A nature lover, a trekking enthusiast and an environmental activist, Phiroza Tafti wants people to love and look after Mother Earth. Almost 40 years ago, she bid goodbye to Mumbai (Bombay then) and settled in a little-known village by the sea, about 120km away by road from Mumbai, along with her horticulturist husband. Gradually Tafti realised this village had a rich natural and cultural legacy and since then it has become her life’s passion to showcase Dahanu to the world.
You are Dahanu based right? When people prefer big cities, why did you choose Dahanu?
I was born and brought up as a true Bombay city girl, but grew disillusioned with the pseudo materialistic lifestyle and felt far removed from nature; and so in 1979 married a horticulturist and settled down in Dahanu and got closer to nature. It was the best decision of my life. I feel living in a city, you lose touch with what is really important to the human race's survival. Living close to nature and working with the Warlis [an Adivasi community who live on both sides of the Maharashtra-Gujarat border] has taught me and continues to teach me that we are doomed unless we work with nature and not against it.
How did you become an environmental activist?
I joined hands with Nergis Irani and became an environmental activist protesting against the Dahanu Thermal Power Plant. It was an interesting experience but also frustrating at times and when Nergis Irani offered me her post of Convenor of INTACH Dahanu Chapter, I took it up as an opportunity to do something proactive and positive for Dahanu. This was around 2003-2004. Dahanu's ecologically fragile status has been protected by the Dahanu Notification of the Supreme Court. INTACH was one of the funding agency working to protect this status. There are only 13 areas in India that have protection of this kind and it is important that Dahanu continues to be protected.
Few people know Dahanu as you do. How did it start?
I was teaching in a local school when I realised that the local kids had very little knowledge about the cultural heritage of Dahanu. I started taking them on field trips and also became a resource person to conduct workshops to create awareness about the Warli community.
Since then I have been holding many programmes, especially with school children and youth groups, such as mangrove beach cleaning.
Is there any specific project that has been undertaken by the Dahanu chapter of INTACH?
INTACH Dahanu Chapter wanted to encourage the youth to take interest in the cultural heritage of Dahanu. This led to the first ‘Discover Dahanu’ Festival. The following World Heritage Day (2012), MTDC sponsored an event ‘The Amazing rickshaw Race’. Based on this success, 2013 saw a bigger two-day event, renamed as ‘Chikoo Festival’, in partnership with MTDC and other local groups, which was attended by 2,500 visitors. In 2014, this grand event was renamed as ‘Chikoo Utsav’ with the aim to boost tourism and make local entrepreneurs avail of the opportunities in the tourism sector.
We also undertook a Cultural Mapping Exercise, around 2015, which was appreciated by the Delhi Head office. The study documented the intangible cultural heritage of the tribal Warli people to identify the nature of the linkage between the tribal culture and the environment, to map the folklores, dance forms and art of the community, and finally to assess the rapidly disappearing traditional knowledge in the community and the mode of transmission of the knowledge from one generation to the next.
The ‘noco’ project was sponsored partly by INTACH and partly by a Japanese NGO. We decided to document a traditional Warli hut and build a model hut using the techniques of the Warli tribe to create a sustainable design for future generations to refer to when they decide to revert to the good old eco-friendly houses.
So what can visitors expect at the Chikoo Utsav?
Chikoo grown in the Dahanu-Gholvad region has earned the GI tag. A wide variety of chikoo products are sold during the two day festival. Apart from Chikoo ice creams and kulfis, people set great store by the dried chikoo chips and chikoo powder (which can be used in milkshakes and ice creams). The interest shown by visitors has encouraged local women to start investing in small scale industries such as drying chikoos to cater to orders year round. During the festival, visitors can also go on a paid conducted tour of a chikoo farm where they can watch and take part in chikoo plucking, washing, grading the fruits, etc.
Do tell us a bit about the ‘many sides’ of Dahanu.
To begin with, I realized that Dahanu had a lot to offer in terms of natural heritage – the beach, the flora, the Sahyadri hills, lakes, the sacred groves, etc. – apart from its cultural attractions. The surrounding countryside is a trekkers’ paradise – you can visit the Bahrot Caves, Mahalaxmi, Gambhirgadh, and Asherigadh. There are instances of built heritage such as the Dahanu Fort and temples. You cannot ignore the living heritage of Dahanu. There are people from diverse communities living here, such as the fisherfolk of Dhakti Dahanu, the Kolis, Mitnas, Mangelas, toddy tappers, basket weavers, potters, Warli painters, and horticulturists. Dahanu is an interesting place to start tribal tourism -- showcase the eco-friendly rural life, art, culture and heritage, enabling interaction between visitors and the locals for an enriching experience.
Apart from visiting the Bahrot Cave, the Asavali Dam and the beach, what else one can do in Dahanu?
Depending on how much time visitors have on their hands, there are plenty of options. During chikoo season, it is possible to visit a chikoo farm, albeit with prior permission, to watch how the delicate fruits are plucked from the tree using a ‘belni, which is a bamboo pole with a metal net; it requires a lot of skill. Attending a chikoo auction (where the fruits are bid for, graded, packed and loaded into trucks) can also be fun. A visit to Masoli will acquaint you with the Mayavanshi community who weave baskets and make bamboo artefacts used for commercial packing and transporting of fruits. The Dahanu fort, which today houses the Tehsildar Office and the jail. Although a flyover now connects the Dhakti Dahanu fishing village - located across the creek – to the mainland, you may still visit the creek to watch the fisher folk taking their boats out to the sea. Or simply, drive through the ‘gam’ to get the feel of what was once a sleepy town, turn nostalgic as you glimpse the surviving old homes with their old architecture, the wooden pillars and otlas and overlooking balconies - Portuguese style. A drive along the beach road is also very interesting. Dahanu's heritage is a living and breathing entity, encompassing its people, buildings and natural assets. However, there is a fear that the proposed port for Dahanu will likely devastate the livelihood of the indigenous fisher folk, and also bring about changes in the traditional and ecological aspects of Dahanu.
Is there anything that visitors must not come away without seeing?
Everything is a must see here. But I would suggest do visit Prabhakar Save's amazing Eco-Agro tourism venture ‘Tarpa’. You can also stay here. Take a guided farm tour, learn any of the rural life-skills (such as fishing) or crafts (such as Warli painting). Khosbad Nursery and institutions continuing with Anutai Wagh’s social reforms and educational work are also interesting places to visit. Or, visit a Warli painter’s home and learn about the ‘Lagna Chauk’ or the square paintings on the walls which used to be made as part of wedding rituals and led to the now famous ‘Warli’ painting.
Are the local people being involved (like homestays, local guides, and transport operators) in the development of Dahanu as a heritage- and nature-based attraction?
The number of homestays have increased over the years especially after the Chikoo Festival drew hundreds of tourists to Bordi. The Jungle Camp at Aswali run by Suryahas Chaudhary has trained local guides to accompany travellers on hikes and share their knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area. I have trained a first generation teacher at Karbatpada to hold Warli village tours.