Raw Luxury: Arth

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Eco Travel
The sheer beauty of East India awaits with a brand-new and distinct all-natural wilderness stay that can only be described as raw luxury. Sublime team Jen Marsden and photographer Domenico Pugliese visit Arth in Jharkhand.

Bobbing up and down a mud path in our decidedly non-off-road vehicle we realise we are lost in the wilderness, which is punctuated by otherworldly mountainous boulders. A quick phone call to our host and within a couple of minutes we’re back on a road that leads us to a smiling moustached gentleman dressed in a Harris Tweed gilet, crisp khakis, and a delicately feathered cowboy hat, who beckons us through the gates.

Once parked, our bags are whisked away to our rooms and our driver is invited into the kitchen for chai and snacks, while we are formally introduced to our humble host, Durgesh Sahu, who downplays his maharajah status.

“We have a little welcoming ritual here, if you don’t mind sitting down.”

Within moments of obliging our shoes are being removed and village ladies are bathing and massaging our feet in scented water. We’ve reached Arth. In all my well-travelled years, it’s a place unlike anywhere I’ve ever stayed.

We’re in Jharkhand, one of India’s youngest states, having only been established in 2000. Situated in the eastern part of the country, it’s far-flung from the usual tourist route, and as you venture further into it, some could argue it’s one of the more forgotten states too.

The hidden gem of boutique lodge Arth is situated in the rugged, somewhat obscure hamlet of Nandgaon in Lohardaga.

Nandgaon was first established in 1968 when Durgesh’s late father purchased this 150-acre spot to establish a world class model farm – and India’s first seed farm.

Durgesh’s father was a philanthropist and staunch environmentalist: he established two schools to give free education to local children and planted thousands of native trees. Likewise, Durgesh has already created his own forest, having planted a further 400,000 trees that he hopes honours his father’s legacy.

At one point there was a dairy, poultry, piggery, and an extensive orchard, but all that remains today are empty and dilapidated farm buildings filled with Durgesh’s dreams of the future.

“I’m going to renovate the piggery to be a craft workshop for the tribal women to conduct their weaving and pottery. Guests will be able to have a go and be able to buy items directly from their maker. If I can find a wider market for their handmade products and encourage the ladies to train the next generation then we’ll be able to save these indigenous skills that are at risk of being lost”, explains Durgesh.

Durgesh describes Arth as a contemporary adaptation of the region’s ethnic building methods, which is what gives it this exclusive element. This low carbon, regenerative building is clearly a project of passion. The cob earthen walls have been lovingly and deliberately constructed by hand, layer by layer of straw and mud applied over a total of five years, stopping each year during the wet monsoon months. The entire site has been off-grid for over 15 years, using innovative solar technology and water storage systems. This means that lights out, albeit in the wee small hours of the morning, is a real thing here so that energy supplies are conserved.

There’s something reminiscent of luxury African and Indian safaris I’ve been on, yet this is much more personal and, dare I say it, sublime and secluded.

There are just four large en suite guest rooms in the main building, while an annex of two further ensuite rooms are due to open in the future. These couldn’t feel more in tune with the surrounding nature – handmade beds from the forest, bamboo-slatted ceilings, regal chandeliers and light fixtures made from twigs, pods and dried leaves, jute rugs, and lampshades handwoven by the local people. Even the natural toiletries have been wrapped in banyan leaves. At every turn, we are greeted with small precious posies of foraged dried flower and moss arrangements.

There are old well buckets hung upside down as lamps, colourful glass soda bottles repurposed as windows, and old bullet casings used as hooks in the bathrooms.

The rooms are also smattered with a touch of their regal roots: old trunks casually placed by the door, while large hardback books about maharanis and the history of the prestigious boarding school Mayo College – Durgesh’s alma mater – are casually sprawled on coffee tables and desks. Expansive windows open up to mesmerising sunsets and sunrises that make our heart sing.

Situated on a geologically unique plateau, we find it almost too easy to idyll the days away as we jump into a vintage jeep with Durgesh and roam the vast acres of farmland and rolling wooded hills. Set by a large meandering river, the area is dotted with pockets of dwellings, where ethnic communities happily wave and come out to greet us, as curious and nosey as we are.

We watch as men lovingly comb their cows, women tend to their goats, and small children beam at us as they precariously balance pots and pans on their heads and waists. Some of the elder villagers are stamped with markings (godna) on their legs and feet, an ancient indigenous custom to ensure they are recognised in the next life.

On afternoon jeep safaris we experience godhuli, the time when villagers take their cattle and goats home just before the sunset.

With a twinkle in his eye, Durgesh informs us that, “You can expect a little wildlife here.” and goes on to tell us about the jackals and hyenas, five types of snake native to the area (although we never see any), nilgais, and even leopards. There are trees adorned with palash (flame of the forest) and he points out the native mahua flowers, which are turned into a potent tribal liquor that the British once banned.

Durgesh shows us bulbuls, bee eaters, kingfishers, nightjars and green pigeons, and the ‘seven sisters’ birds – a species that goes around in groups of seven. These are just several of the estimated 200 bird species who call the area home.

By staying at Arth, we not only discover the beautiful native flora and fauna but learn about the heritage of this fascinating region and – with some gentle probing – of Durgesh’s own regal family history that goes back centuries in this area.

As we meander through giant boulders in among wild grasses and uphill to stunning panoramas, at times it feels like the ancient southern Indian city of Hampi, yet it’s without the flocks of people and naughty monkeys. It’s all for us. This is nature at its most raw.

One evening, Durgesh arranges a bonfire by the lodge, and the heat is surprisingly welcome as the temperature drops. The mystical embers crackle up to the heavens, as village musicians that Durgesh has personally mentored play ancient songs on traditional drums and flute. This is not a place if you’re afraid of the dark, as when night falls, the only light in the wilderness comes from the blanket of stars in the unpolluted skies above.

A small team from the nearby villages ensure we always feel welcome at Arth, from joining us on the excursions, to the thoughtful hot water bottles we discover tucked under our sheets at bedtime.

Just a few minutes down the road from Arth lies Nandgaon’s original farmhouse, which we’re invited to visit. During the 1970s and 1980s Durgesh’s father hosted the who’s who of the Indian elite, including Bollywood legends, and we’re told that the 1983 feature film Nirvana was shot here.

Today, the exceptional retro exterior that could easily fit an Austin Powers film has a more down to earth interior, with hand painted murals of jungle scenes, and beautiful yet gnarly handmade wooden furniture. Overlooking a riverbed that seasonally floods, Durgesh has also put up a few luxurious canvas safari tents to offer a bird watching paradise.

We find that one of the absolute treats of our Arth stay are the mealtimes and snack times that bring regulation to an otherwise timeless experience.

We tuck into locally sourced, farm fresh produce that have been whipped up into flavourful native recipes, including dhuska, a unique lentil bread, which is served with a neverending assortment of curries, chutneys, and sweets. However, the local chef’s repertoire goes beyond borders, so we also find ourselves enjoying Italian pasta and American chopsuey on occasion.

There’s so much exploring and experiences here – from scenic picnics on the top of the boulders to visiting old temples and weekly markets, fascinating quarries, lakes, and waterfalls – that I feel wistful upon my departure. As I exit the gates that first welcomed me, I find myself whispering a promise to Arth that I will return.

Arth officially opens to discerning guests in October 2023. To book your stay visit, jungliescapades.com

Photography: Domenico Pugliese

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