Indian immersion: spending time with local communities in colourful Rajasthan

Vital work is being done to aid rural communities in India's northern state of Rajasthan. Lyn Hughes takes a new cultural trip to learn about the local way of life, from cooking chapattis to plastering with cow dung

8 mins

"Ommm...” Sitting cross-legged on the yoga mat, my eyes closed, all I could hear was a soundtrack of dawn birdsong. From the adjacent lake came the insistent piping of a tiny duckling calling its mother. The morning was cool, a heavy dew glittering on the grass. Then, as we finished the session with a salutation to the sun, a perfectly cued golden orb rose over the hill in front of us, casting a warm glow on our faces.

Stretched and energised, we sauntered over to breakfast. Although we were in Rajasthan in the north of India, the chef liked to showcase dishes from different regions at each meal. This morning, the iconic southern Indian dish of masala dosa was available, along with eggs, pancakes, fresh juice and more.

It was a glorious start to the day, but Araveli Cottages and Tented Camp, to give its full name, was more than just a tranquil place to stay. It was also the base for trips into India’s heartland with WE Charity, an international sustainable development charity that partners with communities to help them lift themselves out of poverty. 

The charity was founded by the then 12-year-old Canadian Craig Kielburger, after hearing the story of the life and death of Iqbal Masih, also 12 years old, who was murdered for speaking out against child slavery.

WE Charity works with several communities in Rajasthan and, to help finance its work as well as increase awareness, offers ‘ME to WE’ trips. These can involve either volunteering alongside the local communities on construction projects, or simply having an immersive cultural experience as part of your holiday. Whether you choose to roll your sleeves up or not, you have the opportunity to meet and interact with local people on a personal level. This is what I and four other guests had come to sample, eager to learn more about the people of Rajasthan and their everyday lives.

The ladies' committee with new members in recently built health centre (Hannah Flint) 

I had visited India several times previously, in search of wildlife or to see the iconic sights. Yet, when it came to its people, I felt that I’d never had any meaningful interactions, and I was always left wondering about their everyday lives. It seems that the people were not always too sure about visitors either. “Women used to want to run away if they saw a white person approach,” one local lady told me. “We thought that they would want to take our land. Now we can sit and talk here together.”

We were sitting in a new health clinic with ten ladies from the community committee. Dressed in colourful saris, they were a mix of ages, and while some boldly met our eye, others were shy. Despite this being one of the poorest areas of India, they all had gold jewellery on their arms and adorning their faces. They were curious at our lack of jewels; here they often form part of a dowry, given as a gift upon marriage. “What dowries do you have in England?”, we were asked.

None of our party were married or had children, and this caused consternation among the women. In local society, women get married at 14 or 15. Not so long ago, they wouldn’t have met their husband until their wedding day, but these days they may even be at school together. They continue to live at home until Grade 12 [ages 16-18] and then go to live with their husband once they graduate.

Rajasthan may be one of India’s most beautiful states, known for its palaces, forts and bright colours, but it is also one of the poorest. At the health centre it was the day for small children to be checked for possible malnutrition by having their arms measured with a special colour-coded tape. Most were fine, but two were in the borderline zone, so would be given extra nutrition and kept an eye on.

I was in the Rajsamand district, where 30% of its population are from tribal groups, 50% of girls do not attend school and, of these, 60% drop out before Grade 5 [ages 10–11]. We walked to the village school, which educated children aged between six and 14 years old. The principal of the school had been here 20 years, and he explained how, for many years, the school had been just one room with a leaking roof and no toilets. Thanks to WE Charity, the school now has a second classroom, with a third being built, and a computer lab planned.

Significantly, there are now toilets for both boys and girls. It has long been common in the rural areas of India for girls to drop out of school at puberty and one key reason has been addressed here by providing latrines for girls. “They want privacy as they get older,” the principal explained. We had already been told that bicycles have been provided to some girls in the area to help them get to school.

Local woman, ox and traditional Persian well (Lyn Hughes) 

We were in a very rural area, two bumpy hours from Udaipur. Oxen were a common sight, whether pulling ploughs or powering the Persian-wheel water wells found throughout the region. Camels and donkeys were still used as beasts of burden too, and the small local town would often be a scene of mayhem as we tried to drive through, with cows standing nonchalantly in the middle of the main street as buses and cars, horns honking, tried to squeeze through.

Dominating the skyline was the Aravalli range, which runs through Rajasthan and all the way to Delhi. These are some of the oldest mountains in the world, and they have been weathered down in size over the millennia. When out and about, we would spot the ‘Great Wall of India’ running along its hilltops. The Kumbhalgarh Fort ramparts are ‘the second-longest continuous wall in the world’, running for 36km and are 6m wide, built so that a half-dozen cavalrymen could ride atop them side by side.

The fort dates back to the 15th century and was never conquered, despite being attacked by the Mughals, an empire whose reach extended across most of what would become modern-day India. There were originally 360 temples here, but only 102 survive. The palace at its heart was a later addition, built in the 19th century and used as a summer palace, as well as a base for hunting in the surrounding park.

The park is now a wildlife sanctuary, and home to a healthy population of leopards, as well as wolves and sloth bears. We took an early morning nature walk but soon realised that, given the rich vegetation, we were unlikely to see anything unless it happened to be crossing our path. However, the soft earth near any water yielded evidence of the rich wildlife, and we spotted the fresh tracks of leopard and bear, as well as wild boar and deer.

Kumbhalgarh Fort (Dreamstime)

Back outside the park, it was time to experience “A life in the day of…” We transferred into a convoy of motorised rickshaws, bouncing along a rutted track with Bollywood music blaring out. Pulling up at a small village, we climbed a wooden ladder and were welcomed into the home of Narkibai and her family. 

The one-room house was typical of the area: made of bamboo, plastered with mud and dung. We sat on the floor and Narkibai and her eldest daughter, Burkibai, introduced themselves, as our guide, Kapil, translated. Narkibai didn’t know her age, but explained that she had six children. Bukibai was 19 and now married and living in another village.

Then it was our turn. They expressed surprise, again, at our lack of wedding rings and children. While we were chatting, Burkibai was casually making chapattis on their new stove, a built-in chimney ensuring there was no smoke in the room: much better for the villagers’ health. The new design is being rolled out across the area and is already changing lives. Water can be boiled at the same time as food is cooked, resulting in less wood being used.

We were then invited to have a go at making chapattis ourselves. Narkibai explained what a necessary skill it was, as the better you can make chapattis, the better wife you will make. Inevitably, it proved much more difficult than anticipated. Perhaps this explains why none of us were married or had children.

Narkibai talked us through her typical day. She wakes at 5am, tidies the house and tends to the animals before breakfast. Much of the rest of the day is spent fetching water, making chapattis and tending to the animals. She looked so elegant in her sari and jewels; it was hard to imagine her manual existence. Like most of the people in the area, their typical diet contained no protein. Now a wider range of crops are being grown, they are eating lentils, soya beans and vegetables.

We headed back down the ladder to meet the family’s goats. WE Charity has introduced ‘super goats’ to the area to replace the previous animals. They are bigger, produce more milk and usually give birth to two kids. The charity opens bank accounts for the women, so they can manage the money they earn from the super goats, which, at 18 months old, they can sell for $100.

Narkibai collects four loads of water a day. In summer, the nearest well is all dried up, so she has to do a 5km round trip. Thankfully, this was autumn and the village well had sufficient water, so she and the other ladies from the village took us the few minutes’ walk to it.

The well was typical of southern Rajasthan, with a wooden pump operated either by oxen or by hand. We each struggled to move it around and slowly filled our earthenware jugs with water. I thought I’d been crafty, only half-filling mine, but still found it heavy and awkward when I lifted it onto my head. We tottered along the path back to the village, each balancing our jug with our hands.

I was falling behind the others when a grey-haired lady tapped me on the shoulder. She was clearly concerned at my ineptness, and gestured that I should try carrying the jug in my hands instead of on my head. When even that proved awkward, she insisted she would carry the jug for me. “No, no,” I half-heartedly protested, but soon relented, and marvelled at her straight back and gracefulness as she glided along the path in front of me, my jug sitting like a feather on her head.

Back at the village, we were next invited to sit with the men. Again, we went through the usual introductions and questions about our marital status. I got respectful looks when it was explained that I was a widow. But they were less happy to hear I was now in a relationship again.

We moved onto less sensitive ground, talking agriculture and the simple but far-fetching changes that have been made. They showed us the new-style plough that they had started using, with curved blades that made the ploughing more efficient. What used to take three weeks now takes one. Whereas they used to scatter seeds by hand, they now use a seed drill, enabling them to produce more. They now use better seeds and are growing a wider range of crops. Thanks to the new innovations, they are getting more crops out of same area, and two crops a year.

Camel trek through the local villages (Lyn Hughes)

Back at Araveli, we had ample opportunities to get an insight into Indian culture. Tie-dye may be associated with 1960s hippies, but in India the technique dates back to 4,000 BC. Local textile artisan Yunus handed us each a square of cotton and demonstrated how to tie knots in it. The dyes were all natural; the blue made from indigo, yellow from turmeric and purple from beetroot, while alum was used as a colour fixer. Once mastered, we then used the dyes for block printing on other pieces of cloth. Who needs gift shops when you can make your own mementoes?

Other spare hours were spent having a Bollywood dance lesson, practising the basics of Hindi, learning how to make butter chicken and samosas, or having our hands dyed with henna. In the golden glow of one late afternoon, we went camel trekking through a village and past small fields where long grass was being cut into haystacks, the farmers nodding or waving a greeting as we passed by, to a soundtrack of tinkling camel bells.

Dismounting at a small body of water, we transferred into 4WDs and took a route home via Lake Hameripal. A stall sold bags of chickpea snacks, and I was surprised to see Kapil buy some. He led the way to a temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Vishnu, and to the steps in front of it that led down to the water. To our surprise, hundreds of prehistoric-looking catfish appeared, some as big as a metre long. They formed a squirming scrum as we threw them the snacks. It was a surreal sight.

There had been a lot of ‘firsts’ on this trip. I had discovered I was rubbish at making chapattis and at carrying water, but not bad at plastering with cow dung. I had danced in an Indian village to Jai Ho (the theme to the film Slumdog Millionaire), made myself a tie-dye scarf, and fed giant fish. But perhaps the most treasured moments were those sharing a laugh and a life story with some very ordinary local people.


The author travelled with Audley Travel on a tailor-made trip. Audley arrange similar itineries in India with two nights in Delhi, one night in Agra, three nights in Jaipur, three nights at Araveli Cottages & Tented Camp and one night in Udaipur, including all international flights, transfers and excursions, with a private driver and guide (when not at Araveli). For a longer immersion at Araveli, an eight-night trip, including seven nights at the camp and one night in Udaipur can be arranged. Araveli also combines well with a leopard safari. ask the company for details. 

For more details on the social development arm of the WE Charity see

Main image: Narkibai with her family (Lyn Hughes)

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