Ever fancied owning a fort or a castle? Well this fantasy is becoming a reality for many people in the western Indian state of Rajasthan where in recent months the government has been putting some fascinating state properties up for sale. North India specialist, Ben Whitaker, talks to the owner of Chhatra Sager about his family's decision to turn their land over to tourism in order to ensure that the local community continues to thrive.
Rajasthan is so packed with historical cities and beautiful monuments (including the Taj Mahal, Delhi and Jaipur) that you could easily spend an entire trip just in this region.
Despite being a popular visitor destination, Rajasthan is one of India’s poorest states. Many villages lack basic infrastructure and about one third of the region's 60 million inhabitants are illiterate. The aim of the government sell-off is to raise revenue to help support local towns and villages.
After India became independent in 1947 many landowners were forced to hand over their estates to the Indian government and now that the properties are up for sale competition is fierce between savvy investors and the descendants of the properties' original owners. Everything from 100-room palaces to small havelis (traditional buildings built around a courtyard) are for sale and the hope is that many will be restored and opened as guesthouses and hotels.
Tourism is a vital source of income for the area and, in the past, has allowed magnificent ancestral homes to be restored and maintained. Rajasthan's first heritage hotels began to appear in the 1980s, so the shift from landowner to hotelier is not new, and many owners would argue that they are simply extending the legendary hospitality of their forefathers. For visitors, the wealth of heritage properties in North India has become one of the highlights of a trip here. Whatever your budget, it is possible to stay in a restored fort or palace and live like a Maharaja, even if it is just for a day or two.
One of our long-term favourites, Chhatra Sagar, is a wonderful, tented camp between Jaipur and Jodhpur. The family-run property has been providing a unique taste of life in rural Rajasthan for many years now and I asked its owner, Harsh, about his family’s decision to move into tourism.
What is your family history and connection to the area?
Our family has been associated with the area since the 15th century and then, as now, water was a big issue. It is a very precious resource in this region and the importance of water conservation is a deep concern for everyone here. Because of its scarcity, finding ways to harvest or conserve water has always been one of the primary responsibilities of those in power.
In the closing years of the 19th century, Thakur Chhatra Singh, a powerful noble of the desert Kingdom of Marwar (Jodhpur), decided to dam a seasonal stream flowing through his estate. His vision was to create a large water reservoir which would harvest the monsoon rains. The dam was completed in 1890 and it changed the dry scrub into prime agricultural land. The reservoir was named Chhatra Sagar in his memory.
When and what made you turn to tourism?
Over many years rainfall has decreased in this area and consequently, the monsoon water stored in the reservoir was not sufficient for large scale farming. To protect the underground water we had to look for an alternative source of revenue and tourism was the only answer. This allowed us to at least keep the monsoon water to charge the wells which provide drinking water to the area. In the year 2000, we (Thakur Chhatra Singh’s grandchildren) opened Camp Chhatra Sagar. The forest land which had been made arable a century before was returned to nature and over ten years has turned into beautiful scrub which once again attracts a variety of bird and animal life.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Convincing the farming community to return their farms to nature and small-scale farming was a huge challenge, and once we did that, we faced the prospect of trying to generate enough business from tourism to compensate their loss. This is at the very heart of the project, as without the support and goodwill of the local community, we would not have been able to create and maintain our camp.
How do you continue to support the local community?
The camp hires all its help from the surrounding villages ensuring full employment for the local farming and shepherding community. We have also adopted the local school and many of our clients help support it.
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