Switch off your computer and join the exodus. This year, farmstays offering treks, homegrown meals and friendly cows are a popular antidote to lockdown blues
The eight cows at The Banyan Tree Farm Stay (Pollachi) are celebrities, and they know it. Every Pongal people come from all over the world to fuss over them as they get bathed and decked up for Mattu Pongal.
This year, the bovine divas will miss their international fans but are more than happy to pose for domestic followers.
M Prabhu, the ninth generation owner of the 160-year-old farm says, he has hosted guests from 30 countries. This year, because of the pandemic, however, most of his guests are from in and around Tamil Nadu.
Taking a step back
With concerns over boarding flights and trains due the pandemic, people are driving to nearby destinations this year.
The short Pongal break is a great time for road trips. At The Banyan farm stay, celebrations include a traditional festive menu featuring dishes made with farm fresh yam, mochai (beans), red and white pumpkin.
“We also show the attendees how to make pongal. They are mostly fascinated with the cows and how we feed them. Before that, till about 15 years back, it used to be our elephants,” says Prabhu, adding that the elephants also helped with farm work, but they no longer have them as maintenance became a challenge.
Given its lush surroundings, the farmstay offers activities such as butterfly watching, birding, herpetology, Nature classes, cooking lessons and games like hop scotch, sack race, lemon and spoon race…
“All activities that don’t involve computers,” says Prabhu. “This is a place where guests come to detox from the city. They are interested in different facets of a farm: how it runs, learning to make products out of coconut etc,” he adds.
The 210-acres boast a large variety of trees including jamun, kokum, butterfruit and litchi, red and green custard apple, breadfruit and eggfruit. The team organises a treasure hunt so participants can learn names of trees as they play the game.
Reconnecting with tradition
Classic games like sack races, lemon and spoon races, as well as tree climbing, slow cycling and swimming are an annual fixture during the Pongal celebrations in Naveen Farms, Musiri (in Tiruchi district). City dwellers as well as locals participate in these competitions, which are almost always won by the locals. There is also a segment where couples are challenged to source raw ingredients from the farm and cook a meal.
“We have been celebrating Pongal here for the last 10 years and get guests from India and the world over. This year the visitors are primarily from Chennai, Tiruchi, Madurai, Coimbatore and Thanjavur,” says Naveen Krishnan, who started the farm in 2005.
He believes that farmstays in particular are popular around this time. “We make pongal in a mud pot. Then, our farm animals like donkeys, camels, cows, bulls are decorated for the occasion,” he adds.
Last year, the farm welcomed upwards of 90 guests for the festivities. While many stay the night at the venue, a lot of them come on a day-trip to participate. “This year, so far, we have 70 guests coming,” adds Naveen. Besides the planned activities, people enjoy walking around their miyawaki forest, and acquaint themselves with the 116 varieties of trees grown here.
Over the last few years, there has been a growing interest in agritourism among holidayers. Mohanavelu Ramasamy, manager — strategy at Destiny FarmStay in Udhagamandalam, another popular weekend getaway that starts getting booked for Pongal by mid-December, says, “There has been a shift in interest and our guests are keen to learn about agricultural processes and dairy farming.”
That explains why, along with horse riding and trekking, the tour of their 30-acre patch growing herbs and vegetables is such a hit. “Sometimes, our guests come on short trips but go back armed with a whole lot of new knowledge, a few have even started their own agricultural ventures,” he says. And after a day at the farms, there is always a bonfire to light up the cold night as people settle down with a bowl of pongal and watch the embers reach the sky.