This Eco-Retreat in India Puts Women Back on Top

By Marco Ferrarese. Photos by Kit Yeng Chan.

Oct 20, 2020

A rural-luxe retreat and social enterprise empowers women and uplifts the Meena tribe in Rajasthan’s rugged interior.

As a golden-hued sunset casts its last rays over the foothills of Rajasthan’s Aravali Hills, my camel walks steadily toward Gadoli, where I have come to witness a private reenactment of the Tulsi Vivah, the Hindu ceremony of song and dance that, to the local indigenous Meena tribe, celebrates the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the wedding season.

The Meena, who ruled parts of Rajasthan until they were overpowered by the Rajputs, have an oral tradition that they only developed starting in the early 19th century as a means to change outsiders’ narratives that presented them as anti-social and violent. Judging by my visit today, it’s a far-fetched truth, as Meena women have more power and rights than those in most other Hindu tribes: they run the households and often have the responsibility for farming their lands.

This rare glimpse into their world is part of my stay at Clement Dera Village Retreat (full board for two INR 30,000) in Gadoli village. Set in the shade of the Aravalli foothills, where tame jackals and blue bull roam undisturbed, Gadoli is only 40 minutes away from the world’s largest stepwell of Chand Baori in the town of Abhaneri, and is the total opposite of chaotic Indian cities such as Agra and Jaipur, between which it stands roughly halfway.  

Clement Dera Village Retreat is the vision of Anjali Babbar, a Delhi-based entrepreneur who stumbled upon Gadoli as she explored these backwoods a decade ago. It was love at first sight: today, the 17 secluded chalets at this eco-friendly farm stay fan around immaculate gardens, and started getting on the radar in 2019 with their clever mix of eco-friendly luxury and social enterprise.

Instead of leaving the Meena to just cut down their trees to sell wood, Dera Village pays them better wages to be farmers, resort staff and guides, thus preserving the wealth of their farmland. By sending their fresh organic produce straight to the resort’s tables, the Meena learn to think long-term about using their natural surroundings sustainably.

“We want to teach villagers, especially the hard working women, that they can find wealth and happiness in their own backyard without having to move to busy and polluted cities,” explains Anjali, who reinvests some profits in the area’s social development and education. A granary is expected to give Gadoli’s women a further chance to empower themselves. 

Staying here is not just about sustainable cultural immersion, but meaningful exchange: guests engage with the Meena either by observing them at work, participating with the women in personalized Henna tattoo sessions, and experiencing first-hand ancient rituals like the Tulsi Vivah. “Our efforts keep showing the Meena how important it is to persevere with their traditions on this land,” Anjali says, “even in these unprecedented times.” Or, we’d argue, especially in these times.

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