While Rajasthan is well known for its forts and places, what's now being discovered is its potential for rural tourism in India as well. While tourists commonly visit the numerous attractions in India's cities, the real heart of India is its villages, where ancient traditions and ways of life continue unchanged today. Yet, up until recently, villages were off-limits to most tourists due to the language barrier and lack of accommodations.
The Importance of Rural Tourism in India
Spend time in India's villages and you'll discover that they're facing growing issues. One of the main problems is that more and more people are leaving the villages in favor of major cities, where there are greater opportunities. In many villages, such as those in Rajasthan, people are abandoning their usual occupations. As rural economies are largely based on agriculture, this makes it hard to get workers.
Some villagers in Rajasthan are facing other problems, particularly those who have traditionally relied upon snake charming (now banned by the government) as their source of income. Without any assistance to find alternative employment, the sad reality is that they have become nomadic, roaming from village to village and relying on begging to survive.
The development of villages as tourist destinations provides additional sources of income to residents, whether it be through operating homestays or rural tourist activities (for example, village visits and sale of wares).
Rural Development Work of Culture Aangan in Rajasthan
Culture Aangan is a Mumbai based organization that's been pioneering rural tourism in India. One of their main focuses has been on developing homestays in the Pali district of Rajasthan. Guests stay with a family and experience the culture of the local village. This allows them to get to know India and its people closely, to understand family values, learn how the village functions, and discover the appeal of village life. The people are simple, down to earth, and welcoming.
Depending on guests' interests, there are three types of homestays to choose from.
1. Farm Homestay: I stayed at Culture Aangan's farm homestay in Padampura village. Owned by a local Rajput family (rulers of the area), it's surrounded by fields and has been newly constructed especially for guests. The rooms have modern western facilities and attractive contemporary decorations, inspired by the region. Fresh air and tranquility are in abundance. (And so to was decently made back coffee, which was a pleasant surprise). The homestay is run by the family's eldest son, who's an excellent horseman and conducts horse safaris.
2. Royal Homestay: Culture Aangan's homestay in Nana village is resplendent with regal heritage. Owned by a descendant of the Mewar royal family from Udaipur, the imposing haveli (mansion) has been built over centuries. The guest rooms are charming, with private balconies, and the one of the top floor has its own private terrace.
2. Village Homestay: For those who like to be close to the action, Culture Aangan has a homestay with a couple and their young children in the village of Gulthani. This quaint village has narrow laneways and old architecture.
In conjunction with the homestays, Culture Aangan offers a range of activities as part of their packages. The options are numerous and diverse and include leopard spotting, horse riding, spending time with the villagers and local tribes, exploring markets and forts, visiting local craftsmen and learning their arts, and evening cultural performances.
Find out more about Culture Aangan's packages on their website, or read on to see a few of the activities I did while there.
Meeting the Villagers
Every morning, the local shepherds go from home to home in the village to have their tea, tobacco, and opium fix to fortify themselves for the rest of the day spent out in the harsh environment herding their animals.
Attending the morning village opium meet was the most fascinating part of my trip. It also enabled me to learn about the various village communities. The red turbans worn by these men indicate that they belong to a pastoral shepherd community called Raika. Their rings known as mathi, and bangles with a mouth of a lizard at the opening, signify them as shepherds as well. While the shepherds are away, their wives embroider their dhotis with designs made out of camel hair.
Every caste has a different colored turban and ornaments. An off-white colored turban signifies a farmer. Rajputs (the ruling caste) wear five colored turbans, and saffron at the time of marriage.
In contrast to my Rajput hosts, whose sons wouldn't be getting married until their late 20s, up until a few years ago child marriages were the norm in the Raika community. Quite astonishingly, children were wed when they were as young as three months old. As they were unable to walk around the fire seven times (required in a Hindu marriage ceremony), they were apparently carried around on a platter!
These women are members of the nomadic Bhat tribe, whose main occupation is the trading of livestock. Instead of keeping their money in the bank, they invest it in gold and silver jewelry. Yes, I had major jewelry envy. It was beautiful!
Camel Carishma Camel Welfare
If you're interested in Rajasthan's infamous beast of burden, the camel, then Camel Carishma NGO is the place to visit. This NGO was set up to help preserve the state's dwindling camel population by providing camel breeders with funding to continue keeping camels. It aims to develop and sell environmentally friendly products derived from camels. These products, which are made by local people and available for purchase at the NGO, include camel milk soap, notebooks made from camel dung paper, and woven camel hair rugs, bags, and stoles.
Silver Temple Doors
You're likely to have seen the heavy silver plated doors with intricate designs at temples in India. Now, discover how they're handcrafted at a workshop near Gulthani village. It's time-consuming work that takes months to complete.
Terracotta Horse Temple
There's a temple in Harji village, in the Pali district of Rajasthan, where terracotta horses are worshiped. People make a wish at the temple, and if it's granted they donate a terracotta horse to it. Row upon row of these horses, in all shapes and sizes, fill the space behind the temple. One horse almost rises as high as the roof! Visit the terracotta horse craftsmen nearby to learn how the horses are made.
Having grown up in the countryside, I was delighted to be able to go for an evening and early morning horse ride, through villages and the surrounding desert landscape. My host was the owner of six Marwari horses of the best quality in the region. The Marwari horse is a rare breed of horse known for its strength and endurance (these types of horses were the ones used in the war in India and are a symbol of warrior kings), and ears that turn inwards at the tips. It's possible to visit a horse farm and see how they're bred.
Harvesting in the Fields
In February, the rural landscape is usually a carpet of bright yellow mustard flowers. While I was there in March, it was harvesting time. The dried stalks were being processed by village workers to extract the tiny mustard seeds that are commonly used in Indian cooking.
The evening's cultural program consisted of a performance by a dancing wedding horse, colorfully decorated and usually ridden by the groom at village weddings. The horse steps to the beat of drums.
In addition, a group of villagers came to sing live bhajans (Hindu devotional songs). Some of them danced. The drummer also displayed an unusual beatboxing talent, which was the entertainment highlight of the night. You can see my video of it.
India's villages are full of unexpected treasures!