There are places you will visit in your lifetime where your soul will sing. Where you will be surrounded by love and laughter will fill the air. This place may be far from home or just around the corner. It will be a place where despite the challenges of life, and apparent differences, you will find harmony. If you have not yet experienced such a place, I urge you to keep your heart open and keep searching. If you still don’t find it, create it.
Nandia is a small village situated between Mount Abu and Udaipur in Rajasthan. It is not a place you will find in guidebooks and we found ourselves there by chance after a fortuitous roadside meeting (see One Hour). For almost two weeks we camped out on a fennel farm being treated like honorary family members, exploring the local tribal areas, and spotting wildlife. Collected below are images and tales that chronicle our first day in the ‘land of leopards and shepherds’.
A not-so-typical day
A breakfast of poha, biscuits and tea is taken at sunrise on the top of the rocky hill. Below us, hidden from sight, is the cave inhabited alternately by a bear and leopard. At the base of the hill is the farm where our little tent sits. In front of us is the village of Nandia surrounded by seven hills. The evening before we had watched as the sun dipped perfectly into the curve of land between two of the hills.
Legend has it that a pregnant acrobat challenged the local king who wanted to take her families land. If she succeeded in walking a rope strung between the two hills her family could keep the land, if she failed the king would claim it. As she neared the end of the tightrope the king cut the rope and the woman fell to her death with her unborn child. As she fell she cursed the king saying no male heir would ever be born to his family and still the curse remains. (Later, in other parts of India, we would hear again the same tale of ruthless kings thwarting daring acrobats, nevertheless it felt entirely plausible as we sipped our chai looking out over the ancient hills).
We ride to the village on the back of Bhanwar’s trusty old tractor, making our way past temples – old and new. He takes us to his home to meet his wife, one of the makers of the delicious dishes that magically appear at the farm to nourish us. We are given a tour of the local school where the children sit cross-legged on the floor, obedient despite their excitement at our arrival.
We pass down a narrow lane where women wash clothes, toddlers toddle and babies are rocked back on forth in hammocks made from lengths of sari. In one house we meet Manoj and his family who have for centuries prepared mustard seed papadums. We learn how to roll out the discs and add our contribution to those already drying on the roof. Everyone we meet is curious, welcoming and genuinely happy that we are visiting and interested in their village.
After a delicious lunch back at the farm we are urged to rest and two beds are placed in the shady structure that has been constructed for drying the fennel when it is harvested. We lie there under the grass canopy – idle in a place of toil. Outside we can hear the giggles of the children of the Bhil family that tend the fennel fields. During the fennel season they live in a lean-too hut (less than 50 metres from where our tent is pitched) at the end of the season they return to their tribal villages. We will spend the next two weeks exchanging smiles,gifts and sharing space with the workers but our lives will never truly cross.
In the afternoon we go on our first motorbike safari, riding pillion into the forest. The trail is hard going and at times we are scared, as the motorbikes slip and kick in the sand beneath us or struggle to carry our weight over steep rocky inclines, but we are in safe hands. A hyena runs in front of Ioan’s bike but we are both looking the other way.
After an hour we arrive at a remote village with painted adobe houses. Metre wide fences, made from thorny branches, create enclosures that contain baby goats waiting for their mothers to return from the hills. Men cut mustard in the field and the women carry water from the well. Children run to greet us and we are introduced as visiting journalists. People are happy to chat with us and pose for the camera. At the well, spirited women encourage me to try their bangles, which I accept, but I decline their offer to try carrying their impossibly heavy water vases on my head.
We are learning new things all the time we walk around the village of Dabela Bhagali, a place only accessible on foot or by motorbike and that has no electricity. Our guide Bhanwar is passionate about his area and eager to impart his knowledge. We learn about the sacred trees that surround the village and the geology of the hills (the oldest range in India), we hear about the various tribes and wildlife that live side-by-side and the challenges they face. As we make our way home the sun sets, but our day is far from over.
‘Are you tired?’ is the pressing question. A little, but no, not really. How could we be? There is so much to see and we are being taken care of so well. Everywhere we go we are renewed with fresh bursts of enthusiasm. Next stop is the pre-marriage night of a young Rabari man, from the camel herding caste. I’ll admit I’m slightly apprehensive after our previous wedding experience but my fear is misplaced (see Under the Veil). As we walk through the entrance of the wedding house we are surrounded, I am pulled forward by a group of beaming women and we dance. This time I am prepared, this time I am not alone, everyone is euphoric and it is a wonderful feeling. We meet the young groom and his parents and watch as gifts of new clothes and fabric are bestowed upon them. Once again we eat delicious vegetable curries accompanied by fresh roti but are warned to leave space for the dinner that still awaits us at the farm. Oh and for some camel’s milk tea.
It is pitch black when we leave the groom’s house and make our way to where the herders are hobbling their camels. It is an eerie scene as we wander amongst these great beasts, the dust rises around our feet and our collective breath is captured by the cold. The herder clicks and grunts at his charges as he ties a rope around their front leg. The camels respond with huffs and occasional bellows as they flop to the ground in their backwards forward motion – it’s a long way down. They rest on their padded knees and await sleep.
We are welcomed into the herder’s courtyard and beds are brought outside for us to sit on. It is getting late but everyone is still up, they have an important job tonight. They have to prepare one of the camels, in all its wedding finery, to carry the groom to his bride’s house. We sit on felted camel hair blankets and are invited to try tea made with camel’s milk. It is creamy and delicious. The herder smokes his chillom and tells us tales. His family surrounds him, his mother sits on the floor listening and his daughter practices her letters. Everyone is in good spirits, I ask about the milk. Apparently it has many health benefits but still ‘the old men are dying younger now‘. We are told how it used to be common for people to live until 80-90 years old but recently people have been dying at 50-60, even younger. Why? They blame the changes in farming practices. ‘It’s the pesticides. In the past people didn’t know the harm, but now we do.‘ It is a sad yet heartening conversation, filled with suffering and awareness and acceptance and hope that the future might be better. It is a tale of modern India.
Thanks to everyone in Nandia for making us feel so welcome, especially to the Sirwana Hills Hideaway team.
For more information about organising homestays in Nandia, wildlife safaris or trekking to local tribal villages please contact Bhanwar Singh – firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: (+91) 9460063475