Speaking to the founders of Nashik’s Utopia Farmstay, husband and wife duo Adwait and Uttara Kher, one learns a lot. They both worked in the hospitality industry and met when employed at the Taj. They were also both working as models, with Uttara being crowned Miss India World in 1982. But what stands out most, even during the Zoom interview, is the couple’s warmth as they shared details about their work with this writer.
It’s with this familiarity and curiosity that they greet each new visitor to their farm stay, located five minutes away from the Sula Vineyards, Nashik, it is flanked by the Gangapur Lake and the Sahyadri mountains on the other.
Leaving the harsh weather and concrete jungles of Mumbai, the couple had first moved to Nashik to raise their daughters Saiyami and Saunskruti in a small town amid nature. “The mountains, treks and especially the waterfalls during the monsoons are factors that gravitated me away from Mumbai,” says Adwait. They soon opened three restaurants in Nashik — Aangan, Tandoor and The Bombay Talkies.
Much later, they started work on the farm stay and opened Utopia Farmstay in February 2018.
Rocky origins lead to an eco-friendly end
Adwait spent months visiting nearby villages on his motorcycle to learn about rural architecture and then spent two months planning out the project before starting work. But they soon ran into their biggest challenge. They were using black cotton soil, which expands during the monsoon and contracts during summers, leading to a pull and push to the construction every time, and requires a solid foundation to stand. Because of this, no architect was willing to take on the project. “That was motivating enough for me to do it myself,” he says, about the property that’s still standing strong.
Besides being the 2-acre property’s architect, Adwait also served as a carpenter, working with one other professional to build all the furniture.
With every aspect from the foundation stone to the bricks and from the soil to the interiors, this farm stay is built with the intention of being as eco-friendly as possible. “We have a basaltic rock foundation and have used fly ash bricks. We’ve used very little cement and our plaster is a cow dung recipe of the past,” says Adwait.
Fly ash bricks don’t erode the topsoil and need lesser cement and water for binding. Compared to cement bricks, they’re also less prone to breakage and therefore create lesser waste. These bricks also absorb less heat which keeps the room cool, so carbon-emitting ACs are not a necessity. Using only a negligible amount of poisonous latex-oil paints, rooms have primarily been coated with a mix of cow dung and mud, an age-old, sustainable technique. Also, the building boasts only mud tiles and none of the ceramic tiles that require high kiln temperatures with higher carbon footprints.
Used Bisleri bottles wrapped in gunny sacks are supplemented as lampshades. The property also boasts old, reclaimed pieces like windows (jharokhas) sourced from Adwait’s travels over the past 30 years. He collected these from Rajasthan, Cochin, Maharashtra, and more. “We’ve been collecting a lot of stuff from all over the country which we could incorporate into our designs,” he says.
There’s a well for the farm and a bore well for drinking and bathing water. The grey water from the farm stay is used in the fields. The farm stay also runs on solar power. “Everything is as eco-friendly as possible and we intend on keeping it that way,” says Adwait.
The farm itself grows a variety of vegetables and fruits that are harvested and fed to the guests, including onions, garlic, bananas, coconuts, mangos, drumsticks, and spinach, among others. Right now, part of the farm is blooming with sunflowers that were planted primarily to attract birds.
Today, over 42 species of birds flutter around the property and the sunflowers give about 100 litres of sunflower oil. “I will use it for food because I do the cooking at the farm stay. We will also sell the cold-pressed sunflower oil,” says Uttara.
All of this is aided by the fact that the couple has been longtime crusaders for the environment, from filing PILs to clean the Godavari to making sure trees aren’t being cut down around Nashik. “We managed to save nearly 3,000 trees from being cut down because they were randomly cutting trees to widen roads,” says Uttara.
Forging special bonds
On their farm stay, which charges between Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000 per night, Uttara and Adwait offer a variety of activities, including yoga workshops and clay moulding classes. Adwait teaches carpentry workshops, leads monsoon treks and hikes, walks around the property, and organises architectural appreciation walks and old city walks of Nashik.
Enjoying these pleasures is an eclectic and wide-ranging bunch of guests. There are small children from big cities who’ve never seen vegetables growing on trees, “so we teach them a bit of gardening,” says Uttara with a laugh.
One of their guest, a 72-year-old, wanted to go running, and they pointed him to the 2-kilometre distance to Sula. He was an ultra-marathoner who was once a scientist at NASA. Another guest was working on electromagnets at CERN, Switzerland.
“It’s so life-enriching to talk to these guests from across the globe,” says Adwait. There’s always a nice mix of people that they meet in the evenings in the common area, says the couple who doesn’t live on the property but visits often. They exchange ideas with people from different walks of life and learn new things every day. “People who stay in farm stays or homestays are people who don’t like the 5-star culture,” says Uttara. “When they come to us they don’t have their guard up. They’re just simple people,” she adds.
Most of the guests are now like family to the couple. They keep in touch and receive regular updates about the big moments in the lives of their former guests. “It’s been a nice experience for us,” adds Uttara.
As the couple continue their journey of constant growth and innovation, they’re now looking at ways of teaching and inspiring villagers to imitate their model and earn better incomes. And with their sustainable model, one wouldn’t mind if several more homestays bloomed across the country.
Location: Nashik, Maharashtra
Beds and baths: Four cottage suites, each with two bedrooms and two bathrooms
Size: 2 acres
Time it took to build: Seven months
Learn more about Utopia Farmstay on their website.
Edited by Yoshita Rao