The growth in the India rural tourism market in recent years means that many Indian villages have now found a place on the tourist map. Not only does it provide the villagers with a much needed additional source of income, visitors are able to interact with them and gain a rare insight into their way of life. They say the heart of India lies in her villages. Here are some top ways of experiencing them. If you're concerned about having to sacrifice your comforts, don't be. There are luxury accommodation options too in some places!
Kutch Adventures India: Community Tourism in Kutch
Kutch Adventures India offers journeys into Gujarat's Great Rann of Kutch to visit artisan villages, as well as the region's famous salt desert. You'll get to watch the artisans in action, as well as experience and get an insight into village life. Stay in mud huts (with attached western bathrooms) or tents at Hodka's village resort, the Shaam-e-Sarhad (Sunset at the Border). It's owned and operated by the Village Tourism Committee of the people of Hodka village. Or, sleep out on a charpoy (traditional woven bed) in a village under the stars.
Less than two hours from Amritsar and the Golden Temple, Itmenaan Lodges has four stylish boutique cottages nestled into the verdant fields. They've been made in traditional-style by local craftsmen entirely out of mud. Guests can get involved in various farming activities (including milking of cows), go on a tractor ride, go cycling, visit a Sikh temple and experience religious ceremonies, walk around the village and meet the villagers, or simple relax and enjoy the serenity.
Ecosphere Spiti: High Altitude Rural Tourism
The Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh is a lesser-known alternative to Leh and Ladakh. Visits to Buddhist monasteries, yak safaris, treks to villages, village homestays, and cultural performances are some of the possible activities. Ecosphere Spiti, an award winning non-profit organization focused on conservation and responsible tourism, is highly involved in the community there and can make all travel arrangements. They also offer volunteer travel packages, involving a range of community initiatives.
The Sundarbans in West Bengal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's notable for being the largest mangrove jungle in the world. About 35% of the Sundarbans lies in India, and this part of it is made up of 102 islands, just over half of which are inhabited. Village life there is challenging. There's no mains water supply, electricity, roads, or cars. People live in homes built from mud and straw, and are constantly wary of attack from tigers. Tora Eco Resort on Bali Island is a unique community-operated tourism project, with six ethnic cottages surrounded by paddy fields. Guests can go on village walks and participate in village activities, as well as explore the narrow canals of the Sundarbans by country boat (similar to a large canoe).
Bishnoi village, about 40 minutes south of Jodhpur, provides an authentic experience of rural Rajasthan. The fascinating Bishnoi people revere nature and live in harmony with it, so much so that they bury their dead (instead of burn them like other Hindus) to preserve trees as wood is used in cremation. Chhotaram Prajapat's Homestay has become quite renowned since it was established in 2009. There, you'll get to stay in traditional yet contemporary dwellings (with western style facilities) with a family of weavers. Outstanding Rajasthani hospitality is provided, along with delicious home cooked food. Activities include folk dances, camel safaris, village trekking, attending an opium ceremony, and jeep safaris to Bishnoi village.
If you're into art, you're likely to find Gunehar village in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh interesting. German-Indian art impresario Frank Schlichtmann founded a project there to transform the nondescript village into a thriving art hub. The village now has an art gallery, an ecological boutique guesthouse in a restored 70 year-old house, and fusion restaurant. Innovative art events are held as well. The villagers are mostly Gaddis and Bara Bhangalis, who are semi-nomadic sheep herders. You can stay in the middle of the village and learn about their lifestyle, as well as go on walks and treks, and visit local temples. Gunehar is very close to Bir-Billing, a popular paragliding destination, about five hours drive from Chandigarh airport.
Spectacular Lakhsman Sagar luxury hotel, which was once a royal hunting lodge, is perched on a ridge in the Pali district of Rajasthan. Its design has been inspired by the culture of the region, and numerous activities are offered that give guests an insight into the surrounding rural area. These include breakfast at a villager's home among the fields, horse safaris, village visits, exploring old forts, nature walks, and visits to local industry such as chilli drying and wholesaling, and making of bricks by hand.
Greener Pastures: Sustainable Tourism in the Remote North East
Interest in India's north east region as a tourist destination is growing, especially to states such as Nagaland. There you'll be able to interact with the state's tribal communities. Relatively new to tourism, the people are curious, warm, informal -- and open to receiving visitors. The Greener Pastures is pioneering sustainable tourism in the north east and offers a wide range of experiences, ranging from simple rural life in Assam to an epic one month journey across the whole region.
Grassroutes started in 2005 with the aim of creating livelihood opportunities for rural India. They've since helped develop 12 villages across three states for community-based tourism. Purushwadi, in Maharashtra, was their first village. Various unique activities are possible depending on the time of year, including watching fireflies in June, and the cultivation of rice. Grassroutes organizes small group fixed departure trips, curated experiences such as Warli art workshops and writers retreats, as well as custom packages based on the interests of guests.
One of India's quirkiest festivals, the annual Kila Raipur Sports Festival near Ludhiana in Punjab is an unconventional demonstration of strength and skills that's been taking place since 1933. The highlight of the festival is an action-packed bullock cart race. There are plenty of other competitions and off-beat events such as men being run over by farm machinery, pulling vehicles with their hair, and lifting bicycles with their teeth. Cultural events, including bhangra dancing and folk songs, happen in the evenings. The festival is usually held in early February.
Get to know Rajasthan's rural communities by going deep off-road with Overlander. You'll be accompanied by host Uday, who hales from a local noble family that's been part of the region since the 16th century. They've been working with the local villagers to help improve their lives and have a respectful relationship with them. Their signature trips is a full or half rural drive south of Jodhpur along a dry riverbed to meet various village communities, with an option to spend the night glamping in the wilderness. You'll get to interact with the villagers, taste their cuisine, witness their ceremonies, and see abundant wildlife. Overlander conducts desert expeditions as well.
Award-winning Desia is an inspiring responsible tourism initiative set up to help improve the livelihoods of the tribal community in the Koraput Valley of southern Odisha. Locals have been trained to manage the venture, and the tribal women also sell their handicrafts and jewelry to guests. The property is set on four acres of land with accommodations provided in a comfortable, artistically-crafted four-bedroom bungalow using local resources. A complete immersive experience is offered with options for learning tribal arts and crafts, cooking tribal cuisine, trying farming, trekking, hiking and cycling in the picturesque valley. Or, just wander around and spend time in the nearby villages.
Nestled in the Maikal Hills, three hours from Raipur in northwestern Chattisgarh, this beautiful rural homestay provides the perfect base to explore the region. Host Satyendra "Sunny" Upadhyay will take you to visit the local Baiga and Gond tribal villages. Other attractions in the area are the 7th-11th century Bhoramdeo temple complex, markets, forest treks, cycling, and abundant wildlife and birds. There are five guest rooms, plus a separate cottage with kitchen on the property. They're decorated with local artifacts and murals by a local Gond painter. Delicious village-style local cuisine is served.
Part way up the trekking route (about 20 minutes) to Nag Tibba, Goat Village has 10 attractive earthen Garhwali cottages with mountain views to die for. It was set up to help provide a livelihood for locals to stop them from leaving the area, and enables travelers to experience the local way of life. Organic farming and agriculture are carried out on the property -- including the breeding of goats. You'll get to feast on local delicacies prepared with freshly grown ingredients and completely detox from the rest of the world. Only go there if you value quietness. The Goat Village also has other properties in Uttarakhand.
The heavily forested Dang district (also known as the Dangs), located a bit over two hours east of Vadodara in Gujarat, has much to offer nature lovers. This small district is also home to a large tribal population. Rural Pleasure focuses on improving the livelihoods of residents in Subir village through community-based tourism. Visitors are encouraged to participate in all village chores such as plowing, milking cattle, harvesting crops. cutting wood, and meal preparation. Other activities include tribal dances, tribal painting, village walks, and forest hikes.