Dhananjai Golla easily describes his 2010 trip to a remote camp in Uttaranchal where he and his friends witnessed 75 Nepalis trekking 35 kilometers to visit a temple in the valley. The ritual happens every full moon and is usually not open to outsiders. Golla’s experience joins other unusual sightings posted by adventurous travellers across the country and highlights a trend that has emerged over the last three years. It has seen more than 3,000 people signing up for community tours, he says. “With every such tour, guests give something back to the community, which is more than an economical transaction, making it a sustainable model,” observes Sudeepta Sanyal, founder of Mumbai-based Blueberry Trails, which takes groups to the Hemis festival in Ladakh each year. With villages like Khonoma and Kumbalangi in Nagaland building additional rooms in each hut to accommodate guests, it seems like a win-win situation. Whether bunking with the Bishnoi in Rajasthan works for you, or heading out on an aruval (sickle) making tour in Madurai does the trick, the options are endless.
Bathing elephants in Vembanad Lake
Tripti Malhotra is one of the lucky few to have got up close and personal with pachyderms during an Elephant Tour organised by Associated Travels, a three-year-old outfit started by Pradesh Rao in Calicut. Tourists can sign up for a week in the wilderness with mahouts and their animals, and observe their daily life, from bathing the elephants to riding them. You will be accompanied by renowned naturalists who will bring you up to speed on Kerala’s biodiversity and you could stay with the Kurumba tribes of Wayanad or go fishing with the black clam collectors of Vembanad Lake. Rao’s team designs packages to suit your needs and the best months to visit are January to April and September to November. Packages start from Rs 24,000 onwards for a week. Details: 9447085668
Lunch at a Badaga home
For ten years now, the Badagas, the largest indigenous tribe in South India said to have migrated from Mysore and known for their adaptability to European farming techniques, have opened up their homes to the intrepid traveller. You can opt to stay in traditional mud houses in their village, Hatti, courtesy We Are Holidays’ packages. The Hindu community celebrate festivals like Hethe Hubba right through the year, and guests are invited to join in prayer, song and an elaborate feast featuring fresh, spiced meat. The language is a mix of Kannada and Tamil, with no written script but a rich oral literature. Tours start from Rs 16,000 for three days. Details: weareholidays.co.in
Back to school in Bandhavgargh
Anant Van is nestled deep in the jungles of Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh. The brain child of Dhruv Singh and his wife Shree Singh, the idea is to provide a rural experience with the spirit of conservation. So when you’re done with your hike through the forest, get ready for some hands-on farming and mingle with the village folk to assist with daily chores. There is also a village integration programme to help you understand the nuances and daily routine of the local community. Teaching at a local school and planting saplings becomes part of your day at Anant Van and under the guidance of Dhruv and Shree, the local community is part of your social circle for your time at the lodge. As Dhruv likes to put it, “We are more of a holistic and spiritually rejuvenating experience, where tourists are actively involved in the whole ecological balance effort.” The lodge features two cottage tents and two cottages, all made by local carpenters. The camp is accessible by road and rail while the nearest airport is at Khajuraho, 230 kilometres by road. Rs 3,500 upwards per person, per night, including meals and activities. Details: 011 65151515
Traditionally used as an agricultural tool or weapon, the sickle-like Aruval’s handle is made from wood or neem. The tour covers five small villages, each specialising in a different style of blade. Travel Themes takes you on the tour to witness the making of the tool/weapon. Tirupachethi district boasts the maximum production of these weapons and is situated 180 kilometers from Madurai. Typical to the village is the veecharuva, a special double sided blade that is not produced anywhere else in the state. “It is an art that has been passed on within the family for years and people have tried to recreate them but failed,” says Ranjith Kumar, a tour coordinator. Over 250 families have signed up for the tour to date. The package includes stay in the village, a day of farming, Madurai style food and refreshing jigarthanda. During worship, these aruvals are decorated and used as an offering. The villagers are known for their warm hospitality. Packages start from Rs 10,000 onwards. Details: 8655342734
Meet the royals in Anegundi
Black Swan, a Pune-based outfit, launched their community tours three and a half years ago and have seen over 400 travelers signing up for experiences. One of the most popular destinations is Anegundi, 150 kilometers from Hampi. With references found in the Ramayana and home to conservation projects, this village allows guests to break bread with the locals. The folk dancers of the village teach travellers the moves of the Sakkath, a local favourite and you can pay a visit to the banana fibre cottage industry. Home to the royal family of the Vijay Nagar empire since 1984, small groups are welcome to dine with Krishna Devaraya known as Raja or Dhani and his family members in the recently restored palace and travellers are encouraged to conduct spoken English classes at the local schools. “Once, a person at a homestay was looking at redoing his house and his guests, a family from Pune, of which three were architects, offered to help. They looked at his blueprints, gave him inputs on where to source materials and how to restore parts of his house, pro bono,” says Shishir Nikam, the founder of this outfit. Tour packages start from Rs 7,500 per head. Details: black-swan.in
Pedal through Raghurajpur
Grassroutes Travels, a Faizabad-based company, have since inception in 2010 conducted over 200 tours across the country that are festival specific. They are very conscious about how they travel and ensure minimum disturbance to the community and the environment. Tourists have been signing up for their rural bicycle travel tour of Raghurajpur. The residents of this village come from a long line of artists specialising in a unique style known as ‘patachitra’, and despite poor patronage, the artists continue to maintain valuable techniques as this is their sole source of income. Tour packages start from Rs 10,000 onwards. Details: 9437022663
Fishing in Mon
While a pig sacrifice may not appeal to all, such customs are central to tribal cultures. Four-year-old High on Travel specialises in such tours. Started by former IT professional and travel enthusiast, Chirag Bhandari, the most popular destination from them is Mon, a remote district in Nagaland. Featured in Michael Palin’s BBC series on the Himalayas and by Gordon Ramsay, it ensures an exotic tribal experience. The Konyak tribe that stays in this village is renowned for their facial tattoos, a mark of respect if a man is an exceptional shot. Another popular destination is Kapu beach in Udupi, Karnataka, where you can volunteer with the local community schools, spend early mornings with the fishermen and enjoy fish fry seasoned with local spices. “One of our customers liked the locally prepared fish curry so much, he took it back home with him and reverse engineered the recipe,’’ Bhandari laughs. Three-day packages from Rs 6,000. Details: 022 61967212.