Tag Archives: Abasa homestay

Secret Seven: 7 hideaways in the North East

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go off the beaten track in India’s North East to come up with some hidden gems

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So you’ve done the Tibetan monastery trail from Tawang to Gangtok, the train ride on the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), tea bungalow stays in Upper Assam, the orchids of Sikkim, wildlife safaris at Kaziranga, and now wonder if the Seven Sisters have anything else to offer. You’d be surprised that there are still a few secret nooks in India’s exotic North East that remain shy of the teeming masses.

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Mechuka
Tucked away in the upper mountain folds of Arunachal’s West Siang district, Mechuka lies closer to the Chinese border than any town in India. Named after the hot springs in the area (men means medicine, chu is water while kha literally means snow or mouth), Mechuka is reached after a circuitous drive from Aalo. The Siyom or Yargyap chu river snakes across the wide plateau surrounded by an amphitheater of hills with bamboo bridges lined with Tibetan prayer flags. Being an advanced landing ground (ALG) for the Indian Army, you wake up to the sound of bagpipes and military drills as wild horses neigh in the fields. Before the road was built, the airstrip was the only access to the village. Stay at Nehnang Guest House and visit Tibetan monasteries like Samden Yongjhar gompa and Dorjeling gompa; the latter has a mud statue spanning two floors, besides the cave where Guru Nanak is believed to have meditated 500 years ago on his journey to Tibet.

Getting there: 180 km from Aalong (Aalo)

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Damro
Located on the back road from Pasighat to Yingkiong, the tiny hamlet of Damro is home to the longest hanging bridge in Arunachal Pradesh swaying over the Yamne river. Surrounded by terraced fields is Yamne Eco Lodge, a cluster of thatched bamboo houses run by Oken Tayeng of Abor Country Travels & Expeditions. Hike 40 minutes to the bridge and encounter Adi Padam herders heading to the forests to tend to their mithun, a semi-domesticated bovine. Visit the original village of the Adi Padam tribe and get an insight into their unusual Donyi-Polo culture dictated by sun and moon worship. Watch sprightly men wield daos (machetes) with ease as women carry firewood or harvested crops in beyen (cane baskets). Try the local staple of smoked pork, lai (leafs), raja chili chutney, apong (rice beer) and if you are lucky, experience their local festivals like Sollung or Etor livened by song and dance.

Getting there: 74 km from Pasighat
Ph 9863553243 Email aborcountry@gmail.com www.aborcountrytravels.com

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Nongriat
While Mawlynnong has gained much acclaim for its tag as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’ and its pretty living root bridge Jing Kieng Jri, Meghalaya has a huge wealth of natural wonders. At Nongriat, a deep descent from Laitkynsew down 2500 steep steps, past aquamarine pools set in a boulderscape, lies a double-decker bridge. It was shaped over centuries by entwining the fast growing aerial roots of the Ficus elastica tree. Every local passerby would spontaneously twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones, in keeping with an unwritten ancient code of strengthening the natural latticed structure over time. Dangling above a pretty pool, like a tiered necklace swinging in the tree canopy, Umshiang, the double-decker living root bridge, never fails to leave any visitor awestruck. Dip your feet in the pool for a natural fish spa with butterflies wafting around. If you are up for another hour of trekking, you can catch the Rainbow Falls, another major highlight in Nongriat. While there are pocket-friendly community-run guesthouses in Nongriat, Cherrapunji Resort in Laitkynsew is a good base. Run by Dennis Rayen, an old-timer in hospitality, he’s well versed in birding, local excursions and meteorological data of the region, displayed on the walls.

Getting there: Cherrapunji (called Sohra locally) is a 56km drive from Shillong
Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew www.cherrapunjee.com

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Hoollongopar Gibbon Sanctuary
Named after the profusion of hoolong trees (Dipterocarpus macrocarpus) in the area, the Hoollongopar sanctuary is the only one in the country dedicated to the protection of India’s sole ape species, the Hoolock Gibbon. Surrounded by tea plantations and a railway line, this tiny pocket was once connected to larger tracts of forests in neighbouring Nagaland. Despite its shrinking habitat, the park is a good place to spot Hoolock Gibbons besides troupes of Stump-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque, Pig-tailed Macaque, Capped Langur and Bengal Slow Loris. There’s also a Forest Rest House where visitors can stay overnight and set out for an early morning nature trail. For a more luxurious stay, try Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari on the outskirts of Jorhat.

Getting there: 27km from Jorhat
Heritage North East Ph 18001239801 www.heritagetourismindia.com

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Siiro
While Ziro has garnered much attention for its music festival, nearby Siiro leads a life of relative obscurity. The pretty little village is home to an organic farmstay called Abasa, run by a charming couple Kago Kampu and Kago Habung. Staying with an Apatani family helps guests gain insights into the centuries-old techniques of paddy cultivation of the fascinating tribe, recognizable by their facial tattoos and cane nose plugs. The facial mutilation was apparently done to deter raiding tribes from abducting the beautiful women! Stay on the 10-hectare farm growing kiwi, tomato, cabbage, babycorn and rice as you get a crash course on the paddy-cum-fish farming of the Apatanis. Fish and rice form the staple with unique dishes like suddu yo, a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk cooked on fire in tender bamboo stems, dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a chutney made of roasted sunflower seeds, yokhung chutney made of Xanthallum berries, peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots, pork and tapiyo (local vegetarian salt made from charred lai or maize leaf which is their secret to being slim) besides the local brew apong, made of fermented millet and rice.

Getting there: Siiro is 3km from the old town of Hapoli near Ziro, district headquarters of Lower Subansiri, 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229.
Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483 Email abasahomestay@gmail.com

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Dzukou Valley
Cradled between the borders of Manipur and Nagaland above 2000m, Dzukou Valley is an ecological haven that is home to the endemic Dzukou lily. Named dzukou or ‘soul-less and dull’ by disillusioned Angami ancestors after a disappointing harvest; others contend it means ‘cold water’ in the local dialect, ascribing it to the icy streams that run through it. The beauty of Dzukou Valley is unsurpassed, earning its more popular tag as the Valley of Flowers of the North East. Accessed by a tough hike across the Japfu Peak from the heritage village of Khonoma in Nagaland, the valley is a pristine paradise that attracts birders and trekkers alike. En route stop at the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary, set up to protect the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan. Khonoma is incidentally the country’s first green village where hunting and tree logging are strictly banned. Other access points are the villages of Viswema and Jakhama. Entry to Dzukou valley (Rs 50 for Indians, Rs 100 for foreigners) is paid at the Rest House, which also offers basic accommodation for a reasonable fee. A better option is staying at Meru Homestay in Khonoma run by Angami couple Krieni and Megongui who happily rustle up traditional Naga cuisine. Go on heritage walks around the 700-year-old village and listen to stories of valour in the land of headhunters.

Getting there: Khonoma lies 20km south west of Kohima which can be reached via NH39 from Dimapur, 74km away.
Ph Meru’s Homestay Ph 0370-2340061, Baby’s Homestay Ph 9436071046, Michael Megorissa local co-ordinator and guide Ph 9856125553

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

Kewzing
Overlooking snowy peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, Kewzing is a scenic village in Sikkim perched at 1700m and surrounded by cardamom fields and forested tracts. Hike to hot water springs in the area or head on walking trails to Doling, Barfung, Bakhim and Mambru villages, besides birdwatching trips to Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary and the monastery trail to Kewzing and Ravangla. The altitudinal variation between the Rangit river valley (350m) and the highest hill Maenam (3500m) harbours nearly 200 bird species, including the Satyr Tragopan and Fire-tailed Myzornis. Bon Farmhouse, a 6-acre family-run farm helmed by brothers Chewang and Sonam Bonpo is the perfect roost where farm produce like maize, buckwheat, finger millet, green peas, rice, wheat, potato, pumpkin, beans and lettuce is stirred up into delicious home-cooked meals. Fresh eggs and milk, butter, cottage cheese, curd and buttermilk from the farm’s Jersey cows also land up at the table. The forest abounds with wild edible foods and the monsoon adds seasonal delights like tusa (bamboo shoots), kew (mushrooms) and ningro (wild ferns). Try Sikkimese delicacies like kinama (fermented soyabean), gundruk (fermented spinach) and fisnu (stinking nettles). Enjoy a hot stone herbal steam bath in a dotho, infused with wild medicinal plants collected from the forest.

Getting there: 127 km from Bagdogra Airport
Ph +91 9735900165, 9547667788, 9434318496 www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in The New Indian Express Indulge in December 2018. 

 

 

Life on the Farm: India’s best farm stays

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From milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses to planting paddy and plucking oranges or tea leaves, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase India’s top farmstays where one can enjoy nature at its best 

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While many dream of retiring early, giving up the mad rush of city life and heading to the hills or remote villages to relax in a ranch or run a farm, some are actually living that dream. But life on a farm is no cakewalk. It’s a demanding full-time occupation that starts at the crack of dawn and wraps up at dusk with no letting up through rain or shine. Yet, there is something fulfilling about being amidst nature, growing and enjoying the fruits of one’s labour.

Today, the growing trend of farm tourism in India offers city dwellers a chance to savour country life at its best – milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses, planting paddy, plucking tea leaves, coffee berries or oranges, driving a tractor, riding on bullock carts, taking guided spice tours and plantation walks and wolfing down hearty farm fresh organic meals! So roll up your sleeves for a hands-on experience at over 20 handpicked farm stays across the country.

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Rainforest Retreat, Coorg (Karnataka)
A certified organic farm in the tropical rainforests of Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, Rainforest Retreat at Mojo Plantation is a unique blend of eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture and environmental education. Run by a botanist-microbiologist couple Dr Sujata and Anurag (Doc) Goel and their daughter Maya, the 20-acre farm grows cardamom and coffee in the shade of rainforest trees. Go on a guided plantation walk, learn how to hand-pollinate vanilla flowers, pick coffee and follow its journey from bean to cup.

Ripe red berries are handpicked, sundried, hulled, ‘monsooned’ to impart a unique flavour, graded, roasted and ground, all on the farm. The award-winning eco lodge offers a two-room Drongo Cottage and tents deep inside the plantation. The deluxe Atlas Cottages by the stream – named after the world’s largest moth species found here – are more suited for older guests and children. There’s no TV in the rooms, but enough nature TV outside with Wi-Fi near the streamside pavilion. Delicious, wholesome meals are prepared using fuel from the biogas plant.

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Farm produce like cardamom, civet cat coffee, gourmet filter coffee, pepper and vanilla are sold under the label ‘Don’t Panic, It’s Organic’ and proceeds go towards the Goels’ biodiversity research foundation WAPRED (Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity). Every season has its appeal – coffee harvesting in Jan-Feb, coffee blossoms in Feb-March, vanilla flowering and pollination in March-April, fireflies by mid-April, frog mating in monsoons and cardamom harvest and blooming of ground orchids between Sep-Dec.

Animal Farm
Besides Moonshine, Starlight and Survivor, the trio of geese by the pond, 6 dogs Stella, Venus, Leo, Luna, Aquarius, Kiri, war-hero Billy the goat, cows and cats, there’s plenty of flora and fauna – Malabar Gliding Tree-frogs, Atlas Moth, Ahaetulla vine snake, arachnids, 40 species of endemic orchids, over 100 birds and occasional wildlife like wild boar, jackal, civet cats, Malabar giant squirrel, mongoose, porcupine, slender loris and barking deer. Doc has recently published a coffee table book on the biodiversity of Mojo called Life Organic.

Getting there: 10 km north west of Madikeri and 250 km from Bangalore. Head past Club Mahindra towards Galibeedu and turn right at the signboards for Kaloor village

Tariff: Rs.2,000-4,000 (includes bed and breakfast, half-day trek and/or plantation tour, lunch and dinner available at extra cost)

Contact: Ph +91-8272 265638/6, 201428, 9480104640 Email rainforestours@gmail.com www.rainforestours.com

Mojo Rainforest Retreat-IMG_9743_Anurag Mallick

No Man’s Land, near Sirsi (Karnataka)
Nearly a decade ago George and Susheela Varghese left their city jobs and decided to go ‘as far away from Bangalore as possible’. They ended up 400 km north near Sirsi in the forested tracts of the Western Ghats and hoped that the city wouldn’t reach that far, at least in their lifetime! However, it isn’t the remoteness that gives the 8.5-acre farm its name. George believes that we are just caretakers of the land and no one can really ‘own’ it. However, the joke at home is that with three home-schooled daughters aged 8, 7 and 4 and his wife, he’s the only guy in the house; hence No Man’s Land!

They host one family at a time in a cottage, with a tent for a second on the anvil. Besides the original cash crop areca, there’s paddy, sugarcane, pepper, banana, ginger and turmeric. The main homestead is perched on a 3-acre hillside with 30 mangos, 40 cashew, 40 amla trees and fruits like guava, chikkoo, pomelo, avocado and lychee. It’s not exactly an orchard with neat rows of trees, but more a ‘food forest’. They shun pesticides and fertilizers, focusing on alternate energy like biogas, composting, solar cooking and baking in summer using solar boxes. To enrich the soil and increase microbial activity, they use jivamrit, a mix of cow urine, cowdung, jaggery (for a sweet environment) and horsegram flour (food for microbes) that is fermented for 3 days before being added to the soil.

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Being a working organic farm, there’s never a dull moment with lots of seasonal activity – planting paddy saplings in monsoon, harvesting in early Nov-Dec and sugarcane harvest and jaggery-making in early March, celebrated as a local festival called aalemane. The small stream on the property has flowing water till Jan-Feb. Besides an organic harvest, the farm also makes ginger chutney, guava jam and banana savouries!

Animal Farm
All the farm animals are named after infamous people – from the dogs Veeru (after Veerappan), Ozzy (after Osama) and Silky (short for Silk Smitha) to the 3 cows, buffaloes, 20 free range country hen, 5 ducks to Sheru the kitten (after the Jungle Book baddie Sher Khan) and ‘The cat with no name’ – its gender was unknown for the longest time and hence escaped nomenclature!

Getting there: Danandi village is 16 km from Sirsi off the Hubli-Belgaum road in northwest Karnataka with the nearest airport at Hubli 110 km away.

Tariff: Rs.1,500/person, Rs.750 for kids between 6-16, below 6 free

Contact: Ph +91 9481278348 http://www.nomanslandfarm.in

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The Hermitage Guest House, Nersa (Karnataka)
When David and Morvarid Fernandez started their farm south of Belgaum in 1981, it was pretty much a wild tract. The isolated sanctuary seemed ideal for quiet contemplation, so they called it The Hermitage. In 2004 they established an eco lodge for guests and even after all these years, the soul remains intact. The 45-acre farm is 100% organic and grows seasonal vegetables, rice, wheat, turmeric, ginger, sweet potato, onions, chikkoo, mango, coconut, pepper, coffee, tea, cocoa and medicinal plants. Twelve acres have been left underdeveloped for wild animals.

Stay in The Machan, a bamboo and wood home on stilts 11 feet off the ground, or The Kadaba, a typical village home of wood and mud plaster or The Gota, a rural cottage with locally made red clay floor tiles. With no electricity, the farm is solar-powered with hot water available from a bhum (wood fire stove). The kitchen offers excellent Parsi and Anglo Indian cuisine incorporating unusual indigenous fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables grown locally or growing wild in the Western Ghats. Try homemade jam made from wild jamun, free range eggs, besides breadfruit, Bull’s Heart, Custard Apple and Cherimoya.

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Get cooking lessons, drive a John Deere 5045, attend the local jathre (village fair) and santhe (weekly market) at Khanapur (Sun), Alnavar (Tues) and Nangad (Wed), learn pottery from Shambaji or Shankar using Khanapur’s famous red clay or relax in the perennial stream. Watch the jungles come alive with Flame of the Forest in summer and enjoy birding and stargazing in winter; the stillness broken by the call of jungle fowls or the howl of a jackal.

Animal Farm
With an environment hostile to agriculture, farming is a challenge with monkeys, bears and fruit bats making a beeline for chikkoo. Bulbuls and barbets peck at guavas, parakeets feast on sunflower while woodpeckers target the coconut trees! Spotted deer enjoy resting in the shade of the eucalyptus, acacia and silver oak trees and pairs of peacocks nest here every season. Besides butterflies, bats, snakes, gaur and other animals that pass through the farm, there are resident geese, hens, ducks and the adorable dog Bahadur (Badmash and Scully passed away recently after a full life on the farm, as did Apache the ‘loafer cat’).

Getting there: The Hermitage is near Nersa Village, 18 km from the nearest town Khanapur and 45 km from Belgaum.

Tariff: Rs.2,500/person, including all meals

Contact: Ph +91 9341998610, 9880757075, 9341692211, 9242623020, 9480235842
Email info@thehermitageguesthouse.com http://www.thehermitageguesthouse.com

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Off the Grid Farm, Castle Rock (Goa-Karnataka border)
After running rivers in Dandeli, Coorg and Goa, white water rafting specialist John Pollard and his wife Sylvia, a pottery artist, chose a quiet nook in the hills close to the rafting action. Not too far from Castle Rock near Doodhsagar waterfalls on the Goa-Karnataka border, their 5-acre patch at Poppalwadi can be summed up as ‘extreme farming’. In a place too remote for mobile networks, tar roads or even electricity, solar powered LED lights, well-ventilated rooms and freshly prepared food requiring no refrigeration do the trick.

Off The Grid employs organic farming and composting to grow its own rice. Besides fruit trees like mango, chikkoo, guava, banana and jackfruit, the kitchen garden supplies enough corn, brinjal, spinach, beans, pumpkin and rocket leaves to be self-sufficient. The food is eclectic with a fusion of European, Asian and Anglo-Indian dishes – oriental noodles, Thai curry, salads, smoked meats, tandoori, tuna and as per John ‘wood-fired anything’.

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With just two cabins, two rooftop rooms and a tent, the set-up is eco-friendly, small, rustic and ultra low impact. Guests are welcome to lend a hand in farm work, weeding and picking vegetables. Choose from 2 hr trails to full day treks with picnic hampers to explore hidden waterfalls, swim in empty pools and village walks through Kunbi tribal hamlets.

Animal Farm
Contiguous to the Anshi-Dandeli tiger reserve, this is a wild tract inhabited by sambhar, deer, bear, porcupines, gaur (Indian bison) and leopards. Birding is rich though forest birds are not easy to sight. Noisy dogs don’t last very long here and may get picked up by leopards along with livestock, but Kukri the smart mongrel seems to be holding out.

Getting there: Drive 85km from Panjim on NH-4A via Velha Goa, Ponda, Mollem and Anmod Ghat to Castle Rock on the Karnataka border, from where it’s a 10 km/30 min offroad drive to the farm

Tariff: 3,500/person, all meals included

Contact: Ph +91 9049081097, 9623451758, 8805727230 Email info@kalirafting.com http://www.offthegrid.in

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Maachli Farmstay, Parule (Maharashtra)
Tucked away in the lush hinterland off Maharashtra’s Malvan Coast, Maachli is aptly named after the temporary machaans constructed in fields where farmers camp overnight to protect the crops during harvest season. Run by Pravin and Priya Samant and their son Prathamesh, the 10-acre farm is bordered by a perennial stream, which doubles up as a natural fish spa! The five rustic themed cottages have sit-outs overlooking the plantation and acute conical thatched roofs to prevent monkey menace.

Take a plantation tour to see how coconut, betelnut, spices, banana and mangoes are grown. For a more hands-on experience, milk a cow, draw water from the well, visit a potters’ village or learn to use a laath, the traditional way of tapping water from the stream for irrigation. Catch a cooking demo at the interactive kitchen Randhap (Konkani for ‘cooking’) where farm-fresh organic vegetables are chopped on traditional cutters called adalho and food is prepared on a chool (mud stove). Meals are served in earthen pots and patravali (leaf plates) or areca fronds.

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The Morning Nature Trail to the Bandheshvaray temple of the gurakhi (shepherd) community takes visitors to the local avath (village society) and offers glimpses into rural life. The 2½-hour Sunset Trek to the coast meanders through coconut groves, mango orchards, small jungles, plateaus and an ancient devrai (sacred grove).

Getting there: 494 km from Mumbai, Parule is 21km south of Malvan and a 22km drive via SH-119 from Kudal (20km north of Sawantwadi) on the Mumbai-Goa highway.

Tariff: Rs.5,400, including all meals, nature trail & plantation tour, activities extra

Contact: Ph +91 9637333284, 9423879865 Email prathameshsawant@maachli.in http://www.maachli.in

Konkan_Stay in a mango orchard at Dwarka Farmstay_Anurag Mallick

Dwarka Farms Homestay, Talavade (Maharashtra)
Lush with mango, cashew, timber, coconut, banana and pineapple, Dwarka Farms is an organic farmstay managed by Dilip Aklekar on his 15-acre property near Sawantwadi. With a vermi-compost plant, biogas for cooking, milk from the farm’s cows and fresh fruits, pulses and vegetables grown on campus, Dwarka follows a ‘plant to plate’ philosophy. A wide range of vegetables, fruits and spices are grown organically, contributing to nearly 80% of ingredients used in the kitchen.

The rambling farmhouse has rooftop dorms and 9 rooms with large balconies opening into the mango orchard with 230 alphonso trees. Dilip’s affable nature allows guests to enjoy free access to his lounge and kitchen where one can learn to cook typical Malvani fare, sip sweet chikoo shira or savour fresh seafood delicacies. Besides excursions to beaches and local sights, he’ll happily accompany you to a potter’s village, bamboo workshops and mat weaving at George Joel’s Greenearth Culture and KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo and Cane Development Centre) in Kudal.

Getting there: Talavade is 14km from Sawantwadi and 11km from Vengurla on the Vengurla-Sawantwadi Road.

Tariff: Rs.2,800-3,600, meals extra Rs.250-300/person

Contact: Ph 02363 266267, 9167231351, 9422541168 Email dilip@dwarkahomestay.com http://www.dwarkahomestay.com

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Acres Wild, Coonoor (Tamil Nadu)
Located on a quiet hillside of Coonoor in the Nilgiris is Mansoor Khan’s 22-acre organic cheese making farmstay. After writing and directing iconic movies like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1986), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1991), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) and Josh (2000), he abandoned Mumbai’s glitz in dramatic filmy style and moved to the Nilgiris in 2004, a stunning region where he had shot some of his films. Mansoor and his wife Tina found their calling in organic gourmet cheese.

Sitting pretty at 6000 ft, the farm grows vegetables, fruits and herbs like fennel, rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, oregano and chives, used to flavour their cheese in delectable flavours – soft cheese like Herb & Garlic, Pepper Top, Celery, Caraway Seed and the garlic-infused Indian Summer. Guests can opt for a basic 2-day cheese-making course for Rs.8000 and learn to make hard cheese like Gouda, Cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan or Advanced Cheese like Mozarella, Camembert and Haloumi. The 14 beehives in the garden produce honey, which is sold in local markets as well. The three farmstay cottages with five rooms are named Haloumi, Cheddar and Colby – cheesy, eh?

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Animal Farm
Besides hens, ducks, geese, turkey, guinea fowl and Rhea the doggy, the farm has two main breeds of cows – Jersey hybrid and Holstein-Friesian hybrid. You might find yourself petting Lazy, the jersey calf or Elizabeth.

Getting there: Coonoor is 21 km south of Ooty in the Nilgiris, 36 km from the nearest railhead Mettupalayam, 70 km from the nearest airport Coimbatore and 300 km from Bangalore. The farm is in Upper Meanjee Estate in Coonoor, reachable via Kannimariamman Kovil Street.

Tariff: Rs.3,500-4,500, plus taxes

Contact: Ph +91 9443232621, 0423-2232621 Email acreswildfarm@gmail.com http://www.acres-wild.com

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Destiny Farmstay, Avalanche (Tamil Nadu)
As the mist slowly rises above the lake and forested slopes of Avalanche, you get a wispy image of how beautiful the Nilgiris would have been nearly a century ago. Cut off from the mass tourism of Ooty, Destiny Farmstay is a throwback to colonial times when the hills were not overrun with human habitation. Spread over 180-acres and surrounded by the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Destiny was started nearly a decade ago by Vijay and Neeta Prabhu.

There’s no TV or mobile connectivity and an old army pick-up truck ferries guests across the last 3 km off-road stretch. The organic farm grows radish, cabbage and other vegetables, besides herbs, strawberries, plums and carnations. A private garden supplies the kitchen with farm fresh produce served at the Wishbone Restaurant. 35 rooms furnished with parquetry, country furniture and fireplaces, open to a stupendous view. Wake up to the neigh of horses or take a ride around the track after an introductory riding lesson.

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Visit a cattle farm to catch the dairy in action, get the lowdown on farming practises in an educational agri-tour or plant farm herbs and vegetables. Stroll down to the lake, hike to a nearby Toda village, try your hand at fishing in a little pond or go overnight camping on a nearby hill.

Animal Farm
A stable of 20 horses, a dairy full of 60 cows, 6 sheep, rabbits, geese, a couple of dogs and Jimmy the cat.

Getting there: Avalanche is 25 km from Ooty via Good Shepherd International School and Emerald Dam.

Tariff: Rs.7,500-10,000/couple, including breakfast, meals

Contact: Ph 0423 2244000 Email holiday@littlearth.in http://www.littlearth.in

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Organic Farms, Auroville (Pondicherry)
Long before ‘organic farming’ became a buzzword, the Auroville community has been involved in sustainable farming practices and holistic living since the 60s. Grappling with poor soil, difficult climate and a short growing season from December to March, Auroville today has nearly 320 acres of farmland and over two dozen farms, each unique in activity and character. Employing eco-friendly technologies such as windmills, solar energy, micro-sprinklers, biogas, permaculture and biodynamics, they blend modern agriculture with traditional farming techniques. Many of these farms with orchards, fields, vegetable gardens and dairies are open to serious volunteers.

The 35-acre Aurogreen, started in 1975, is one of the oldest farms in Auroville while the 135-acre Annapurna the largest. A ‘Certified Organic’ farm, Annapurna grows 30 acres of food crops like rice, millets and oilseeds, with the remainder dedicated to firewood trees, fodder and forest. Pebble Garden, home to 100 endangered traditional vegetable varieties, runs the outreach initiative ‘A Garden for Everyone’ and is open to visitors for a guided walk every Fri 4 pm.

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The 6-acre Solitude Farm with an in-house rock band Emergence and an organic restaurant, grows indigenous millets, rice, oil seeds, grams, pulses, vegetables and 16 varieties of fruits. They aim to create a dynamic integrated lifestyle, leaving space for music and arts with farming as the foundation of the community.

TerraSoul, a holistic farm project on a 4.5 acre patch in the 22-acre Windarra Farm, employs Permadynamics and has a mushroom and spirulina farming unit, besides workshops and classes on Thai yoga massage, martial arts and tango. Most farms have acco for volunteers, who are expected to stay at least a month and take part in farming and community activities.

Getting there: Auroville is 10 km north of Pondicherry and about 150 km south of Chennai

Tariff: TerraSoul charges volunteers Rs.4,000-7,000 per month

Contact: Email farmgroup@auroville.org.in http://www.auroville.org

Kerala-Oyster Opera

Oyster Opera, Padanna (Kerala)
Surrounded by fish farming ponds and coconut-fringed backwaters, Oyster Opera in Kerala’s Kasaragod district is an unusual farm. Its treasures are not found in the soil, but in water. One of the few farmstays devoted to green mussel and oyster farming, it was conceived by Gul Mohammed in 2007, who cultured kallumakai (green mussels) on locally available coir. Recipient of the Karshaka Shiromani, a national award from the Agriculture Ministry for his innovative farming technique, he shared his knowhow with poor coastal folk, transforming the lives of nearly 6000 farmers.

In this community-run enterprise, local women handle cooking and housekeeping at the rustic themed resort. Spread over 6-acres, Oyster Opera has traditional huts built on land, water and treetop using locally available materials. The eco-friendly laterite stone cottages with open air baths are named Mussel, Oyster, Clam, Shrimp, Crab, Pearl Oyster, Lobster and Snail with a houseboat called Sara’s Float.

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Besides picking oysters and fishing, enjoy swimming, canoeing, coracle jaunts, houseboat rides in the pristine Valiyaparamba backwaters and island hopping to uninhabited islets, estuaries, mangroves and beaches nearby.

Getting there: Oyster Opera is located at Padanna, 7km from the nearest bus and railway station at Cheruvathur in Kasaragod district. It is 120km from Mangalore Airport and 180km from Kozhikode Airport.

Tariff: Rs.3,800-5,500, includes breakfast

Contact: Ph +91 9447176465, 0467-2278101 Email oystergul@rediffmail.com http://www.oysteropera.in

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Spice Village, Thekkady (Kerala)
CGH Earth’s Spice Village is a farm disguised as a plush Kerala resort. Poised on a 2,000ft high ridge near Periyar around a ranger’s forested home, the 12-acre resort is built like a mountain village based on the ancient tribal wisdom of the Cardamom Hills. Spice Village won Wild Asia’s annual Responsible Tourism Awards in the ‘boutique hotel’ category in 2007 and it’s easy to see why.

A tea counter dispensing herbal brews of your choice supplants a formal reception. The nature-cooled cottages wear thatched roofs made of locally sourced elephant grass and stone floors with coir mats. The whole campus is a chemical-free zone – the sprayer uses biodegradable pesticides like neem and lemon grass oils, little clay pots provide natural mosquito control and the incenser burns Black Damur, an insect-repelling tree resin. Strings of aloe vera plants suspended in the verandah ward off pesky flying pests around the dining areas. Over 200 kg of daily organic waste is recycled in the vermicompost plant to fertilize the farm.

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Every tree is neatly labeled and the Pepper Vine Tour, an hour-long walk through the property, is a good introduction to spices. Nearly 140 species of native plants have been conserved. Organic vegetables and spices are grown in-house at the 1.75-acre organic farm, the fish comes fresh from the river and a specialty outdoor restaurant called the ‘50 mile diet’ sources all the ingredients with a 50 mile radius to reduce carbon footprint and benefit local communities! Get an Introduction to Spices every evening and learn how to use them during the Kerala Cuisine cookery classes at The Tiffin Room.

Animal Farm
Besides guinea fowl and numerous squirrels, birds and butterflies on the property, neighbouring Periyar Tiger Reserve is ideal for jungle walks and boat rides to spot elephants, gaur, deer, otters, foxes and other wildlife.

Getting there: Spice Village is on Kumily Road at Thekkady, 190 km from Cochin International Airport and 145 km from Madurai Airport

Tariff: Rs.18,700-24,000

Contact: Ph 04869–224514, 222315 Email spicevillage@cghearth.com http://www.cghearth.com/spice-village

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Punjabiyat, Saidowal-Gunopur (Punjab)
Perhaps no place in India captures the imagination of a farming holiday the way Punjab does with visions of mustard fields, tractors tilling the fields and robust cuisine. Punjabiyat, an hour’s drive from Amritsar, provides all that and more. Built amidst green fields of wheat and mustard crisscrossed by canals, with pathways lit hurricane lamps, its four mud-plastered cottages downplay the luxuries within.

High ceilings, four-poster beds, tasteful interiors, a covered front deck and private terrace with meals served in different settings as per your convenience. Enjoy parathas, aloo sabzi fresh from the potato fields, local curd, fruit platters and mango-mint smoothies, with a light continental lunch and open-air tandoori barbecues for dinner. The hosts insist you cannot have two Punjabi meals a day!

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Burn off calories with a 20-min cycle ride to a dairy farm where you can milk cows and learn about rural dairy farming. The famous Sikh temple, Ghallughara Saheb, is a 20 min walk away. Drive a tractor, go on a tonga (traditional horse carriage) ride and take an invigorating dip in the tube-well tank.

Getting there: Saidowal-Gunopur is 70 km and an hour’s drive northwest of Amritsar via NH-15 towards Gurdaspur. It is 100 km from Jalandhar via the diversion from Beas.

Tariff: Rs.7,600, includes breakfast, meals Rs.610/head

Contact: Ph +91 9818705508 Email info@itmenaanlodges.com http://www.itmenaanlodges.com

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Jor ki Dhani Godham, Katrathal (Rajasthan)
Set in the historic village of Katrathal that dates back to Mahabharata times, this unassuming farm will blow you away with its simplicity and charm. Located near Nawalgarh in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, the 15-acre farmstay is run by the gracious Kan Singh Nirwan. Recognizing the science hidden in old practices linked with faith, the farmstay is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature.

Stay in rustic air-cooled huts made of mud bricks with a wash of cowdung and walls lined with medicinal plants. Rotis made of bajra (pearl millet), jau (barley) and genhu (wheat) are served with pulses, vegetables and jaggery on a bajot (low stool). The focal point is the country cow, which provides farm-fresh milk, curd, buttermilk, makkhan (white butter) and ghee (clarified butter). The farm uses jivamrit (organic nectar), a concoction of cow dung and urine, known for its germicidal properties. Instead of fertilizers, seeds washed in jivamrit mixed with chuna (lime) sprout easily, are disease-resistant and require less irrigation.

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In the small garden patch, rose bushes, papaya and musambi prosper without being watered! Scoffing at drip irrigation and the obsession with watering plants, Kan Singh counters that plants derive 98.5% nourishment from the atmosphere, not the roots. Moisture is provided by a small pit of organic waste nearby. Guests on a short stay often linger for weeks and go back with a deep sense of gratitude. Visit lac bangle workshops and pottery kilns nearby as you explore the charming village known as India’s largest producer of clay chillums, besides Harsh Pahadi, the historic site of Lohargal and ruins of Buddhist temples.

Animal Farm
The farm has 25 country cows belonging to three main breeds – Tharparkar, Rathi and Sahiwal, besides Marwari horses – Badshah, Roopal and Momal and the three dogs Tommy, Tiger and Sheru.

Getting there: Located on the Katrathal-Hardyalpura Road, the farm is 24km from Nawalgarh and 15km from Sikar

Tariff: 1,200/person, food included

Contact: Ph +91 9875039977, Email nirwankansingh@rediffmail.com

Spiti Ecosphere-Volunteering along the trail_Anurag Mallick

Spiti Ecosphere (Himachal Pradesh)
Run by Ishita Khanna, Spiti Ecosphere’s community-based eco-tourism initiative helps visitors gain an insight into local agricultural practices, the intricacies of water management and farming feats at 4400 m. Being a high altitude cold desert, agriculture in Spiti is solely dependent on winter snow melt, which is transported over long distances through small channels called kuhls. Stay in some of the highest homestays in the Trans-Himalayan region at Langza, Demul and Komic, Asia’s highest inhabited village, as you learn to farm sweet pea, kala matar (black pea), sattu (barley) and the wild tsirku (seabuckthorn).

Hailed as a ‘Wonder Berry’, seabuckthorn (Hippophae Rhammonides) is packed with Vitamin C and also contains trace elements, mineral compounds, amino acids, proteins and omega oils. Be a farmhand, help in voluntourism projects and take home an array of wild herbs and agro products sold under the brand name Tsering (literally ‘blessings for a long life’) – seabuckthorn jam, tea and fruit drink concentrate to wild garlic, onion, mint, black peas, thyme and oregano.

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Animal Farm
Yak safaris give a chance to interact with these sturdy mountain beasts. The wild tracts of Spiti are also home to Shan (snow leopard) and Tibetan wolf.

Getting there: Kaza is 213 km from Manali. Take the Leh-Manali highway and take the diversion at Gramphoo onto SH-505 via Chhatru and Losar to Kaza. The villages of Langza, Demul and Komic come on the Spiti Left Bank trek.

Tariff: Rs.700/head, including meals

Contact: Ph +91 9418860099, 9418439294, 01906-222652 Email info@spitiecosphere.com http://www.spitiecosphere.com

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Emerald Trail, Jangaliya Gaon, Bhimtal (Uttarakhand)
Started six years ago by Sumith Dutta, who chucked his corporate job to move to the quiet hills of Bhimtal, the 3-acre patch was mostly barren, until planted with pomegranate, grapes, lime and assorted fruit trees. A 1000 sq ft greenhouse and open fields grow tomato, brinjal, potato, capsicum and other vegetables.

Sumith’s philosophy is simple – ‘What you see is what you eat’ with excellent home cooked Indian and Pahari meals. Guests are welcome to help out with the farm activities. The cows produce enough milk to meet the daily needs and the manure goes straight into the fields. It’s a neat self-sustaining habitat.

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One large bungalow with four rooms and the garden lights are powered by solar energy. A wood and brick cottage and two cottages built of local stone and mud flooring are ideal for independent travellers. A great base to cover the lakes of Nainital, Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal and Sat Tal with lovely walks and Himalayan views, the biggest plus is that it is pet friendly.

Animal Farm
Four Bhotiya dogs Rusi, Ringo, Piya and Mini, besides the cows Bachhri and Bela.

Getting there: 9 km uphill from Bhimtal off Naukuchiatal Road, it is just 20 km from Kathgodam railway station

Tariff: Rs.4,000-5,000, includes breakfast, meals 250-350

Contact: Sumith Dutta Ph + 91 9833949954, 7830025532 Email emeraldtrail.bhimtal@gmail.com www.emeraldtrail.in

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Makaibari Tea Estates, Kurseong (West Bengal)
Despite the universal popularity of tea, the environmental impact of growing it as a monocrop, the use of pesticides and soil degradation have always been contentious issues. So it is quite amazing for a tea estate to show the way in conservation. Makaibari, a corn field that evolved into a tea estate, was started by GC Banerjee in 1859 and is run by fourth-gen owner Rajah Banerjee.

Touted as the first tea factory in the world, it follows an integrated forest management approach where the tea bush is part of a multi-tier system of trees typical of a sub tropical rainforest. Nearly 70% of the estate is under tree cover and employs an advanced mulching system through a six-tier permaculture. Its guiding philosophy is to maintain a harmonious co-existence between soil, microorganisms, plants, animals and man. The estate nurtures local communities in seven adjoining villages of Makaibari (Corn Fields), Kodobari (Millet Fields), Fulbari (Flower Garden), Koilapani (Black Water), Thapathali (Thapa Village), Cheptey and Chungey.

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As part of the Homestay Program, 17 homes of local tea pickers have been identified where guests can stay, take part in voluntourism projects or live out a farmer’s life. Go tea plucking, learn how tea is made, understand the nuances of tea tasting with the Tea Master or participate in the magical harvesting of Silver Tips on full moon nights. Makaibari is the most expensive tea in India and sold last year at USD 1,850 (around Rs 1.2 lakh) per kg. Thankfully, its signature Tea Treasures are a lot more affordable.

Animal Farm
The area harbours tigers, leopards, deer, boar, monkeys, reptiles, over 300 bird species and the mimetic insect Tea Deva that looks like a tea leaf, first sighted on the estate in 1990.

Getting there: Located at Kurseong, 40 km from Bagdogra Airport, 38 km from New Jalpaiguri station and 37 km from Darjeeling

Tariff: Rs.800/person, including meals

Contact: Ph +91-9832447774, 8906515888 (Nayan Lama) Email volunteerinmakaibari@gmail.com http://www.makaibari.com

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse, Kewzing (Sikkim)
Surrounded by lush green cardamom fields and forested tracts teeming with birds, Bon Farmhouse is the ideal base for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Placed at 1700m overlooking snow capped peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, the 6-acre family-run farm at Kewzing is helmed by brothers Chewang and Sonam R Bonpo. Guests can help on the farm depending on the seasonality. Most of the produce like maize, buckwheat, finger millet, green peas, rice, wheat, potato, pumpkin, beans and lettuce is stirred up into delicious home-cooked meals.

Farm-fresh eggs and milk, butter, cottage cheese, curd and butter milk from the resident Jersey cows also end up at the table. The forest abounds with wild edible foods and the monsoon adds seasonal delights like tusa (bamboo shoots), ningro (wild ferns) and kew (mushrooms). Discover local flora-fauna and learn how to cook Sikkimese cuisine with local delicacies like gundruk (fermented spinach), kinama (fermented soyabean) and fisnu (stinking nettles).

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Enjoy a hot stone herbal steam bath in a dotho, infused with wild medicinal plants collected from the forest. Hike to the three hot water springs in the area or head on walking trails to Doling, Barfung, Bakhim and Mambru villages, besides birdwatching trips to Maenam and the monastery trail to Kewzing and Ravangla.

Animal Farm
Four Jersey cows, 4 goats and 50 poultry keep you company, while the altitudinal variation of the adjoining area between the Rangit river valleys at 350m and the highest hill Maenam at 3500m harbours nearly 200 bird species. Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary is famous for the Satyr Tragopan and Fire-tailed Myzornis.

Getting there: Located at Kewzing, 127 km from Bagdogra Airport

Tariff: Rs.4,200-5,250, including all meals

Contact: Ph +91 9735900165, 9547667788, 9434318496 E-mail bonfarmhouse@gmail.com, info@sikkimbonfarmhouse.com http://www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com

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Yangsum Heritage Farm, Rinchenpong (Sikkim)
Run by Thendup Tashi and his wife Pema, the beautiful heritage farmhouse was built in 1833 and remodeled in 1966. Five rustic Tibetan style wood-paneled rooms with spacious verandahs present a stunning view of the Singalila Range and the Khangchendzonga peak. Set at 1500 m in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, the 44-acre mountain farm is fully organic and grows cardamom, avocados, oranges, bananas, pears, apricots and mangoes, besides crops like maize, paddy, millet, potatoes, ginger, turmeric and sweet potatoes.

Seasonal vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and peas are also grown. Go on gentle nature walks in groves of bamboo and a mixed forest of pine, alder, chestnut, magnolia, cherry and rhododendrons. Take cooking lessons in Sikkimese cuisine and gain an insight into local Buddhist culture.

Getting there: Located in West Sikkim, the farm is 2 km from the small bazaar village of Rinchenpong, 40 km west of Gangtok, 66 km from Darjeeling (3 hrs), 92 km (3½ hrs) from Kalimpong and 153 km (5 hrs) from the nearest airport at Bagdogra.

Tariff: Rs.6,250, including all meals

Contact: Ph 03595-245322, 94341 79029 Email yangsumfarm@yahoo.com http://www.yangsumheritagefarm.com

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Abasa Homestay, Siiro (Arunachal Pradesh)
Run by Kago Kampu and Kago Habung, Abasa is an organic farmstay near Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. Staying with an Apatani family gives visitors the perfect opportunity to learn about centuries-old techniques of paddy cultivation of the fascinating tribe, discernible from their facial tattoos and cane nose plugs. Spread over a patchwork of agricultural lands, the 10-hectare farm grows kiwi, tomato, cabbage, seasonable vegetables, cash crops and emo, the traditional rice.

Visit nearby fields for a crash course on the paddy-cum-fish farming and water management skills of the Apatanis. Paddy fields are maintained at various split levels separated by bunds where excess water drains off through channels to adjoining terraces. A 2 ft deep nala (drain) running through the fields is replete with fish. Fish and rice form the staple with a plethora of unique dishes stirred up by Kago Kampu – suddu yo, a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk cooked on fire in tender bamboo stems, dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a chutney made of roasted sunflower seeds, yokhung chutney made of Xanthallum berries, peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots and pork.

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Try tapiyo (local vegetarian salt made from charred lai or maize leaf) and apong, a local brew made of fermented millet and rice. Help out in the kitchen garden where lettuce, chilli, tomato and baby corn are grown or work on the farm – preparing seedlings in Jan-Feb, planting in April-May and paddy harvest in October.

Getting there: Siiro is 3 km from the old town of Hapoli near Ziro, district headquarters of Lower Subansiri, 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229.

Tariff: Rs.1,000/person, including breakfast and dinner

Contact: Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483 Email abasahomestay@gmail.com

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The Konyak Tea Retreat, Shiyong (Nagaland)
Ever dreamed of feasting on fruits straight off the trees? At Konyak Tea Retreat near Mon in Nagaland, guests can pick oranges (and eat to their heart’s content) during picking season from mid-November to December. Last year’s harvest yielded 5 lakh oranges! Set in a 250-hectare private tea plantation, Phejin Konyak’s family-run orchard and farm grows tea, ginger, pumpkin, squash, chilis, guava, lime and seasonal vegetables.

A stone walled farmhouse with two bedrooms, an open kitchen, living and dining space, and its own flower and vegetable garden has just been opened to guests. Pick tea at the family owned tea estate, milk cows and goats at the dairy farm, work with locals in their paddy fields, hike to waterfalls and forests or plant trees, flowers and vegetables at the farm. Learn how to smoke meat in the time-honoured traditions of the Konyak tribe and visit traditional villages nearby.

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Hostess Phejin is researching and documenting the vanishing tattoo traditions of her tribe for her book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’ with Dutch photographer Peter Bos.

Animal Farm
80 cows, 20 goats, free range country hens, Pete the dog and a cat named Kali.

Getting there: Shiyong nearest town Mon is 32 km away and is a 1½ hours drive.

Tariff: Rs.2500 per night, includes meals and tour of the tea estate

Contact: Email phejin@gmail.com

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Heritage tea estates (Assam)
Relive the life of a colonial tea planter at Heritage North East’s century-old bungalows near Jorhat (doubles from Rs6,500). Banyan Grove, the renovated bungalow of the Estate Manager or Mistry Sahib, serves as the perfect base to explore Gatoonga Tea Factory nearby (pictured). Trace the journey of the famed Assam tea from bush to brew as you help local women pick tea leaves and learn the subtle art of tea-tasting. Burra Sahib’s Bungalow at Sangsua, 5km away, has a private lake and golf course and has been recently revamped into the Kaziranga Golf Resort.

The luxurious Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari, is a great countryside retreat. Across the Brahmaputra, in Balipara, is the Wild Mahseer Lodge (pictured; doubles from Rs8,500), part of the Addabarrie Tea Estate. The gorgeous 1853 angling lodge consists of tea-themed bungalows such as Golden Tips, Silver Tips and Second Flush. An elephant ride transports you to a tea party, complete with tasting sessions at the First Flush dining pavilion and a visit to the organic experimental cultivation station.

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Animal Farm
The tea plantations are great for birdwatching with wildlife trips to Kaziranga National Park to spot rhinos, elephants and water buffalo. At Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary near Jorhat, see India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon.

Getting there: There are airports at Jorhat and Guwahati. Banyan Grove is 16 km west of Jorhat and Thengal Manor is 15 km from Jorhat towards Titabor. Balipara is 26 km north of Tezpur.

Tariff Rs.6,500-8,600

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Contact
Heritage North East
Ph 033-22657389, 94355 14177 Email heritagenortheast@gmail.com
http://www.heritagetourismindia.com

Wild Mahseer Lodge
Ph 02267 060881, 91670 38491 Email daniel.dsouza@wildmahseer.com
http://www.wildmahseer.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the Feb-Mar 2016 issue of Conde Nast Traveller magazine and on 2 March, 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Here’s the link on CNT: http://www.cntraveller.in/story/indias-top-farmstays/

Ground Ziro: The Art of doing nothing

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh and spend a few days with the fascinating Apatani tribe at Ziro

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Long before the Ziro Music Festival put the remote Arunachal town on India’s festival map, the name Ziro had always intrigued us. Was it a numerical reference to its geographic co-ordinates? Or, the last point of civilization before the border with Tibet? Did a Japanese aircraft crash here during World War II? Questions like these plagued us for a long time, until a coffee table book assignment provided us a chance to visit Arunachal Pradesh again. Negotiating the mountainous roads from Daporijo to Ziro, we crossed places like Don and Raga, and wondered just who was in charge of nomenclature around these parts…

A few hours later, we emerged onto a large plateau with neat irrigated terraces, isolated hillocks and pine-clad spurs. This was Apatani country, home to a unique tribe discernible by their facial tattoos and indigenous cultivation practices. At the PWD Guest House, we were content with the view but a conversation with District Tourism Officer Tater Mize led us to Abasa Homestay, run by an Apatani family. Located at Siiro, just 3 km from the old town of Hapoli, our hosts offered to pick us up from the DC’s Office!

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Soon, we were driving with the vivacious Kago Kampu and her husband Kago Habung to their homestay. Named ‘Abasa’ after Habung’s aba (father); the sa was appended as respect. Kampu explained that in the Lower Subansiri district, the Apatani and Nyishi tribes put surnames first followed by the person’s name. Originally the tribe was called Tani. Apa or aba was a generic term for elders and it eventually became Apa-tani.

Winding past Siiro Resort we reached their cute cottage with an attached organic garden. Squash, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, gourds; their kitchen garden was bountiful. Birds chirped in pine trees and cows lazily licked salt from large troughs. It was picture perfect. We parked ourselves at the simbia or verandah and took in the wooded scene from the rivu, a traditional seat with backrest. Over tea, we learnt more about the Apatanis.

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Despite lack of epigraphic evidence on their origin, the Apatanis seem to have been here for centuries. Their oral accounts – miji (religious chants) and migung (folk tales in prose) – trace their migration from north of the Subansiri and Siang rivers following the course of the Kurung and Kumey rivers to a place called Karr in the Sipi Valley. Here they split into three groups, taking different paths to the Apatani Plateau and establishing various villages en route. Even today, Apatani settlements are found in clusters of three alluding to the legend. As per one tale, at Yangte in Kurung Kumey district, they held a high-jump competition over a roadside stone. Many such landmarks line the migratory paths of the Apatanis with clues littered across their oral literature.

The oral history passed down through at least twenty generations of the Apatanis capture events that took place after the migration of the Central Arunachal tribes from the mythological places Wi and Wiipyo Supuñ. Carrying seeds of pine, bamboo and mustard, they first settled down in the Talley Valley region around 15th Century before moving to Ziro. In those days Ziro was a misty swampland crawling with snakes, leeches and the mysterious buru, a prehistoric reptile. The last buru was killed by a sacred metal brass plate called talo, revered and preserved as myamya talo by the Apatanis.

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Unlike other nomadic tribes, Apatanis settle down in one place and cultivate permanent wetlands instead of migratory jhum (slash and burn) cultivation. We walked to nearby fields and terraces as Habung explained the ancient Apatani irrigation technique. The water required by the paddy field dictates the height of the bund and excess water is allowed to drain into the next terrace seamlessly.

Surprisingly, they don’t till their fields but manage water through channels; a technique similar to a tribe in Japan. They keep the fields in various states of submersion raising different rice crops – early ripening varieties like plare and plaping and late ripening ones like empu, elang and rado, collectively known as Emo, the bulk of their produce. A 2-ft deep nala (drain) runs through the fields and is replete with fish. This paddy-cum-fish farming ensures a year-round supply of rice and fish, an Apatani staple.

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We walked to the Kiile river where a bridge led to a sericulture farm at Mani Polyang, 7km away. Another trail led 9 km to Pange, the base camp for Talle Valley, which was a further steep climb of 15 km. The 337 sq km wildlife sanctuary named after the endemic talle plant was home to clouded leopards, red pandas, golden cats, rare tree frogs and reptiles. Trekkers carry provisions for the 2-3 day excursion. For us, the short walk to the river was enough to build up an appetite and we headed back to Abasa by evening for homemade Apatani fare.

Like the rest of Arunachal, rice, pork, fish and vegetables form the staple. Dishes are mostly steamed with very little frying or masalas. Kago Kampu poured us some apong, a local brew made of fermented millet and rice and the warm liquid tasted smooth. It’s traditionally consumed in a turla (bamboo mug) but even in ordinary glasses, it did its job. Meanwhile, Kago Habung prepared suddu yo (bamboo meat). Stuffing a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk into tender bamboo stems, he twirled the stems on an open fire, careful not to burn it.

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Kampu resourcefully mixed the unused egg white with finely chopped vegetables and steamed it in whole eggshells in a momo-maker to create her signature fusion dish. Her innovative cooking won her acclaim in the local rural tourism scene. In a jiffy she roasted sunflower seeds, tossing it into a blender with ginger, garlic, tomato, chilli, salt and butter to make dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a tangy chutney. A dip made of yokhung or green Xanthallum berries added bite to the meal of rice, chicken curry, baby potatoes, salad and steamed farm fresh vegetables. The highlight was peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots, pork and tapiyo (vegetarian salt).

How the Apatanis evolved an ingenious way of manufacturing a dark salt, high up in the mountains far from any sea was fascinating. An edible plant, usually maize or lai, is taken in a slightly raw state and charred to ashes. It’s mixed with water, evaporated and the residue is wrapped in a jungle leaf found near ditches and left to smoke over a wood fire. This residue is natural homemade salt! Since it is rich in iodine, Apatanis don’t suffer from goitre and are usually quite slim.

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We signaled thumbs up for the food. “You must say Ano ayado”, said Habung, “Apatani for very good. Ano ayado, we chimed in like obedient children. “Payapacha, thank you”, he replied. We laughed. Our exchange didn’t seem too different from early explorers like HM Crowe, Captain Dun, Major Graham and RB McCabe who made forays into Apatani territory. With distinct facial tattoos and cane nose plugs, the Apatanis have always been a subject of wonder and intrigue.

Little known even to the plains people of Assam who called them aukas (tattooed), it is believed that their mandatory disfigurement was done to make Apatani women less desirable to marauding neighboring tribes. The outside world knew very little about them until Austrian ethnologist Christopher von Fürer-Haimendorf and his wife Betty became the first foreigners to visit Hong village in 1944. Staying for 2 years for the first time (and again in 1964 and 1984), their detailed accounts are the first written records on the Apatanis. We retired to our cozy room tingling with the excitement of visiting Hong the next morning.

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Located 6 km from Ziro, Hong is the largest village of the Apatani plateau. We walked as if in a dream through an unending maze of wooden homes with towering weatherworn babos (festive bamboo poles). Strange bamboo skeletons with egg shells outside houses lent an eerie touch as if we had stumbled onto the sets of The Blair Witch Project. We tried not to stare but the faces were riveting. Most went about their daily chores, others wove baskets and some paused briefly to clock our presence. We bumped into Telling Chailyang, member of the local panchayat, who gave us an informative tour of Hong.

The village was divided into 6 clans – Hibu and Takhe being the biggest, besides Tapi, Bullo, Tilling and Tallo Budhi. Earlier all houses had thatched roofs, but after a devastating fire, they shifted to pine wood planks, then bamboo and now CGI sheets. Every clan had a lappa (wooden platform) serving as an open court where menfolk gathered to take important decisions. The village had a democratic council called Bulyang. The eggshell artwork was an outcome of certain rituals performed by the dhondai (Apatani priest). Boiled eggs were divided into half to divine the future while the liver of a sacrificed chicken was inspected to ascertain which ritual ought to be done, when and where.

IMG_7826_Hong Village

During the annual Myoko Festival (20-23 March) men carry leaves from the forest to make a nago (makeshift hut) for the ancestors to come, rest and watch the festivities. Every clan erects a babo (decorative pole) and platform as revellers swing high in the air on jungle vines tied to two babos. With the dangers involved in swinging high and the unavailability of the forest vine, Myoko isn’t the same as captured in Haimendorf’s grainy black and white videos. But every three years the festival rotates to one host village and people from nearby villages (Hari, Bula, Rija, Duta, Bamimichi and Mudantage) visit as guests. After the pig sacrifice on 23rd March, it’s open house as visitors are served apong, rice and meat.

Back in Ziro, we realized there’s not much to see or do here in the strictest sense of the word. There’s boating at Nime Ashram and a hike to the ridge of Kile Pakho, 7 km from Old Ziro for a good view over the plateau. The District Museum and Craft Centre is worth a look with some textiles, traditional handicrafts, agricultural implements, weapons and Nyishi byopas (hornbill caps) on display.

IMG_7586 Ziro shivling

Just 2 km from town is the Shiva shrine of Siddheshwar Nath. A short walk up a private plantation led us to a clearing dominated by a large shiva linga. Priest Sachhidanand Dubey from Muzaffarpur greeted us warmly. He explained that the shrine was accidentally discovered by Prem Subba, a woodcutter, in the holy month of shravan in 2004. While cutting a tree, the trunk fell on the opposite side and the workers discovered the top of a massive stone with beads etched on it.

The forest patch was cleared, revealing a 25 ft high 22 ft wide boulder with natural rudraksh beads and images of Ganesh, Parvati, Nandi embossed on it. He instructed us to sip the sacred water emerging from a perennial spring in a hollow near the base of the linga. Despite its exotic past and its newfound music scene, only 17,000 domestic tourists and 3000 international travellers visit the area each year.

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However, with Ziro being included in India’s Tentative List for UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, things could change fast. Until then quiet Ziro still dozes in slumber… And what of the name? “When Indira Gandhi had visited the place, the temperature had dropped to zero degrees”, a local government official told us in all earnestness. Unconvinced, we asked what the place was called before that and were greeted by stony silence.

Kago Habung chortled and said, “When you look at the Apatani plateau surrounded by mountains, it looks like one big zero!” We laughed. The irony didn’t escape us. Our constant enquiries threw up nothing conclusive. “Even locals seem to have zero knowledge about why it’s called Ziro”, we rued. “Perhaps that’s why it’s called that…,” added Habung in mock seriousness before we said goodbye, wiping tears of mirth from our eyes. Who knows, life may come full circle and we would be back to Ziro to start afresh.

IMG_7570 Ziro paddy fields

NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Road: Ziro is the district headquarters of Lower Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh and 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229. Direct buses are available from Guwahati, Itanagar and North Lakhimpur.

By Air: The nearest airport is Tezpur, though Guwahati and Dibrugarh are better connected.

By Train: The nearest railhead is 100 km away at North Lakhimpur in Assam, reachable from New Bongaigaon by Arunachal Express.

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Where to Stay
Abasa Homestay
Siiro Village, P.O. Hapoli (3 km from DC office)
Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483
Email abasahomestay@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.1000/person, including breakfast dinner

Siiro Resort
Siiro Village, P.O. Hapoli
Ph 03788-225123, 9436072663, 8014050952
Email siiroresort12@gmail.com www.siiroresort.com
Tariff Rs.1600-2500

Hotel Blue Pine
Pai Gate, Quarry Line, Hapoli, Ziro
Ph 03788-224812, 225223, 224974

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What to buy:
Nichii Niiti Barmi Handloom & Handicraft Co-operative Society
Sales Emporium, Ziro, Lower Subansri
Ph 9436413846, 94366 33967

Craft Centre Emporium, Ziro
Ph 03788 225561

When to go:
The Ziro Festival of Music is held b/w 24-27 September 2015 featuring 35 top bands from the country, local folk acts and outdoor camping. Ph +91-8974052594, +91-9810549494, +91-9810285789 www.zirofestival.com

Traditional celebrations include Murung in January, Myoko in March and Dree, an agrarian festival on 5 July.

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Entry Permission:
Visitors to Arunachal Pradesh need special permits to enter the state. Indians require an Inner Line Permit (ILP) while foreigners need a Protected Area Permit. An ILP can be obtained from the Secretary (Political), Government of Arunachal Pradesh, respective Deputy Commissioner and Additional Deputy Commissioner of the districts or Liaison Offices in New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Tezpur, North Lakhimpur or Jorhat between Mon-Fri, 10 am – 1pm by filling out a form, giving proof of identity, one passport photo and a fee of Rs.100. One can also apply online at www.arunachalilp.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Discover India magazine.