to the Regional Fruit Research Station in Vengurla, which was established in 1957. Their work involves exactly what their name suggests – the researchers study fruits which are grown in the region such as cashew, mango, coconut, sapota, jackfruit and kokum amongst others. The researchers took me on a tour of their 68-ha facility and it was quite a fascinating journey. They work closely with villagers, as growing these crops is their main source of income, and provide them with saplings, fertilisers and even insects that aid in killing pests that destroy these crops and hamper yields. I was particularly fascinated (and a little repulsed) by one section of the facility – a room full of actual fungi and mushrooms. Those with morbid curiosity and an affinity for the weird will love this section. All in all, this would be an extremely captivating stopover for those who are interested in agricultural sciences. You can even pick up bottles of kokum and mango pulp from the station, at ridiculously affordable prices.

Ganjifa Cards

After a few hours at the centre, we headed to Sagareshwar Beach, also in Vengurla. I was used to the crowds that you encounter at popular beaches such as the ones in Goa, but a visit to this beach was a happy surprise. With very few people in sight, it was almost like I had this pristine stretch of sand to myself. I walked around, digging my feet into the sand, wading a little into the water and enjoying the nippy breeze. Remember that it is not advisable to swim in these waters as they can be dangerous during high tides. Besides, locals say that the sea has unexpectedly strong undercurrents and sudden drops in the sea bed. Dressing somewhat conservatively is advised to avoid offending the locals’ sensibilities or drawing unwanted attention. Those who are religiously-inclined have the option of visiting the Sagareshwar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, nearby.

Colourful wooden toys and fruit

I was loath to leave the beach, but I had delicious Malvani food to look forward to, so I headed back to the homestay. The dinner on my first night was more heavenly and hearty than the lunch. At the recommendation of my hosts, I tied a mosquito net tightly to my bed, making sure that those pesky bugs had no way of disturbing my slumber. I slathered on some mosquito repellent as an extra precaution and slept so peacefully that my eyes only opened at the crack of dawn to the lovely sound of chirping birds.

After a delicious breakfast (poha never tasted better), it was time for me to visit another homestay, which is also run in association with Culture Aangan. The Padgaonkar Homestay at Nandan Farms, located a little outside Sawantwadi, has been open to visitors since 2007. It has two large suites and the owner, Amruta Padgaonkar, is constructing four more, along with a small natural pool, to accommodate tourists travelling in large groups.

The striking red façade of the Sawantwadi Palace

We then drove to the Sawantwadi Palace and met the resident queen, Satwashiladevi Bhonsle, who the locals fondly call Rajmata. I walked up to her and was tempted to curtsy, but stopped myself just in time. The town of Sawantwadi was formerly the capital of the kingdom of Sawantwadi, which was ruled by the Sawant Bhonsle clan. The palace was built in the late 18th century, and I was lucky enough to hear about it from a member of the royal family! She told me that the family has patronised the art of ganjifa for centuries and continues to do so. Ganjifa is an ancient card playing game, which originated in Persia and became incredibly popular in the sub-continent during the Mughal era when the courts boasted card sets made with ivory and precious stones. The cards, which can be rectangular or circular, are hand-made and exceptionally intricate. The royal family first heard about these cards in the late 1800s through scholars who had visited Telangana. They adopted this art form and began teaching it to the people. For years, people have been coming to the Sawantwadi Palace to learn how to make these unique cards. It was during the 1940s that the royal family realised that the art form was dying, with only a few people from the Chitrakar community practising it. This prompted them to set up a school to revive the art form. I had the wonderful opportunity to see these ganjifa artists at work in the school. Watching them paint the small cards with adeptness and flourish was an enchanting experience. Though India has many variants of ganjifa cards (Mysore Ganjifa being the most famous), the artists at Sawantwadi Palace practise dashavtara ganjifa, where they paint the ten avatars of Vishnu on the cards. If you’re thinking of picking up a souvenir in the form of one deck of these cards, get ready to burn a considerably large hole in your pocket – a deck of 150 cards costs ₹13,000 and a deck of 50 costs ₹3,000. The price isn’t too exorbitant considering that the larger deck takes upwards of three months for the artists to make.

View of Sawantwadi town

Soon after, I was shooed out of the hall because my camera and my ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ were disturbing the artists. I was shown around the palace and taken to the museum housed inside one of the buildings. Ancient ganjifa cards, art work, old photographs, sculptures and furniture that the royal family has meticulously collected over the years is on display here for the world to see. It was an extraordinary experience and any visit to Sawantwadi would be incomplete without stopping by this gem of a museum. I then proceeded to visit the market that produces Sawantwadi’s most famous export – wooden toys and artefacts. Being an honorary resident of Shimla, I have made many a trek to Lakkar Bazaar (literally wood market) there. What an eye-opening experience it was to realise that Lakkar Bazaar had nothing on the sheer variety of objects that were on offer in this little Maharashtrian town – everything from toys, decorative items and baskets to spoons, ladles and back scratchers! An interesting factoid – Sawantwadi is considered the largest market for wooden toys and models of fruits! Crafted by people from the Chittari community, the process of making these wooden toys is considered an art form, so don’t forget to buy yourself a few knick-knacks from here. Every purchase supports the local community, so don’t hesitate to buy that wooden watermelon that you never knew you wanted.

Rare wooden puppets at Thakar Adivasi Kala Aangan

On my way back to the homestead, we stopped by the artificial Moti Lake, around which the whole town is constructed. It is believed that the royal family gifted pearls to the workers who constructed the lake, which is how it got its name! Standing on the lake’s promenade, I couldn’t help but marvel at the cleanliness and picturesqueness of this tiny town. It’s no wonder that a town as beautiful as this, bursting with history and culture, is slowly becoming popular with tourists.

My rumbling tummy reminded me it was time for lunch, and after polishing off another Malvani thali, I took a short nap. I awoke to the sound of a resounding downpour! Watching the rain from my window, with a warm cup of chai clasped tightly in my hands, I couldn’t help but smile when I spied the family’s cat curled up near their hut’s doorway. It was one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve had in a while, and I’ll never forget how truly light and free I felt. A soft knock on my door forced me out of my reverie. It was Prashant, there to inform me that it was time for me to head to a tribal museum.

A painting-like stretch of coast in Vengurla

Housed in a small space that was previously a cow shed, the Thakar Adivasi Kala Aangan in Pinguli village has artefacts that belong to the Thakars, an indigenous tribe of artists and puppeteers. Run by Parshuram Gangavane, who won an award from the state government of Maharashtra for the preservation of folk art. The pride of the museum is a large collection of Chitrakathi paintings, an art form that dates back to the 17th century, some of which are 200-300 years old. The paintings here depict scenes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and were painted in sets. When viewed together, they narrate an entire story. Their unique and fascinating collection also includes wooden puppets, very distinct from the Rajasthani puppets that we are so used to seeing. They resemble different deities from Hindu mythology and a performance always teaches viewers an important moral lesson. Culture Aangan has been closely involved in the revival of the traditions of the Thakar community. My visit to the museum was made all the more special by a breath-taking musical demonstration performed by the owner’s son, Chetan. The tribal instrument was one I hadn’t even heard of before and is played during shadow puppetry performances. Called the dona vadya, the instrument is simply an upturned metal thali and a wooden stick! This museum isn’t just a collection of artefacts, it is a labour of love, borne by the Gangavane family in an effort to preserve their heritage.

After a delectable dinner (as always!) at the homestay, my hosts told me that they wanted to teach me how to make modaks – dumplings made of shredded coconut and gur wrapped in rice dough. Being the kind of person who is only adept at making Maggi, this was a lovely experience that made me want to experiment in the kitchen more often. What my sad-looking modak lacked in appearance, it more than made up for in taste, and that was all thanks to Prachi’s yummy filling.

I sat down for one last time outside my room taking in the surroundings and how truly quiet rural areas get at night. I disrupted this silence only once with a screech when I found a huge praying mantis stroking (yes, stroking) my arm! After that I hunkered down for the night as I had to leave the beautiful home-stay early the next day.

My brief visit to this enchanting little homestead managed to capture my heart and fill me with a longing that I never had before – to take a sojourn into the rustic hinterlands that make up the majority of our country, and meet a humble people who live in harmony with nature. Remember that when you venture off the beaten track, you are truly rewarded with memories that you will cherish for a lifetime!

FAST FACTS

When to go September to March

Culture Aangan Tourism Pvt Ltd

B-16, Osman Chambers

Juhu Tara Road, Santacruz West

Mumbai - 400049

Maharashtra

Cell: 09821483765

Email: info@cultureaangan.com

W cultureaangan.com

Dhuri Homestay

Village Math, Bowlekar Wadi

Vengurla - 416516, Maharashtra

Cell: 0904165641, 09420740901

Email: dhurihomestay@gmail.com

W dhurihomestay.com

Tariff ₹5,500 per night per room for two adults (with meals)

Activities

  • Tour of local cashew factory
  • Visit to Regional Fruit Research Station
  • Vengurla Beach
  • Sawantwadi Palace
  • Shopping for wooden toys
  • Visit to a tribal museum

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Dabolim, Goa (70km/ 2hrs). Call ahead if you want the homestay to arrange a pick-up ( ₹2,000)

Rail Sawantwadi Railway Station is served by the Mandovi Express. Auto to the homestay (5km) ₹150 approx

Road From Mumbai it’s best to take the expressway; take the diversion to Goa at Kohlapur, and drive down to Sawantwadi

The Regional Fruit Research Station provides useful information on a variety of fruit

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Homestay in a village
  • Use of fresh, local produce
  • Working directly with villagers to bolster local economy
  • Preserving tribal heritage

Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Responsible Escapes

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