A couple that gave up lucrative corporate jobs to start a homestay in Odisha, which supports community members around the Chandaka- Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary. Svanir is a stellar example of giving back to the landscape and its people.
by Bhavna Menon
The first time I heard about Svanir translating as ‘own home’ was when Indrani Chakraborty, the co-founder at Svanir connected with me on LinkedIn. Almost after a month of having online discussions (wherein I practically drove Indrani up the wall with questions about the landscape) I finally flew down to the gorgeous state of Odisha. With the winter chill in the air, I was most excited to experience an eco-homestay located on the periphery of the Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary. As the car pulled into the gates at Svanir, I met with Soumya who is the other co-founder of the property (the property has been founded by Soumya’s father Shri. G.B. Mukherjee). What immediately strikes you at this one-acre property blessed with a huge diversity of trees (forest species as well as planted by the family) is the peace and quiet you are drawn into, away from the madding crowds and vehicular movement of Bhubaneshwar city which is a 45-minute drive from the property. As Soumya leads me to the room, a golden oriole flies past us, while the sunbirds swing on the hibiscus bush like iridescent fairy lights.
My room reminds me of a village house with artifacts from Raghurajpur (famous for its papier mache and Pattachitra products) complimenting the mud-textured wall and the window opening up to the trees in the garden, the fragrance of Tulsi and lemongrass in the air. Lunch is a lavish affair (Indrani is an unbelievable cook and you must put in a request for her cookies or the coffee liqueur pastry) with fresh fish, ‘dal’and potato curry presented before a hungry traveller like me which was wolfed down in record time. During my stay at Svanir what I enjoyed the most were conversations with the hosts. They often make it a point to spend time with you while you dine or visit the dining area for chai or coffee and during my (frequent) visits to the kitchen or the dining area I have had some of the most meaningful discussions with Indrani and Soumya ranging from food (of course), gardening, sustainable home stays, engaging with local community members to macro photography! While the happy couple may seem cheerful and untouched by the challenges properties such as this often possess, the truth is starkly different from their sunny disposition. It is only during several rounds of ‘chai’ in the sun-bathed garden is when we talk about the difficulties the family has met with. The most challenging times have been the pandemic which resulted in zero footfall in the eco stay for almost 2 years, and cyclone Fani which destroyed the roofs of many of the newly constructed rooms. The only silver lining of both these devastating events as shared by Soumya with half a smile was, meeting with the community members from the nearby Dalua village, the members of which would often look in curiously to understand what the property was all about.
Shanti was the first woman from the village Indrani formally met. Indrani recalls that post-Fani when she sat cradling a cup of her favourite black tea in the dining area, Shanti walked into the premise and asked Indrani about the property and how she could help. “I need assistance in running the property. Can someone from the village help?” explained Indrani, to which, Shanti (a woman of a few words) serious yet determined, nodded in affirmation, and began her quest to help Indrani by mobilising the local community members. Although there was resistance to the property and work at first by the community members who were of the opinion that the property would infringe upon their privacy. To address this, a detailed dialogue between the management at Svanir and the village elders was soon conducted explaining the concept of an eco-stay with benefits to the community members. Post the conversation and further motivated by Shanti; Bharti, Trilochan, Manas, Lisa, Dolly joined the team, and thus began a new and exhilarating journey for the quaint property. Today, with the help of a wonderful team (all trained by the couple and their in-laws) four cottages at Svanir are available for guests to stay at and enjoy a rejuvenating time. For a better insight into the village, I decided to take a car ride to the village with Soumya, Indrani, and the livewire baby of the house (Indrani and Soumya’s son) Ishaan. Trilochan met us halfway to guide us through the village. Soon we were busy conversing with the families of the staff and other community members who seemed very happy at the prospects Svanir had created. As we sat discussing the future of the other young adults in the village, an elder mentioned that there are many girls who would be willing to take up a vocational course that could them financially independent. A common consensus was that the girls would love to have someone train them with regard to tailoring so that they can use the skill to make clothes for the village as well as expand the skill to make products like bags, shirts as a means of livelihood which can be made sustainable by making the products for tourists visiting Chandaka – Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary. As I sit with Dolly and have a conversation with her on other ways to engage with tourists, she mentions shyly that she is skilled at henna designs and asks whether I would like one for myself. Within minutes of me extending my hand in excitement, she puts together a beautiful pattern complete with a tiny elephant motif on one end of my hand. She and Lisa further mention that they would be more than willing to engage with tourists to conduct village walks and conduct workshops (especially with regard to sewing) once they have been given the required training. Post our visit to the village which gave me a wonderful insight into community engagement, we decide to visit the sanctuary (the next day) to give me a holistic view of the landscape. The safari which can be booked online is at a distance of merely five minutes from the eco- stay is well organised and is available for tourists for a period of 1.5 hours. After a hearty lunch of ‘mochha chop’ (the flower of the Banana tree), dal and malai chicken (Indrani’s speciality) we jump aboard a canter, after which the driver takes us through the dense semi-evergreen forest. Dotted with several water bodies, Chandaka is a birder’s paradise with several residents, as well as migratory species flocking the Kumarkhunti region of the park.
An important elephant corridor (declared an elephant reserve in 1982) Chandaka is also home to leopards, bears, jackals, deer and transient tigers. Post the safari, we discuss how important it is to protect this 175.79sq km landscape that acts as the green lungs of the city. However, the protection of the sanctuary, we discuss is also possible only when we work with the stakeholders living around the forest, like the ones in Dalua for whom a steady income is still a struggle, due to their dependency on agriculture which does get affected by elephant movement (owing to predominant paddy cultivation) and the only other option is working in a brick factory which may not be the best environment for the girls to work in considering the physical strain it may put them through.
As I finally bid the family goodbye (after a fulfilling breakfast of eggs and chai made by Dolly and Lisa) and the entire staff waved at me smiling, I realise how important it is to support properties like Svanir which will help in maintaining a sustainable future for the concerned families. Furthermore, it is also imperative to introduce opportunities for further community engagement via other livelihood projects which will help in not only safeguard the lives of the people but will help in the long-term protection of the forests in their backyard as well.
To book a room at Svanir Eco-homestay, write to – email@example.com
Fun fact: For people who have a confectionary palette, please visit a local bakery named Goodness Bakes, which is a 15-minute drive from Svanir and serves the most delectable cakes and cookies. Do ask for the Pistachio cake and affogato coffee