Monday, 6 April 2015

A for Authenticity

Authenticity – The A of Responsible Tourism

To explain the principles of Responsible Tourism, The Blue Yonder has come up with the A to Z of Responsible Tourism ( I was inspired by this to write a series of article for Consumer Voice Magazine in Delhi - 

As urbanites travel more and more looking for newer experiences, a slew of “village experiences” are coming up right outside the cities. These are run by hotel chains that excel in the hospitality business. You come away having had fun and being fed a variety of food that could be new for you. To you it doesn’t make a difference whether it was authentic or not, you went to relax and have fun and you achieved that.

The purist in me is a little disgruntled at these experiences. As long as guests have fun, I should be satisfied. However, when they start talking of “village life” and how they know all about it based on that visit, then I feel the need to intervene. Travelling around India, what is fabulous is that the experience you are likely to have changes almost every 100 kms. To standardise these myriad experiences into a uniform one outside every big city is doing an injustice to the peoples of India.

What is the solution?

Avoid the short cut. If you want to know how a Mewari village is, (not even Rajasthani), you need to travel to Udaipur and go on beyond to stay with a family or in a local guest house. It is then that you get the smell of mud and that of burning cow dung that is very unique to Mewar. However much you try, this uniqueness cannot be made available outside Delhi. I think it has to do with the water, the air and the hospitality of the people there which cannot be transferred as is anywhere else.

To give an example, however many photographs of the Taj Mahal you may have seen, going to Agra and seeing it live at different times of the day and night is very special. Keep that in mind the next time you see a piece of craft or stay in a “local style” hut.

I knew little of architecture when I started out in the field of tourism about seven years ago. As I travelled I realised that housing styles in rural India are suitable for the climate as well as make use of natural resources available in the surrounding areas. This would mean that as you go along the West Coast, the houses are built using the laterite rock with tiled roofs having a high slope and big overhang to handle the heavy South West Monsoons. As you go up the Western Ghats, the rock is replaced by mud, which is protected by thatching on all four sides during the monsoons. In the Himalayas, it is the stone that is favoured for both roof and walls – with those areas affected by earthquakes moving to corrugated sheet roofs. In Kutch the cottages are perfectly circular and made of mud with tiny windows to keep out the heat and dust. Where ever you travel, the house construction ensures that the temperature within remains ambient regardless of the temperature without.
Weaver's House in Pranpur - made of local stone

People, world over, have made the effort to live comfortably using the resources available to them. And then over the last half century this has been turned topsy turvy with concrete taking over the world. It has its uses and I am not asking for a ban, but when a Kutchi farmer builds a house of concrete and then adds a layer of mud on top, I would like to register my protest. Probably from having stayed in the all-mud huts, I can actually feel the difference. Yes, mud construction needs regular maintenance, but it doesn’t need an air-conditioner in summer or a heater in summer. What you say on electricity bills makes up for what you put into maintenance.

The smell of wet earth after the first rains – I wait a whole year for it. If it were bottled and available online, would it still be as special?

What is an authentic experience without local cuisines? What I enjoy most about travelling is the variety of food in India. If I enjoy a kothu parota on the streets of Madurai, can it really be replicated on the streets of Panjim? Why not enjoy the poee-bhaji in Panjim instead? Yes, I yearn for a good fafda-jalebi sometimes – but I know that if I have it anywhere outside Gujarat, I am just not going to be satisfied. And that gives me something to look forward to. When I travel, I stick to the local food as much as possible – those flavours just cannot be had elsewhere.
Breakfast in Ahwa, Dangs District
Next time you travel try to appreciate what is unique to where you are going – enjoy the special flavour of authenticity. Hold out for the real thing.


Appeared in Consumer Voice dated August 2014 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Orchha - Pranpur - Chanderi

We thought we were headed for a quiet Holi getaway to Madhya Pradesh. Orchha-Pranpur-Chanderi. We anticipated the grandeur of the Orchha palaces and a restful Holi in the mango orchards. But were completely unprepared for the breadth and depth of experience that Travel Another India and Gouthami curated for us.

Four days and a flood of stories, sights and encounters. Sample some:

-        A guest house walled in by mango trees, designed and managed by farmers, village scientists and community-tourism entrepreneurs. The Amraee quickly made us their own. It has swept all awards possible for responsible rural tourism. The Bundeli thaali served on Holi swept us into a minor culinary exploration.

-          A day-long tour of Chanderi (one must spend three to fully immerse in the stories of its 300+ historical monuments). My favourite was the walk through Sadar Bazaar - an ancient market frequented by Khilji rulers and Mughal royals and chronicled by Ibn Batuta.

At its prime, the Bazaar was a three-tier retail hotspot - the lowest tier of shops for customers on foot, a second level for consumers on horseback, and the highest storey for royal shoppers on elephant back. The same goods were sold at three different price tags for the three customer segments. A super example of inclusive commerce!

-       A drive through sandstone quarries to the 1000-year old Nanoun caves. We spotted crocodiles sunbathing on the banks of the river Urvashi. And witnessed the chronicling of life through cave paintings from the chalcolithic age. Across the banks, not far away, lay burial grounds from the Mesolithic age.
Cave Paintings in Nanoun
River Urvashi had crocodiles on its banks!
 -    A walk across Asia's largest earthen dam that submerged 85 villages (all re-settled in Chanderi) and temples and palaces of the 14th and 15th century. When the waters of the Betwa recede in June, the submerged monuments re-emerge, with paintings on their walls still undiminished. Massive flocks of migratory birds conference on the lakes of this dam. You need to be here at sunset.
Sunset from the Rajghat Dam
-          Lunch in the balcony of a 13th century royal hunting lodge, ensconced in the winding ghats and forest's of Katighati. The verandah flanks out into a massive lake with boatmen plying iron boats. Here, Babur's troops had taken shelter for months and planned their strategy of attack on Chanderi. Here, we ate guava curry, and fish freshly fried on the banks of the lake.
Lake of the Royal Hunting Lodge

14th Century Royal Hunting Lodge
View from the Lunch Table

-          Conversations with metal workers, potters and weavers. A family of metalworkers invited us into their home in Pranpur and walked us through the intricacies of their practice - a forgotten metal art form, which has probably not been documented. Mud over wax moulds through which molten metal is poured and baked in earthen ovens. The two layered mould is then cooled and cracked open to produce intricate metal jewellery. Do not contest the prices fixed by the village tourism council for this master craftsperson’s wares. Because you pay not just for the product, but for an art form that may disappear in the next decade of your life.
The Charkha in Pranpur

Weaving the Chanderi fabric in Pranpur

-          And finally the showstopper- an impulsive plunge into the flowing, rocky pools of the river Betwa with Surendra bhai and his daughters, who are part of Friends of Orchha - a network of village home stays in Orchha. The extended frolicking in the cold waters delayed us by several hours to the next spot on our map. But did we care?

Betwa River in Orchha
The oxygen that breathed colour and life into our trip was the indomitable Kallebhai. A school drop-out, self-taught, barefoot historian, who has published four books on the history of Chanderi, and is at the forefront of working with UNESCO to have his town declared as a World Heritage City. If not for anything else, visit Chanderi to just hear his story of life entrepreneurship.

Oh! And we did play Holi under the mango trees. And purchased a Chanderi stole or two. Thank you Travel Another India for this largess.

Manisha Gupta
March 2015
The Mango Orchard at Amraee Guest House

Doorway of the Jama Masjid in Chanderi - the designs continue to inspire the weavers!

My favourite- children of the 1000-year old village, nestled among stone quarries, play holi with adandon and chase us with cowdung balls in their hands

Rajpal - the farmer-scientist- inventor with three patents to his name. He manages the Amraee guest house out of his passion and love for the region he was born in. Not often is he photo-bombed by guests.

100-year old mud home in Orchha

An ancient metal pot discovered by the Archeological Survey of India. Displayed in an open museum at the Raja-Rani palace in Chanderi.

Baodi or step-well in Chanderi

Frescoes in the palace in Orchha

Jahangir Palace, Orchha

Jama Masjid, Chanderi

Mango blooms, Amraee Guest House, Pranpur

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


I don't know you too well,
But I'd like to change that.
It isn't the way you dress
Or even the bronze tan you’ve acquired.

Your hair hasn't been washed in ages                              
And your skin has a layer of grime.
But your eyes have that faraway look,
The distant wondering, that I love.
Can you teach me how to have 
A spring in your step, without seeming fake?
And the ease with which you befriend strangers,
Please tell me that's contagious?

You've perfected the skill
Of soaking in the present moment,
Something I've yet to master.
I wonder, what’s your secret?

I can tell from the way you walk
That you've moved beyond mundane questions.
Instead you sit and think of how sheep get to sleep
And whether shepherds are lonely.

You’re always prepared for any situation,
That we have in common.
But the way you let things happen to you without getting in the way,
I’m still to learn.

You hum to the tune of the river,
You hop on the first bus you see;
Favour moonlight over torches
And puppies over humans.

Trying new foods, collecting rocks,
Ignoring the souvenir shops.
Letting cuts heal themselves
And pathways lead you where they will.

I've caught glimpses of you before                                                                                                              
On buses and trains.
You’re familiar, yet not familiar enough.                                                
You always slip away too quickly.

I try to stop being in awe of you
So I can focus on being more like you.
But the train pulls into the station,
The suitcase is unpacked, and you disappear in the shadows.

I know I’ll only see you
When the next ticket is purchased.
Traveller me, I’d really like to know you,
Please don’t play hard to get.

By Mihika Mirchandani