By Priya Ranganathan | Illustrations by author & Shruti Samanta

On the banks of the Banjar River, barely a few kilometres from one of India’s premier tiger reserves, a unique model of sustainable tourism breathes life into the dry deciduous landscape.

While tiger tourism has always been the biggest draw in terms of ecotourism in India, there has recently been a rise in the number of people interested in alternative tourism models. From stories of successful IT professionals quitting their high-profile careers to create unique, cozy homestays to tales of NRIs returning from abroad to pursue organic farming and bring healthy calories to our plates, people are beginning to pay attention to the many ways they can incorporate nature into their daily lives.

Ankit Rastogi was always eager to solve the problems plaguing homestays and airbnbs in India. While such models of tourism worked well abroad, he and his wife, Priyanka, found that Indians were not thrilled at the idea of living in someone else’s house, even if their hosts were not physically present. This inspired the couple to become part of the early team of StayZilla, a site focused on matching people with homestays and airbnbs near popular tourist destinations across India. Hailing from the travel and e-commerce sectors, Ankit and Priyanka were well-placed to understand the ways in which travel in India was changing. Ankit noticed the rise in what he termed as ‘conscious luxury travel,’ a model that interweaved culture and the soul of Indian hospitality with the high quality that tourists have come to expect in this day and age.

SSEK is a unique, charming ecostay near Kanha Tiger Reserve (Photo from SSEK)

Thus was born Surwahi Social Ecoestate Kanha (SSEK), an alternate tourism venture nestled in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, a stone’s throw away from Kanha National Park. According to Ankit, alternate – or responsible – tourism encourages dependency and interaction between tourists and the native ecology of a place, including local human civilisation, flora, and fauna. Given Ankit and Priyanka’s passion for India’s wildlife and wildernesses, and their years of experience in the travel industry, starting SSEK was a fairly simple transition for them. Ankit cites two models that inspired him in particular – forest bathing in Japanese hot springs and the traditional gurushaalas of India, both of which represent a marriage of hospitality with local, countryside flavours. To achieve this sort of model, he brought on a partner and soon-to-be co-founder of SSEK – Pradeep Vijayan – a long-time friend and ex-colleague in multiple travel organisations. Today, Pradeep is an equity holding partner in SSEK and is also the Director of Hotels for Cleartrip.

The landscape of Surwahi (Photo from SSEK)

Once Ankit decided what sort of homestay he envisioned, he set about finding the perfect location. Kanha emerged as the perfect park quite easily. Ankit had years of experience working with Madhya Pradesh tourism and understood the market and current scenario in the state. Kanha was also easily one of the most popular tiger reserves in the country and the largest park in central India, spanning 940 km2 over two districts with an additional 1,067 km2 of buffer zone and 110 km2 of wildlife sanctuary bordering the national park. Kanha as a park is well-managed, with upstanding forest officials that put wildlife first, unlike the chaotic wildlife tourism practiced in many other tiger reserves in the country. Additionally, it was not very easy to reach Kanha from nearby cities, making it a tourist destination that people had to really want to visit in order to invest time and energy in reaching the park. This convinced Ankit that only invested, passionate tourists would come to Kanha, and that he and Priyanka could cater to the lack of facilities around the park with their new ecostay.

Kanha is also home to a wide variety of wild animals that draw in crowds of tourists each year. The highlight, of course, is the Bengal tiger, but the park also boasts of a flourishing barasingha (swamp deer) population, with its very own mascot Bhoorsingh the Barasingha to boast of! You can also spot the Asiatic wild dog (dhole), leopard, sloth bear, Bengal fox, and Indian jackal, among other carnivores. With over 300 species of birds, the park is always alive with chirping and chattering, even apart from the excitable tourists in dark green safari jeeps! Apart from animals, Kanha is also home to the Baiga tribe, a semi-nomadic tribe of central India that relies upon the forest for their survival. Thus, Kanha provides a wonderful glimpse into the way lives – both wild and human – and livelihoods are intertwined with the forests of central India.

Kanha Tiger Reserve in the monsoon (Photo from Madhya Pradesh Tourism)

Ankit and Priyanka first invested in SSEK in 2015, when they bought 10.5 acres of land by the banks of the Banjar River. The homestay is entirely built using mud-based architecture, feeding into their slogan of minimalism. There are manmade wells and ponds scattered around the property, and the homestay boasts of only one borewell. SSEK is also unique because of its interest in experimenting with zero-discharge toilets, yet another way in which they contribute towards reducing waste buildup and encouraging sustainability in the tourism sector. Instead of using regular septic tank-based toilets, the homestay has evaporation-based and Biodigester-based toilets to reduce water usage and reduce the footprint of the ecostay on the local environment.

According to Ankit, the homestay also aims to rejuvenate the body and soul using principles of holistic wellbeing. Guests make meaningful interactions with the local community, including learning about local ecology, learning how to create local craft forms, and even helping to cook their own meals. Visitors to Surwahi also learn about the indigenous Baiga and Gond tribes of Kanha and interact with tribal villages to better understand their livelihoods and how they were affected after being relocated from within the tiger reserve to land on the edges of the forest. The team at SSEK also encourages celebrating the largely-agricultural neighbourhood by taking guests out to the paddy fields and promoting KYC (know-your-crop) through outdoor activities. Giventhe difficulties of farming on the edge of a tiger reserve, these interactions allow guests to better understand the daily hardships faced by farmers and the ways in which human-wildlife conflict impacts their livelihoods and lives. This is yet another step towards bridging the gap between visitor and local, and one that Ankit is very proud of.

Pottery making (Illustration by Priya Ranganathan)

People can also learn pottery from the tribals, a skill that is rapidly being forgotten even by those who hail from traditional potter communities! A play area made entirely from repurposed tyres and wood iss set up for children to enjoy, and on special occasions, Ankit and Priyanka open the play area to children from the surrounding villages. For those interested in trees, the ecostay hosts a wide array of medicinal herbs, shrubs, and trees, and there are portions of the planted forest (another of Ankit and Priyanka’s pet projects) that are managed while in other parts of the property, the forest has retained its wild character. Rainwater harvesting and reforestation are two extra Rs that the folks at Surwahi practice right alongside the usual ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose’ that we are familiar with!

The play area made from sustainable materials (Photo from SSEK)

Unique, earthy, and growing – Surwahi Social Ecostay Kanha is truly a model for responsible tourism in India today. Ankit and Priyanka have worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between tourists and local communities, as well as the gap between people and nature, through this venture.

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’ She is the founder and co-editor of Youth For Nature magazine.

About the Artist:

Shruti Samanta is a PhD student at ATREE, Bengaluru studying sal (Shorea robusta) forests in Central India and the many ways in which local communities interact with these forests. Apart from research, she loves painting and documenting the bird life she sees around her.