Prior to beginning a three-month long trip to India in the summer of 2013 I consulted the website helpx in search of voluntary work opportunities. Among the many detailed in the India section was the Banni Khera Farm Project. I wrote to the group, seeking further information and asking whether they could use someone with my background and skills. In quick time I received a reply from Mr. K. V. Singh, inviting me to come and help out for a while. He noted my experience as a writer and at our first meeting, which took place in Delhi, proposed that I pen a ‘snapshot’ profile of the project, covering many of its different aspects. The following derives from a week-long visit in late June 2013.
A look at most India travel guides will reveal that Haryana is largely omitted when it comes to discussing areas with tourist clout. Lonely Planet’s guide to the country, a huge volume in itself, devotes no more than a couple of paragraphs to the Hindi-speaking, predominantly agricultural state. This may merely be a reflection of the Haryana state government’s past unwillingness to explore tourist initiatives, at least beyond the provision of motel-restaurants along the main roads. Tellingly, the location of these motel-restaurants perfectly facilitate ‘the quick passage through’ that has usually been the fate of Haryana. Visitors intent on spending their time and money in places with more intrinsic interest and / or tourism infrastructure need only walk out the door of their motel-restaurant the morning after and start their cars. The states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and the national capital itself are all nearby and boast heavyweight attractions.
Others, however, begged to differ. Believing Haryana to be an untapped market with considerable potential, they set themselves the task of redressing the imbalance and bringing the area into favour. They envisioned tourism, especially farm tourism, as a viable option and source of revenue in the state.
Banni Khera Farm
Roughly a ninety-minute drive from West Delhi in the heartland of Rohtak and bordering the village of Samar Gopalpur, Banni Khera farm first welcomed visitors about ten years ago. Three Japanese came to sample life in this pioneer of Indian farm tourism and were so taken with the experience that they returned the next year and the year after that. In the time since there have been many local and overseas guests. The latter have come from countries near and far, including England, France, Australia, Germany, Spain and Belgium. Corporations, schools and other groups have also come to stay.
Occupying ten acres, seven and a half of which comprise a lake where guests can go boating and fishing, Banni Khera farm offers an eco-friendly farm stay for tourists wanting to see something of rural India’s nature and culture. The facility is 100 percent solar powered. The haveli, or family mansion, is a blend of western and Rajputana architecture. The ten fully furnished rooms within have been traditionally designed. The family also own 350 acres of farmland in the vicinity, allowing ample scope for the provision of agriculture related activities for those with an interest in this area.
The owner is Mr. Thakur J. P. Singh, a progressive farmer and veteran boxer; he was a four-time national champion. He is also one of the selectors for the Haryana State boxing team. He is married to Mrs. Usha Parmar, who does much of the cooking and cleaning. Originally from Rajasthan, she holds a Master of Arts (Hindi Literaure) from Mysore University. She came top in her division. She is a former member of the Zila Parishad (District Council). Mr. Singh co-manages the facility with his son Mr. K. V. Singh, who holds MBAs in tourism and marketing. An accomplished guitarist and skilled horse rider, he is married with one child. Thakur Singh’sother son is Mr. D. V. Singh. A one-time polo player, Mr. Singh gained selection in the Udaipur team. He paints and also was a skilled textile designer, having been selected in NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology), Hyderabad. These days he works in special security at the national parliament. His wife Snehlata is a national shooting champion and a member of the Indian shooting team. Guests who want to try their hand shooting are given the opportunity to train with Mrs. Singh.
The aforementioned boating, fishing, shooting and agriculture related activities are only some of the options available to visitors. There are also bullock cart rides, yoga and meditation, a dance and music show, a ‘nature bar’, indoor and outdoor games, cycling, horse riding and camel rides. Guests may also learn pottery from a local practitioner, participate in traditional village games and join excursions to outlying ashrams, temples, villages and farms.
During the initial part of the week of my stay I visited several of these places. The Yoga and Meditation Ashram is overseen by a swamiji who regularly travels to other parts of India to disseminate the teachings of Vedanta. One could hardly think of anyone better equipped to offer a yoga meditation session than this burly, scraggly-haired man.
The Acharyaji at the Vedanta Ashram visited one day later impressed similarly with his robust health and radiant spirituality. He pointed out to me a photo in which he is shown feeding a bird by hand. Inevitably, I was reminded of the famous nature loving saint, Francis of Assisi.
There are two ‘cow NGOs’ in the area. Dharmendra, the young man in charge at the smaller of the two, showed us around the facility. Forty or so sick or injured cows are his and his team’s direct concern. Some of the animals are suffering diseases such as cancer, but many have been injured on the nation’s maniacal roads.
The next morning we called at the larger NGO. Established over 100 years ago, the grounds are spread over a vast area. Around 7000 cows can be treated here. The buildings blend older style and modern architecture. The current president, 84-year-old Mr. Ram Phool, has been associated with the group twenty years. Despite its longevity, only recently has this NGO started maintaining financial records. A visitor’s book was instituted to coincide with our arrival. Those members of the public who donate most generously in support of the work are pictured on the walls of the administration building. Tourists with an interest in farming and agriculture would undoubtedly find both these NGOs well worth seeing.
Gurukul, a Vedanta residential school for boys, could not be called a tourist attraction as such. Nonetheless, a visit there would enhance the overall Banni Khera experience for those who have come to the area expressly to delve into India’s yoga / Vedanta tradition.
After dropping into the school we continued to the Herbal Park. At present many would drive by on the adjacent road unaware what precisely lay within the precinct, a fact not lost on Mr. Nehra, with whom we spoke. It is a pleasant area in which to stroll but for the moment is noticeably lacking in explanatory boards or other sources of information. With such things added, local and overseas visitors alike would inevitably gain a better grasp of this fascinating side of life in the Rohtak district.
Families / Individuals associated with the Banni Khera Farm Project:
One part of the original vision for the project related to the local villagers. Samar Gopalpur is a village of about 10,000 inhabitants. The founders of the project asked themselves how they might best use the talents and know-how of the people living in close proximity. At no stage did they envisage creating a space inaccessible to those who see it daily across the lake. On the contrary they have sought to involve the locals, hoping that the fruits of any success attained will be shared by many. There are many families and individuals associated with the Banni Khera Farm Project, but for the purposes of this report we will focus on four.
Ram Chander (interviewed on 26 / 6 / 2013):
Ram Chander and his family live a short walk from the farm. He has been a potter for about fifteen years, having inherited the business from his forebears. He is busiest at Diwali and in the summertime, when there exists great demand for his work. Yet on average Ram earns only 5000 to 7000 rupees per annum, an amount insufficient for him to support himself and his family. His production costs are quite high. For instance, mud for the pottery must be brought from outside the village.
Welcoming visiting tourists from the Banni Khera farm on a regular basis he would be able to work approximately eight months a year and of course earn considerably more income. He has no issues with the tourists who have dropped into his workshop in the past and is sometimes able to sell them items. He recognises that the workshop could do with some upgrading. A fly screen affixed to the entrance facing the road, for example, would be conducive to a more salutary experience for all. These and other adjustments, such as the addition of explanatory boards, are ones he would be prepared to make, he said.
Horse riding is coordinated by another villager living close by – Suresh. In India horses once played a pivotal role in transportation. Over time this changed as horses were replaced by other, more modern, means. For approximately ten years Suresh and his family have used their horses primarily for the loading and unloading of bricks, a task they are not ideally suited for. It is dangerous for the animals and can easily result in injuries. One of Suresh’s horses was clearly in need of veterinarian attention on the late afternoon of my visit with Mr. K. V. Singh. Providing horse riding opportunities for the guests at Banni Khera, as he has been doing for some years, is a much better option for Suresh. Not only can he earn good money but his horses are then not subject to the rigours associated with the loading and unloading of bricks. In the past Suresh has not always followed through on stated commitments to Banni Khera. For his partnership with those at the farm to broaden he would need to be less lackadaisical in this area.
Folk Dance Team:
Not unlike Suresh, the folk dance team have faced the ramifications of changing circumstances brought on by modernisation. Where once folk dance groups performed at watershed ceremonies, anything and everything from weddings and birthday celebrations, they have increasingly become the ‘victims’ of the tendency toward the use of non-live music and DJs on such occasions. A question that may be asked is how they can continue evolving and improving their performance, in so doing providing the sophisticated tourists who come to Banni Khera with an experience to remember. Can they add to their repertoire by learning other instruments, for instance? How might they polish their interaction with an audience of demanding foreigners. Performing for them entails challenges different to those facing the troupe when they put on a show for local people. Could they realistically commit to a heavier schedule at the farm given their familial duties? An offshoot of more frequent performances at Banni Khera would be the help this would provide the members, all of whom are local women. Direct financial remuneration would by no means be the only possibility. Others might include trusts or ‘scholarship provisions’, whereby the extra money earned could be set aside for the education of the women’s children in later years.
Daya lives in the village but comes daily to assist with cooking, milking, cleaning and other chores. India’s rigid social structure can seriously circumvent the life options of people, in particular women such as Daya, whose drunken husband often abused her. Left to her own devices she would have become a social pariah in the village, shunned by all. The folks at Banni Khera offered the lifeline of regular employment. Thus able to make ends meet, her circumstances have improved accordingly. Her assistance is invaluable, especially when the farm is overrun with guests. She would surely be able to cope with any increasing demand on her time and energy.
My experience at Banni Khera Farm:
Banni Khera Farm aims to provide guests with something different – a physically and spiritually rejuvenating experience in a rural setting. Being the off-season, no guests as such were present during the week of my visit, but to judge by the comments written in the guest book those at the helm succeed nobly in this regard. Many who come to stay thrive in the peaceful ambience and leave refreshed and looking forward to returning.
Without doubt the setting is ideal for physical and / or spiritual revitalisation. The bustle, such as it is in the little village of Samar Gopalpur, barely infringes across the lake – bone dry though the lake happened to be while I was present! It is as if it outside noise can be ‘seen’ rather than heard – or not heard loud enough to be processed on an auditory level. I can imagine the environs would be even more idyllic when the water level is up.
Mr. Singh, his wife, Mr. K. V. Singh, and Daya offered a warm, traditional Hindu welcome on the Monday of my arrival. This set the pattern for the entire week. No visitor could help but find such hospitality uplifting. The wholly vegetarian meals – all comprised of traditional Indian fare – were filling and excellent. For guests, alcoholic drinks are available on request. I stayed in a fine bedroom on the second level of the haveli. The AC it came equipped with attenuated the stifling high summer heat – on the rare occasions that it worked! Otherwise the high in the ceiling fans faced a tough challenge to render the temperature comfortable. To be fair most visitors wisely elect to come in the cooler months September to April. Wi-Fi connectivity, touted in the BKF brochure, was not available on a consistent basis. But in any case this may be of little concern to many looking to take leave of the rat race, however temporarily. Owing to technical problems and the fact that the farm is 100 percent solar powered, there were interruptions in the electricity supply.
Over the last decade, Banni Khera farm has carved an impressive niche in the underdeveloped Haryana tourist market. During the course of the week Mr. K. V. Singh confided his longer term vision for the project. He envisages something much bigger and more professional in scope. He feels that the addition of certain more typical tourist touches, such as a reception desk where guests can check in and out, for example, would be good. He would like to build a strong team on all sides of the spectrum, not only of locals conscientiously and consistently providing their talents and skills, but also of permanent staff who would coordinate the various aspects of the project – the meals, activities and so on. Banni Khera’s great challenge, to my way of thinking, will be to build this team. At the moment there is a fetching ‘home away from home’ feel to Banni Khera, an atmosphere that has touched and appealed to many. Another challenge will be to maintain this through all the proposed changes.