Are you a check-list traveller? Is your face buried in a travel guide (or app) rather than engaging with the locals? Are you up for some cultural immersion and want to understand what makes a place tick or prefer prescribed tours and staying in international marquee hotels where the cuisine is the same as at home? If you’re nodding, then don’t read any further!
In many places, staying with the locals is an elusive travel experience but making yourself at home in India has become an increasingly popular one.
“Kerala has many great home stay experiences but in Rajasthan, the trend is to small B&Bs and heritage hotels where the owners live on the property adding a personalised touch to the stay,” says Lincoln Harris of tour operator India Unbound. He reports that many Rajasthan proprietors are charismatic characters which adds a whole other dimension. “Our clientele seems to appreciate the chance to interact with locals in this format, they’re looking to engage with a place rather than just look,” said Harris.
Kandath Tharavad is one of Kerala’s few ancestral homes that has kept its doors open for the last 200 years, for the past decade to paying guests.
The home of the Kandath family, we’re greeted graciously by its custodian Mr Bhagwaldas whose great-great-grandfather was a major land owner before the Land Reforms Act of 1974. As we sip a welcoming brew of chilled lime, ginger and basil, the businessman turned home stay host outlines the reasons for sharing his ancestral home.
“Luxury homestays is a new business in Kerala. The high cost of maintaining the property led me to open it up to international guests and allows me to provide a window into our local rural life,” said Mr Bhagwaldas.
Located on ten acres where rice, coconut, mango and guava are farmed, seven rooms have been modified to include en-suite bathrooms and solar powered hot water. Originally the granary, our room is part of four structures built according to Vasthu Shastra, the ancient science of architecture. A central courtyard connects us to open breeze-ways and lush gardens. The luxury suite with its mosquito-netted four poster bed, spacious bathroom and private terrace is a honeymooners’ delight while another room was once the family’s strong room containing currency and gold. Constructed of mud and un-baked bricks decorated with Spanish tiles, we step over doorways onto smooth marble floors streaked with golden sunlight.
Gathering on the lawn, we listen to Bhagwaldas’ personal history over a pre-dinner gin and Indian tonic water before enjoying a simple dinner on the terrace. In the internal courtyard, he points to a series of fascinating black and white photos that tell the story of betrothal and marriage Indian-style. During the 1970s, our host returned from America on August 24, was introduced to his fiancée and became engaged on August 25 and was married on September 4. This romantic merger between two influential families was celebrated with a wedding feast for 5,000.
By the bedside is an impressive list of activities including visiting the local private school attended by 187 extremely poor village children. Much of the finance for upgrading this humble school is donated by Kandath Tharavad’s guests under the careful supervision of Bhagwaldas. Just 250 rupees, around eight Aussie dollars, provides a child with two school uniforms while notebooks and pencils are always in short supply.
We stop at the tiny hamlet of Ramaserry to visit the Saraswaihy tea stall for their famous iddlies, cakes of ground rice and lentils that resemble convex pancakes. Ours come served on a banana leaf with dollops of coconut and chilli chutney as spicy accompaniments while behind the counter, a young man pours sweet foaming milky chai into glasses.
At the tiny potter’s village, a lean elderly man wearing an orange dhoti is turning an ox cart wheel that he’s fashioned into a potter’s wheel. Slapping chunks of local clay into the middle, a stick is employed to increase momentum before his artisan hands quickly create another terracotta cooking pot ready for firing. His pots sell at the local market from 25 to 60 rupees, around 80c to $1.90, and he can produce up to eight in thirty minutes.
Strolling quiet lanes, the haze of late afternoon softens the rice paddies and cones of silage. A man is mixing Ayurvedic potions by the roadside and women cluster around the village well. A game of street cricket is in full swing and everywhere we’re greeted by children’s bright, smiling faces keen to practice their English.
Rather than tourists paying or giving treats to children, Bhagwaldas has introduced a box where donations for the school, village activities and staff can be made and divided equitably. In some small way, a heritage homestay allows us to make both a connection and a contribution.
With its growing number of heritage homestays in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and B&Bs in Rajasthan, making yourself at home places you in the heart of India like no other.
Palakkad is a 2 hour drive from Cochin International Airport and transfers can be arranged.
The Cultural & Heritage Commission of Kerala have identified Kandath Tharavad as a property for protection.
Kandath Tharavad, Thenkurissi, Palakkad, Kerala. www.tharavad.info
India Unbound specialize in small group and independent travel to India including homestays. Contact www.indiaunbound.com.au for information.
For general information go to www.incredibleindia.org
Please look above at In The Picture and get a pictorial flavour of this month’s edition.