Nestled in the Sahyadri mountain ranges is an eco-friendly homestay, where one can find themselves surrounded by a 360-degree view of green landscapes while sipping on a cup of joe. Fluffy clouds glide past every now and then, and the whistling of birds and insects occasionally punctures the air.
There’s no cell phone network or WiFi to disturb the tranquillity. The homestay, Banyan Bliss, sounds like it might be in the middle of nowhere, but is in fact only a two-hour drive from Mumbai and Pune to Vasunde village.
The homestay offers a glimpse of a life of sustainability. The rooms are located right under the expanding branches of a 100-year-old banyan tree that sits on the edge of a hill in Khopoli.
While the place has seen thousands of guests since 2009, owners Viinod Nair and Beena say they never intended to enter the hospitality industry in the first place.
‘The ideal spot for a digital detox’
Viinod says he bought the land in 2007 to build a weekend home for his family. “The 1.25-acre land was barren with just one banyan tree and we were still contemplating on how to go about developing it.”
But while thinking of how to shape their family home, in 2009, Viinod suffered a heart attack. When he recovered, he decided to retire and make the land their permanent home.
Viinod says that the incident was an eye-opener for him. “I was in the field of advertising in Mumbai and spent 18 hours a day at work. Life was stressful and this affected my health. I felt like leaving the urban life for good and living far away from city life. So I chose to spend the rest of my life here,” adds the 67-year-old.
He and his wife Beena decided to build a family house under the banyan tree. It would also accommodate their two sons and daughter.
By 2014, the couple built four rooms using vernacular architecture made from rammed earth, clay tiles and a thatched roof. The doors and windows were carved from recycled wood and the rooms have rustic wood furniture, sans air-conditioners or televisions. However, there are books to keep one occupied.
The place has an organic garden and vermicompost pit. It also features a rainwater conservation system along with an indigenous drip irrigation layout to water the vegetation.
Guests are to bring their own towels and toiletries. “We do not allow single-use plastic water bottles, and visitors are expected to use their own bottles and refill them at the common water filter near the kitchen,” Viinod says.
“While it was built for the family, one day, our children asked us to put up the property as a homestay on Facebook. But we had no such thought in mind. Moreover, we also lacked experience in this area. So we both refused the idea, but our kids had already made the post live, with pictures and contact details. Within days, we received a request from guests, and then we did not know what to do,” Beena tells The Better India.
She adds that the couple scrambled to procure supplies and prepare the place to welcome the guests in time. Beena was assisted by the family’s help, Sanjay, to cook meals and fulfil kitchen requirements. “The guests appreciated their stay at our home, and referred it to others,” says the 65-year-old.
This was their first tryst with tourists looking to escape bustling lives temporarily, and since then, there has been no looking back.
The number and frequency of guests increased over time and the couple had to move out of their designated rooms and build a separate cottage on the premises. So far, Beena and Viinod have served over 6,000 guests.
“The number of referrals increased, and continue to do so till date. More than 50% of our guests come back. The remaining mainly comprise the younger generation, who wish to indulge in a detox from city life and technology,” Viinod says, adding that he is not listed on any tourism portals and has only social media pages apart from the website.
“The guests come from referrals or learn about us on social media posts put up by their friends. We have 15-20 guests waiting at any given time,” he says.
Mumbai-based Ajay Takalkar, a frequent visitor of Banyan Bliss, says, “I have visited the homestay at least 25 times in the last seven years. The place is bliss during monsoons, and the staff is polite and friendly.”
Ajay says the reason that his family keeps returning to the homestay is the quiet environment and disconnect from the city life. “No cell phones are ringing to bother you during the vacation. Any follow-up message or an email ruins the essence. The place is ideal for creative thinking and detoxing. A couple of waterfalls, a short trek in the village Behri with a rock temple and the Amba river, along with Viinod’s two dogs keep my daughter entertained and connected with nature,” he adds.
He says that like any child, his daughter is also fond of cell phones and gadgets, but visiting the homestay does not make her feel deprived of technology. “There are many homestays that we have tried over the years, but Banyan Bliss delivers the experience in a true sense. The staff cook fresh food that is homely and does not taste like hotel food,” he adds.
Ajay adds that he ensures he takes multiple weekend trips every year, or takes time out of his hectic professional life for short vacations at the homestay whenever possible.
To cater to the increasing number of guests, Viinod and Beena have experimented with a cob house made from earth materials and put it in their recent additions. The accidental initiative has brought them much success and satisfaction in their venture. But Viinod says that building the place was a challenging task.
Co-existing with nature
“Initially, friends and family doubted how an ageing couple that had always led a city life would manage in a rural area with no basic facilities or medical care,” Viinod recalls.
He says that earning acceptance from locals and the tribal community also took time and convincing. “The land was barren and rocky. We planted native trees with the knowledge we learned from the locals. We used organic methods to improve soil fertility and increase the survival rate of the plants. There was no water in the area, so for the first three years, we sourced it from the river by driving down the hill,” he adds.
Viinod says architects refused to work on building an eco-friendly set-up for them. “The profits are less, as the costs of amenities are cut down, and the time required to establish such structures is more. They agreed to build a concrete house but disagreed on using sustainable and traditional practices. But we were adamant about what we wanted in terms of sustainability, and eventually, a few volunteered to help us to build a home without harming the environment,” he adds.
Beena says that she has learned a lot about the environment. “Earlier, we used to run behind insects or lizards to kill them, because that is what we learn in the city. But the locals made us realise to let go and casually shoo them off instead. Now lizards are natural pests and insect controllers for us. We have become humble towards nature,” she adds.
She adds that she experimented with creating a Miyawaki forest on 1,000 square feet of land and has achieved success. “I planted 300 native trees, but 250 survived. The plants have grown almost 20 feet in height over the last two-and-a-half years. We are working towards creating a greener environment,” she says, adding that she knows more about plants and species now than she did during her life in Mumbai.
“Living amidst nature requires you to be a sponge. There is so much to absorb and learn from it. We are both reverse ageing here,” she says.
The couple is working to create an eco-community with like-minded people. “Many of the guests from the younger generation wish to work towards sustainability and adopt environmentally friendly practices. We are joining hands to create an eco-village to inspire others and show that it is possible to live sustainably,” she adds.
Beena says that bringing city-dwellers closer to nature gives her satisfaction. “For some, we are uncle and aunty. For kids, we become grandma and grandad. I think that is the reason guests keep visiting us because they feel like it is a home away from the city or an experience they expect while visiting their ancestral village,” she adds.
To contact Banyan Bliss for booking a stay, click here.
Edited by Divya Sethu