It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.
In this Sikkim travel blog, come with me virtually on a Sikkim trip to discover the secret treasures of the last kingdom to be annexed to India in 1975.
Sikkim travel blog
On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga!
Also read my Gangtok travel blog: Eat, Pray, Love: Offbeat Things to do in Gangtok (including where to find Sikkim traditional food and best Sikkim hotels)
Sikkim India, truly off the beaten path
Places like these can’t be found on a Sikkim travel map. Trying to find my footing down a path of lose pebbles, I had asked two school kids where the narrow, winding path would take us. They enthusiastically decided to lead the way in a direction where the coarse mountain paths turned into a bed of flowers, with bright red rhododendrons blooming along the slopes.
The path culminated in a cliff, from where we would get the first glimpse in two weeks of our Sikkim travel itinerary, of the spectacular snow-clad Himalayas!
Also read: Hiking from Darjeeling to Sikkim
Sikkim natural beauty, like no other
We spent our days in West Sikkim hiking to remote monasteries and villages, marveling at the isolation in which Sikkim people choose to live and pray in these parts.
In most mountain regions in India, village homes are clustered together and their farms further away. But locals in Sikkim build spacious homes surrounded by fields, often a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest neighbor.
Sikkim culture and fulfilment
For the most part, we let the chants of Om mani padme hum and the fluttering Tibetan prayer flags guide us. But one afternoon, we trudged up a particularly steep forest path with a local Sikkim guide. Trekked for an hour across the mountain, to reach a private monastery built by a Lepcha family in the solitude of the Himalayas.
Unlike many temples, there were no donation boxes or information about the founders, who had spent years carrying each stone up the tiring paths. And it is people with the same conviction, who aren’t looking for anything but peace, that perhaps feel fulfilled here.
Shared taxis for a real Sikkim adventure
Sikkim road journeys often took us on steep, narrow, mucky and broken roads.
On a treacherous journey up to Dzongu in North Sikkim, our taxi taxi threatened to roll back down a slope multiple times and we hurriedly joined the locals in taking turns to push it up.
Shared taxis are the fabric of life in Sikkim (the most used Sikkim transport), where no public buses ply the rough mountain roads. There are no timetables or location routes. Yet everything from people to documents to bottles of fresh brews efficiently get transported from one end of Sikkim state to another.
Local encounters on the Sikkim Darjeeling trip
It was in a shared taxi ride to Mangan that we met Joon, a civil engineer who went out of his way to help us get permits for Dzongu at the district magistrate’s office on election day. He introduced us as old friends to the officer in charge, and helped us secure documents to hasten the process.
In the village of Dzongu, we met the Lepcha people, who have passionately protested the damming of the Teesta River. To them, the elements of nature – the river, the mountains, the forests – are sacred.
Our host family even chided me for asking if the vegetables they grow are organic, because there should be no such thing as ‘organic Sikkim’. That is the only way of farming they’ve known. Much before the world gave food without chemicals a fancy name.
Sikkim: State of India, forgotten kingdom
On our way out of the state, I observed in fascination, the point where the Rangeet River from Darjeeling joins the mighty Teesta. Each charts a different journey through the mountains. Yet at one point, the Rangeet flows into the Teesta, and the colors of its waters, the intensity of its flow, and its humble origins are quickly forgotten.
And so it is with Sikkim, the lost kingdom. The last state to be annexed to India in 1975.
PLAN YOUR SIKKIM ITINERARY
How is your Sikkim travel plan shaping up? What else would you like to read about in my next Sikkim blog post?
My early explorations through the Garhwal Himalayas, exploring local life and unique Uttarakhand homestays along the way.
I had never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace.
So I finally decided to find out. I made my way up from Rishikesh, to the villages beyond Uttarkashi and down via Mussoorie. Transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013.
I’ll let these pictures from the Garhwal Himalayas tell you their stories. Then share some recommendations of beautiful Uttarakhand homestays to truly experience life in these mountains:
- Photos from the Garhwal Himalayas
- A note on the Uttarakhand floods
- How to reach the Garhwal Himalayas
- Eco-friendly homestays in the Garhwal Himalayas
- What are your impressions of the Garhwal Himalayas?
Photos from the Garhwal Himalayas
By the river Ganga, I sat down and read
On the shores of the river in Rishikesh, I tried to imagine how this fercious river must have risen to take down parts of the higher mountains.
Wifi and work at Rainforest House in Rishikesh
With the Ganga roaring below. A cosy hideout half an hour out of Rishikesh, surrounded by the tranquility of the forest.
First glimpse of the Garhwal Himalayas
On my journey from Rishikesh towards Uttarkashi. These naturally-terraced mountains, lush green with charming little villages, are nothing like I’ve seen before!
Freshwater pools made by the Asi Ganga
In the Garhwal Himalayas, a hike up from the picturesque village of Kuflon near Uttarkashi.
Catching up on life
Pristine landscapes, a good book and not another soul in sight.
Meeting Garhwali people in Kuflon, among them an endearing 80+ year old couple
She was 11 and he 17 when they got married. They witnessed the grounds shake and the waters rise during the floods. Ganga Singh and his wife still choose to live without electricity (with only a solar lamp), away from their kids, and have much laughter in their lives despite the challenges. Makes you realize how little you need to be happy!
Villages in the Garhwal Himalayas
These are small close-knit communities, where everyone knows everyone else and the village gossip. The village of Kuflon, for instance, is home to only 8-9 families, and in times of tragedy, they look out for each other.
Sampling locally grown Garhwali food
Like fern, which grows wild in the forest, takes a trained eye to identify, and tastes delicious!
Kuflon Basics: My favorite hideout in the Garhwal Himalayas
A perfect hideout set up by a couple who gave up their corporate jobs in the cities for the solitude of the Himalayas. They were in Dehradun when the floods hit, and couldn’t make it home for a month and a half because the bridge leading here got washed away.
Hanging out by the river
With a yoga instructor and new-found friend, I made my way down the road from Kuflon to the Asi Ganga. We marvelled at the sheer intensity of the river that shook the foundation of the might Himalayas. Flash foods have been common in these parts for a long time, but irresponsible pilgrimage tourism has certainly taken its toll on these mountains.
A blank canvas and the Garhwal Himalayas for inspiration
Here words almost flow faster than thoughts!
The pristine Ganga on the way to Mussoorie
The winding mountain roads, both via Rishikesh and Mussoorie, were rebuilt in most parts and work was in progress in the remaining rough patches.
My next abode: A unique homestay in Mussoorie
The eco-friendly La Villa Bethany has been restored to its original glory by a sweet couple who quit their corporate jobs in Delhi to call these mountains home. This unique Mussoorie homestay sustains itself almost completely with rainwater harvesting, solar energy and organic farming. It’s the conviction of people like these that gives me faith that our mountains will survive.
A note on the Uttarakhand floods
The floods of 2013 washed away much in these pretty villages and valleys. While the damages are still visible, most of the roads and major bridges have been rebuilt and are safe for travelling. The locals are slowly rebuilding their lives. The best time to travel into Garhwal is now, when tourism can really help restore the local village economies.
How to reach the Garhwal Himalayas
The nearest airport is in Dehradun. The best way to travel from Dehradun / Rishikesh / Mussoorie to Uttarkashi is by the Vishwanath Seva semi-deluxe bus. It’s a non-AC bus with rickety seats, but that’s part of the experience!
Eco-friendly homestays in the Garhwal Himalayas
As we explore the majestic mountains of Uttarakhand, it’s important to be mindful of the impact of our travels on the locals communities and the fragile ecology. One way to give back is to stay at local homestays. These not only offer a deeper experience of the region but are also socially conscious and environmentally responsible.
Some of my favorite Uttarakhand homestays from these early explorations in the Garhwal Himalayas:
Kuflon Basics (Kuflon homestay)
At an elevation of 5000 feet, the last house in the green little village of Kulfon is Kuflon Basics. Here travellers are hosted by Anil and Sree, who left behind their lives in the city to build this eco-friendly refuge.
I spent my days hiking, dipping in the natural water pools, on the stargazing rock, chatting up Garhwali folk in the village and practicing yoga. The huts at Kuflon Basics are aesthethically built with local materials to naturally keep warm in the cold winter. Drinking water comes straight from the glacial river and waste management is in place at this Kuflon homestay.
La Villa Bethany (Mussoorie homestay)
La Villa Bethany is probably Mussoorie’s only self-sustainable home! It comes with an old-world charm, homely rooms, recipes from across the country and hosts who immediately make you feel like long lost friends.
Much of the wood and stone used for refurbishing the house has been recycled. Rainwater harvesting and solar power ensure that the luxury afforded by this Mussoorie homestay comes at a low cost to the environment.
Rainforest House (Rishikesh homestay)
I looked long and hard for a cosy abode that would let me enjoy the river in Rishikesh without the crowds. And Rainforest House – about half an hour from the main town – was my answer. It was once a homestay, but feels more like a guesthouse / B&B now. Still, it’s location by the roaring river, surrounded by greenery, and the outdoor cafe space were just perfect to chill out for a couple of days.
What are your impressions of the Garhwal Himalayas?
It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!
For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.
Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.
Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.
The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food, education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.
I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu, father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.
For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.
The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.
I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.
And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?
Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!
It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.
These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More
Why visit Turkey? Over a month of exploring the country, I met the sweetest locals and formed amazing friendships, despite no common language between us.
I left you with a heavy heart, etched with the magnanimity of your people.
A kind lady in the small town of Safranbolu opened her doors to me on a late rainy afternoon, to feed my vegetarian self a special meal of Peruhi (Turkish pasta) and Pasta (cake in Turkish) prepared for a family gathering.
Also read: 10 Travel Tips for Your First Trip to Turkey
An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.
A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.
A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.
A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.
A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where we impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzon without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe. Then ferried me, my backpack and my friend in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.
The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.
A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.
An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.
So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.
You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.
What are your reasons to visit Turkey?
A few months ago, I embarked on an unexpected journey to explore rural India. I walked precariously on a centuries-old hanging wooden bridge (only 5 remain to this day!) that connect the most remote villages of Ladakh’s Zanskar Valley. Witnessed the intimate love stories of four generations of women in a remote Uttarakhand village. Joined the ancient tradition of worshipping wild tigers in rural Maharashtra. Walked several kilometers in Kerala’s Wayanad district with a 63-year-old “walking library” who delivers books to those who love to read but have no access. Learnt how the tribal culture in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills is helping preserve local biodiversity. And tried lost ancient superfoods with a 70+ year old Himachali couple…
All without stepping out!
Can we really explore rural India without leaving home?
Exactly a year ago, I was pacing up and down my terrace in Dehradun, feeling deeply concerned about how India’s tourism industry – especially community based tourism in India – was going to survive the pandemic-induced lockdown. I longingly recalled many heartwarming moments I had shared with homestay hosts, guides, dhaba owners, craftspeople, natural medicine practitioners, musicians, local environmentalists and others over the past decade, on my quest to explore India beyond the beaten path.
Even though my income as a travel writer had dropped to zero, I had the privilege to dip into my savings and pivot into new digital opportunities, while sheltering at home. On the other hand, despite growing access to smartphones and the internet, the lack of digital skills and tailored opportunities in rural areas in India held people back.
This context sparked the idea of Voices of Rural India.
Voices of Rural India: Leveraging community based tourism in India to upgrade digital storytelling skills among rural communities
In August 2020, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat in Uttarakhand, and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to launch a not-for-profit digital initiative: Voices of Rural India.
We’ve been working towards revolutionizing digital storytelling in India by bringing stories from rural storytellers across the country – from Spiti to Kerala – in their own voices.
In the short-term, Voices of Rural India is creating a revenue stream for remote communities through digital journalism. In the long run, it aims to develop digital storytelling skills at the grassroots level, along with becoming a repository of local culture and knowledge, documented in local voices.
For the rest of us stuck at home, this is a chance to explore remote corners of India virtually, through the words, photos and videos of the very people we travel to meet. Personally, it has grown my post-covid bucket list to include some inspiring, amazing villages in India!
Our team has grown to include Namrata Shah, a travel buff who quit the corporate world to explore new avenues, and many passionate volunteers to support us with editing, publishing, social media, SEO, creating training materials, managing our whatsapp group and more.
If you’d like to volunteer with Voices of Rural India, please see current opportunities here.
A successor of @VoicesofMunsiari: India’s first Instagram channel to be run entirely by a village community
Back in 2016, when I spent a month in Sarmoli, I was surprised to discover that this remote village in Uttarakhand comes together every summer to go birdwatching, practice yoga and run high altitude marathons! That’s when the idea of @voicesofmunsiari came about – an Instagram channel that would be run collectively by the village folk, sharing their everyday lives with the outside world. In subsequent years, we organized a smartphone collection drive through my blog, as well as a photography and Instagram workshop in Sarmoli village.
@voicesofmunsiari, which was purely driven by the passion of local creators, convinced us of the untapped talent and the need to create more digital storytelling opportunities.
When it gradually became obvious that rural tourism is unlikely to recover in the foreseeable future, Voices of Rural India was born – more ambitious in scope, with funding from the Digital Empowerment Foundation to pay storytellers directly in their bank account for every story published.
Now, as the second wave rages across the country, this time not even sparing remote places in India, the threat to lives and livelihoods feels even more real than before, compelling us to continue our mission with renewed fervor.
Missing rural tourism in India? Experience village life in India, virtually
Voices of Rural India is currently working with rural communities in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya and Gujarat, through on-ground community-based tourism organisations: Global Himalayan Expedition, Spiti Ecosphere, Himalayan Ecotourism, Kabani, Himalayan Ark, Grassroutes Journeys and Cherish Expeditions – all glowing examples of rural tourism in India.
The storytellers are typically guides, homestay hosts, people involved in tourism, and youth and women from the community – and through our intensive storytelling process, we hope they can come to proudly own their heritage, traditions, culture, food and connection with nature.
Popular stories on Voices of Rural India
- The Walking Library: In the hilly Mothakkara village in Kerala’s Wayanad district, a 63-year-old woman walks several kilometers every day for those who love to read but have no easy access to books.
- How One Man’s Conviction Put Jibhi Valley on the World Tourism Map: An ex-army man’s inspiring and amusing journey of grit, passion and dedication to introduce Jibhi Valley to tourism.
- How Love Has Changed Over Four Generations: A brave, young woman, who married for love two decades ago, writes about pride and prejudice, and love, in the mountains near Munsiari.
- What Can Two Imaginative Minds Create With Wild Grass and a Thorny Tree? A teacher from Maharashtra’s Purushwadi village visually documents the craftsmenship of two brothers, who use wild grass, a thorny tree and their imagination to create sustainable vessels, vases, ornaments and more.
- One Ladakhi Girl’s Journey from Darkness to Light: A young girl from Sumda Chenmo, a remote village in Ladakh’s Markha region, shares her journey from growing up in a village without electricity to solar-electrifying 50+ such villages.
- The Forbidden Forests of Meghalaya: A social worker from Meghalaya’s Chiringmagre village shares how ancient traditions and tribal culture help preserve a patch of pristine biodiversity in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills.
- Why the People of Spiti Eat Stones: One of the few remaining amchis of Spiti Valley sheds light on the challenges of his practice and the miracle stones still used as a treatment.
Over 40 stories so far, the themes on Voices of Rural India span everything from the age-old traditions, to the architecture of old village houses in India, to women empowerment in rural India, to lost Himalayan superfoods, to the challenges of conservation and development in rural India, to how Indian village life has changed over the decades.
We’re humbled to see Voices of Rural India featured on The Times of India, The Hindu, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveller, FirstPost, Outlook Traveller, YourStory, Homegrown and other publications. And immensely grateful for all your support.
Stay home, stay safe and continue to explore rural India… virtually.
Have you met inspiring storytellers on your travels in rural India?
PS: Hope you and your loved ones around the world are safe and well. If you’re battling India’s second wave, I’ve found Twitter to be immensely helpful in supporting people looking for oxygen, beds, plasma etc. If your appeal needs amplification, please tag / DM me on Twitter @shivya.
Stay safe, stay sane, and know that we’ll get through this.
Sustainable luxury travel sounds like an oxymoron, but it doesn’t have to be. One sustainable luxury hotel in Kerala is showing the way.
As a travel writer, I’ve had the chance to sample many high-end accommodations and luxury wildlife lodges. Despite the comfort and pampering, I’ve often left feeling conflicted about their enormous environmental footprint.
Those cards floating about in the rooms, saying they care about the environment and wouldn’t want to wash sheets and towels everyday, that’s mostly greenwashing.
What is sustainable luxury travel anyway?
Simply put, it is the idea that high-end comfort can coexist with eco-friendly, socially-conscious, low-impact tourism practices.
Is luxury travel in India sustainable?
Unfortunately, most luxury hotels in India tend to generate huge amounts of single-use plastic trash through bottled water and toiletries. Many don’t bother to segregate their waste, contributing to landfill and ocean dumps. And the carbon emissions generated by their indiscriminate use of electricity, air-conditioned rooms and food imported from around the world are significant. Sustainable tourism examples in the luxury space are only a handful.
As someone who tends to gravitate towards small, eco-friendly homestays, I suppose I’ve often looked at luxury travel in India – and elsewhere – with a critical eye. But that changed when I visited Spice Village in Thekkady last year. Here’s why:
The cozy huts at Spice Village are thatched and cooled naturally with dried elephant grass
Grown and harvested with the support of the forest department. It helps create a fire line to control the spread of forest fires.
Located just across the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady
Perfect for an early morning walk in the forest with a local guide and ranger. We saw a tiger kill on ours 😮
The art of natural cooling was once practiced by the local Mannan tribe – but nearly forgotten
Until Spice Village decided to recreate their traditional architecture, eliminating the need for an air conditioner even on hot, sunny days! The thatch has to be replaced every alternate year, creating employment and continued practice for local tribesmen who have unfortunately replaced their own thatched roofs with concrete.
Nearly 75% of all electricity at Spice Village comes from solar energy
Used for powering the rooms and huge boilers for hot water. Instead of storing the excess energy in batteries, it is channeled to the grid for debit at night and in the monsoon months.
After estimating that the resort discards 45,000 plastic mineral water bottles annually, they installed their own RO filtration and bottling plant
Filtration is done via reverse osmosis, then bio dynamization adds mineral back to the water. Drinking water is now served only in glass bottles – perhaps the first hotel of this size in India to do so!
Instead of single-use plastic, toiletries are available in cute, reusable ceramic jars, along with paper-wrapped handmade soaps
All waste is segregated and sent for recycling, composted for manure or made into biogas for cooking
According to an estimate by Spice Village, 250-400 kg of food waste is composted annually, using vermi composting and micro organism composting. Do other big hotels send that much or more unsegregated waste into landfills?
Rainwater harvesting and a well on site supports almost all water needs
All sewage generated by the resort is recycled, converted into odorless waste water and used to irrigate the organic garden
Building a circular system from rainwater to waste water to organic produce to compost for manure and biogas for cooking.
Old newspapers and magazines are recycled in-house into handmade paper, and used for stationary
I was blown away by the handmade paper unit, where travellers can try their hand at making recycled paper! This handmade paper is used for guest registration, scribble pads in the rooms and the outer layer of pens (though the refill is still plastic).
Much of the furniture is handcrafted from recycled pine wood
Over 50% of staff is employed locally, from the towns and villages of Idukki district
Photographed here is Baby with his wife, who oversees sourcing from local entrepreneurs.
And many everyday supplies are sourced from rural entrepreneurs
I was lucky enough to go behind the scenes and meet some entrepreneurs who supply reusable cloth bags, dustbin liners, paapad (poppadum) and candles. Hearing about their journey, from joining Kerala’s Responsible Tourism Mission training, to setting up their own small business, to supplying in bulk to Spice Village and gradually scaling up, was incredibly inspiring.
One of the two restaurants at Spice Village serves seasonal food sourced ONLY within 50 miles!
The in-house organic farm grows all kinds of herbs and leafy greens, while women in nearby villages supply pesticide-free veggies from their kitchen gardens. The chefs actually climb trees in the backyard for truly farm-to-table meals! I only wish there was a greater focus on vegan food, given the high footprint of meat, seafood and dairy.
After the lockdown, Spice Village has been reopening slowly – 40 out of 52 rooms are now open with serious covid-safety measures in place
Spread out over 12 acres of forest and spice plantation, the huts are naturally geared towards social distancing. Rooms are thoroughly sanitized and the staff encouraged to wear masks indoors. Safety protocols laid out by WHO, industry experts and the government are being followed closely.
While international travel remains a distant dream, so many incredible, less-explored, eco-friendly, socially-inclusive gems await in our own backyard in India…
Tourism – whether its family luxury travel or solo luxury travel – if done right, can help protect the local way of life, create respectable employment opportunities and positively impact the environment. Spice Village is showing the way!
Have you experienced sustainable luxury travel in India or elsewhere? Is Spice Village on your bucket list?
*Note: I was hosted by CGH Earth at Spice Village. Lucky me!
For more sustainable ways to travel, sustainable luxury hotels, sustainable adventure travel and other sustainable travel ideas, check out this collection.
While browsing through my Instagram DMs a few months ago, there was one that really jumped out at me. The world had been catapulted into a global pandemic and borders were shut, and Saurabh Gupta aka @anindiantraveler – a solo backpacker from Mumbai – found himself stuck on the other side of the globe, in Colombia!
In February 2020, after working, saving up and quitting his job of many years, he finally embarked on his dream solo trip to South America. But just a month into his travels, he found himself locked down indefinitely at a hostel in Medellin, far far away from the familiarity of home – an adventure no one could’ve anticipated.
I got chatting at length with Saurabh about his decision to quit his full time job, his past travels, what took him to South America and how he spent 6 months locked down in Colombia. Gear up for a fascinating, inspiring story.
An introvert banker turns full time solo traveller
“World cinema introduced me to so many different cultures, people, languages, regions and landscapes. At one point I wanted to experience them in real life. So I decided to travel solo.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
For much of his life, Saurabh had felt stuck in a loop. Work, office, home, repeat. As an introvert, he found refuge in world cinema, especially films by the likes of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Satyajit Ray, which induced in him a desire to explore the world out there.
Like many fellow Indians, he was in awe of the western world, but when he travelled to Western Europe and the US, he felt a bit underwhelmed. It was in Central Asia that he hitchhiked for the first time, and felt a strong draw to the unique culture and hospitality of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
This trip gradually nudged him to quit his banking work of more than a decade, sell the outsourcing sales agency he ran with his older brother, and travel and write full time. As a budget traveller, Saurabh says he tries to hitchhike, couch-surf, volunteer and cook whenever possible. His savings and investments pay for his basic costs.
After he quit in late 2019, he spent two months exploring East Africa – seeking out mountain gorillas and hiking to a crater lake in Rwanda, exploring the beaches and wildlife of Kenya, and volunteering at a coffee farm and reforestation project in Uganda. His travels then took him to Northeast India, where he trekked in the Dzukou valley and explored Manipur and Mizoram among the other seven sisters.
Gradually, he began dreaming of travelling without a set itinerary, without a return date. Little did he know that the future was going to offer literally that.
Setting out on his dream trip to South America… in late Feb 2020!
“I wanted to travel extensively across South America for atleast a year. It was supposed to be my longest trip… which it still is, but under completely different circumstances!” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh had put off travelling to South America for a long time, constrained by time and finances. After much planning, he finally boarded a flight to Colombia on 19th Feb 2020. He dreamt of journeying from the northernmost to the southernmost point of South America, going with the flow along the way to let people and places mold his plans.
But 2020 of course, had its own agenda…
Getting locked down in Colombia for 6 months
“I had travelled solo to four continents but never lived in a foreign country, nor did I intend to. But the universe had different plans for me.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh explored northern Colombia for about a month, where he attended the Barranquilla’s Carnival – the second largest in the world, travelled to Punta Gallinas – the nothernmost point of South America, saw sand dunes along the stunning beaches etc. Then he took an overnight bus from Cartagena to Medellin. As he began exploring the city, he noticed that many attractions were closing down. It was mid-March and most people were not taking the coronavirus news too seriously.
After a few days in Medellin though, news suddenly broke out that almost the entire world was going into lockdown – Medellin, Colombia, South America, India. Saurabh anticipated that it would be a short term state of affairs, and decided to stay on in Medellin to avoid buying a highly overpriced ticket back to India. In the meantime, airports, schools, colleges, offices, shops, malls, transportation, everything shut – and Medellin went quiet.
During the initial lockdown, he could only step out twice in 10 days to stock up on groceries or use the ATM, monitored by the last digit of the cedula (the Colombian National ID card) or the passport number. He was staying in a budget hostel at the time, and rather enjoyed the experience of hanging out and cooking with travellers from across the continent.
But as he lost hope of returning home or travelling again, frustration gradually set in. To keep his spirits up, he decided to change hostels and neighborhoods.
Discovering slow travel and creative pursuits
“I used to think and laugh about the fact that I quit my work of so many years because I didn’t want to be stuck in one place for my whole life. But ironically, I felt stuck again even though I was travelling.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Colombia had one of the world’s longest lockdowns – 6 entire months! Over the course of this time, Saurabh moved 3 hostels, 2 Airbnb rentals and undertook a 3-week stint volunteering in exchange for stay and food. He lived in several different neighborhoods in Medellin, of which his favorite was Envigado, quiet and close to the mountains, waterfalls, nature walks and parks. The houses and infrastructure there reminded him of his childhood in Panchkula.
Once he set his mind to spending his energy on positive pursuits, he immersed himself in learning Spanish, which he could practice everyday with native speakers. He got better at cooking, practiced salsa, took to Spanish music and signed up for an online writing course. When the restrictions eased up a bit, he would go out on long walks, bicycle rides and hikes, often covering 15-20km a day, sometimes solo and sometimes with resident friends. He met many new people and shared meals, cooking recipes, dance steps, music and long conversations – and perhaps that’s what kept him going in dismal times.
During the fifth month of his lockdown life in Medellin, Saurabh even got invited to a local radio show, where the RJ quizzed him about Medellin, India and his time in lockdown!
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
The end of the lockdown, finally
“I don’t feel disheartened now. I’m glad I had the experience of living in a foreign country under strange circumstances – something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh had been in touch with the Indian embassy all this while, and at some point, was seriously contemplating returning back to India. The evacuation flights however, were priced rather high, and he had also begun to feel a sense of belonging in Medellin.
By now, he would walk several hours everyday, listening to Spanish music, discovering different parts of the city. On one such walk, he recalls, he went to La Sierra – labelled one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin. There, he met a guy who instantly recognized that he was from India and invited him home for a cup of coffee and oblea (a local sweet). Having worked in the Middle East and made Indian friends, he was delighted to see Saurabh in his neighborhood.
Despite having an Indian passport, Saurabh’s US tourist visa allowed him to stay in Colombia for upto 6 months – and the Colombian government eased up visa restrictions during the lockdown too.
When the lockdown finally ended in Colombia in September 2020, he explored a bit more of the country. A couple of weeks ago, in February 2021, he eventually boarded a flight from Mexico to India – one whole year after his departure.
Words of wisdom for those whose travel dreams were shattered by the pandemic
Saurabh: “After I started travelling full time, strange things have happened with me again and again. I went to Kashmir with my brother and had to return early because of the suspension of Article 370. Then during my solo trip to East Africa, I had to return early to India to attend to an urgent family matter. When I travelled solo to Northeast India, I wanted to explore all states but had to cut my trip short due to the CAA/NRC protests. And now the lockdown during my Colombia trip…
2020 has been really challenging for most of us, but it has taught me that with an adventurous mindset and a positive attitude towards people and life, we can make the most of even such unpredictable times. My lockdown story is an apt example!”
All photos in this post belong to Saurabh, used with permission.
What’s your lockdown story, and how did this time affect your travel dreams? What have you learnt from it?
This post is part of my “Solo Travellers from Asia” Series – which aims to shed the spotlight on courageous souls who are challenging conventions in their own fierce ways, yet are typically underrepresented in the travel space.
If you’ve met inspiring solo travellers from Asia who I could consider featuring in this series, please connect us!
Other posts from this solo travel series
There are plenty of generic lists of things to do in Fort Kochi out there. But you could look beyond popular places to visit in Fort Kochi and instead, connect with locals over music, poetry and cleaning up Fort Kochi beach, spot humpback dolphins, try yoga, discover traditional food and unique cafes in Fort Kochi, and more!
This post is part of my series to discover India and the world more mindfully in the new “normal”. Please see my detailed safety tips while travelling and recommendations for socially distanced hideouts.
It wasn’t love at first sight when I first visited Fort Kochi some 8 years ago. Merely passing through the city, perhaps the riot of sights, sounds and smells overwhelmed my senses.
But on a trip at the beginning of last year, I took it slow, discovered many unusual things to do in Fort Kochi and overcame the initial sensory overload. Indulging my taste buds in the fusion of hipster cafes and traditional thalis, cycling along the quaint by-lanes and aroma-filled streets of Mattancherry, and connecting with locals over music, poetry and art, I felt my every sense indulged.
I must admit though, that the more I went beyond the regular places to see in Fort Kochi checklists, the more I felt an ache about the city’s lost potential. If some streets were turned into walking-only streets, the old houses of Jew town better preserved and all Fort Kochi hotels compelled to build in the heritage architectural style, we could have a most unique living heritage destination!
Nonetheless, nostalgic tales from the days of the city’s ancient trading past continue to live on here, and we must wade through many layers to find them.
Meaningful things to do in Fort Kochi
Behold, some of my favorite discoveries, unique places to eat in Fort Kochi and Fort Kochi attractions beyond the beaten path:
- Meaningful things to do in Fort Kochi
- Try plant-based food and yoga at Loving Earth Cafe
- Cruise on a boat made in the original Brunton boatyard
- Help clean up Fort Kochi beach every Saturday
- Indulge in a true blue organic Kerala thali at The Village
- Go cycling in Fort Kochi under the moonlit sky
- Keep an evening for open mic poetry, music, art and clay oven pizzas at David Hall Fort Kochi
- Stay in a time warp at Brunton Boatyard
- Explore the villages and backwaters beyond with a local
- Your questions about Fort Kochi
- Best time to visit Fort Kochi
- Best place to stay in Fort Kochi
- Best restaurant in Fort Kochi
- Shopping in Fort Kochi
- Things to do in Fort Kochi at night
- Other unique places to visit in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry
- Getting to and around Fort Kochi
- What are some interesting things to do in Fort Kochi you’ve discovered on your trip? What are you most looking forward to?
Try plant-based food and yoga at Loving Earth Cafe – one of the best cafes in Fort Kochi
There are plenty of Fort Kochi cafes to choose from, but after nearly a month of living in a stunning little village in Tamil Nadu, I wanted creative, clean, healthy food to pamper my taste buds. Just an hour after arriving, even before I began to explore Fort Kochi, I found my way to Loving Earth Cafe – a gorgeous space with a tropical decor, warm vibe and innovative plant-based menu that immediately lured me in.
The refreshing “Mint my day” smoothie, yum-hum (hummus and home-baked focaccia) toasts and the fudgy chocolate chunk brownies were just the comfort food I needed.
At a time when ethical, environmental and health concerns are making many people reconsider their dietary choices, indulging in a meal at Loving Earth is testimony to the fact that food without animal products doesn’t have to be boring! Infact, I found the food so much more creative than other cafes in the vicinity (especially the popular Kashi Art Cafe Fort Kochi), that I went back multiple times.
Our search for yoga classes in Fort Kochi even led us to their cozy little upstairs studio for an afternoon of intense yet rejuvenating hatha yoga.
Cruise on a boat made in the original Brunton boatyard – and if you’re lucky, you might spot Indian Humpback Dolphins in Fort Kochi!
Back when Fort Kochi was a bustling trading settlement, it was home to a heritage boat building site called Brunton Boatyard. CGH Earth – which now runs one of the most unique hotels at Fort Kochi on this site – managed to get back a boat built there nearly 81 years ago, retired from service in the Lakshadweep islands, and refurbished it for a sunset cruise!
On board this historic vessel, we set sail on the Arabian Sea, where a school of wild Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphins swam just metres away from our boat, as the golden light of the setting sun danced on the waves. Threatened by overfishing and habitat changes, the numbers of these gentle giants have dwindled over the years, so spotting them in the waters off Fort Kochi gave us a glimpse of what we stand to lose.
As we drifted along small coastal villages, Brahmini Kites spread their massive wings above and swerved in the breeze. The iconic (and now symbolic) fishing nets of Fort Kochi made me feel like I was in a time warp.
Help clean up Fort Kochi beach every Saturday
Some four years ago, local residents, including Fort Kochi hotel and homestay owners, came together to clean up their beach. They gradually established the Clean Fort Kochi Foundation, and clean-ups happen every Saturday now.
Joining a beach cleanup drive might not feature on a regular traveller’s agenda during a stay in Fort Kochi, but given that we’re definitely going to relish a sunset or three on the beach, it definitely should be. It’s a great way to learn about the city’s ecosystem, connect with locals and question our own consumption.
Indulge in a true blue organic Kerala thali at The Village – one of the best restaurants in Fort Kochi
I might never have stumbled upon The Village, given the wide (and confusing) variety of places to eat in Fort Kochi, had it not been recommended by a newfound friend, Krithika – who moved to Fort Kochi a while ago and runs a boutique travel company called The Wander Bug.
Run by two friendly Malayali brothers, this rustic eatery serves up the most delicious, wholesome, organic Kerala thalis, whipped up with locally sourced ingredients and traditional family recipes. Many delights on offer can be customized without animal products, and there’s usually even a daily special vegan dessert on offer. What better way to support a local business while delighting your taste buds?
Go cycling in Fort Kochi under the moonlit sky
I can still sniff the humid sea air and see the moon peeping out from behind the clouds in the vast skies above. On quiet nights, instead of wondering what to do in Fort Kochi, we borrowed bicycles from our hotel, zoomed into a map of Fort Kochi and cycled under the spectacular umbrella-like canopies of ancient rain trees.
Past colorful little cafes and boutique shops we rode, along the coast we rode, to the empty beaches with the moonlight crashing into the waves. What a feeling!
Keep an evening for open mic poetry, music, art and clay oven pizzas at David Hall Fort Kochi
There are plenty of art galleries and old structures all around, but at David Hall, the history of Fort Kochi seems to come alive. Tucked away amid the rain trees, this 17th century Dutch bungalow has been restored into an art gallery that showcases the work of both local artists and international art inspired by Kerala. We were lucky to catch a block painting art exhibition, beautifully depicting local life in the city and the pace at which it’s changing.
David Hall is one of the few places in Fort Kochi where every evening, local and visiting musicians and poets gather together for an open mic – a cosy venue for some creative inspiration and intimate culture swap, worth ditching other bars in Fort Kochi for! And while you’re at it, give their clay oven-baked cashew cheese vegan pizza a try – DELICIOUS.
Stay in a time warp at Brunton Boatyard – possibly the best hotel in Fort Kochi
When I first arrived at Brunton Boatyard, I was convinced it was atleast a 100 years old. The intricate wooden ceilings with Dutch and Portuguese influences. The “pankhas” – once manually worked by a “pankhawala” to keep it cool. The tea lounge reminiscent of the British era. The arched walls and windows. The old school switchboards. It felt stuck in time…
Much to my surprise, it turned out that it was built only about twenty years ago, by a Swiss architect who specializes in the old architecture of Fort Kochi. It is located on the site of the original Brunton boatyard though!
Besides being an ode to the local architecture, Brunton Boatyard practices rainwater harvesting and is a single use plastic-free zone. They have their own bottling plant to serve up drinking water in glass bottles and offer natural toiletries in ceramic bottles. The eco-friendly practices clubbed with a laidback luxurious experience makes it one of the best places to stay in Fort Kochi. Now open with limited inventory in the new “normal”, they seem to be exercising every safety caution to host travellers.
For Fort Kochi attractions beyond the beaten path, explore little-known villages and backwaters with a local
I sorely wish I had planned to spend atleast one more day in Fort Kochi, for the idea of cycling beyond the beaten path caught my fancy. As part of the Art of Bicycle Trips, a Kerala local offers a half day trip exploring the coastal villages, rice paddies, organic farms and pristine backwaters just beyond.
Having explored the outskirts of Bangalore on one of their cycling trips, I imagine this one too would’ve taken me to a palm-fringed, traffic-free, tourist-free side of Kochi. Atleast I have an excuse to return.
Also read: God’s Own Island by the Kasaragod Backwaters
Your questions about Fort Kochi
Best time to visit Fort Kochi
I visited Fort Kochi in the second half of February, and even though the afternoons were hot and sultry, the early mornings and evenings were wonderfully cool. The winter months from November to February are ideal for exploring this tropical nook of Kerala.
Avoid the busy Kochi-Muziris Biennale (an international art festival) dates – which attract big crowds and a hike in accommodation prices – unless of course you’re an art aficionado.
Best place to stay in Fort Kochi
When deciding where to stay in Fort Kochi, think about the experience you’re after – and your budget of course. On my first trip, I was strapped for cash and stayed at a low budget homestay. On a work assignment this time, I was lucky to be hosted by CGH Earth. I hope to discover and share more eco-conscious hideouts on future trips.
Best restaurant in Fort Kochi
There’s no dearth of good restaurants in Fort Kochi, but some of my favourites are:
- The Village for their Kerala thali.
- Loving Earth Cafe for smoothies, smoothie bowls, Buddha bowls and vegan desserts.
- David Hall for wood-fired pizza.
- Breath Cafe for smoothies and Japanese food.
I hope to try the food at Veda Wellness and Aruvi Nature Life on my next trip!
Shopping in Fort Kochi
As someone who aspires to minimalism, I rarely shop on my travels, but I was delighted to stumble upon Kalpa – an organic health store that stocks local grains, artisan chocolates, all kinds of superfoods, handmade soaps and more. It’s located right next to The Village restaurant.
Jew Street also has a treasure trove of stores with unique antiques from the times gone by.
Things to do in Fort Kochi at night
- Cycle along the quiet lanes of Fort Kochi. Follow the coastal road from Brunton Boatyard via St Francis Church and Fort Kochi beach to the Salafi Masjid, and pedal back through the quaint by-lanes.
- Attend open mic for music, poetry and wood-fired pizzas at David Hall at 6 pm every evening.
- Catch Kathakali at the Kerala Kathakali Centre.
- Keep a lookout for local music and art festivals at the promenade. We serendipitously arrived in Fort Kochi on the evening of a traditional dance festival and caught a stunning Theyyam act.
Other unique places to visit in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry
I need to plan a third trip to leisurely explore the wonders of Jew Town. If the Fort Kochi synagogue is anything to go by, four centuries of history linger beyond the off-putting traffic and sellers that now line its streets. I’ve heard of some restoration initiatives in the area, and sure hope some of Kerala’s unique heritage can be salvaged before it’s too late.
Getting to and around Fort Kochi
Bike rental in Fort Kochi
Most hotels and accommodations offer a bike rent in Fort Kochi – and even if they don’t have their own bikes, they can definitely arrange one for you. Ask ahead of time.
You can also get in touch with BLive to do one of their e-bike trips.
Fort Kochi ferry
For the price of a few rupees, you can hop on to the Fort Kochi ferry to Ernakulam, Vyleen or Willingdon Island – a great budget way to experience the water and the local life around.
Airport to Fort Kochi / Ernakulam to Fort Kochi
Last I heard, multiple air-conditioned buses now ply from Kochi Airport to Fort Kochi. It’s best to arrive during the day and ask at the information desk. It’s also possible to take the ferry part of the way to cut down the travel time.
Cherai Beach to Fort Kochi
On my first trip to Fort Kochi, we did the long drive on a scooter to Cherai Beach, to be somewhat disappointed by our destination. I hear it’s a lot more popular now, and don’t particularly recommend it.
What are some interesting things to do in Fort Kochi you’ve discovered on your trip? What are you most looking forward to?
*Note: I travelled to Fort Kochi on assignment for CGH Earth. As you know, opinions on this blog are always my own.
A collection of organic farms, silent meals, and unique cafes and restaurants in Auroville – including the best restaurants in Pondicherry nearby – to indulge your tastebuds.
Guest post by Vinita Contractor
This post is part of a series to discover India and the world more mindfully in the new “normal”. Please see my detailed safety tips while travelling and recommendations for socially distanced hideouts.
I first travelled to Auroville on a quick day trip from Chennai some 20 years ago, and was surprised to discover this land of possibilities. With my ecological and spiritual bent of mind, it felt like a place so within reach, yet rare to find.
Over the years, I’ve been back in Auroville to volunteer at Sadhana Forest, take a course on raw food and explore the township on a family vacation. Its natural, organic and sustainable farming revolution has led to an explosion of cafes and restaurants in Auroville that are healthy yet soul-satisfying.
Also read: A Slow Travel Guide to Auroville
Whether you’re staying in Auroville, visiting Auroville for a short trip, volunteering in Auroville or just spending a day in Auroville, these are my favorite restaurants and cafes in Auroville:
- Best restaurants in Auroville
- Best cafes in Auroville
- Unique Auroville food experiences
- Vegan desserts in Auroville
- Other places to eat in Auroville
- Best restaurants in Pondicherry
- What are your favorite Auroville food spots? Which of the above would you most like to try?
Best restaurants in Auroville
Maiyam Past Food Restaurant
What first struck me about Maiyam was the signage outside. It read “past food”.
For a second I thought it was a typo, as we are so accustomed to hearing about fast food. But then I realized that this is a special place that serves up traditional South Indian / Dravidian fare, made fresh in small batches.
Maiyam has an earthy feel from the moment you enter. The low seating, chattais (woven mats) on the floor and solid wood furniture give it a very warm, homely vibe, with lots of character. The shelves lining the restaurant are stocked with organic, heirloom varieties of grains and legumes, jaggery, pickles and natural products.
The menu changes every day, with set meals for lunch and dinner, and a small range of homemade snacks. I’ve tried their thinai (foxtail millet), knolkol (turnip), thoran (dry seasonal dish), kozhambu (tamarind based curry) and other dry and curried vegetable preparations, with lightly spiced chutneys and mango pickle. This wholesome, authentic and delicious meal is best rounded up with ragi laddoos for dessert. I even indulged in a rare cup of coffee with coconut milk (without having to customize it), flavored with their melt-in-the-mouth, caramel-like jaggery!
Most of the food is accidentally vegan, but it’s best to double check before ordering. I absolutely loved everything I’ve eaten at Maiyam, and if I ever stay in Auroville long term, this would become my frequent lunch spot.
Satchitananda Raw Food Restaurant
Tucked away in a quiet pocket of Auroville is the Satchitananda Raw Food Restaurant, started by Anandi Vaithialingam. Having been around for almost a decade and known for their commitment to healthy, clean eating, it is considered an institution among those who live in Auroville.
Everything served here is raw, but don’t let that put you off. The set lunch menu, which includes delights like flax seed crackers, tomato rasam, sprouts salad, wraps and patties, raw sabzis, vegan cheesecake and homemade kombucha, is freshly made, and I could actually sense and perceive its aliveness. It’s neither heavy on spice nor salt, so I could enjoy the taste of each ingredient and experience a fullness I could never imagine from food that isn’t cooked!
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time learning from Anandi in her kitchen, and also to see the Kottakarai Organic Food Processing Unit (KOFPU) next door which she set up. That is where much of the packaged health food like kombucha, herbal teas etc. are prepared and supplied all over Auroville and many other cities in India.
Also read: Auroville: Utopia or Something Like It
The first thing that struck me about Sakura Sushi is the huge mural on the side wall of the restaurant, which shows an old Indian woman, nose ring et al, eating sushi with chopsticks.
Inside this cozy little place is an open kitchen, where you can watch sushi rolls being prepared fresh and feast on them with your eyes first.
I thoroughly enjoyed the cucumber avocado spring onion sushi, grilled marinated capsicum maki, tempeh in teriyaki sauce nigiri, and the red beans with fermented cabbage, among the many vegan options.
The owner Arun used to be a chef in Germany, and has truly introduced a slice of Japan in Auroville. His wife stocks ferments, dips, dressings and desserts at the restaurant. Don’t forget to pick up something healthy for later.
Also read: The Ultimate Vegan Travel Guide to Japan
Best cafes in Auroville
Neem Tree Eatery
This lovely home-style outdoor café near the Auroville Library, is built with exposed redbricks which are so quintessentially Auroville.
I loved sitting under the lovely neem tree to enjoy the fare at this quaint cafe – perfect to while away an afternoon instead of rushing to figure things to do in Auroville. The open kitchen allows a chance to chat with the local staff too.
The menu at the Neem Tree Eatery is pretty varied. Juices, South Indian fare, international food, mini meals, sandwiches, beverages and desserts – all very fresh and reasonably priced. I’ve indulged in the ragi dosa, red rice puttu, mixed veg parathas, appams and vegan chocolate cake, and my favorite might just be the indulgent chocolate dosa!
Bread & Chocolate
If you’re a fan of Indian raw cacao, the Auroville-based brand Mason & Co is no stranger. Bread & Chocolate is their hugely popular cafe in Auroville, so much so that you could be looking at long waiting periods over the weekend – and for good reason!
Their delicately crafted sourdough sandwiches, especially the summertime tartine with oven roasted tomatoes, marinated onions, vegan cream cheese, microgreens and basil pesto is a winner. My sons couldn’t get enough of their homemade vegan ice creams, especially the chocolate orange!
I have pretty much tried everything on the menu – and love everything about it: the portion sizes, the food plating aesthetics, the high quality ingredients and of course, the food itself. I dream of the Miss Saigon Abundance bowl, the breakfast board, the Elvis and the Cocoa Granola!
Don’t leave without a glimpse of their separate take away section, where homemade chocolates are available per piece; the almond praline is divine!
Dreamers Café Auroville
Chances are, you’ll wind up at the visitors centre, looking for places to visit in Auroville. Stop by at the busy and popular Dreamers Cafe if you manage to find a table. My family and I spent a lovely afternoon there, gazing at people walking by, while enjoying our succulent smoked tofu sandwiches and refreshing lemonade.
The Right Path Cafe
Just a few metres away from Dreamers Cafe is the Right Path Café – with the largest selection of thin-crust vegan pizzas in all of Auroville (it could give Tanto Pizzeria Auroville a run for its money)!
Think vegan cheese, along with a large range of international and Indianized options. Who knew having too many choices of pizza can be a problem?!
Unique Auroville Food Experiences: Organic farms, health stores and silent meals
Krishna McKenzie’s Solitude Farm is based on permaculture, where homegrown organic produce is used to create delightful, wholesome food. Farm to table in the true sense!
Their lunch thali is the real deal. A complete winner for a person like me who loves simple, healthy food, in the natural setting of a farm.
I especially loved the interesting mix of greens used in the salad – ‘chicken spinach’, sweet potato leaves, guava leaves; so refreshing and different from the usual salad leaves like lettuce and arugula.
If you’re thinking of volunteering in Auroville, opportunities are available for those who’d like to learn more about permaculture and sustainable living. If you already live / work in Auroville, Solitude Farm offers a weekly farm produce subscription!
For me, Goyo has been the most unique dining experience ever!
We pre-booked a meal, then went on something like a treasure hunt to look for the place. Along the way, we met a few others seeking to experience it too.
We were served a welcome Korean green tea, while sitting on rocks and logs under a beautiful tree. Then led to the main dining area – aesthetic, soothing and eclectic, all at once.
The community table was laid out with Auroville earthern ware, and the hostess settled us in. She then explained the concept of a “silent meal” and shared some words for us to ponder on while we eat.
The meal was laid out on the table and everyone served themselves. We savoured the meal in blissful silence. The unexpected riot of tastes, the ambience and the music playing in the background all made for a truly unforgettable experience.
Energy Home serves raw health food and doubles up as a health-conscious store. Their shelves and walls are filled with health powders, medicated / essential oils, crystals, and natural and organic products. I spent hours pouring over the many things this gem of a place has gathered.
For breakfast, I tried the raw idli and raw upma – which definitely take time to grow on you. The winner was a herbal drink with 9 different leaves and herbs, and for that alone, I can definitely recommend a visit to this family-run place.
Vegan desserts in Auroville
Gelato Factory was like heaven for my kids (and me!) with an array of 18 vegan ice cream flavours to choose from! Think hazelnut, pistachio, chocolate orange, stracciatella, sorbets – served up in vegan ice cream cones.
Even though on holiday, we made sure we had lots of fruits, salads and wholesome food through the day – so an ice cream a day is permissible, right? We went there every single day on our five-day family trip!
Other places to eat in Auroville
There are plenty of other interesting, vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants in Auroville, which are very well known and never fail to please. Each is unique in its own way, symbolizes the philosophy behind Auroville and serves incredible food. Some of these include:
Try the Moroccan chickpeas tagine, smoked tofu burger, fruit sorbets and coconut carrot cake at Naturellement.
The menu at Marc’s Cafe consists of an extensive coffee list, and includes sandwiches, juices and smoothies. I liked their vegan biscotti and balmadi coffee.
La Terrace Café
The hummus plate, marinated mushroom salad and vegan chocolate ice cream at La Terrace Cafe are worth a try!
The Solar Kitchen
Serves only lunch, needs to be booked a day in advance and offers simple meals made by volunteers, that change every day. Only the Auroville card is accepted here.
The homemade bean burgers, falafels, hummus, salad – everything on the Mediterranean menu at Well Cafe is to die for. They also work to empower women from nearby villages and retail upcycled, handmade accessories.
Also read: 6 Offbeat Experiences Near Hampi
Best restaurants in Pondicherry
Vegan Zeals is Pondicherry’s first all-vegan restaurant, which serves everything hearty, from pasta to noodles to parathas and varieties of rice. I tried their vegan zeals veggie pizza and mushroom stragonoff, and while the food could’ve been better, it was lovely to attend a movie screening there over a light snack.
Surguru’s South Indian thali, with several dry and curry preparations, as well as a la carte tiffin dishes are finger-licking good. Vegan options are not marked, but once you explain your dietary preference to the staff, they will happily omit any dishes that are not suitable.
Earth Story is a popular store selling organic and sustainable products, and has outlets in several parts of Southern India now, with the most recent one in Pondicherry. Housed within the Vegan Zeals restaurant, you can grab Papa Cream’s creamy vegan ice cream, smoked tofu by Aurosoya, oat and cashew milk by GoodMylk and many other vegan delights.
What are your favorite Auroville food spots? Which of the above would you most like to try?
*Cover image: Maiyam Past Food.
If you’d like to contribute a guest post to The Shooting Star, please see guidelines here.
About the guest author:
Vinita Contractor is a holistic nutrition and lifestyle coach, traveller and free spirit, who believes in conscious living and simple eating. She founded The Leaf E-academy with an aim to make healthy cooking accessible to everyone. She believes in making mindful choices as they impact our planet, other sentient beings and our own health. Her Youtube channel offers plant-based recipes, easy-to-make substitutes for dairy, and useful tips and inspiration for those looking to transition to a plant-based lifestyle. Connect with her on: Website | Instagram | Facebook | Youtube
I have no doubt that a few years from now, we’ll look back at 2020 as a bad dream or something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s been labelled the darkest year in recent times – but as with all bleak years, this one came to an end too.
Our ancestors braved famines, world wars and pandemics, and their travails make ours seem relatively mild in comparison. They couldn’t fall back on Netflix, food deliveries or Zoom calls for support or distraction!
I’m sure we all have our stories of survival though. Being stranded away from loved ones, coping with mental health challenges, juggling household chores with fulltime jobs, dealing with a loss of income, or worse, dealing with Covid-19 itself. If you’ve lost someone, or are struggling to cope, I truly hope you’ll find the strength to face this difficult time. Know that our lifeboats might be different, but we’re all sailing through the same storm.
When I first sat down to write my annual reflections post, only the difficult moments of 2020 surfaced. I had to carefully reminisce through each month to find some uplifting moments, and hope to hang on to them as we move into 2021.
Beginning the year in Lesotho and Kruger!
It feels surreal to recall that just at the beginning of 2020, my partner and I were hiking amid the magnificent mountains and waterfalls of Lesotho – a small, stunning country in Southern Africa, home to the friendly Basotho people and the complicated Sesotho language! From there, we drove down to the great wilderness of Kruger National Park in South Africa, for a self-drive safari among hyenas, African lions, hippos, giraffes and zebras!
Our time in South Africa was incredible in many different ways, but I think of it even more fondly now since it was my last international adventure before the world was catapulted into this new “normal”.
A renewed connection with my hometown
Since I moved out of Dehradun at age 17, I’ve rarely been back for longer than a week or two at a stretch. Much of the Dehradun of my childhood has been swallowed up by traffic and concrete, so shorter, more frequent visits to see my folks have become the sweet spot.
When India went into a 21-day lockdown, which gradually got extended to 3 months, I decided not to try to rebel, accepting that the universe wanted me there. With all this time in hand, I re-bonded with my folks over baking and table tennis, somewhat revived our vegetable garden, finally got my folks on board to segregate our waste, connected with a group of organic farmers and even found a couple of secluded hiking spots with a friend!
Co-founding Voices of Rural India
Starting in March 2020, I watched in slow motion as the majority of my work as a travel writer came to a standstill. After some delayed payments, I was left with no choice but to dip into my savings. It’s been a tough year for the travel industry, but even more so for rural communities across India who can’t look to the digital world for alternate opportunities.
So, during the lockdown, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, Sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to create such an opportunity.
Voices of Rural India is a curated platform that hosts stories by rural storytellers – typically guides, homestay hosts and other members of the community, especially women – in their own voices, and pays a fee directly in their bank account for every story accepted for publishing. Through this initiative, we aim to build digital storytelling skills, create an alternate source of livelihoods and preserve indigenous knowledge that is slowly disappearing.
For the rest of us, at a time of no travel, I hope VoRI becomes a channel to discover remote corners of India from the comfort of our homes.
Some of my favorite stories on Voices of Rural India so far:
- The Walking Library, by Radhamani K.P: In Kerala’s Wayanad district, a 63-year-old woman walks several kilometers every day for those who love to read but have no easy access to books.
- The Disappearing Craft of Likhai, by Trilok Singh Rana: A guide from Shankhdhura village visually documents the intricate craft of wood carving in Uttarakhand, once found in villages across Kumaon.
- How One Man’s Conviction Put Jibhi Valley on the World Tourism Map, by Bhagwan Singh Rana: An ex-army man’s inspiring and amusing journey of grit, passion and dedication to introduce Jibhi Valley to tourism.
Winning “best communicator” at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards (India)
My journey towards becoming an advocate for responsible, meaningful and environmentally-friendly travel began way back in 2011, when I took a sabbatical from my full-time job in Singapore to volunteer-travel with Spiti Ecosphere, a grassroots responsible travel enterprise in the Indian Himalayas.
Focusing on storytelling, in a way that compels readers to think about responsible travel without necessarily using the word ‘responsible’, has often been challenging. As I continue to grapple with my travel, life and writing choices, it sure feels reassuring to think that some of India’s leading conservationists, editors and thinkers (who were part of the jury) believe in my work and its impact. Thank you, World Travel Market and Outlook Traveller, for this honor at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards India 2020!
Learning to cook and bake, finally!
As a nomadic vegan, my culinary skills were limited to simple smoothies, hummus and avocado on toast. Then the pandemic hit, and I had to transition from eating out most of the time to eating in entirely!
My taste buds soon began to crave Mexican burritos, red rice idlis, Thai stir-fries, Guatemalan beans and rice, Georgian badrijani nigwitz, vegan chocolate cookies and oat muffins – and there was only one way to satisfy them: Learning to cook and bake myself.
I now own a small oven, have bookmarked many easy and delicious vegan recipes, stay in touch with local organic farmer groups in Goa for seasonal produce and constantly surprise myself by whipping up edible food 😉
Audio book release of The Shooting Star
Over two years since its release, I still receive messages from people who’ve recently read my book – amazing me at the longevity of those pages. In 2020, my publisher, Penguin Random House, surprised me with an email saying that The Shooting Star was going to be released as an audio book, read by Karen D’Souza!
I’m now on the lookout for a Hindi translator and a local language publisher, so the book can begin to transcend domestic language barriers. If you know one, please connect us.
Launching “Journeys” – exclusive stories for a niche audience
In December 2020, I launched “Journeys” by The Shooting Star – offering my loyal readers exclusive, subscription-based stories, delivered to their inbox once a week. These are stories I’ve never told before – secret finds, confessions I’d rather not share publicly, practical tips to grow in different spheres of life and a more intimate glimpse of my personal journey.
It took some serious contemplation to move into this direction, one that I hope will gradually allow me to become less dependent on social media and brand collaborations – and focus entirely on writing meaningful stories. I’m thrilled to share that early bird subscriptions ran out within two weeks of its launch and there’s been a steady stream of subscribers since.
Most popular stories on Journeys so far:
Also read: How I Lost My Way as a Travel Writer
Pandemic life in Goa, which never stops surprising!
I’ve now spent eight monsoons and one winter in Goa – and still continue to discover all kinds of secrets lurking around in its rivers, backwaters, islands, hills and villages! Confined to one place over the past seven months, I put on my explorer’s hat and discovered places so un-Goa-like, that I often felt like I had arrived in a different state or country.
Despite all the challenges of living long term in India, Goa constantly reminds me just why this country is so damn incredible – and helps keep my wanderlust alive <3
THE BAD & UGLY
The worst the travel industry has ever seen…
Most of us think of travelling as a luxury or frivolous extra in life – and I suppose in some ways it is. But it is also a source of livelihood for 1 in 10 people globally – and many others indirectly. I’ve been in touch with female mountain guides who’ve had to resort to manual construction work during the pandemic, the owners of some of my favourite cafes and restaurants who’ve shut down temporarily or permanently since travellers were their primary audience, and plenty of family-run, environmentally-conscious homestays who’ve lost their only source of income.
Being part of the travel industry for the past decade as a travel writer, and before that as a digital media strategist at the Singapore Tourism Board, it stings pretty bad to think of all the turmoil 2020 brought with it – with no perceivable end in sight. It’s going to be a long, hard road to recovery.
Living long term in India
Someone recently tweeted, living in India is like an extreme sport. That indeed sums up our past 7 months in Goa – it’s been thrilling, uplifting and draining in equal measure. We’ve had to move ‘homes’ four times for different reasons and constantly been plagued by erratic internet, electricity and water supply. This rant stinks of absolute privilege, I know, but that fact makes me feel even more helpless.
Truth is, India is perhaps one of the least suited countries for digital nomads. You can’t book an Airbnb, show up and expect to plug and play. Each place comes with its own laundry list of issues, and any half-decent accommodation costs an arm and a leg. I sorely miss the standard of living we could afford in other middle-income countries like Thailand, Georgia or even Guatemala.
As we look to move towards the mountains in the summer, I just hope the universe will conspire to reveal an unexpectedly perfect place to call home for 4-6 months!
What about the future?
Friends from Europe and the US seem quite confident about resuming their travels by the spring or summer, but I have serious doubts. Even though the vaccination process in India is now underway, it’ll take forever to vaccinate a country of 1.3 billion people. Besides, we don’t know if vaccination means we can shed our masks, stop social distancing, hop on to public transport without fear of spreading the virus and be accepted by local communities again.
Besides the usual visa restrictions for Indians, will we need to travel with a vaccine passport to resume international travel? What vaccines will qualify for such a passport? What about new strains emerging in many parts of the world? Will we need to quarantine for 14 days after every flight? And even if we miraculously manage to tackle covid in 2021, what about the looming threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, water crises and other zoonotic diseases?
As much as I’m determined to make the most of 2021 no matter what life throws my way, the traveller in me longs to return home. Back on the road.
What are some 2020 moments you hope to remember – and what are you most looking forward to in 2021?
Reflections on earlier years:
Ever since I emerged from my “writing cave” after working on my first book, I’ve felt a deep void within. The publishing journey was challenging, fulfilling and joyful in equal measures – and consumed so much of me. After the initial excitement of the book launch, my soul started to feel inexplicably restless.
I suppose I did try to satiate it with some epic adventures in Myanmar, Iran, Bhutan and South Africa last year. Then the pandemic hit, and left me no choice but to hang up my travel boots.
A new era of travel blogging
I thought this could be just the pause I needed. I would re-focus my attention on this travel blog that I’ve nurtured over so many years but recently neglected. Unfortunately, travel blogging has changed much over time. It has become much less about experiences, and much more about Google rankings.
Every time I sat down to write about a misadventure in Nicaragua that could’ve been my last, or how solo travel can make or break a relationship, I wondered, would anyone search for this? Does this story have the potential to appear on Google’s first page?
An ethical dilemma
Even if the story did stand a chance of making it to Google’s first page, I felt conflicted about whether to write about “hidden” places in such a public space. I mean, we’ve all seen the downfall of once-pristine places, especially in the Instagram era.
I shudder to think how a remote high altitude desert like Spiti or the sleepy interiors of Goa have changed in the past few years – with trash, traffic and overtourism adversely impacting local people and biodiversity.
Yet I sorely miss the joy of writing about low-key discoveries on my travels, for a smaller group of readers with a stronger bent towards responsible travel.
Drying up income
When India began to open up a few months ago, I took an ethical stance not to travel or promote travelling during the pandemic. I’m taking a cue from rural communities who’ve chosen to keep their borders closed despite the loss of livelihoods, and the growing discontentment among locals in places where the wearing of masks and social distancing rules are largely ignored by tourists.
With borders closed, all my international collaborations are on hold indefinitely. I’m choosing to say no to domestic airline and hotel collaborations that require me to travel. As a passionate advocate of veganism and sustainability, I continue to say no to lifestyle brands that test on animals or represent fast fashion. And I’ve long taken a stance against filling my blog with annoying ads.
That means in the past few months, except for the odd partnership, all my income has dried up.
So what now?
Now that I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, I’ve gradually realized that somewhere along the way, I forgot the very reasons why I first pursued travel writing.
I dreamt of bringing stories from the road that had rarely been told before. Stories that inspired unconventional ways of thinking. Stories that offered a glimpse of unfamiliar worlds.
Instead, I’ve been keeping many epic finds, unexpected encounters and life-defining moments on the road, to myself – because they don’t belong on Google, Instagram or any public space.
But I think I’ve finally found a new direction…
Introducing “Journeys” by The Shooting Star
I’ve spent the past few months contemplating how I can continue writing about places, people and finds that’ve deeply impacted me – without the risk of subjecting them to irresponsible travel or constantly worrying about search engine and social media algorithms.
Thus was born the idea of “Journeys” – exclusive, paid stories delivered to your inbox once a week.
My goal is to slowly reach a niche set of readers with a similar bent of mind, who yearn for places that don’t come with Instagram hashtags or google searches, seek to pursue the unconventional in life, and are genuinely curious about the world beyond what can be depicted in a pretty photo.
Sample stories on Journeys:
I’m excited to share that I’ve already penned down the first four “Journeys” – to be delivered to you weekly. These aren’t stories that you’ll find in my book or on this blog.
What it’s like to travel as an unmarried couple in India and elsewhere – Some shocking and amusing episodes. This story is already live; read it here.
Secret hideouts in India to rejuvenate your pandemic-weary soul – I reached out to some of my favorite accommodations naturally set up for social distancing, and included only those who are taking enough safety precautions.
Can you keep a secret in Goa? Actually, can you keep 5 – Places so un-Goa-like, that I often felt like I had arrived in a different state or country.
The little big things that have shaped my writing journey – Practical writing tips and some confessions from a bestselling author (yours truly ;-)).
How much does a subscription cost?
To be completely honest, I’ve gone back and forth several times over the idea of introducing paid stories, but focus group interviews with some long-time readers of The Shooting Star convinced me to take the plunge.
I’ve tried to keep subscription rates low, with early bird rates and annual discounts. Monthly subscriptions are equivalent to the cost of a nice coffee or meal. Annual subscriptions give you two months free!
First 100 subscribers: ₹250 / ~3$ per month [Sorry, all gone!]
101 – 1000 subscribers: ₹350 / ~5$ per month
1000+ subscribers: ₹500 / ~7$ per month
Annual subscription: Save 2 months cost!
I know that the internet is full of free travel content. Yet I hope that through “Journeys”, I can continue to add unique value to your life and travel choices.
What about this blog and my social media channels?
I’ve been meaning to invite guest writers with inspiring stories to this blog for a long time, and am finally getting around to doing so.
Earlier this year, Parita Bhansali wrote an insightful guide to sustainable fashion in India. Coming soon, are recommendations on Auroville’s coolest cafes by Vinita Contractor, and insights on what it’s like to be a vegan Muslim by Nina Ahmedow. I’m excited to move into a largely editorial role on this blog with occasional posts written by me.
I’ll continue to engage with you on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, but perhaps at a reduced frequency than I currently do. I hope Journeys will take away the need to channel an income through constant engagement on social media – and allow me to build deeper connections with long term readers.
A word of gratitude
At this time of isolation, the world has felt out of reach and nudged me to examine many of my life choices. My attempts at travel writing, as I can see now, took a direction I never anticipated. Yet you’ve stood by me, continued to read my posts here and on Instagram, and sent many heartfelt messages and emails over the years. For that, I’m forever grateful.
As I embark on what feels like a new chapter of my virtual life, I hope to continue taking you to faraway places, both geographically and within. I hope you’ll join me on these “Journeys”. There’ll be no flowing dresses, I promise 😉
What do you think of the new direction I’m moving towards? What would you most like to read about on “Journeys”?
What’s it like to chain myself to one place after 7 years on the road?
It feels like yesterday when I was hiking up the moonscapes of Qeshm Island in Iran at sunset. Or falling off the map on a motorcycle adventure in the remote tribal Chin state of Myanmar. Or feeling awe-inspired at the electric ‘ghetto sessions’ in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa‘s largest townships.
When I look back at my life of long term travel, there is one thing in common. It all feels surreal.
And in a very different way, that’s my dominant feeling during this pandemic too!
Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home
Since this strange period of our lives began, many of you have reached out to me, curious about what it’s been like to hang up my travel boots indefinitely. After nearly seven years of long term travel and living out of two bags, what’s it like to chain myself to one place for the foreseeable future?
In this post, I try to lay bare my heart, reflecting on this time of shock, struggle, acceptance, disappointment, anger, gratitude and hope.
With a home nowhere, I suddenly had nowhere to go!
Back in 2013, I gave up my rented apartment and sold most of my belongings. In the years since, I’ve felt at home in many places around the world but not put down roots anywhere.
Having no possessions and no commitment to a single place felt liberating on many levels… until I found myself in lockdown!
As luck would have it, an unexpected turn of events made me abandon a multi-day trek from tribal Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh. I ended up taking a flight to Dehradun to see my folks for a few days, and figure out where I could slow travel next to hide out the brewing coronavirus fears.
In those few days, my universe, like that of many others, overturned. WHO declared it a pandemic, India went into a stringent lockdown, state and international borders shut down indefinitely. Suddenly, I had nowhere to go.
That few days visit turned into 3 months. And in retrospect, I’m so glad I got to spend that quality time with my folks – something I haven’t done since I moved out for college at seventeen! Unfortunately though, my partner was stranded in a different part of the world during the lockdown. Perhaps because the geographical separation wasn’t out of choice this time, it stung pretty bad.
When domestic movement gradually resumed, we went through a ton of passes and paperwork, Covid tests and institutional quarantine. And took a leap of faith to move to a small Goan village for the foreseeable future.
We now call an old trading shop turned studio “home”, own a kayak and a small oven, and wake up to hornbill and peacock cries!
Roots or wings – aka is long term travel still for me?
To tell you the truth, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to stay in one place again. To have a small backyard when I can grow my greens, to own more than what fits in two bags. Have constant access to a kitchen and experiment with vegan recipes. Build a consistent supply chain of organic, seasonal, zero waste produce. And not have to decide every couple of months, where next?
After the initial shock of the lockdown, I realized that I had no choice now but to experience “the other side” of life.
So I threw myself right into it. Started growing my own herbs and microgreens. Experimented with vegan baking. Got connected with a group of local organic farmers. Tried to throw myself into writing, books and music. Binge-watched movies and shows.
At first, it felt nice to have a schedule and all this time on my hand. But the days quickly started merging into one another. They felt familiar, comfortable and predictable.
Waking up to the same horizon every day eventually became monotonous. I began to miss the rush of long land journeys, the magic of fleeting encounters on the road and the anonymity of being a new “me” in a new place.
Turns out, the reason I never found a place ‘perfect’ enough to lay down roots was because I was never actually looking for one.
Ironically, long term travelling prepared me for a time of no travel
It seems like those challenging times on the road – the border interrogation in Nicaragua, getting mugged in Costa Rica, getting stalked in Ethiopia, breaking my phone on the first day of my solo adventures in Ecuador – unexpectedly prepared me to adapt, no matter what life throws along the way.
The pandemic is definitely one such curve ball.
At first, I was naive enough to think it’ll be behind us soon. But now, I don’t see myself travelling far before a vaccine is available, which could be several months or even a year from now.
Even though I’m young, healthy and outside the vulnerable age group, studies have found long term health implications for those who contract the virus. I also feel an acute responsibility towards rural communities in India with little access to healthcare, and can’t bear the thought of carrying the virus to them.
The initial months were tough, both professionally and personally. I had a few delayed payments trickling in which helped cover my expenses. But all travel assignments were put on hold, leaving the future uncertain.
Surprisingly however, I quickly moved through phases of denial, shock, anger and disappointment, into acceptance.
As an introvert, minimalist and someone who’s been working from home for nearly a decade, the obvious challenges of lockdown living were easy for me.
But I’ve been working towards making this lockdown life more palatable. Moving closer to nature, cycling, kayaking, photographing feathered creatures, researching more about wildlife conservation challenges and learning to cook!
The privilege of travel, and life itself
Hailing from India, privilege is often a tricky subject.
On the one hand, I often compare my lack of privilege to western bloggers / freelancers with powerful passports, social security and financial support during the pandemic.
On the other hand, I feel very aware of my access to good education in India (among other things we take for granted), that ultimately helped carve this digital nomad life for me.
This pandemic though, has given me much more perspective.
It has led me to the harsh acceptance that I’m not an essential worker, my soft skills weren’t of much use in a crisis, and travel – even the responsible kind – isn’t as resilient as once thought. We (me and most people reading this) are lucky enough to work online and shelter ourselves from the pandemic.
But despite the increasing penetration of smartphones, rural communities associated with travel have been hit really hard during this time.
This gaping urban-rural divide led to a new passion project, Voices of Rural India – perhaps India’s first curated platform for rural storytellers!
The goal is to build digital storytelling skills in rural India while creating an alternate source of income. And in this time of no travel, it’s a chance to explore remote corners of India virtually, through the stories of the very people we travel to meet.
We’re looking for passionate volunteers to join us to support Voices of Rural India. If that’s you, please get in touch!
The art of traveling long term vs the growing frustration of a weak passport
Travelling with an Indian passport has always been painful. I hate the heaps of documentation, the long wait to get a visa, stringent application processes, a defined duration of stay etc.
But in the current times, as someone who thinks of herself as a global citizen, I feel even more caged with closed borders and no tourist visas.
Countries like Georgia and Estonia have recently launched a “digital nomad visa” that would be ideal for someone like me who wants to stay longer and work on the go. But unfortunately, India is not one of the 95 countries eligible to apply. SIGH.
“What about the future?”
There was a time when anxiety about the future used to gnaw at me from the inside.
But over many years on the road, with neither a constant income nor a constant home, I’ve gradually learnt to let go.
The future is just that – distant, unpredictable. We need to nurture it, yes. But not at the cost of living fully today.
This life of long term travel has taught me to think of the future as just another adventure. And perhaps that’s what we need most right now. Cherish the little joys that today brings, and not dwell too much on the future. Whatever it brings, it’ll be an adventure for sure.
A life of no regret
Some people say I was too young to quit my corporate job at 23. If I stayed on a few more years, I could’ve amassed more wealth and experience.
Some say this digital nomad lifestyle is unsustainable. I need to own a house, I need to own things.
In a way, this unprecedented crisis has challenged everything about my life philosophy in the past seven years.
I don’t own a house or a car, and until a few months ago, I didn’t even own any cooking equipment. I’ve long believed in the shared economy to find homes and rides around the world. Covid came as a total shock to my existence.
But in the middle of a damn pandemic that has shattered many travel and life plans, I feel so grateful about the choices I’ve made.
I’m glad I didn’t put off my dream of slow travelling the world on my own terms. I’m grateful I didn’t build a bucket list to tick off only once I retired.
In the coming years, in a world wrought by climate change, intensive animal agriculture, single use plastic and irresponsible travel, we will face a whole new set of challenges. I’ll continue to contribute to this planet in whatever ways I can, but…
I can say with confidence, having tried it over the past six months, that living in one place is just not for me. I belong on the road, always moving, wild and free.
What’s this lockdown period been like for you? Where did you spend it, and what’s your most important realization from it? Do you think a life of long-term travel is for you?
Sustainable fashion India: With upcycled, fair-trade, organic, ethical and eco-friendly alternatives, homegrown brands are making a real fashion statement.
Guest post by Parita Bhansali (with inputs from Shivya Nath)
“Never buy anything that’s less than fabulous. Then you’ll wear it over and over again!”
I often remember the words of Carrie Bradshaw’s character in Sex and the City before I buy something. She might not have meant it that way, but for me, it represents everything sustainable fashion in India is about.
The on-going Covid-19 crisis has made many of us pause and introspect about our impact on the planet. With the minimization of human consumption across the globe, nature seems to be healing and the air seems to be cleaner. We know we need to act now to save this planet we call home.
- Sustainable fashion India: An introduction
- What is slow, sustainable fashion anyway
- What’s wrong with fast fashion
- Sustainable fashion India: How to make better choices
- Affordable sustainable clothing India
- High-end sustainable fashion brands in India
- Eco-friendly winter clothing
- Ethical, vegan and cruelty free cosmetics in India
- Sustainable fashion bloggers India
- Your questions
- Comments: How are you embracing mindful fashion?
Sustainable fashion India: An introduction
What does fashion, the clothes we buy and the brands we support with our money have to do with any of this?
Turns out, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s annual carbon emissions – 5 times that of flying! It’s also one of the most polluting, water-intensive and waste-generating industries.
That’s exactly why I decided to write this massive guide to sustainable fashion India. This is how we can reduce our individual impact on the planet, one piece of clothing at a time.
What is slow, sustainable fashion anyway
As the names suggest, fast and slow fashion refer to the pace at which you change / update your wardrobe.
Do you impulsively buy new clothes that are environmentally harmful, water intensive, exploit humans, abuse animals and have a small shelf life?
Or do you consciously invest in clothing brands that are mindful of the resources they use, refrain from using animal products, pay fair wages and last a lifetime?
Broadly speaking, sustainable fashion refers to clothes and products that:
- Are made from eco-friendly or recycled fabrics.
- Use organic (chemical-free, pesticide-free) materials and dyes.
- Employ fair trade practices – no forced labor, no child labor, reasonable working hours and fair pay.
- Refrain from using materials, inks and other ingredients derived from animals, and say no to animal testing.
What’s wrong with fast fashion
Fast fashion uses up excessive natural resources
- Every year, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the water consumption needs of 5 million people!
- 150 million trees are cut and turned into fabric every year, through land clearing and plant pulps.
- Every year, disposed off clothes result in half a million tons of plastic microfibers in the ocean – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. These microfibers are spreading through the food chain and are probably in our bodies now.
With the rise of online shopping, more fast fashion brands setting up shop in India and the constant pressure to keep up with fashion trends, India is already on its way to embracing fast fashion – at great cost to the environment.
Slow fashion in India can reduce our individual carbon footprint
Only 15% of our clothes are recycled or donated. Even those gradually land up in landfills where they slowly release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change. That’s a strong reason to embrace sustainable fashion in India.
Humans and animals are exploited to cater to our fashion demands
- Even though child labor has been declining, the International Labor Organisation estimates that 170 million children worldwide are still forced into labor – many of them manufacturing textiles and garments for big international brands.
- Leather is made from the skin of various animals: Oxen, cows, alligators, ostriches, snakes, even kangaroos. Unlike popular perception, leather is not simply a by-product of the meat industry. It is an industry in itself – one that makes billions of dollars by cleverly convincing consumers that they want to wear the skin of a dead animal or carry it on their arms!
- The wool industry has been in the spotlight for aggressively shearing wool off sheep, goats (cashmere) and rabbits (angora wool), often leading to open wounds, pain and trauma to the animals. These animals ultimately land up in slaughter.
- A single silk saree involves the death of 10,000+ silk worms – by smoking their cocoons or boiling them alive – even before they can mature into those pretty silk moths. According to the Higg Index, silk consumes more water and emits more greenhouse gases than most common textiles like polyester, viscose and cotton.
Sustainable fashion India: How to make better choices
Given the obvious urgency to switch to more eco-friendly, ethical and conscious fashion, here are some ways I’ve learnt to embrace sustainable fashion in India:
Ask before buying
Do I REALLY need that dress? Am I adding to my non-biodegradable cosmetic collection? Am I using hair products tested on animals?
Before I buy anything, I do some quick research. Brands do reply to queries. I hit them up on their Instagram pages, drop them an email or call them.
Recently, I was curious about Sugar Cosmetics, so I both googled and called them – and was surprised to learn that their products are cruelty free (not tested on animals). I recently dropped a message on Chumbak’s Instagram page asking about their accessories, and learnt that their belts and watches are made from animal leather.
Invest in eco-friendly, organic, cruelty free brands in India
For me, buying less means being able to invest more in better alternatives:
- Look for clothes made of organic cotton. Check for labels from the Better Cotton Initiative, to ensure less water and chemical dyes.
- Replace your cotton clothes with eco-friendly natural fabrics like hemp and bamboo. Cotton is water-intensive and depletes the soil, while hemp produces twice as much fiber per acre, uses less water and enriches the soil. Itshemp aggregates all hemp products available across India!
- Purchase accessories, bags, shoes and belts made of faux (fake) leather. These days, innovative brands are making leather products from cork, upcycled flowers, hemp and even pineapple leaves!
- Choose personal care and cosmetic products like shampoo, lipstick, kajal, mosquito repellent, toothpaste etc that contain no animal ingredients (vegan) and haven’t been tested on animals (cruelty free). China has made it mandatory to test all products sold there on animals – so any brand that sells in China is unfortunately not cruelty free. Look out for the cruelty free label to identify products.
- Most colored cosmetics use ingredients like red carmine dye made from beetles, lanolin from the glands of wool-bearing animals, keratin from the horns and claws of reptiles, fish or birds, and silk protein from silkworms boiled alive! Opt for natural, vegan, cruelty-free cosmetics instead.
- Use toiletries and cosmetics free from plastic. Replace plastic bottles with soap, shampoo and conditioner bars – easier to carry while travelling too.
Identify ethical fashion brands
I’ve been using the “Good on You” app – which rates brands based on their impact on humans, animals and the environment. It doesn’t feature Indian brands, but can be useful for international ones or while shopping abroad. It also has brilliant content about sustainability, ethical sourcing, vegan fashion etc.
Embrace slow fashion in India
- Instead of impulsively buying something new, choose to invest in clothing that has creatively been upcycled. Refash and Bodements exclusively stock clothes upcycled from pre-loved garments!
- Buy from zero waste brands like WeAreLabeless and Adah by Leesha, that use every bit of scrap fabric and plastic to create something new, sending nothing to the bin.
- Upcycle sarees you or your family own. LataSita converts sarees into beautiful dresses and other designer clothing. Mishcat Co recycles sarees into artisan carpets!
- Attend a Clothes Exchange Program in your city. See Instagram for accounts like Bombay Closet Cleanse or participate in Swap Soiree by Mahima Agarwal.
- Let your friends visit your wardrobe. Asking your friends to mix and match your clothes can give you a new pair from a different point of view!
- Donate clothes in good condition to old age homes, orphanages and anyone who needs them. Some retail companies like H&M ask you to exchange your old cloths for points/new buys.
Affordable sustainable clothing India
Even as fast fashion is taking over the country, several brands offer clothing that is not only creative but also homegrown, upcycled, fair-trade, organic, ethical and eco-friendly. Now that’s a real fashion statement!
Hoomanwear is India’s first – and perhaps only – causewear brand, which donates over 30% of all profits to organisations involved in meaningful work. Founder Harshil Vora is a passionate vegan, and all their t-shirts, crop tops and hoodies are plant-based (less than 5% synthetic fibers) and customizable with different vibes. They are made only on demand (zero waste), use certified sustainable inks, are free of animal ingredients and delivered in recycled pizza boxes or cloth bags!
Check out The Shooting Star travel-inspired collection in collaboration with Hoomanwear!
Pomogrenade was founded by Madhulika Umapathy and Aiswarya Kutty with the mission of reducing the amount of fabric that lands up in Indian landfills. Their comfy, daily wear dresses, tops, shorts, belts and men’s shirts are all made from surplus cotton fabric and natural dyes, by a fair trade production house and disadvantaged communities in Bangalore.
To really close the loop, they go the extra mile by taking back any pre-loved (used) Pomogrenade clothing, and in exchange, offer a coupon for future buys on their website!
Maati, founded by Neha Kabra, works with a community in Rajasthan to create unique clothing with traditional Indian printing techniques. A part of the fabric is upcycled, the dyes and print colours are borrowed from nature (not animals) and the packaging is plastic-free.
I was surprised to learn that most swimsuits leach microfibers into the ocean. And amazed to discover PANI Swimwear, founded by Leila, an international development professional from Mauritius who now calls Mumbai home. PANI makes body-positive swimsuits catered to a wide range of body types, designed from recycled fishing nets! Unfortunately the microfiber leaching persists with these, but atleast they’re part of a circular economy until something better comes along.
No Nasties is Goa’s first organic clothing brand and a pioneer of sustainable fashion in India, founded by Apurva Kothari. They use organic cotton seeds on fair trade farms. Synthetic pesticides and GMOs are a strict no. The entire seeds to clothes process is eco-friendly and ethical, right down to the inks being used (made without any animal ingredients).
Founded by Kamakshi Singh with the goal of being affordable, Increscent offers vintage clothing (dresses, tops, skirts etc), crafted in small batches by a community in Rajasthan. 60% of the fabrics they use are recycled from the dead stock of various export houses!
22-year-old Prateek Kayan quit his banking job in New York to start one of the few fashion brands exclusively for men, based out of Kolkata. Brown Boy is all about organic, fair trade cotton and animal-friendly printing – creating sustainable t-shirts in India alongside other smart casuals.
Founded by animal lover Sheena Uppal, Renge sources surplus fabric from warehouses to produce unique, limited edition designs for women. Proceeds from Renge are also used to support animal sanctuaries in India.
The latest addition to India’s growing hemp movement is the homegrown brand Hemp Kari. They offer natural hemp-based fabrics with traditional hand embroidery done by local artisans in Lucknow and nearby villages. The tops are delivered in plastic-free packaging, and use tags / labels made of hemp paper.
High-end sustainable fashion brands in India
Karishma Shahani Khan created a clothing line from plastic gunny sacks, old chandeliers and second-hand sneakers while studying in London. Now based out of Pune, her Ka Sha label explores natural fabrics and works closely with artisans across the country. Her zero waste “Heart to Haat” collection focuses on upcycling discarded clothing.
Nicobar is the slow fashion brainchild of Simran Lal and Raul Rai, inspired by tropical living. They’re bigger than most brands mentioned in this guide, with physical stores across the country. That only means more responsibility.
Their core line uses only organic cotton, along with natural fabrics like bamboo. Their woolen collection uses recycled wool, and the kidswear is made entirely from leftover fabric. Most of their products come in plastic free packaging.
Eco-friendly winter clothing
The brainchild of mountaineer Yuktie Jhangiani Verma, Kosha is a truly forward-thinking homegrown winter-wear brand, based on the principles of slow fashion, mindful travel and sustainability. Kosha’s animal-friendly #NoLeatherNoFeather range features organic bamboo cotton (made from bamboo fibre) sweatshirts and joggers, and parkas, jackets and pullovers free from wool and down feathers – that can sustain temperatures upto -20 degrees!
Unlike many fast fashion brands that need clothes to be constantly replaced, Kosha prides itself in durable clothing and offers a repair shop to mend tears, zippers and hoods! Scrap fabric, reusable boxes and drawstring backpacks are used for packaging and delivery,
Bangalore resident Pratibha Krishnaiah quit her corporate job to work as a Youth for India fellow in rural Uttarakhand. After the fellowship, she decided to stay on in the remote village of Kheti Khan, and began Himalayan Blooms – a social enterprise that seeks to create financial independence for local women. Using acrylic yarn and cotton (no wool), they hand-knit the most gorgeous ponchos, sweaters, scarfs and neck warmers – available for India wide delivery right from the heart of the Himalayas!
Ethical, vegan and cruelty free cosmetics in India
It is shocking that several animal ingredients are hidden away in our daily toiletries and cosmetics. Some of these include: Honey, the food of bees. Beeswax, derived by destroying their painstakingly created combs used to house their young and store honey. Gelatin, extracted from the skins, bones and tissues of animals.
In 2020, despite being well-versed with what works on the human skin and scalp, some (big) brands like Maybelline, Estee Lauder and Clinique still test on animals!
Here are some sustainable beauty brands in India that support local entrepreneurs, source ethical ingredients and do not test on animals:
Disguise Cosmetics is an Indian brand which believes in setting an honest, ethical and pocket-friendly beauty standard for our skin. All their cosmetics are free from animal oils, fats, pigments, secretions and proteins. Their matte lipsticks and all-day gel kajals are all the rage!
The Switch Fix
I cannot stress how much I love this brand. The Switch Fix is everything I could wish for: No plastic, no palm oil, cruelty-free, vegan, plant-based, water-saving and non-polluting!
From shampoo bars (no spill, no issues while checking in, last up to 50 washes) to bamboo toothbrushes, they have all our personal care needs covered.
Homegrown brand Plum offers a wide range of vegan and paraben-free hair, face, body and skincare products. They also recycle your empty plum plastic bottles with a gift voucher of Rs 50 for future use!
A young brand nurtured with love and compassion, Veganology uses essential oils to create moisturizing soap bars, body butters, lip balms and even a vegan, chemical-free talcum powder.
FAE, which stands for Free And Equal, is an Indian start-up trying to challenge conventional, biased notions of beauty. Their wide range of lipsticks is vegan, cruelty-free and paraben-free.
Kay by Katrina
India’s first celebrity cosmetic brand Kay was launched last year by Katrina Kaif – and it’s reported to be vegan and cruelty-free! She said she wanted to create products that would spark a vegan cosmetics revolution in India – and I think she’s on her way.
Colorbar is India’s third largest cosmetic brand. It is cruelty free, with a wide range of vegan products, well-labelled on the website.
The homegrown Khadi Essentials brand is based on the principles of Ayurveda. Most of their personal care products are vegan, cruelty-free and paraben free.
Lotus Herbals is hardly a stranger to Indian consumers. This local brand commits to nature’s wealth in tandem with being compassionate to all. No chemicals, nothing synthetic, no animal ingredients and no animal testing.
Back in the early 1900s, Mr Manal was travelling in Myanmar (then Burma), when he stumbled upon locals feeding the roots of a local herb to calm a herd of agitated elephants. His curiosity led him to start a revolution out of Dehradun in 1934, to develop all-natural personal care resources based on Ayurveda, science and nature. Himalaya continues to be a game changer for sustainable living everywhere! The Himalaya toothpaste and wide range of products make it much easier to be vegan in India and elsewhere.
I guess we all remember the Vicco Vajradanti commercial from our childhood in India! Sounds old school, but Vicco is actually a pioneer of vegan and natural products in the country.
The Body Shop
British brand, The Body Shop, pioneered the cruelty free movement but some of their products still contain animal ingredients like milk, honey, beeswax, etc. The vegan products are well-labelled though. They mostly come in plastic but The Body Shop has recently started an initiative to engage women in local communities to make recycled bottles.
Sustainable fashion bloggers India
View this post on Instagram
Ya local textile fanatic found a new fashion fiber: Ramie 🌾 #Ramie is one of the oldest fiber crops, having been used for at least 6,000 years. It’s older than cotton and uses less water to grow. It’s very similar to linen, looks like silk, and even more absorbent than cotton— all while being incredibly easy to naturally dye because it’s so highly absorbent. In the words of @AjaBarber, “Now is a great time to remind you that the fashion industry is quietly keeping the fossil fuel industry plugging along. Polyester, spandex, Lycra, acrylic… are all synthetic fibers made from fossil fuels.” Sustainable fashion isn’t about reinventing the wheel, it’s about returning to ancestral + indigenous wisdom— especially when it comes to fashion fibers + fabrics. Historically, fashion fibers used to be grown locally and often used to be byproducts of food production— whereas now, over 60% of fashion is synthetic. @fibershed_ is one of my favorite leaders in the “farm-to-closet” movement, which challenges people to think locally + regeneratively when it comes to fashion. [dress via @savannahmorrowthelabel in ramie, naturally dyed]
A couple of bloggers / Instagrammers you can take inspiration from, as you learn about ethical, fair-trade, cruelty free and sustainable fashion in India:
Anya Gupta is a fashion and lifestyle influencer who makes DIY products like detergent, toothpaste etc look uber cool! And damn, her clothing and cosmetics recommendations are super inspiring.
Aditi Mayer is all about sustainable fashion and social justice – two topics that rarely meet each other. Her profile focuses on South Asian fashion, and is one of the rare ones that deeply explore ethics and eco-friendly living.
Thanks for sharing your questions around sustainable fashion. Those not directly answered in the post above are included below.
If you have more questions, please ask them in the comments to this post.
What are some unique sustainable fashion brands in Mumbai?
What does ethical clothing mean?
“Ethical” encapsulates anything that is kind to people, animals and the environment. Typically, ethical clothing is made with natural materials like organic cotton, hemp or bamboo. The artisans involved in crafting it work in respectable working conditions and are paid fairly. No animals are harmed in the making of the products, neither by making use of animal-derived ingredients nor by testing on animals.
Where to find eco-friendly clothing in Pune?
Pune’s homegrown sustainable labels include the Ka Sha boutique and Outliers Clothing Co.
What are recommended sustainable fashion brands in Bangalore
Bangalore’s SwapStitched clothes swap events are one of a kind!
Do you think about slow, eco-friendly fashion? What steps have you taken (or will take) towards it? What are your favorite sustainable fashion brands in India?
*Note: This article does not endorse or represent any of the brands mentioned. Views and opinions are entirely the author’s own.
If you’d like to contribute a guest post to The Shooting Star, please see guidelines here.
About the guest author:
Parita Bhansali is a curious traveller and a corporate sales professional. She has loved animals since she was a child and gradually turned vegan after reading about the inhumane treatment of voiceless animals to satiate human greed. After a brief stint at Loreal, she began transitioning towards environmentally conscious and animal friendly products. She believes there is loads to be done to protect her only home – Planet Earth. Connect with her on: Pinterest | Blog | Instagram | YouTube | Twitter
Ideas I gathered on sexual freedom, relationships, food and sustainability, while spending time with the tribes of Chhattisgarh.
“Woh log peeche chhooth gaye (they got left behind).”
“They have a special status because [economic] development didn’t reach them.“
These were words I heard again and again in Chhattisgarh, referring to the many indigenous tribes in the state.
Many of them traditionally lived in mud and bamboo houses in the forest. Often cultivating a small patch of land, burning it and moving every few years. Many wore nothing but a rag around their waste, multiple tattoos, combs in their hair and handmade ornaments. They lived off the land, worshipped nature, practiced animist rituals and survived on minimal possessions. The forest and local healers catered to their medical needs.
And yet, they are considered backward because money and modern comforts hold little importance in their off-the-grid lives.
I was lucky to spend a couple of weeks with the amazing folks from Bastar Tribal Homestay and Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat – who work closely with the tribes of Chhattisgarh. That gave me a chance to meet and engage with tribal elders, craftsmen, healers, cattle herders, anganwadi teachers and social workers.
Here are some life lessons I gleaned from the various tribes of Chhattisgarh:
- The freedom to experiment with sexuality and choose a life partner in a ‘ghotul’
- A farm-to-table diet featuring millets, moringa, mahua and more superfoods
- A rational approach to live-in relationships, ‘dowry’ and divorce
- If we take the cow’s milk, what will happen to the calf?
- A sustainable life through nomadism, barefoot living and upcycling
- A village can raise a kid, literally
- Have you gathered any fascinating ideas of love and life on your travels?
The freedom to experiment with sexuality and choose a life partner in a ‘ghotul’
“The message of the ghotul—that youth must be served, that freedom and happiness are more to be treasured than any material gain, that friendliness and sympathy, hospitality and unity are of the first importance, and above all that human love—and its physical expression—is beautiful, clean and precious, is typically Indian.”
So wrote Verrier Elwin of the controversial ghotul of the Muria and Gond tribes in Central India. His insightful books, written from his perspective as an anthropologist and ethnologist, document tribal life and customs that are slowly being eroded.
One such custom is that of the ghotul – a sort of commune that functions after nightfall, whose members are young (unmarried) teenagers. Legend has it that the first of its kind was built by their celebrated ancestor Lingo.
Within its physical confines, the members are taught both, the social responsibilities of the tribe: music, dance, respecting elders, tribal traditions, bonding over natural brews, cooking. And the individual, consensual exploration of one’s sexuality, with one or multiple partners, with or without emotional attachment. Most importantly, without judgement.
On the other hand, in the regressive contemporary society of India, even public displays of affection – let alone pre-marital sex – are considered taboo.
Many families will disown their daughters for choosing to be in a consensual relationship. But wouldn’t hesitate to forcibly marry them off to a complete stranger, whose demands she must pander to even on their first night together.
Although ghotuls were an essential part of life for the Muriya and Gond tribes of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, many have been shut down on suspicion of naxal activities. Others have fallen prey to the influences of ‘modern’ society, ‘urban’ education and religion.
I was amused to read a Gond social worker report that in one ghotul, the evening now begins with a recitation of the gayatri mantra!
Perhaps it’s time to look past our dogmatic religions, whatever they may be, and learn from the so called ‘backward’ people, the original dwellers of this land.
I’m sure we can learn a thing or three about social interaction, sexual freedom, gender equality and the right to choose who to love.
A farm-to-table diet featuring millets, moringa, mahua and more superfoods
Long before the green revolution transformed indigenous diets in India, the tribes of Chhattisgarh cultivated and consumed foods that are now globally recognized as superfoods.
In a village of the Baiga tribe in the Kawardha region, cut off from the road by a river, I met a woman brewing mahua liquor under a stunning old mahua tree. It was just after breakfast, but she insisted I try it. With a spoon carved from wood, she poured some into a leaf folded into a cup – a hot, bitter, woody taste that I never quite acquired!
Although mahua is blamed for alcoholism among the tribes now, it was once dried and made into mahua rotis or laddoos – packed with abundant energy!
From various elders in Bastar and Kawardha, I gathered that the traditional diet once consisted of kodo millet, moringa and legumes – all high on the nutritional quotient.
In the local haats (tribal markets), I saw root veggies like alookanda, varieties of beans, and snacks made with pumpkin – none of which I could recognize from our regular diets. In the harsh summer, instead of water, many tribes drink paich – a nutritious drink made by soaking rice or millet.
At a Gond village home, we feasted on kandul lentils – grown in the forest. Once cultivated, they are dried, packed up in sihadi leaves, stitched together with sihadi ropes and can last upto two years!
On a hike, we spotted chidchidi, the seeds of which have a hallucinogenic effect that convinces your mind that you’re not hungry for days.
Unfortunately like in most of India, the indigenous diet of Central India too is fast being replaced by rice and wheat. Leading to malnutrition, poor growth among children and health complications among adults.
As we aspire to healthier lifestyles, perhaps the tribes of Chhattisgarh could help us dig out the sustainable superfoods they once embraced.
A rational approach to live-in relationships, ‘dowry’ and divorce
When it comes to marriage, the ideas of compulsion and dowry drive me crazy.
In India, people in their late twenties and early thirties are considered ticking time-bombs who must not miss the marriage window.
It’s bad enough that married women are expected to dissociate from their house / family and join their husband’s. As an earning member of the family, or even as a member who contributes to household chores, that’s a loss to the woman’s family. But in our grand patriarchal scheme of things, it’s the woman’s family that must also pay dowry to the man’s – for taking their “burden” off.
Make no mistake, the practice of dowry, though now illegal, continues in urban and rural India. Modern, forward-thinking families in the cities may refrain from using the term itself, but many still expect the woman to bring with her expensive household “gifts”.
I’ve witnessed that first-hand twice in my extended family.
On the other hand, the tribes of Chhattisgarh who seemingly “got left behind” in the race for modernity, possess far more practical views on relationships.
It’s socially acceptable – and infact the norm in many communities – for a couple to live together without formally being married. If they are driven by love and compatible with each other, what’s the need for a formal ceremony, a legal document or a dedicated celebration to endorse their commitment?
When a couple does decide to marry, the “dowry” works in reverse. Since the woman’s family is losing an earning / contributing member, the man’s must compensate their loss – usually by footing the bill of the celebration or with the much-desired Mahua liquor.
In the Baiga tribe, the rules of divorce are simple too. First, it’s socially understandable for a couple to choose that they no longer want to be together. Second, if the woman initiates the separation, her new companion must compensate the old one for the expenses he bore for the wedding or Mahua.
Practical, honest and not two-faced like our “modern” society, right?
If we take the cow’s milk, what will happen to the calf?
I vividly remember the first conversation I had with my host from Bastar Tribal Homestay when I met him at the bus stop, after a long ride from Raipur.
Over the phone, I had mentioned to him that I don’t consume any animal products. Now even before we made small talk, he told me that the tribes of Chhattisgarh don’t consume milk either!
Why? It’s never been part of their diet. Even though they rear cows to get manure (cow dung) for their fields, they have no idea how to separate them from the calves and take their milk. They worry that if they took the cow’s milk, what would happen to the calf?
Turned out, my host had worked with the veterinary department in the past, on a scheme to distribute cows to poor households in Bastar, hoping they would earn money off the milk. The scheme failed badly, for no one knew how to or was willing to milk the cows!
This is easy to observe in the tribal haats too, where I didn’t spot a single product made of milk.
The tribes that were once nomadic hunter-gatherers still hunt and consume meat. Goats and other animals are still sacrificed at their festivals. Infact, even human sacrifices were common till after India’s independence. Rumor has it that unwelcome visitors in the area were often captured and sacrificed!
In the “modern” world, we’ve moved towards horrific ways of raising, mass producing, enslaving and genetically altering animals for meat, milk and eggs. But I felt reassured that atleast India’s ancient wisdom recognizes that a cow’s milk is for her calf, just like a human mother’s milk is for her baby.
A sustainable life through nomadism, barefoot living and upcycling
Minimalism, zero waste, upcycling and detoxing have become buzzwords globally. But for the tribes of Chhattisgarh, they’ve long been a way of life.
My hosts at Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat shared an intriguing story of a local shaman. While staying at his house with some of their guests, the shaman advised that the guests be dropped off to an airport and my hosts return home immediately, abandoning their plans to stay in Raipur for a couple of days. An earthquake was on its way, the shaman said.
My hosts brushed him off, but somehow ended up abandoning their plans to stay in Raipur anyway.
Surprisingly enough, the earthquake shook the earth just as the shaman had predicted. They rushed back to his house to ask how he knew. The shaman pointed to his bare feet, and said the earth had told him.
We can discredit ancient ways of connecting with nature, but the truth is we are constantly chasing them in fancier ways. We burn big holes in our pockets at detox retreats where we can walk barefoot and feel connected to earth.
My host often joked that for many tribes, “the forest is mother, the tiger is brother!” For centuries, they’ve lived off the forest, cultivating small patches of land, then burning it and moving on, giving it a chance to heal back into a forest. Even as hunters, they hunted for survival, not for the pleasure of taste.
In Bastar, I spent an afternoon observing craftsmen who specialise in bell metal crafts, passed down from one generation to another. Designated “other backward castes”, I was surprised to learn that these craftsmen upcycle used metal (from kitchen ware, appliances etc) in a long painstaking process, to create incredible ornaments.
Natural upcycling is common in everyday life too. The sargi shrub is used to brush teeth, its leaves to make plates and its seeds to wash clothes. Beds are made from strong sihadi ropes. And gulal for holi is made by boiling flame of the forest flowers!
Instead of reinventing the entire wheel in practicing urban sustainability, we’d be better off learning from our not-so-backward past.
A village can raise a kid, literally
In India (and perhaps elsewhere), when couples have problems in their marital life, having a kid is often recommended as the solution. In a separation or divorce situation, society looks down upon the parents, especially the mother, for raising their child in a “broken” home.
Unfortunately, the toxicity of many home environments slips notice.
Which is why, I was amazed to hear from my hosts in Kawardha how the Baiga tribe of Chhattisgarh sorts out such complex situations without legal recourse.
If a couple with a kid choose to separate, the woman has the first right to decide if she wants to raise the kid. If she decides that single parenthood isn’t for her, the man gets to choose if it’s for him.
If neither parent wants to take on the responsibility, the community assigns a guardian to raise the child until the age of fifteen, with the rest of the village chipping in. More importantly, the woman can choose to leave without any stigma.
Perhaps as parents, you’d think that’s a bit brutal. But who’s to say that a child raised in a toxic household, by a parent who doesn’t feel up to the task, will have a better life than one raised with love by an entire village?