When Karthik Ramaraj, a 40-year-old marketing professional was in New Zealand for a decade, he came across the book ‘The One Straw Revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka. As he began to get invested in the contents, he gained a sense of what farming meant, how the balance between earth and man is struck and how humans can trace their roots back to nature.
Enthused by these aspects, Karthik decided to spend his Christmas holidays working at a farm in New Zealand, where he would prune asparagus, help out in the apple orchards, and essentially observe what life on a farm really was.
He became so passionate about this way of life that he wanted to experience it first-hand.
“It was a series of influences that motivated my move back to India in 2009,” he says in conversation with The Better India.
The motive behind this he says is the desire to seek a life closer to nature and away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
On returning to India, Karthik decided to pursue his dream of having a farm, and within the next two months bought a 50-acre piece of land in Bangarupalem Mandal, Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh.
He was joined by his wife Nikita Dawar. The Bengaluru couple had big dreams for the land and the transformation they wanted to create.
Today, that same piece of land is where Velanga Orchard lies. The name ‘Velanga’ is an ode to the old wood apple tree at the entrance, as in Tamil ‘velanga’ translates to wood apple. Along with breathing in the beauty of nature and the mango trees, guests can explore the farm stay and partake in myriad activities on site itself.
Bathed in tranquillity
Karthik and Nikita say that Velanga Orchard has through the years seen a trajectory of growth and evolution.
Recounting when they first set eyes on the property and purchased it in 2009, Karthik says it was almost a barren land with mango trees in their adult stage. Despite this tree cover, the farm was run extensively on chemicals.
“We decided to change this and envisioned a space where nature would flourish organically and one where people could drink in the beauty of it all,” he says. So the couple set aside 30 acres out of the 50 as cultivable area and made a firm choice to use organic fertiliser, cow dung, etc. for the crops they would grow here.
“In addition to the mango trees, we planted coconut trees and revived the growing paddy,” says Nikita, adding that in 2020 they decided to open up their gates as a farm stay comprising three twin sharing cottages and four individual ones, all equipped with kitchenettes, mini-fridges, induction plates, and basic utensils.
In the same year, they began offering residential pottery courses at Nikita’s studio Slow Pottery on site, where students could come and stay with them while they learnt different levels of the art.
Today, as the couple gazes at the space they have created, they are in awe. “When we purchased the land, there was no electricity or any amenity and everything had to be done from scratch. We have come a long way,” says Karthik.
Life on the farm
All the efforts that the couple has put in, are so that guests who visit and students who are interning at the pottery studio, enjoy their time.
There is never a dearth of things to learn and explore, says Nikita.
“There is a lake which is perfect for kayaking and swimming and the nearby hill is a treat for hikers.”
She adds that being on the edge of a reserve forest means there are many trails to walk along and people can even venture on bicycle rides against the backdrop of the velvet green of the forest.
While some love their vacation filled with adventure, some love taking a step back and relaxing.
Velanga Orchards has something for everyone.
“There is a lot to explore in the villages nearby, and guests can stroll through them. On the property, we see several species of birds and reptiles and one can even spend a day marvelling at them,” says Nikita.
And of course, after a long day of exploring, hiking and adventure, there is good food to feast on!
What’s unique is that not only can guests gorge on delicacies at the Velanga Orchard but also cook them!
“Our guests enjoy this,” says Nikita. “They get an opportunity to see how and where their food comes from and get a peek into the simple yet beautiful way nature provides in abundance.”
She adds that 40 per cent of the food needs are met with the produce from the orchard, the paddy field and the vegetable patch and one often finds the lunch at Velanga having dishes that include fresh brinjal, bitter gourd, spinach, tomatoes, chilli, radish, rice, millets, etc.
The couple is in the works of starting a fruit forest which will house more than 20 fruit trees and add to the menu.
“Guests can explore the surroundings, relax, come visit the pottery studio, and bask in nature, with clean air and clear skies. If guests are thirsty, there is always a glass of freshly juiced toddy available.” Nikita adds that what guests love the most is the old-world charm associated with the farm stay.
In the midst of all of this, Karthik says it has been vital for them to sustain the farm stay by incorporating the values of nature. “Most of our structures and interiors within the home are built with recycled and upcycled material. For instance, the roof tiles are sourced from demolished village houses,” says Karthik, adding that a major portion of the furniture too are restored antiques.
The electricity needs of the farm stay are fulfilled by the 10 solar panels of 10W each, and Karthik says they aim to have 100 per cent of the needs taken care of by solar by 2024.
While Karthik and Nikita take care of the majority of the farm stay needs, they are joined by Ravi, who takes charge of the handy work, and four women from the neighbouring villages, who help with the cooking and housekeeping.
An experience of a lifetime
While starting the farm stay the couple had to overcome the cultural issues in the area. “There were many people in the neighbouring villages who did not understand our goal to build a space where nature and humans could coexist,” says Nikita.
She adds that along with this the remoteness of the place made it very challenging to carry out even the smallest of works as labour and material were not available close by.
In 2013, just as the couple was getting the farm up and running, there was a severe drought and they ran out of water.
“Those weeks challenged everything we believed in,” says Karthik. But they never stopped going. Still, climate change continues to be a challenge that they are navigating. “It often disrupts the regular functioning of the farm and the degree is unbelievable.”
Aside from the inflow of guests that the couple sees at the farm, some students stay while they learn pottery at Nikita’s studio.
During pottery season, which extends from August through November, interested students pay Rs 1 lakh and are trained in slow pottery for a month. This includes accommodation and meals. At the studio, students are taught the preparation of clay, trimming the clay, making items out of it such as bottles, teapots, etc. and even glaze application.
Namita who has been a student since August 2021 says Slow Pottery and Velanga Orchard are a second home to her. “The one month that we spent learning pottery at Velanga will always hold a special place in our hearts. When I touched clay for the first time, I could not have imagined growing at a pace that would push me to an intermediate level by the end of the month!”
She adds that Nikita and Karthik have been the perfect hosts. “Nikita is patient and Karthik was the most caring, genuine and generous person. If I ever got the chance to go back and do it all over again, I’d do it in a heartbeat!”
However, due to space crunch, Karthik says they either have the homestay open for guests, or pottery students. “We can accommodate 10 guests each night at any point in time. For an individual, the package is Rs 15,000 for five days and five nights including meals.”
The couple sees around 25 guests per month, all happy to get a break from their daily routines. Nikita says guests love the Orchard as it is a space for them to unwind and truly relax. “Most of all, it’s an opportunity to experience the solitude and energy of a place with minimal adulteration,” she says.
Edited by Yoshita Rao