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The road to the hamlet is a dirt track that weaves in and out of the forest and through paddy fields dotted with mango trees on the fringes of Kanha national park in central India. A veritable Aladdin’s cave the Indian village shop stocks the essentials and little luxuries that you can’t grow yourself or barter for in the weekly market. Stretched across the shop’s open ‘window’ brightly coloured packets of goodies invite you to draw near, but dare to try and step inside and the hinged wooden counter comes slamming down. Shoppers have to wait outside and ask for what they want; look but don’t touch – whether he’s 8 or 80 it’s the shopkeeper’s prerogative to handle the precious goods and pass them to you as he or she sees fit.
There are no special offers, extra large economy sizes or two for the price of one deals, just strips of tiny affordable sachets hooked over strings between rafters and dangling just out of reach – one application of shampoo, a lone sweet (German caramel or otherwise), a single serving of mouth freshener or chewing tobacco. In the gloom at the back of the shop plastic screw top jars of sugar can be opened to weigh a few grams in ancient scales and take away in a home-made newspaper bag, or if your chickens aren’t laying well an egg or two can be wrapped in a used and discarded page from an old exercise book for safe transport home. On the top shelf a couple of light bulbs jostle for space side by side with hair slides, a mouse trap and miniature bars of soap decorated with impeccably groomed beauties.
But don’t be fooled into thinking rural life is completely without mod-cons. You may still only have a few hours of electricity a day, or get your water from the village pump, but if like the vast majority of people in India you have a mobile phone, you can get your top up here for just 10 pence.
Get in touch if you're interested in exploring rural India and we'll be happy to plan and book your trip.
The origin of weaving in India dates back more than 5000 years; a fragment of faded pink madder-dyed cloth was found in Indus Valley excavations and in Roman times Indian cottons and silks were exported in massive quantities. The trend continued for centuries until industrialisation and demand for cheap mass-produced goods meant weaving skills were almost lost until a timely revival in ethnic and ethical products.
At a FabIndia unit in central India cotton from the region arrives in trucks covered with bulging hessian sacking, like loaves rising uncontrollably out of their baking tins. Cool rooms for spinning, dying and weaving fan out from a gated central courtyard where during the last 50 years the share holding work force has been producing fabrics for Habitat and EAST and are now highly sought after in its own shops in Indian cities.
The clickety clack, ching-ching of the looms become temporarily silent as people disappear for lunch leaving me the chance to browse the shelves piled high with colourful neatly folded fabrics that will be turned into table cloths, bed covers and curtains.
A day’s drive away in a handful of rural villages a charitable trust works with artisans who would otherwise have just two months weaving work a year and need to seek other employment elsewhere. The project is headed by Vijesh who, after graduating with an MA, decided to forgo a promising career in fashion and move instead to this remote part of central India.
Setting out on a moped to hill villages practising shifting agriculture his bobbin winding and sewing machines taken to demonstrate at local markets were initially viewed in horror and fear. Now, following training, they are skilfully used in dozens of homes, to create beautiful cotton khadi scarves, shawls and stoles that are exported worldwide.
In Bajag a weaver sits on his shaded mud veranda at a simple wooden loom constructed in a variety of ingenious ways (no two looms are ever the same) his legs dangling in a pit below and gets to work. The rhythmic clacking of bamboo and chiming of metal rings is absolutely timeless and the future of the handloom, for now, looks secure.
If you're interested in discovering local arts and crafts on your travels, get in touch and we'll be happy to plan your tailor-made trip to India.
The flowers don’t remain on the tree for long; they bloom at night and fall to the forest floor at dawn, creating a cream carpet around their parent. At first light tribal villagers make their way through the forests to the trees dressed with new red leaves where the waxy blooms keep coming till the leaves turn green, and carefully collect each fallen flower. Simply distilled in earthenware pots, fiery mahua liquor is drunk in copious amounts but the entire tree is vital to tribal body, mind and spirit, from cradle to grave.
Mahua leaves are woven into cups and plates used for festivals, sticks of the tree are placed on the bride and groom’s hands during weddings and a corpse is anointed with mahua oil. The flowers can be eaten raw, boiled, or fried and eaten with salt and chillies. In south India Tamils use the flowers when no sugar cane is available, though with caution as an excess is said to result in unbalanced thought and even complete lunacy.
Mahua fruit is eaten as a vegetable, while oil from the seeds is used as everything from a hair fixer, for cooking and lighting lamps, to making soap. The crushed leftover matter then becomes a seedcake used as fertiliser.
Both the flowers and the oil have long been used in traditional medicine as a cure for a myriad of ills. The oil is taken as a laxative and to cure piles, while the flowers in various forms are used for heart, bronchial and eye problems, to treat TB, asthma, blood diseases, tonsillitis and to get rid of parasitical internal worms. The bark is used to relieve itching, to heal wounds, fractures and snake bites. Both the flowers and the bark are believed to be aphrodisiacs.
The wisdom of the tribal peoples is now being taken seriously and scientists are checking out mahua properties. One study has shown that mahua oil has more free radicals than extra-virgin olive oil and it’s also being tested for its potential as biodiesel. Watch out for mahua products coming to your neck of the woods soon.
Take a look at our website to discover more about the jungles of India on a tailor-made safari.
Like his father before him, after working in the fields he sits on the floor of his home and takes out his brushes to paint dancing peacocks, holy trees and the greatest of gods, Badadev who created the earth and every creature on it.
Santosh is a Gond, a member of one of central India’s largest indigenous communities who for centuries inhabited the region’s deeply forested hills, worshipped nature and the gods of trees, rivers, hills and lakes who protected them. Gond folk-lore and tribal stories were passed from generation to generation in song and the songs transcribed into art.
During weddings and other festive occasions, using vegetable and mineral dyes collected from the forests and a twig from a neem tree tied with a rag as a brush, village houses were painted with geometric patterns, animals and plants for good luck.
Though the Gonds were gradually deprived of their kingdoms and land, and young men in search of work left in droves for the cities their ancient tribal culture clung to survival through festivals and rituals, songs and dances.
When Gondi art was finally discovered by the outside world the artists transposed their work from mud walls to paper and canvas. Myths and folklore, images of daily life and dreams, pictures from the memory and imagination fill the canvas, their outlines crammed with tiny fine lines, dense dots and dashes of multi-coloured intricate designs in acrylic paint.
Each artist has his or her own unique patterns or way of detailing - fish scales and drops of water, a line of creeping spiders, the mark of a plough on a field, the crescent moon, young shoots in a paddy field. That pattern becomes their signature and reveals the Gonds’ continuing bond with nature, a reflection of their culture where life and spirituality are inseparable from the forest and its inhabitants.
From simple beginnings Gond art is now highly in demand and has encouraged the Gonds to take up painting stories once again. Santosh is just one of them and though he now lives on the edge of Bhopal his heart remains in the forest.
If you're interested in visiting rural India take a look at our website or get in touch to book your tailor-made trip.
Satpura National Park in central India has five working elephants. After a morning patrolling the jungle or taking visitors on safari, and following a rest, in the late afternoon their mahouts and helpers take them to a stream for a bath.
Dappled light sparkles on the water and the reflections of trees on the surface turn into rippled patterns as the first elephant wades happily in. The sinewy mahout riding on Geeta’s prickly haired neck deftly manoeuvres as she slowly kneels down and then rolls on to her side on the stony riverbed. You could almost hear her sigh of pleasure.
60 year old Geeta came to Satpura from the southern state of Kerala during the days when logging was allowed and has been at the reserve for over 40 years. Though she's the oldest elephant in the camp, according to her mahout Gannu, who's been with her for seven years, she’s more hard working than the others. Soon the pair is joined by the impressive tusker, Sidhnath, and Priya with their little calf Laxmi and the bathing ritual begins.
TOP TIPS FOR BATHING YOUR ELEPHANT
While your elephant lies on its side in the shallows, splash the top side with water.
Take a strong bristled brush (or large stone or coconut shell) and scrub hard.
Bathe every part as you would a human and pay special attention to dirty knees, hidden spots and hard to reach areas; don’t forget behind the ears, between the wrinkles, around the nails and the full length of the spine. And under the base of the tail.
Rinse, scrub and rinse again.
Ask your elephant to turn over and repeat the above.
Throughout the process allow your elephant to stretch and relax in the water. The head may go down while the end of the trunk remains above water or bubbles blown if the trunk is in the water.
Climb on to your elephant and hold tight when you ask him or her to stand up.
Be prepared for a shower yourself should your elephant decide to suck up water in its trunk and spray its back.
Mahout's note: A clean elephant is a happy elephant
Scrunching noisily through the leaves isn’t exactly what immediately comes to mind when imagining walking through India’s jungles but that’s exactly what we were doing. Although India's Central Highlands were tinged with green there were many naked trees and giant teak leaves were falling all around us.
It hardly made for a stealthy approach as we stepped through Satpura’s dappled shade in search of wildlife – but perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing after all. There are tigers here and though they're very rarely seen there’s no telling if one is actually watching you.
I’d come in search of sloth bear and although this rather dishevelled looking beast isn’t known for its man-eating tendencies the mahua trees were in flower and the bears have a penchant for their for their fermenting alcoholic blooms. I didn’t want to find out what a disturbed, disorientated, drunken bear with four inch long claws might do. Even though they don’t have any front teeth I'm sure they could do still do a good job of sucking you to death.
Satpura is the only national park in India that allows walking safaris and before setting out I’d been briefed that should a bear become aggressive in protecting its territory our plan of action would be to stand together to look big and make as much noise as possible . . . Despite the name, sloth bears are not slow moving and can easily out run a human. Fortunately, I was accompanied by a superb naturalist and a park ranger armed with a big stick and a very intimate knowledge of the jungle.
The signs were there – rocky outcrops ideal for dens, claw marks on fruiting trees and partially dug out termite mounds. The sloth bear has an incredible sense of smell and can detect insects deep in the mounds or underground. It uses its lips as a giant vacuum to noisily suck them up through its muzzle bizarrely creating a sound just like someone hoovering in the jungle.
We had to wait until our jeep safari to see our sloth bear. Lolloping through the trees her shaggy, dusty-black coat swinging as she trotted along, there was not one, but two cubs clinging tightly to her furry back. My Baloo at last.
Rajasthan is synonymous with valiant Rajputs who fought to death in battle while protecting their opulent palaces, but look a little harder and you'll find some rather gentler people living a much simpler way of life.
In rapidly modernising India the Bishnoi follow the same way of life they have done for 500 years, though it’s a way that can be best described by the contemporary buzz phrase ‘sustainable living’; the Bishnoi care for and protect animals, trees and the whole environment around them.
Close to a tiny settlement in rural Rajasthan normally shy chinkara gazelle happily wander by the roadside and blackbuck, an endangered antelope which only remains in protected reserves elsewhere in India, graze undisturbed in Bishnoi farmlands. I’m invited by a woman with a large half-moon shaped nose ring to enter a simple thatched hut. It’s cool inside and though spartan, when my eyes adjust to the dim light I see that it’s spotlessly clean and the family’s few belongings are neatly arranged. While a small bird helps itself to some seed I learn how to grind millet that will become part of a simple vegetarian meal; the Bishnoi never harm or kill any living creature or eat meat.
Since the 15th century the Bishnoi have followed the 29 principles of Jambheshwar, whose code of conduct was designed to aid their survival in the harsh deserts of Rajasthan. He was a forward thinking guru indeed and these days would no doubt be an award-winning conservationist. Central to what soon became a religion for the “29ers” was the direction not to cut down any living tree. The Khejri tree that grows here tolerates the extreme climate and finds water by sending its roots way deep into the ground. It’s almost evergreen, gives shade from the sun, provides fodder for animals and fruits fit for humans, it releases enriching nitrogen into the soil and provides fuel for fires. It’s a super-plant extraordinaire.
Bishnoi devotion was put to the test in the 18th century when the maharaja of Jodhpur, in need of much timber, sent his army to chop down the forests. All the villagers could do was put their arms around the trees to protect them but the soldiers carried out their orders. 363 Bishnoi sacrificed their lives to save the trees. Visit any desert village and you’ll find this story has become a legend, but it’s one worth being proud of. Forget the warring Rajputs and meet the Bishnoi – Rajasthan’s very own eco-warriors.
Read more about how to find the heart of rural Rajasthan by taking a look at our website
As we launch our competition to win a Kindle Paperwhite we thought we'd provide a little inspiration for books to take on your travels (and no doubt a bit of cotraversy too - how can we have the temerity to narrow "great travel books" just 6??) So here goes, in no particular order:
In 1956 Eric Newby sent a telegram to his friend, Hugh Carless - CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE - and with some advice from a Welsh waitress on what to take, the two of them set off to one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth. Adventurers with more experience & sense may never have gone. Fortunately Newby had little of either. His iconic account of their journey and is responsible for pushing many young would-be travellers out into the world.
Published in 1979, this is a memoir by one of the last great adventurers. From a tense week with dissidents in Moscow to a laid back sojourn in a water tank with hippies in Eilat, Gellhorn's world is described with exceptional insight and razor sharp humour. The unnamed other is her husband, Ernest Hemingway, who was enraptured by Gellhorn's courage as they dodged shell fire together.
The ultimate philosopher pilot, Antoine de Exupery's memoirs about his days flying treacherous mail routes across the African Sahara and the South American Andes. It's a book about the dangers of being a pioneer pilot but also about death, heroism and humanity - all in written in lyrical prose and exciting realism.
In 1978 & 1986 Peter Matthiessen travelled through Senegal, Gambia, Zaire and the Central African Republic to examine the fate of African wildlife. High adrenalin flights over the savanna and slow river journeys to track rare and endangered animals, and also to find the biologists who study them - it's a sobering journey but one written by a skilled naturalist writer.
Ryszard Kapuscinksi has been the definitive voice of Africa for more than forty years and in this collection it's easy to see why. He avoids official routes and high level politics, getting to the margins of the continent. He says , "This is not a book about Africa, rather about some people from there, " and in his descriptions we finally meet the African Africa.
In 1933 Hemingway and his wife, Pauline, went on safari in northern Tanzania. The Green Hills is his account of the month long trip, a story of big game hunting, the pleasures of travel and the beauty of wilderness that even then was being constantly threatened by man.
And one for luck...
Mark Tully, the authority on all things Indian, toured his beloved homeland to see how much had changed in the twenty years since he wrote No Full Stops In India. In interviews with farmers, captains of industry, bandits, spiritual leaders, untouchables and politicians he captures the voices of the vast and diverse country. With sympathetic insights into it's vibrant history and it's extraordinary potential, the book is a must for anyone who is thinking of travelling to India.
If you'd like to enter the competition to win a Kindle Paperwhite, it's dead easy - just visit our facebook page and "like" it and you'll find the entry form. We'll be giving away one. Click here to find out more
Rajasthan and its history are inextricably linked with the Rajputs - the “Sons of Kings” - directly descended from the sun or moon who modelled themselves on Rama, hero of the great Hindu epic the Ramayana.
Rajput history is a litany of bloody battles - often internecine or else repelling Mughal invaders - in which whole armies chose to die fighting rather than face the shame of surrender. In such cases the women burnt themselves to death as happened not once, but three times at Chittorgarh.
In the 20th century valour and honour were all too often replaced by spectacular decadence and eccentricity; the Maharaja of Alwar bought 10 Rolls Royces during his visit to England for the coronation of Edward VII (and later cut off their tops and used them for collecting waste).
The Maharaja of Jaipur travelled to Britain with two huge vessels made from 14,000 melted silver coins filled with 4,000 litres of Ganges water as a precaution against British water. After independence princes saw their way of life radically transformed and now, more than 60 years later, some have converted their forts and palaces into magnificent hotels.
Stay in a palace and take in the oversized portraits of these elaborate individuals and you’ll quickly sense the scale of the personality cult that surrounded the warrior Rajputs.
Looking for something quick I inadvertently discovered the city’s most famous road-side snack – Vada Pav, a fluffy white bap over-stuffed with a deliciously spicy fried potato patty and a generous dollop of chilli chutney. It's a highly superior version of the chip butty and was the beginning of my love affair with India.
Indians eat dinner late at night so people munch on a variety of snacks to keep going through the afternoon and evening. No lightweight bag of crisps here – something heartier and spicier is required. On corners near railway stations, colleges and police stations, or scruffy back streets behind the smartest hotels and offices trade in freshly cooked street food is always brisk. But you’ll have to join the queue. Some of the kiosks, ramshackle stalls, wheeled carts and make-shift stalls under tarpaulins have been going for years and have a following and reputation that Jamie Oliver would die for. Hardly considered poor man’s food (though it is SO cheap), lawyers and businessmen, sometimes even a Bollywood star, join students, families, and workers on breaks to wait in line for patties, puris, kebabs and shakes which are eaten on the hoof, a rickety plastic stool or from the top of a car bonnet.
Another great place for Bombay-style al fresco dining is along Marine Drive, affectionately known as the Queen’s Necklace for it’s after dark sparkle, and Chowpatty Beach. As the sun sets people flock to the sea front for a snack and a stroll, heading to their favourite vendor; each has their own recipe and way of making things. Here you’ll also find the gola-walla’s cart of rainbow coloured bottles more enticing than a sweet shop but this is one you should give a miss. Brightly coloured syrup is poured on to ice shaved from an enormous block - a potential Delhi-belly version of the Slush Puppie.
Whatever takes your fancy make sure you save some room for naughty Vada Pav, the ‘Indian burger’ that's fit for a king.