The half moon casts a haunting glow on the imposing Sahyadri mountains, as a thousand stars shimmer in the skies above. Surrounded by vast dry grasslands and red volcanic earth, I’m reminded a bit of the desert-like landscapes of Baja California and Jordan. As Mohan, our village guide, leads us up a hill for stargazing close to midnight, a soulful tune echoes from the valley below – a lady from a tribal hamlet is singing sufi-like ballads, upholding the adivasi traditions of acoustic singing at weddings, which hasn’t yet been replaced by jarring Bollywood music on a loud speaker!
The music puts me in a trance as I gaze spellbound at the rugged Sahyadris, trying to forget that the same morning, I was manoeuvring through traffic and pollution on the busy streets of Mumbai. If it wasn’t for the Vodafone Farmer BnB initiative, in collaboration with Grassroutes Journeys‘ community tourism model, this small, remote village in Maharashtra might never have found its way to India’s travel map.
On our way down the hill to our tents in Dehna village, Mohan suddenly stops next to a dry field. There, he says, one of the spots where thousands of fireflies light up the valley every monsoon. Now at the beginning of a scorching summer, it’s hard to imagine that this dry landscape will burst into lush greenery when it rains, the mango trees will be laden with fruits, and fireflies will send lightening-like waves to their mates, creating natural fireworks. But I know the magic will happen, for two years ago, I witnessed it myself in Purushwadi, a small village on the other side of the same mountains.
By the time we wake up, the village folk of Dehna have already set about their chores: women filling their pots with water from the hand pump, shepherds taking their goats and cows up the hill, old women drinking tea in their front yard. Yet no one is in a hurry; in a mix of Hindi, broken Marathi, smiles and sign language, conversations and invitations for tea are aplenty.
With no irrigation or water source for a second crop of rice, the farmers must be pretty idle these days, I wonder aloud, when we stroll through the village with Mohan. He invites me into a friend’s house to see for myself. The lady of the house, lean though she is, is seated on the mud floor, pounding rice with a wooden pestle. Hard work? I ask. She invites me to see for myself. So together we sit on the mud floor, pounding rice, then de-husking and grinding it. Though she far surpasses me in both strength and stamina, we feel like a team by the time the bhakri (rice roti) is on the chulha.
I’ve had delectable Maharashtrian meals of homegrown veggies and bhakri in neighbouring homes, but that morning of back-breaking work makes me realise how much we take the food on our plate for granted.
Mohan laughs when I point out how the women seem to do all the work and the men just eat. But even as a young man, he’s had his struggles. As a kid, he loved English classes in the local village school because the teacher, instead of teaching English, told the kids stories in Marathi; years later, he realises how many opportunities learning English could have opened up for him. Post school, he enrolled in the nearest skills training institute, only to be spending 3 hours on the bus each way. Graduate he did, but there were no jobs to be found, so he came back to Dehna.
Still, he’s learnt to make the most of life, grateful for the opportunities that have come his way – like working as a guide with Grassroutes Journeys, to share with travellers from around India and the world, a slice of life in rural Maharashtra.
Thanks to a model of responsible tourism where every family in Dehna benefits from hosting city-weary travellers in the village – through homestays, home-cooked meals, farming activities and guiding – Mohan and others his age can find respectable employment right at home.
Back on the hill, standing under a Mahua tree, as I watch my last sunset in Dehna, time seems to stand still. No matter what our personal lives are like, spending even a few days disconnected from technology, embracing the genuine warmth of village folk and tracing the journey of our food from farm to table, can make us question why we choose to spend our whole lives dealing with the chaos and pollution of our cities when the countryside lies just beyond.
Dehna, Maharashtra: Travel tips
Best time to visit Dehna: The rainy season (late July to early September) for the lush greenery, mangoes, fireflies and a thousand waterfalls! Or winter (late October to early March) for warm winter days and starry nights.
How to reach Dehna from Mumbai: I loved our 3 hour road trip from Bandra to Dehna; after Thane, the drive amid the Western Ghats (Sahyadri) is just beautiful! The directions on Google Maps are spot on.
Where to stay in Dehna: Simple tents with shared western-style washrooms nearby have been set up at the edge of the village. You can also opt for a homestay with a village family. Get in touch here.
How have your countryside travels shaped you?
I was hosted in Dehna by Vodafone and Grassroutes Journeys, as part of the Farmer BnB initiative. Can’t wait to go back in the monsoons!
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