Farm tourism results in chaos
IT is a typical case of overkill-overzealous tourist operators herding townsfolk by the hundreds and ruining what was till recently, a unique destination for farm tourism in India. The Shekhawati region in Rajasthan is in danger of being reduced to just about any other tourist spot with its attendant chaos, urban commotion and unattended clutter.
Worse, the frescoes on the walls of old mansions (havelis), which have earned Shekhawati the distinction of being the ‘largest open-air art gallery in the world’, may well be forgotten features if the tourist influx is not checked. Sadly, business families like the Sekhsarias, Rampurias and Goenkas, who own the havelis have long migrated from the area, leaving their upkeep to local caretakers.
"So long as Shekhawati was off the tourism trail, things were fine," says a photographer who visited the area on a conducted tour seven years ago. "You could breathe unpolluted air, the colour and sheer vibrancy of the place gripped you, you felt one with nature, pleasantly caught in a time warp. That magic is gone."
Translating literally into the Land of Shekha’s clan, the region covers the administrative districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar. In the 14th century, Shekhawati was an important trading post for goods originating from the ports of Gujarat. That explains the origins of some of India’s prominent business families and captains of industry, mostly settled in Mumbai today.
A few forts in the region
have been converted into heritage hotels. The 125-year-old Mukundgarh
Fort is one of the oldest and most imposing among them. It even houses a
temple dedicated to Goddess Durga, who is believed to grant the wishes
of a ‘suitable match’ for every eligible girl in Shekhawati.
That is not all large, carved metal beds in wood-panelled rooms, boardroom-sized bathrooms, polished teak floors and the countless attics and alcoves revive an old world charm. At the heart of the cluster of rooms, is a sprawling courtyard where children once played games like the hardara and rounder balla.
Owners of havelis had thrown open their doors to tourists, essentially to generate funds for maintenance of the premises in their absence. For instance, at a price of Rs 1,700 per head, the Morarkas are offering overnight stay at Mansukh Farm at Navalgarh with camel rides, meals and travel thrown in. With mounting competition, off-season and group discounts from rival houses have become the order of the day.
The tour begins usually from Jaipur in the afternoon with arrival at what is now known as the Camel Point of the Shekhawati region. Here, you are given the option of a camel ride to the camping site for a night stay in a tent, complete with telephone connection, music system and other facilities. Dinner is always organic farm food cultivated in the neighbourhood.
The morning begins with camel rides to farms, tiny hamlets and vantage points through desert tracks before breakfast is served at the camp site. Thereafter, a jeep safari takes you on a guided tour of all the havelis, followed by a sumptuous lunch. The organisers take care of seeing you back to Jaipur.
While a lot has been written about the sights (and sounds) of the place, the food that is served there finds very little mention. Breakfast could be freshly plucked fruits and vegetables accompanied by bajre ke roti layered with freshly churned butter. But it is the enormous lunch and dinner spread that can spoil you.
A typical Marwari platter consists of several types of pickles, savories, chacch and kanji. Then begins a course of rotis, accompanied by dal-bati-churma, gaththe ki sabzi, gowarphali chips, kair-sangdi, muli-ki-sabzi, dum aloo (all local dishes that must be tasted to be understood) and several chutneys and papads. For dessert, there are imarti barfis and badam ka halwa, followed by chacch or kanji.
For those who wish to break from the haveli-to-farm routine, there are horse safaris for the asking. Some organisers are also offering overnight farm tours for those on extended periods of stay. And then there are camp fires, dance parties and special festive packages for birthday celebrations and honeymooning couples.
Now, which tourist can resist these temptations? MF