I don’t like heat and crowds.

Many people comment to me that they don’t want to visit India because of the heat and the crowds.  Let me explain: I don’t like heat and crowds either.

That’s why I plan Kasu Tours for the northern Winter when the days are cool to mild – like our Spring.  For example, the average daily temperature for Rajasthan in January is 8 to 23 degrees Celsius and for Gujarat,  12 to 28 degrees.  In both places, the early mornings and nights can be quite cold.

I especially dislike being in a crowd of tourists competing to see an attraction. And although it can be stimulating to experience an Indian city for a few days, we soon get out of town to regional areas, small towns and villages where we are often the only vehicle on the road, or the only tourists in town.

Here are some of the roads we travel and places we visit:

 

A new tour!

Announcing a brand new tour for Kasu Tours:
THE LUXURY TOUR OF THE LESSER-KNOWN RAJASTHAN
January 2020

The final itinerary and cost will be published soon, but here is a taste of what is to come.
This time we explore the lesser-known regions of north west Rajasthan, staying in gorgeous former palaces and mansions. (Might have to dress up for dinner!)

The dining room of one of our hotels.

Our tour begins in Jaipur, known as ‘the pink city’ , the capital and the largest city of Rajasthan. We taketour with a local guide to visit some of the famous local monuments including Hawa Mahel, Jantar Mantar,  the Anokhi Museum,  Amber Fort and the Monkey Temple.
We also visit a sanctuary for retired working elephants in a nearby village where  we can get up close, feed and maybe paint their faces or help them bathe.  We also enjoy a traditional village meal with our hosts.

Leaving Jaipur in our private luxury bus, we head for an amazing step-well traditionally used to conserve and store water and for public baths. It was dug approximately 30 metres and 13 stories into the ground, making it one of the deepest and largest stepwells in India. Work began on this step-well in about 800AD and it was completed about 100 years later.

Our next destination is a town in the centre of the Shekhawati area where we spend five days exploring the region famous for its abandoned havelis (mansions) extensively painted with murals.

A painted haveli in Churu

This area was once a part of the silk road that extended from China to the Mediterranean. Merchants made their wealth sending their goods on camels along the silk road,  and built mansions, temples and step-wells, vying with each other in building ever more grand edifices. They commissioned artists to paint their homes as a sign of opulence, decorating both inside and outside with painted murals.  The area is now known as ‘the outdoor art gallery’.  The art of painting the havelis was kept alive for nearly 300 years. However, when shipping became available and a faster way of getting their goods to the world, the merchants abandoned the havelis and moved to Bombay or Kolkata.
We also enjoy a tour of local crafts and visit a local farm.

Junagarh Fort, Bikaner

Next we head to Bikaner, a  city surrounded by the Thar Desert. We will visit the 16th-century Junagarh Fort, a huge complex of ornate buildings and halls. Within the fort, the Prachina Museum displays traditional textiles and royal portraits.

Bikaner is also famous for miniature paintings and we will visit a third generation artist in his studio.

Whilst in the area, we visit a temple dedicated to Karni Mata (1387 – 1538)  a female Hindu warrior sage. She is worshiped as the incarnation of the warrior goddess Durga by her followers and is an official deity of the royal families of Jodhpur and Bikaner. She lived an ascetic life and was widely revered during her own lifetime.

Karni Mata Temple is also known as the Temple of Rats. The temple is famous for the approximately 25,000 black rats that live and are revered in the temple.
Legend has it that Laxman, son of Karni Mata, drowned in a pond in while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.

Some of the best fed rats in the world.

In front of the temple is a beautiful marble facade with solid silver doors. Across the doorway are more silver doors with panels depicting the various legends of the Goddess. The image of the Goddess is enshrined in the inner sanctum.
It is said that eating food that has been nibbled on by the rats is considered to be a high honour. But we won’t do that! For the squeamish, entering the Rat Temple is optional.

In the blue city

We continue our journey to the city of Jodhpur, historically the capital of the Kingdom of Marwar, which is now part of Rajasthan.
Set in the stark landscape of the Thar Desert, it is popularly known as Blue city for the preponderance of houses that are painted blue.

We take a heritage walk through the old walled city of Jodhpur, immerse ourselves in the bustling  bazaars and take a cooking lesson from husband and wife team Anil and Rekha.  We have dinner on our last night in Jodhpur overlooking a renovated step-well.

Our last destination on the tour is Bundi, often referred to as ‘the unexplored part of Rajasthan’. Bundi is rich in natural beauty as well as stunning architecture. It is known for its decorated  forts, palaces, and more than 50 step wells.  We will visit the highly ornate Raniji ki Baori (Queen’s Step-well) not far from our hotel – a boutique haveli in the heart of new city with views of the old town, palace, fort and lake.
If luck is with us, we may also be able to take in a Bollywood movie in the historic Ranjit Talkies Cinema Hall.

But the main destination of our visit to Bundi pre-dates all of the amazing architecture of the town:  pre-historic rock art, believed to be from the Mesolithic period dating back ten thousand years.  We will take a guided tour with Kukki, the man who discovered more than 75 sites in the area. An amateur archaeologist and grocery store owner, Kukki has been honoured by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) with the status of ‘honorary archaeologist’.

Bundi cave art

After Bundi, we return to Jaipur for the last day of the tour. There are options to visit more destinations, go shopping in the busy bazaar or rest up before departures the next day.

The full itinerary and cost will be published soon.
(This overview is correct at time of publishing. Some minor changes may occur and will be noted in the final itinerary)

If you are interested in joining this tour, please make contact soon as places are limited to six intrepid travellers.

See the roads we travel :

 

 

 

 

Comparing apples with apples

Thinking of signing up for a Kasu Tour but want to make sure you’re getting the best deal?
Here are some things to think about when making comparisons with similar tours:

  • What is the total length of the tour?
  • What is the daily cost of the tour?
  • Maximum number of guests on the tour?
  • How many destinations/experiences are there in the tour?
  • What is the quality of the accommodation?
  • How many nights does the tour spend at each destination?
  • Method of transport: private vehicle or a mixture of public transport?
  • How many meals are included in the tour cost?
  • Are entry fees, safari fees, local guide fees, driver tips etc included in the cost?
  • Are there any discounts available?
  • Do you have the undivided attention of your Australian host for the entire tour?

At Kasu Tours, we feel confident that our apples shine brighter than the other apples on this list of comparisons.  What do you think?

What our customers say

Our recent CLOTH and STONE TOUR to Gujarat was a huge success and my guests had a great time.
Here are some of the things they say about Kasu Tours:

For nearly three weeks in January, I travelled within Gujarat, India with our tour guide, Beverley Bloxham and four other guests.
The tour was named The Cloth and Stone Tour and it well and truly lived up to its name. Every day was filled with fascinating activities and local guides were employed to ensure we gained the greatest insights to the places we visited.
For me, the most heart-warming and memorable times were those in dusty, humble and relatively remote villages where the the standard of weaving, tie dying, wood carving and lacquer work had to be seen to be believed. How special to be able to purchase directly from the artisans.
Through Beverley’s research and previous trips to India, we were able to visit Dr Vasa who showed us his precious private collection of Indus Valley civilisation artefacts – some as old as 4500 years old, and in an extraordinary contrast to the small village experience, to visit Asif Sheikh who is world renowned for his embroidery and who showed us his latest collection, destined for the international catwalk.
I would highly recommend a tour to India with Beverley.”
Margot Ryan.

 

“What a fabulous trip – Jill and I are still talking about it.  Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge, insights and stories and your introductions to such a vast range of artisans. Truly an enriching experience.
When’s the next tour?”
Pauline Cosgrove

In stitches

A part of our tour that everyone was really looking forward to, even the non-stitchers amongst us, was the full day workshop at Kala Raksha in a tiny village near Bhuj. Kala Raksha Trust is dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts through several streams:
THE MUSEUM
Founded in 1996, and housed at the campus, makes the collections of historic and contemporary exhibits available for visiting scholars and students of textiles. The collection can also be accessed through the website: http://www.kala-raksha-museum.org/

“Uniquely committed to documenting existing traditions, the Trust maintains a collection of heirloom textiles. This local Museum embodies a simple but revolutionary concept: involve people in presenting their own cultures.”

Some images from the museum collection. Click on the images to enlarge.

KALA RAKSHA VIDHYALAYA

“An institution of design for traditional artisans.
Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya is an initiative of Kala Raksha Trust. In its second decade, Kala Raksha sought to address India’s most pressing need: education. In October 2005, the Trust launched this institution, whose environment, curriculum and methodology are designed for traditional artisans, as a new approach to the rejuvenation of traditional arts.”

Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (KRV) evolved from years of design development based in the Kala Raksha Museum. KRV is an educational institution open to working artisans of Kutch, conservatively estimated at 50,000. It aims to provide knowledge and skills directly relevant to the artisan’s traditional art to enable market appropriate innovation, while honouring and strengthening the tradition.
As working artisans can rarely leave their homes and profession for long periods, the course is a series of modular classes conducted over one year in a local residential setting, using the vernacular language. The institute focuses on establishing long lasting market links.

Our day at Kala Raksha began with a visit to the  museum display housed in a traditional ‘bhunga’.

A traditional mud built and thatched bhunga.

A traditional mud built and thatched bhunga, decorated, like many of the textiles, with tiny mirrors.

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Detail of the tie-down system on the thatched roof of the bhunga.

Amongst so many things, we learned that within a community’s traditional embroidery technique and design motifs, there is much room for personal expression.  This is particularly important when a young couple are betrothed. As they are not allowed to meet before their wedding day, a series of gifts are exchanged, and a girl will typically send embroidered items to her betrothed and his family. It is through the quality of the embroidery and the motifs used that the groom and his family are able to decipher the qualities and personality of the future bride.

Next we were shown some of the historic collection, stored safely in flat drawers with traditional insect repelling herbs and spices tied in muslin to protect the precious textiles.

Then we joined some of the local ladies who instructed us in the finer points of the various stitches used in the textiles of the various communities of the area. A break for lunch with the ladies, and then several more hours trying to learn the intricacies of the stitches.  In my case, it was not so much learning the stitches, but increasing my awe and respect for the makers of these extraordinary textiles.

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Everyone getting involved with the stitches. From left: Margot, Carol, Pauline and Jill in front with our lovely teachers.

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Jill learns some stitches from one of the Kala Raksha ladies

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Deep concentration from Pauline (left) and Sue (right) as one of the ladies demonstrates her stitching technique.

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One of our very patient tutors.

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And another of our teachers

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Sue learning from her stitching tutor.

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A lot of concentration from both tutor and student, Carol.

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Carol shows off her new stitching skills

Whilst the preservation of tradition is paramount at Kala Raksha, innovation is also taking place. Artisans are telling stories through the technique of appliqué as well as applying their traditional stitching skills to a vast range of wonderful products available for purchase in the on-site shop….. we spent quite a lot of time, and rupees in there!

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One of the narrative appliqué panels showing scenes from the life of Gandhi.

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A detail from another narrative panel about monsoon time.  Note the use of scraps of block printed fabrics.

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Another detail of another panel.

Map the tour

The CLOTH and STONE TOUR to INDIA will take place in the state of Gujarat at ground level in our private vehicle.  That means we can stop at will to enjoy the colour and diverse wonder that is India up close, and enjoy many encounters with locals and wildlife.  Map the tour here >>>

Fellow travellers on the road north, Kachchh.

Fellow travellers on the road north, Kachchh.

The Timeless Varanasi tour begins in the city of Ahmedabad and takes us to Varanasi to immerse ourselves in the history, culture and spirituality of this ancient city.
Map the tour here >>>

Evening Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat

Click here to check out some of the sights you might encounter on the tours.

Village life 1

I love taking detours into villages and on the way from Bhuj to The White Rann my driver is taking me to visit Nirona to see some very special craftwork: the very rare to the point of being endangered, Rogan work.

But first breakfast! We had left Bhuj early and now I was looking forward to some good village food. Continue reading

Lunchtime at Shaam-e-sharhad

 

I arrived at Shaam-e-sarhad (Sunset at the Border), a mud-built resort in a village last night just at dinner time, tired and dusty after a day on the road visiting villages, artisans and points of interest on the way from Bhuj. After dinner, accompanied by village musicians drumming, singing and dancing, I retire early without a bath as the hot water will not arrive until the morning and the warmth of the late winter day is giving way to the cold of a desert night.

I slept well on the hard bed, had a deliciously hot bucket bath, sat catching up on blog articles in the common area near the open-sided dining hall, and now it is lunchtime. Continue reading

Village resort and the pastoralists of the Banni

I am staying in a mud-built resort – an initiative of and located in the village of Hodka in northwestern Gujarat, not far from the famous White Desert or Rann of Kachchh.

My tent at the mud resort at Hodka village

My tent at the mud resort at Hodka village

Meals are taken in the large open-air pavilion with grass roof and ceiling of colourful fabric. The central food station is attended by a group of lovely young men from the village. They are really friendly and I try to remember their names. In the tourist season they work here, then in off-season (summer – when it is way too hot for tourists) there are other jobs to do.

The guys ready to serve dinner. From left: Natha, Maya Valji, Manish and Gayani

Natha is from a family who do mud work and wall painting.  Mani is 16 years old and the lowest in the pecking order here, doing general cleaning work and food serving. He has the biggest whitest smile always ready to light up his brown face, and tries to please all the time.  Valji is one of the serving staff. He is a member of the family who do all the resort’s mud and mirror work for which this region is famous. They also make the wattle and daub fences and paint the walls with traditional designs. In the off-season, he goes to Mumbai and Delhi and works on mud-work commissions and he is planning on creating a bird sanctuary nearby.

Once I have shown an interest in a few of the guys, spruiking my few sentences of Hindi, asking names, what their roles are etc., the others also want to tell their stories and I realize that it is my genuine interest in them that is the main difference between me and a visiting Indian family who treat them as staff only and as such, do not take an interest. That is the difference between a society built on class and caste and the Australian egalitarian style. The side benefit for me, of course, is that I get extremely good service and attention from these lovely guys, and after less than one day here, they are beginning to anticipate my needs. (Later, when it came time to leave, they lined up to bid me goodbye.)

Valji, who will be married in March after a thirteen year engagement (he and his future wife must have been betrothed as children), sensed my genuine interest in the place and the people and gifted me a book which I find both fascinating and educational. It outlines the biocultural community protocol of the Maldharis of Banni (the pastoralists of the Banni grasslands  in this district in the north of Kachchh, Gujarat). The Maldharis have been the custodians of the biodiversity-rich Banni grassland ecosystem and have protected it and nurtured it for over 450 years.

This is an important document with the agreement between at first the Maharajah Radheshua-ji of Kachcch in the 18th century. There is documentary evidence (reproduced in the book) that the Madlharis have paid pancheri (grazing tax) since old times, in exchange for the right to graze their animals in Banni without any private land allocation or agriculture. It seems to me uncertain that contemporary governments have ratified this protocol and this document is a well researched and produced call to action to continue the historical rights of the Maldharis.

The Protocol in brief:

We believe that nature has entrusted us with the responsibility to protect Banni and the right to practice our traditional way of life in the Banni and through this biocultural community protocol we call on the government to respect and affirm this right.

In Maldharis biocultural community protocol we clearly state who we are, where we live, our relationship to Banni and our animals, our rights to land, our breeds and associated traditional knowledge and our duties to protect this ecosystem.

There are different stories of how these people came to live in the Banni. Here is one account from one of the elders of the Meghwal Hindus:

Our elders have told us that in 1736, and army from Sindh (now in Pakistan) led by Khaloda Mohammad Mir invaded Kachchh . Our ancestors were asked by the Maharajah Radheshua-ji of Kachcch to fight with his armies and defend the land from invaders. Though we lost many lives and suffered much in the ensuing battle, the Maharajah was, with our help, victorious. To reward our loyalty and valour, the Maharajah gave the Maldharis title to the Banni. As we were pastoralists the Maharajah also decreed that the grasslands should not be used for agriculture.

From further reading, I learn that the Maldharis have developed the unique Banni buffalo especially adapted to the grasses of the Banni.

The Maldharis hold their cattle in high regard. Some of us take our shoes off before we enter the place where our animals lie. Historically the measure of a man was based on different animals he kept. A Maldhari who had a good pedigree pure animals and expert in traditional knowledge was known as ‘bhagiya’ – he who is lucky with animals.

They have also developed a unique water harvesting system that enables them to suvive the harsh Kachchh summers. Temporary wells known as ‘virdas’ are built as a community activity by all the men of the village. The shallow wells are built in the place where a water hole has dried up but where ground water is not far below. The well is lined with logs of wood and Banni grasses: the wood prevents the well from collapsing and the grass filters the water.

I also learn that there are 18 Muslim communities and two Hindu in the Banni. There are strong ties between the communities and in solidarity with the Hindu, the Muslims refrain from eating beef. The Muslims provide milk and ghee to the Hindu Meghwals, who in turn provide leather shoes, saddles, water satchels and help building their bhungas (round houses).

The book goes on to list all the grasses of the Banni with images, the various tribal groups, the indigenous livestock and breeding protocols, and even home-grown vetinary treatments and much else. Challenges to their way of life are also catalogued, chief amongst them is poisonous effluent from industry on the fringes of the Banni: buffalo are dying because of poisoned waterholes.  Another threat  is police harassment.

I am finding it fascinating to delve a little deeper in the various cultures of India, and treasure this book and the brief time I have shared with the Maldharis of Kachchh.

Banni pastoralist with his herd

Banni pastoralist with his herd

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Banni buffalo

Treasure in Kachchh

For textile tragics like me, Kachchh, in the western region of Gujarat, is a treasure trove!

Departing Ahmedabad on the Pune/Bhuj Express, I headed west to Bhuj, the major town in the western region of Gujarat, Kachcch (Kutch). The seven-hour train trip passed quickly in my tiny, dirty but private 1AC compartment (first class air con – read: private with door and fan) for the 359km trip. For most of the time I caught up on some much-needed sleep and when awake, trying to keep up with these missives.

The scenery for the most part was beige, rendered even beiger by the train windows that look they have not been cleaned since this train was first commissioned, who know how many decades ago. Dry dusty landscape with low shrubs, shabby suburbs and tatty towns, did not engage me or the camera. Continue reading

Countdown…..

This time next week I’ll be experiencing for the first time Air India’s non-stop flight to Delhi from Melbourne – 11.5 hours in the air, leaving at a reasonable 10:45am and arriving at an equally reasonable 5:40pm local time.  On arrival, a visit to money exchange and to the Airtel counter to buy a local sim card. Then a leisurely  drive (in Delhi traffic, maybe not so leisurely) to my bed for the night at a nondescript but convenient hotel near to the airport ready for an early morning flight to the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state. Continue reading